Sand

Summer on the Big Sur Coast

Summer on the Big Sur Coast

Wildflowers at your feet, seagulls overhead, fog clinging to the coastal range, and surf crashing below make the Big Sur coast a national treasure

The drive from San Simeon to Carmel should take two hours or so. In fact it’s an all day affair because you find yourself yanking your car into every overlook to drink in yet another incredible view. Just when you think it can’t become any more beautiful, it does – and often exponentially so. It’s just incredible how the combination of the coastal mountains, fog clinging to the coast, sunlight dancing in and out, wildflowers blooming, dramatic cliffs, and often the road itself can make a million different images, all unique and equally beautiful.

Such is the Big Sur coast. There are other beautiful drives in the world and I’ve been able to experience many of them. This may not be the most beautiful stretch of road in the world, but I’d say it’s in anyone’s top ten. It’s that dramatic and beautiful.

We were nearing Carmel Highlands where we would be spending the next couple of days when I noticed wildflowers filling the fields between the Pacific Coast Highway and the Pacific Ocean. I just couldn’t resist seeing what the actual coast would look like the few hundred yards away. So, my long-suffering wife patiently picked up her book and encouraged me to take a while to go scout and shoot what I saw. Have I mentioned how patient she is with my photography addiction?

Fortunately there were some well-worn paths through the vegetation leading to different vantage points along the cliffs. Apparently, this location is a fairly popular area for hikers and people walking their dogs. It’s not hard to imagine why. I can’t imagine a more beautiful place to hike while soaking in the views.

Unfortunately, I was so engrossed with getting to the vistas I expected, I totally missed the abundance of poison oak that was embedded in the vegetation – and I was wearing shorts. I wouldn’t find out for a couple of days, but this would turn out to be a big problem. I’m allergic to poison oak and ivy and I acquired the worst case I’ve ever had in my life. I don’t mean a few spots that turned into a rash. I mean my calves and lower thighs were covered in a rash that ultimately scabbed over and itched like nothing I’ve ever felt. I went through an entire bottle of poison ivy gel just trying to keep the itch under control. It took a full two months for the rash to go away entirely!

But even with the future onset of a nasty case of poison oak, the hike out through the brush was worth it. I rarely have one of these moments, but when the trail ended at the cliffs overlooking the Pacific, the scene literally took my breath away. In front of me stretched an uninterrupted view of the ocean to the horizon, blue sky, a golden beach, beautiful blue water and white foam intersecting with the coast, and a steep cliff side covered with native vegetation and flowers. It’s a scene that I can envision clearly as I write this post. It was beautiful and I took a few minutes just to soak it all in.

Then, I got to work. I moved up and down the cliff-top trail looking for a vantage point that captured as many of the elements of the scene as possible while still retaining a sense of composition that would fulfill my artistic vision. I finally found it in this spot. The view is north toward Carmel and captures all of the elements I described above. Patience added a small flock of birds lazily riding the wind down the coast and into my frame. It was a perfect moment in time for a landscape photographer – minus the nasty rash to come. But, all in all, it was worth it. Hopefully, this image and my words bring you a bit closer to that beautiful place in the world that is the Big Sur coast. Enjoy.

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Pfeiffer Beach Sand and Rocks

Pfeiffer Beach Sand and Rocks

The purple sands of Pfeiffer Beach accented with stones worn smooth by ocean waves

As we made our way up the Big Sur coast I had several landmarks that I wanted to visit. I’m a bit of a travel nerd and do some fairly exhaustive research before our trips. One place that I had read was particularly beautiful was Pfeiffer Beach. I had also read that it is not an easy location to access or, at least, that it was not well marked.

That turned out to be the case. If there was a marker for the turnoff to Pfeiffer Beach I don’t recall seeing it. When we stopped for a quick lunch to take to the beach, the restaurant attendant just told us to “turn left at the first paved road after the bridge”. We did, and we quickly saw what ‘inaccessible’ meant. There was a road to Pfeiffer Beach, but it was a narrow tree-lined lane that was impassable for two-way traffic in spots. The beach was crowded as well. Near the beginning of the two mile drive, there were attendants controlling the flow of traffic into and out of the park. It was obvious why once we made it to the parking lot. There are precious few parking spots and the locals really don’t want visitors to block their driveways or clog the tight road.

Once we parked and gathered my camera gear and our picnic lunch, we made our way out to the beach. Once we had cleared the parking lot, it quickly became apparent why this is such a popular spot. Pfeiffer Beach is a sheltered, sandy beach at the base of some dramatic cliffs protected on the ocean side by large rocks undercut with arches. It may not be a great beach for surfing but it’s protected enough to be a great place to stroll, throw or kick a ball, or just sit back and watch the world go by. The only negative I could see was that the wind whipped fine sand particles readily. In high winds it seems that the blowing sand would be more than just a nuisance.

As we wandered about, children splashed in tide pools, dogs ran freely on the wide beach, and many people just kicked back reading and relaxing. In certain places on the beach, we noticed that the golden brown sand was interspersed with purple and black sand. It was fairly obvious that the sand was formed from rock formations on the cliffs above that were being worn down by the constant wind and rain. After a bit of research I found that the purple sand is caused by manganese garnet deposits in the surrounding cliffs. Apparently as they erode they wash down from the cliffs and mix with the regular beach sand. The result is some pretty cool looking abstract images arrayed on the beach, especially in areas where tide pools interact with the purple deposits. The picture above is an example of what some of the beach looks like. Other large sections are just normal golden brown beach sand much like the other beautiful beaches of the Big Sur coast.

Pfeiffer Beach is definitely worth a visit if you are in the area. Even with the crowded, cash-only parking lot, it’s still a beautiful place in this world. Enjoy.