Until recently, my relationship with central California's magnificent Big Sur coast was all about the drive. Ninety-three miles of zigzagging, fog-attracting, life-affirming, white-knuckling Highway 1 to savor from behind a windshield during the day and high-tail out of before the road darkened and the elephant seals turned in for the night.
However many times you zip through it, Big Sur is an overpowering vehicular experience, summoning waves of joy, awe and carsickness all in one movable sitting. But I've never been able to shake a certain hurried feeling here from behind the wheel. Something about all those hairpin turns, Rock Slide Area signs, gathering clouds, convoys of Cruise America RVs and inevitable road maintenance bottlenecks along this sinuous stretch of blacktop (which took nearly two decades to build and is forever being repaired after landslides or when hunks of it fall into the ocean) has always seemed to say, "Enjoy, but keep moving."
FOR THE RECORD:
Big Sur photos: An Aug. 21 Travel section article on camping in Big Sur was accompanied by captions for a cover photo and an additional photo inside the section that referred to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park as Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, a different park. —
Then, last summer, I decided to forgo the usual Big Sur dash. Slow down. Pull over long enough to read the milepost numbers. Hang out for a few nights — which is easier to do than it looks from inside a moving car even if you don't have an Esalen Institute reservation or a spare $1,785 for a Pacific Suite at the Post Ranch Inn.
The heart of Big Sur Valley is dotted with less expensive (but still pricey) motels and thin-walled inns. But the best deal of all: opting for the fresh-air package at more than a dozen federal, state and private campgrounds hiding — sort of — along the Big Sur coast.
Toting an oversized Coleman tent, a cooler full of grub and my 8-year-old son, Jackson, for a long weekend camping odyssey on California's favorite coast, the tally for three nights of tenting it in Big Sur was gorgeously cheap — less than $100 even after factoring in the latest spike in state park campsite fees. Of course, during high season, roughing it in the great outdoors in Big Sur isn't exactly a novel idea. Others — all kinds of others — have caught on.
"It can get kind of nutty here in July and August," says Rick Kelly, camp host at Kirk Creek Campground, a tent- and trailer-packed headland wedged between Highway 1 and the crashing Pacific. "If I had to pick one time to come, it probably wouldn't be now," he adds matter-of-factly, "but in mid- to late fall when you get the gray whales passing through and far fewer people. It's just spectacular at that time."
On a still pretty spectacular Thursday afternoon in Big Sur in late summer, Kirk Creek is packed with hikers, bikers, wine-swilling 'n' guitar-strumming post-grads, fussy babies in high chairs, gin rummy-playing grandparents, wiener-roasting European RVers, a toothless chap in overalls who tries to sell me a tattered
novel and a platoon of squirrel-hunting preschoolers who invade our campsite with squirt guns and spray me in the face when I raise my hands in mock surrender.
"It really is kind of nutty here," Jackson affirms, as we wind down a short path from the campground to a quieter cove along the craggy, wave-blasted shore, where miles of foaming coast undulate into the horizon and a bare-chested man bathing in an icy rock pool with a hand-carved trident in his hand smiles genially at us like a retired Neptune. "But it's still really nice," Jackson adds.
Agreed. Even during the peak season at Kirk Creek, Big Sur's sole oceanfront campground, the stunning atmosphere drowns out any nutty crowd-related gripes. Just remember to arrive with a reservation, or early enough in the morning to snag an open spot. Otherwise, forget it.
"It used to be a lot more low key," says Phil Newell, a Santa Barbara-based regular who's been camping and diving at Kirk Creek for 35 years. "Nowadays, we come at dawn on Sunday morning and might wait three hours for a campsite to open up, but it's still worth it. It's still the same magical place that most people still drive right past."
"It's amazing how much it hasn't changed around here in a lot of ways," adds his wife, Alice, who recommends a nearby hiking trail that leads into the Ventana Wilderness and the Santa Lucia Mountains hulking directly across the road. "I was up there today — the busiest time of year — and not a soul."
At night, the place calms down, and we doze to a perfect Big Sur soundtrack — faintly crashing waves, a tickle of ocean wind, even the fog rolling over us feels audible. The next morning, we drive five miles down the road to Sand Dollar Beach, lower Big Sur's largest crescent of sand and a magnet for surfers, families, Frisbee-catchingdogs and disappointed sand-dollar hunters.
"I promised one for Mom," says Jackson, searching in vain under piles of rocks and strands of kelp piled like beached pythons. "Do you think she's really gonna believe me when I tell her that there were no sand dollars at Sand Dollar Beach?"
Anyway, it's a sweet spot. Plus, I remind Jackson, we didn't have to pay the $5 Los Padres National Forest beach entrance fee. Guests at Kirk Creek Campground (also part of Los Padres) get a free pass at Sand Dollar Beach.
"Is that supposed to make me feel better?" Jackson asks.
Winding north along 25 miles of highway with spectacular coastal scenery, we enter Big Sur Valley, a forested inland section that doesn't look like much more than a one-room post office, a $5.50-a-gallon gas station, a bakery and a few unexciting-looking motels — at least from the inside of a car going 55 mph.
Again, slowing down makes all the difference, particularly on the ocean-facing terrace of Big Sur's storied cliffside restaurant Nepenthe, where a $14.50 Ambrosia burger and sweeping 800-foot-high views of the coast make up for the area's faulty sand-dollar advertising.
That night, we check into Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, which occupies more than 1,000 forested acres, including a 200-plus-site campground serving a good portion of upper Big Sur's summer car-camping ranks. There's also a lodge here and (never a great omen for a campground) a gift shop.
"Keep an eye out for kids on bikes," the ranger says when we check in, handing over a campground map and circling our site number.
Looping through the large, filled campground, we spot volleyball nets, dogs in porta-kennels, a makeshift soccer field, a guy working underneath his pickup, 1,200 or so hammocks and, yes, kids on bikes. Not your classic image of Big Sur tranquillity. But our campsite looks serene, tucked beneath a grove of towering redwood trees with a squawking blue jay welcoming us from a low-hanging branch. At least until a large, raucous group at the site next to ours starts belting out "Happy Birthday" to someone named Ernie.
Turns out we're smack in the middle of a family reunion gathered here to wish Uncle Ernie a happy 60th. Just our summer luck.
"This place seems even nuttier than the first one," says Jackson, as the group breaks into several soul-shattering rounds of "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow."
We rejuvenate with a late-day hike to Pfeiffer Falls and a nice overlook at the crest of the park's Valley View Trail. But when we return, our neighbors are in the process of committing car-camping's most unforgivable cardinal sin. Pinching our firewood.
"Sorry," says a red-handed reunioner dropping a bag of logs sitting right beside our tent. "I thought it might be ours."
Nutty is one thing, but attempted firewood theft — a first in my lengthy camping experiences — is another. It's time to move. The park staff relocates us to a quiet overflow site along the Big Sur River where the blue jay and our gratitude for the California State Park system returns.
"We don't get too many of those bad groups, but when we do it's usually during the summer," says a ranger named Joe, bringing by some complimentary firewood and a familiar bit of advice. "If I were you, I'd do the Big Sur camping thing in the fall."