Big Sur, California
March 11, 2021
Kudos to the folks who wrote this Wikipedia entry. It answered all my questions That I had been pondering about Big Sur!
Big Sur is a rugged and mountainous section of the Central Coast of California between Carmel Highlands and San Simeon, where the Santa Lucia Mountains rise abruptly from the Pacific Ocean. It is frequently praised for its dramatic scenery. Big Sur has been called the "longest and most scenic stretch of undeveloped coastline in the contiguous United States", a sublime "national treasure that demands extraordinary procedures to protect it from development", and "one of the most beautiful coastlines anywhere in the world, an isolated stretch of road, mythic in reputation". The stunning views, redwood forests, hiking, beaches, and other recreational opportunities have made Big Sur a popular destination for about 7 million people who live within a day's drive and visitors from across the world. It is among the top 35 tourist destinations world-wide. The region receives about the same number of visitors as Yosemite National Park, but offers only limited bus service, few restrooms, and a narrow two-lane highway that for most of its length clings to the steep coastal cliffs. North-bound traffic during the peak summer season and holiday weekends is often backed up for about 20 miles from Big Sur Village to Carmel. Due to the large number of visitors, congestion and slow traffic between Carmel and Posts is becoming the norm.
The region is often confused with an unincorporated village, a collection of small roadside businesses and homes, also known as Big Sur. The larger region known as Big Sur does not have specific boundaries, but is generally considered to include the 71-mile segment of California State Route 1 between Malpaso Creek near Carmel Highlands in the north and San Carpóforo Creek near San Simeon in the south, as well as the entire Santa Lucia range between these creeks. The interior region is mostly uninhabited, while the coast remains relatively isolated and sparsely populated, with between 1,800 and 2,000 year-round residents and relatively few visitor accommodations scattered among four small settlements. The region remained one of the most inaccessible areas of California and the entire United States until, after 18 years of construction, the Carmel–San Simeon Highway (now signed as part of State Route 1) was completed in 1937. Along with the ocean views, this winding, narrow road, often cut into the face of towering seaside cliffs, dominates the visitor's experience of Big Sur. The highway has been closed more than 55 times by landslides, and in May 2017, a 2,000,000-cubic-foot slide blocked the highway at Mud Creek, north of Salmon Creek near the San Luis Obispo County line, to just south of Gorda. The road was reopened on July 18, 2018.
The region is protected by the Big Sur Local Coastal Plan, which preserves it as "open space, a small residential community, and agricultural ranching." Approved in 1986, the plan is one of the most restrictive local-use programs in the state, and is widely regarded as one of the most restrictive documents of its kind anywhere. The program protects viewsheds from the highway and many vantage points, and severely restricts the density of development. About 60% of the coastal region is owned by governmental or private agencies which do not allow any development. The majority of the interior region is part of the Los Padres National Forest, Ventana Wilderness, Silver Peak Wilderness or Fort Hunter Liggett.
The original Spanish-language name for the mountainous terrain south of Monterey was el país grande del sur, which means "the big country of the south." The name el Sud (also meaning "the south") was first used in the Rancho El Sur land grant made in 1834. In 1915, English-speaking settlers formally adopted "Big Sur" as the name for their post office.
Big Sur is not an incorporated town but a region without formal boundaries in California's Central Coast region. The region is often confused with the small community of buildings and services 26 miles south of Carmel in the Big Sur River valley, sometimes referred to by locals as Big Sur Village, but officially known as Big Sur. Some visitors think Big Sur only refers to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, whose environmental setting is extremely different from the overall rocky coastal environment.
The various informal boundaries applied to the region have gradually expanded north and south over time. Esther Pfeiffer Ewoldson, who was born in 1904 and was a granddaughter of Big Sur pioneers Micheal and Barbara Pfeiffer, wrote that the region extended from the Little Sur River 23 miles south to Slates Hot Springs. Members of the Harlan family, who homesteaded the Lucia region 9 miles south of Slates Hot Springs, said that Big Sur was "miles and miles to the north of us." Prior to the construction of Highway 1, residents on the south coast had little contact with residents to the north of them.
Northern and southern boundaries
Most current descriptions of the area refer to Malpaso Creek 4.5 miles south of the Carmel River as the northern border. The southern border is generally accepted to be San Carpóforo Creek in San Luis Obispo County.
The vast majority of visitors only see Big Sur's dramatic coastline and consider the Big Sur region to include only the coastal flanks of the Santa Lucia Mountains, which at various points extend from 3 to 12 miles inland.
Some residents place the eastern border at the boundaries of the vast inland areas comprising the Los Padres National Forest, Ventana Wilderness, and Silver Peak Wilderness, or the unpopulated regions all the way to the eastern foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains. Author and local historian Jeff Norman considered Big Sur to extend inland to include the watersheds that drain into the Pacific Ocean. Author Lillian Ross wrote about life in Big Sur in several books. She and her husband Harry Dicken Ross lived in southern Big Sur near Lime Creek beginning in 1939. She famously described Big Sur as "not a place at all but a state of mind."
The name "Big Sur" has its origins in the area's early Spanish history. While the Portolá expedition was exploring Alta California, they arrived at San Carpóforo Canyon near present-day San Simeon on September 13, 1769. Unable to penetrate the difficult terrain along the coast, they detoured inland through the San Antonio and Salinas Valleys before arriving at Monterey Bay, where they founded Monterey and named it the provincial capital.
The Spanish referred to the vast and relatively unexplored coastal region to the south of Monterey as el país grande del sur, meaning "the big country of the south". This was often shortened to el sur grande (the big south).The two major rivers draining this portion of the coast were named El Rio Grande del Sur and El Rio Chiquito del Sur.
