BIG SUR, Calif. — The Big Sur coastline is one of the most stunning on the North American continent.
In a 90-mile stretch midway between San Francisco and Santa Barbara, its forested green hills fall dramatically to the rocky shore of the blue Pacific Ocean. Streams race steeply from the heights of the Santa Lucia Range, creating waterfalls and narrow canyons, leaving white-sand beaches where they meet the salt water. On either side are walls of granite, carved with odd shapes and tunnels by centuries of crashing waves.
Above the cliffs, rare California condors use their 9-foot wingspans to ride the updrafts as they search for prey. Quirky modern homes cling perilously to the hillsides, their cloistered residents offered occasional glimpses of migrating whales when morning fog dissipates into mist on the distant horizon.
Only a few hundred yards inland, luxurious resorts stand side-by-side with makeshift cabins, nestling hobbit-like beneath majestic redwood trees. Like the cliff dwellings, they too challenge Mother Nature. As recently as 2008, a massive complex of fires that scorched Los Padres National Forest crept so close that the entire Big Sur coast was evacuated.
Between the sea and the mountains, California state Highway 1 meanders from Carmel to Cambria, its every twist and turn revealing memorable new landscapes. Each viewpoint seems to trump the one before it, whether a panorama of a state-park seascape or a historic lighthouse or a wondrously built bridge.
But even this isolated route is subject to the whims of climate and geology. Despite the best efforts of highway engineers, heavy rains cause landslides that may isolate Big Sur visitors and residents from the rest of California for weeks at a time. Already in 2011, a pair of slides — the first in March, the second in April — cut off the main highway access from both the north and south, forcing travelers onto the little-used Nacimiento-Fergusson Road from the east.
Luring the counterculture
Fortunately for my recent visit, the north-end slide, which took out a section of highway 12 miles south of Carmel at Rocky Point, was reopened for travel on the day of my arrival. (At its south end, near Lucia, Highway 1 isn’t expected to be open before mid-May.) That enabled me to retrace the route that nature lovers have been traveling since the highway first opened in 1937.
According to a popular website, www.big sur-coastline.com, Big Sur was originally populated by Native American tribes. The Spanish rarely visited after establishing missions at Carmel and Jolon in 1770, but during the subsequent period of Mexican rule (1822-1847) available land was turned into cattle ranches.
White settlers arrived after the California Gold Rush and homesteaded the land in the late 1850s.
Still, Big Sur remained isolated for a very long time. After a 20-mile wagon road was pushed south from Carmel in about 1886, a half-century passed before Highway 1 was completed. Livestock, orchards, gold mining, timber and lime production played occasional roles in the economy, but it took the arrival of a controversial author during the World War I years to provide a spark for the visitor industry.
Henry Miller (1891-1980) settled in Big Sur in 1944 and lived there for 18 years. Unabashedly hedonistic, Miller had first raised American censors’ hackles with the publication of “Tropic of Cancer” in Paris in 1934. Although many of his books were banned in the United States as pornographic until the 1960s, they found their way into the hands of avid readers and Beat generation writers. His work “Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch” (1957) cemented his reputation as a California Coast writer.
Today Miller’s memory is revered on Big Sur. The Henry Miller Memorial Library, a rambling bookshop set back among the redwoods off Highway 1, offers a wide selection of his books and paintings, as well as those of others he knew in California and in France. It’s a place worth a visit for any devoted reader.
Among Henry Miller’s Beat followers was Jack Kerouac, who followed Miller to Big Sur and set big parts of two of his novels — “The Dharma Bums” (1958) and “Big Sur” (1962) — on this rugged coast. Kerouac modeled many of his characters after other Beat-era authors with whom he shared his time on Big Sur, including Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsburg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Alan Watts.
The “beats” weren’t the only artists to visit. Poet Robinson Jeffers often wrote of Big Sur, including his epic “The Women at Point Sur” (1927). Nobel Prize-winner John Steinbeck visited Big Sur in “East of Eden” (1952). Richard Brautigan’s first novel was “A Confederate General from Big Sur” (1962). Photographers Ansel Adams and Edward Weston extensively documented the coast in black and white from the ’30s through the ’70s.
And there have been actors aplenty. In 1944, Orson Wells bought a rustic log cabin for his wife, Rita Hayworth; today it has been incorporated into the Nepenthe restaurant. Kim Novak and Steve McQueen lived on Big Sur with their spouses in the ’60s and ’70s. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton filmed “The Sandpiper” on this coast in 1964; Clint Eastwood directed and starred in “Play Misty for Me” in 1971.
