Big Sur; elephant seals, sea otters, wild coast and Hearst Castle!

Several hundred Elephant Seals lounge on the beach, just off Hwy. 1, four miles north of San Simeon.

Two male Elephant Seals joust for supremacy on beach just north of San Simeon!
The iconic Bixby Bridge on Hwy. 1, constructed in 1932.
Ragged Point Resort, with restaurant, motel and cabins – and flowers in full bloom in early April!
McWay Bay, and McWay Waterfall, in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.
Big Sur coast looking north from Hwy. 1
Big Sur coast, looking south from Hwy. 1; no surprise it was California’s first designated “Scenic highway”!

What is wild, scenic, home to thousands of huge Elephant Seals and contains some of the state’s finest campgrounds, restaurants and resorts?  Just 170 miles southwest of Stockton, it’s Big Sur, that relatively undiscovered paradise of rocky coast, bucolic coves, deep redwood forests and history that runs deep, spread along Highway One from Carmel south to San Simeon!

The Spanish called it “El Sur Grande”, the Big South, for the huge swath of rugged, unexplored and treacherous California coastline. Though Mexico awarded several land grants in the Big Sur area in the early 1800s, none were settled and it would not be until 100 years ago that permanent settlers arrived in the area. Soon, a lively logging economy began to thrive, with timber shipped up the coast to San Francisco.

Highway One was not completed until 1937 after 18 arduous years building this rugged highway; it opened the coast to a spectacular tourist destination.

A recent visit to Big Sur revealed an amazing experience for my wife and me. Just four miles north of San Simeon, we spotted a beach signed “Elephant Seals” and we turned off Hwy. 1. The beach is part of the six-mile long Piedras Blancas rookery, and home to some of 23,000 resident elephant seals (depending upon time of year). 

A 100 foot walk took us to a boardwalk – and about 250 elephant seals lounging in the sun, with the males occasionally jousting for supremacy.  Another mile north, another beach, and, 100 more of these fascinating creatures!

Elephant seals are much larger than harbor seals or sea lions.  Males can reach 5,000 pounds and 16 feet in length, females up to 1,800 pounds and 12 feet; pups are born at about 70 pounds and 3-4 feet. These huge creatures spend the majority of their lives at sea, diving as deep as 3,000 feet to forage for food, and spend several months on these beaches!

In May, juveniles and mothers who’ve been at sea arrive on the beach for a month of molting.  While in the rookery, the seals fast, eating no food and drinking little water – it’s much quieter on the beach than in the birthing and breeding, in the months just previous.

In June, July and August: as adult females and juveniles begin to depart to the sea, sub-adult males – those who have reached puberty but not yet of the size to command respect for breeding – begin to arrive for their molt. They are followed in August and September by adult males. The beach is quieter than in the months previously! Visitors will find docents at the beach 10 AM to 4 PM, and, no reservations required and no fees!

Some of the state’s finest parks and campgrounds are found in Big Sur. Andrew Molera State Park, just 20 miles south of Carmel offers 24 walk-in sites (first come, first-served), where you park and hike about 1/3 mile to camp sites that will hold up to four folks. With 4,800 acres, the park offers a huge variety of exploring options, from beaches to the Big Sur River to the rugged coastal mountains. This is relatively undeveloped acreage; if you are seeking a wilderness experience, this is pretty close!

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, 26 miles south of Carmel, offers 169 sites, picnic options and plenty of hiking and swimming opportunities. The park covers over 1000 acres of redwoods, oaks, cottonwoods and conifers and offers glimpses of wildlife including deer, skunks, raccoons and a variety of sea birds. The Big Sur Lodge also offers lodging, if you don’t desire to camp. Reservations: www.ReserveAmerica.com.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, 37 miles south of Carmel, offers two hike-in campsites, which can be reserved through www.ReserveAmerica.com. Hiking options are abundant, with options from the Big Sur Coastline up into the rugged coastal peaks. The Overlook Trail takes one on a stunning hike along the coastline, leading to the McWay waterfall, which drops almost 100 feet into the McWay Bay.

Limekiln State Park, 56 miles south of Carmel, is one of our favorites. Carved into the Big Sur coast, if offers 716 acres and 33 developed camp sites, many with stunning Pacific views and mighty redwoods. Remains of historic limekilns, which produced copious amounts of lime for construction many years ago, are to be explored..

Kirk Creek Campground is a bit further south, a gem perched on a bluff overlooking the coastline, but, first-come, first-served, run by the US Forest Service. For more info, call (805) 434-1996.

Big Sur restaurants and dining range from the subtle to the sublime, from inexpensive to $$$$-rated! Featuring some of California’s top-rated restaurants and many other fine dining choices, our recent favorites are Big Sur Roadhouse opened two years ago, getting rave reviews and a bit less expensive than some competitors and Ragged Point Inn.  Located on Ragged Point, a bluff high above the ocean coast with spectacular views in three directions, the restaurant, motel and cabins are surrounded by gorgeous flowers when we were there in early April!  Try the Cinnamon French Toast!

Take your binoculars and enjoy Big Sur’s spectacular coastal views (with plenty of overlooks), soaring bridges (thanks to CalTrans) and endless beaches. Watch for wildflowers almost always in bloom, California Sea Otters cavorting in secluded coves and legions of sea birds – if you are lucky, you may see a California Condor soaring overhead on their seven foot wingspans.

How to get there: Take I-5 south, go southwest on Hwy. 152, to Hwy. 156, to Hwy. 1

What’s nearby: to the north are Carmel and Monterey; San Simeon, Hearst Castle and Morro Bay are south.. Mission San Antonio (one of California’s 21 Spanish missions) and Pinnacles National Park are just east (though, circuitous and wild, scenic drives are required to reach them)!

For info: Elephant Seals, Friends of the Elephant Seal, www.elephantseal.org, PO Box 490, Cambria, CA 93428; Big Sur restaurants and lodging, Big Sur Chamber of Commerce, www.bigsurcalifornia.org; (831) 667.2100.

For additional travel destination inspiration, see my blog: http://blogs.eSanJoaquin.com/Valley travel; to contact me, tviall@msn.com.

Happy travels in the West!

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