The first recorded use of the name "el Sud" (meaning "the South") was on a map of the Rancho El Sur land grant given by Governor José Figueroa to Juan Bautista Alvarado on July 30, 1834. The first American use of the name "Sur" was by the U.S. Coast Survey in 1851, which renamed a point of land that looked like an island and was shaped like a trumpet, known to the Spanish as "Morro de la Trompa" and "Punta que Parece Isla", to Point Sur. A post office bearing the name "Big Sur" was established on March 10, 1915. The English-speaking homesteaders petitioned the United States Post Office in Washington D.C. to change the name of their post office from Arbolado ("woodland") to Big Sur, and the rubber stamp using that name was returned on March 6, 1915, cementing the name in place.
Big Sur is renowned worldwide for its natural features and relatively pristine scenery. It is rated among the top 35 tourist destinations in the world. The Big Sur coast has been called the "longest and most scenic stretch of undeveloped coastline in the [contiguous] United States." The region has been described as a "national treasure that demands extraordinary procedures to protect it from development." The New York Times wrote that it is "one of the most stunning meetings of land and sea in the world." The Washington Times stated that it is "one of the most beautiful coastlines anywhere in the world, an isolated stretch of road, mythic in reputation." Condé Nast Traveler named State Route 1 through Big Sur one of the top 10 world-famous streets, comparable to Broadway in New York City and the Champs-Élysées in Paris. Realtor Mark Peterson commented, "Big Sur’s popularity has erupted with the growth of social media. It has become a year-round destination."
Writers have compared Big Sur to other natural wonders like the Grand Canyon. Novelist Herbert Gold described it as "one of the grand American retreats for those who nourish themselves with wilderness."
Big Sur is the California that men dreamed of years ago, this is the Pacific that Balboa looked at from the Peak of Darien, this is the face of the earth as the Creator intended it to look.
The section of Highway 1 running through Big Sur is widely considered one of the most scenic driving routes in the United States, if not the world. The views are one reason that Big Sur was ranked second among all United States destinations in TripAdvisor's 2008 Travelers' Choice Destination Awards. The unblemished natural scenery owes much of its preservation to the highly restrictive development plans enforced in Big Sur; no billboards or advertisements are permitted along the highway and signage for businesses must be modestly scaled and of a rural nature conforming to the Big Sur region. The state of California designated the 72-mile section of the highway from Cambria to Carmel Highlands as the first California Scenic Highway in 1965. In 1966, First Lady Lady Bird Johnson led the official scenic road designation ceremony at Bixby Creek Bridge. In 1996, the road became one of the first designated by the federal government as an "All-American Road" under the National Scenic Byways Program. CNN Traveler named McWay Falls as the most beautiful place in California.
The drive along Highway 1 has been described as "one of the best drives on Earth", and is considered one of the top 10 motorcycle rides in the United States. Highway 1 was named the most popular drive in California in 2014 by the American Automobile Association.
Despite and because of its popularity, the region is heavily protected to preserve the rural and natural character of the land. The Big Sur Local Coastal Plan, approved by Monterey County Supervisors in 1981, states that the region is meant to be an experience that visitors transit through, not a destination. For that reason, development of all kinds is severely restricted.
Besides sightseeing from the highway, Big Sur offers hiking and outdoor activities. There are a large number of state and federal lands and parks, including McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, one of only two waterfalls in California that plunge directly into the ocean. The waterfall is located near the foundation of a grand stone cliffside house built in 1940 by Lathrop and Hélène Hooper Brown that was the region's first electrified home. However, parking is very limited and usually unavailable on summer weekends and holidays.
The Ventana Wildlife Center near Andrew Molera State Park features a free Discovery Center that enables visitors to learn about the California Condor recovery program and other wildlife.
The Henry Miller Memorial Library (Miller lived in Big Sur from '44 to February '63, and wrote a book about the Place, Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch) is a nonprofit bookstore and arts center that opened in 1981 as a tribute to the legendary writer. It is a gathering place for locals and has become the focal point of individuals with a literary mind, a cultural center devoted to Miller's life and work, and a popular attraction for tourists.
There are both public and private camp grounds along the coast. Kirk Creek, Limekiln, and Plaskett Creek Campgrounds are located very near Highway 1. The public sites accommodate at least one vehicle while Plaskett Creek offers large group camping. The public campgrounds are privately managed and fill months ahead of time.
There are a few small, scenic beaches that are accessible to the public and popular for walking, but usually unsuitable for swimming, because of unpredictable currents, frigid temperatures and dangerous surf. The beach at Garrapata State Park is sometimes rated as the best beach in Big Sur. Depending on the season, visitors can view sea otters, sea lions, seals and migrating whales from the beach. The beach is barely visible from Highway 1.
Pfeiffer Beach is very popular but is only accessible via the narrow 2 miles Sycamore Canyon Road. The parking lot at the beach only accommodates 60 vehicles and is usually full on summer and holiday weekends. During the summer, a shuttle operates from the US Forest Service headquarters to the beach. The wide sandy expanse offers views of a scenic arch rock offshore. It is sometimes confused with the beach at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park to the south.
In the south, Sand Dollar Beach is the longest stretch of beach in Big Sur. It is popular with hikers and photographers for its views of nearby bluffs. The beach is 25 miles south of the Big Sur village on Highway 1. A steep staircase leads down to the beach from the highway. Jade Cove, 2 miles south of Sand Dollar Beach, is aLao popular.
Two beaches are surrounded by private land owned by the El Sur Ranch and are inaccessible to the public. The first is the beach at the mouth of the Little Sur River. Another is Point Sur Beach, a long sandy beach located below and to the north of Point Sur Lighthouse. Fences around the beaches are posted with "Private Property" and "No Trespassing" signs.
Three other beaches are inaccessible to the public. Swiss Canyon Beach is north of Andrew Molera State Park. The beach at the foot of McWay falls is not accessible from the shore. And to the south near the county line, Gamboa Point Beach is also closed to the public.
