California’s coast redwoods meet their southernmost habitat along the Big Sur coast, and this gem of a park, located 26 miles south of Carmel-by-the-Sea, is a great way to sample their deep shade and cathedral-like beauty. Hiking, biking, and riding RVs along the trails and roads, swimming in the Big Sur River, camping—the number of outdoor activities one can enjoy here in the midst of stunning surroundings make it one of the most popular parks along Highway 1.
Partly because of that very popularity, it’s important to be a responsible outdoor recreationist. Local residents have launched a campaign urging visitors to take the Big Sur Pledge. It’s a promise that has a leave-no-trace spirit but also offers guidelines for respecting property, protecting natural resources, camping only where permitted, and driving safely on coastal roads.
The park’s roots are in homesteading: John Pfeiffer settled on some 160 acres here (his 1884 cabin, originally perched high above the Big Sur River Gorge, has been reconstructed along the park’s Gorge Trail). In the 1930s, Pfeiffer’s land became the first nugget of this beautiful park after he spurned offers from developers and instead sold it to the state of California, a decision that prompted the State Park Commission to name its newest addition after him.
The peaks of the Santa Lucia Mountains rise up dramatically from the Big Sur River Gorge; keep an eye out while walking along the banks for black-tailed deer, raccoons, skunks, birds such as dippers, belted kingfishers, and wild turkeys, and even the occasional bobcat. A small but appealing system of well-marked trails wends through the 1,000-acre preserve, including the beloved Pfeiffer Falls Trail, which offers sweeping views of the Big Sur River Valley, Pt. Sur, and Pfeiffer Falls (the trail reopened in 2021, more than ten years after the Basin Complex Fire had destroyed it). Views of the Big Sur River Gorge, the Pacific Ocean, and the shoreline abound from the network of other trails, but be aware that none of them offer beach or ocean access.
The large campground located in the park can accommodate hikers, bikers, car campers, and RVers. Reservations tend to fill up six months in advance, even in winter, so be sure to plan ahead. Another option is to stay in one of the 62 rustic cottages at the park’s unpretentious Big Sur Lodge.