Big Sur Coast #01
4 Days on the Central California Coast (Big Sur) #01
This travel-blog is for a 4 day trip from our home in the San Francisco Bay area, down to the Big Sur area in March 2021. We stayed the 3 nights at the Big Sur Lodge which is pretty much in the middle of the Big Sur Coastal Region.
Entire Trip map
Detail of places mentioned along Central (Big Sur) Coast
One Year Later
It was almost exactly 1 year earlier that we took our last trip which was just prior to the COVID-19 lockdowns. Who would have thought that it would take a full year before the light at the end of the tunnel even came into view. This isn’t to say that we are out of the dark tunnel but we can see the end. Vaccinations are well underway (now that we have a competent government in the White House), Ellen and I have both had both of our doses more than two weeks earlier, and spring was around the corner. So, even though we had not been to a dine-in restaurant for over a year and are still wearing masks and using gloves when punching in numbers on public key pads or wrangling gas pump handles, we decided that the time had come to venture out into the world, just a bit, to see how things go. Not to mention a March birthday ending in a zero for Ellen.
We thought about this a bit and decided pretty quickly that we are still not ready to navigate airports and sit in a (supposedly well ventilated) metal tube with 300 strangers for many hours. We also wanted to start easy with just a few days – sort of a test run – and be close enough to home in order to be able to bail at any time and get home the same day. This of course limited our options to a driving trip in the 300-500 mile range. So, as it was still winter in the mountains (and we’re not winter people), our choices were either the rugged coast north of San Francisco (Marin, Sonoma and Mendocino counties), or the world class Central California Coast south of Monterey (Commonly called the Big Sur Coast).
As my wife's dad lives in Sonoma County, we tend to go north more often than south, and we hadn’t been to the Big Sur area since 2011, so we decided to go down there and booked 3 nights in the Big Sur Lodge in a cabin with a kitchen (so we could avoid restaurants most of the time), living room with fireplace, and separate bedroom.
We left Palo Alto mid morning so as to get to the North end of the Big Sur Coast around lunch time where we could gas up and eat in Monterey, Carmel, or Pacific Grove. We pulled into Carmel around lunch time but even on a weekday it was just too crowded – couldn’t even find a parking space, so we headed further down to Pacific Grove which is much less pretentious, is less expensive and one can find parking places. We found a charming little restaurant in an old Victorian house with both indoor and outdoor seating. However, upon inquiry discovered that the heaters in the outdoor section were all out of propane and as it was pretty chilly we decided to do our first indoor dining experience in over a year. We also discovered that in that year technology had passed us by once more. As it turns out, there are no more paper menus. Now you only get a laminated card on the table with a QR code. One scans the QR code with your smart phone and you read the menu on line. Assuming of course that your phone is not in the car and after going to get it, discovering that the phone’s camera does not react to QR codes as the phone is too old. Even the waiter couldn’t get it to work. So he recited the menu to us verbally – which he couldn’t do very well and resented having to do at all. What a waste of time and quite inconvenient. Come, on guys, print a few paper menu’s for us dinosaurs. But, we got fed, filled the gas tank and headed into the target area.
Big Sur Coast
The Big Sur Coast in Central California is generally thought of as extending 71 miles from just south of Monterey Bay down to around San Simeon. Along this stretch of rugged coast line, the Santa Lucia Mountains rise directly out of the Pacific Ocean to a height of nearly 6,000 feet, making for one of the most spectacular coastlines one will ever see.
Sometimes these dramatic seaside cliffs have eroded into sea stacks (small rocky islands just off the mainland) and many of these have subsequently formed sea caves and sea tunnels. I presume most of these have names, but for the most part people just refer to them by what beach or river they are nearest to. They are literally all along this coast. Pull off the road in one of the many parking areas and look closely – you’re very likely to see one. Depending on the direction of the arch, in some cases early or late in the day the sun illuminates the inside of the arch making for a very dramatic scene.