The Pine Ridge Trail (USFS 3E06) is the most popular hiking route into the Ventana Wilderness. Currently closed, hikers could use it to access many campsites in the back country, including Ventana Camp, Terrace Creek, Barlow Flats, Sykes, and Redwood camps. When open, it is accessible from the Big Sur Station. The trail, connecting trails, and the campsites along its route were closed during the Soberanes Fire in July 2016. They were damaged by the fire itself and further damaged by the heavy rains during the following winter. As of August 2017, the trail was blocked by four major washouts and more than 100 fallen trees across the path. Reopening the trail will require an environmental assessment, and perhaps re-routing the trail entirely. The trail is closed indefinitely.
The Mt. Manuel Trail (USFS 2E06) begins within Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. It follows a northeasterly route up the slopes of Mt. Manuel. Hikers following this route can access Vado, Launtz Creek, and Tin House camp sites. It connects to the Little Sur trail that provides access to the Little Sur River watershed. The trail is not maintained.
The North Coast Ridge Road (USFS 20S05) is accessible from the road to the Ventana Inn and indirectly from the south via Limekiln State Park. Parking is available in the north at Cadillac Flat near the Ventana Inn. From Ventana Inn, the trail climbs steeply to the crest of the coast ridge and south about 30 miles to near Cone Peak. There are wide views in all directions for almost the entire hike. It connects to a number of trails over its length, including Terrace Creek Trail (closed as of January 2018), Boronda Trail, DeAngulo Trail, Big Sur Trail, Marble Peak Trail, Bee Camp Trail, Lost Valley Connector Trail, Rodeo Flat Trail, and the Arroyo Seco Trail. It provides access to Timber Top and Cold Spring Camp. It passes near the summit of Anderson Peak (4,099 feet) and Marble Peak (4,031 feet), and through to the Nacimiento-Fergusson Road and connects to the Cone Peak Road. It is not open to vehicular traffic or bicycles. As of January 2018, the trail is closed.
Garrapata State Park, Andrew Molera State Park, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park all contain short hiking trails. As of January 2018, almost all trails on the east side of Highway 1 in these parks are closed due to the Soberanes Fire and damage sustained during heavy rains the following winter. Some trails west of Highway 1 are open.
Places of contemplation
Among the places that draw visitors is the formerly counterculture but now upscale Esalen Institute. Esalen hosted many figures of the nascent "New Age" and, in the 1960s, played an important role in popularizing Eastern philosophies, the "Human Potential Movement", and Gestalt therapy in the United States. Esalen is named after the Native Americans who congregated there at the natural hot springs possibly for thousands of years. Far from the coast within the Los Padres National Forest, the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, accessible via a steep, narrow, 12-mile dirt road, is only open to guests during the summer months.
Big Sur is also the location of a Catholic monastery, the New Camaldoli Hermitage. The Hermitage in Big Sur was founded in 1957. It rents a few simple rooms for visitors who would like to engage in silent meditation and contemplation. Normally all retreats are silent and undirected.
The Big Sur International Marathon is an annual marathon that begins south of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and ends at the Crossroads Shopping Center in Carmel-by-the-Sea. The marathon was established in 1986 and attracts about 4,500 participants annually.
Civic leaders in Big Sur stage a run each year in October to raise funds for the Big Sur Volunteer Fire Brigade and the Big Sur Health Center. Since the race, known as the Big Sur River Run, was founded in 1971, more than $1 million has been donated to the two organizations. The run through the redwoods was cancelled in 2016 due to the Soberanes Fire and in 2017 due to winter storms.
The Big Sur Folk Festival was held from 1964 to 1971. It began unintentionally when Nancy Carlen, a friend of singer Joan Baez, organized a weekend seminar at the Esalen Institute in June 1964 titled "The New Folk Music". On Sunday afternoon, they invited all the neighbors for a free, open performance. This became the first festival. The festival was held yearly on the grounds of the Esalen Institute, except for 1970, when it was held at the Monterey County Fairgrounds. Even when then well-known acts like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young or the Beach Boys performed, the event was purposefully kept small with no more than a few thousand in attendance.
State and federal lands
The state parks in Big Sur grew out of the original residents' desire to protect and preserve the land they admired. "The early settlers considered land stewardship their obligation to community." The first was Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. John Pfeiffer, son of pioneers Michael Pfeiffer and Barbara Laquet, was offered $210,000 for his land near Sycamore Canyon by a Los Angeles developer, who wanted to build a subdivision on the land. Instead, Pfeiffer sold 700 acres to the state of California in 1933.
As of January 2018, portions of most of these parks are closed due to after effects of the Soberanes Fire. From north to south, the following state parks are in use:
As of January 2018, some trails and campsites within the following areas are closed, due to damage caused by the 2016 Soberanes Fire and the following winter's rains.
During most summer weekends and on all major holidays, Big Sur is overwhelmingly crowded. Although some Big Sur residents catered to adventurous travelers in the early twentieth century, the modern tourist economy began when Highway 1 opened the region to automobiles in 1937, but only took off after World War II-era gasoline rationing and a ban on pleasure driving ended in August 1945. Big Sur has become a destination for travelers both within the United States and internationally.
Increasing numbers of visitors
The number of visitors to Big Sur has risen from about 1.5 million in 1978, to about 3 million in 1980, to an estimated 4 to 5 million during 2014 and 2015, comparable to or greater than the number of visitors to Yosemite National Park. Unlike Yosemite, which is managed by a single federal entity, about one-quarter of the land in Big Sur is privately owned and the remainder is managed by a conglomeration of federal, state, local, and private agencies. Yosemite offers 5,400 parking spots and a free, daily, park-wide bus service. In Big Sur during the summer, there is a single public bus that runs three times daily and a single shuttle van that operates on Thursday through Sunday from the Big Sur Station to Pfeiffer Beach. The owner of the Nepenthe restaurant estimated in 2017 that the number of visitors had increased by 40% since 2011. Big Sur residents and business owners are concerned about the impact visitors are having on the region. Traffic and parking is consistently bad during summer and holidays weekends and some visitors don't obey the laws.
