For most hikes, you’ll have to head inland, not toward the sea: the Coastal Range’s steep terrain makes ocean-side hiking nearly impossible – with a few notable exceptions. When summertime’s fog shrouds the coast, hike up a thousand feet in elevation, and you’ll usually pop out of the fog, a mesmerizing sight, like all those famous pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge towers poking above the cloudline. Fear not: most of the area’s parks are already a thousand feet above sea level, so you don’t usually have to hike that much higher to find blue skies. Wear removable layers and carry water; the summer sun blazes on these hillsides. Check trail conditions before setting out.
The crowds head to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, and with good reason: you can hike to a 60ft waterfall along an easy 1.4-mile-long trek up the Waterfall Trail. And when the kids start whining, you can buy their silence with candy from the café and restaurant located on park grounds at the Big Sur Lodge. (Did I mention there’d be kids on the trail?)
Serious hikers should head directly into the Ventana Wilderness, a pristine 167,000-acre backcountry area in the Santa Lucia Mountains, which top out at a sky-punching 5750ft above sea level – over a mile high. The premier hike heads 10 miles into the wilderness from Big Sur Station to Sykes Hot Spring, a fern-edged 100ºF hot pool, high in the mountains. Take the Pine Ridge Trail, which wends through redwood stands, past swimming holes, and along gorgeous ridgelines. Get directions and a backcountry permits from rangers at Big Sur Station (1 mile south of the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park entrance) before you set out: signs to the springs frequently get taken down by covetous locals who (understandably) want the waters to themselves. For backcountry and campfire permits, check with the Forest Service.
Postcard-perfect Partington Cove lies at the bottom of a mile-long creekside trail that leads through a tunnel and over a tiny bridge. At the bottom is a spectacular little rocky cove that once served as a secret boat launch for rumrunners during Prohibition. It’s not much of a beach, mostly rocks and stones, but the terrain and v eiws area knockout. Time your visit to come during low tide, and peek into critter-packed tide pools. And if it’s a hot day, bring a towel and dip your toes into the creek. Park at the pullout 8mi south of Nepenthe Restaurant, and 1.8mi north of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.
Big bang for not a lot of buck: Eleven miles south of the town of Big Sur at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, stroll an easy-as-pie, 1/3-mile-long trail to a cliff-side lookout over McWay Falls, an 80ft waterfall plunging over a cliff and straight into the sea. The trails is wheelchair accessible and basically flat – even Grandma can do it. For panoramic vistas from on high, head to the ridgelines along the 6.5mi round-trip Tan Bark Trail, the park’s premier hike, which wends through chaparral, madrona, tan bark and redwood forests to the hilltops.