Garrapata State Park along Highway 1
We were on the road before six to drive to Big Sur. The reason we were heading to Big Sur is because we read an article in the September/October edition of ‘Via’ called ‘The Secrets of Big Sur’ by Jennifer Reese. It has been quite some time since we had taken a drive down this very scenic route on Highway 1 and decided it was about time we went there again. I remember the first time I drove through Big Sur and thought it was just a lovely drive with wonderful views of the stunning North California coast but there was nowhere really to stop and explore. Now I know differently and realize that there are so many places to visit. We have been to Point Lobos State Reserve, Pfeiffer Beach to name two and we were going to investigate a couple more on this trip.
When we left San Jose it was dark and there were no clouds. Stars were twinkling in the sky and the slightly less than full moon was shining above us. At the San Juan Bautista exit off 101 we ran into fog so we missed the sun rising. The fog remained with us all the way to Monterey and only started to lift when we hit the outskirts of Carmel.
Our chosen breakfast spot was the Wagon Wheel Coffee Shop on Carmel Valley Road, see previous post. The fog disappeared just as we reached the turn off for the Wagon Wheel and the sun came out for us.
It was round about 8 o’clock we crossed the Carmel Bridge and had officially entered Big Sur. Before long we could see the ocean and the coastline was clear. A few miles offshore though, a huge fog bank lurked but we kept our fingers crossed that it would wait out there until after lunch. It was the perfect day for a drive down Highway 1. I was armed with a list of all the interesting places along Big Sur and their nearest milepost to make them easier to find.
White egret perched on a kelp bed at Garrapata State Par
We parked in a turnout near Garrapata State Park and took a walk down towards the beach. At first the trail was steep but leveled off a bit further down. There were several little trails branching off along the way but nothing was signposted so I guess they must be unofficial paths. We could hear the raucous sound of sea lions and I thought they were down on the beach but the nearer to the beach we went, they still sounded the same distance away. I then realized they must have gathered on a couple of rocky outcrops about half a mile offshore. We wandered around the trails for about half an hour, stopping now and again to peer down at little inaccessible beaches and inlets at the bottom of craggy cliffs. The kelp beds were abundant but I didn’t spot any sea otters. We did see though, not only a snowy white egret perched on the kelp keenly watching for passing fish but also a blue heron. That is the first time I had ever seen those birds on the ocean. It was really quiet and peaceful with not another human being in sight.
Back on the road again I saw a sign which told us that there would be curves for the next 64 miles. Yep, that’s Big Sur for you. Soon we were crossing the most photographed bridge on Highway 1 – Bixby Creek Bridge (see photograph at the very top of this page). Already there were a few tourists parked up and taking photos. Both Tom and I always hold our breath as we cross this bridge as we don’t like to think about how high up we are.
Our next stop was just south of the Big Sur Lighthouse. We were heading for Andrew Molera State Park but parked in a turnout about a quarter of a mile before the park. Once before I had ventured a little way down this path but today we planned to go further. At the entrance to the path there is a sign saying there is a primitive camp site and I wandered what exactly that meant. The pathway starts off as a grass track through a pasture and then we entered a wood. In front of us was an old, fenced off cabin with an information board outside from which we learned that this is the oldest structure in Big Sur. It was built by George Austin in 1861 for Captain J.R.B Cooper and is now known as the Cooper Cabin. Over the 150 years since the cabin was built, all of the shingles on the outside have been replaced but the rest is more or less as it has always been.
Some deer on the trail down to the beach at Andrew Molera State Park
We continued on our hike by going down some steps to join the Beach Headlands Trail but there was no sign to tell us that – I just happened to have a map I’d printed the night before. The trail became wider and we left the trees behind us. The only people we saw on this part of the walk were a father and his two sons walking back from the beach with their surf boards. The sun was shining and we wished we had not brought our sweatshirts with us. The path narrowed slightly and became a little sheltered from the wind. We walked around a corner and Tom suddenly stopped because just ahead of us were a doe and her 6 month old youngster. They stopped and stared at us for a couple of minutes before walking towards us and then turning off into the bushes at the side of the path. Silently they disappeared and were seen no more.
After a while we found ourselves walking beside the Big Sur River. It looked cool and inviting as it meandered along. Before long the path ended at the top of a small, sandy beach and the river flowed into the ocean. The only way to get to the main beach, where we could see some people sitting and quite a few surfers out on the ocean, was to cross the river but there was no bridge. It wasn’t very deep but quite wide and I could have done it as I had my walking boots on but Tom only had tennies on. One alternative was to take our shoes and socks off and wade across but there was a third option. Not too far back up the trail there had been a signpost to the Headlands Trail and I could see from the map that it would get us to the other side of the beach though not actually to the beach. I could see a bench on the far side and it looked very inviting, so back we went to take the side trail.
