There are some places you have to see to believe, experience to begin to understand – Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls,… Photographs don’t begin to capture the feelings you have. Big Sur is such a place.
Big Sur is a 100 mile stretch of the California coast that has no competition for sheer grandeur anywhere on the West Coast. Henry Miller claimed it was the way the Creator intended the world to be.
The first thing that comes to most people’s minds are the towering Santa Lucia mountains that plunge headlong into the blue Pacific Ocean. And there’s no doubt, this is what characterizes Big Sur. The mountains in some places are a mile high and drop to the sea in only two miles. Statistics – interesting but they don’t begin to convey the feeling you have in your stomach when driving the Cabrillo Highway, the two lane road that clings to the cliffs, snaking its way from San Simeon in the south to Carmel-by-the-Sea in the north.
Wherever you have such a precipitous coastline you’ll find plenty of cliffs into which the surf endlessly crashes. You can experience calm seas like the photograph above. After all it is the Pacific. Or you can get a little more action.
But when you combine this dramatic meeting of land and sea with an offshore storm, you can see some surf that takes your breath away. It’s both frightening, awe inspiring and exhilarating.
There is one meeting of mountain and sea in particular that is always a wonder and inspiration. It is the famous waterfall at McWay Cove in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. It is probably the most photographed waterfall along the entire Big Sur coast and for excellent reason. It is unique and that in itself makes it a compelling subject. But Lathrop and Helen Hooper Brown used to have their home where we now enjoy the view across the cove to the waterfall. Can you imagine what a wonderful life that must have been? They donated the land to the State Park system and now we can all enjoy it too.
This peaceful place speaks to me in a most seductive voice in the quiet of twilight. And when the Pacific puts on one if her beautiful sunsets there is nothing that compares.
The coast has one enchantment after another. But there’s more to Big Sur which begins at the southern end in the shadow of Hearst Castle, the opulent home built by the late William Randolph Hearst. Hearst not only enjoyed collecting priceless art but also exotic wild animals. You can still see zebras grazing on the slopes below the castle. If you didn’t know the ocean was right behind you, you might think you were in Africa.
The castle itself sits at the top of the mountain looking out over the ocean and the grazing lands below.
In the town of San Simeon, built at the foot of the mountain, the pier still remains where ships used to dock to supply the castle. Now fishermen arrive early in the morning to test their skill and luck. I love the abstract images it provides.
But there are some very special natural wonders awaiting as we move up the coast. I never tire of visiting Salmon Falls. I’ve seen it when it was a raging torrent, dangerous to go near.
And I’ve experienced it when it was a wonderland, as delicate and beautiful as fairy wings.
It’s hard to believe it’s the same waterfall. There are several beautiful waterfalls but Salmon Falls is my favorite. It is always an inspiration to scramble up the canyon and arrive at the base of the falls. You never know what to expect but you are never disappointed.
Big Sur is also the home of some beautiful redwood groves. In fact, the southern-most grove on the continent is just a few miles up the coast from Salmon Falls. But one of the most beautiful is on the Old Coast Road north of the town of Big Sur.
What a wonderful feeling to walk among these tall giants. The sunlight filters down, dancing on the green needles while soft light makes the ruddy red tree trunks glow. This is the perfect place to slow down, stop and sit a spell to just soak it all in.
Often flowing through redwood groves are laughing, dancing streams like this one in Limekiln State Park. There is such joy in these splashing, bubbling waters.
Speaking of Old Coast Road, this road was necessary because of the huge Bixby Canyon that was too deep to cross. So they built the 10 mile road to skirt this major obstacle. For years it was the only way to get from Carmel to Big Sur. But in 1932 the Bixby Bridge was completed. It stands today as the iconic bridge of the Big Sur coast. There are other beautiful bridges but Bixby Bridge is the finest, most graceful of them all.
A tour up Big Sur would not be complete without including Point Lobos, the incredible spit of land just south of Carmel. It has inspired photographers ever since cameras arrived on the West Coast. Probably the most famous of the photographers was Edward Weston who showed us Point Lobos through his discerning eyes. It’s hard to pick any one part of Point Lobos but an area that inspires me with it’s rugged yet tranquil beauty is China Cove.
But Point Lobos offers other possibilities. There are endless abstractions that spawn flights of the imagination. You can find them just about everywhere but the tide pools and surrounding rocky shores are the best.
So there you have it, a brief tour of some of my favorite spots in Big Sur. It is truly a place filled with magic and inspiration. It is no wonder it has attracted so many nature lovers and artists. Much of the coastline is still wild and pristine but there is a lot of development in places. Fortunately, the most beautiful areas are still there for all to visit for our enjoyment and revitalization.
It would be a mistake to close this account without sharing a sunset photograph. The sunsets over the Pacific can be some of the most beautiful on the planet. It was in January of 2012 that I was on Pfeiffer beach with a group of photographers. Trying to photograph the sun shining through the famous tunnel as the waves crashed through just wasn’t working. But after the sun dipped below the horizon the best part started. The clouds began to glow. I sprinted down the beach so that I could work some offshore rocks into the composition before the colors faded. Then it was a matter of enjoying the splendid show and pressing the shutter every once in a while.
I hope that I’ve been able to share with you through words and photographs why Big Sur is so special to me. Every time I return there’s always something new. I’m especially fortunate to be doing two workshops a year up there – one in August and the other in November. If you should choose to join me I would be delighted to share this wonderful experience with you and show you all the many places that speak to me. If you’d like more information here’s a link.
It would be wonderful to see you in November.
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