Big Sur: Hiking in California’s condor country
Published: April 5, 2013 01:41PM
Updated: April 5, 2013 08:47AM
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Two California condors fly above McWay Rocks at Big Sur on the California coast. (Tim Huntington/Ventana Wildlife Society)

Perched on a rocky outcrop above Highway 1, the condor displays his white-banded wings with distinctive flight feathers at each tip. He pivots slowly, turning his pinkish-orange featherless head as he scans the hillsides. It’s hard to guess whether he’s showing off for the dozen pairs of binoculars following his every move or, like me, is captivated by Big Sur’s magnificent, rugged coastline.

I’ve come to this 90-mile stretch of soaring hills, plunging cliffs and redwood forests south of Monterey to explore its state parks and beaches, join a condor tour and sample the region’s back-to-natural cuisine. It’s my type of vacation — spending most of the time outdoors, grateful once again to be surrounded by untouched nature.

My plan is to explore a 13-mile coastal stretch that includes three state parks and a not-to-be-missed beach. Andrew Molera State Park, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and Pfeiffer Beach all offer unparalleled scenery, miles of hiking trails and water for wading. In my four-day visit, I’m able to sample and enjoy each one.

At 4,800 acres, Andrew Molera is the largest state park on the Big Sur coast, with hiking trails that cover meadows, beaches, hilltops and the banks of the Big Sur River. One morning I chose a three-mile loop that affords a bit of each.

I follow Creamery Meadow Trail — past oat grass, sycamores and lupine — to the coast, where I beachcomb along a sandy, driftwood-strewn expanse. Heading north I cross the shallow Big Sur River, sans shoes, and take Headlands Trail to Molera Point to slowly turn 360 degrees, taking in vistas of sea and mountains. As fence lizards scurry nearby, I pick up the Beach Trail to complete my loop, following the river’s riparian alders, willows and laurel under a lush green canopy. The water’s so clear that I watch patterns of colored stones glimmer in the riverbed, while taking in bird songs and raucous crows.

It’s no surprise that Pfeiffer Beach is Big Sur’s most popular and trickiest-to-find beach, situated at the end of an unmarked, narrow two-mile road. The end result is well worth the effort -- a massive arch-shaped rock complete with water crashing through a wave-sculpted opening, towering cliffs and sand colored by manganese garnet deposits. At sunset, I watch sky blues morph to orange and purple until they blend into the sea.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park encompasses coastline, redwoods, 3,000-foot ridges and an underwater reserve, and its scenery almost breaks the bank. One day I picked two short contrasting hikes that take it all in. I follow Waterfall Trail to 84-foot McWay Falls, famous for dropping from a granite cliff onto a pristine beach in a cove so turquoise I feel as if I’ve been transposed to Hawaii. Views from the 100-foot bluff are gorgeous.

For a woodsy experience, I chose Canyon Trail into McWay Canyon along a creek bordered by coast redwoods, tan oak, madrone and laurel. With boots cushioned by leaf litter, I listen to water over rocks and take in lush ferns and sorrel as I make my way to a small but scenic waterfall. The tranquility is priceless.

All in one

The great thing about staying at Big Sur Lodge in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is that it allows me to sleep, dine and explore in one location. I can step out of my spacious, comfortable cottage and hit the hiking trails.

Sixty-two cottage-style guest rooms, each with its own deck, sit in a peaceful spot, amid ancient oaks, redwoods, resident deer and wild turkeys. The lodge also offers a swimming pool. Nicely appointed furnishings echo the colors of the outdoors with high ceilings, pine furniture and botanical artwork. It’s like being dropped into a forest, yet sheltered oh-so-comfortably.

One of the park’s signature hikes leads to Pfeiffer Falls and Valley View Overlook. The woodland path crosses wooden bridges over Pfeiffer Redwood Creek and provides a good workout as it steeply climbs to the multitiered 60-foot Pfeiffer Falls. As I walk, I look up into towering redwoods, amazed at the distinctive habitat they create and how great it is to be within their cathedral-like splendor. I next take a side trail to Valley View Trail and walk the short distance to sweeping vistas of Point Sur and the Big Sur Valley. Though this is a known location for condor sightings, they prove elusive that day.

