Spanish mission buildings–California

Experiencing Big Sur, Jul 2019

Big Sur is a massive coastal mountain range that occupies the central coast of California. Situated between Carmel and San Simeon, it is bordered to the east by the Santa Lucia Mountains and the west by the Pacific Ocean. As our California adventures took us further and further south, Big Sur started to inhabit our imaginations. A glimpse of the Santa Lucia foothills while cycling River Road in Monterey wine country–so secluded and peaceful, and green and inviting, yet misty and mysterious–motivated us to finally make the trip.

Perhaps the most iconic image of Big Sur is of the two lane highway, State Route 1 (aka “California 1”), which snakes along Santa Lucia’s green-sheathed mountainside and offers spectacular views of misty forestscapes terminating abruptly at seaside cliffs. A scenic route like no other, it connects San Francisco Bay Area to LA.

View of the Pacific Ocean from Santa Lucia Range along Nacimiento-Fergusson Road

We decided to schedule our trip for the 4th of July long weekend, but, as it was June by the time we started planning, most of the campgrounds in Big Sur were already booked full. We were lucky to find an open site at Memorial Park campground, in Los Padres National Forest, but it was available for only one night, so, in order to extend our trip, we decided to give roadside camping a try.

View from the summit of Nacimiento-Fergusson Road

The views from the summit of Santa Lucia Range along Nacimiento-Fergusson Road are spectacular (a little too spectacular if you’re afraid of heights, like I am).

Roadside camping is permitted along designated sections of Nacimiento-Fergusson Road. The road follows a saw-tooth pattern of twists and turns eastward from California 1 to Highway 101 and the Salinas Valley. It is the same route that 19th-century homesteaders, residing on the north coast of Santa Lucia Range, used to transport cattle to the markets of Central Valley, and was then, as it is now, the only road within the forest boundaries that crossed the mountains.

The sections of the road where roadside camping is permitted are clearly marked. We selected a spot on the eastern side of the summit where the road follows a trout-filled stream, aptly named Nacimiento River, canopied by Ponderosa Pine, Oak, Madrone and Sycamore trees. Parking on the gravel shoulder, we walked and rock-hopped our gear to a natural clearing on the other side of the stream.

We had stocked up on picaridin mosquito repellent just in case, but the mosquitoes weren’t bad at all; at least, they were nothing these Florida-hardened campers couldn’t handle.

It was an idyllic little spot. There were so few cars on the road, which was hidden on the other side of the stream, that it was easy to forget that there was a road there at all.

That night we experienced the Milky Way like we’d never experienced it before. Stars blanketed the sky. We felt as though we could reach up and dip our fingers in it, like a giant vat of glitter.

The next day we stopped briefly at San Antonio Mission on the way to Memorial Park. Built in 1771, San Antonio Mission is one of the oldest missions in California, and includes a museum, as well as original aqueducts and a Native American graveyard, but the heat was sweltering so we didn’t stay long.

The facade is original and made of adobe bricks.

The route also took us through Fort Hunter Liggett. I chuckled at a warning posted on the gate that led into the 165,000 acre training ground, that advised visitors to leave their marijuana behind. It was strange to think that the law spontaneously changed as we drove through that gate. (Apologies for not taking a photo; it was just so darn hot that we missed several good photo opportunities.)

This westerly view of Nacimiento-Fergusson Road looks back at Santa Lucia mountains from just inside the Fort Hunter Liggett gate; the oak woodland on the northern side of the road seemed to have recently experienced a controlled burn.

The landscape also changed when we passed through the gate. We saw huge rocky outcrops, oak woodland, grasslands with fields of multi-colored grasses, waist high, like in John Muir’s descriptions of California, and pinyon-juniper woodland.

Pinyon-juniper woodland with rocky outcrop

Pinyon-juniper woodland

Throughout the drive from our stream-side campsite to Memorial Park, we shared the road with only one other car, which we saw near Hunter Liggett base. We tried to stop at the base, but were summarily turned away. Google Maps shows a grocery store inside the base, and we thought it possible they would sell us some supplies. But “Make a u-turn, sir,” was the only thing the well-armed officer guarding the entrance had to say to us. Many small, uneven, dirt roads branched from the road around the base, with signs cautioning drivers to not deviate from the road for fear of setting off the live mines buried there.

Our campsite at Memorial Park

Don Bain’s 360 Panoramas website explains the history of Memorial Park: “When the California missions were secularized by the Mexican government in 1834, the lands were transferred to private hands and the mission economy declined rapidly. The indigenous people living at Mission San Antonio moved north a few miles and settled here, a place that ever since has been called simply ‘The Indians.’ Although it has always been part of Los Padres National Forest, it is also known as Santa Lucia Memorial Park.” There are eight campsites, no electricity and no cell service.

Brian Wall, at Kings River Life Magazine, has some interesting things to say about Memorial Park, perhaps the most salient of which proved to be a statement that “Most of the campers who end up here aren’t looking to roost, but rather to explore.” Our campsite neighbors were academics–UCLA on one side and UC Berkeley on the other. Amazingly, and true to Brian Wall’s statement, the folk from UCLA had the fortitude to spend the day hiking, despite the scorching heat. We wanted to follow their example, but it was just too darn hot. Happily, some other campers told us about a nearby swimming hole formed by the Arroyo Seco River.

The path to the swimming hole was not marked, so we clambered and slid over many a giant boulder before successfully reaching this little nirvana.

The water was cold and clear, so clear that we could see the naughty little fish that suddenly attracted our attention by nibbling on our legs. Refreshed, we spent the remainder of the day sipping whisky, reading and lounging, heckled only occasionally by an unruly pack of scrub jays who seemed to regard us as intruders. We even found the energy to take a short bike ride. Overall it was a wonderful experience, and one that we hope to repeat; perhaps next time we’ll stay on shady Santa Lucia Ridge and cycle the summit.

Resources Consulted:
Big Sur Chamber of Commerce
Camping at “The Indians,” by Brian Wall (Kings River Life Magazine)
Historical Overview of Los Padres National Forest, by E.R. Blakley and Karen Barnette (July, 1985)
Insect Repellent Buying Guide, Consumer Reports
Los Padres National Forest Plants, USDA Forest Service
Memorial Campground, Los Padres National Forest,
Memorial Park Campground, Los Padres National Forest, USDA Forest Service
Nacimiento-Fergusson Road (Wikipedia)
Santa Lucia Memorial Park at The Indians, by Don Bain
U.S. Army Garrison Fort Hunter Liggett, Department of the Army