Big Sur River past Big Sur


Stretch: Pfeiffer State Park to the Pacific Ocean
Difficulty: class II+ (one III) with optional III-IV and ocean surfing
Distance: 6 or 7.4 miles, plus possible hiking in and out
Flows: kayaks 400 - 1200 cfs, IK minimum 300
Gauge: flow measured near put-in (USGS site)
Gradient: 40 fpm average
Put-in: Pfeiffer State Park campground, 240' or 280'
Take-out: Andrew Molera State Beach, 0' or higher
Shuttle: 6 miles (15 minutes) one-way
Maps: Delorme Southern California, AAA Monterey Bay Region, Topo
Season: winter and spring, after heavy rain in its 46 sq. mi. drainage
Agency: state, private, state
Notes: © 2006 Bill Tuthill, CreeksYahoo, thanks to Chris Ford

This is an excellent rainy-season run even for boaters who normally shun class II. It is popular with kayakers living around Monterey, so brush and logjams are kept relatively clean. Even after big rainstorms, the water remains clear, a refreshing change after the San Lorenzo river. Most boaters feel it's less fun below 300 cfs, and many decide not to run it above 1200 cfs, when it starts to get muddy with floating trees.

Hazard! Log jams in April 2006: four total, three new.

You can easily carry boats a short distance upstream to run a class III rapid with class II+ runout, or go slightly further upstream to run a class IV rapid. While you're there, you can appreciate the class V gorge above. If you don't mind hiking a mile with your boat at end of trip, you can continue all the way to the ocean.

The scenery is very good, although most of the way the river flows thru campgrounds and past semi-permanent habitations. The scenic highlights are the gorge and falls at the beginning, some beautiful waterfalls along the way, and coming upon the ocean at the end (if you elect to hike out). This might be the most beautiful river to ocean transition in California: it's far superior even to the Carmel river.

Class V gorge is often blocked by logs, and portaging along the steep poison-oak-laced cliffs might be impossible in places. It would be feasible to start boating 4 miles upstream at Ventana camp, or 8 miles upstream at Sykes hotspring, despite much lumber in the water, if not for this no-exit gorge.
Big Sur River CA
Tail end of the Big Sur gorge
Big Sur River CA
Tough routes thru the final class V
From the end of trail, you can see a class IV rapid. If you want to run it, paddle your boat upstream, then drag or carry it over rocks on river left.
Big Sur River CA
Starting class IV on river left
Big Sur River CA
Andy lines up for the steepest drop
Big Sur River CA
Andy works up some speed for the drop
Big Sur River CA
Bill swims after flip on underwater horn rock
Rock Island, class III
It is strongly recommended that you hike your boats upstream .2 mile from the campground to run this bouldery class III rapid. The left side is technical, while the right side has big waves ending in a rocky left turn.
Big Sur River CA
Chris lays down mystery boof move #2
Vehicle bridge (gated) from north to south side of river. The satellite-transmitting flow gauge is on the north bank. Easy rapids but swift current even at moderate flows.
The river splits around an island. At low flows the left channel has more water, and the deepest channel exits near the island.
Bridge inside Pfeiffer State Park. This is the one you cross if dropping off gear at the uppermost campground.
Highway 1 bridge. Afterwards the river bends gradually right and curves around a gravel bar back towards the road.
Class II+ rapid.
After a surf spot and blind left corner, the river flows straight over shallows with big rocks in the center. This is the hardest naturally-occurring rapid below the mile-0 bridge with flow gauge.
Cement Falls, scout right
Low-water crossing from highway 1 to a summer-only private campground creates a virtual class III rapid. Gets very shallow below 300 cfs. Above 800 cfs, a secondary reversal develops after the falls.
Big Sur River CA
Wide angle view of entire structure
Big Sur River CA
Chris lines up on a wood-plank for the tongue
River Inn and Restaurant on the right bank. Many people to wave at. Below this point, the river feels more remote and there are usually more down logs to portage or jump.
Excellent surf spot at low and moderate flows.
The river splits around an island. The right channel has more water but might be choked by branches or horizontal trees.
Take-out if you parked at Andrew Molera state park.
This take-out is easy to miss. Swift water and rapid just below. After this point, kayaker maintenance worsens: eye-level brush hazards increase, although there are fewer down logs.
Big Sur River CA
View of Pico Blanco above boulder island
Big Sur River CA
Final eddy-landing and flow into the ocean
Pacific Ocean. A trail leads from the right bank (before a cliff) along the river, then forks off at an old cabin towards highway 1.
Big Sur River CA
Andy gets in sync with a wave just breaking
Big Sur River CA
He goes over the top and keeps it lined up

The Little Sur river is also runnable from the campsite below Bottcher's Gap to Old Coast Road: class IV in a tight gorge with many possible logjams. Flow ranges seem similar to the lower range of recommended Big Sur flows. Park at the Bottcher's Gap trailhead, at the end of Palo Colorado Road, and carry your boats about 2 miles downhill to the river campsite. A recent report indicated 8 or 9 portages due to timber and some big drops. The landowner near take-out is very hostile, so keep a low profile. Boaters have been threatened with arrest and ticketed for trespassing at the Highway 1 bridge, and access points are lined with razor wire.

Driving and Shuttle Directions

To reach take-out, take highway 1 south from Carmel. After you pass the lighthouse and naval station at Big Sur point, drive 2.2 miles to a sandy parking area and trailhead on the right. This is a free parking spot if you elect to hike out from the ocean. If you decide not to carry boats a mile uphill, proceed .3 mile to the downhill entrance into Andrew Molera Park (fee area). They have a parking area next to the river. Before doing your shuttle, look at this take-out spot, which is easy to miss when on the river.

To reach put-in, return to highway 1. Drive south about 4.5 miles, past the village of Big Sur. Turn left into the entrance of Pfeiffer Big Sur park (fee $8 in 2006). If you prefer carrying boats to extra driving, stay on the left side (river right) and park at the furthest upstream parking lot near a gate. If you don't mind extra driving, cross the river to the right side (river left) and drive upstream to the furthest campground, choosing the highest number campsite at each fork in the road. Drop off gear and people, and have driver(s) return to the aforementioned parking lot near a gate on river right. Driver(s) then walk upstream across the bridge to the drop-off spot. From there you can hike a short distance upstream to run some class III-IV.


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