Two waterfalls, a sandy cove and forest ruins – how’s that for a healthy break? Better known for its steep cliffs plunging dramatically into the ocean, the Big Sur Coast is also fantastic hiking terrain when you’re traveling with young children. Since the coast is narrow, you can find easy hikes with a big reward and your day pack should always include walking shoes that can get wet. While driving from Monterey to San Simeon during our spring break, we stopped a few times to explore local parks and breathe in fresh ocean air.
Julia Pfeifer Burns State Park
If there’s an iconic landscape of the Big Sur Coast, it’s the pristine McWay waterfall flowing on a white sandy beach framed by granite cliffs and Monterey cypresses. Actually, it’s almost too pretty for a 0.5 mile level walk from the parking lot. You would expect such a beautiful spot to come with blood, sweat and effort but no – it’s served on a silver platter to break a long drive along Highway 1.
With my dad and family, we just parked and followed the Overlook Trail to the viewing area. The air smelled of sweet anise and honey ceanothus, honey bees were raging mad about the wildflowers. The first overlook is where most people stop, where you can view the 80-foot waterfall take a dive into the Pacific landscape. We pushed another hundred yards and got a bigger surprise. Looking at the park displays, we realized that this was the site of a luxury villa whose bedroom view was … the McWay waterfall. Wow, the McWay Waterfall House. Check it out, it’s surreal. The owners even built a funicular to go down to the beach. Round trip: 1 mile.
Tip: Go in the afternoon, you’ll enjoy a warm sun shining on the waterfall. In the morning the waterfall hides in the shade.
Website: Julia Pfeifer Burns State Park
Directions: The park is 37 miles south of Carmel on Highway 1, and 12 miles south of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.
Andrew Molera State Park
My husband took my girls hiking there and they were so excited to see a bobcat on the trail! Nothing happened, the bobcat ran away and they continued on to the headlands with a good story to share. However their favorite part of the hike was the afternon they spent playing in the sand after a picnic lunch. Lesser known than Pfeifer Big Sur of Julia Pfeifer Burns, Andrew Molera offers a great trail along the Big Sur River to vegetated bluffs and a sandy beach. To reach Molera Point you just need to follow Headlands Trail for the picnic area. To get to the beach, you might need to get your feet wet unless you can hop across the seasonal footbridge over the river by the picnic area. If you do go to the beach, watch the tide and sleeper waves! The beach is well worth the adventure. Round trip: 1 mile. With beach: up to 3 miles.
Tip: Bring sand toys and a change of clothes.
Website: Andrew Molera State Park
Directions: Andrew Molera State Park is just off Highway 1, some 21 miles south of Carmel.
Limekiln State Park
Now talk about obscure. Who ever heard about Limekiln State Park, tucked away into a narrow canyon next to an ugly concrete bridge? It’s not even convenient to make that sharp turn after the bridge and get into the access road. Despite all that and oddly enough, Limekiln proved to be my favorite park on the coast. From the parking lot, we did two short hikes in an hour and both were great, though my girls voted gigantic thumbs up for the waterfall hike where you have to ford the river on logs and rocks 5 times! My dad’s leather shoes didn’t enjoy the immersion experience quite as much but boy was it fun.
To reach the waterfall, get on the Limekiln Trail that crosses the campground from the parking lot and after 0.3 mile, turn right and follow the signs to the Limekiln Waterfall. It’s an additional 0.2 mile with a little bit of uphill along the creek, tons of jungle gum opportunities and more river fun that you’ve ever dreamed of. My 6-year old wants to return there with her school mates just so they can all cross the river and see how much fun it is. We were there after a big rain storm and the fan-shaped waterfall was raging, spraying everything 50 feet away and just plain gorgeous. If an adventurous adult wants to see the upper pool, my husband and I just crossed the creek and went up a small dirt trail to the upper pool. Great views but I wouldn’t recommend it for a small kid. You have to have long legs to ford the creek. Round trip: 1 mile.
To reach the limekilns, now abandoned and taken over by vegetation, get back to the Limekiln Trail and continue northwest for another 0.2 mile after the trail fork for the waterfall. The trail meanders through a second-growth redwood forest and features a few bridges and stairs for more character. Once in front of the limekilns, you may wonder what they are doing there. If you don’t have the park brochure (that explains all this), you are standing in front of four huge wood-ﬁred kilns where quarried limestone was “kilned” (smelted). The product—powdered lime—was packed into barrels which were then attached to cable that was strung from the canyon wall down to the beach and some 50 yards out into the Paciﬁc Ocean. Schooners slipped into tiny Rockland Cove, as the landing was known, and loaded the lime. The lime, a primary ingredient in cement, was used to construct buildings in Monterey and San Francisco. Round trip: 1 mile. With waterfall: 1.4 miles.
Tip: Limekiln features one of the rare beachfront campgrounds along the Big Sur Coast, but families should prefer the quieter riverside campsites. Good to know for your next camping weekend.
Website: Limekiln State Park.
Directions: The park is 56 miles south of Carmel, off Highway One; two miles south of Lucia.