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My Big Sur

Lone Cypress, Carmel California

Lone Cypress, Carmel California

By Daryl L. Hunter

Rugged Big Sur Coast

Rugged Big Sur Coast

Big Sur, California’s epic coastline that winds a majestic ribbon above the Pacific Ocean far below, draws me back again and again. Here you will find the most magnificent portion of California’s Pacific Coast Highway that stretches about 120 miles from Morro Bay to Carmel; the town Clint Eastwood cleaned up. Famous for its twisted Cypress trees, and precipitous drops into the Pacific, this scenic route provides stunning panoramas of scary cliffs, deep canyons, rolling hills, and ocean vistas that have become a legendary destination.

The most famous landmark in the area may be the iconic Lone Cypress just outside Carmel on the town’s famous Seventeen Mile Drive, but it isn’t necessarily the best. It does cut a fine twisted profile as a lone sentinel standing against the wind, but the photos would be better without the poorly designed retaining wall built to protect the landmark. Possibly just a bonsai tree that has outgrown its pot. The breakaway star of Big Sur flora though is the giant redwoods a little farther south.

It is not a wonder that Ansel Adam’s final twenty years was spent in his home overlooking the Pacific in Carmel. Here he found a spectacular embarrassment of riches he so expertly captured for posterity. Ansel was introduced to the area while visiting photographer Edward Weston who moved to Carmel 1929 and shot the first of many photographs of rocks and trees at Point Lobos, California.

Bixby Bridge, Big Sur Coast

Bixby Bridge, Big Sur Coast

I grew up twelve miles from the southern terminus of what can be construed as the Big Sur Coast. My grandmother used to paint seascapes here, and I’m reasonably sure my mother emptied Lime Kiln Creek of landscape rock. Some of my earliest memories were of my puke bag as we wound our way around the cliffs a thousand feet above the threatening, pounding surf far below. As a child it was the most terrifying thing in the world. I like the drive much better now! Today I live a thousand miles away but whenever I returned home for a visit, I’d always take my mother or grandmother to Big Sur for a drive. Now that they are gone I’m wistful I don’t have an excuse to return as often as I once did.

Whalers Cabin, Point Lobos

Whalers Cabin, Point Lobos

The name Big Sur was historically derived from the unexplored and unmapped wilderness area along the coast south of Monterey: El Sur Grande. Sur means south in Spanish, Grande means big. Grand has other inferences as well including magnificent, imposing, impressive, awe-inspiring, splendid, resplendent, majestic, monumental. Pick your superlative, any will do.

This rugged coast is one of the recovery zones for the nearly extinct California condor, and a lucky few get to see one. During the whale migration in winter whales can be spotted from the high cliffs, but are too far away to photograph. The whales may be too far away to photograph; however, the elephant seals aren’t. Although the epitome of ugly, they do have a mysterious photogenic charm. There is a beach covered with them near Hearst Castle. July is breeding season, and it is quite a show. Hearst Castle and iconic Piedras Blancas Light House are interesting stops along the way.

Daryl Hunter, Louise Hunter, Big Sur

Me & Mom

Because of precipitous cliffs, tortuous curves which, although breathtakingly beautiful, they can be very trying to drive; although, quite fun with a motorcycle or sports car on a no-traffic day. I won’t even attempt driving here during summer when the traffic is nearly as bad as Italy’s Amalfi Coast minus the honking scooters. Winter is the time to see Big Sur, the hills are turning green, the whales are migrating and sometimes before a storm, giant waves attract big wave surfers which are always fun to photograph.

Big Sur still is in a sociological time warp reminiscent of the Beat Generation and Hippies of the Summer of Love. Dope growers are still at work in the hills and adding a little 1960s color to the little hamlets of the region. This was an artist’s enclave and retreat of seekers who look beyond dogma to explore deeper spiritual possibilities to forge new understandings of self and society; and pioneer new paths for change, long before the hippies showed up. It may be impossible to discern them apart though.

Redwood Path, big Sur

Redwood Path

If you keep stopping at every vista point and every state park you will need a week to complete the trip. Although not a bad Idea, this overload of opportunity makes it easy to miss the special places on more abbreviated time constraints. I had driven it innumerable times before finding my favorite vantage point Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, as it was too close to Nepenthes, my favorite spot for a burger and a beer when my pockets were overflowing the with the jingle needed to help finance Nepenthes perch on the cliff.

Sea cave at Pfeiffer Beach

Sea cave at Pfeiffer Beach

A bit north of Nepenthes is Pfeiffer Beach definitely off the beaten path, but well worth the drive. Just south of Big Sur Station on Highway 1 is unsigned, Sycamore Canyon Road which winds its way down to the shore. In mid December as sunset orange and yellow light streams through a sea cave and is a trophy photo if you can get it.

Just north of Sycamore Canyon Road is Big Sur State Park were some of the better stands of redwoods are, there are plenty of trails to explore and find compositions of giant trees, tiny ferns, and everything in between. The texture studies of fallen redwoods with their blooming ecosystems of moss are fun to shoot.

Sunrise at Julia Pfeiffer Beach & McWay Falls

Sunrise at Julia Pfeiffer Beach & McWay Falls

Forest detail, Big Sur

Forest detail

The afore mentioned Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is a showstopper that must be shot.   A short hike above the beach is a killer shot of a rare waterfall that falls right onto the sandy beach, McWay Falls, the cove, the beach is compositional perfection for the photographer.   I was so remiss the first 50 times I drove by without stopping. The first 40 times I wasn’t a photographer.

This is without question one of the most breathtaking scenic drives on the planet; hence, an awe inspiring photo destination. You should be prepared with lots of memory cards and a spare supply of gasps and oohs and ahhs. You don’t drive this stretch of scenic highway just to get from one place to another; this highway is the destination!

It was this rugged shore where I wanted to scatter the ashes of my Mom and Grandmother, but California Law didn’t allow ashes to be scattered from the shore, and we couldn’t afford to charter a boat to go that far north. I had to scatter them from a boat off Port San Luis. After each scattering, I would take a solitary drive to Nepenthes for a beer and a burger. Although I was by myself, I wasn’t alone.

My Big Sur Photo Collection

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My Photo tour site, take a look  = The Hole Picture Photo Safaris



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