A breathtaking road trip away for Northern Californians, Southern Californians, and everyone in between, the coast redwood forest of Big Sur is a Central Coast gem and an essential experience. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is a destination for many reasons: the spectacular coastline leading to it from the north and the south, the mystique of its woods that have inspired literary legends and beat poets, the Big Sur River that runs through it, and its eponymous waterfall, Pfeiffer Falls.
After being badly damaged in the July 2008 Basin Complex Fire, the Pfeiffer Falls Trail reopened in June 2021 for hiking, better than ever before. This challenging project, 12 years in the making, is a testament to the great and enduring partnership between Save the Redwoods League and California State Parks.
Reimagining a Classic
The Basin Complex Fire burned 162,818 acres, including the bridges, railings, steps, signs, and retaining walls of one of Pfeiffer Big Sur’s most popular trails. With budget limits preventing California State Parks from rebuilding the trail, the League saw the opportunity to improve access to this beloved Big Sur sight. In September 2009, we officially partnered with State Parks to reimagine a renovated trail to Pfeiffer Falls with long-term protection of the ecosystem in mind. As part of Pfeiffer-Redwood Creek, which flows into the Big Sur River and the Pacific Ocean, Pfeiffer Falls is an important habitat within the Big Sur watershed.
October 2014 kicked off the rehabilitation of the Pfeiffer Falls Trail with the removal of asphalt along 260 feet of the beginning of the trail, closest to the Visitor Center. In fall 2015, California Conservation Corps crews and contractors removed 4,150 square feet of the trail’s asphalt and concrete and constructed a beautiful, small section of dirt trail. Crews carved and leveled parts of the trail that wrap around the ravine—a process called alignment—and removed seven wood plank bridges from the stream, which will allow aquatic wildlife to thrive. They also constructed broad wooden staircases at especially steep switchbacks and built rock causeways to prevent mudslides in erosion-prone areas.
As work progressed, the July 2016 Soberanes Fire, landslides from heavy rains, and closure of Highway 1 south of the park delayed the reopening for several years.
The newly aligned 0.75-mile Pfeiffer Falls Trail provides an improved visitor experience while bolstering the health of the ecosystem. Like the original trail, it runs through the gorge and under the redwoods, but hikers will no longer cross through the creek, as doing so causes erosion. Instead, a 70-foot pedestrian expansion bridge above the canyon provides visitors with a safe and scenic way to span the ravine. Visitors can climb through the redwood canyon to see the mid-sized falls’ white ribbons of water streaming from 60 feet above over exposed rocks into a serene pool.
The Pfeiffer Falls trail completes a 1.5-mile loop with the Valley View trail. New interpretive panels line the trail, educating hikers on redwoods and climate change, the Big Sur watershed, and the partnership between California State Parks and the U.S. Forest Service, whose land abuts Pfeiffer Big Sur.
League Members’ Lasting Contributions to Pfeiffer Big Sur
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park was created in 1933. Over the years, League members helped acquire 300 acres of nearby redwood lands, which are now part of the park, protected forever inside its expanded borders.
Beginning in 2010, our members’ support helped improve a half-mile stretch of the Valley View Trail to the falls to accommodate the increased use. The Valley View route leads from Big Sur Lodge to Pfeiffer Falls, and returns by way of Valley View Trail. The route, with its 200-foot elevation gain, winds past towering redwoods, a diverse array of other trees and ecosystems, Pfeiffer Falls, and views of the ocean at the Point Sur headlands.
The nearly $2 million Pfeiffer Falls Trail project was made possible by $909,000 from California State Parks deferred maintenance funding; a $500,000 grant from the California Natural Resources Agency’s California River Parkways Program with funds from Proposition 13, Safe Drinking Water, Clean Water, Watershed Protection, And Flood Protection Bond Act of 2000; a $406,000 donation from The Parker Foundation; and more than $55,000 in private donations to Save the Redwoods League.
With its renovated trail, Pfeiffer Falls can continue to be an alluring Big Sur attraction that inspires visitors for generations to come.