For a few weeks out of the year, a certain phenomenon occurs on an obscure stretch of coastline on the outskirts of Big Sur. From late November through the month of January, the setting sun bursts through a natural archway in Pfeiffer Rock creating a veritable tunnel of light. Photographers from all over the world have traveled to this hidden beach with hopes of ideal conditions each year. The rarity of the perfect shot is due to the fact that you need a clear sky out to the horizon at sunset, a high tide, and the fact that the best light is only available mid December through mid January.
It has been widely spread around on various sites that the ONLY time to shoot the Keyhole Arch is during the last couple of weeks of December, but that isn’t accurate as sunlight can make it through that arch from November clear through January and possibly a little beyond. Many photographers maintain that the BEST light occurs when the sun has reached its farthest point to the South on December 21st. It’s at that point where the sun is at 240.5 degrees from Pfeiffer Beach, but it’s worth pointing out that sunlight can continue to makes its way into the arch with the sun as far North as 246 degrees and possibly beyond, i.e. from late November all the way into early February. As the sun moves further North, you will definitely begin to lose the long shaft of sunlight up the beach, but the “doorway” will stay lit into February.
If you decide to make a trip to Pfeiffer Beach during late December or early January, here are a few things to keep in mind:
1) Arrive early. It would probably be best to try to be parking at least a couple of hours before sunset as parking is extremely limited. If you are unable to find parking down near the beach, it’s a 2 mile hike from PCH. I think the current parking fee is $10. More information including road conditions is available at: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=570
2) If you have a truck or an SUV with four wheel drive, you will be in much better shape than those of us that don’t. I made it down there twice with my Prius last year, but barely. The road is notoriously un-maintained and washes out regularly with every moderate rainstorm. Creeks cross the roadway in an couple of places and mudslides are common. I believe that the residents that live off of that road prefer to make it look as uninviting as possible, so expect lots of bumps, potholes, and rocks on your way down from PCH.
3) The road leading down to Pfeiffer Beach was designed to be very easy to miss. Before we had google maps, people would simply drive by Sycamore Drive several times without seeing it. As you leave the coast on PCH and head back into the woods of Big Sur, watch for the turn off on the Western side of the road as it will sneak up on you unexpectedly. On my first trip up there a few years ago, I drove past it twice. Cell phone coverage on PCH can be very sketchy, so expect your maps on your phone to be unavailable at times. If you have satellite navigation, you should be fine. Part of the problem is due to the fact that the road simply drops away from PCH making it almost invisible to passing motorists.
4) If it’s a weekend or during Christmas break, expect a crowd of photographers on the beach, especially the hour before sunset. Try to be considerate of one another as it only takes one jerk to cut in front of an entire row of photographers who have been waiting with their tripods set for over an hour to spark in international incident. Between the number of landscape photographers who may be visiting from all across the country in addition to workshops, etc, there could easily be over 50 photographers on top of each other trying to get the perfect angle, so cut each other some slack and don’t forget that it’s always a good idea to take turns whenever possible. It may that the photographer next to you only has that one opportunity for the shot and he or she might never get the opportunity to shoot there again, so once you get the shot, consider letting others move in.
5) Consider using a neutral density filter. The mystical quality of the first shot in this blog post is due to the longer shutter speed I was able to get with a four stop ND filter.
6) Look for alternative views. There are some magnificent views of the arch rock and surrounding beach from above, but you need to be EXTREMELY CAREFUL as that entire section of coastline is VERY UNSTABLE. I just read a couple of days ago about a photographer in San Diego who wasn’t paying attention and got too close to the edge of a bluff which was very similar to the one above Pfeiffer Beach, and he was distracted by his phone and went right over the edge and was killed. You will be tempted to go out to the edge for a better shot, but I would say that anywhere closer than two feet is really gambling with your life. Across to the South you will find a trail that goes WAY up the hillside for several hundred feet. Not sure what the view is like from up there, but it is worth noting that the last time I shot Pfeiffer Arch, we ran into Jeff Mitchum (has showrooms in Los Vegas and Dubai) who was on his way up that trail. He spent about an hour shooting from up there with what I am assuming must have been a very long lens as he was just a speck from where we were standing.
To summarize, there is a good reason that this hard to find location is sought after by so many landscape photographers. If you decide to make the trip, keep an eye on the calendar and the weather, leave with plenty of time as you might need to walk in if the road is washed out or if the very limited amount of parking is gone, and be considerate of other photographers when you arrive. It’s truly a remarkable stretch of coastline that keeps me coming back for another attempt around this time every year.