Seeing the Beauty of Big Sur and the Santa Ynez Valley
TR Robertson — Having arrived at our destination, the Pfeiffer Big Sur Lodge, our second day in the Big Sur area was a time of exploration. Before telling you about some of the things to do in Big Sur, I thought you would like to know a little more about this part of California.
Big Sur is located approximately 150 miles south of San Francisco and 300 miles north of Los Angeles. The Big Sur Village is unincorporated and there are not specific boundaries of this area as it ranges roughly 71 miles from Malpaso Creek near Carmel Highlands to San Carpoforo Creek near San Simeon. There are roughly 1,800 to 2,000 year-round residents who live in and around the Big Sur Village, what the locals refer to the few businesses scattered along Highway 1. A variety of small businesses are scattered along scenic Highway 1. Travelers to this area should know that there are fewer than 300 hotel rooms in the area and several of the camping sites and state parks are closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Historically, this area was obtained in a series of Mexican land grants in the 1830’s. Numerous homesteaders carved out parcels of land in the Big Sur area. The area was referred to as el Pais Grande del Sur, the Big South Country, shortened to Big Sur. The first American use of the name “Sur” was by the U.S. Coast Survey in 1851. A post office using the name “Sur” was established in October of 1889. Various landmarks today reflect the names of some of these early settlers – Mt. Manuel, Pfeiffer Ridge, Post Summit, Cooper Point, Dani Ridge, Partington Cove and many more. Some of the people living in Big Sur today are descendants of many of the early settlers. Many notable people have once called Big Sur home – Ted Turner, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Kim Novak, Ansel Adams and Henry Miller to name a few. When open, the Henry Miller Memorial Library is an eclectic place to visit.
There was once a small harbor at Notley’s Landing, Partington Cove, where goods and supplies would arrive. The rugged coast led to the building of the Point Sur Lighthouse in 1889, to protect the ships. The present highway was completed in 1937 and took eighteen years to complete, at times using convict labor for the treacherous work. The highway has been designated an American National Scenic Byway and California Scenic Highway. The famous Bixby Creek Bridge is one of the most photographed bridges in the nation. The area did not have electricity until the early 1950’s. The Big Sur area, including the Santa Lucia Mountain range, usually receives an annual rainfall of 50 inches, although this has decreased in recent years.
There are numerous State Parks in the Big Sur area – Garrapata State Park, Point Sur State Historic Park, Andrew Molera State Park, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, John Little State Natural Reserve and Limekiln State Park. Also included is Federal land such as the Los Padres National Forest, Ventana Wilderness and Silver Peak Wilderness. Due to recent fires, many of the hiking trails are closed and many of the overlooks along Highway 1 are blocked off for parking. In 1987 a captive breeding program was started for the California Condor. The Ventana Wildlife Society began releasing the condors in 1997, now totaling over 30 birds. The offshore region along the Big Sur Coast is protected by the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary comprising 7 sanctuaries and marine parks. Throughout the region migrating gray whales, sea otters and seals can be seen playing or passing thru protected locations.
Day 2 – July 7
Day 2 in Pfeiffer Big Sur would be a day of hiking and exploration. After waking and playing name that stuffed animal with our granddaughter, in our pull-out sofa bed, we enjoyed our first breakfast in the cabin. During our morning breakfast we saw several blue jays on our cabin railing, squawking and fighting. Each morning they were waiting for us and fighting over bits of crackers we gave them. My son also spotted a young deer hiding by some coastal redwoods. After collecting what we would need for a hike we headed to the Lodge where we had checked in. Leaving the Suburban in the parking lot, our family headed out for a hike on the Valley View Trail. We were told the hike to Pfeiffer Falls was closed for reconstruction of fire damages from the 2008 Basin Complex Fire in this area. We could hear chain saws in the distance as we hiked a portion of the 1-mile hike. Picking up a Nature Guild pamphlet we found that the area around us was covered in poison oak, which we became very aware of along the way.
