Big Sur with Steve, Los Padres National Forest

Trip Date:  April 15, 2016

Find this Spot

Maybe it was tax day, maybe it was the thing that influences all time space relationships, but this trip was one for the ages.  As many of our trips do, this one started off on shaky ground.  It was still possible Wednesday morning that Tom would join Steve and I and it was still possible Reinhard would not join us.  By Wednesday evening, Tom was out and Reinhard was firmly in, deep, one might even say.

Reinhard was already down on the coast Thursday, so he would continue on from there and we would meet at/near the old camp spot we stayed at some 6 years ago.  At the time, we did not know it was Tom’s birthday, but it turned out to be his 50th, and what an extraordinary celebration it turned out to be.  I know not of how we learned of this place, but it could have been that I stumbled upon it after Steve said he wanted to camp at/near/overlooking the Pacific.  Wanting ever to please, I set myself upon the task of finding such a place.

 

I remember it seemed a long and anxious drive through Salinas, Seaside, Monterey, and Carmel to get down the coast on Highway 1.  But, I also recall after having just turned off 1 onto Nacimiento-Fergusson Road to climb up into the Santa Lucia Mountains, we met Steve in the TravelAll with Bob and Ken.  What a grand encounter that was.  After a brief respite, we both headed up the steep switchbacks of the climb up to the top where it intersects the gated FS Central Coast Ridge Road, now Cone Peak Hiking Trail which heads North to connect with a number of other hiking trails through the Ventana Wilderness high above the mighty Pacific ocean, on one side, and FS 23S02 which heads South and ultimately connects back to Highway 1 about 9 miles South near Plaskett Creek.

It is off this road, about 5 miles South of the Pass, that our road went out Prewitt Ridge.  This time, some 6 years later, the road seemed quite a bit rougher with a lot more erosion and rain runoff damage.  It is 99% dirt road, except for one very steep stretch that passes in front of Chalk Peak and a small road side area known as Apple Camp.  Other than that, it is a mostly clay, rutted and wash-boarded track with many sharp narrow turns and very steep ascents and descents.  The views however, are stunning.

 

At Prewitt Ridge, we rumbled down a couple more stretches of road that again seemed steeper and rougher than last time, but we finally passed the oak tree that we all remembered from last time.  It is such an unusual, interesting tree it cannot be forgotten.  At that point, we knew we were on the right track. Down a few more yards and we entered the big flat open area and saw the hang gliding launch area at the edge of the opening.  Last time we had the place entirely to ourselves until an old battered Volkswagen Beetle appeared with a young couple from Arkansas.  But even then, they camped quite a ways away from us, well out of sight and out of sounds, only passing them to walk out to the hang gliding pad to watch the sunset.  We had already seen more vehicles on the way in, but we were confident our old spot, overlooking the Pacific and looking right down the cliff to the coastline at Plaskett Creek and Sand Dollar, would still be available.

As we rounded the bend and craned our necks to get the first glimpse of our spot, we were crushed to see a tent and two chairs perched on the edge, overlooking our spectacular view and the site of so much fun on the prior trip.  There were 6 or more of us on that trip, the first and only on or near the Coast.  It was incredibly beautiful, as the Big Sur coast is apt to be.  We had the most incredible storm hit us; we watched the thing come in from the Pacific and just smash into us – a big dark mass that didn’t seem to be too much higher than we were at 3,000 above the surf.

All of sudden we had great winds and snow and hail and it was way cold.  We scrambled to erect tarps to give us protection from the snow and ice, but it was coming in sideways, right out in front of us, so we were getting drilled by it all.  We scrambled to get our rain gear and layers of jackets and wind breakers.  It was so invigorating that we didn’t seem too impacted from the cold or wet – it was just so terribly exciting.  When we woke up, the ground was covered in snow and a magnificent oak tree on the other end of the camp was just perfectly coated in sparkling shimmering white.  It was a glorious setting.

Many of the fellas left after 2 nights, some after 1, but we stayed for a third and Terry and Tom cooked up the best food I had ever eaten on a camping trip –steaks, seafood, giant brown mushrooms, fancy vegetables, everything marinated or sautéed in delicious sauces.  It was awesome.  Steve and I had done a wonderful in-ground cast iron meal the night before, and we may have had some special cocktails as well.  It was just a magical trip.

 

Now, to be back 6 years later was fantastic, but not getting our site, and seeing a few vehicles already in the better spots, was frying the nerves a little at this point in the day.  We were very glad to have kept on imagining that we were going to meet Reinhard at 2:00 at the camp site.  He had texted me at 12:45 Friday morning telling me that he wouldn’t be able to make it, but Steve and I kept imaging we needed to be out there at 2:00 and even contemplating he and/or Bob would surprise us at the appointed place and time.  I think if we had not continued our charade and arrived much later than we did, we would have had a much harder time finding a place that may have been far less enjoyable as the one we found.

