A few weeks each winter, a natural phenomenon lines up sunset through Keyhole Arch on Big Sur’s Pfeiffer Beach. If you’re in Monterey, California in December or January, it’s a must-see. This post shares peak dates, photos, and tips for experiencing this ethereal “Light Show.” (Updated November 11, 2020.)
As with so much, things are slightly different for 2020. The very good news is that Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is once again available for day use. It was previously closed twice this summer and fall, but has reopened following the latest closure due to the Dolan Fire. (Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park’s campground will be closed until November 16, 2020 for tree surveying.)
In addition to that, California State Parks has some new rules to facilitate compliance with state and local public health ordinances. It’s important for visitors to practice physical distancing, avoid congregating with people outside their immediate household, and wear face masks when physical distancing is not possible. This may seem irrelevant at a beach, but it definitely comes into play with the Keyhole Arch Light Show, as photographers jockey for the best positioning and can be practically on top of one another at times…
The light comes through the Keyhole Arch perfectly (or close to it) during this time of year due to the angle of the sunset, which also explains why there aren’t fixed dates for the event. As the angle of the sun gradually changes from day to day, the best days for the “Light Show” are right in the middle of the date range, as that’s when the sun is directly in the middle of the arch at sunset. The earlier and later dates in the range will see the weaker quality of light.
If you’ve never been or are unfamiliar with Big Sur, it’s an area of the Central California Coast located off of the Pacific Coast Highway and encompassing a fairly large chunk of land roughly between Carmel and San Simeon. There are no official boundaries of Big Sur, so don’t expect to see “Now Entering” and “Now Leaving” signs when you arrive. Pfeiffer Beach is located near Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, which is off the Pacific Coast Highway about 37 miles south of Carmel.
The beach itself is down a narrow, one-lane dirt road. If you have an overly large or overly small vehicle, you might have issues navigating this road, especially if your vehicle is large and there’s oncoming traffic. At the end of the road is a paved parking area with restrooms, and from there, the beach itself is a leisurely 10 minute walk. You can camp at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, albeit not on this particular beach.
There are numerous California State Parks in the area, plenty of public beaches, and many other cool points of interest like McWay Falls and Bixby Bridge, among other things. See our Guide to Pacific Coast Highway for road trip tips along this iconic stretch (and beyond).
As for the best time to experience the Keyhole Arch “Light Show,” we think mid-January is about the sweet spot in terms of the best light. Between Christmas and New Year’s, a lot of people tend to come to this beach because that’s either when they’re off from work or traveling to California, so we’d recommend avoiding those dates if you can. If you want lower crowds, aim for around January 2-10, as that’s typically ever-so-slightly before the peak of the lighting, but after the holiday rush.
Aside from this particular time of year, Pfeiffer Beach is a popular spot and one of California’s many impressive beaches along the Pacific Coast Highway that is known for its purple sand. That purple sand coupled with the rays of light shining through the Keyhole Arch at sunset almost make it feel like something out of science fiction (or perhaps that sunlight is tractor beam aimed at reclaiming E.T.’s precious purple sand that his planet lost), and it’s really a sight to behold.
If you’re thinking of paying Big Sur a visit during the Winter Solstice–and I highly recommend doing so even if you’re not a photographer–be prepared to encounter tons of other people. Photos of the Keyhole Arch rays of light have made it into mainstream media, and it has become something of a destination event.
Thankfully, it’s still fairly under-the-radar, and does not draw nearly the crowds of the Firefall at Yosemite National Park, which occurs each February. That event blew up due to extensive coverage in the mainstream media over the last 5 years, and we fear the same could happen with Keyhole Arch–and this quiet beach does not have the capacity or infrastructure to support those colossal crowds. (So let’s try to keep this a relative secret.)
On the night I visited, the small, dirt road leading down to Pfeiffer Beach was closed, which meant a bit of a hike down to the beach for most visitors that probably deterred a lot of people, but there were still probably 10 other photographers on the beach right at sunset, all jockeying for a position in the path of the Keyhole Arch’s light, which is quite narrow.