Pelicans gliding up the coast
It was a fairly steep climb up a wooden stairway but we were entertained along the way by numerous lizards which darted off as we approached. If they had remained perfectly still, we would not even have seen them. The trail lead us down more steps and onto to path to the tip of the point and the bench. It was so nice to sit on that bench looking across at the beach and watching the surfers patiently waiting for the next big swell. I have a few favorite benches I like to sit on overlooking the ocean and this one has now joined the list. For half an hour we sat there enjoying ourselves and relaxing. Occasionally a line of pelicans would suddenly surprise us by appearing right under our noses. Just before we left the bench to climb back up to the headlands, half a dozen horses and their riders appeared on the beach – where they came from we have no idea.
Back in the car and still traveling south on Highway 1, our next stop was the Big Sur Bakery and Restaurant. By the time we arrived, it was nearly 12 noon and finding a car parking space proved to be a bit of a challenge. Fortunately they have an overfill car park and we found a place there. We followed a short part back to the bakery. I was really looking forward to a cool drink and a pastry of some sort but we were to be disappointed. A line spilled out of the door so we couldn’t even get inside. I did manage to have a quick look inside but there didn’t seem to be many bakery items on display. In fact it looked more like a bar. There was a printed notice saying that tickets were on sale for a BBQ which was to be held there at noon so I guessed the line was to buy tickets for that. We decided that perhaps this was not the best day to stop here so that will have to be put on the list for our next visit.
Instead we drove a few miles down the road to Nepenthe which is always worth a visit anyway. Here they have a restaurant on the top level with marvelous views down the coast and on the middle level the Cafe Kevah which has a lighter menu and the same view as above. Tom had an ice tea and I had a hot chocolate and we shared a pastry. Unfortunately the fog had rolled in so the views were not spectacular at all but it was nice to sit under an umbrella and chat about everything we had seen and done that day. And then it was time to drive home at the end of another perfect day.
September 19 2012 | Special Places | No Comments »
Big Sur coast from Nepenthe. A million dollar view. We talk about Nepenthe further down.
We decided it was time to revisit Big Sur as it has been a couple of years since we took the scenic drive along Highway 1.
(Please click on the small images to see larger versions, the resolution is better. Sorry, but just about all browsers don’t do these photos justice. Most browsers aren’t color managed so much of the shadow and color are lost.)
As we approached Gilroy on 101 we saw signs for the Garlic Festival. This is a big event which thousands of people will attend. I have never been and maybe one day I should just go to see what it is like and to sample garlic ice cream. Encountering traffic on the way home though could be a problem.
We arrived in Pacific Grove at 6.45a.m. and as the cafe we planned to have breakfast in did not open until 7 am, we had a little bit of time to kill. We drove down to the end of Lighthouse Avenue to see if I could find the motel I stayed in on my first trip to California in 1997. On that occasion I was with my son and daughter and we were spending New Year in the area. We found the motel almost at the end of the road and it looks the same as I remembered it. As we still had a few minutes to spare we drove down to Lovers’ Point which is a nice little cove with a sandy beach. In the past I have spotted sea otters amongst the kelp beds not far from shore but not today.
After breakfast we found our way back to Highway 1. When we crossed Carmel; River Bridge we were officially on the Big Sur scenic drive.
We wanted to have a quick look around Point Lobos State Reserve. There is a car park but it has a day use charge. According to ‘A Guide to California’s Big Sur‘, walk-ins did not have to pay to enter the reserve and that there were parking places along the road. All we found were ‘No Parking’ signs posted.
Our first stop was at the 67.00 mile marker (for more information about mile markers see this) in a small gravel pull off and we were in for the
Blue or Gray Whale? We're not sure. Anyway they were very close to shore.
treat of our lives. There was an no official trail but there were signs warning of dangerous cliffs. We walked down a rough beaten path towards the ocean where we had a good view of the coastline. There was no access to the shore at all. Here the rocks meet the sea with not a beach in sight. I was gazing out to sea at the kelp beds, keeping my eyes open for sea otters but what I saw took my breath away. Just offshore, maybe no more than a quarter of a mile, I spotted a water spout. Could it have been made by a whale? No, it couldn’t be, not at this time of the year. The whale migration was over a couple of months ago. But I saw another one and then another. I called to Tom and we kept our eyes trained on that section of the ocean. There was one water spout after another and deduced there were more than two whales out there. All the activity seemed to be in one spot but after we had been watching for at least half an hour we realized they were slowly moving north. Every so often we saw a fin rise out of the water but none of them breached. We concluded that they were feeding. Tom took lots of photographs but it was very difficult to actually capture anything. Sure wished I knew what sort of whales they were. The next day I mentioned to someone what we had seen and was told there was something on the news about the number of whales spotted off the coast of California. Of course I had to check online and found this. Maybe it was blue whales we saw. Wow.
