I stood at the base of Salmon Creek waterfall and felt the mist soaking into my clothes. The roughness of the rock surrounding the three-tiered falls matched the texture of the water as it cascaded down the coarse hillside, spewing cool water in all directions. The scene was reminiscent of a fairy tale – a rock above the waterfall came to a point at the top, making it look almost like a small cottage with a solitary tree in front. As the water tumbled down, the mist reached a large, healthy fern on the right that, if it grew much more, could obstruct the magnificent view of the falls. But the green all around was a brilliant contrast to the white waters.
Numerous times the mist made me feel entranced. The cool, tingling sensation accompanying such a striking visual display lifted the experience up to surreal. The waterfall was unrelenting and seemed to be getting more powerful by the minute. The stream roared loudly, but the air was clean and cool and the overall ambiance was peaceful.
It’s obvious that California’s Central Coast is pretty far from Niagara Falls. The world’s highest waterfall, Angel Falls in Venezuela, is a trip most of us just can’t afford to make. But just up U.S. Highway 1 about 100 miles is a wealth of waterfalls, rivers and beautiful beaches just waiting to share their mist, my favorite of which is Salmon Creek. With all the options that the Big Sur area has to offer, it’s possible to stay for a week or just go for a day and visit. I made my trip on a Sunday with a good friend and my experience was just as fulfilling as an entire weekend would have been-and much less expensive.
Our day began a little late, about 11 a.m. We packed cameras, sweaters, sunscreen and hiking shoes and filled a cooler with sodas, water, sandwiches and some other snacks for the road. We were on our way by noon and the only thing that got in our way was an occasional scenic distraction.
After driving for about 45 minutes on U.S. Highway 1 we came upon Piedras Blancas beach, where hundreds of elephant seals were resting on the sand. We stopped to watch and take some photos of the fascinating creatures. The parking lot was crowded, as were the observation areas, but we were able to stay for about 15 minutes to watch. It was the perfect break from the drive and we continued on, feeling refreshed.
Salmon Creek is just south of Gorda on U.S. Highway 1. Driving there is beautiful, but difficult. With constant warnings telling you to slow down to as low as 10 miles per hour, caution is necessary. Salmon Creek is visible from the highway and there is a sign on the right that labels it clearly. However, be prepared to stop abruptly and park just after a rather sharp fork in the road.
After parking, we got out of the car and we could see the waterfall from the road. It sounded like a highway, but much more constant and pleasing. We walked to the trail and began to ascend to the base of the waterfall. The hike was only a few minutes and not difficult at all. Granted, I knew it was going to be easy so I wore flat tennis shoes and was slipping in the mud constantly, so wear good shoes.
One strikingly Californian element to the trail and the surrounding areas was the poison oak. It was literally everywhere on the trail and it started to look like it was just another bush. I sat down at one point to write in my notebook and promptly turned my shoulder to see a large poison oak plant about an inch from my back.
Trying to avoid the devilish shrub and keep from slipping, I climbed up to above the waterfall on the trail, but there wasn’t much to see. The view was much better from just below, so I went back down and remained there for the remainder of my stay.
As the water flows down to the trail and runs horizontally, it is spotted on either side with trees carved with names, initials and hearts. Though I’m sure park personnel aren’t too happy about this, it really gave the area a human charm. The combination of a natural masterpiece with a man-made memory book made me feel like I was experiencing something that many people had before – that we were sharing it with all those who came before.
A man sitting on a rock was picking up twigs, breaking them, and throwing them into the stream to watch them float away. Even this scene was pleasant. I understood the simple thrill that he was feeling.
After a short amount of time we walked back down the trail to the car and ate the sandwiches we had packed. We had made it a point to not plan our day and just let it take its course as we explored, so soon we were back on the road, waiting to see what came next up the highway.
We passed Kirk Creek campground on the left as we were driving and decided it might be a good place to end up later that day, but we kept driving to find somewhere to hike. We finally made it up to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and parked the car. I changed my shoes this time and we started on the Pfeiffer Falls trail, which was short but beautiful. The trail extends above Pfieffer Big Sur Creek and through to yet another waterfall. The redwoods in the area are stunning and made the hike shady and relaxing. We made it down to the road and walked the rest of the way past campgrounds to the road.
By this time we knew it was near sunset. We stopped at a “village shop” near the street and asked someone how to get to McWay Falls – a beautiful beach we had seen on one of the guide maps outside the shops.
Unfortunately, she told us that visitors are not allowed on the beach, only on the trail above it. We decided to make our way back to the campsite and watch the sunset from there.
Though the road itself was not glamorous, there was a thrill to US highway 1 for me at that time of day. There were so many turnoffs that it made me want to stop every mile or so to see what was going to happen in the sky next. The sunset was never obstructed, so we stopped once to get some pictures.
We reached the campsite just after the sun went down and easily found a spot to have a fire. At this point we had only spent money on gas and firewood, but we had to pay a $5 fee for using the campground to rest. It was a small price for what turned into hours of sitting by the fire and watching the amazingly bright stars.
It was the perfect end to our day trip to Big Sur. For me, the area was a smorgasbord of visual pleasure, regardless of where we were. Even driving on the highway provided beautiful scenery and by nightfall the ocean and the green hills were dark, but the night sky and the lull of the ocean waves created a different kind of thrill.
The Central Coast is known for so many things, and one of them is definitely its close proximity to Big Sur. But no matter how much it’s talked about, there is nothing like exploring and experiencing it all for yourself.