I visit California twice a year to spend cherished time with family and friends, but some of the richest experiences evolve from visiting and walking the Pacific coast. I love the mountains, but the ocean has a call all its own, and I’m hearing that call. Moss Beach, Half Moon Bay, Capitola, Monterey, Carmel, Big Sur–sweeping landscapes with waves crashing against boulders and cliffs that are respites to many sea birds. Growing up on the East Coast we went “down the shore” to beautiful sandy beaches, but on the West Coast we have to hunt for sandy beaches which may already be claimed by seals or sea lions. Today we are going to Big Sur, known for its stunning views along Highway 1. Welcome to Andrew Molera State Park in the Santa Lucia Mountains. Come on–my best friend and I look forward to you joining us on our walk to the coast.
We aren’t seeing too much sun today which means it will be a pleasantly cool walk along the Big Sur River. Once we get up and over the hillside we spend a moment at historic Cooper Cabin, the oldest structure in Big Sur. Built in 1861, it was home to ranch hands on this dairy ranch owned by J.B.R. Cooper, a Monterey sea captain and merchant. The actual builder was George Austin, a native of Massachusetts who worked for Cooper in various capacities. The cabin was built with redwood logs lap-jointed with pegged corners and covered with redwood shingles, a building technique common to New England but virtually unknown west of the Rockies.
We also get a great view of the surrounding hillsides, not yet completely golden from summer sun and heat.
These amazing eucalyptus trees line the trail as we head on. They can live 400-500 years and this tree is certainly an old timer. Ah, smell the lovely eucalyptus odor wafting on the breeze?
Walking along the Big Sur River to its mouth, we see the result of the severe drought California is experiencing. Although obvious here, the drought has taken its toll on many waterways throughout the west.
I’ve never seen a crayfish in California, but they are here in the river. See him? Those aqua-colored pincers look ready for action. I’ll stay up here on the bank, thank you very much, even though the shallow water invites wading.
The flowers along the trail are just begging to have their pictures taken. They make the walk a series of name-that-bloom quizzes and brings smiles as we visually embrace the beautiful multi-colors popping up through green grasses and various undergrowth. There’s a Spring Vetch, a member of the pea family . . .
. . . and Wind Poppies, the smaller relative of the well-known California Poppy that we see all along the state’s highways and byways. Also known as cup of gold and California sunlight, the larger California Poppy is California’s state flower.
Let’s go off trail to the mouth of the river. Now here’s the sand we’ve been looking for, but I think I will pass on wading across the river here. I didn’t plan on getting wet to my waist today, and what are those critters under the water anyway. Nope, I’ll just enjoy the view from here.
Just a peek toward the ocean with a gentle breeze inviting you to sit down and relax a bit. Brown Pelicans are often seen flying along the wave tops, so close you are sure the next wave will swallow them, but today they are flying high along the coast line. Let’s walk up for better views.
As we walk to the top of the hill, we can see the ridge hike to the left, the coastline heading south, and a surprise . . .
. . . a juvenile Bald Eagle putting the finishing touches on lunch.
Wow! He just flew so close to us on his way to a peaceful lunch. That lunch must weigh more than he thought, struggling for altitude and not succeeding.
Up the hill and more flowers popping white/purple. Let’s take a closer look.
Morning glories! I haven’t seen them in a long time, so beautiful! Curling up at night, they await the bright sun to open wide. Morning glories were first known in China for their medicinal properties. In ancient Mesoamerican civilizations one species was used to convert the latex from the Castilla elastica tree (Panama Rubber Tree) to make bouncing rubber balls and other products. The sulfur in the morning glory’s juice vulcanized the rubber (made more durable and stable), and although Charles Goodyear is usually credited with this invention, the Mesoamericans were using this process 3,000 years earlier (MIT News). Another amazing case of what is old is new again.
What a view! To the left the bay, beach, and mouth of the Big Sur River where we stood considering wading to our waist. The water is always so clear and such amazing colors–and cold. Water temperatures along this part of the coast are in the mid-fifties this time of year and that is too chilly for a swim in my book.
There’s Bixby Creek Bridge, a structural masterpiece built in 1932. At over 260 feet high and over 700 feet long, it is one of the tallest single-span concrete arch bridges in the world. It is also one of the most photographed features along the Pacific Coast Highway which meanders nearly the entire California coast offering breathtaking views around every turn.
Here’s a respite for cormorants, pelicans, gulls, and many other sea birds. By the looks of all that guano, birds have been visiting here a long, long time.
As we continue on the loop back to the trailhead, we get a look north toward Monterey. The sun is winning the day, but the sea breezes keep us cool.
Heading away from the coast, it is lovely to see the Monterey Coast Paintbrush, a little heftier and “woolier” than our Rocky Mountain variety.
We also see mats and mats of ice plants, an invasive plant found all along the coast. Although lovely flowers, this succulent crowds out most other growth. The State Park system attempts to pull them out, but so far the plants are winning.
And we now see some wildlife! Well, bison we don’t see, but this girl sure blends. Coastal Range Fence Lizards come in light to dark colors and are very common. How do I know this is a girl? A male has blue markings on the sides of the belly edged in black with a blue patch on the throat. She is certainly enjoying the sun now brightly shining.
This is a thistle I’ve never seen before. Aptly called Cobweb Thistle, this native thistle loves sunny, dry environments. Unfortunately, California has a lot of very dry environments at the present time, but ever hoping for rain.
Look, there on the left–a Chestnut-backed Chickadee. We do not have them in the Rockies or on the East Coast. I am always excited about adding a new bird to my life list!
The last rock outcropping before we walk into the forest. What are those beautiful plants clinging to the rocks?
They are Dudleya virens, a native plant that is commonly called coastal liveforever. Guess that says it all.
What an inviting trail ahead. It feels like a grand entrance to what’s next.
What’s that rustle to the right? See him? A California Quail. These guys really hate to have to fly. They will run faster and faster until they have no choice but to fly. No wonder they love to live in dense undergrowth. Yes, there is a female to the left playing hard to get. It is just that time of year.
We finish the walk with a wildlife sighting. Well, he was not at all interested in us and was only about eight feet away, but he is the biggest animal we’ve seen so we’ll take it. Blacktail Deer in velvet bidding us farewell.
Wait, one more thing. We have to have lunch! Hopping in the car it is a short ride to the lovely area where lies nestled the Rocky Point Restaurant. Beautiful views and walks on the rocky crags, not to mention a delightfully satisfying end to the appetite we’ve built up on our hike.
Kissed by the beautiful panoramic view of the coast below the restaurant, this is a fitting end to time well spent in one of California’s many beautiful state parks.
Until I see you back in Montana, slow yourself down, look around, and enjoy!