Residents began discussing the potential necessity of shuttle buses, tollgates along Highway 1, and limits on the number of private autos allowed on the highway in 1978. One of the reasons for Big Sur's popularity is that it is only a one-day drive for about 7 million people. With the advent of social media, hashtags like "#sykeshotsprings" and "#pineridgetrail", two popular destinations within Big Sur, encourage more visitors. Visitors must pay $15 for a parking spot at a trailhead parking lot and take a 14-passenger van to Pfeiffer Beach. In response to visitor abuses, an anonymous Big Sur resident began an Instagram account in May 2019 named BigSurHatesYou intended to shame visitors into treating the Big Sur region better.
The television series Big Little Lies, which is filmed in the Monterey and Big Sur area, has increased the number of visitors to the area.
Restricted public transportation
Public transportation is available to and from Monterey on Monterey–Salinas Transit. The summer schedule operates from Memorial Day to Labor Day three times a day, while the winter schedule only offers bus service on weekends. The route is subject to interruption due to wind and severe inclement weather.
Limited vehicle services
There are only six gas stations along Highway 1 in Big Sur, from Ragged Point in the south to Carmel Highlands in the north. Three of them are in the north near Big Sur Valley. The filling station in Gorda has one of the highest prices in the United States, as it is far from the electrical grid and part of the cost of auto fuel is used to support operation of a diesel generator. All of them only operate during regular business hours and none of them supply diesel fuel. There are three Tesla recharging stations near Posts.
Lack of restrooms
It's a 'scenic highway' with piles of shit up and down the highway.
— Butch Kronlund, Coast Property Owners Association Executive Director
There are only 16 public restrooms along the entire coast to accommodate the almost 5 million annual visitors. The number of visitors far exceeds the available restrooms, and most restrooms are not available in locations where tourists frequently visit. Businesses report that the large number of visitors using their bathroom has overwhelmed their septic systems.
If visitors can locate them, they can use bathrooms within California State Parks or federal campgrounds without paying an entrance fee. But many of the bathrooms are not visible from Highway 1. This is due in part to the fact that restroom signs along Highway 1 were removed for aesthetic reasons.
As a result, visitors often resort to defecating in the bushes near locations like the Bixby Creek Bridge. Residents complain that visitors regularly defecate along Highway 1. Toilet paper, human waste, and trash litter the roadsides. Local residents have taken it upon themselves to clean up after visitors. The California Department of Transportation, which cleans the roadside areas about once a week, finds human waste during every cleanup. Butch Kronlund, Executive Director of the Coast Property Owners Association, criticized the lack of rest rooms. He says, "It's a 'scenic highway' with piles of shit up and down the highway."
The 1976 Coastal Act makes installing public bathrooms, trash bins, or even new road signs along Highway 1 extremely difficult. A number of federal, state, and local agencies have jurisdiction in Big Sur, all of which must weigh in on decisions affecting residents and visitors..
Few visitors' services
The land use restrictions that preserve Big Sur's natural beauty also mean that visitor accommodations are limited, often expensive, and places to stay fill up quickly during the busy summer season.
There are no urban areas, just three small clusters of restaurants, gas stations, motels, and camp grounds: Posts in the Big Sur River valley, Lucia, near Limekiln State Park, and Gorda, on the southern coast. Scattered among these distant settlements are nine small grocery stores, a few gift shops, and no chain hotels, supermarkets, or fast-food outlets, and no plans to add facilities or shopping.[ Among the places to stay and eat are the luxury Ventana Inn, Post Ranch, and the Nepenthe restaurant, built around the cabin Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth impulsively bought.
There are fewer than 300 hotel rooms on the entire 90-mile stretch of Highway 1 between San Simeon and Carmel. Lodging include a few cabins, motels, and campgrounds, and higher-end resorts. There are some short-term rentals, but their legality is still being determined.
Some social media sites report the availability of free camping on the side of roads, but camping of any sort along highways and secondary roads is illegal and subject to fines. Casual campers have at times turned every wide spot along the Nacimiento-Fergusson Road into an illegal campsite, although there are no bathrooms or fire pits. Residents complain about illegal camp fires and people defecating along the road without using proper sanitation. Camping is only permitted within designated private and state or federal park campsites or within USFS lands. On July 22, 2016, an illegal campfire within Garrapata State Park, where camping is not permitted, got out of control. The resulting Soberanes Fire burned 132,127 acres, 57 homes and 11 outbuildings, and killed a bulldozer operator. It took almost three months to extinguish and cost about $236 million to suppress. In October, 2017, a visitor from Florida was arrested for starting an illegal campfire that grew out of control.
Solutions under consideration
The Community Association of Big Sur (formerly the Big Sur Property Owners Association) is proposing some solutions. They want to close the parking lot at Bixby Creek for a year to encourage visitors to take public transportation. They are considering asking community volunteers to keep tourists from walking onto the bridge, which is both dangerous and illegal. Tourists who want to get to Pfeiffer Beach over the current mile-long, one-lane road to a small 65 car parking lot would be required to reserve and pay for parking ahead of time, or take a shuttle. Parking on the highway shoulder at popular McWay Falls to avoid a $10 parking lot fee would be prohibited. Another idea under consideration is a ban on dispersed camping in the national forest during fire season "until proper backcountry monitoring and enforcement exists." An illegal campfire in 2017 burned 57 homes and killed one firefighter. The Forest Service used to have a number of back country rangers, but now has none.
