Big Sur - Hiking Andrew Molera State Park

One of the great delights of living in the Bay Area is the proximity to the natural beauty of California and it's hard to beat the stunning drive down Highway One to Big Sur. This is certainly one of the iconic American road trips, but for me the joy of being in the area is getting out of your car and hitting a trail, so you can be "in" the landscape rather than just looking at it from the asphalt. 
There are innumerable trails in the area and we've been on lots of them, but here's one I particularly like at Andrew Molera State Park (on the right as you head south) just north of Big Sur. This trails takes you on an eight mile loop and it's particularly lovely because of the the expansive views, and the variety of landscapes you'll pass through. You can find a map of this walk and many other Big Sur hiking options at 
Andrew Molera Park  is signposted  from Highway One and there's a small parking lot where you'll pay $10 to the State Parks District  -though you can pull over on Highway One and walk in for free if you prefer. It's worth noting that in season (and on the weekends) the small parking lot can fill up. Which is why I recommend visiting Big Sur off season, ideally during the week. I love it in March and April when the spring wildflowers are at their peak. 
The view near Bixby Bridge heading south on Highway One between Carmel and Big Sur.
First you'll take the Creamery Meadow trail out towards the coast, then turn left (south) on the well posted Ridge Trail where you climb for a little over 1000ft to the lookout point. From here you travel  north along the aptly named Panorama Trail, the next option is a detour along the Spring Trail to a secluded beach or continuing on to the Bluffs Trail which takes you back to loop up with Creamery Meadow, where you head back inland. While all these trails are currently open its worth noting that other trails in the park are closed following the extensive damage the rains did last year, see below.
I love this hike because it offers  an early ascent, coastal chaparral scrubland, California live oaks, a grove of majestic coastal Redwoods, beautiful views along ocean cliffs at the midpoint, pristine beaches and a  walk along undulating coastal bluffs. Are you convinced yet? OK, lets have a look at what you can expect!
Heading out along the Creamery Meadow trail the one factor that may put you off is that you'll have to cross a small river (or is it a stream?) at the beginning of the hike. Come on stop whinging, yes the water is freezing in March but I promise it's going to be worth it. Do I ever remember to bring a small towel?  Err no!
Ok, you've crossed the only major barrier so lets get moving. After about a mile you're going to turn south (left) onto the Ridge Trail. I like this hike because the ascent comes at the beginning so here goes, it's steadily up hill but not too bad. There's eight miles ahead so you need to move at a decent pace to do this in less than four hours. But then again why rush, I recommend bringing a picnic and eating it on the beach.
OK, this is one of those hikes where you think you've done all the uphill only to realize you need to go down and up again several times, but the views going inland are lovely as you make your way up to the point heading south.
There's a view over the chaparral below, it may not be evident here but it's a steady climb. I love to walk but I confess I'm a fair weather hiker, as you can see  below I'm wearing open Keens. That's my barometer, if I need to wear closed shoes I'm probably not going to want to go. No wonder I love California!
The drought tolerant Chaparral you see here are similar to plants found in the Mediterranean and they resist wind and fire. They are highly adapted natives that grow on the California coast and down onto the Baja peninsula. The scent at this point in our hike was wonderful,  and very reminiscent of sage.
As you climb the landscape changes and you enter into a wooded area of California Bay trees which are a much larger, more pungent version of the bay tree leaves prized in cooking. Along with the Bay trees are coastal live oaks.  As you move along the ridge the forest gives way to a stand of California redwoods  reaching upward with their incredible height towards the sky. It's always lovely to see redwoods but what I like about this hike is the fact that you get to combine  shaded redwood forest with open vistas stretching out along the coast. 
At this stage you are reaching the highest point and from here you walk west along the point as the views open up to both the north and the south. Here's the view looking south, glorious! Is it any wonder people travel across the globe to see this coastline?
Looking to the north you can see the Point Sur Lighthouse situated on a small triangular hill that gets cut off when the tide comes in - rather like a Californian Mont St Michel. It's now a State Park and we've always intended to go on a tour  but still haven't made it. Apparently it's the only turn of the Twentieth Century lighthouse you can visit in California, so it's somewhere worth putting on the list for those who like a quirky destination. It's  worth noting it's a three hour walking tour given that you meet at Highway One and walk out to the lighthouse.
From the high point we walked down towards the coast  on the Panorama Trail which swings north along the cliff path. The views are  absolutely beautiful  as you can see...
The views are breathtaking and you'll be walking for just over three miles along the coastal bluffs. There were a variety of wild flowers, lizards and small rabbits as well as plenty of birdlife. 
It's well worth bringing binoculars, and in whale season (Dec-April)  you may very well see the distinctive water spout plumes of the migrating California Grey whales heading south to their breeding grounds in Baja. We were delighted to catch a glimpse of them and saw lots more whale activity on the deck at Nepenthe on the same trip. It's so meaningful to see that nature endures even in the face of the madness we humans have created.
At this point you have a choice, the Panorama trail meets the Bluffs Trail which continues down the coast or you can detour to the Spring Trail which takes you down to a beautiful secluded beach. For me there's no question, I can never resist a beach so we were heading down there! 
Here's an idea of what you'll find. The trail takes you down along a stream that heads out into the ocean and you'll have to make your way across a huge accumulation of  natural debris including tree trunks and large rocks.
The beach is stunningly beautiful and was deserted when we arrive on a midweek afternoon. It was my fiftieth birthday and I can't think of anywhere else I would rather have been. It maybe a cliche but  there's just something about nature that makes you feel hopeful and puts you into perspective. Hopefully you can get a sense for how lovely it is in these photographs?
From here we went back up to the bluff retracing our steps on the Spring Trail up to the cliff top path where the views were still remarkable. It was so beautiful and as we walked we saw a California condor soaring on the air currents. It is an absolutely enormous bird even when seen at a distance. After a couple of miles the trail ends at the Creamery Meadow where you head east to go inland. You could go down to Andrew Molera State Beach from here but we were tired and were happy to head back along the trail,  through the small river and  towards the car.
If you like to walk and have a full four hours to comfortably make this circular hike I highly recommend it because the variety introduces you to the diverse coastal landscapes in Big Sur. I hope you've enjoyed some armchair hiking if you aren't visiting the California coast!
TIP: Do check for ticks after hiking the trails as they are present in the park.


Jennie said…
Well, this most definitely makes me want to head down and take that hike! It looks glorious. And a perfect length for a long day hike. Thanks for sharing it!
Thanks Jennie - so glad you enjoyed this. It really is a lovely hike and I agree it's a great length, much longer and I confess I'd be flagging but this is long enough that you feel you've made a good effort ;).
Love the inclusion of practical tips in your post! The pictures were wonderful - it was almost like I was on the hike too!
Thanks Facades and Nuances - I'm a functionalist at heart! I always hope people can take something away with them whether it's a practical tip or a bit of armchair travel. Delighted you liked it....
Anna said…
Landscapes change so much from picture to picture! So many useful tips, can’t wait to be back to explore more <3