Normally, people would jockey for position nearer to the rocks in the water for reflections of the light, but the tide was low this particular evening. If you visit on a weekend evening when this road is open, don’t be surprised if you’re fighting for positioning with 40 or more others, as reports I’ve heard from others indicate it’s a very popular occurrence.
Because of this, one thing you might consider doing is foregoing the tripod or trying for an alternative location–or both. My approach for the photos here was to start out by hiking up a hill directly behind Pfeiffer Beach (and the Arch) and taking photos from up there. This spot offered a great view, and was totally uncrowded. Unfortunately, there’s no trail leading up, so you sort of just have to scramble up, which isn’t too difficult if you’re reasonably fit.
The upside to this spot is that it’s somewhat unique and going to be a lot more peaceful and serene of an experience. While the phenomenon of the light shining through is truly majestical, there’s nothing majestic about seeing it elbow-to-elbow with 20 of your closest friends. If you’re going to Pfeiffer Beach simply to experience this event, the higher elevation is somewhat compelling in this regard.
The downside to this spot is that it doesn’t have quite the same affect in that you aren’t actually seeing the light head-on as it comes through Keyhole Arch at sunset, and you’re somewhat limited in the kind of shot you can try from up here. The perspective up high is unique, to be sure, but I don’t think it’s as good as a lower angle.
What I did, and would recommend doing, is starting at the higher elevation, and then (safely) rushing down about 10-15 minutes before the actual sunset time. Again, this requires a bit of fitness, as it’s not easy running down a trail-less hill with a camera bag in a quick and safe manner.
This is what I did, taking my tripod-mounted shots from the hillside and then shooting handheld from the beach itself with two cameras (one with a telephoto lens, the other with a wide angle/fisheye). The advantage to shooting handheld is that you aren’t constrained to one fixed spot as you would be with a tripod, and aren’t disadvantaged if another photographer moves in your way, which is likely to happen.
You can move around more nimbly, and other photographers aren’t as likely to be irritated if you politely ask if you can quickly swoop in front of them for a shot, and then quickly run out of their way. Since you’re probably only going to have one crack at photographing this natural phenomenon, this also means walking away with a greater variety of shots.
The downsides to this are primarily in that shooting without a tripod is sloppier, doesn’t require you to stop and think about composition as much, and prevents you from going for a longer exposure to capture wispiness in the water. It all depends upon what kind of photographer you are, and how many keepers you expect.
I’m a quantity over quality kind of guy, so I don’t mind if I have to raise my ISO a little or have slight imperfections in my shots. I enjoy the thrill of the fast-paced “chase” that moving around gives me, and in this case, I think having a tripod can be inhibiting (and potentially stressful if a lot of other photogs are there, getting in your way, and you can’t adjust or quickly move around them when tethered to a tripod). That’s just me, though, and I know everyone is different.
Overall, I highly recommend a visit to the Big Sur region if you’re taking a California road trip, and a stop at Pfeiffer Beach is a must, regardless of whether you can make it out during the Winter Solstice. The beach is beautiful and photogenic any time of year, and well worth the drive down to the parking area. I think this whole area has a lot to offer that’s unique from other areas of California, and I plan on revisiting Big Sur in the near future!
These photos were all taken by me with my Nikon D810 + Rokinon 12mm f/2.8 Fisheye lens, and my Nikon D750 + Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR lens. I used my MeFoto travel tripod for the first photo, and shot the rest handheld.
If you’re planning a California road trip or vacation, check out my California category of posts for other things to see and do! To get some more Big Sur photo ideas or to purchase prints, check out my Big Sur Photo Gallery. For photo licensing inquires, please contact me.
Have you been to Pfeiffer Beach or any other part of Big Sur? What do you think of it? Have a favorite spot? Have you photographed the Keyhole Arch “Light Show”? Interested in shooting it? Have any questions or other thoughts? Do you agree or disagree with our assessment? Any questions? Hearing your feedback—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!