After the hike and a bit of lunch, we set out for Pfeiffer State Beach. The entrance to the beach is a short drive from the Big Sur Park, but you must look carefully for the turn-off. The hard to see road is called Sycamore Canyon Road and is the only paved, ungated road west of Highway 1. It does cost $12.00 to travel the 2-mile road to the park and there are no refunds. The 2-mile narrow drive was an experience as we saw several private residences along the way. We had to wait in a small line to be let in as there is only parking for 60 cars at the beach parking area. This beautiful beach is also home to some majestic rock formations carved by the wind and ocean, like keyhole rock, and to purple sand in one portion of the beach. The problem with the small beach area is it can also be quite cold and windy, which were the conditions we found this day. The wind was blowing so hard it was blowing sand everywhere and when it hit you the sand stung. Our stay was short, and we packed up and decided to go to another popular area, protected from the wind. Our next stop was the Big Sur River Inn, known for the Adirondack chairs placed in the Big Sur River edges which runs behind the Inn. The restaurant was closed except for take-out, but the general store and gas station were open, as well as an ice cream shop built inside a former small Big Sur River Inn bus. Wandering the river’s edge, our granddaughter enjoyed tossing rocks and picking up sticks. There were a few people around the area, but everyone was masked and socially distanced, as needed. A fun way to wind down and relax in a beautiful area.
Day 3 – July 8
We decided this would be the day we would venture to Monterey and Carmel. Driving north on Highway 1 we would run into three traffic stop delays, each lasting 10-15 minutes, as a variety of road work construction was underway. The longest wait was on the road leading to Bixby Canyon Bridge. This arch bridge was completed in 1932 and stands 280 feet above the canyon floor. Our first stop would be Monterey. There were visitors in the area, but it was not like I have seen it in past years. The Monterey Bay Aquarium was closed due the COVID crisis, which normally brings many to the town. Monterey was once a major fishery processing and cannery for the west coast. It also had California’s first newspaper, public library and theater. John Steinbeck and Robert Lewis Stevenson once called Monterey home. We walked around a small portion of Cannery Row, picking up fish and chips and chowder to go at The Fish Hopper. Trying to find a place to have a small picnic was hard as it was cold and windy. The fish and chips were breaded, which is not what I would normally say is good fish and chips. Moving on, we drove around Ocean View Blvd., catching Sunset Drive to the Pacific Grove Gate of the famous 17 Mile Drive of Pebble Beach in Carmel. This beautiful drive goes thru what was once the 5,300 acre Del Monte Forest land. Carmel became a thriving artist colony after the San Francisco earthquake drove people out of the city. Jack London and Ansel Adams lived in Carmel for a period of time. Other notable citizens of the city included John Madden, Jim Nantz, Betty White, and former Carmel Mayor Clint Eastwood. As we paid our entry fee and began our drive on the 17 Mile Drive we passed by 5 world class golf courses, some public and some private, and many amazing, magnificent multi-million-dollar private homes, many looking like castles found in Europe. There were also a number of turn-outs and overlooks where you could pull over and take pictures of sea lions sunning themselves, bird habitats, unique ghost cypress tree formations, and a famous 250 year old lone cypress tree atop a rocky pedestal. The $10.50 price for our car was well worth the slow-paced drive thru this area. A couple of interesting facts about Carmel is there are no street addresses in Carmel and no home delivery of mail. Chain restaurants are also not allowed in Carmel-by-the-Sea.
As we arrived back to our Big Sur State Park cabin, we took a short walk to find a grave marker we had heard about. The grave marker we heard of was for William the Lodge Cat, who passed away in 2000 at the age of 20. Carolyn and I had the pleasure of running into William many, many years ago when we last stayed here. William found his way into our cabin when we were unpacking, jumped on our bed and made himself at home. He was one of the biggest cats I have ever seen and welcomed folks as they stayed in Big Sur. Another memory from this incredibly unique part of the world.
More of the Big Sur area and our journey to Solvang in the next issue of The Vista Press.