Summertime was in full swing as MoJo hit the Big Sur coast—or rather, it hit us—with a wave of heat and humanity! Boom!
We reached Big Sur, a wild and rugged stretch of Central California coastline at the end of June, exactly as the summer season and the tourist season were hitting their full stride. The summer equinox had just passed, and a heatwave was scorching the landscape. The tourists were out in force, barreling down winding Highway 1 in their oversized RVs and SUVs, fully decked out in preparation for the Fourth of July holiday weekend.
These two seasonal phenomenons—tourists and the heat—were two big logistical concerns for the Big Sur stretch of CCT. The greatest unknown of our entire expedition remained: How would we navigate Big Sur? There is a big gap in the (elusive) official map of the CCT where the trail heads through Central California in Big Sur, so we had some decisions to make.
Since planning our thru-hike, we had been anticipating this stretch with both excitement and trepidation. The Big Sur coastline is known for its breathtaking and dramatic beauty—vertical cliffs rising out of the roaring Pacific Ocean and the Santa Lucia mountains rising in the east. We were ready for a dose of that Big Sur magic! However, the hazards associated with this rugged coastline left us with a tough decision: either we would hike along the Coast Ridge Road trail and conquer the intense mountain ridge, or we would be forced to take the alternate route along treacherous Highway 1.
Coast Ridge Road Dangers
- Infrequent or non-existent drinking water sources during record drought and summer heatwave
- Temperatures over 100 degrees on the exposed ridge, with little shade cover
- Steep terrain with a lot of elevation change
- 20 miles longer than highway route
- Mountain lions
Highway 1 Dangers
- Busy holiday weekend with TONS of traffic on Highway 1
- Giant RVs, trucks, and SUVs
- Winding, narrow road with many blind curves
- No road shoulder in some sections
- Sheer vertical cliffs dropping hundreds of feet into the ocean
Ultimately, after speaking with some helpful locals about our options, (thanks Stan from the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce and Chris from The Pinecone!) the heatwave and water accessibility situation proved to be the more pressing concern. So we crossed our fingers, donned our neon safety vests, and psyched ourselves up for the Highway.
Our first Big Sur landmark was the iconic Bixby Bridge, quintessential California monument and positive madhouse of tourists taking bridge-selfies and jamming up the ever-flowing stream of Highway 1 traffic.
Bixby Bridge is the largest of 33 bridges which were required to link gaps in the Big Sur Highway, due to extremely rugged terrain and sheer seaside cliffs. The highway here wasn’t built until the early 20th century, and took 18 years to complete, from 1919 to 1937. Prior to 1937, Big Sur remained incredibly remote and the only way to travel the coast was via horse or wagon along a road which was first built in the 1850s. We were thankful to dip out of the scene, off the Highway, and onto this historic stagecoach route called Old Coast Road.
Old Coast Road was a welcome respite from the chaos of summer tourism. We walked along the empty dusty road through dry, grassy oak savannah and felt the sun beating down as we imagined this bumpy, long ride in a stagecoach. As we descended the road to cross Little Sur Creek, we found ourselves in a lush redwood forest. The tall, stalwart trunks shaded our surroundings into a soothing dark shady purple, and the bright green new tree growth popped in contrast. We stopped for lunch by a trickling spring amongst the sorrel and heard a soft hooting in the tall redwoods.
We emerged from Old Coast Road at Andrew Molera State Park, and were more than ready to hit the beach! From our earlier, higher vantage point, we had seen waves breaking cleanly around the point, but when we finally made it down, the wind was whipping up sand and it was a cold and blustery beach day. It was crazy to experience these weather extremes in such close proximity: slightly inland, it was hot hot heat, but as soon as we reached the coast, it was so chilly! Big Sur is a wild and extreme kind of place, man…
Fortunately, our water immersion cravings were satisfied when we reached the idyllic Big Sur River. We stripped down and hopped in, reflecting on our intense appreciation of freshwater—especially in places where the ocean isn’t as inviting! We cooled off from the dusty trail and swam against the gentle current, like a lovely swimming stroll on a water treadmill. We could barely tear ourselves away from the cool, calming river to keep heading south.
Luckily, our campsite that night was also located along the Big Sur River, at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, where we got in the river again. We had a wonderful time with Aunti Ali—our best friend, support van driver, and social media mogul. She had even set up camp with the cutest touches of home: mobile turquoise party lights and our tie-dye tablecloth!
The next morning, it was back to the highway for more speed-walking and dashing around blind curves in between sets of cars. There were long, steady, sweaty, uphill climbs, and the constant traffic was nerve-wracking. The shoulder was narrow to non-existent in many places and the tourists zoomed by, eyes on the views rather than the road. At the scenic viewpoint turn-offs, there were so many cars that some folks parked in the shoulder or “bike lane” and sometimes, in the road itself. It’s crazy how a summer holiday weekend turns sparsely populated Big Sur into an over-crowded place. We think it’s time for some length and width restrictions for vehicles coming through here—it’s seriously sketchy!!
