The rugged splendor of Big Sur
I began my love affair with Big Sur about 17 years ago. I was living in San Francisco at the time, and spent a lot of time in both Santa Cruz and Big Sur. The drive along the PCH, or Highway 1, was exhilarating, especially with my NY sensibility. I quickly understood why Big Sur is referred to as “The greatest meeting of land and sea”. I spent many weekends tent camping in group camp at Andrew Molera State Park or building fires nestled among the redwoods at the (now closed) Ventana Wilderness Camp Ground (Ventana Inn and Spa is still thriving). Back then we would drive, hike, walk, sit by the fire, cook dinners on my trusty coleman stove – the days as endless as the sea. When my husband and I started dating I took him to Big Sur on our first camping trip together. After I moved back east to NYC, Big Sur became a fond memory, a reminder of my youth and a symbol of the sort of freedom you can only feel in your early twenties.
Two years ago we moved to Los Angeles, a mere 6 hour drive from Big Sur. How excited I was to be close again.
But now I have kids.
Last winter my husband and I took a week off before our second son was born and we drove up to Big Sur with our (then) 4 year old. It was great, but different. We stayed at a cabin at the amazingly serene Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn, one of only two on the property that allow children, and their restaurant, which is beautiful and serves delicious food, was kid-friendly enough for a 4 year old. When thinking of another trip this summer, we had to take into account that we now have two children, which changes things, especially when number two is a bit of crazy man. Could we still do this? Of course we could…So, we loaded up the family truckster, and hit the 101…
Armed with enough snacks and car games for a small army, we left Los Angeles and made our way to Pismo Beach and the Splash Cafe for some of their award-winning, bread-bowl clam chowder. Our bellies full, we walked and picked up some cheap sunglasses and a straw hat, and continued our quest north, hopping on Highway 1 just north of San Luis Obispo for the remainder of the journey. After a quick glimpse of the flags of Hearst Castle in San Simeon, we cruised another 5 miles and stopped off at the Elephant Seal Vista Point. We viewed the last of the summer males in full molt, and heard the familiar chorus of yelps, squeals and shrieks. Windblown and anxious to get to our destination, we hopped back on the 1 and watched as the landscape dramatically shifted as we entered Big Sur. Following the winding, seaside road, we made our way to our home-away-from home, at least for the next few days.
This year we opted to stay at the super kid-friendly Big Sur Lodge which is nestled in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. We found our cabin situated within walking distance to the lodge, and the pool, which was a welcome addition in the August heat. We settled in and got ready for 3 days of hiking, taking photos, searching for bugs and soaking in as much of the beauty as our brains would allow.
After waking up to wild turkeys walking across the lawn in front of our cabin, we headed out early to the Big Sur Bakery where we found fresh baked muffins, croissants, frittatas and coffee which we enjoyed in their amazing outdoor garden under the canopy of sun sails and x-mas lights, listening to the call of the local Stellar’s Jay. Don’t miss the gallery and Spirit Garden next door, filled with succulents, African percussion instruments, Tibetan Freedom flags and the biggest dream catcher I have ever laid my eyes on. After breakfast we drove south to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park where we hiked the McWay Falls overlook path which takes you under the highway and out to a spectacular view of the falls, as well as some ruins of the original homestead from the 1940s. After exploring around an old water mill near the parking lot, we headed back up north for lunch at Nepenthe. Don’t miss the tasty bean salad, the friendly staff and the unmatched view of the coastline which you can gaze upon from one of their carefully positioned tables. After lunch we headed back to the cabin for a swim and a rest before dinner at the Big Sur River Inn.
After another great wake-up at the bakery, we headed back to our cabin and suited up for a hike to Pfeiffer Falls and Valley View. The trailhead was a stone’s throw from our doorstep, and was just perfect for our five year old son who couldn’t get enough of the lizards and Jays who accompanied us, and the size of the trees we walked under. As we neared the tree canopy, we began to hear the rush of the water from the falls. Worth every step. We then headed out, picked up sandwiches at the Big Sur Deli and drove north 25 miles to the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. We hiked down to the rocky beach at Sea Lion Point via the Sea Lion Point Trail and spent a few hours in the Allen Memorial Grove via the Cypress Grove Trail. We saw deer, seals, dragonflies and fuzzy, red, marine algae covered trees that were eery and magical, like something out of a Cabinet of Curiosities. Back to the cabin for a swim, we opted to stay in and cook dinner, strolling down to the lodge for ice cream and coffee afterwards.
After fueling up with coffee, loading up the car and checking out of the lodge, we went over to the Ripplewood Cafe and packed up delicious sandwiches to go and headed south 35 miles to Sand Dollar Beach. We had a picnic near the parking lot, where we found many picnic tables and lots of grassy area to stretch out on. We then walked down to the beach where we played frisbee, watched surfers, collected rocks, dried seaweed and driftwood, and took in the last bit of the Big Sur air. Getting back on the 1, we said goodbye and began the journey home, stopping off for surprisingly tasty homemade pizza at Nardonne’s in Santa Barabara. We arrived home with pajama clad sleeping boys in the backseat filled with memories that will last a lifetime.
Big Sur is a different place with kids. You have to rethink where you will eat, and where you will stay, but it was an amazing trip that I would (and will) do again in a heartbeat. If you plan to cook your own meals (our cabin had a full kitchen) make sure to bring groceries from home, as the pickings are slim in Big Sur proper (however, there is a Safeway in Carmel if needs be). Check here for more info on Big Sur.
So what are you waiting for?
Long lines outside the Splash Cafe, Pismo Beach
Elephant Seals at the vista point
A wild turkey on our doorstep
Breakfast at the Big Sur Bakery
Painted trees a la Tim Burton at the bakery
Ready to collect bugs
Through the tunnel to McWay Falls
Point Lobos State Reserve – Allen Memorial Grove
Marine algae covered trees, Point Lobos
Rock sculptures at Seal Point
Heading out of cabin #4