The arrival of Bay Area artists in Carmel-by-the-Sea beginning in 1904 was the beginning of a literary and artistic colony on the northern edge of Big Sur. Robinson Jeffers moved to Carmel in September 1914, and over his lifetime wrote many evocative poems about the isolation and natural beauty of Big Sur. Beginning in the 1920s, his poetry introduced the romantic idea of Big Sur's wild, untamed spaces to a national audience, which encouraged many of the later visitors.
Henry Miller moved to Big Sur at the invitation of the Greco-French artist Jean Varda, uncle of filmmaker Agnès Varda. He lived in Big Sur for almost 20 years, from 1944 to 1962. When he first arrived, he was broke and novelist Lynda Sargent was renting a cabin from a local riding club. She allowed Miller to live rent free for a while. But when the cabin was sold to Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth in 1945, Miller moved several miles south to a wood cabin on Partington Ridge that had been owned by his friend Emil White.
While in Big Sur, Miller, avant-garde musician Harry Partch and Jean Varda were part of a local group of bohemians known as the Anderson Creek Gang, many of whom lived at the former highway work camp near the mouth of Anderson Creek. Miller lived in a shack there during 1946 before moving back to the cabin on Partington Ridge in 1947. In his 1957 essay/memoir/novel Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, Miller described the joys and hardships that came from escaping the "air conditioned nightmare" of modern life.
Hunter S. Thompson worked as a security guard and caretaker at a resort in Big Sur Hot Springs for eight months in 1961, just before the Esalen Institute was founded at that location. While there, he published his first feature story in the nationally distributed men's magazine Rogue about Big Sur's artisan and bohemian culture. In the article, he described how the Bohemian image attracted people who annoyed residents:
Every weekend Dick Hartford, owner of the local Village Store, is plagued by people looking for "sex orgies," "wild drinking brawls," or "the road to Henry Miller's house" as if once they found Miller everything else would be take care of ...
Time was when this place was as lonely and isolated as any spot in America. But no longer; inevitably, Big Sur has been "discovered." Life called it a "Rugged, Romantic World Apart," and presented nine pages of pictures to prove it. After that there was no hope ...
And on some weekends it seems like all seven million of them are right here, bubbling over with questions: "Where's the art colony man? I've come all the way from Tennessee to join it." "Say, fella, where do I find this nudist colony?"... Or the one that drove Miller half-crazy: "Ah ha! So you're Henry Miller! Well my name is Claude Fink and I've come to join the cult of sex and anarchy."
Other writers and artists were also attracted by Big Sur, including Edward Weston, Richard Brautigan, Emile Norman and Jack Kerouac. Big Sur acquired a bohemian reputation with these newcomers. Kerouac followed Miller to Big Sur and included the rugged coast in large parts of two of his novels. He spent a few days in early 1960 at fellow poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti's cabin in Bixby Canyon and based his novel Big Sur on his time there.
Well-known individuals have called Big Sur home, including:
Ansel Adams, photographer/musician
Morley Baer, photographer
Kaffe Fassett, textile artist
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, author
Allen Funt, actor
Al Jardine, musician
Philip Johnson, architect
Carolyn Mary Kleefeld, author and artist
Henry Miller, author and artist
Gordon Newell, sculptor
John Nesbitt, radio announcer, TV producer
Emile Norman, artist
Kim Novak, actor
Nathaniel A. Owings, architects
David Packard, business executive
Linus Pauling, Nobel Prize winner
Trent Reznor, musician
Johnny Rivers, musician
Nicholas Roosevelt, diplomat
Ted Turner, business executive
Jean Varda, author
Cole Weston, photographer
Edward Weston, photographer
Vilmos Zsigmond, cinematographer
Highway 1 impact
Prior to the construction of California State Route 1, the California coast south of Carmel and north of San Simeon was one of the most remote regions in the state, rivaling at the time nearly any other region in the United States for its difficult access. At the turn of the 19th century, the 30 mi trip from Monterey to the Pfeiffer Ranch in the Big Sur valley could take three days by wagon. It was a rough road that ended in present-day Big Sur Village and could be impassible in winter. There was no road beyond the Pfeiffer Ranch, only a horseback trail connecting the homesteads to the south. The ride from Pfeiffer Ranch to San Carpóforo canyon was about 60 miles in a direct line, but about three times that by horseback. J. Smeaton Chase, who traveled on horseback up the coast in 1911, reported that a stage coach ran from Posts (then named Arbolado) to Monterey stage on alternate days.
The highway was first proposed by Dr. John L. D. Roberts, a physician who was summoned on April 21, 1894 to treat survivors of the wreck of the 493 tons S.S. Los Angeles (originally USRC Wayanda), which had run aground near the Point Sur Light Station about 25 miles south of Carmel-by-the-Sea. The ride on his two-wheeled, horse-drawn cart took him 31⁄2 hours, a very fast trip for the day. Construction began in 1921, ceased for two years in 1926 when funding ran out, and after 18 years of construction, the Carmel–San Simeon Highway was completed in 1937. The route was incorporated into the state highway system and re-designated as Highway 1 in 1939.
The highway is a dominant feature of the Big Sur coast, providing the primary means of access and transportation. The Big Sur portion of Highway 1 is generally considered to include the 71-mile segment adjoining the unincorporated region of Big Sur between Malpaso Creek near Carmel Highlands in the north and San Carpóforo Creek near San Simeon in the south.
Along with the ocean views, this winding, narrow road, often cut into the face of towering seaside cliffs, dominates the visitor's experience of Big Sur. The stunning views, redwood forests, hiking, beaches, and other recreational opportunities have made Big Sur a popular destination for about 7 million people who live within a day's drive and visitors from across the world.