Big Sur coast line
Eventually we tore ourselves away an continued our drive. At the 65.32 mile marker we stopped to take some photos and again at the 62.5 marker. The latter is called the Abalone Cove Vista Point. It bet there are no abalone there now. Tom reflected that back in the day you could probably walk out at low tide and pluck them from the rocks (note from Tom: Wild Abalone is the best food I ever ate. It is rich but not overly so. Texture, taste and sweetness from the sea. Man, it doesn’t get any better). Just off the the right there was a line of trees which effectively blocked off a lot of the vista. They were screening somebody’s back lawn. At the end of the garden, on the edge of the cliff, was a bench. I expect that is the place to be when the sun goes down.
By this time is was 9.30 and the tourists were out. I guess we could be called tourists today. I expect all the small gravel pull offs at the side of the road will be packed later on as more and more people hit the road. Just past the Rocky Pit Restaurant we stopped again. A field, with half a dozen grazing cows, sloped down to the ocean. When we looked along the coastline to the south we spotted a rock archway in the cliffs.
The road becomes more and more scenic the further south we went but scary too. If you don’t have a head for heights, some of the bridges are
Wind blown cypress along the Big Sur coast
difficult to cross. I just take a deep breath and look straight ahead. Bixby Creek Bridge is the most photographed bridge on this road. Up close you don’t get a true appreciation of it. A little further south at Hurricane Point (58.3 marker) is the perfect place to take a picture. It was a little foggy up there so Tom did not attempt to photograph it today. To see one of Tom’s photos of the bridge just look at the top of the page. The history of why Highway 1 was constructed and who did the hard work can be found here.
About eight miles further on, the Point Sur Lightstation is located on a large rock. There are three hour guided walking tours led by volunteers at certain times – November to March on Saturdays and Sundays at 10 am and on Wednesdays 1 pm; April to October on Saturdays and Sundays at 10 am and 2 pm, Sundays at 10 am and Thursday during July and August at 10 am. Admission is $10. There are moonlight tours as well, admission $15. No advance booking is required but it is first come, first served. Must put that on our list of things to do in the future.
We stopped again just before the entrance to Andrew Molera State Park at the beginning of a trail. A sign just inside indicated that it led to a primitive camp site and this was the only access to it. While Tom took photographs from the road, I stretched my legs by walking a little way down the trail which cut through a field. Wildflowers grew profusely along the edge of the path. When it became a little chilly I turned back because I no longer had my sweatshirt on. A father and son passed me on their way into the campground carrying a surf board.
Back on the road again, we took a detour down Sycamore Canyon Road to Pfeiffer Beach in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. It was a steep 2.5 mile drive on a one lane road through woodland and past a few houses. We passed only one car coming up but there were two behind us and one in front. The fee for day use is $5. A sign displayed at the pay booth amused me – ‘Yes it is windy and no refunds’. There was short walk to the beach alongside a stream which was not in full spate. The beach was sandy and hemmed in by high cliffs and three huge rocks which were just offshore. At first sight it did not look very big but when we walked north a little way, around a small point, we saw that the beach extended some way. The surf surged through the gaps between the rocks and through a tunnel in one of them.
Archway at Pfeiffer Beach in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
There were quite a few people on the beach. Lots of family groups with picnics. One family were flying a kite and another building sandcastles. A couple of little girls in swimming costumes were walking a little way into the water and then running back again screaming in mock fright when the tide came in a covered their feet. I walked along the beach and spotted several cairns of balancing stones. The beach does not have larges pieces of driftwood but lots of little sticks which could be used to build small structures. I also noticed that a lot of seaweed had been washed up, most of it kelp.
I walked back to the northern end of the beach, leaving Tom busy with his tripod near the first big rock. Wading across a small creek I found a convenient rock to sit on in almost total seclusion. The sun, having burned off the fog, was shining brightly. There was a warm breeze which felt very pleasant so I used my sweatshirt as a cushion. Then I started writing. It was a glorious feeling to be sitting in the sun, listening to the surf and the happy sound of children at play and I was thoroughly content.
