Undeveloped and usually overlooked, Garrapata State Park offers a lot of Big Sur in a compact area. The park features two miles (probably closer to four miles counting the twists and turns) of spectacular coastline and a steep sampling of the Santa Lucia Mountains.
Rocky Ridge Trail quickly leaves Highway 1 behind and offers far-reaching views of the Santa Lucia Mountains and the sea. A grand loop of the state park can be made by returning to the trail head via redwood-lined Soberanes Canyon.
The name Soberanes is linked with the early Spanish exploration of California. Soldier Jose Maria Soberanes marched up the coast to Monterey with the Gaspar de Portola expedition of 1769. Seven years later, Soberanes served as a guide for De Anza, whose party pushed north to San Francisco Bay. Grandson Jose Antonio Ezequiel Soberanes acquired the coastal bluff and magnificent back country that became known as Soberanes Ranch.
Bear hunter/buckskin trader/steamship agent William Brainard Post was an early foreman of Soberanes Ranch. His son, Joseph William Post, was born on the ranch. In 1888, the younger Post was awarded a government contract to build the road to the top of the nearby Big Sur Lightstation.
Garrapata State Park offers a variety of hiking options. The coast lover can loop around aptly named Whale Peak, which is not only cetacean-shaped but offers good views of migrating gray whales from about March through April. The whales can be seen swimming north--usually fairly close to shore--as they head back to Arctic waters. The most popular whale-watching spot in the park, however, is Soberanes Point. Bring your binoculars.
Rocky Ridge Trail will be more enjoyable for the gung-ho hiker than the novice. The trail ascends very steeply as it climbs Rocky Ridge. Then, after gaining the ridge, hikers must descend an extremely steep mile (about a 20%-30% grade) to connect to Soberanes Canyon Trail.
The leg-weary, or those looking for an easier walk, will simply stroll through the redwoods of Soberanes Canyon and not attempt Rocky Ridge Trail.
Garrapata means tick in Spanish. Because they will be trekking through brushland where the blood-sucking insects dwell, hikers should check their skin and clothing occasionally to make sure they haven't been bitten.
Directions to trail head: Garrapata State Park is seven miles south of Carmel Valley Road, off Highway 1 in Carmel. There's a highway turnout at mileage marker 65.8.
The hike: From the gate on the east side of Highway 1, walk inland over a dirt road to a nearby barn, then a bit farther to cross Soberanes Creek and reach a trail junction. Soberanes Canyon heads east along the creek, but Rocky Ridge-bound hikers will keep with the closed road, heading north and dipping in and out of a gully.
Hikers rapidly leave the highway behind as the path climbs the rugged slopes, which are dotted with black sage, golden yarrow and bush lupine. The route uses few switchbacks as it ascends 1,435-foot Rock Ridge. As they gain the windblown ridge, hikers will get good views to the east of Soberanes Creek watershed, to the west of Soberanes Point, and to the north of Carmel and the Monterey Peninsula.
The route contours eastward around the ridge. To the north is the steep canyon cut by Malpaso Creek. After leveling out for a time, the grassy patch reaches a small cow pond, then begins to descend over steep but pastoral terrain--classic Big Sur cattle country.
In spring, the emerald-green slopes resemble Ireland. The grassland on these upper slopes is extensive. The hillsides would naturally be covered with coastal scrub vegetation, but introduced grasses--wild oats, ryegrass and foxtail--have taken over.
The trail is cut by cattle paths, a reminder of a century of grazing. The route plunges steeply down the bald north wall of Soberanes Canyon. The mile-long killer descent finally ends when hikers intersect with Soberanes Canyon Trail and begin descending, much more gently, to the west.
Soberanes Canyon Trail stays close to the creek and enters the redwoods. The canyon redwoods are smaller and fewer than those found in more northern coastal regions of California. Western sworn fern, redwood sorrel, blackberry bushes and Douglas iris decorate the path.
Near the mouth of the canyon, the trail becomes gentler. Willow, watercress and horsetail line the lower reaches of Soberanes Creek. Soon after passing some out-of-place mission cactus, brought north from Mexico by Spanish missionaries, hikers will return to the trail head.
HIKING / Big Sur Rocky Ridge Trail, Soberanes Canyon Trail * Where: Garrapata State Park.
* Distance: 7 miles round trip, with 1,200-foot elevation gain.
* Terrain: Steep coastal mountains.
* Highlights: Grand views, redwoods.
* Degree of difficulty: Moderate to difficult.
* Hazards: Very steep trail, ticks, poison oak.
* For more information: Contact Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park at (408) 667-2315.