Fortunately, what we did find, was off the charts outstanding.  After the disappointment of rounding the bend and ascending the hill to find the tent and 2 chairs parked in our spot, we quickly followed the tiny loop back down the hill, up the other side and out to the hang glider launch pad.  This was far too exposed, as one might expect, without a tree, shrub, spec of shade, or hint of privacy.  But we picked up another track that launched down a narrow spine, only to come to three rigs parked across the track and a small group perched in chairs on the other side of the rigs, absorbing an unobstructed view of the glistening Pacific.

We took our time turning around to silently voice our displeasure at now getting excited about 2 spots, only to have them crushed by occupancy.  Back up the spine we climbed to the paraglide portal and on down another road, I guess it was the continuation of the main road coming in.  We were now in virgin territory and verging on anxious to find a good spot that was still vacant.  I was getting more and more apprehensive about descending this road, rough, narrow, winding as it was, and completely uncharted for gates, washouts, severe damage, or for adequate room to even turn around if need be.  All concerns were allayed in short order.

Around and around, this sharp turn and that, back and forth down the steep narrow, rough pitch, our focus led off to the right where the road opened up to a wide spot that turned into a private road.  Stopping to check it out and read the sign, our scope gradually expanded to the West, to a large open grassy knoll and a very appealing track entering the clearing.  Up and over the knoll we go and like a couple of sorority girls on pledge night, we squealed with delight at the vista before us.  This was almost too good to believe.

The clearing was circular, occupying a large portion of the inner loop of the road.  On the left/South side was a shallow depression that could be seen despite the tall grass.  It could carry water in the wet season, but now just looked like a grassy nook.  At the end of the nook, just before the hill gave away sharply, was a massive White Oak spreading its massive arms perfectly, with many smaller limbs in a very vertical habit.  Most of these then came within feet of the ground and turn upwards, giving the impression of a Chicago horn section. A few feet from the tree, higher up on the flat ground was a large rock, 6 feet around and 4 feet tall.  It had 5, 6, 7 grinding holes of various depths but all about the same diameter.  The rest of the area, roughly 100’ in diameter was short grass, as if it had been mowed.  It was much shorter than the natural grass in the low spot and mush shorter than the grasses on the hillside that dropped off to the West.  Just about smack dab in the middle of the entire area, was a rounded knob of bare gravel where no grass grew.  This was the high point and about the center point of the opening and although there were very few truly level spots, it was incredible to find such a large open area vacant, not up against the road, with some shade, with the grinding rock, and with the best view of the ocean you could imagine.

The ridge to the left/South, on the other side of the low trench and the oak tree, extended out far enough to block the view. The view due West and Northwest was totally unobstructed Pacific ocean.  To the North were the 2 peaks of “Cone Peak” at about 5155’ elevation.  Behind us to the East, you could see the 500 yard super steep stretch of FS 23S02 that is paved cut across Chalk Peak.  This spot was brilliant.

 

We maneuvered the rig over to the grinding rock and unloaded and hunted for the most level spots to put our tents.  I ended up near the ravine under the oak tree set back from the edge a little with a mottled ocean view through the massive branches of the oak tree.  Steve went for full view perched out in the open on the edge of the precipice.  We were unloaded and pulling the truck out away from the camp so we didn’t feel it so much, when a rig came down the road and slowed to check out our spot.  I was glad I was in the rig moving it as it may have given the impression we were occupying more of the total area than we were, as 70 % of the clearing was vacant – not being near the edge with the view but below the rise from the high point in the middle to the road.

The vehicle moved on down the road and we again were filled with joy that we had found and occupied this spot.  We went about setting up the kitchen by the oak tree and the grinding rock and then our tents and bedding.  We were getting settled in to our chairs as another rig slowed and looked the site over.  This time, a guy parked and walked across the opening to us.  He said he and his girlfriend had been looking for a spot to camp and had been asked to leave when they attempted to settle in too close to another group.

This guy had parked near the road and walked over to us.  He was perhaps in his 30’s and very polite and courteous.  We told him that of course we preferred to have no one in the area, but we couldn’t tell him he couldn’t stay there, so it was all good.  We could tell he was very relieved, both to have a spot and a very good one at that, and to have a sense he wasn’t going to be camping next to dickheads.  His name was Ryan and he worked for Google; his girlfriend was Nicole, and they were our new neighbors.

 

He parked his white 4 door SUV right on top of the high point of the clearing.  They set their tent up on the other side of the rig and their 2 chairs in front of the tent, but still behind the front of the rig from our vantage.  They didn’t have any other stuff outside of the rig; no table, no BBQ, no fire, lantern, cots, nothing.  They were exceedingly Spartan.  Since there wasn’t a bush or a tree or anything natural between them and us to provide a screen or any privacy, we very much appreciated the distance they parked from us and the fact that they set the rig between us.  It all was very courteous and considerate.

Cocktail hour was fast approaching and the wind was picking up.  We defrosted our Cod marinating in a vinaigrette dressing; we sautéed orange bell peppers, onions, and Portabella mushrooms; and we threw on the sausages and hot dogs for good measure.  Steve worked up some outstanding pasta and brought out some excellent cheese and bread and crackers to get us going.  The wind blew pretty good, but we were high above the Big Sur coast looking out over the gorgeous Pacific Ocean on a crystal clear, sunny, warm day.  This was sweet.

