Partington Cove is a moderately steep, family-friendly hike two miles north of McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in Big Sur. The main trail descends to three spurs leading to Partington Creek, Partington Cove, and Partington Point. The crystal-clear water in Partington Cove, Big Sur cliffs, historic redwood tunnel, and Partington Creek cascades — all packaged into a short trail — make this an excellent leg-stretcher on your Big Sur drive.
Begin at the green gate on the south side of Highway 1. The wide dirt road drops steeply southwest to the trickling sounds of Partington Creek and the cool, coastal wind. It is common to see fog on summer mornings, although it typically burns off by midday. Pastel tinted plants—lupine, pink sea buckwheat, and light green sagebrush—mingle like a watercolor with the blues and aquas of the ocean. It really is that pretty.
Descend 180 feet in 0.3 miles, and then spot a narrow trail on your left. This 0.15-mile out-and-back spur leads to view of Partington Creek. It is a modest, but pretty viewpoint if you don’t mind a little maneuvering: In summer 2019, I ducked and crawled through a couple downed trees to reach it.
Back on the main trail, descend 100 feet to a Y-junction. Turn left to cross a wooden bridge, taking a 0.3-mile out-and-back spur to Partington Cove. A shady redwood forest greets you on the other side of the bridge, leading to a 100-foot tunnel through granite. The tunnel, framed in redwood planks, was just tall enough for my 5’9″ self to walk through without hitting my head. Folks over six feet tall might have to duck a bit.
John Partington, a homesteader in Big Sur, created this tunnel in the 1870s and used Partington Cove to transport tanoak bark and redwoods by ship to Santa Cruz and San Francisco. Tanoak bark was valued for its tannins, which were used to make leather. Coast redwoods were a favored building material because the wood is slower to burn than other woods, rot-resistant, and insect-repellent, making it a good choice for a home.
After passing through the tunnel, emerge on a trail along a ledge with a wooden protective fence. Looking down, you can see the crystal-clear waters of Partington Cove. The granite here is erosion resistant, with minimal rock fall to muddy up the water, hence its clarity. The trail ends at Partington Landing where you can listen for wildlife and watch waves lapping at the cove’s rocky ledges.
When ready, retrace your steps back to the Y-junction. This time, take the right-hand fork to explore the 0.2-mile out-and-back spur to Partington Point. The brushy trail weaves through a tangle of overgrown plants to a boulder-covered beach. On your left is the outlet for Partington Creek, where you can see it flowing into the ocean.
Now that you have visited all three spurs, it is time to hike back up! As you hike northeast up the main trail to the green gate, the Santa Lucia Mountains roll overhead, where Partington Creek begins over 3,000 feet above. I wonder what Julia Pfeiffer Burns, a homesteader who lived south of McWay Falls with her husband, John Burns, would make of the four square-mile park named after her. Although she passed in 1928, her good friend, Helen Brown, dedicated it to her in 1962. The Browns “enjoyed her plain-spoken manner and big heart,” and according to her niece, Esther Pfeiffer Ewoldsen, Julia “loved people, picnics, dances, and whipped cream cakes.”
The trail is wide, steep, and exposed, descending to three narrow spurs. Each spur leads to a different vista, and the trails can be a little bit brushy. There are no trail signs, but it is not difficult to navigate. Swimming, climbing on rocks, and wading are unsafe due to the strong surf. Bring a jacket for cooler temps and fog.
Two hike-in campsites are available near McWay Falls in Julie Pfeiffer Burns State Park. The sites are very popular. Fee is $30 per night, four people max. Fires are allowed in provided metal fire rings. Dogs are not allowed with the exception of service dogs.
From the main entrance to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, drive south on Highway 1 for 8.9 miles. From the main entrance to Julie Pfeiffer Burns State Park, drive north on Highway 1 for 2.0 miles. Pull over at a sharp bend in the road and park on the wide shoulder. There is parking on both sides of the highway. The hike begins at the green gate on the south side of the highway. There are no trail signs.
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