Condor recovery • The largest flying land bird in North America has lured me south, and I’d really like to see one.

The California condor slowly has been making a recovery in the wild, thanks in large part to the efforts of the Ventana Wildlife Society, the only nonprofit organization working with condors in the wild.

So the next day I join one of the society’s condor tours. The tour begins and ends at the Discovery Center at Andrew Molera State Park, where photographs, exhibits and artifacts reinforce the presentation. I examine a 15-inch flight feather and learn that miners during the Gold Rush hid gold dust in the shaft of these massive feathers. Definitely a clever move.

On the two-hour van ride, the group learns how the society is working to restore the wild population and monitoring the birds’ health. (Tours are scheduled the second Sunday of every month, 12-2 p.m., $50/person. Contact www.ventanaws.org, 831-455-9514.)

The organization uses radio telemetry to track the condors, and leaders report any sightings. At a sea lion haul-out, we grab binoculars and pile out of the van while tour leader Katie Lannon sets up the spotting scope, a necessity for viewing flying or nesting condors. As everyone scans the hills and coast, Lannon explains that Big Sur condors are showing evidence of feeding on marine mammal carcasses.

“The down side is that they pick up DDT that bioaccumulates in the ocean from the Channel Islands,” she said. “This causes thinning in condor eggs, so they can be crushed before they hatch.”

To protect the chicks, Ventana researchers remove the egg from the nest and replace it with a dummy egg. Right before it’s ready to hatch, they return the real egg so the chick can be reared by its parents.

The dangers of lead • Driving toward the next stop, Lannon tells us that the No. 1 problem facing condors is lead poisoning. Because they feed on carcasses, they ingest lead when they swallow spent ammunition.

The society is working with hunters and ranchers to advise them of this threat to condor recovery, going so far as to provide boxes of nonlead ammunition for residents in San Benito and Monterey counties.

Condor 101 continues as we learn that Big Sur has eight nesting pairs, with each pair raising one chick every two years; that adults bring juveniles to the coast for rearing; that condors can fly 150 miles in one day; and that they mate for life, which can be a long one -- 50 to 60 years. Enough amazing facts to fill a naturalist’s notebook.

At Partington Cove pullout, 12 miles from our starting point, we hit condor paydirt. We peer through binoculars and the spotting scope at two adults and one mottled black/dark gray fledgling in the far-off coastal redwoods.

The fledgling, orange-billed and adorned with fluffy boa-like neck feathers, is huddled in a tree, oblivious to parental flight lessons, and seems to have no interest in leaving.

One of the adults shows how it’s done. I watch as the magnificent condor spreads its 10-foot wingspan and lifts off, gliding along the coast and into the Santa Lucia Mountains, alert for food and, perhaps, checking out what’s new.

Like the condor, I’ve found a setting worthy of a repeat visit, with more hikes to explore, shells to find and morsels to savor.

WHAT TO DO

Ventana Wildlife Society — condor tours

Regularly scheduled tours the second Sunday of every month. Must sign up for tour in advance by phone or email, cathyhamilton@ventanaws.org.

Address: 19045 Portola Drive, Suite F-1, Salinas, Calif.

Price: $50

Telephone: (831) 455-9514

Website: www.ventanaws.org

WHERE TO GO

Andrew Molera State Park

Location: 20 miles south of Carmel on Highway One

Telephone: (831) 667-2315

Website: www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=582

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

Address: 26 miles south of Carmel on Highway One

Telephone: (831) 667-2315

Website: www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=570

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

Location: 37 miles south of Carmel on Highway One

Telephone: (831) 667-2315

Website: www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=578

WHERE TO STAY

Big Sur Lodge

Inside Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Your stay includes complimentary day-use passes to Andrew Molera and Julia Pfeiffer Burns parks.

Address: 47225 Highway One

Price: Doubles from $189

Telephone: (800) 424-4787

Website: www.bigsurlodge.com

WHERE TO EAT

Big Sur River Inn and Restaurant

Address: 46840 Highway One

Telephone: (831) 667-2700

Website: www.bigsurriverinn.com

Big Sur Bakery and Restaurant

Address: 47540 Highway One

Telephone: (831) 667-0520

Website: www.bigsurbakery.com