Today, Big Sur is a curious blend of back-to-nature and ultra-wealthy. A hippie element is still highly visible at places like the Big Sur Bakery and the adjacent Spirit Garden, where a resident artist may be seen crafting human-size “spirit nests,” within an outdoor gallery that features imported sculptures and works of art from around the world.
In other parts of Big Sur, the galleries are considerably more upscale. The Coast Gallery displays the work of more than 250 artists, some of them from California’s central coast, more of them from all over the United States and overseas. The works are housed in a unique, indoor-outdoor, six-gallery complex. The spectacular Hawthorne Gallery features the work of just 12 artists, including contemporary master Gregory Hawthorne and his extended family.
State park adventures
Several properties administered by the California Department of Parks and Recreation provide Big Sur visitors with the best access to the natural environment.
Coming from the north, as I did, the first is Point Sur State Historic Park, 18 miles south of Carmel. Built in 1889, Point Sur Light Station overlooks the wave-raked Pacific from the brink of a 272-foot-high volcanic bluff, connected to the mainland by a sandbar. From Highway 1, it appears as a nearly impregnable bastion. Three-hour guided tours, by reservation, take in not only the original stone lighthouse (which is now automated), but also the keeper’s houses and workshops.
Andrew Molina State Park is three miles farther south. Largely undeveloped, the park embraces 4,800 acres of the former Rancho El Sur, once the 1840 claim of an English sea captain who settled in Monterey. The gentle 1.4-mile Headlands Trail passes Capt. Cooper’s 1861 redwood cabin to reach a dramatic vista from Molera Point.
It’s another 4 1/2 miles to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, whose trails wind through more than 800 acres of redwoods, pine and oak trees surrounding Pfeiffer Creek and the Big Sur River. I enjoyed a steep, one-mile hike to pretty Pfeiffer Falls, which ribbon 60 feet down a granite wall. A second trail ascends to a scenic viewpoint and provides access to the 164,000-acre Ventana Wilderness, already recovering from the scars of the 2008 forest fire.
At the heart of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is the Big Sur Lodge, one of the long-established hostelries along this shore. Its 62 cottages and three-meals-a-day dining room have catered to park visitors since 1933, on the site of a rustic resort built by John and Florence Pfeiffer in 1908.
One of Big Sur’s most awe-inspiring ocean beaches is wind-whipped Pfeiffer Beach, two miles west of Highway 1 via narrow Sycamore Canyon Road. Massive sea stacks divide a sheltered cove — where Pfeiffer Creek meets the Pacific — from a broader beach that draws local surfers to challenge the curl. Between the strands, giant waves crash through natural tunnels carved through solid granite by thousands of years of constant erosion.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is 11 miles south of Pfeiffer Big Sur. The best-known feature of the rugged 1,800-acre park is McWay Falls, which plunges 80 feet to another ocean beach. The short trail follows a creek beneath the highway and out along the bluffs.
Since the early 1960s, the nearby Esalen Institute has been a leader in the “human potential” movement. Seminars and workshops on a variety of subjects, from psychology and Eastern religion to yoga and massage, are regularly offered. But Esalen may now be best-known for its cliff-top hot springs, especially popular (by reservation) for soaks in the hours of the very early morning.
Under ordinary circumstances, the road proceeds on its meandering course for another 35 miles before leaving Big Sur’s cliffs and entering a region of rolling hills. Near the village of San Simeon is Hearst Castle, the spectacular estate of media mogul William Randolph Hearst (1883-1951). With the highway blocked by a landslide, however, this journey is not practical as a day trip for visitors to the Big Sur coast.
Where to eat
Despite its relative isolation, Big Sur has no lack of outstanding places to dine. Both the Post Ranch Inn and Ventana Inn&Spa (see sidebar, “Luxury Lodging”) have renowned restaurants. But there are other dining spots that I like equally well.
Nepenthe has been in the Fassett family since 1947. I cannot believe there is a grander vista in all of Big Sur than from its outdoor dining terrace. Named for a mythical drug known to ancient Greeks as a potion against emotional pain and sorrow, the restaurant stands more than 800 feet above the sea.
A variety of gourmet lunches and dinners are served here — Nepenthe has published its own history book, complete with family recipes — but many visitors (myself among them) are delighted with a simple Ambrosia burger, served with avocado on French bread.
There is no lodging at Nepenthe, but Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn offers 20 rustic cabins as well as a homespun restaurant with outstanding breakfasts and dinners. Norwegian immigrant Helmuth Deetjen opened the inn in 1937, the year Highway 1 was completed; it is his legacy that the property, now a foundation-operated National Historic Site, continues to serve guests today.
The restaurant prepares from-scratch dinners that feature the likes of shiitake-mushroom soup, fresh beet salad and roasted lamb chops. It also has an extensive wine list. Specialty pancakes highlight the breakfast menu.