Unlike most of central Big Sur, Partington Canyon was spared the full wrath of the 1985 Rat Creek Fire; the redwoods, some of the most inspiring in Big Sur, remain.
A majority of the canyon's redwoods are second growth. (Partington, like most Big Sur canyons, was logged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.) Keen-eyed hikers will spot notches in the downhill side of redwood stumps; these notches held platforms upon which the sawyers stood when they cut.
The 19th century loggers who felled Partington's redwoods left behind virgin timber in the rugged upper reaches of the canyon and some gnarled, crooked specimens (apparently ill suited for commercial lumber). Tan oaks were harvested too. The bark was stripped to make tannic acid, a chemical used to tan leather before a synthetic substitute was invented.
Partington Cove was the shipping point for the products of these forest industries. During the 1880s, homesteader John Partington operated a landing here.
Before or after your hike up Partington Ridge, take the short leg-stretcher of a walk (half a mile round trip) down to Partington Creek and over to the deep blue waters of the cove. This walk shares a trail head with the Partington Ridge hike.
Partington Cove Trail crosses a creek on a wooden footbridge and passes through a 100-foot-long tunnel that was blasted through the rocky cliffs. The not-so-placid waters of the cove stir the seaweed about as if in a soup, and you wonder how boats moored here managed to load their cargo of bark and lumber.
Tanbark Trail travels through Partington Canyon to Tin House, supposedly built as a vacation retreat for Helen and Lathrop Brown (he a New York congressman, she a Big Sur park benefactor). As the story goes, the considerable amount of tin used in the home's construction was salvaged from a closed gas station during World War II. Tin House has greatly deteriorated over the years, but its inspiring view of the coastline remains.
Directions to trail head: Tanbark Trail begins 1.8 miles north of the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park entrance at the point where California Highway 1 crosses Partington Creek. Best parking is on the west side of the highway. Carefully cross the highway to the trail head, located near the south side of the highway bridge.
The hike: Two minutes of walking brings tranquillity: tall redwoods, lush ferns, the lovely cascades of Partington Creek. A short branch leads left over a footbridge back to the highway, while the main trail begins climbing the canyon wall on the south side of the creek.
The long ascent, which stays mostly in the redwood-tan oak forest, occasionally offers glimpses of the ocean and of one of Big Sur's "population centers"--some homes on Partington Ridge. The well-engineered path passes some rock walls and bridgework built by Swedish homesteaders of the 1920s and makes its way toward the ridge separating Partington and McWay canyons. Trail signs help keep you on the main path.
Before reaching the ridge crest, Tanbark Trail descends a bit to junction with an old fire road that leads to Tin House.
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Where: Partington Canyon, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.
Distance: 7 miles round trip with 2,000-foot elevation gain.
Terrain: Redwood and tan oak-forested canyon.
Degree of difficulty: Moderate-strenuous.
For more information: Big Sur Multi Agency Information; tel. (408) 667-2315.