Molera's most enjoyable loop hike climbs a partially-wooded ridge, offering some nice views of the Big Sur Valley. The trail then descends through chaparral, offering sweeping coastal views before running along seaside bluffs and reaching two beaches. This is a popular loop and gradients are reasonable throughout, but the Hidden and Panorama trails are often overgrown with chaparral, with an occasional sprig of poison oak hiding among all the other plants. Wear heavyweight pants (like jeans) to protect against the poison oak.
In wintertime, there are no bridges across the Big Sur River and the loop may be inaccessible.
Starting from the parking lot, take the Beach Trail, cross the Big Sur River on a seasonal footbridge, and then turn left at the first trail intersection. Jog left at the dirt road to access the River Trail, which runs along the edge of a grassy meadow. The Santa Lucia Mountains with their patches of redwoods and multi-hued grassy tops rise dramatically above the meadow. The trail is liberally strewn with reeking horse manure in the summer, but fortunately it's only for half a mile.
Turn right at the Hidden Trail. The beginning of this trail is often overgrown with poison oak, but if you can get past the first hundred yards the rest of the trail will probably be ok. Otherwise, take the Creamery Meadow Trail to the bottom of the Ridge Trail. As this trail climbs it offers some great views of the Big Sur Valley.
The trail ends at the Ridge Trail. Turn left onto this trail, which initially descends and then climbs along a ridge through open coastal scrub high above the green and densely-wooded Big Sur Valley. Traffic noise drifts up from Highway 1.
The trail soon enters an oak grove, then, continuing its incessant climb, passes through a small redwood grove. The cool deep shade of the redwoods seems out of place after all the chaparral. Despite a few large trees it seems unlikely that this grove is old growth. The trail soon leaves the redwoods and breaks out into the sunshine, offering the first views of the ocean.
At the highest point in the loop is a bench under a large tree. If the bench isn't occupied, this is an ideal place for lunch. The bench has a dramatic view north of coastal ranchland and Point Sur. Although it's only at an altitude of 1000 feet it feels much higher because the landscape is so low and flat. To the east, the rocky peak of Pico Blanco rises above the other mountains like a mini-Matterhorn.
From the bench, the Panorama Trail begins a steep descent, at first running alongside a dirt driveway. A short spur leads to perhaps the best viewpoint of the entire hike, with coastal views to the north and south, although the views to the south are somewhat spoiled by a housing development.
The trail descends steeply through dense chaparral that sometimes forms high walls on both sides of the trail. Wildflowers cover the chaparral in spring and early summer. This part of the trail can get somewhat overgrown, and little sprigs of poison oak lurk among the chaparral. At one point, an unofficial side trail leads into what appears to be a thicket of shrubs but turns out to be a dense grove of really tiny redwood trees.
The trail bottoms out in a gully, then climbs slightly to an intersection with the Spring Trail. This trail descends through the same gully to a small clean beach sheltered by bluffs, although to get to the beach you'll have to scramble over a huge pile of driftwood. This beach is the nicest in the park and is a popular destination, even though it's a long walk.
After passing the side trail to the beach, the main trail becomes much wider and is no longer overgrown. Now named the Bluffs Trail, it undulates along the coastline before flattening out. It's pretty far from the bluff so it doesn't offer any really great ocean views. Continue straight at the next two intersections to reach a third intersection (with no signs) at which the main track curves off to the right and a lesser-used trail continues straight ahead. Go straight to stay on the Bluffs Trail.
The trail descends to a beach. There are a lot more stones and driftwood at this beach, and the site is more open and windy than the little cove on the Spring Trail.
Turn right onto the Beach Trail, which is heavily-used by horses. Again, you'll come to an intersection at which the wide sandy road curves to the right, and a more narrow, unmarked trail leads off to the left. Take the trail, which doesn't get any horse traffic. It runs through a large grassy meadow dotted with trees, chaparral, and poison oak thickets. The mountains rise up in front of you as you approach the parking lot.
© 2006, 2013 David Baselt