Friday, May 18, 2012

Driving and Hiking On the Big Sur Coast

Friday, May 18th

Sarah was up way before me and Dave again, but I made myself get up relatively early because we had a long road in front of us that day.  This was going to be what had been at the top of my wish list for a California trip: driving along the coast for miles and lovely miles.  I had thought to drive the (more) deserted coast along the Cape Mendocino area of Northern California, but many people will tell you that the Monterey-Big Sur coast is one of the most beautiful places in the world and so we figured that would do.

We also wanted to meet up with our friend Tony in Santa Cruz; we’d left each other messages on Facebook and his latest message said to meet him for dinner at Hula’s Grill in Santa Cruz … worked for us and the plan was that we’d call him from the road when we had a better idea of our timing.

Took a short walk with Sarah down to where the hotel’s parking lot overlooked the beach.  You couldn’t actually get to the beach without climbing walls and/or crossing private property but the hotel didn’t lie when they said they were beachfront … just misled people with the implication that this meant you could walk on the beach.  We returned to the lobby for the textbook continental breakfast.  I grabbed the only onion bagel they offered and it was good.  Dave showed up and had a bit of cereal and pastry and then we filled up our road coffee/tea cups (one thing they do right in CA is they usually have good tea selections) and screwed out of there.  Filled up the wounded ice bag, threw our stuff in the car, and hit the road back up the small hill out of town to route 1 North by 8:45 … we were on our way to Big Sur!

As mentioned, planning for the trip had been difficult and we’d spent a lot of time reading about, re-reading, and trying to place geographically the hikes in the California’s Coastal Parks book we had.  The book had steered us to Montaña De Oro so that and the credentials of the author made us feel that we should trust what it/he was (very poorly) trying to say.  Some of the maps were as informative as those on Entrances to Hell UK.  Added to this was the fact that we wanted to hike on somewhat challenging trails, but we didn’t have the legs or the time to hike for miles and miles up the coastal mountains just to get a nice view.  And we wanted to see Coastal Redwoods, that was a definite.  At length we’d developed a plan, which was to hit a beach/dunes/bluffs trail first (we’d done that yesterday), and then to do a hike up the hills to the redwoods.  After much study of the book, we decided to cast our fates on the Kirk Creek Trail, and perhaps Limekiln State Park after that.

And we wanted to leave time for our old friend serendipity (as Ol’ Sinc used to say, “Serendipity is the best dippity”).  We traveled North for half an hour or so and passed a few small towns where the cows outnumbered the residents, passed the popular San Simeon State Park with its long pier, and passed the turnoff to the Hearst Mansion where most of the other cars on the road turned off (good riddance!).  We motored by ourselves further North and the beautiful Pacific and the brightening day and the wispy clouds were beginning to make us think that we really should stop and get out of the damn car.  Suddenly there was an “elephant seal overlook” and we pulled in with what turned out to be a very big crowd in the parking lot of the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Overlook.

There were two busses full of school kids on an educational outing.  How come I never got to go on field trips as entertaining as this?  We looked over the bluffs about 20 feet down to the beach and saw hundreds of elephant seals, some passed out on the beach, some mock-fighting each other for the best spaces, some protecting their babies from being rolled over on, and some (the bulls) roaring at rocks and whoever else would listen.  The majority of them were piled up on the beach in a cove a few hundred yards down the shore and that’s where all the school kids and most of the tourists went but the action was just as entertaining right by the parking lot where we were.

And we were delighted!  How could anyone not see the comical similarity to Dr. Who monsters, especially when the bulls roared at rocks because they were looking at them funny, and then got blind-sided by a wave.  There were ground squirrels all over and many of them were dashing around the beach among the monsters (like Dr. Who companions), digging up some things and burying others.  We watched the animals, the waves, the sky, and a flock of pelicans flying up the coast, perhaps the same flock that we’d seen flying in the same formation, in the same direction, yesterday evening 50 miles or so down the coast.  Then we got back on the road.

