The Best-Kept Secret of Big Sur

For most visitors, Big Sur is synonymous with popular Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Often overlooked is a smaller slice of Big Sur 10 miles south: Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.

This park is a shame to overlook. A redwood grove, dramatic coastal vistas and the only major California waterfall to tumble into the Pacific Ocean are some of the park's attractions.

The park is a tribute to pioneer Julia Pfeiffer Burns, remembered for her deep love of the Big Sur backcountry in the early decades of this century.

You can easily sample the coastal charms of four-square-mile Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park by following the short Waterfall and Partington Cove trails. If you want more of a workout and a tour of the redwoods, the park also has some inland trails.

Tan Bark Trail, which leads through a redwood grove and a forest of tanbark oaks, is one of my favorite Big Sur trails. This 6 1/2-mile round-trip trail leads to the aptly named Tin House and offers superb coastal views.

The park's coastal trails are great leg-stretcher jaunts to break up the coastal drive. They're particularly fine paths to hike in winter because they provide fine observation points from which to sight migrating California gray whales.

Directions to trail head: Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park straddles Highway 1, about 36 miles south of Carmel and 10 miles south of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Turn inland into the park and proceed to the day-use lot. There is a state park day-use fee.

To join Partington Cove Trail, head north on Coast Highway and go 1.8 miles from the state park entrance to a turnout near where the highway bridge crosses Partington Creek.

The trail starts from the west end of Partington Creek bridge. (The above-mentioned Tan Bark Trail begins at the east end of Partington Creek bridge.)

The hike: From the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park lot, take the signed trail toward Scenic Overlook.

Along McWay Creek, you'll spot some eucalyptus, quite a botanical contrast to the redwoods growing up-creek. (During spring, ceanothus and dogwood splash color along the trail.) The path leads through a tunnel under Coast Highway and emerges to offer the walker grand panoramas of the Big Sur coast.

You'll soon reach the overlook, where you can observe slender but dramatic McWay Falls tumbling 100 feet from the granite cliffs into McWay Cove.

On your return, you can take a side trail and meander over to the park's cypress-shaded environmental campsites, which are perched on the former site of Waterfall House.

When you arrive back at the trail head, consider following Ewoldsen Trail a short distance to a picnic area located in a lovely redwood grove.

Unfortunately, Ewoldsen Trail, beyond the picnic area, was seriously burned in the 1985 Rat Creek Fire and has not been reopened.

Next, it's time to visit another part of the state park--Partington Cove. The cove was once the site of a dock where tanbark was loaded onto waiting ships. Woodsmen stripped the bark from the tanbark oak, a kind of cross between an oak and a chestnut.

Before synthetic chemicals were invented to tan leather, gathering and shipping of the bark was a considerable industry along the Big Sur coast. During the 1880s, homesteader John Partington operated a landing here.

From the iron gate on the coast side of Highway 1, follow the dirt road that drops down into the canyon cut by Partington Creek. (A steep side trail continues down to the tiniest of beaches at the creek mouth.)

The main trail crosses the creek on a wooden footbridge and passes through a 100-foot tunnel that was blasted through the rocky cliffs.

At Partington Cove lie the remains of a dock. The not-so-placid waters of the cove stir the seaweed around as if it were in a soup, and you wonder how boats once moored here actually managed to load their cargo of bark and lumber.

Offshore, between Partington Cove and McWay Creek to the south, is Julia Pfeiffer Burns Underwater Area, placed under state protection in 1970.

Kelp forests provide habitat for abalone, lingcod and many more sea creatures, as well as for otters, which you may glimpse if you follow the crumbling cliffside trail from the dock site to the end of Partington Point.

Hiking / Big Sur Coast Waterfall, Overlook, Partington Cove Trails Where: Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Length: 1/2-3/4 miles each. Terrain: Steep coastal bluffs. Highlights: Whale-watching, only major California waterfall on coast. Degree of Diffculty: Easy For more information: Call Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park at (408) 667-2316

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