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Hiking: Big Sur : Eight Great Coastal Walks : Just by taking that extra step beyond Highway 1 turnouts, visitors can discover a world of hidden beaches, rocky coves and wildlife

August 06, 1995|JOHN McKINNEY | McKinney is the author of "A Walk Along Land's End: Discovering California's Living Coast" (HarperCollins-West, $20)

Big Sur means different .jthings to different people. To renowned photographer Ansel Adams it was both artistic and spiritual inspiration. To locals it's the Monterey County village of Big Sur, with its post office, roadside businesses and campgrounds, lodging and information station. To the casual tourist, it's a stop at the restaurant Nepenthe for a cappuccino, an Ambrosia Burger and a stroll through the Phoenix gift shop. To the gotta-get-from-Hearst-Castle-to-Monterey-this-afternoon motorist, it's a snapshot taken from one of the scenic turnouts off California 1.

California 1, between the San Luis Obispo county line and Carmel, has long been regarded as one of the world's great drives. It was officially designated California's first scenic highway 30 years ago. Auto magazine writers put new cars through their paces here. Many a car commercial shows the latest from Detroit or overseas crossing the highway's magnificent bridges and zooming through its serpentine turns.

More than 3 million visitors a year pass through Big Sur on California 1. The few signed and many unsigned scenic viewpoints are crowded with rental cars piloted by seekers from around the world who marvel at the mighty ocean crashing against the bold headlands. But the highway only comes close to the Big Sur coast.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 13, 1995 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Travel Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Big Sur hiking--Due to an editing error, a photograph of seagulls at Andrew Molera State Park was miscredited in the Aug. 6 Hiking story. It was taken by Lee Foster.

A more intimate connection can be made by walking to and along the shore, snatching close-up views of an otter grabbing mussels off the rocks or of a cormorant diving for a fish. A little effort yields big rewards: wildflowers, wildlife and wild beaches hidden from the highway.

These pathways may be inspiring, but they're not very well signed or easy to find--particularly by the driver who is concentrating on the precipitous, cliff-hugging, twisty two-lane highway.

But for those who would like to explore the land between the highway and the horizon, here are the best places to stop and stroll, eight great Big Sur coast walks.

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Garrapata State Park offers some of Big Sur's most striking coastline--hidden beaches, rocky coves and bluffs carpeted with native wildflowers and ice plant. All that and there is wonderful wildlife-watching: Sea otters and sea lions bask on rocks just offshore; sea birds, such as oyster catchers and cormorants, glide over the waves. Garrapata's bluffs are excellent vantage points from which to observe California gray whales on their annual winter migration from seas near Alaska down to Baja.

Soberanes Point Trail (1 3/4 miles, round trip) loops around Soberanes Point, a bold headland that terminates in a ridge known as Whale Peak. From the peak, enjoy a grand coastal view north to Carmel's Yankee Point and south to Point Sur.

Access: From California 1, about six miles south of Carmel, look for Gate 13 on the west side of the highway. Park off the highway and walk in.

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Garrapata State Beach is a wild and beautiful half-mile-long sand strand accessible by a short quarter-mile-long trail. While the clear, blue-green water surging ashore at this splendid beach can be positively hypnotic, be extra cautious on Garrapata's sandy shores and rocky points. The coast here is known for its rogue waves--ocean swells that have swept the unwary off their feet and, in some cases, to their deaths.

Access: From California 1, look carefully for the gate with the number 32 on it on the west side of the highway, 2.6 miles south of the Soberanes Point turnout.

Opened in 1889, and not fully automated until the last keeper left in 1974, Point Sur Lightstation (which includes the lighthouse) is an intriguing sight from the highway and even more fascinating when viewed up close on a tour conducted by volunteer docents. In fact, the sole way to explore the facility--the only intact lighthouse with accompanying support buildings on the California coast--is by guided tour.

The half-mile walking tour includes the lighthouse itself, the keepers' houses, the blacksmith shop and the barn, where livestock was kept to maintain the self-sufficiency of the compound. Visitors learn the fascinating story of the isolated life lived by the four keepers and their families who tended the lighthouse.

Docent-led tours are offered on Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays (April through October). Cost: $5 for adults, $3 for kids ages 13 to 17. Call (408) 625-4419 for more information.

The view is superb from atop the 360-foot-high basaltic rock, on which the lighthouse complex is perched, offering an eyeball-to-eyeball view of gulls and cormorants. To the south is False Sur, named for its confusing resemblance to Point Sur, when viewed from sea.

Access: From California 1, the lighthouse turnoff is about six miles north of the Big Sur information station.

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Andrew Molera State Park, the largest state park along the Big Sur coast offers the walker mountains, meadows and the mouth of Big Sur River.

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