We passed the topless Piedras Blancas lighthouse and screamed for miles and miles up the incredibly scenic coast.  We stopped again about 45 minutes later at another turnoff, high on some steep bluffs over the ocean in the mid-morning where the colors were just surreal they were so brilliant.  The rocks far below were black and white (bird droppings) lumps in the frothing waves, white streaks flew through the sky with the wisps of surf, the clouds, and the tiny bits of fog/mist, green grass and shrubs clung to the edges of the perilous cliffs, and every visual was heightened by an incredibly pure blue background, whether it be the sea or the sky.  We chatted with a bike rider from Pennsylvania; it was her first time ever here and that was the rule all through the trip, we met as many or more people “from away” as we did natives.  The turnoff had a steep path down and down to the beach and we considered it for a second, then slapped ourselves in the faces and got back in the car … we should stick with plan A … not long now to the trail we really wanted, Kirk Creek.

Drove some more up the coast and saw the turnoff for the Nacimiento Road, the Kirk Creek campground on the left (already pretty full, probably with people who’d taken Friday off, driven down the coast early, and grabbed a prime campsite on beautiful Jade Cove), and the small pull-off on the right that the book had told us about.  We were the only car there, actually making it to our desired trailhead by 10:40!  We stuffed our usual trail stuff and some extra clothes into one pack (I got the honors of course) and hit the road up what was officially known as the Vicente Flat Trail in the Ventana Wilderness.  We didn’t anticipate that we’d make it all the way to Vicente Flat but our goal was to climb up and up into the coastal mountains until we saw some redwoods or died in the attempt, and then to climb back down when we saw fit.

Oh God, here I go again.  We were instantly surrounded by beauty; this wasn't the astonishing beauty of Yosemite or the breathtaking beauty of Sequoia NP or the mind-boggling beauty of Montaña De Oro … this was a shocking, pervasive sense of beauty as the steepness and lushness of the hillside, the incredible views up and down the coast, the intense colors and graceful shapes of the wildflowers, and even more than anything the soft, cool saltiness of the sea air and the spice of the burning sun all combined to make us stop time after time and say WOW until we just couldn't say that anymore.  There are several sites dedicated to this trail on the web, but imagine how much more incredible it was at the height of wildflower season than in those mid-summer pictures.  For a couple of hours (it seemed) we walked up and up and up gradual switchbacks back and forth along the amazingly steep hillside until we were towering over the coast.  The top of the ridge kept getting closer and closer but still kept staying maddeningly far away.

To be fair, not everything was perfect in paradise.  We also saw lots and lots of Pampas Grass, which we first thought was another charming native species, with its agave-like leaves and its fluffy center flowering stalk.  But we realized that in the patches where it was it was taking over and making a little mono-culture for itself.  We later found out that it’s an invasive species and who knows?  In a short amount of time that whole hillside could be the mono-culture of Pampas Grass.  That’s a very disturbing thought and I hope something can be done to prevent this.

We probably climbed from sea level up to about 1600 feet that day, stopping several times to take pictures, rub on sunscreen, or take drinks of water.  Again, I can’t even begin to catalog all the wildflowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees we saw that day, partly because there were so many and mostly because we had no idea what they were called.  At one point we were looking closely at a bit of speckled rock and realized it was a large snake, interrupted in the midst of its vertical slither up the hillside.  We saw all kinds of birds as well: chirping in the shrubs, flitting about our heads, or soaring into the blue sky.

Then a couple who started just behind us (they were in shorts, we three were all wearing long pants and hiking boots) and had surged ahead of us came almost running back down the trail in a panic, and warned us that soon we’d be in the tick zone and they’d be jumping all over us.  Well, we weren’t about to stop at that point!  We had a full can of insect repellent and we basically soaked our pants with it, then kept going.  Another thousand yards or so up the trail and we were suddenly in that zone they were talking about, but the ticks were probably made somewhat logy by the stinking pants they landed on and we were able to see them and brush them off before they could climb up much beyond our thighs.  Oh a couple came close to the belt, but we managed to fend them all off.  Dave regretted the fashion choice of jeans with holes in the knees but it worked out all right.

