A weekend in Big Sur

My brother and I spent a long weekend recently down in Big Sur, the area on the central California coast where the Santa Lucia mountains crash into the Pacific ocean.

Most of the Big Sur area is accessed via Highway 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, which runs along the cliffs and mountain slopes next to the ocean, often hundreds of feet above the sea, affording spectacular views.

Hurricane Point Panorama

We camped at Pfeiffer Big Sur state park, in a spot next to the Big Sur river after which the area is named. We started a fire badly and ate reheated tamales and pinto beans. The next morning we decided breakfast would be better served at the lodge at the front of the park.

We had forgotten that it was Easter Sunday, and when we went to the restaurant, were surprised to find a sumptuous buffet laid out, with chicken breast and rack of lamb, cheesecake and petit fours and a pair of chefs making omelettes to order. I asked for a local beer and was given the Double Barrell IPA from Firestone in Paso Robles. It was definitely the best possible way to start the day.

Big Sur

This was my second trip to the area, and my first overnight stay. Late March is the rainy season, and the first full day we spent was cloudy, with misting rain throughout much of the day. We spent much of the day taking short hikes to various waterfalls and overlooks. Among them was McWay falls, after the Bixby bridge perhaps the most well-known landmark in Big Sur, an 80-foot fall onto a sandy beach.

Above and slightly south of the falls there is are two “environmental camp sites”, a short hike from the road and situated near the cliff edges, some 100 feet above the ocean. Unless you are flexible with your schedule, reservations must be made seven months in advance. The next set of reservations becomes available on May 1, and I intend to make a reservation at that time. The beauty and natural drama of this place is difficult to overstate.

Driving south, we passed Lucia and the Lucia Lodge, a small collection of rooms perched precariously on the cliffs hundreds of feet above the sea. I will return to stay at this lodge someday soon.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State ParkJulia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State ParkJulia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

We drove steadily south throughout the day until we saw a large waterfall on the inland side of the road, on Salmon Creek in Los Padres National Forest. An adventurous scramble brought us near the base of the falls, from which vantage point they towered over us. There are no waterfalls here to compete with Yosemite, which contains the highest falls in North America, but there are plenty big enough to awe.

Salmon Creek Falls

As darkness fell, rain began to fall in earnest, and we headed north again. The rain became heavier and heavier until we were driving along highway one in the dark, in a torrential downpour, it bucking and weaving serpentine alongside the mountain and far above the sea. Landslides and bridge construction at two points narrowed the road to a single lane.

Big Sur

Trixie was well up to the task, and the locals took no notice of the weather, but many visitors to the area were unnerved, driving twenty-five or thirty miles an hour. We passed on such crawler on a rare straight stretch of road, only a short while later to be caught behind another. Annoyed and hungry, we pulled off at the next opportunity, which happened to be Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn.

It was a fateful decision, and one of the best I’ve made in the last year. In addition to being a charming, historic inn, Deetjen’s has a rambling, English pub style restaurant. After the cold and the rain, the crowded, cozy dining room was a welcome relieve. I had a surprisingly cheap and shockingly generous glass of wine with my filet mignon, which was served with roasted potatoes. Travis had pork tenderloin with polenta. Both were delicious. I had for dessert the velvet mousse cake and a glass of sherry, which I would highly recommend.

While we were eating, a man came in, almost certainly the same I’d earlier passed, and asked the girl behind the bar if the road was any “safer” to the north, complaining that it was “very dangerous” to the south. There were rocks in the road–rocks! Poor fellow. She assured him it was, and he’s probably even still working his way toward San Francisco.

We drove back to the park and dove into the tent, keeping the water mostly out. We put our shoes outside, under the fly, to keep the interior free of mud. In the middle of the night, however, I awoke to find that the rain and wind had loosened the fly stake, and our shoes had gotten wet. I put them in my bag to dry them out, which worked very well, but I would not recommend with a down bag.

The next day dawned clear and beautiful. We went hiking at Andrew Molera State Park, where the Big Sur river runs into the ocean. It affords spectacular views back down through the Big Sur river valley. I was unable to capture much due to dying camera batteries.

Andrew Molera State Park

Finally, we stopped by Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, a rocky promontory on the south end of Carmel Bay. Francis McComas called it “the greatest meeting of land and sea in the world,” and I agree that I have never seen anything quite its equal. Ancient Cypress trees cluster thickly on top of towering cliffs, beaten tirelessly by the waves, throwing water sixty feet into the air.

Point Lobos

On the way home we stopped for burgers at American Burger in Monterey, and I highly recommend it as well. I had a chili burger open-faced, and it was delicious.

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