Around every curve along this stretch of 2 lane road one will find a stunning view, each one surpassing the previous one. One will also find dense redwood forests, hidden (and not so hidden) beaches, waterfalls, sea stacks caves and arches, flowing streams and an iconic bridge. What’s amazing is that all of this is within a few hours drive for about 7 million people who live in the San Francisco or Los Angeles areas – not to mention the thousands of visitors from across the world.
It is among the top 35 tourist destinations world-wide and receives about the same number of visitors as Yosemite National Park, but offers only limited bus service, few restrooms, and a narrow two-lane highway that for most of its length clings to the steep coastal cliffs.
As one can easily imagine the ruggedness that makes this coast so visually awesome also made it impossible to traverse in older times. Due to this most transport during those times was done with boats going up and down the western edge of North America or along “roads” set up by the Spanish missionaries to get from mission to mission which for the most part were on the east side of the coast range. This mission to mission road was (and in many places still is) called “El Camino Real” (the Kings Road) and is roughly the route of US-101 today.
During that time, what is now the Big Sur coast was left to the Native Americans. The actual coast was mapped to some degree to aid nautical shipping but beyond what you could see from a ship at sea, not much was known about the area. And, this brings us to the name “Big Sur”.
Like the names of most things in the southern half of California, the name “Big Sur” comes from the Spanish. The original Spanish-language name for the mountainous terrain south of Monterey was El País Grande del Sur, which means "the big country of the south." Later, English-speaking settlers anglicized and shortened the name to just "Big Sur" as the name for their post office which then became the name for the entire area.
Little Sur river meets the Pacific
California Route 1
Other than a strip of land along the coast, most of the land to the east, including the Santa Lucia Mountains is the Ventana Wilderness. The only road that services the Big Sur area is California Rt-1 running North-South hugging the coast between Carmel Highlands (just south of Carmel and Monterey) and Cambria (just south of Hearst Castle in San Simeon). Between these two end points there are no roads going over the mountains toward the east and unless you have a boat or plane going west is quite damp.
The interior region is mostly uninhabited and the sparse year-round population (around 1,800 people) are scattered along the lower western slope of the mountain range. Other than 4 small settlements near Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park there are no villages or settlements and even those 4 settlements are really not more than a restaurant, gas station, campground and sometimes a motel.
The region was considered one of the most inaccessible areas of both California and the entire United States until 1937 when – after 18 years of construction - the Carmel-San Simeon Highway (now labeled CA route 1) was completed. California Rt-1 through this area has rightfully been called the "longest and most scenic stretch of undeveloped coastline in the contiguous United States" and "one of the most beautiful coastlines anywhere in the world”. Quite a reputation - but accurate and well deserved. While officially it is a portion of California Route 1, when built it was known as the Carmel San Simeon Highway. In Los Angeles the road right along the water is known as the PCH (Pacific Coast Highway) so many folks from that area just apply the same name for the portions further north even though that is not technically correct.
Along with the ocean views, this winding, narrow road, had to be cut into the face of towering seaside cliffs in places and with numerous bridges over rivers crashing down the steep slope of the Santa Lucia mountains. The highway was actually considered quite an engineering feat as most prior studies had declared a coast highway through the area impossible to build.
With such a precarious landscape to plant a road on, keeping the road open is a constant battle. The highway has been closed more than 55 times by landslides. In May 2017, a landslide blocked the highway at Mud Creek near the San Luis Obispo County line. The road was closed for 16 months and reopened in July, 2018 only to be closed again in late January 2021 by another even bigger landslide. Even though CalTrans (California state roads department) had been working around the clock to stabilize the mountains after the August 2020 Dolan Fire, a strong winter storm washed a big chunk of the road south of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park at Rat Creek into the Pacific Ocean. So, now a 23 mile stretch of highway 1 is closed to traffic with a re-opening date of April or May of 2021. Of course there is always a bright side. With the highway closed, no traffic can come into the Big Sur area from the Los Angeles area without going all the way up to Monterey first. This has greatly reduced the tourist congestion which is good, unless you’re trying to run a business there.