The highway has been closed more than 55 times by landslides, and in May 2017, a 2,000,000-cubic-foot slide blocked the highway at Mud Creek, north of Salmon Creek near the San Luis Obispo County line, to just south of Gorda. The road was reopened on July 18, 2018, but is subject to closure during heavy storms.
Big Sur land use
The policies protecting land used in Big Sur are some of the most restrictive local-use standards in California, and are widely regarded as one of the most restrictive development protections anywhere. The program protects viewsheds from the highway and many vantage points, and severely restricts the density of development. About 60% of the coastal region is owned by governmental or private agencies which do not allow any development. The majority of the interior region is part of the Los Padres National Forest, Ventana Wilderness, Silver Peak Wilderness or Fort Hunter Liggett. The area is protected by the Big Sur Local Coastal Plan, which preserves it as "open space, a small residential community, and agricultural ranching." Its intention is "preserving the environment and visual access to it, the policies of the local coastal plan are to minimize, or limit, all destination activities."
The unincorporated region encompassing Big Sur does not have specific boundaries, but is generally considered to include the 71-mile segment of California State Route 1 between Malpaso Creek near Carmel Highlands in the north and San Carpóforo Creek near San Simeon in the south, as well as the entire Santa Lucia range between these creeks. The interior region is mostly uninhabited, while the coast remains relatively isolated and sparsely populated, with between 1,800 and 2,000 year-round residents and relatively few visitor accommodations scattered among four small settlements.
Three tribes of Native Americans — the Ohlone, Esselen, and Salinan — are the first known people to have inhabited the area. The Ohlone, also known as the Costanoans, are believed to have lived in the region from San Francisco to Point Sur. The Esselen lived in the area between Point Sur south to Big Creek, and inland including the upper tributaries of the Carmel River and Arroyo Seco watersheds. The Salinan lived from Big Creek south to San Carpóforo Creek. Archaeological evidence shows that the Esselen lived in Big Sur as early as 3500 BC, leading a nomadic, hunter-gatherer existence. The aboriginal people inhabited fixed village locations, and followed food sources seasonally, living near the coast in winter to harvest rich stocks of otter, mussels, abalone, and other sea life. In the summer and fall, they traveled inland to gather acorns and hunt deer. The native people hollowed mortar holes into large exposed rocks or boulders which they used to grind the acorns into flour. These can be found throughout the region. Arrows were of made of cane and pointed with hardwood foreshafts. The tribes also used controlled burning techniques to increase tree growth and food production.
The population was limited as the Santa Lucia Mountains made the area relatively inaccessible and long-term habitation a challenge. The population of the Esselen who lived in the Big Sur area are estimated from a few hundred to a thousand or more.
Spanish exploration and settlement
The first Europeans to see Big Sur were Spanish mariners led by Juan Cabrillo in 1542, who sailed up the coast without landing. When Cabrillo sailed by, he described the coastal range as "mountains which seem to reach the heavens, and the sea beats on them; sailing along close to land, it appears as though they would fall on the ships."
Two centuries passed before the Spaniards attempted to colonize the area. On September 13, 1769, an expedition led by Gaspar de Portolá were the first Europeans to enter the Big Sur region when they arrived at San Carpóforo Canyon near Ragged Point. While camping there, they were visited by six indigenous people who offered pinole and fish and received beads in exchange. They explored the coast ahead and concluded it was impassable. They were forced to turn inland up the steep arroyo. The march through the mountains was one of the most difficult portions of the expedition's journey. The Spanish were forced to "make a road with crowbar and pickaxe". Crespi wrote, "The mountains which enclose it are perilously steep, and all are inaccessible, not only for men but also for goats and deer." From a high peak near the San Antonio River, they could see nothing but mountains in every direction. They reached Monterey on October 1. When they attempted to explore further south, the scouts found their way blocked by "the same cliff that had forced us back from the shore and obliged us to travel through the mountains."
After the Spanish established the California missions in 1770, they baptized and forced the native population to labor at the missions. While living at the missions, the aboriginal population was exposed to diseases unknown to them, like smallpox and measles, for which they had no immunity, devastating the Native American population and their culture. Many of the remaining Native Americans assimilated with Spanish and Mexican ranchers in the nineteenth century.
In 1909, forest supervisors reported that three Indian families still lived within what was then known as the Monterey National Forest. The Encinale family of 16 members and the Quintana family with three members lived in the vicinity of The Indians (now known as Santa Lucia Memorial Park west of Ft. Hunger Liggett). The Mora family consisting of three members was living to the south along the Nacimiento-Ferguson Road.
Along with the rest of Alta California, Big Sur became part of Mexico when it gained independence from Spain in 1821. But, due to its inaccessibility, only a few small portions of the Big Sur region were included in land grants given by Mexican governors José Figueroa and Juan Bautista Alvarado.
Rancho Tularcitos, 26,581-acre of land, was granted in 1834 by Governor José Figueroa to Rafael Goméz. It was located in upper Carmel Valley along Tularcitos Creek.
Rancho San Francisquito
Rancho San Francisquito was a 8,813-acre land grant given in 1835 by Governor José Castro to Catalina Manzaneli de Munras. She was the wife of Esteban Munras (1798–1850), a Monterey trader, amateur painter, and grantee of Rancho San Vicente.The grant was located in the upper Carmel Valley, inland and east of Rancho San Jose y Sur Chiquito.
Rancho Milpitas was a 43,281-acre land grant given in 1838 by governor Juan Alvarado to Ygnacio Pastor. The grant encompassed present day Jolon and land to the west. When Pastor obtained title from the Public Land Commission in 1875, Faxon Atherton immediately purchased the land. By 1880, the James Brown Cattle Company owned and operated Rancho Milpitas and neighboring Rancho Los Ojitos. William Randolph Hearst's Piedmont Land and Cattle Company acquired the rancho in 1925. In 1940, in anticipation of the increased forces required in World War II, the U.S. War Department purchased the land from Hearst to create a troop training facility known as the Hunter Liggett Military Reservation.
