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Routes: Big Sur

El pais del sur grande—the country of the big south—as the Spanish settlers called it, is in many ways as untamed and rugged as when it was their unexplored, unmapped wilderness south of Monterey.

Big Sur Coast looking south near Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, image
Photo caption
The mountains plunge into the Pacific along the Big Sur Coast south of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.

Driving south on Highway One, I’m never sure when I’ve officially entered Big Sur, though the map says it starts somewhere past Carmel. It’s farther south, that I know I’m there, near Garrapata State Park, where the marine light comes in tidal-wave wallops; the scarlet ice plant vies for center stage; the land begins to wriggle into the wild, chunky Santa Lucia Mountains. Soberanes Point announces the start of many coastal bluffs and vertical Pacific overhangs that look ready and willing to swallow any land developer with impure thoughts.

Welcome to the West Coast’s most coveted stretch of waterfront real estate, where land and water conspire to keep civilization to a minimum and look-but-don’t-touch beauty at its max.

Genteel Monterey and Carmel, though bordering Big Sur to the north, feel epochs away. A rural community, whose head count of 1,000 has not budged much in years, represents the biggest swell of humans along this swiveling axis. Big Sur, the town, is confined to a six-mile length of the Big Sur River on the broadest plot of land that might be called gentle on this coast.

Greater Big Sur, the storied place, the myth, shares its timeline with the mercurial geology of the next seventy-some miles, which elude anything close to a straight thoroughfare.

"Even the rocks are seductive and hypnotic,"
—noted former Big Sur resident Henry Miller.

Big Sur’s swath of the two-lane highway, bonded with the rest of Highway 1 in 1937, is kept more or less cohesive by nearly 30 bridge spans over as many canyons, stream-cut valleys, and creek mouths. But this road is highly perishable. Winter landslides may close it for weeks—for more than a year in the early ’80s, when Big Sur became unreachable at either end by car.

Its short shelf-life keeps Caltrans busy this June week during my visit. Workers patch it with nothing short of a viaduct along a perforated stretch, the work of the January ‘97 deluge.

But travel is less anxiety-producing along Highway 1 than it must have been along the extant though still unpaved old Coast Road. I envy the cyclists who pedal the curvy highway balanced with gear-filled panniers. They’re best seated to see and hear the non-stop collisions between slick, guano-stained rocks and waves shredding to spindrift.

Streaming through Big Sur country in slow traffic pacelines, most tourists are unaware of the westward tilt. The highway actually channels along a huge leaning precipice, rising up to 1,000 feet above ferocious surf.

Braking for the endless photo op is tolerated—and catered to with a preponderance of safe turnouts. Drivers are charmed out of vehicles by a primordial pull to continent’s edge. Is it the land or the sea moving ? Or both? One may well ask, in fits of euphoria, a prevailing state here.

But this scenery is too heroic for the simple shutter-snap. Just try to frame its jumble of bluffs, kelp forests, tidepools, marine terraces, bobbing sea mammals, redwood sentinels, granitic ramparts, bristling grasslands...

And its fog. Up to 200 feet deep, the big, thick mist choreographs itself offshore, advances with the precision of a chorus-line, and splashes chaotic as loosed down up the beast-like contours of oak and buckeye foothills.

Literary license
"Whoever settles here hopes that he will be the last invader," wrote Henry Miller in Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch. Miller was one of many writers who couldn’t resist waxing passionate about Big Sur with its "towering wall of fog advancing from the date line with a knife-blue crest." Having lived in Big Sur from the late ’40s through the early ‘60s, Miller earned his right to rhapsodize.

Others of us have earned our literary license through sweat equity. Even as I take my place in the tourist motorcade, I can see the etching of the backcountry trail network over a grassy haunch of the Santa Lucias. My feet know it well.

"Good light, but she no work...the fog, she creep in just the same," Big Sur local, quoted in 1939 WPA guidebook, California.

Although on this trip I will do only day hikes and more driving than befits a place of natural beauty, I have over many past seasons crisscrossed the Ventana Wilderness. Penetrating deep into its interior scorched wilds, I’ve stepped over a quietly sunning rattlesnake or two, breathed in baking sage and laurel, admired wild blooms of woolly blue curls, sought the hidden gushing waters, discovered sandstone arches and Indian caves.

Like many others, I’ve carried my backpack through scrubby yerba santas and bush monkeyflower, bruising my calves under the strain of harsh terrain; pitched my tent in peaceful Pine Valley; soaked in well-known, but hard-to-find, Sykes hot springs; looked across canyon-riven terrain at the 4,833-foot Ventana Double Cone. Legend holds the two cone peaks were once connected by a land bridge, forming a window, the Spanish meaning of ventana.