As suddenly as the zone began it was over, coinciding with a turn of the trail into a shaded canyon filled with redwoods.  Have I mentioned how beautiful everything was?  To be up in the middle of the air in an incredible environment like that (though besieged by ticks), and then to suddenly fall into a cool canyon with the tallest trees on the planet, arrays of ferns, some moss-covered rocks we could rest on, some maples and oaks for shade, and an incredible quietness in which you could barely, barely hear the whoosh of the ocean thousands of feet below was like being in some magic grotto in a fairy tale.

I’ve mentioned Coastal Redwoods before and the ones in this ravine weren’t the best specimens, but they sure were awesome and towering.  They were also very dark from the flash fires they’d survived over the years.  We rested for a while and then pressed on up the trail, hoping to make it all the way up to to the ridge or to another redwood canyon before turning back.  We were approaching another one after trudging uphill for half an hour or so, but we’d been through another tick zone (we’d re-soaked our pants at that point) and were beginning to wonder if it was worth blowing the rest of the day by continuing.  It probably was (have I mentioned the beauty?), but we were getting hungry and running out of water, so we eventually decided to head back down.

Going back was trickier than you might think because what was a steep gravel/dirt path on the way up became a sliding hillside at times on the way down.  It was the old truism that walking downhill is tougher on the shins, knees, and ankles than walking uphill.  We had soaked our pants a third time (just about emptying the recently-full bottle of repellent) and thankfully the ticks mostly left us alone on the way down (“Here come those people with stinky pants!”).  We stopped in the redwood canyon again for a rest and a few chips and met another couple with their happy dogs (only the second group we’d seen on the trail).  We mentioned the ticks and they said that yeah, these panicked people had arrived at the trailhead just as they were starting up and almost begged them not to chance it.  I guess those people were kind of freaked out by the ticks.  The ones we saw were probably Western Black Legged Ticks.

All good things have to come to an end of course, and we descended the trail about twice as fast as we had ascended.  We were soon close enough above route 1 so we could hear the cars (as well as the pounding surf on the shore), made it down past the lushest flower elevation, passed several other groups on their way up when we got near the bottom, and then made it back to Vicky at 1:44.  Another great hike!  This was not the only high point of our trip by any means, but was among them.

We were starving, but realized that the Limekiln State Park was just a few more miles up the road and would probably have shaded picnic tables (if they weren’t all mobbed) and would be a nicer place to recuperate from our hike than alongside route 1.  So we drove the bit up to the well-hidden turnoff for Limekiln (which was another recommendation from the wonderful Coastal Parks book) and they wanted $8!!  I was a little taken aback at first but then we paid it gladly … CA State Parks have had a rough time with recent state administrations and are in dire need of cash and it’s a horrible thought that we could be so short sighted to let any of them disappear.  They need our support.

In exchange for the small entry fee (and our support) the guy gave us a trail map and plenty of advice.  He told us that if we wanted we could turn left and go down to the beach or turn right and go up to the parking lot for the Redwoods Campsite, where there were a few picnic tables.  The trailhead for the path up the creek was there too.  So we turned right and there was only one other car in the parking lot (those people never showed up and mysteriously left at some point), and we did not see another person for the next couple of hours.  This place was worth more than $8.

Dave made the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that day as Sarah and I watched.  The peanut butter tried to explode on him but we coached him through it.  We were sitting at a picnic table at the bottom end of the deserted (not yet open) campground, next to the raging Limekiln Creek, watching the redwoods, the mossy rocks, Redwood Sorrel, manzanita bushes with their trademark red stems, the tall grasses, the green and yellow shrubs, and the songbirds.  After lunch we put the food stuff back in the car (no bear boxes on the coast) and then started walking up through the campground to the trailhead for the Lime Kilns themselves.

These were some tall, majestic redwoods … mostly second growth but some first growth.  We climbed up through several named groves and then kept on following Limekiln Creek up the Falls Trail rather than going to the kilns.  We had to cross the creek five or six times on some dodgy-looking branches and/or stepping-stones to keep going, but we could hear that there was a big falls up at the end of the trail and we finally made it there.  Limekiln Falls is only a hundred feet, but in the Spring there’s a great amount of water coming over it and it had made a sculpture of moss, lichens, algae, rock, tumbled tree branches, and ferns that shone in the afternoon sun in the middle of the brown, gray, red, and green forest.  Dave and I climbed all the way up to it and stood in the pool at its bottom as we gazed up at the water falling out of the clear blue sky.