Rancho El Sur
On July 30, 1834, Figueroa granted Rancho El Sur, two square leagues of land totalling 8,949-acres, to Juan Bautista Alvarado. The grant extended between the Little Sur River and what is now called Cooper Point. Alvarado later traded Rancho El Sur for the more accessible Rancho Bolsa del Potrero y Moro Cojo in the northern Salinas Valley, owned by his uncle by marriage, Captain John B. R. Cooper. Rancho El Sur is still an operating cattle ranch.
Rancho San Jose y Sur Chiquito
In 1839, Alvarado granted Rancho San Jose y Sur Chiquito, also about two square leagues of land totalling 8,876-acre (3,592 ha), to Marcelino Escobar, a prominent official of Monterey. The grant was bounded on the north by the Carmel River and on the south by Palo Colorado Canyon.
During the first survey of the coast conducted by the U.S. Coast Survey in 1886, the surveyor reported:
The country between the shore-line and the Coast Range of mountains, running parallel with the shore-line from San Carpojoro to Point Sur is probably the roughest piece of coast-line on the whole Pacific coast of the United States from San Diego to Cape Flattery.
The highest peaks of the crest of the coast range are located at an average distance from the coast of three and a half miles. In this distance they rise to elevations of from three thousand six hundred to five thousand feet above the sea-level. From San Carpoforo Creek to Pfeiffer's Point, a distance of 54 miles, the shore-line is iron-bound coast with no possible chance of getting from the hills to the shore-line and back except at the mouths of the creeks and at such places as Coxe's Hole and Slate's Hot Springs, where there are short stretches of sandy and rocky beaches from fifty to one hundred yards [meters] in length. In many places the sea bluffs are perpendicular, and rise from one thousand to one thousand five hundred feet above the sea. The country is cut up by deep cañons [canyons], walled in with high and precipitous bluffs. These cañons are densely wooded with redwood, oak, and yellow and silver pine timber.
The redwood trees are from three to six feet in diameter and from one hundred to one hundred and fifty feet high. The oaks and pines are of the same average dimensions. Beautiful streams of clear cold water, filled with an abundance of salmon or trout, are to be found in all the canyons. The spurs running from the summits of the range to the ocean bluffs are covered with a dense growth of brush and scattering clumps of oak and pine timber. The chaparral is very thick, and in many places grows to a height of ten or fifteen feet ... The spurs, slopes, and canons are impenetrable ...
The first known European settler in Big Sur was George Davis, who in 1853 claimed a tract of land along the Big Sur River. He built a cabin near the present day site of the beginning of the Mount Manuel Trail. In 1868, Native Americans Manual and Florence Innocenti bought Davis' cabin and land for $50. The second European settlers were the Pfeiffer family from France. Michael Pfeiffer and his wife and four children arrived in Big Sur in 1869 with the intention of settling on the south coast. After reaching Sycamore Canyon, they found it to their liking and decided to stay.
The Davis cabin was just above the location of a cabin later built for John Bautista Rogers Cooper. Born John Rogers Cooper, he was a Yankee born in the British Channel Islands who arrived in Monterey in 1823. He became a Mexican citizen, converted to Catholicism, and was given his Spanish name at his baptism. He married Native American Encarnacion Vallejo and acquired considerable land, including Rancho El Sur, on which he had a cabin built in April or May 1861. The Cooper Cabin is the oldest surviving structure in Big Sur. Other important pioneer-era historic resources are the Post House, built over several years in the 1860s and 1870s, and the Swetnam / Trotter House, a late 19th century dwelling located at the mouth of Palo Colorado Canyon. Further south, in Pacific Valley, is the Junge Cabin, a one-room redwood cabin built in 1920 by homesteader John Junge. The John Little State Natural Reserve straddling the mouth of Lime Creek preserves the original 1917 cabin of conservationist Elizabeth K. Livermore.
After passage of the federal Homestead Act in 1862, a few hardy settlers were drawn by the promise of free 160-acre (65 ha) parcels. After the claimant filed for the land, they had gained full ownership after five years of residence or by paying $1.50 per acre within six months. Each claim was for 160 acres, a quarter section of free government land. The first to file a land patent was Micheal Pfeiffer on January 20, 1883, who claimed two sections of land he already resided on near and immediately north of the mouth of Sycamore Canyon. They had six more children later on. William and Sarah (Barnes) Plaskett and their family settled in Pacific Valley in 1869. They built several homes and a saw mill. After filing a patent for a homestead, the settler had complete ownership after residing on the property for five years or after six months with payment of $1.50 per acre.
Other settlers included William F. Notley, who homesteaded at the mouth of Palo Colorado Canyon in 1891. He began harvesting tanoak bark from the canyon, a lucrative source of income at the time. Notley's Landing is named after him. Isaac Swetnam worked for Notley and built a house at the mouth of Palo Colorado Canyon, which as of 2018 is still a residence. Sam Trotter, who also worked for Notley, later bought Swetnam's house. He married Adelaide Pfeiffer, the daughter of Micheal Pfeiffer, and they raised a family there from 1906 to 1923. Many other local sites retain names from settlers during this period: Bottcher, Gamboa, Anderson, Partington, Dani, Harlans, McQuades, Ross, and McWay are a few of the place names. Wilber Harlan, a native of Indiana, homesteaded near Lucia in 1885. His family descendants are as of 2017 still operating the Lucia Lodge.
Industrial era and gold rush
Along with industries based on tanoak bark harvesting, gold mining, and limestone processing, the local economy provided more jobs and supported a larger population than it does today. From the 1860s through the start of the twentieth century, lumbermen cut down most of the readily accessible coast redwoods. Redwood harvesting further inland was always limited by the rugged terrain and difficulty in transporting the lumber to market. Pioneer William F. Notley was one of the first to harvest the bark of the Tanbark Oak from the Little Sur River canyon.
