big sur

As we drove through Big Sur on our way to Andrew Molera State Park a few miles to the north, where we were hoping to pitch our tent for two nights, I was surprised to see that Big Sur is not a town at all, but instead, like Coney Island in co. Down in Northern Ireland, it is merely a spot on the map, and before you know it, you’ve passed right through it. A store here, an inn there and a few restaurants scattered along Highway 1 and that’s it, except for signs for campgrounds along the way. That’s what we’re here for – a couple of nights of camping and checking out the vistas here by the ocean in Central California.Andrew Molera is another first-come, first-served campground, with only 24 tent sites, so we had our fingers crossed we’d have better luck here than we did at Faria Beach Park in Ventura. Everyone we’d met who’d been to Big Sur had highly recommended Andrew Molera State Park as the place to stay, so of course it was our first choice. I’d made notes about the other campgrounds in Big Sur, filed under Back-Up Plan, and as we drove by Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, with its 204 camp sites, with a big sign at its entrance saying FULL, I figured we’d be totally out of luck at the puny 24-site Andrew Molera. Ever so wrong, again.

I don’t think there were more than two or three other tents pitched for the night when we arrived. A few people were in the middle of deconstructing their weekend campsites and heading home on a Sunday afternoon … Sunday is a time for leaving, not arriving, except in our case, when every day is like any other – it could be Tuesday, it could be Friday – they’re all the same to us – the sun comes out (or in the case of Big Sur, the fog rolls in), the birds are singing, the flowers are in bloom, the trees tower above us, the ocean is doing its thing – it’s not that time stands still, it’s simply irrelevant (although I do have the good grace to realize it is perhaps totally relevant when you’re looking for a campsite and that a Sunday arrival is a far sight better than a Saturday one).

Once we’d pitched our tent …

and gone to the general store for provisions …

… we were ready to explore the trails in Andrew Molera State Park. The park attracts day visitors (a day pass goes for $10) as well as overnighters ($25 per car per night), and we saw a number of hikers heading through the campground field in a westerly direction. Figuring they must know something, we followed along in their path. As we were to find out over the course of our two days, if you stick to the trails (which we are strongly encouraged to do, both to avoid the plentiful poison oak and to prevent cliffside erosion), it’s all an easy walk – just my speed.

As we head down the trail, the first thing we come across is a cabin in the woods …

… and I am instantly reminded of classic cabins in other woods – Thoreau’s cabin retreat on Walden Pond and Ferlinghetti’s cabin in the cliffs of Big Sur, the latter featured prominently in Kerouac’s “Big Sur,” which, as it happens, I am in the midst of reading, adding some literary color to my already multihued Big Sur experience.

It turns out this cabin was built in 1861 and is the oldest building on the Big Sur coast. At the time, the surrounding land was a ranch owned by one JBR Cooper, a local sea merchant, and this cabin served as the ranch hands’ quarters. It looks to be the only surviving building from the ranch days, now nestled within the woods of Andrew Molera State Park.

Beyond the cabin, the trail forks – one fork heads to the beach cove …


… and the other fork leads up to the cliffs …

… in plenty of time for sunset

Back at our tent site, we did our caledonia campfire girls thing, putting our feet up to the fire and eating our PB&J sandwiches out under the stars.

The fog rolled in overnight and blanketed Big Sur much of the next day, but like a restless child tossing his blankets this way and that in a feverish pitch, the fog would creep up the cliffs one moment only to fly away the next to reveal the coastal vistas. If you’ve got a day in Big Sur to do nothing but sit and take it all in, it’s fascinating to watch the fog roll in and roll out. We didn’t have all day to sit, but we had a fair chunk of it to do just that while waiting for a table to open up for lunch at Nepenthe restaurant, sitting high up on a cliff on the ocean side of the highway.


Lunch at Nepenthe had been preceded by a late morning coffee, purchased at the River Inn Bus and leisurely consumed while we relaxed and read our books in chairs placed at the water’s edge of the Big Sur River, which flowed behind the bus up on Highway 1.


Big feet in the Big Sur

South of Nepenthe on the east side of the highway, the Henry Miller Memorial Library sits among the redwood trees.

The clearing around the building has some funky sculptures, and up on the front deck you can enjoy a cup of coffee and sit a spell, perhaps reading your newly purchased book from inside …

… or simply take in the views …

A few miles south of Big Sur lies the former home and property of the late Julia Pfeiffer Burns, which has since become a state park, named in her honor. We ventured forth on one of many trails in the park, this one leading to an overlook of McWay Falls, where the water seemingly spurts forth from rock. We’d seen the same phenomena in the mountains leading down to the ocean on the west coast of Ireland, but those we saw there were mere trickles compared to this one here in California.

By late afternoon, we were back at our campground and back on another one of its trails that led to the southern end of the beach, this one requiring us to ford the mighty Big Sur …

… through the open fields …




… and down to the beach




We were reluctant to leave … Big Sur, the coast, the cliffs, and Highway 1, but so the road goes, sometimes leading from the sublime to the ridiculous. Next stop: Las Vegas.

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