We made it in one piece to Limekiln State Park, where we had to say goodbye to Aunti Ali and Blanca, our support van. Before leaving us to our own devices for a two week break, Aunti Ali loaded us up with food, water, and hugs. As we waved goodbye to Alisan and Blanca, we were already looking forward to reuniting in Santa Barbara!
We took a short side trip to explore precious Limekiln Creek, totally enamored with this lush, fern-filled wonderland where the redwoods meet the sea.
We were blissed out…until we reached the namesake kilns. Our love for this place turned to sadness and shame about humanity’s shortsightedness with regard to natural resources when we reached the kilns at the site of the former lime-smelting operation.
From 1887 to 1890, a lime and lumber company extracted lime from limestone rocks in the area for use in cement to construct the cities of San Francisco and Monterey. They built four kilns and hauled away massive quantities of lime in barrels, chopping down the surrounding virgin redwood forest to fire the kilns. After only three years, the company had used up all of the resources—lime and redwoods, and abandoned ship. It’s a story that is repeated in many places up and down the coast, and around the globe, yet humans seem to forget these lessons learned. This story and others reaffirm in our minds that we have made the right choice to pursue our chosen career paths of natural resource management. As a society, let’s remember these lessons and share these stories, so that we can help guide responsible use of our precious natural resources. Life purpose reaffirmed, we enjoyed the ferns and lush forest vibes before continuing south to explore the rest of Big Sur.
We camped at several picturesque campgrounds along the way and had the pleasure of meeting a biking duo named RoJo, who were also adventuring for a cause! Ro and Jo are from South Africa, and were biking the Pacific Coast Bike Route from Vancouver, British Columbia to San Diego, CA along with a stuffed teddybear named Thembi to raise awareness and dollars for an organization that supports communities in South Africa.
We loved connecting with our fellow human-powered, long-distance travelers, and we were so excited to learn more about the Pacific Coast Bike Route (PCBR), which overlaps in many places with the CCT! Over the course of our hike, we came across many folks on the PCBR, and we see a lot of room for cooperation between the CCT and PCBR for trail funding and development!
We said goodbye to our new friends, as the Pacific Coast Bike Route continued along Highway 1, while the CCT ascended steeply off the road and into the backcountry. The Cruikshank Trail is a section of CCT that climbs up up and away from the highway, through chaparral and pine forest. Our CCT guidebook describes the trail as being very brushy and overgrown, and the camp host at our previous campsite said she didn’t think the trail had been cleared yet this season. We were worried about getting stuck in some thick Poison Oak, but we were willing to risk it to avoid the treacherous, increasingly winding highway ahead. The trail began with a steep climb and switchbacks up the mountainside to a rocky outcrop with sweeping views to the north and south of the stunning Pacific. We soaked in the view, especially the bright pink flowers against the teal sea…color therapy for the soul!
The trail led us through oak savannah and dry, exposed sagebrush before we reached Buckeye Camp in a lovely clearing beneath a huge California Bay Tree. Nearby was a tiny, shallow spring that was barely deep enough to fill our water bottles for filtering. But, being California summertime in a drought, we were thankful that there was at least some water!
We took a page out of the locals’ (squirrels) book, and hacked into some wild pinecones to reach the delicate, fresh pine nuts within. It was the tastiest treat to accompany our dinner of pesto pasta with sustainable, Salty Girl Seafood smoked salmon!
Satisfied and exhausted, we drifted to sleep in the high mountain meadow of golden grass as we watched the clear, star-filled skies and constellations rotating overhead.
The next morning, we were thankful to wake up and hike down the ridge in a heavy coastal fog, which collected on pine needles and dropped to the ground, cooling the dry earth. In the summer, this misty, enveloping fog means survival for many plants, including a small stand of redwoods at Salmon Creek. It’s hard to say how much longer these trees will be able to hang on, as the drier, warmer climate continues to creep north up California’s coast.
Sad to leave the backcountry, we cruised down Highway 1 again, carefully stepping a leg over the guardrail when giant Winnebagos and trucks zoomed by, barely squeezing into their lane. We quickly walked through the scary zones with eyes peeled and ears alert.
The highway feels like it is crumbling into the ocean in some places, but that’s just the geography of the area. The Santa Lucia Mountain Range is young, only 2.5 million years old—baby years as far as mountains go. Who knows what the evolution of this land will be, and how long the highway will be here?
We descended to San Carpoforo Creek, the southern end of Big Sur, and soothed our souls/soles on the lovely sandy beach. As the sun set over the lagoon, the crisp, salty breeze blew away our highway blues and refreshed our spirits for the journey south.