We turned around to head back and, as happened time and time again on our California trip, on the return trail we met all kind of people coming up: about 7 groups in all after we’d had the place to ourselves for a couple of hours.  By the time we made it back to the parking lot it was almost full … where had these people been and why were they tracking us?  We threw them the slip again though and jumped back in the car, said a sad farewell to the lovely Limekiln State Park, wound back up the twisty entrance road, and floored it North on route 1 at 3:20.

We had told Tony that we’d call him at mid-day but the problem was that we hadn’t had a cell phone signal since leaving Cayucos.  We roared by the really popular Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, where the parking lots were full and chaos abounded.  We went on for mile after mile after mile up the coast, finally arriving in the super-rich town of Carmel 90 minutes or so later, and then the traffic started as we would up route 1 past Monterey.  Sure seemed like we’d never get to Santa Cruz at that point, but at least there was cell coverage there and we could contact Tony and make our tentative plans a little more exact.  The road turned into a limited access highway and the traffic fell behind as we wound through the major towns around Monterey Bay, then we broke free and had another 20 or so miles of beach before we stated approaching the sprawl of Santa Cruz.

Contacted Tony again and he gave us specific instructions that Sarah was able to augment with the help of Google Maps on her Kindle.  We pulled into downtown Santa Cruz where there were a lot of people, buildings, stores, and cars … and they all seemed to be having a great time, especially on a sunny, Spring, Friday evening!  We found a parking place for our out-of-place big boat of a car with only a little difficulty and walked the few blocks over to Hula’s Island Grill, where we met old Tufts friend Tony and had a great interlude, talking about the trip, old times, new times, Tony’s life in Santa Cruz, and having some great seafood.  I had a barely seared ahi tuna steak, Sarah had awesome sea scallops, Dave had a Cajun burger, and Tony had ahi sashimi, veggie rolls, and seaweed salad (I tried some of it and it was delicious).

Sad to say goodbye to Tony, but we still had a substantial trail in front of us (or behind us … my internal compass was a bit off as Santa Cruz harbor really points East!), but we tanked up Vicky and got batteries at Rotten Robbie, and made it out of Santa Cruz by a little before 8:00.  Sarah called the hotel in Pacifica to say we'd be late. "What time will you get here?" they asked.  "I don't know,” she said, “We're trying to get out of Santa Cruz without killing any pedestrians right now."  We had to head up the coast another 70 miles … but before we did that we had one more stop to make.

The sun was setting into the Pacific to our left and just at the right time, there was a beach: the Waddell Beach area of Big Basin Redwoods State Park.  The crowds were already gathered there to watch the beautiful, orange sunset.  We pulled over at a few minutes after 8:00, put on whatever jackets were available (it was chilly and windy), and stood out on the beach, watching the angry ocean turn from blue to green to black and watching the circle of the sun approach the horizon and then flatten out, and then disappear.  Believe it or not, as we were watching another flock of pelicans flew by … or was it the same flock that we had seen in Montaña De Oro the day before and then at the elephant seal overlook that morning?

Time to hit the road once more and we roared past Pigeon Point as the light faded and then Half Moon Bay as it became darker and darker.  We made it up to Pacifica sometime before 10:00.  We were now really back in civilization in this southern suburb of San Francisco.  We had made a reservation at the Sea Breeze Motel, right on the ocean again, and when we pulled into the parking lot it was packed with Friday-night partiers there to hear the live music in the bar next door.  We got a space on the side of the parking lot facing the wild sea (or so we assumed from the sound and the spray, though we couldn’t see it), checked in in the small office, and then squeezed into a room less than half the size of any of the others we’d had so far.

Oh well, it wasn't as small as our room in Paris had been!  The beds were not queens (as advertised) but we made do, somehow got our stuff stowed and got us relaxed, and then fell asleep sometime soon after that.

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