Big Sur: An American Road Trip
There is simply no place in the world with the rugged beauty if Big Sur. Feeling the need to blow the dust off a long winter, we head south on one of America’s most iconic roadways.
“It is a region where extremes meet, a region where one is always conscious of weather, of space, of grandeur, and of eloquent silence.” —Henry Miller on Big Sur
Highway One twists through Big Sur, a two-lane roadway snaking south down the craggy coastline from Carmel to San Simeon. Along the way, the vast Pacific sparkles to the west, the steep slopes of the Santa Lucia Mountains flank the east. Far below, isolated beaches teem with tide pools and colossal rock formations. Sequoia redwoods tower above the blanket of fog that sweeps in most afternoons and lingers until nearly noon most mornings. The salty ocean air mingles with eucalyptus, redwood, madrone, bay leaf and mesquite, the heady fragrance of California chaparral.
The area has been an escape for celebrities and artists, musicians and writers, monks and pirates. Henry Miller made his first Big Sur home in a cabin built by Orson Wells and Rita Hayworth. Jack Kerouac took refuge in a house owned by Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton danced in the famed Nepenthe Restaurant. We come to Big Sur in search of an idyllic spot of restorative solitude and rejuvenating natural beauty. Ready for a few days of adventure, we leave Monterey in our rearview mirror.
We pull into Big Sur Campgrounds and are rewarded with a highly coveted spot on the Big Sur River. The river runs fresh and cool through a grove of coastal redwoods and native hardwoods. We unhitched our shiny silver Airstream under the noisy commentary of the brilliant-blue Stellar Jays. The river is on ankle deep near our spot so we stash our fly rods for another day, opting instead to stretch our legs on the trails in nearby Andrew Molera State Park.
The 8-mile Andrew Molera Loop offers everything we could ask for in a Big Sur hike, from a redwood grove to an unspoiled beach with dozens of spectacular bluff views and open vistas along the way. Spring wildflowers blaze with color, dusty-blue lupine, golden mariposa lilies, bright orange California poppies. The trail is steep in places and mostly in the sun so we welcome some fleeting shade beneath a small cluster of Monterey pines, enjoying sweeping views of the water far below. We glimpse the inky wings of California condors floating above the vista. Winding our way down the trail to Molera Beach, we cool off in the icy waves before climbing back up the Trail Camp Beach Trail to the parking lot. Enough exercise for one day, time for a beer on the terrace at Nepenthe.
The beer is cold, the platter of California cheeses with quince jam, fig cakes and fruit sublime, the vista magnificent. It’s an enchanted moment that can only be found in Big Sur.
Leaving Big Sur Campgrounds the next day, we can’t resist stopping once again for Big Sur Bakery coffee and a breakfast pizza before heading south toward San Simeon. We pass through the tiny towns of Lucia and Gorda on our hour-and-a-half long drive and opt out of the tour of the opulent Hearst Castle. Instead, we look to the sea.
We’re intent on getting our kayaks into San Simeon Cove. Sea kayaking in this breathtaking natural harbor is exactly what these lightweight little boats were made for. The cove is pristine and tranquil with an abundance of wildlife to take in—otters frolicking in the kelp forests, splashing dolphins, sunbathing sea lions. After several hours on the water, our tired paddle arms are ready for a break. We make camp at the Hearst San Simeon State Park and hike along the bluffs to watch the lumbering elephant seals at Piedras Blancas. After another long day of sun and salt air, as the sun sets we cobbled together a simple campfire dinner and turn in for a peaceful night’s rest.
Our sojourn in Big Sur comes to a close the next morning and reluctantly we hitch up the Airstream, load the kayaks, sandy beach towels, camp stove and cooler to start the drive back north. It’s been a spellbinding three days, a journey of rediscover filled with incredible light, spectacular vistas and spirited adventures. We return home with a renewed sense of self.
Originally published in The Orvis News Spring 2016. Photos ®The Orvis Company.