Big Sur

View from somewhere in Big Sur.

May 1 – May 5, 2022.

Big Sur wasn’t on my radar at all until we started traveling across the US. That’s when I started reading about it in van life groups. I was intrigued even though I wasn’t really sure where it was or what was there. I now know that Big Sur is the mostly uninhabited coastal area in California that starts somewhere south of Carmel and runs 71 miles or so to somewhere north of San Simeon on California Route 1. West to east Big Sur extends from the Pacific Ocean up a perilously steep slope somewhere into the Santa Lucia Mountains. Its boundaries aren’t very definite.

This area was originally called El Sur Grande (The Big South) but got shortened along the way combining Spanish and English. It was once populated by the Ohlone, Esselen, and Salian but then Europeans arrived and they fell to the fate of so many Native American populations being forced into labor at missions where their populations were devastated by smallpox and measles.

Today very few people live in the Big Sur area. A highway was built along the edge of the coast in 1937 making the region accessible but has since been closed 55 times due to landslides. State Parks, Los Padres National Forest, some private recreation sites, and just a few small towns dot this windy stretch of highway along the Pacific Ocean.

(All pics are click to enlarge. Once you have them enlarged you can view them in a slide show. Also, you can hover over the pics to see captions.)

We had no real plan for visiting Big Sur. And at the time I didn’t really know where it started or ended. I just thought we’d drive to the ocean and spend a day or two traveling north before heading elsewhere. That day or two turned into five.

Our first stop was at the Friends of Elephant Seal Visitor Center in San Simon. Here, tucked away in a mall of sorts, we found a tiny little shop with just a few displays and gifts. Manning the center was a super nice and knowledgeable friend of the Elephant Seals who told us all kinds of interesting things about these blubbery creatures. From the visitor center, we headed north armed with all our new information to see these animals in person.

At the Elephant Seal Vista Point, about a 15-minute drive up the road from the Friends, we saw thousands of seals laying about on the beach. It was molting season. Unlike people who molt every day, elephant seals do a catastrophic molt (shedding both hair and skin) once a year between April and August.

From the Elephant Seal Vista Point, we were off to find somewhere to stay for the night. As I said I had no real plan for this journey. iOverlander told me that there was a possible campsite along the road not far north from where we were. It looked like this roadside stop was on National Forest land. But when we arrived it seemed a bit exposed so we drove on to the next iOverlander spot. This one seemed to clearly be in the national forest but when we got there we found a sign on the rugged road leading up into the hills that stated that camping wasn’t allowed. As we drove further up Route 1 and crossed the unspecific Big Sur boundary we saw another sign that informed us that roadside camping was absolutely not allowed for the next 71 miles. With our free options exhausted, we headed for a pay campground hoping that they had openings. Luck was on our side. At the Plaskett Creek Campground, we not only found a nice site but since this was a national forest campground we were able to use Greg’s Senior Park Pass for half-price camping, saving us $17.50!

We paid for one night but when we realized there were lots of trails within walking distance of the campsite we dogged the Camp Host down and paid for another.

After a day of hiking around the coast across the highway from Plaskett Creek, we headed north to find another place to stay. We passed another national forest campground but it had a campground full sign at its entrance. We wanted to get a little further up the coast anyways. So we headed on until we saw another possibility, Limekiln State Park. A sign along the road told us that all the trails were closed at this park (due to fire damage) but we decided to swing in anyways to see what they had to offer. It was a small campground (only 12 sites). It was also full but the super friendly ranger told us that she thought a couple of people might be leaving but she wouldn’t know for sure until noon. It was early so we continued to head up the road to see if we could find someplace with vacancies. After meandering along, stopping at overlooks, and marveling at the scenery we finally arrived at the Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground. They were also full – and expensive at $45 a night (Ten dollars more than Limekiln). The matter-of-fact ranger told us that they started releasing first come first serve site at 2 pm and resisted giving us any encouragement that anything would be available. It was now about noonish. So we decided to take our chances and drive back to Limekiln where we luckily snagged a site. The super friendly ranger asked us if we wanted the site right next to the beach. Yes, please!

Since all the trails were closed at Limekiln we headed out in the van again the next day after we reserved another night of camping at Limekiln. We found some more great overlooks and hiked the Partington Cove Trail. On our way back to the campsite we stopped at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. The park was closed for repairs but you could still park on Route 1 and walk in to see the McWays Falls. This saved us a $10 parking fee. A short path takes you to an overlook where you can see the falls pouring into the ocean.

On our fifth day in Big Sur, it was time to get going. We had other places to go and people to see! But we still had lots of Big Sur left to experience. We stopped for the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge and did a short hike through Calla Lily Valley at the Garrapata State Beach.

After we visited Calla Lily Valley we had to make a choice. It was getting late and we couldn’t do it all! We had to choose between the nearby Garrapata State Park Bluff Trail and the Point Lobos State Nature Reserve which was a little farther up the road. We decided on the nature reserve. I think we made the right choice, Point Lobos became one of the highlights of our trip.

Cars lined the highway in both directions when we arrived at Point Lobos. The parking lot was full so we found a spot along the road and walked in – saving ourselves another $10 California State Park parking fee. We hiked a trail to an open-air visitor center where we asked a super helpful and friendly ranger what we should do with our limited time. The tails in Point Lobos mostly follow a loop around the park, a ragged nodule of land sticking out from the coast. The ranger suggested that we walk the southern edge of the reserve but also recommend that when we had more time to come back and walk the northern edge. And we might just do that someday.

Driving away from Point Lobos it felt like we were flung back into reality. Shopping malls appeared, the traffic thickened, and we left the magic of the indefinite Big Sur behind.

It is quite possible that I will be sharing this post on Wild Bird Wednesday or on My Corner of the World. Check out these blog hops to see what people are up to and what birds they have seen recently all over the world.

16 thoughts on “Big Sur

  1. We live up in the northwest part of California in the heart of the redwood country right on the ocean. One of my best friends and his wife go to Big Sur every year to paint (watercolors). It is a beautiful area. The story I’m working on right now has a crash scene that happens on one of the narrow roads in the Big Sur area.

    1. It is a special area. I bet their water colors are lovely. How interesting I made my post when you working on your story that includes Big Sur.

      I will have a few posts about your neck of California soon. I love the California coast!

    1. I was thrilled by the wildlife – especially the excellent views of them in some places. I’d love to go again and explore more.

  2. Wow! that’s a thorough visit of the Big Sur area. Looks you got some lovely weather while you were there, too. Gorgeous pictures! 🙂
    Happy & Safe Travels! 🙂

    1. Our weather was pretty good. It got a little cold and we had some fog but mostly it was perfect. Thanks!

    1. Thank you for hosting! Yes, I feel so lucky to have seen such amazing wildlife and to have taken in all those lovely views.

  3. Well, you opened my eyes – literally and figuratively – to Big Sur. I’m sure we have driven through at least twice, following the California coast, but we never stopped. Probably because it is impossible to find free camping. Or we were on a schedule. I’m so glad you and Greg took your time through this spectacular area and managed to walk, photograph, and observe for five days. I’ll have to wait until one of us has reached the “senior” age to soak it all up. 🙂

    1. I’m glad we did it too. But some of the coolest stuff was on either end – the elephant seals and the sea lions. Perhaps good fortune will come your way unexpectedly and you won’t have to wait until one of you reaches “senior.” But actually we went to another spot with super cheap camping that had almost all the sane elements as Big Sur that I may have liked even better. That’s for an upcoming post.

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