Mountains, meadows and the mouth of Big Sur River are some of the highlights of a walk through Andrew Molera State Park, largest state park along the Big Sur coast.
More than 20 miles of trail weave through this park, which has a diversity of ecosystems. You can hike along bluffs overlooking three miles of beach, and climb through meadows and oak woodland. At the river mouth are a shallow lagoon and beautiful sandy beach.
Yankee fur trader Juan Bautista Roger Cooper acquired this land, formerly part of the Mexican land grant Rancho El Sur, in 1855. Acquaintances of his day--and historians of today--speculate that Cooper used his "Ranch of the South" as a landing spot, bringing cargo ashore at the Big Sur River mouth to avoid the high customs fees of Monterey Harbor.
Grandson Andrew Molera, who inherited the ranch, had a successful dairy operation. His Monterey Jack cheese was particularly prized. He was a hospitable fellow, popular with neighbors who camped along the river while awaiting shipments of supplies from San Francisco.
A good leg-stretcher walk is to take Beach Trail to the beach at the mouth of the Big Sur River, then return to the trailhead via Creamery Meadow Trail. Beach Trail and a number of other park trails are old dirt roads, which will appeal to sociable hikers.
During summer, you'll see surfers heading for the beach. You may also hear a number of foreign languages en route. The state park's walk-in campground is very popular with European visitors.
A longer tour of the park can be made via the Bluff, Panorama and Ridge trails. The coastal views from these trails are magnificent.
Directions to trailhead: Andrew Molera State Park is just off California 1, 21 miles south of Carmel.
The hike: From the parking lot, cross the Big Sur River on the footbridge. Walk 100 yards or so along a broad path that soon splits. Bear right onto Beach Trail. (The left fork joins Creamery Meadow Trail, an ideal return route for those who like loop trails.) The trail stays near the river, whose banks are crowded with thimbleberry and blackberry, honeysuckle vines, willow and bay laurel.
At the river mouth is a small beach and shallow lagoon, frequented by sanderlings, willets and many more shore birds. A short trail leads above the beach to Molera Point, where you can watch for whales (January through April) or passing ships.
Bluff Trail heads east from Beach Trail and immediately climbs steeply up the coastal bluff. Soon the path turns south as it wanders over the bluff, a marine terrace cloaked in coyote brush and grasses. About 1 3/4 miles from the mouth of the Big Sur River, Bluff Trail gives way to Panorama Trail, a more rigorous path that soon drops into a deep gully, then climbs steeply up a ridge where some wind-stunted redwoods cling to life.
Your reward for gaining about 900 feet in elevation are great views of the state park, the coast to the south and triangular-looking Cone Peak, one of the high points of Los Padres National Forest.
Panorama Trail gives way to Ridge Trail, which descends northwest along the park's main ridge nearly four miles, almost back to the beach, to Creamery Meadow Trail. Swing right on this path and walk a mile back to the trailhead.
HIKING / Big Sur
WHERE: Andrew Molera State Park.
LENGTH: 2 1/2 to 9 1/2 miles round trip, 900-foot elevation gain.
TERRAIN: Meadows, rugged coastal bluffs.
HIGHLIGHTS: Big Sur River mouth, redwoods, dramatic coast.
DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Beach Trail is an easy family walk. Bluff, Panorama and Ridge trails are moderate to difficult.
PRECAUTIONS: Dangerous surf, plenty of poison oak.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Call Andrew Molera State Park c/o Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park at (408) 667-2315.