The suggested direction of travel for sightseeing is heading south from Carmel. This puts the Pacific Ocean (where the dramatic scenery is) on your right. This also puts 95% of the pull offs, vista points, and scenic overlooks on your right which makes it much easier to pull into a parking area on the spur of the moment than having to make a left turn across what could be a steady stream of traffic. No matter which way you head on the road, be sure to take a look behind you as you go as sometimes the view looking the other way is better than the one in front of you. Many a time I’ve glanced over my shoulder and spied a sea arch or dramatic cove which wasn’t visible from my direction of travel.
Typical rocky coastline scene
State Parks and Hikes
From a terrain perspective, the Big Sur Coast starts with Point Lobos State Park which sits between Carmel By the Sea on its north side and Carmel Highlands on its south side. Now don’t be confused by the name. Carmel Highlands is not high up on the mountainside. It is right along the coast highway – so why it’s called highlands is a mystery. However it is a fully developed suburb, so I don’t really consider the Big Sur scenic road to start till after you pass through Carmel Highlands.
Even though we didn’t stop at Point Lobos on this trip I’ll talk just a bit about it. Its main feature is that it is always either closed or crowded. It is quite scenic once you get inside with Monterey Cypress and Monterey Pine forests, rocky coastline, tide pools, rocky coves, and sandy beaches with plenty of hikes and trails. However even somewhat off season and in the middle of the week they have to meter the cars entering the park using “a one out – one in method” resulting in a long line of cars idling on the shoulder of CA-1 waiting to get in. Sometimes the wait is measured in hours. To make matters worse – at least for photographers - they don’t open till somewhat after sunrise and start shooing people out before sunset which are the best times for photographing the spectacular scenery. So, by all means go if you’ve never been before but go in the middle of the week in mid winter and don’t expect to be able to be there for sunset (or sunrise for that matter).
Once you get south of Carmel Highlands, you’ll find yourself out in nature. As you proceed you’ll come across a string of state parks with many miles of trails, interspersed between widely spaced private homes evidenced by the end of a long driveway going either down toward the ocean or up into the mountains, or a mailbox or sometimes a privacy fence. However, most of the time what houses there are tend to be well hidden from road.
All along the road, even outside of the parks, there are many places where there is enough shoulder to pull off the road and find a trail out to the cliff edge or down to the water or on the other side up into the mountains. These are well used by surfers and divers as well as just plain tourists. Just look for some cars parked alongside the road for no apparent reason and you can be sure there’s a path to some scenic overlook or down to some sort of beach. One caution for these non “park” trails is that many are just a narrow gap through the vegetation (unmaintained other than just by people walking on them) and much of that “vegetation” is poison oak. So, try not to brush up against the plants, wear long pants, and use both preventative and post contact topical or you’ll have a very uncomfortable night later on. Poison Oak is also along the trails in the parks, but those trails are usually wider allowing you to avoid contact with the plants.
The central California coast, geologically speaking, is a jumble of rock masses from literally dozens, if not hundreds, of different places. The chunks of crust you find here have ridden a long series of geologic plates from different parts of the world and been jumbled up here as those plates slid under the North American plate more or less scraping off what was on top and piling it all up in what are now the Santa Lucia Mountains. At the same time, rough seas and heavy winter storms have been eroding these mountains and coastline washing the looser soil and small rocks out to sea and leaving bigger chunks in the crashing surf.
No matter where you stop you will see waves crashing into half submerged rocks or the cliffs that rise directly out of the ocean. On calm days the water more swirls around the rocks but on rougher days the sea crashes over these rock formations in a rather dramatic fashion.
Calm waves at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
Churning surf flowing over wall of rock
Sometimes you can feel a wave hitting a rock head on
Garapata State Park
The first State Park you come to after Point Lobos is Garapata State Park. Like most of the parks along this road it was someone’s ranch not too long ago and many “ranch” things like old barns and machinery are still present. Unlike most of the State Parks in the area, Garapata doesn’t have its own “park road” into the park or any sort of entry gate or pay station. It is just a series of parking strips along CA-1 that have trails leading away from the road. One of the most popular is the bluffs trail which follows the top of the cliff edge with dramatic scenes. There are also trails leading up into the mountains on the east side of CA-1.