Easier day hikes or short, flat nature walks are plentiful, starting with Garrapata and Andrew Molera state parks in the north, where you can find open paths to rocky coves and small beaches. Pfeiffer Beach, one of a few accessible beaches here, is two miles down unmarked Sycamore Canyon Road—watch for the darting quail families. It is a scene for sunset. Gold light pours over rippled sand, waves jam over boulder stacks and arches. The wind scat sings in your ears.

Hikes on the inland side of the road invariably involve climbing and might challenge a couch potato, but don’t require unbridled ambition.

Take the short hikes in beautiful family-oriented Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park with its ancient old-growth redwoods. The 20-minute climb to Pfeiffer Falls starts in redwood shade. But climb beyond the falls—and voilà!—another eco-system through oaks, manzanita, chaparral, and mixed hardwood trees. Plus, at trail’s end you get some "loge seating"—a nifty bench—and the Valley View. What a hawk’s eye-full—the sea, Point Sur, and the narrow gorge that broadens into the blue-misted greenery of Big Sur River valley.

Also in Pfeiffer Big Sur is the trailhead to a popular longer hike—the steep nine-mile round-trip up Mt. Manuel, where you can sight dramatic daggers of yucca bursting into bloom, more poetically called our Lord’s candle. Sadly, the oak, madrone, maples, and sycamores up Mt. Manuel were immolated at the hand of arsonists in October ‘96. The fire swirled around to the Pine Ridge Trail, which I also followed for a few miles, spotting charred trunks of redwoods.

Right next to the state park is Big Sur Station. State park rangers sell maps and topos and hand out free trail brochures. They can detail the latest trail conditions in the mosaic of coastal lands here—state parks, the Los Padres National Forest, and the Ventana Wilderness within the forest.

Eleven miles south of here is Julia Pfeiffer-Burns State Park, where most people take the short, easy walk to view the falls that plummet in a thin ribbon onto the beach. I preferred the solitude along the lovely four-mile Ewoldsen loop trail, named for a ranch foreman who rebuilt the original trail from a logging trail in 1933.

Up from the parking lot, you cross McWay Creek, then climb a north-facing slope through redwoods, oak, bay, sword ferns, sorrel, and gooseberry. The trail makes its way to a ridge, where you emerge from the forest for even more startling "loge seating." Your view is pitched down steep grassland to the Pacific Ocean hundreds of feet below. Sit and have a bite.

Knocking at Heaven’s Gate
I’m back in the car, driving south, revved by endorphins after walking in the woods. I savor each bulky point of land scalloping the coast, including the famous Partington Ridge, hallowed by Henry Miller. It is unseasonably warm and sunny, but suddenly a dark shadow reels over me like an eclipse. It’s a red-tailed hawk, its wingspan casting from its thermal loft, a shadow big enough to envelope my car.

Next comes Esalen, which takes its name from Esselen Indians, the first peoples of Big Sur. This is the compound of pioneers who built a million-dollar industry out of human personal-growth. Although a sign says "Reservations required," I decide to explore day-use options of its hot tub facilities. However, the welcome is less than cordial as I inadvertently roll past the gatekeeper. Yes, she curtly tells me, they have "day-use" of the hot tubs, by reservation only and between the prohibitive hours of 1 a.m. and 3 a.m—obviously only to comply with California Coastal Commission rules.

You don’t have to belong to the club to get a warm reception about ten miles south at the New Camaldoli Hermitage. This monastic community of Benedictine monks receives retreatants and day visitors respectful of the contemplative atmosphere. A bookstore sells secular books and objects as well as the brothers’ homebaked fruit bread.

The drive there is two miles up a narrow, winding road off Hwy 1, with commanding views that seem heaven-sent. Near the 2,000-foot top you can contemplate the distant frothing ocean from a picnic table in the shade of a big live oak. My meditation was broken only by visits from quail, jack rabbits, and a kit fox that pounced upon the hood of my car.

With lodgings sparse this southern end of Big Sur, Lucia Lodge, across from the Hermitage, has no competition for miles. The modest complex was built in 1938 and has remained in the same Harlan family since then. The lodge has a little restaurant with unpredictable hours and cozy, rustic cabins, perched 500 feet above a bay.

