The Ewoldsen Trail
One of Big Sur's best day hikes
Length 5.1 mi · Climbing 1450 ft
The Ewoldsen Trail has been closed since a major wildfire in 2008. As of December 2011 it's possible to hike up to the Canyon Trail, but the rest of the trail is closed. The trail is expected to reopen sometime in 2012.
Click here to see the trailhead location in Google Maps.
Pulling into the small parking lot of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State park, you'll see two picturesque and forbiddingly steep canyons rising high above you. The Ewoldsen Trail climbs up the left-hand canyon, McWay Canyon, rising 1360 feet over 2.3 miles. This trail gives you a little taste of the rugged beauty of Big Sur and has a bit of everything, good and bad, that makes this area distinctive: a challenging climb up steep-sided canyons and over rugged hills, spectacular ocean and mountain views, a dangerous precipice, lush redwood groves, poison oak, a refreshingly cool, fast-flowing and crystal-clear stream, snakes and swarms of bugs. Add the quarter-mile stroll to the McWay Falls overlook and this trail packs a very complete and satisfying Big Sur experience into a 3-hour hike.
The route is almost entirely wooded and has a surprising amount of redwoods. The trail is well-maintained, although in spring and summer you have to keep an eye out for poison oak by the side of the trail. Much of the trail can also get very buggy in the springtime, especially near the top. The trail is quite popular. The small parking lot fills up quickly in the summer, but most visitors don't stay long so with a little patience it's not too difficult to find a spot.
The Ewoldsen Trail starts at the top of the parking lot. Some of the park's biggest redwood trees are here along the first few hundred yards of trail. This area gets a lot of foot traffic, so the trees are surrounded by dry and dusty bare ground rather than a lush sorrel groundcover.
The trail begins climbing immediately, rising up the side of the canyon and leaving the redwoods behind. The climb starts off steep, but then settles to a more comfortable slope. Eventually the canyon climbs up to meet the trail at the loop junction. The loop is somewhat easier in the clockwise direction, so turn left and cross the footbridge. The trail climbs steeply out of the gorge.
At one point there's a sign that says "Steep Cliff / Stay Back". The sign is somewhat pointless since immediately afterward the trail becomes only a few inches wide and runs right along the very edge of the dropoff. On the left, a landslide has left the slope exceptionally steep and devoid of vegetation, and as you work your way along the precipice you can look down at highway 1, eight hundred feet below. In places the trail is overgrown with brush dotted with poison oak.
The trail turns away from the cliff and passes through an area of chaparral with dramatic views of the canyon. Across the canyon, redwood groves climb up the steep slopes. Unusually for the Big Sur coast, there's no development in sight and no traffic noise. The trail winds uphill through oaks, then enters an upland redwood grove with some surprisingly large, fire-blackened trees. A large redwood has fallen across the trail, forcing hikers to squeeze through a low opening.
A spur trail climbs to a viewpoint with a fine view of the Big Sur hills cascading into the distance. Birds circle below and, even further below, the ocean shallows show off some striking shades of turquoise.
After the spur, the trail descends steeply through oak woodland, then drops precipitously into the gorge, ending up in the nicest redwood grove of the hike. Located in a wide spot in the gorge, the cool shady grove is a welcome respite on hot summer days. As you enter the grove, you'll see two especially large trees off to the left among a dense understory of tanoak. A few steps further and the tanoak gives way to a remarkably plush, unbroken carpet of sorrel. A clear, fast-flowing stream cascades through the grove. On buggy days there tend to be fewer bugs here, making it a good place to stop.
The trail descends steeply through the grove and continues to descend through redwoods as the gorge narrows. For most of the way the trail is cut into the hillside above the creek.
© 2006 David Baselt