Inspiring redwoods, a sandy beach, and a trail into Big Sur history are some of the attractions of Limekiln State Park. The park opened in September of 1995 after the state acquired a privately held campground and 716 acres of land in southernmost Big Sur.
I camped at Limekiln State Park recently with my teen-aged son Daniel and his friend Huck and we loved it. The boys strung hammocks in the redwoods near where I pitched a tent. The campground offers 3 environments—redwoods, creekside and beach—each of them a good choice depending on personal preference.
Campsites are Big Sur funky, definitely not of the quality of those grand northern redwood park campgrounds designed by landscape architects. Still, the park has showers and clean restrooms, ultra courteous and helpful camp hosts. The terrific family atmosphere and tranquil redwoods more than make up for any lack of facilities.
It’s a great place to hang for the weekend or take a couple of short day trips. Be sure to check out McWay Falls at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, a short drive north. If you’re looking for a café or a market, the hamlet of Big Sur is located 24 miles north of Limekiln State Park.
The isolated coastal canyon was named for its 1870s/1880s lime kiln operations. Quarried limestone was “kilned” (smelted) in four huge wood-fired kilns. The product–powdered lime–was packed into barrels which were then attached to cable that was strung from the canyon wall down to the beach and some 50 yards out into the Pacific Ocean. Schooners slipped into tiny Rockland Cove, as the landing was known, and loaded the lime. The lime, a primary ingredient in cement, was used to construct buildings in Monterey and San Francisco.
The backwoods industry was hard on the woods. Surrounding redwoods were chopped down to fuel the limekilns and to make barrels to store the lime.
Much of Limekiln Canyon, however, escaped harm from this early industry and, after 125 years or so, nature has healed most of Limekiln Canyon’s wounds. I’m happy to report that Limekiln State Park has recovered nicely from damage caused by the 2008 Chalk Fire.
Today the canyon shelters some of the oldest, healthiest, largest and southernmost redwoods in Monterey County. Some scientists speculate that these redwoods, along with those in other nearby steep canyons, may prove to be a special subspecies or variety of redwood that differs slightly from more northerly stands.
Not everyone thinks these southern redwoods are so unique. In 1984, a private landowner wanted to log the redwoods along the west fork of Limekiln Creek. Thanks to conservationists from around the state and the local Big Sur Land Trust, the trees were spared, and their habitat preserved in the public domain.
Limekiln Canyon is one of the Pacific Coast’s steepest coastal canyons; it rises from sea level to more than 5,000 feet in elevation in about three and a half miles. This abrupt gradient means a tremendous diversity of flora. Botanists have identified twelve different plant communities within the confines of the canyon.
Hiking is limited to a couple short trails leading to the limekilns, to the waterfall and along Hare Creek. Hit the trail by walking through the campground to the first of three bridges and join the signed trail. Amble creekside to the next bridge where you’ll spot a right-forking side trail that leads to a pretty little waterfall.
The path continues among the tall redwoods and within sight of some lovely pools and cascades. After crossing a third bridge, the path ends at the limekilns. Four towering kilns, partially engulfed by the recovering redwood forest, stand as peculiar monuments to a long-gone industry.
Directions: From San Luis Obispo, follow Highway 1 some 90 miles north to the signed turnoff for Limekiln State Park. The park is about 40 miles north of Hearst Castle, some 55 miles south of Carmel, two miles south of Lucia. The turnoff is on the inland side of the highway, just south of the south end of the Limekiln Canyon bridge.