Andrew Molera State Park

Seven and a half square miles of wilderness, 21 miles south of Carmel, along the ocean, into the mountains, and complete with a wild and scenic river - Andrew Molera State Park is a great favorite for outdoor enthusiasts. The entrance is three miles south of Point Sur and 4.5 miles north of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. An $8 per car fee is collected at the parking lot entrance. Guests at the Big Sur Lodge have free entrance to all Big Sur coast state parks during their stay at the Lodge.

A variety of interesting trails, most with incredible views, and a 24-site walk-in campground make Molera an engaging place to stay awhile.

The park is dissected by the Big Sur River. Long stretches of marine terrace, vast sweeps of beach, expansive scapes of wildflowers, hillsides of coastal scrub, and deep old-growth redwood and oak forests make Molera an imagination-bending experience.

How the pristine Big Sur River winds from the Ventana highlands to the sea is a rare California natural prize. Big Sur River has no dams, nor any man-made diversions. It is thoroughly untamed and wonderful, it is instructive and magical all at once. How it enters the Pacific at the Headlands is a raucous and lovely place. This is one of the liveliest wild bird encounters on the whole Pacific coast. And, all along the river you walk among one of the most precious and populated songbird habitats anywhere.

Molera is a treasure, and there are many trails inviting you in. Among its many attributes, it is a very rewarding birdwatching area (Molera bird watching).

Across Highway One from the Molera entrance, the 10-mile Old Coast Road begins its backcountry wind to the Bixby Bridge through a redwood forest.

Headlands Trail
From the north end of the Andrew Molera parking lot, the Headlands Trail winds along the north bank of the Big Sur River. This trail is a treat of diversity. It gives you great looks into ancient, huge and wondrously twisted oaks, into the sparkling river; a large meadow with quail, deer and a dispersed campground; views of Pico Blanco; a mid-1800's homestead cabin; a winter Monarch Butterfly habitat in a large blue gum eucalyptus grove; riparian forest of alders and willows; sea stacks called Sur Breakers here and home to cormorants; extensive kelp forests; river lagoon home to large colonies of ducks, sea and shore birds; and, lovely headlands with many Indian middens.

Along the lower Big Sur River, the trail offers rare encounters with many bird species: chickadees, bushtits, warblers and many other songbirds (see our Songbird Banding at Big Sur Ornithology Lab), belted kingfishers, red-shouldered hawks, kites, kestrels, and golden eagles.

At the headlands there are views up and down the coast and to the mountains of the Santa Lucia Coastal Range. Offshore, California gray whales are seen during their winter migration south to Baja California lagoons, and Spring return to the Arctic.

This trail is one mile, and easy. But can be uncomfortable when cold and windy.

Beach Trail Loop
An easy, nearly 2-mile walk along the Big Sur River through riparian thicket, along a vast and fascinating beach and back through a bird watching paradise in a restored meadow.

Beginning at the parking lot area's picnic site, cross the river at the footbridge, which is constructed annually before Memorial Day and removed after Labor Day. Beach Trail begins on the right at the trail fork. Follow it to the beach. Before reaching the beach the Creamery Trail junctions with the Beach Trail. Continue on to experience one of California's most scenic and dramatic beaches. Molera Beach spans 2.5 miles from the Headlands at the Big Sur River lagoon at the river's mouth, south to Cooper Point.

To the north there is whimsical collection of driftwood, and great waves to the south. It is beautiful.

Creamery Trail
Return by reversing to the Creamery Trail junction. Once a milk cow pasture, the meadow is being restored to its native state by the California Department of Parks. It's a massive job to revegetate the meadow with native plants, but the progress to date is inspiring.

In this trail loop you might see bobcats and coyotes, and probably will see lizards, rabbits, and deer.

Ridge, Panorama, Spring and Bluffs Trail Loop
For those wanting a full day hike with incredibly diverse sights, flora and elevations, taking a loop hike which includes these four Molera State Park trails will guarantee a memorably rewarding outing.

