Take a Tunnel Back in Time with the Partington Cove Trail in Big Sur

I often think when looking out on the Big Sur Coast that I am looking through a window to another dimension, and the Partington Cove Trail is no exception. The trail twists through a small redwood grove to emerge to a 60-foot tunnel built in the 1880's to cut through the cliffs for access to the east cove and Partington Landing, an old port where Big Sur homesteaders would unload their valuable timber for transport up the Coast. Often as I walk through this trippy tunnel I feel as though I am walking back in time. The tunnel emerges to pristine coastline, often packed with otters, dolphins, or whales, due to its proximity to the Davison Seamount.

While most people are hitting up Garrapata Beach, Pheiffer Big Sur State Park, or McWay falls, very few stop at Partington Cove, making it surprisingly uncrowded for such a short trail. The combination of easy access, Big Sur history, and quintessential California coast iconic species makes Partington Cove

View from Hwy 1 of Partington Cove.



  • Hiking distance: 1.3 mile - out and back

  • Difficulty: Easy to moderate

  • Elevation gain: 280 feet

  • Driving Directions: Going southbound on Hwy 1 the pullouts are 8.5 miles south of the Big Sur Ranger Station, or 27 miles south of Carmel. For northbound travelers, the pullout for parking is 2 miles north of the signed entrance of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park entrance (entrance to McWay falls)

  • Access/Parking: The trailhead is located on the inside of a bend in Hwy 1, park here along the road (free parking). There are two trailheads located here so there are always at least a couple cars parked, the west side trailhead is Partington Cove, the east side of Hwy 1 is the trailhead for the Tanbark trail.


Trail Notes

The trail is located in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, the trailhead starts at a closed gate and steep dirt road, head west past the gate and you are on the trail. The top of the trailhead already starts to offer awesome views of the Big Sur coast. I think the steep, exposed trail probably scares some people away, thinking its not worth the trek back up, but do not fear! Although the trail is steep, the descent is short, only about 0.3 miles.

Partington Cove trailhead. Don't let the steep access road fool you, this trail is quite easy and well worth the hike back up.

This funky little dirt road weaves down the north Partington Canyon wall until it reaches Partington Creek. There are a couple of turns here so pay attention, however if you take a wrong turn you won't go far as they all dead end. There will be a small kiosk, at this point you can continue on the Partington Cove Trail by taking a right or take a small side trail up Partington Creek to the left. Take a right and there will be a short bridge to the left, this bridge takes you to the tunnel, if you keep going straight this will take you to another beach on the south cove.

Trail down to Partington Creek, you can see the bridge crossing in the left hand corner.

Once crossing the bridge over Partington Creek you will be in a small Redwood grove, enjoy the light fog layer that always sits in this grove, nourishing these ancient behemoths. Redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) occupy only a narrow portion of the coast from Oregon to Big Sur, and even though these are most definitely second growth trees (as most coast Redwoods have been logged at some point) you still feel as though you are among living fossils or just stepped out of Jurassic park.

A few steps into the forest you will start to see the small tunnel John Partington built in 1880 to ship tanbark harvested from the upper canyon. The bark was moved through the tunnel by mules. Luckily, the Big Sur coast remained largely untouched by lumber harvest due to its inaccessibility and cost of transport. However, Partington Cove was known as one of the few coves where ships could anchor due to the relatively deep and calm waters here. The Santa Lucia range in Big Sur was an important source of tanbark for the leather-tanning industry in the late 1800's. However, by the early 1900's, any accessible tanbark was essentially exhausted. But, in its hay-day Partington Cove would employee as much as 40 men, and produced 10,000 chords of tanbark. It is also rumored that during prohibition this cove was known as a popular spot for bootleggers. There is definitely a lot of history here, and walking through the tunnel you can't help but think what the coast must of looked like back then.

As you emerge out of the tunnel you will immediately see Partington Cove, walk down the granite rocks but be careful for old pilings or remnants of the old loading docks. There is a nice bench here, take a minute and spend some time here. If you wait a little while you are likely to spot an Southern California sea otter, pacific white sided dolphin, or even a humpack whale, who like to feed in these calm abundant waters. About 65 miles directly offshore is the Davidson Seamount, which the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary has coined the "oasis of the deep" due to all the cool marine life this large underwater mountain attracts. Either way sitting on a bench, watching the water, and reminiscing on the past is a good afternoon in my book.

Can you spot the dolphins off Partington Cove.

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