Sycamore Creek, Pfeiffer Beach

Sycamore Creek, Pfeiffer Beach

by | Jul 27, 2022

Sycamore Creek flows generally west for about 2 miles (3.2 km) from the crest of Pfeiffer Ridge in the Los Padres National Forest through Sycamore Canyon to Pfeiffer Beach on the Big Sur coast, about 26 miles (42 km) south of Monterey and 21 miles (34 km) northwest of Lucia, California. The creek is named after the western sycamore that is native to California where it grows in riparian areas. Los Padres National Forest includes most of the mountainous land along the California coast from Monterey in the north to Ventura in the south and from sea level to 8,847 feet (2,697 m). The Big Sur coast has no formal boundaries but is locally considered to be the area between Malpaso Creek, 4.5 miles (7.2 km) south of the Carmel River as the northern border, and San Carpóforo Creek in San Luis Obispo County is generally accepted to be the southern border. Pfeiffer Beach and several other geographic features in the area are named after the Pfeiffer family who were the first Euro-American settlers along this section of the Big Sur coast in 1883. The bedrock of this portion of the coast is represented by a narrow band of Mesozoic terrane called the Franciscan Complex which is composed mostly of greywacke sandstone and greenstone. The terrane is bounded to the west by the San Andreas Fault and to the east by the Salinian terrane represented by highly fractured and deeply weathered metasediments, especially biotite schist and gneiss, intruded by granitic rocks such as quartz diorite and granodiorite that form the Santa Lucia Mountains. The bottom of Sycamore Canyon is covered by alluvial sediments that eroded from the Franciscan bedrock and the fine particles were winnowed by water to eventually reach the sea creating Pfeiffer Beach.

Three distinct coastal tribes with different languages, religious beliefs, and cultures inhabited the Big Sur coast before contact with Europeans. The Ohlone occupied the coast from present-day San Francisco in the north to Point Sur in the south. The Esselen lived from Point Sur south to Big Creek and inland to the upper Carmel River and Arroyo Seco watersheds. The Salinan inhabited the area from Big Creek to San Carpóforo Creek. The three tribes were mainly hunter-gatherers relying on a diet of acorns and deer from the mountains, and fish from the ocean and rivers. Spanish expeditions in Alta California started with Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542, and continued with Sebastian Vizcaino’s visits to Carmel and Monterey in 1602, Big Sur remained protected from the Spanish until Gaspar de Portola’s second expedition in 1770. It was then that Father Junipero Serra established Mission San Carlos at present-day Carmel River, along with two other missions east of the Santa Lucia Range, Mission San Antonio in the San Antonio Valley and Mission Soledad in the Salinas Valley. The Spanish brought Ohlones, Esselens, and Salinans into the missions and drastically altered native life in the region. The early Spanish referred to the unexplored wilderness along the coast south of Monterey as ‘el pais grande del sur’ meaning ‘the big country of the south’. When Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, California became a Mexican state, with Monterey remaining the state capital. The vast mission lands were secularized and divided into private ranchos. The rugged terrain and isolation of Big Sur proved unattractive for the cattle-oriented economies of Mexican land grants. However, two were granted on the Big Sur coast between Carmel in the north and Cooper Point in the south, the southern grant was named Rancho El Sur and the northern grant was called Rancho San Jose y Sur Chiquito. After Mexico ceded Alta California to the United States in 1848 and California became a state in 1850, the Homesteading Act of 1862 opened large tracts of public land for settlement in Big Sur. One of the earliest Euro-American families to settle the region was the Pfeiffers who arrived in 1869 and established a residence in Sycamore Canyon, directly south of Rancho El Sur.

In October 1869, Barbara and Michael Pfeiffer with their four children boarded the Northern Pacific Transportation Company sidewheeler steamboat Sierra Nevada at the Folsom Street wharf in San Francisco. On the evening of the second day, they arrived at the wharf in Monterey Bay and proceeded on foot for 40 miles (64 km) over four days to a clearing on the crest of the ridge overlooking Sycamore Canyon where they camped for several nights. They found good water and grass for cattle and horses, so they decided to stay for the winter, and eventually filed for a homestead of 160 acres (65 ha) in 1883, and another land patent of 160 acres (65 ha) in 1889. Their sons John and Charles also filed for land patents. In 1930, John Pfeiffer had the opportunity to sell this land to a Los Angeles developer who wanted to build a subdivision on the land. Instead, Pfeiffer sold 700 acres (283 ha) to the state of California in 1933 which became Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Pfeiffer Beach is south of Big Sur Station on Highway 1 and can be accessed by the Sycamore Canyon Road that leads 2 miles (3.2 km) downhill to the shore and the mouth of Sycamore Canyon Creek. The northern portion of the beach is known for pink-purple sand formed from metamorphic manganese-garnet minerals, such as Almandine and Spessartine, washed down from the Santa Lucia Mountains via Sycamore Canyon Creek. The relatively heavy mineral sands collect on the surface and are generally most noticeable after rainstorms. Read more here and here. Explore more of Pfeiffer Beach and Sycamore Creek here:

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About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2021 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins (University of Reading). Click here for more information about the #warmingstripes.

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