Land of the Purple Sand: Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur, CA

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Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur, California is a hidden gem along the coastline. Between the place where the mountains frame the beauty of the beach and the shore meets the surf, you will find “purple” sand sprinkled beneath your toes.

The purple sand deposits are the product of erosion from the manganese garnet that washes down the mountains when it rains. The beach did not disappoint and was worth the trials to get here. In fact, had there been no purple sand, the beach would have been spectacular, nonetheless.

Continue reading and I will help you anticipate and avoid some of the difficulties I faced in trying to find it, and provide you with more information about the small, but stunning beach that is worth your time to explore off the beaten path of California’s Pacific Coast Highway.

The Best Things to Do at Pfeiffer Beach

Pfeiffer Beach is simply a feast for the senses. Most of the purple sand is to the left. If there has been a recent rainfall, there will be more purple sand than in drier times. The panoramic views of the Pacific are amazing and the waves crashing into the large rock formations ascending from the sea were not only seen and heard, but felt within my very being.

The beach is perfect for shoreline walks, enjoying the magnificent scenery, photography, sunbathing, and playing in the sand. Dogs on leashes are allowed.

You can also go for a swim, but be forewarned that the water is cold and there are no lifeguards. There can be dangerous rip currents, so take a careful look at the water before entering. There are rocks to climb, but they are slick and sharp, so you will want appropriate footwear.

golden hour, ocean, rocks, bird
The golden hour lighting provided a natural sepia filter to the gorgeous shoreline view.

Pfeiffer Beach is also a photographer’s paradise. The keyhole, the second most photographed feature in Big Sur, was striking. As the sun descended in the sky, more and more people gathered with their cameras, seeking the perfect sunset shot. The outcroppings of large rocks and the intense surf make for exciting shots.

Staying at the beach until dark is a must. All the stages of the sun’s evening ritual were gorgeous. The “golden hour” was magical. More and more of the ocean found its way through the keyhole as the rays of the evening sun peeked through the opening. Eventually the sun kissed the water and the sky exploded into all its variegated sunset hues. Predictably, the colors darkened and intensified, until they faded into navy and black. Finally, I slowly trod up the sandy trail through what now seemed to be a haunted forest in the darkness.

Getting to Pfeiffer Beach

You know when they name highways “scenic” they are narrow, curvy, hilly, etc. Central California’s Highway 1 was no exception. The highway winds along the coast with the Pacific Ocean on one side and a mountainside on the other.

Regardless of which direction you approach the beach from, the scenery is gorgeous with many opportunities to pull off and breathe in the wonder of nature. Depending on your GPS, there may be a problem with punching in the right destination due to several other locations with ‘Pfeiffer’ in the name and the weak to nonexistent cell phone service.

Before you embark on your trip, input the GPS coordinates of the intersection: 36.240215, -121.777226 (36° 14′ 24.77″N 121° 46′ 38.01″W).

It is important to note this is a completely different location than Julia Pfeiffer Burns Park or Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. One cannot be accessed from the other. Pfeiffer Beach is part of the Los Padres National Forest.

I was approaching from the north. Eventually the road veered away from the ocean and cut through a forest of redwoods that completely shaded the road from both sides. Approximately one mile after passing the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park entrance, I navigated a hairpin curve to the right onto unmarked Sycamore Canyon Road, which is at mile marker 45.64. Look for a small yellow sign that says, “Narrow Road.” The road was indeed narrow and steep.

If entering from the south, pass Big Sur Village and cross a bridge. Just after a road sign indicating a road to the left, look for a road on the left going sharply downhill with a yellow sign that says, “Narrow Road” and follow it.

After arriving on Sycamore Canyon Road, there is a rock sign that says, “Pfeiffer Beach” that greets the visitors like a sigh of relief. However, the real entrance is still about two miles away down an unpaved one-lane road with two-way traffic. The exiting cars have the right of way, so while entering, it is necessary to pull off periodically and let them pass. There will be no land speed records to set!

The beach is open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. and has extremely limited parking, which is a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that the beach is not crowded at any time, but the parking fills up quickly, especially on weekends, when it can fill within an hour of opening during the tourist season (May – October). On weekdays, arriving by 11:00 a.m. for a lunch time picnic and a relaxing afternoon, should secure a parking spot. Be sure to check conditions before you go as well.

ocean, waves, keyhole
The keyhole is the second most photographed feature in Big Sur.

What should you bring?

You will need your own personal supplies like food and water. The nearest place to obtain supplies is about five miles away at Big Sur Valley Area. You need to bring your own shade if this is important to enjoying the beach. Natural shade is limited to nonexistent. Dress in layers, especially if staying through the beautiful sunset.

The temperatures on the beach drop dramatically. The day I went it was in the upper 70s when I arrived and in the 50s when I left. It can be windy on the beach, so plan for this as well.

Is this beach worth visiting? My answer is a resounding yes. As I left with the inky ocean in my rear view mirror, I knew I wanted to return someday.

About the Author: Addie Gaines is editor of The Missouri Elementary Principal magazine and a retired educator who enjoys traveling to beautiful locations. Read more about her adventures at Retired Girl in a Beautiful World.

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