Not far from Lucia is Limekiln, which opened as a state park in September 1995. It has 43 campsites clustered in an idyllic setting that combines a crescent of beach, streams through redwood forest, and some curious history. To see all this, take the half-mile trail through the forest, crossing footbridges over Limekiln, Hare, and West Fork creeks. If it’s hot, you might wade in the cold, clear water, relax on a log. At trail’s end, you can’t miss the four rusted steel and stone towers, kilns that ended their smelting days in the 1880s. Fueled by redwood trees, the graffiti-decorated relics once slaked the lime for cement that built structures in Monterey and San Francisco.

Seven miles south of Limekiln is Sand Dollar, a remarkable beach given the constraints put on this coast by nature. The broad white-sand beach is reached down a long wooden stairway and is protected by bluffs from the fierce winds that mold the coast. If you require more distraction than waves, rocks, stacks, and red sunsets, you might watch for the birds that frequent the shore—cormorants, pelicans, godwits, oystercatchers, plovers, sandpipers, sanderlings, willits, grebes, curlews, scoters.

Classic Big Sur
With so much solitude near craggy shoreline or up wooded hills to savor by day, I saved the most settled area for evening, when I’d head back north for classic Big Sur. Big Sur, the village, is where one finds some semblance of night life—live piano music, say, at the Big Sur River Inn. A friendly pub-style ambiance prevails at a couple of bars and cafes. Boutiques in town sell apparel that is an updated version of ’60s gauzy, flowing garments.

Just down from Pfeiffer-Big Sur, two luxurious hideaways for the well-heeled, Ventana and Post Ranch inns, are tasteful contrasts to Big Sur’s overall earthiness. Although pricey, both places mindfully blend their architecture with the terrain, somehow nesting lodging discreetly over bluffs, in canyons, and folds of land, none of it seen from the road.

I have enjoyed a pampered night at Ventana with its Japanese hot tubs, but I was unable to find room at either inn this visit. However, if your budget has room for culinary arts, I can tell you about their food.

Scuffed hiking boots notwithstanding, the welcome was cordial at Ventana’s Patio Grill, situated to fill the eye with a waving harmony of soft hill and sparkling sea. Grilled ahi in fluffy pita with fresh greens and tangy dressing was up to the scenery.

At the Post Ranch’s Sierra Mar, artistry matched quality as large frosted glass plates arrived, palettes of sculpted food—scallops with grilled ratatouille and warm fennel slaw, quail with peach compote, and heirloom tomatoes with walnut vinaigrette.

You don’t have to splurge to eat well in Big Sur. I had excellent seafood and grilled vegetables at the Big Sur Lodge, where I enjoyed two quiet nights and a swimming pool in the morning. Loma Vista, across the road, is a modest, friendly cafe, where the only tyranny came from a blue jay who brazenly grabbed cake off my fork. Too bad the monster-size succulents covering the grounds of the cafe’s garden center don’t eat ill-mannered birds.

You have to reserve well in advance to get into historic Deetjen’s, a charming, if slapdash, inn built by Norwegian Grandpa Deetjen of locally milled scavenged redwood. I always enjoy the restaurant, the fresh food, great breads, as well as the intimacy of candlelight, fireplaces, and classical music.

I have never had a memorable meal at Nepenthe, but I wouldn’t think of not stopping at this hefty tourist-ridden, view-imbued landmark. Nor would I ever pass the nearby Henry Miller Memorial Library without paying homage to the patron saint of vagabond writers, enemy of censorship, and otherwise literary great. As the former home of Miller’s friend, Emil White, the library offers quiet seclusion on a peaceful meadow with tall redwoods, and occasionally some outrageous artwork to ponder.

Also across from Nepenthe is Big Sur’s last parcel of commercial land, purchased 15 years ago. The plot now holds the two-year-old Hawthorne Gallery, with the blown-glass, sculpture, wood, and other media artwork of five members of the Hawthorne family. The gallery’s architecture, including a metal sculpture fountain, might be described as a temple to the light, land, and water of its setting.

The Coast Gallery, in a former water tank, is classic Big Sur, with a fun collection of Henry Miller’s paintings as well as local artists’ work.

An Unlikely Ending
Since Big Sur officially ends around San Simeon, I reserved a ticket to tour Hearst Castle. The sprawling display of extravagant decadence, sometimes in monumentally bad taste, was fascinating, some of the gardens and grounds incorruptibly beautiful. And I’m sure I’m not the first to keep imagining Orson Wells on the set of Citizen Kane. But it all turned out to be a bit of culture shock, given the sudden hordes of visitors, tour buses, and do-and-don’ts. I’d recommend a buffer zone of time between Hearst Castle and the Big Sur experience.

Photography courtesy of Joseph Plotz/Wikipedia

This article was first published in November 1997. Some facts
may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.