Tanbark was used to manufacture tannic acid, necessary to the growing leather tanning industry located in Santa Cruz, and to preserve fish nets. The tanbark was harvested from the isolated trees inland, left to dry, corded, and brought out on mules or hauled out on "go-devils". The go-devil was a wagon with two wheels on the front, while the rear had rails for pulling. Notley constructed a landing at the mouth of the Palo Colorado River like that at Bixby Landing to the south. The tanbark was loaded by cable onto waiting vessels anchored offshore. In 1889, as much as 50,000 cords of tanbark were hauled out from the Little Sur River and Big Sur River watersheds. A small village grew up around Notley's Landing from 1898 to 1907. Near the start of the 20th century, the tan oak trees were becoming seriously depleted, which slowly led to the demise of the industries they had created.
A point on the Palo Colorado road is still nicknamed "The Hoist" because of the very steep road which required wagon-loads of tanbark and lumber to be hoisted by block and tackle hitched to oxen. The old block and tackle on a beam is still mounted between mailboxes.
In the 1880s, gold was found in the Los Burros District at Alder Creek in the mountains east of present-day Gorda. The gold rush town of Manchester at 35.880°N 121.392°W existed for a few short years. The town boasted a population of 200, four stores, a restaurant, five saloons, a dance hall, and a hotel, but it was abandoned soon after the start of the twentieth century and burned to the ground in 1909. Miners extracted about $150,000 in gold (about $4.61 million in 2019) during the mine's existence.
The 30 mi trip from Monterey to the Pfeiffer Ranch usually took all day by wagon. If the road was in bad shape, the stage driver only took a light-weight spring wagon. The rough road ended in present-day Big Sur Village and could be impassible in winter. Local entrepreneurs built small boat landings like what is known today as Bixby Landing at a few coves along the coast from which supplies could be received and products could be shipped. At locations where it was impossible to land products directly on shore, a cable hoist was built from land to schooners anchored just off shore. A steamer would make a trip from San Francisco to drop off supplies in Big Sur once a year in the fall. In 1894, ranch owners Post, Pfeiffer, and Castro hired the steamer Bonita to bring lumber and seed oats to the coast. It dropped of the freight at the mouth of the Big Sur River and at Big Creek, north of Lucia. A large crowd gathered to received the supplies and to load butter, honey, beans, wool, hides, and other products on to the ship. Only the stone foundations of some of these landings remain today.
In the late 1800s, the Ventana Power Company operated a sawmill near present-day Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. They began planning to build a dam on the Big Sur River just downstream of the confluence of Ventana Creek and the Big Sur River. They hoped to sell the electricity to the City of Monterey. They built a diversion channel along the Big Sur River, but the 1906 San Francisco earthquake bankrupted the company and they abandoned the project. The stonework from the diversion channel is still visible. Few other signs of this brief industrial period are visible. The rugged, isolated terrain kept out all but the sturdiest and most self-sufficient settlers. Travelers who ventured south of the Post Ranch rode horse back along trails that connected the various homesteaders along the coast.
The Santa Lucia Mountain Range, which dominates the Big Sur region, is 140 miles (230 km) long, extending from Carmel in the north to the Cuyama River in San Luis Obispo County. The range is never more than 11 miles from the coast.
The Santa Lucia Mountains are characterized by extremely steep slopes, all associated with watersheds flowing directly or indirectly into the Pacific Ocean. The range forms the steepest coastal slope in the contiguous United States. The mountains are of recent tectonic origin, and is rugged, steep and dissected by deep stream canyons. The general trend of the range is northwest–southeast, paralleling the numerous faults that transect the area.
The topography is complex, however, reflecting active uplift and deformation, a variety of lithological types, rapidly incising stream networks and highly unstable slopes. Stream channels and hill slopes are very steep, with average hill slope gradients exceeding 60% in some interior watersheds. The coastal side of the range rises directly from the shoreline, with oceanfront ridges rising directly 4,000 to 5,000 feet to the crest of the coastal range. Big Sur's Cone Peak, at an elevation of 5,155 feet is only miles from the ocean and is the tallest coastal mountain in the contiguous United States.
The basement rocks of the Santa Lucia Range contain Mesozoic Franciscan and Salinian Block rocks. The Franciscan complex is composed of greywacke sandstone and greenstone, with serpentinite bodies and other Ultramafic rocks present. Small areas of marble and limestone lenses form resistant outcrops that are prominent landscape features, often white to light gray in color. The Salinian block is made up of highly fractured, and deeply weathered meta-sediments, especially biotite schist and gneiss, intruded by plutonic (granitic) rocks such as quartz diorite and granodiorite. Both formations have been disrupted and tectonically slivered by motion on the San Andreas and associated fault systems. The Palo Colorado and Church Creek faults are prominent features influencing the linear northwest–southeast alignment of primary drainages.
Along with much of the central and northern California coast, Big Sur frequently has dense fog in summer. Fog and lack of precipitation during the summer both result from the North Pacific High's presence offshore during that season. The high pressure cell inhibits rainfall and generates northwesterly air flow. These prevailing summer winds from the northwest drive the ocean surface water slightly offshore (through the Ekman effect) which generates an upwelling of colder sub surface water. Warm surface air blowing over cold upwelling ocean water close to the coast is cooled to create a surface-based inversion.
Summer fog is common below about 2,000 feet elevation. During 2014 and 2015, researchers recorded summer seasonal totals of 49 in and 12 in of fog water drip under open shrub canopies. They concluded that precipitation from fog dripping into the soils under coastal shrub canopies can be as much as 50% of annual average rainfall rates. The fog usually moves out to sea during the day and closes in at night, but sometimes heavy fog blankets the coast all day.