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A Beacon for Walks in the Big Sur

For most visitors, “Big Sur” means Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. The park--and its small but popular trail system--is dominated by the Big Sur River, which meanders through redwood groves on its way to the Pacific Ocean, five miles away.

Overlooking the ocean is the Pt. Sur Lightstation, a century-old facility that can be visited by guided tours given by park docents.

John Pfeiffer, for whom the park was named, homesteaded 160 acres of mountainous terrain between Sycamore Canyon and the Big Sur River. In 1884, he moved into a cabin perched above the Big Sur River Gorge. (You can see the reconstructed Homestead Cabin on the Gorge Trail.) John Pfeiffer sold and donated some of his ranchland to the state in the 1930s, and it became the nucleus of the state park.

This hike, which follows Pfeiffer Falls Trail and Valley View Trail, is an easy leg-stretcher suitable for the whole family. It visits Pfeiffer Falls and offers a good introduction to the delights of the state park.

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Directions to trail head: Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is off Highway 1, about 26 miles south of Carmel and two miles south of the hamlet of Big Sur. There is a state park day-use fee of $6 per car, payable at the park entry kiosk. Beyond the entry booth, turn left at the stop sign, then veer right toward the cottages of Big Sur Lodge. Very soon you’ll find some day-use parking. A much larger parking area is near the store and restaurant.

The hike: From the signed trail head, follow the trail to Pfeiffer Falls. Very shortly, on your left, you’ll spot a trail heading left to Valley View; this will be your return path. The walk continues under stately redwoods and meanders along Pfeiffer-Redwood Creek.

You’ll soon ascend a redwood stairway to a junction with Oak Grove Trail, which leads rightward 1 1/2 miles through oak and madrone woodland over to Mt. Manuel Trail in adjoining Los Padres National Forest. Stay left at this junction and follow Pfeiffer Falls Trail through the forest and past a second branch of the Valley View Trail. A stairway leads to an observation platform at the base of the falls. Pfeiffer-Redwood Creek cascades over a 40-foot precipice to a small grotto.

After enjoying the falls, descend the stairway and bear right on Valley View Trail, which leaves behind the redwoods and ascends into a tanbark oak and coast live oak woodland.

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At a signed junction, turn right and follow the pathway along a minor ridge to a lookout. The Pacific Ocean pounding the Pt. Sur headlands and the Big Sur River Valley are part of the fine view.

Backtrack along Valley View Trail and, at the first junction, stay right and descend back to Pfeiffer-Redwood Canyon. Another right at the canyon bottom brings you back to the trail head.

During the 19th Century, when coastal roads were few and poor, most cargo was transported by ship. Ships traveled close to shore so that when storms came, they could take advantage of protection offered by bay and point. This heavy coastal trade--and its dangers--prompted the U.S. Lighthouse Service Board to establish a series of lighthouses (or “lightstations”) along the California coast, about 60 miles apart.

Pt. Sur had been the death of many ships, and mariners had been petitioning for a beacon for many years when, in 1885, the government appropriated $50,000 to construct a lighthouse. The Pt. Sur Lightstation joined the one at Piedras Blancas 60 miles south, and another one 60 miles north at Pigeon Point.

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The Pt. Sur Lightstation became operational in 1889, and utilized one of the famed Fresnel lenses, designed by the French physicist Augustin Jean Fresnel. A whale-oil lantern was the first light source. In later years, kerosene fueled the operation. Soot problems from the not-very-clean burning kerosene kept the keepers busy polishing the glass and worrying about surprise visits from supervisors who conducted “white glove” inspections.

The light station became fully automated in 1975. The original light, visible for 23 miles out to sea, is now on display at the Allen J. Knight Maritime Museum in Monterey.

The century-old stone buildings, when viewed from Highway 1, are intriguing. They’re even more intriguing when viewed up close on one of the tours conducted by the Pt. Sur Lightstation Docents Assn. Currently, while the station is being restored, the only way to see the facility--which is the only intact lighthouse on the California coast with accompanying support buildings--is by guided tour on Sundays, at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.

The tour includes the lighthouse itself, the keepers’ houses, the blacksmith shop and the barn, where livestock was kept for food and transportation. You’ll learn the fascinating story of the isolated life lived by the four keepers and their families.

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The walk to the lighthouse is interesting for more than historical reasons. Geology buffs might refer to the path as the tombolo trail. A tombolo, rare on the California coast, is a sand bar connecting an island to the mainland.

The view from the top of the 270-foot-high basaltic rock upon which the station is perched is superb. You are eyeball-to-eyeball with the cormorants. To the south is False Sur, named for its confusing resemblance to Pt. Sur when viewed from sea.

In 1980, Pt. Sur Lightstation was designated a state historic landmark, and in 1984, the U.S. Department of the Interior turned it over to the state parks system. The old Lighthouse Service Board was long ago absorbed by the U.S. Coast Guard, and the kerosene lamp and steam-driven warning whistle have been replaced by computer-directed electric beam and radio beacon, but Pt. Sur Lightstation--as it has for a century--continues to warn ships of the treacherous Big Sur coast.

Big Sur, Pfeiffer Falls, Valley View, Oak Grove Trails Where: Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Distance: Big Sur Lodge to Pfeiffer Falls, 2 miles round trip. Terrain: Santa Lucia Mountains, in the heart of Big Sur. Highlights: Stately redwood grove, Big Sur River Gorge, Pfeiffer Falls. Degree of difficulty: Easy. For more information: Call Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park at (408) 667-2316.

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