In my last post I ranted about the crowds along this stretch of the California Coast that includes the stunning Big Sur. Well, if you insist on visiting this area instead of the slightly superior (in my opinion) Oregon Coast, please do so during a week other than this one – the week between Christmas and New Years. I would think much of summer would also be too crowded. First the bad news, then the good with some recommended stops.
CONS: ACCESS PROBLEMS
I’ve noticed many of my fellow travelers here are on a different wavelength than I am. They’re dressed to the nines, with heels and nice clothes. So for them a simple drive with stops to snap photos is what they’re after. With some exceptions, this is what they get in California. Coastal access is hampered in this state by lack of foresight. In Oregon, during the 1960s, Governor Tom McCall passed a law that was brilliant. In that state, nobody can own the beach; it’s all public. You will never see a fence with no trespassing signs stretched across the sand in Oregon.
Additionally, there are many many more state parks along the Oregon Coast than on the California Coast. There are places to access the coastline here, mostly north or south of the Big Sur area. But a combination of geography (the San Jacinto Mountains are a long and unbroken rank of mountains that keep Highway 1 well up above the ocean) along with the private property have blocked my attempts to experience this coast in the way I like.
I like to take long hikes along the coast, exploring coves and headlands. This is harder to do here than in Oregon. Shorter explorations can be done in California, but I’ve found that around Big Sur it’s very difficult. The Redwood Coast is a little better in this regard.
Redwoods: On the California coast, even this far south, you’ll find the famous Redwood trees. This is, by the way, something Oregon lacks except for one place in the far south. Of course if you really want to see the big trees, go up to the Redwood Coast, just south of the border with Oregon.
Golfing: I am not a golfer, but you could do much worse than the Monterrey Peninsula for this sport. Pebble Beach and a plethora of other courses carpet the land. By the way, in Oregon, Bandon is a similarly great golfing center.
Elephant Seals and Sea Otters: The stretch of coastline south of Big Sur has many places from which to see these sea creatures. I would add gray whales to this, but you can see these giants anywhere along the west coast. Go to Baja in Mexico if you want to get up close and personal with them in their breeding grounds.
Wine & Dine: Although wine country is inland and north from here, there is no shortage of restaurants and wine bars featuring great wines. In fact, the fine dining in this area is pretty special. I don’t go in for this type of thing generally, preferring funky cafes and eateries.
Moderate Winter Weather: One winter while living in Alaska I was sent to a conference at Stanford University. Talk about being thawed out! The winters south of San Francisco are famous for being rather warm, though big storms are not uncommon.
I will focus on photography and nature, since that is what I’m into.
- Elephant Seals on the beach at San Simeon near the Hearst Castle: These big-nosed seals haul up on the beach and are fairly used to photographers, so you can get pretty close. Don’t get too close though. Males especially can be extremely dangerous.
- McWay waterfall: A gorgeous cove and waterfall are accessed by a short trail from Julia Pfeifer State Park, near Big Sur itself. See image below.
- The garden at the Big Sur Coast Gallery Cafe: Up on the headland, you will pass a few lodges and restaurants. Behind the gas station here (Big Sur’s only one), you’ll find a little cafe with good (but expensive) coffee. There are cactus all around the place, and they dominate the garden. But there are all sorts of plants, including those with flowers that draw hummingbirds.
- Point Lobos: Not far south of Carmel, you’ll find the Pt. Lobos Reserve. Hiking trails wind through the trees, and the rocky coastline is chock full of great foregrounds for sunset shots. This place is very popular, so if you want more solitude try…
- The headland just south of Point Lobos: If Pt Lobos is too crowded, go south to the very next headland, just past the public beach. There is not much parking, but pull in on either side of the hill next to the highway. A trail heads around on an ocean-side bench. South of the hill, downhill toward the ocean, a bit of scrambling will take you down to a small beach. There are great tide pools. Back up on top of the bench, work your way around to the north to find all sorts of rocky foregrounds.
- Lucia: The people at this little lodge south of Big Sur are very friendly and it is a world away from the hoity toity atmosphere of Carmel. Their restaurant is perched well above the Pacific, with a view into a cove where sea otters play. You’ll need a big telephoto to get photos of them though.
- Carmel by the Sea: You’ll find plenty of eating and lodging options, all fairly spendy. This is a fine town to stroll, but it’s crowded on holidays. There is an oyster bar named Flaherty’s, so you know I had to visit (that’s my last name). While it is necessarily more upscale than oyster bars should probably be (it’s Carmel after all), the food is good and the atmosphere not as stuffy as other places in this town.
- Carmel Mission: Especially nice if you are religious and want to attend one of the services, this old mission a few minutes west of Hwy. 1 towards Carmel by the Sea is worth a stop and a few photos. It is well preserved.
- Monterrey Bay Aquarium: A can’t miss destination, this aquarium is regarded as one of the best in the country, if not the world. It lies on the north side of the Monterrey Peninsula, facing the bay to the north.
- Garland Ranch Regional Park: This is a nice change from the coast, lying inland in the Carmel Valley about 10 miles from Hwy. 1. Locals take their dogs for leash-free walks in this beautiful 4500-acre park. It consists of valley bottom oaks and sycamores, but also ascends to 2000 feet (if you need real exercise). There are historical remains, both American Indian and that of the Rancho Don Juan. You can hike, bike or ride horseback on trails of varying lengths. There is also a visitor center.
So that’s it for now. It’s a pretty subjective report I know. If you’re not really a photo or nature geek, I would recommend some further searching of more standard travel sites. Just try to visit during an off week.