The Tan Bark Trail

Loop hike with the fire road and Highway One

Length 6.3 mi · Climbing 1980 ft
California > Big Sur > Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

The Tan Bark Trail starts in a lush coastal canyon

The Tan Bark Trail is a classic Big Sur canyon climb with some exceptionally pretty redwood groves, clear, lively creeks, and superb coastal views.

It’s not quite as perfect as the Ewoldsen Trail, mainly because the trails don't form a complete loop, but it’s an incredibly scenic hike. And in any case, the Ewoldsen Trail has mostly been closed since 2008.

Major fires burned through this area in 2008 and again in 2016. Today it’s hard to tell that there was a fire here, except the formerly dense and rather monotonous forest with a lot of dead tanoaks has given way to a series of flower-filled meadows alternating with redwood groves and open hardwood forest.

The trail is usually in good condition; there’s a little poison oak, but most of the time it’s pretty easy to avoid. Once I came here after a winter storm and there were so many trees down that the trail was almost hidden under all the fallen trees.

The trail isn’t heavily used; you might see a group every 15–30 minutes on a nice weekend. The fire road is the most popular section, with most people starting at the vista point and doing an out-and-back hike to the Tin House.

The trail starts in a bend in Highway 1 opposite the incredibly popular Partington Cove Trail. Both trails are unmarked, but on a weekend afternoon there are always lots of cars parked in the pullouts.

From the highway, the trail descends slightly into Partington Canyon. The imposingly steep, high, redwood-lined hills that you’re about to climb loom above.

The trail crosses a footbridge and then dives into a very scenic redwood grove on a small flat. Although the grove is logged, some pretty good-sized trees remain; the tall, straight, fire-blackened redwoods rise above a lush layer of redwood sorrel that carpets the ground.

After just a few yards, the flat ends, the canyon narrows, and the trail climbs alongside a remarkably clear, rushing creek. There are still lots of redwoods, but they’re smaller.

The trail makes an abrupt right turn at the Donald H. McLaughlin Grove sign and begins a steep climb out of the canyon. It’s easy to miss the turn, since it’s not marked and an unofficial trail continues straight ahead.

The climb is steep at first but then becomes more reasonable; overall it’s 2.8 miles at an average grade of 13%. As it climbs, the scenery alternates between brushy meadows and redwood-filled ravines. There are occasional glimpses of the imposing conifer-streaked hills towering above, of the canyon, and of the ocean. At lower elevations, some houses are visible on the hillside across the canyon.

About two-thirds of the way up, the trail enters a high-elevation grove of small to mid-sized redwoods in a small glen with a little brook flowing through it. The trail then leaves the redwoods and ascends through meadows alternating with hardwood forests.

A redwood grove midway up the hill

The trail eventually begins to descend and then ends at the fire road. To your left, the fire road descends a short distance to the Tin House. Near the Tin House, a side trail (the Waters Trail or Waters Ridge Trail) branches off; it’s currently closed, but it’s worthwhile to go about 20 or 30 yards down the trail to see some superb costal views, the best views of the hike.

The first few yards of the Waters Trail has the best view of the hike

The Tin House is somewhat anticlimactic; built in 1944, it’s dilapidated and trees have grown around it, blocking most of the view.

In the opposite direction, the fire road descends to Highway One. The road passes through a few small redwood groves, and there are some views of Partington Canyon and its housing development.

The scenery makes an abrupt change for the better when the trail rounds a bend, revealing a sweeping and dramatic view of the coast. The trail descends through chaparral that’s an unusually brilliant green and is strewn with wildflowers throughout the summer. A thousand feet below, the ocean is a huge, glittering blue plain. The sounds of the surf emanate up from the shoreline.

The fire road

The road descends through a tiny but pretty redwood grove with a few pretty good-sized trees, then ends at Highway One, a few yards south of a vista point. It’s possible to walk back along the highway, but its occasionally narrow shoulders and heavy, fast-moving traffic make this a hazardous walk. At one spot with an almost nonexistent shoulder, the road is banked such that the oncoming RVs actually lean toward you.

Near the end of the fire road


© 2006, 2011, 2022 David Baselt