This loop hike, in the neighborhood of 8 miles, can be done in either direction, but this description will follow in order the Ridge, Panorama, Spring, and Bluffs Trails. The loop can also be started from various places in the park, but this description assumes that hikers will start near the northwestern end of the Ridge Trail (closest to Molera Beach). Trails that meet at, near, or en route to the Ridge Trail junctions include: Beach and Creamery Meadows loop trails and the Bluffs Trail. Looking at a map, hikers will also note that about a third of the way up the Ridge Trail, the Hidden Trail, runs into the Ridge Trail, providing yet another option.

photo at right: Bluffs Trail seen from above Big Sur River lagoon at Headlands Trail end.

Photo by Jack Ellwanger

To begin this loop hike, hikers need access to the trails on the park's more southern, coastal side of the Big Sur River. Many months of the year, hikers can do this hike by crossing the Big Sur River at the parking lot's picnic area by using a temporary bridge or by wading across the river if it isn't running too high or too swiftly. The water can be quite chilly and the rocks in the river bed can be more tolerable when some sort of footwear is worn. Another way that some hikers access the trails for this loop trip, is to cross the river by fording it at the Big Sur River mouth. Always check with the staff at the park's kiosk for advice first about the tides at the river mouth or current safety conditions for river crossings, if the narrow footbridge is not up.

Once hikers have navigated any waterways, walked the earlier described "flatland" trails (Headlands, Creamery Meadow, River or Hidden Trails) and reached a junction of the Ridge Trail near Molera Beach, this "four-trail" loop hike can begin. Before starting, hikers may want to visit Molera Beach briefly to appreciate the beauty of the beach, waves, river mouth, headlands, coastal bluffs and vistas. Returning to the nearby trails that meet up with the Ridge Trail, hikers will re-visit many of the native plants and shrubs that were seen on their stroll from the parking lot to the beach and bluff area.

The 2.7 mile Ridge Trail starts out relatively flat, among the splendid array of relatively low-lying vegetation mentioned in the earlier descriptions of the park's river land area

As this wide trail (previously a fire road) climbs steadily uphill, the views of prominent peaks to the east, the coast and river mouth become awesome. The views only diminish when hikers begin entering the sunlight-filtering tunnels of coast live oaks and tanoak that surround the trail -- trees full of character, gnarly with age and weathered with moss and lichen. Soon, the woods of oak give way to stands of towering redwoods, as hikers ascend gradually along the reddish duff ground cover and accompanying ferns and sorrel.

The Ridge Trail ends at a lovely junction rest stop complete with a bench under an old cypress, beside a fence that marks the southern boundary of the park. The coast views are spectacular, though the signs along the road south of the fence are less welcoming, "Posted: No Trespassing - Keep Out." New and modern, private homes with priceless views are built here, but lovely native brush still graces the hillsides on the north side of the fence. After lingering awhile, hikers will be ready for the 1.9 mile Panorama Trail with a welcome downhill grade and narrow, but interesting switchbacks. The coastal views can sometimes be so clear, it is said, that Cone Peak, rising over 5,000 feet high, forty miles south, can be seen. The vegetation along this open coast have to adapt to the strong winds and salty atmosphere, as is seen by some dense, tangled redwood forests that survive here, not towering, but unusually short, and seemingly huddled together for protection from the elements.

As the Panorama Trail winds toward the ocean cliffs, a sign signals a side trail that shouldn't be missed, the Spring Trail. This tenth-of-a-mile spur to the beach goes down a delightful little gully with a creek that leads to sands rich with animated driftwood of all shapes and sizes. If the tide isn't high, hikers can often enjoy beachcombing up to nearly a mile of shoreline between Cooper and Molera Points. At times, the beach's northern bluffs host an idyllic waterfall which splashes down onto the boulders, sand, and anyone who can't resist this refreshing enticement.

Hopefully refreshed by their visit to the Spring Trail's beach paradise, hikers can now retrace their steps up to the

Bluffs Trail. This trail runs 2.8 miles along the scenic bluffs back toward the mouth of the Big Sur River along a relatively flat plane, except for a couple gullies. The red dirt and golden sandstone of the marine terraces are especially rich in color if you have lingered long enough for the sun to be setting low in the sky. The coastal bluff grasses at dusk are muted in color, with occasional blossoms adding interest. Arriving to the river mouth at sunset is a mixed blessing -- the sunset setting can be overwhelming and sensational, but the dash back on the darkened trails and, perhaps, an icy river crossing, can make hikers wish they had allowed more time to return to the parking lot or their campsite! But whatever route or amount of time hikers choose to use, the rewards of this Molera day hike loop are really great.

