The many-splendored Tan Bark Trail in Big Sur provides relief and inspiration for the world-weary.
Thursday, June 14, 2001
Within 50 yards of the parking spot near the trailhead (at Partington Canyon, just south of milepost 38 on Highway 1), the trail enters a wonderland, suddenly shifting from the open into a dense redwood forest and then to a bridge over a frothy, tumbling creek. The canyon, only a couple dozen yards wide in spots, is thickly wooded and ambient light is muted green and burnt sienna, and everything is soft and damp and cool. The creek cascades over rocks and fallen logs in a series of rapids and waterfalls; every inch is dynamic and fascinating, making it hard to watch the trail as it climbs along the side of this musical flow of white water.
That first half mile is as beautiful as any place I''ve ever been. Once you''ve walked it, whenever someone mentions "redwood canyon," the Tan Bark image will fill your mind like a huge holographic photo. One could spend an entire day along that short stretch.
About a half mile in, the trail abruptly turns away from the creek and starts to climb up the canyon wall. The trail is wet from the tiny feeder creeks that trickle down the canyon. Then up on the high edge of the canyon the forest becomes mixed and sunny, before it turns again into redwood forest and climbs high above the south fork of the creek. The trail runs along the steep side of the canyon, and the water music whispers from below.
Near the top of the canyon, the trail crosses the creek near the headwaters, where it is a narrow and gentle trickle. There, along the creek, at the junction of two branches of the south fork, in a grove of majestic old redwoods, there used to be a bench, made of split redwood logs. Earlier this year, the bench was gone but on my last visit, I found a makeshift replacement had been set in place. Common courtesy among hikers was that if you''d enjoyed the bench for a time, you''d move on when the next person came along. I guess that tradition will continue.
This is a solitary place, a place so soothing and serene, so bucolic and peaceful that it can do for the psyche what weekly massages and therapy can never do. It''s a place that can give the soul a gentle shower and a loving caress. You need only spend a quarter hour there to be renewed. If you are an artist, you return from the bench ready to paint a picture, compose a song, write a poem, or pen a novel. If you are a lover, you return ready to make a full commitment. On the other hand, if you are a corporate raider, you may return ready to make amends to your fellow man.
Those in a hurry can return along the same path, but continuing a few minutes longer rewards the hiker with another magical spot.
The trail continues upward for perhaps another 20 minutes, out of the shaded redwood groves, into the mixed forest. Then, shortly after the trail turns downhill, it merges with a fire road. A right turn leads steeply down to Highway 1, and a half mile walk along the highway back to the car.
Almost everyone, however, goes left for a quarter-mile detour to the old Tin House. Different stories surround the building. One tale has it that the Tin House was built by a friend of F.D.R., during World War II, as a place where the President could get away from it all. F.D.R. never stayed there, and the place, closed up, now belongs to the State.
While the house itself is interesting, the real reward to the hiker hides behind the house. There is a beautiful meadow that slopes down and then drops sharply away to the sea. This is the place to pull off the day pack, unpack the lunch, and enjoy a sweeping view of the best of the Big Sur coast.
If you are taking this hike in the spring, the lower section of the fire road, just above the highway, will be ablaze in wildflowers. If you go in the heat of late spring or early summer, bring insect repellent. The flies and gnats can be fierce. The upside is that the warm weather brings out thousands of butterflies that can become so thick that the air in front of you appears to dance.
The hiker on a tight schedule can make the loop in three hours. For a leisurely walk with lunch, allow four or five.
M.L. Fischer is a Monterey Bay writer whose books include Shattering the Crystal Face of God and Cosmic Coastal Chronicle.