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Big Sur Introduction and Story

Eco Guide to California Central Coast 

Big Sur appears smooth, seductive

Yet seems forbidding, distant, and haunting.

The fearless, intrepid Spaniards called it "The great country to the South" - and they were leery of venturing there.

These lands remain elusive to most Caucasians, but to Indians this was a pleasing place.

Before a white person ever saw Big Sur, a large population of Indians lived here peacefully and prosperously for thousands of years. Salinan, Esselen, and Ohlone-Rumsen artifacts show Big Sur habitation for 10,000 years.
In 1542 Cabrillo sailed by here and wrote: "There are mountains which seem to reach to the heavens, and the sea beats on them."

Big Sur began 35 million years ago, 14 miles deep in the earth off the coast of Mexico. Tectonic plates rubbing against each other moved these mountainous rocks north. Five million years ago they pushed up out of the ocean to form an island that is now Big Sur. The Santa Lucia range, which includes the Ventana Wilderness of today, is young and precocioous.

Today, Big Sur is a coastal wilderness. It is as raw as could be imagined for its 200,000 acres and 90 miles of California coast. It is a grand testimony to the human craving for appreciating this undeveloped, natural beauty that it has been protected. A highway was constructed in the 1930's just to see this boldly beautiful natural setting. The road in this setting has come to define Big Sur for most people. But, the will of the pioneers to conserve the remarkable region has prevented its destruction by development.

Ninety-five per cent of Big Sur is the fold-upon-fold of Ventana Wilderness, rare biology, incredible geology that most people do not ever see. In the coastal mountain canyons that vein the intricate quilt of watersheds (e.g. a hike in Partington) one gets an inside peek at this wondrous country.

In these pages you will come to know it, want to appreciate it and help conserve it.

Big Sur Coast from high up Partington Canyon.

Photo by Margie Whitnah

Click the photo for a larger version.

Around a bend in the Big Sur road, about seven miles south of Nepenthe, the McWay waterfall suddenly appears. In mid-formation is Saddle Rock, an object of wonder for Big Sur pioneers.


Click the image for a larger version

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park begins here. Julia was a pioneer, and the park was named after her by Helen and Lathrop Brown. Lathrop was a congressman from New York, and became a high ranking official in the U.S. Dept. of Interior. Helen was the daughter of a wealthy banking family. Together they built resorts on the Eastern Seaboard. They researched to find what would be the perfect seaside location on the Pacific Ocean side of the continent. After coming to Big Sur, they found McWay Cove, bought it, and built the Waterfall House.

They so admired their caretaker, Julia Pfeiffer Burns, the Browns bequeathed the land to California for a park.

Called "Saddle Rock Ranch" by the Browns, the property reaches north to Partington Cove, and east to the ridge where they built the Tin House.

Read about the Browns

McWay Falls used to drop directly into the ocean. In 1983, however, the California Department of Transportation, while repairing Hwy 1 from landslide damage, bulldozed earth into the ocean, creating more beaches.

The cliffs are rugged, and the cove cannot be reached by foot. These waters offer spectacular scuba diving, but only with a permit. The waterfall can be approached by trail from the park. There's an exquisite picnic area in the redwood grove along the creek, and trails up to the ridge overlook the coast. Next to the falls are two hike-in campsites.


North coast scenes. A grand oak and Little Sur River. Photos by Jack Ellwanger

Click photo for larger version

 

The "state of mind," that is this region, is geographically 90 miles long and 20 miles wide. Much of the best to see requires more than driving along the coast.

Partington Canyon, and its stunning forests, including ancient growth redwoods, are close to the highway, but must be hiked to.

To experience the rarefied atmosphere of a Big Sur mountain coastal canyon, take a hike in Partington.


Click this graphic for an interactive map

Hwy 1 threatened the majestic serenity of the 
Ventana region of the California Central Coast. 
People who loved the area feared the worst. 
Development would surely be on the heels of the 
road, and that would bring ruin to the region.

As befits the character of the people who inhabit this region, like those in Carmel before them, the people rose to thwart back the specter.

Margaret Owings, resident and conservationist, said, "There's something about Big Sur that puts people in their place. Something they have to come back to, because it does something to you. And it gives you a responsibility to keep it like this."

Big Sur River runs free and wild out of the Santa Lucia Mountains through Big Sur Valley and meets the sea in a lagoon at Molera Point.

The village of Big Sur is demurely strung along the Redwood-lined road in the Big Sur Valley south of Molera.

Some of the finest novelists, painters, poets and photographers have found inspiration for their works in Big Sur's Coast. Robert Louis Stevenson, Mary Austin, Jack London, Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck, Robinson Jeffers, Lillian Ross, Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams all came here and enriched their palettes. (See Big Sur People and Places)

Henry Miller, one of America's greatest writers lived and worked for nearly two decades in Big Sur. He was a founding preservationist for the Ventana region, and wrote of it. "That same prehistoric look. The look of always," he wrote. "Nature smiling at herself in the mirror of eternity."

The Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur

 

Bixby Bridge

This view from the back shows the geological significance of spanning the canyon. Before the bridge, this was considered the beginning of Big Sur. Hardly anyone went beyond this point. A ten mile inland road accessed the lower reaches of the coast.

In the bottom of this canyon, which was called Rainbow then, there was a resort owned by the family that rediscovered the Sea Otters in 1938. Bixby once was a busy place. By 1910 there were a dozen limekilns operating in the canyon.

Kerouac's last novel, Big Sur, the telling of man's ferocious relationship with nature, was written from three trips to this canyon. He thought the creek, canyon and beach here made him insane.

Ending Big Sur's isolation in 1932, the 714 ft long Bixby Bridge made the Carmel - San Simeon road an accomplishment for the ages. It is constructed of 6,600 cubic yards of concrete and 600,000 pounds of reinforcing steel - and straight up, 260 feet above the creek. The concrete abutments, anchored into sheer rock walls 140 feet above the creek, are 330 feet apart.

Its graceful arch bows over the creek in the scrubby canyon that rises abruptly on both sides from the sea. It is one of the highest single-span arch bridges in the world.

On the Bridge
A Paper about Big Sur Bixby Bridge By Sean Vitousek

..


Santa Lucias from Big Sur

They appear supple, hospitable. But they're rough. Although only one-third the altitude of the Sierra Nevada mountains, the Santa Lucias have more dramatic altitude changes. Five-thousand footpeaks plunge to the sea. You can hike through redwood canyons to heights above 2,000 feet in just two to three hours, and feel like your are be practically right on top of the Pacific.

Santa Lucias - Ventana Wilderness


Unique lodges and inns of Big Sur and Places keep in character with their distinctive settings. This carved Phoenix at Nepenthe watches over the rough, classic watersheds, coves and the infinite Big Sur Coast to the south.

Two great lighthouses mark the Big Sur coast.
The southern point, Piedras Blancas, near San Simeon, is home to a 
burgeoning elephant seal colony.

Big Sur, Story of A Coastal Wilderness, is copyrighted by ©Pelican Network. Permission to use portions of this content is freely given with the single proviso that it is used to advance understanding of cultural and natural history. All photographs, unless credited, and narrative are by Jack Ellwanger, editor, Pelican Network.

Popular Pfeiffer Beach (left) is fabled, fantastic and fun.

Reserve a Big Sur Lodge cottage at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park online with Pelican Network.

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