In a place famous for its natural wonders, I suppose I should not have been surprised that there would be hidden charms in the form of Pfeiffer Beach around the corner (literally). After finishing our fabulous meal at Nepenthe, we realized that we had a little bit of extra time to explore Big Sur before heading on to Carmel. But being relatively new to the area, we weren’t sure what the best options were.
Enter Steve. Steve, our delightful waiter at Nepenthe, asked if we were feeling adventurous, and then he filled us in on a local secret: not far away there is a beach of purple sand and amazing views. It was enough of a hint to get us moving, despite the fact that he warned us that no road markers exist for the beach.
Still, we took his instructions down and gleefully headed to the car. Heading north from Nepenthe on Highway 1, we were due to see an unmarked turn off onto what would look like a narrow roadway about 1.8 miles from the restaurant. As we started to get close, we slowed down—no doubt annoying the drivers with more pressing engagements on their minds. And voila! We found our turn.
We made a left onto the road and noticed the sign that Steve had warned us about: “No RVs, No Campers.” They aren’t being elitist or anti-camping—the roadway is simply too narrow to accommodate the rigs, and you aren’t allowed overnight visits.
Taking the winding turn, we saw our final confirmation, and gained a name for our destination: Pfeiffer Beach. Honestly, to that point, we were just going on faith that there was something to see on the other side of this adventure, but as we drove beneath the lush canopy of green trees and flowering plants, we found that the journey inland was exotic beyond our expectations.
And it was a journey: parking was nearly 2 miles from the turn off from the main road. So, if you are taking this trek, don’t be fooled into thinking you’ve gone down the wrong drive just because it is taking a bit longer than anticipated. Keep driving past a small cluster of rural homes, and eventually you will find your way.
The first thing you’ll see is the California beach sign, and the description board of the riparian area that you are about to explore. The stream that usually flows from the main waterway into the area was largely dry, but it was enough to keep us certain that a source was nearby. Slowly, as the branches parted overhead, we began to hear rushing water; then waves crashing. Soon after, we caught a glimpse of a rock formation through the trees.
One moment we were walking on solid ground, and seemingly in the next the sands began to shift beneath our feet. I removed my shoes in order to keep going and then caught my breath as the forested area gave way to the beach before us.
I stood a moment to take it all in. While Andy walked ahead, eager to examine the incredibly elaborate rock formations before us, I just looked around me.
On the left, some sunbathers lazed in the sun by a protective outcropping. The ocean on the left side had periodic waves, though it was largely calm.
Not so in front of me. Beyond what we came to call the keyhole rocks, the waves were churning. I watched as people braved fiercely blowing winds. How could it be such a different climate only steps away? While I wanted to get closer, that was a bit easier said than done. The few photos I took from that end of the beach were taken with my eyes closed; camera pointed at the sky.
It wasn’t until I retreated to the more placid side of Pfeiffer that I remembered to look down. The sands do indeed take on a purple hue. It’s not obvious when standing at one end looking across, but when you think to look down, you will see a myriad of colors twinkling back at you. Some say the color is from manganese garnet particles. Others say quartz. I say that whatever the cause of the coloration, it’s startlingly beautiful, and well worth the reminder to spend some time looking at your feet, despite the incredibly views above you.
Enjoy the photos, and if you ever find yourself with some extra time in Big Sur, add Pfeiffer Beach to your itinerary!
How to find it: Make a left turn approximately 1.8 miles north of Nepenthe Restaurant off of Highway 1. There are no beach signs, but there is a sign just inside the turn that reads “No RVs, No Campers.” If you are coming south on Highway 1, it is just beyond mile marker 45 (45.64). If you are going north and you see the signs for Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, you have actually gone too far (which I know is confusing). South bound, it is just a bit beyond the Big Sur Station.
Cost: $5 parking fee off season; after May 1 throughout the summer season it is $10.
Tip: When the winds get high, stick to the side closest to the entrance from the forested trail. It’s protected, but will still allow you to be part of the beach scene.
Don’t believe me about the wind? Take a listen: