Eden on the trail to Big Canyon Falls. Ryan McKay (CC)
January is a magical time along the Central Coast, a time when the lumpy hills of the Coast Range turn from brown to emerald overnight and when streams swollen with rain morph from gentle trickles into raging torrents. Raging torrents produce waterfalls, of course, and three of the most accessible are produced by Big Creek as it flows through Big Canyon in the Santa Lucia Wilderness just north of Lopez Lake Recreation Area and 10 miles east of Arroyo Grande in San Luis Obispo County.
The Big Falls Trail, just three miles round-trip, is a rewarding adventure, but just getting there can be a bigger one. The dirt access road crosses Lopez Creek, into which Big Creek feeds, a dozen times en route to the trailhead, and a high-clearance vehicle is mandatory if you plan on going just after a heavy rain.
Once on the path, you’ll be treated after about a mile to the sight of 40-foot Lower Big Falls and the similar Middle Big Falls. The trail meanders up the canyon through forested hillsides that in spring are bright with wildflowers and in another half-mile reaches 80-foot Big Falls, which flows year-round and is spectacular during the rainy season. The pool at its base is a popular swimming hole come summer, but the path can be muddy and treacherous at this time of year. Be sure to have an old towel or two in the car to wipe your pup’s paws before heading back to civilization!