We stopped at the Sorbanes Trailhead, which is about in the middle of the park. On Google Maps this is marked as Sorbanes Point Trails: Gate 8. There’s another “Sorbanes Point Trails” gate further south. We had been informed of an old barn a short distance up the trail to the east so decided to give it a try. Turns out the barn wasn’t that old and was corrugated metal. Not too bad but not what I was expecting. However, near the barn was a nice scene of the trail going through a canopy of trees.
(Not so old) barn
Sorbanes Canyon Trail (just east of gate 8)
On the coast side of CA-1, the Bluffs trail comes very close to the highway at gate 8 so we took a walk out to the edge. Our trip this year was the day after a rainstorm had blown through the central California area (including the Bay area) and the storm left behind a somewhat thick fog which gave the views quite a mysterious soft appearance. Sometimes the fog was too thick to drive more than 25mph but at other times thinned out enough to see a mile or so. As it turned out, even though there was no ground fog over by the barn, just across the road on the bluffs side, it was still socked in.
Foggy coastline from Bluffs Trail
On the stroll back to the car we met a full wedding party consisting of maybe 15 to 20 people coming down the trail the other way in full wedding attire including spike heels (on the muddy trail), strapless dresses covering shivering young women, men in tuxedo’s and one photographer in hiking boots and a warm jacket. But, as cold they were, everyone looked happy.
Notley’s Landing Viewpoint
Continuing to the south our next stop was at Notley’s Landing viewpoint. Like most viewpoints, trails and beaches this one is not marked with a name. I was only able to determine the name after we got home using GPS coordinates and Google Maps. As it turned out there was a big sea tunnel visible through the fog from this pull off. The ocean was still quite rough from the storm with large waves that crashed into a little cove – totally covering it in a mass of white just in front of the sea tunnel.
Wave Crashing into cove through fog at Notley’s Landing
Sea Cave at Notley’s Landing
A bit further south from Notley’s is the famous, and photographically iconic, Bixby Creek Bridge, commonly referred to as just “Bixby Bridge”. It is one of the most photographed bridges not only in California but in the world due to its aesthetic design, graceful architecture and magnificent setting.
Prior to the completion of the bridge residents of the Big Sur area to the south were virtually cut off during winter due to blockages on the often impassable Old Coast Road which led 11 miles inland. When completed in 1932, at a cost of under $200k ($3.2 million in 2019 collars), it was the longest concrete arch span in the California State Highway System (360 feet) and also the highest single-span arch bridge in the world and it remains one of the tallest. In fact at 260 feet it is 40 feet higher than the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
Interestingly, the two massive, vertical buttresses (supporting pillars) on either side of the arch, while aesthetically pleasing, are functionally unnecessary and were placed there to make the bridge look more substantial. An alternate plan for a bridge upstream would have required an 890 ft. tunnel along with a 250 ft. bridge, but it was rejected in favor of the current bridge location closer to the sea. Some of the reasons were that the upstream plan would have been less safe, less scenic and more destructive to the environment.
The next planning decision was what to make the bridge out of. The debate over a steel bridge vs. a concrete bridge went in favor of the concrete design which would cost less in materials, would be easier to maintain, would fit in better aesthetically with the terrain, and would allow more of the bridge cost to be paid to workers rather than suppliers. After all it was the depression and the New Deal. Let’s hope we can get back to valuing people over profits.
While the bridge was completed in 1932, the actual highway was not completed until 1937. So, even though there was this wonderful new bridge, what traffic there was still had to contend with the Old Coast Road (dirt in summer, a muddy bog – and closed - in winter) which meandered 11 miles inland. This old road was one lane in most places (just one lane, not one lane each way), And, to put things in perspective, the 30-mile trip from Carmel to what is now Andrew Molera State Park (10 miles south of Bixby Bridge) would take three days by wagon or stagecoach.
Bixby Creek Bridge from North end pull off
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