McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Dawn Page / CoastsideSlacking

Road Repairs Restore Big Sur Thrills South to Gorda; Where is Everybody?

Half the fun of visiting Big Sur is the drive. And the newly opened bridge at Pfeiffer Canyon means the good times are back, at least as far as Gorda. For now, think of Highway 1 southbound from Carmel-by-the-Sea as a curvaceous 65-mile cul-de-sac with a view. It was so nice we drove it twice.The bridge wash-out, road closures and trail damage from last winter’s mudslides kept much of Big Sur from the north on lock-down this spring and summer. The replacement span, which opened in mid-October, restored easy access to 35 picturesque driving miles of Highway 1. Many, though not all, state park trails along the route have reopened. A massive slide at Mud Creek continues to block southbound traffic at Gorda.

When we last visited Big Sur in June, the road ended at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Trail and beach access in the region was extremely limited. Aside from a lovely hike on the beach and bluffs at Garrapata State Park, the ubiquitous squawk of Steller’s jays was the primary entertainment option. What a difference six months can make.

We drove down from The Coastside the week after Thanksgiving for a two-day stay to celebrate our 36th wedding anniversary and reacquaint ourselves with a stretch of highway we first traversed some 25 years ago. We arrived at Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn, a historic and very rustic lodge that would fit nicely in a Thomas Kinkade painting, with plans to drop our bags and then drive south to Gorda. But since the rooms lock only from the inside, our bags came along for the drive. Did we mention Deetjen’s is rustic?

The drive was largely a scouting mission for the next day, with a stop at Big Sur’s classic McWay Falls. The 80-foot cascade, which pours directly onto the beach below, can be viewed from an overlook less than half a mile from the highway. There’s plenty of parking in the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park parking lot, but we had forgotten our California State Parks “golden poppy” pass so nabbed a space on the highway shoulder instead. No charge.

After exhausting ideas of ways to photograph McWay without an illegal scramble to the otherwise inaccessible beach, we hopped in the car and headed south beneath late-afternoon blue skies and sunshine. We recently traded in our aging gray Toyota Prius for a red Mazda MX-5 two-seat convertible. Don’t judge. The car was designed for cruising places like Big Sur, and we had the highway virtually to ourselves. We had so much fun!

We zigged and zagged through stands of Redwoods and along oceanside cliffs. We zipped along straightaways carved through coastal scrub. And we felt every bump as we slowly bounced along a battered one-lane stretch of road carved through leftover debris from Paul’s Slide, another spring hillside mishap north of the rock shed at Rain Rocks. The protective shed, which spans a chronically problematic stretch of Highway 1, made us briefly question our decision to drive a convertible through a falling rock zone. But only for a minute.

We made the U-turn at Gorda and motored back north, enjoying a seemingly endless orange then pink sunset that at one point stretched in a 180-degree arc from north to south. The display ended with a brilliant red-orange fireball as night fell about the time we arrived back at Deetjen’s. The inn may be rustic, but the restaurant prepared a very fine anniversary dinner as a capper to a great day.

Day 2 was an exploration day. We hit the road early with plans to deadhead south to Lucia for breakfast before seeing some sites. The restaurant was closed, so we settled for brunch at Gorda. We had filled the gas tank the day prior at Monterey. Smart. Gas in Gorda topped $6 a gallon.

Fueled by a pricey yet classic breakfast of bacon and eggs, our next stop was Sand Dollar Beach, a long crescent of sand at Plaskett Creek beneath a bluff veined with meandering trails. The waves were busy and we particularly enjoyed watching the pelicans bobbing like ducks near shore and cresting each wave with an awkward pirouette. We found only locals at the beach, including a pair of staffers from Limekiln State Park who gave us some helpful hints.

Limekiln offers a little something for everyone– a beach, a redwood forest, babbling brooks, two waterfalls, four trails, camping and a bit of history. We began with a half mile hike beneath a dense redwood canopy up Limekiln Trail to a row of four historic  kilns. The kilns processed lime used to manufacture concrete from 1887 to 1890, when the vein of lime and the redwood used to stoke the fires in the kilns gave out.

The redwoods have largely retaken the clearing but the 25-foot brick and steel kilns remain. Don’t be discouraged by the substantial redwood deadfall across the trail a short distance from the kilns. The scramble over the downed giants was worth the effort.

On the way back we detoured up Falls Trail for a look at 100-foot Limekiln Falls. It’s not McWay, but worth the short hike and a bit of a scramble over smaller deadfalls and a creek crossed via rotting timbers. Your feet may get wet. We started up Hare Creek Trail but turned back as the trail narrowed beneath unidentified creeping bushes and plants. Poison oak is The Geek’s kryptonite.

We made it back north in time to spend some time journaling and working on the blog over drinks on the deck at Nepenthe, retiring to the dining room after sunset for dinner at the landmark bar and restaurant. What a great anniversary trip!

Point of fact: There is a perilous mountain road with more than 100 turns and no guard rails that snakes across the Santa Lucia Range from Highway 1 north ofimg_3596 Plaskett Creek inland to U.S. 101. They call it Nacimiento-Fergusson Road. California Department of Transportation signage through Big Sur warns only that Highway 1 ends at Gorda. “No detour,” the signs say. Locals speak of the road in a whisper and will quickly warn you away. Multiple cautionary signs at the intersection with Highway 1 makes the route even less enticing. There are no services and no cell phone reception. Training exercises at Fort Hunter Liggett can cause delays. You get the idea.

It doesn’t sound like fun to us. Until Caltrans rebuilds Highway 1 across the slide at Mud Creek – projected completion date late summer 2018 – we recommend sticking to the Highway 1 boomerang run from Carmel-by-the-Sea to Gorda and back. Good times. Bring your best friend.

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