Heading down towards Nepenthe along the Big Sur coast
Our last stop was at Nepenthe. There is no way you can drive down Highway 1 and not stop here. Nepenthe was designed by Rowan Maiden, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright in the late forties. Nearby is a cabin, which was built in 1925 and at one time was owned by Orson Welles and, his wife at the time, Rita Hayworth. Nepenthe is on three levels with a restaurant on the top deck with a large outdoor terrace, Cafe Kevah on the middle deck with another large terrace and the Phoenix Gift Shop on the lowest level. From the top two decks are wonderful views down the coast. When we arrived we parked at the road level. Because there were a lot of cars around, most of them appeared to be Corvettes so assumed there was some sort of rally or meet going on, we thought it would be difficult to get anything to drink, never mind something to eat. We opted for the Cafe Kevah and were pleasantly surprised to find it almost empty.
We ordered a grilled Cheddar and Fontina Panini sandwich, served with a mixed green salad plus a beer for Tom and a hot chocolate for me. All the tables are outside underneath umbrellas. The sun is warm so the shade was welcoming. We had views over the ocean and inshore. Two years ago Nepenthe was threatened by the Basin Complex wildfire, which took over a month to contain, but we have not seen evidence of that fire anywhere today. As soon as our food hit the table, we were surrounded by a family of Stella Jays and a couple of crows. They sat waiting to snatch up the crumbs but they were out of luck. When we had finished eating, one of the jays hopped from the adjacent table onto ours, hoping I expect to glean any crumbs from our plates. One slight movement from me and he flew away.
After lunch we climbed to the top deck just to see what was going on. In stark contrast to the deck below, it was crowded. Obviously the Corvetters had congregated there. From this level you get a better view down the coast but it was a bit hazy so we could not see very far. On our way back to the car we stepped into the Pheonix Gift Shop and somehow managed to resist the temptation to buy anything.
Time to head home. We had a marvelous day exploring parts of Big Sur we had not visited before but there is still lots we have yet to see.
September 07 2010 | Special Places | No Comments »
We set out just before 6 while it was still dark. There is just something about being on the road while most people are still fast asleep. To watch the scenery unfold slowly as the sun rises is awesome. First you see the tops of the hills appear as the sky lightens. Then the trees stand out as silhouettes. Finally everything is visible and then the sun appears in all its majesty. It is going to be a beautiful day.
We are headed for a beautiful part of the California coast – Big Sur. When I knew I was coming to California for the first time just over ten years ago, the item on the top of my itinerary was to drive south on Highway 1 from Carmel to Los Angeles. Our first stop today is in Carmel for breakfast – see previous entry.
There is no denying that Carmel is a pretty town. Some of the buildings are unique. Take the Tuck Box on Dolores Street. It looks like something out of a fairy tale. Back in the 60′s, when Tom was stationed at nearby Fort Ord, he would come here for breakfast sometimes. It is still there and they serve not only breakfast but lunch and afternoon tea (very English). Next time we are in Carmel, we will come here for breakfast.
Driving through downtown Carmel at 8 a.m. in the morning is a real pleasure. Admittedly none of the shops are open but you do get to appreciate the layout of the place and how well maintained it is. Later on today it will be swarming with tourists and it will be difficult to find anywhere to park.
We decide to pay a visit to Carmel Beach. I have never been to this part before. Just head on down Ocean Street and there is a small car park at the end. It is a very nice beach, sandy and clean. There were a lot of dogs with their owners, joggers and couples walking hand in hand. This is a very romantic place to be.
Soon we are heading back to Highway 1 and on our journey to Big Sur. Now Big Sur is not one single destination but a 50 mile stretch of the best views imaginable of the Californian Coast. There are several State Parks dotted along the coast – Point Lobos just south of Carmel, Garrapata a bit further along, then Andrew Molera, Pfeiffer Big Sur and finally Julia Pfeiffer Burns. There are a lot of places to park along the way but they are just dirt pull outs and a couple of vista points. These get really crowded later in the day. If you see cars parked at the side of the road then you can safely assume this is a good spot to pull over and maybe even find a trail down to the sea. For a guide to locations to stop at check out this website – ‘A Guide to California’s Big Sur’.
The road is a two lane highway which hugs the curves and climbs and ascends like a ride in a theme park. Today the views are spectacular with no fog at all. Just south of Carmel there is a signpost which warns that there are hills and curves for the next 63 miles.
I kept my eyes peeled for whales, watching out for spouts of water far out to sea which look like puffs of smoke. At this time of the year the males are returning to Alaska after spending the winter in the Sea of Cortez down in Baja California. They are closer to shore than on the southerly migration. In a few weeks the females and their calves will be passing and they will be even closer to the shore.
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March 04 2008 | Special Places | 3 Comments »