East Molera Trail
Big Sur travelers passing along Highway One by Andrew Molera State Park must often be impressed by the view of a majestic, white peak which rises to the east. They aren't surprised to learn that it is named, Pico Blanco, which is Spanish for "white peak." Hikers along the well-trodden Molera trails to the west of Highway One also can't help but be awed by this huge mountain that seems to reign over the whole area. Many Molera visitors may have mused about hiking up that stark, marble peak, but that peak hike is a tough, dry and long trail climb.

Most Molera hikers don't know that a trail on the east side of the highway is a nice compromise for those wanting to view Pico Blanco from a closer, higher location. The route is via the East Molera Trail which is either a 3.2 or 3.8 mile out-and-back hike, depending upon the starting point. Or, it can be a little longer for those wanting to take a side spur trail across a gully to a lovely, old oak on a knoll.

Starting from the Molera State Park parking lot, hikers walk an extra .3 mile by going down the service road past the ornithology lab, the stables, and then paralleling the highway, through an under-road culvert and onto a dirt road.

Shortly, they meet up with the trail heading left up the hill from the alternate trailhead option. Hikers starting from the Highway One trailhead, can park in turnouts not far from the old, wooden cattle chute, which forms a gateway to the trail.

The first six-tenths of a mile or so are a fairly steady slope through gnarly coastal live oaks and bay laurels, while further along redwoods line the gully off toward the right. To the left, the hills' slopes are covered with grasses which may be golden in some seasons or, during others, lush green with large orange and purple patches of wildflowers. Rest stops along the slopes, reveal up close to hikers that there is a wide spectrum of colors and types of flora to be discovered here.

Near a wooden fence, where the trail angles off to the left with a significant climb for the next mile, hikers may choose to take the time to take a short side spur to the right. Those taking the spur will be passing by redwoods rising from a narrow canyon, stepping over the small creek and up a knoll, but not too far, to the trail's end at a lone, stately oak. It's a serene place to enjoy the views, eat lunch or just relax in the tree's shade.

Back at that fence where the trail goes left climbing 1,000 feet in a mile, hikers encounter switchbacks and slopes of between 20-30% grade, but the rewards from the views also increase dramatically. Hiking up the mountain's ridges toward a saddle that is crested with stands of redwoods and neighbored by Pico Blanco looming in the not-so-distant background, gives hikers motivation to continue to the 1,549-foot elevation. Besides all the trailside attractions of wildflowers, insects, lizards, and native plants, the awesome, far-off attractions of soaring birds, perhaps condors, Point Sur, Molera headlands and beach, may take the hikers' mind off the physical effort.

Once at the ridge, an usual place for towering redwoods, hikers may be amazed even more to view the details of Pico Blanco face on, much closer, framed by the erect trunks of redwoods and spreading limbs of ancient oaks. The ridge itself is home to yucca whipplei, a huge dead tree trunk with a portion that looks like art sculpture of a whale's fluke, plus stunning views in all directions. The extensive panorama includes the Big Sur coast and Santa Lucia ranges as far as visibility allows and, nearby, the canyons of both the Little Big Sur and Big Sur River watersheds.

This redwood ridge opposite Pico Blanco is an inspiring place to rest or snack before retracing the trail toward Highway One. (Note of caution: Those exploring even further along this redwood ridge eventually might spot the rare Santa Lucia firs and views of the Double Cone, but it is a very difficult, overgrown fire road trail that leads away and up a few miles southeast toward Post Summit.)

Bird Notes by Jeff Davis and Don Roberson

Molera State Park is the premier birding locality in the region and offers good birding at any season. In 1999 it ws designated a Globally Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society-California, the American Bird Conservancy, and California Partners in Flight. It is best birded by taking the one mile trail on the north side of the Big Sur River from the main parking lot to the beach.

The area is excellent for woodpeckers, flycatchers, vireo, and warblers. Most records of rare and unusual birds for the region have come from this site.

This is also the home of the Big Sur Ornithology Lab which operates a constant-effort mist netting and banding station about1/8 mile upstream of the main parking lot.