I had my one darker beer for the evening, a Black Butte Porter from Deschutes brewing, one of the go-to Porters/dark beers. But now, the real drinking was to begin, when much to my despair, I realized I forgot the mix for my drinks.  I had the plastic bottle of Kessler’s (Smooth As Silk), which it really is, I think anyway.  So I had to do my best Marine impersonation, and improvise the hell out of this situation.  Steve had some homemade organic oranges and I had some honey, just about the only sweet things we had with us.  It was sort of a poor man’s Old fashioned with the crushed orange slices in there, and the hint of honey and that extra sweetness really made an excellent cocktail.  Life was good.

 

We cooked and ate and stared at the ocean and stared at the ocean and stared at the ocean some more.  It truly was mesmerizing and we felt every bit the lucky fools that we were.  As darkness fell, we cleaned up a bit, added a small amount of wood to the fire, but kept it low because of the persistent wind.  We had to put on a top layer of wind protection, while not zipping up or getting too hot, because it was anything but cold.  But the wind would not mellow out and it substantially diminished the quality of the sitting around the fire experience, so we headed off to bed before too long.  When I awoke to pee at some point in the night, it was stone calm and silent.  The half-moon was still super bright and it lit an eerie glow over the grassy knoll.  The white bark of the oak tree reflecting the moonlight was truly magical.

Morning was windy so I did not want to get a fire going to make the coals to bake the biscuits in the Dutch oven.  I made coffee and wandered down the road a short distance as it dropped off the hillside quite abruptly and I did not want to climb back up.  We ate a small breakfast and spent a considerable amount of time considering what we should do for the day.  We did not want to drive much since we had spent such a long time in the car yesterday, but walking meant going up or down, either of which had a serious up component.  We did need to charge Steve’s music maker so we decided we would drive a bit, just to get the machine charged, and then figure it out from there.

 

While we were camped down the road a piece from where we had camped last time, we had not been farther down the road beyond this point, so we decided to try to find the end of the road, because as we found with Ken, it is sometimes more difficult than it sounds.  With a small amount of trepidation from the unknown and the steep, winding nature of the road, we set off in compound low.  Every nook of open space not on the road was occupied by a rig, tent, people or some combination thereof.  Some spots had no view whatsoever and seemed to be walled in by dense poison oak.  Other spots had clear expansive views of the ocean and the coastline and Highway 1 far below.  Not a one compared to what we had, either in quality or size, as our wives know.

 

We stopped in an open ridge, covered in wildflowers with a short track leading to a spectacular camp site.  There was no cover, shade or shrubbery, so it was very exposed, but that also made it a super spectacular setting.  Plus, the site was surrounded by and covered with wildflowers; purple and blue Lupine, Poppies galore, and patches of deep red – maybe Delphinium or a sage.  I am certain I heard Julie Andrews or Steve warbling out a melody uplifted on the coastal thermals.  If not for the wind, and perhaps a few degrees cooler, maybe a tad of cloud cover, this spot would make an excellent home.  Although much farther down the slope, it did not have the wide open views of up above.  But it did look right out to the ocean, and you could see more details of the coast line, maybe even hear the waves on accession.

 

We shot a few pictures and headed on down the road, only to find a temporary barricade across our path warning of the lack of road ahead.  We parked and continued on foot, determined to find the end of the road.  It didn’t take long to find the issue the signs warned of.  While most of the road was intact and in fact in really good shape, the inside couple feet had eroded 4 or 5 feet deep, such that, if one got their wheel or wheels in there, there was no way they could correct themselves out of it.  We could have made it past the crevice without much trouble, but it just wasn’t worth the risk.

 

We were now off the open hills overlooking the Pacific and were getting deeper and deeper into a classic Redwood forest.  It was shady and cool and getting darker as we worked our way further into the ravine.  And that was it.  The road just ended up against a cluster of Big Leaf Maples and a couple massive White Oaks.  There were no foundations or springs or log deck or trailhead, or other reasons for the road to end here or to even have been made in the first place, but it ended here nonetheless. It was neat to be in a completely different forest setting after having been camped and exploring out on the sunny and windy, grassy and wildflower covered hill facing the Pacific.  It was cool and calm and quiet in the woods and it was nice to relax a bit before heading back out to again be exposed to the elements.

When we got back in the truck to turn around, a Land Cruiser had come down and followed me all the way back up the hill to our camp spot.  He was on my tail the entire time so I hope he inhaled and ingested a ton of my dust.  If my truck wasn’t so good, I could have spun the tires and bit and tried to throw some rocks up on his rig, but I never lost traction.  He seemed to be in a hurry, but we didn’t pay him much attention anyhow.  We had to resupply with beverages so we pulled back into camp.  We then decided there wasn’t really anywhere we wanted to drive to so we decided we would head out for a short jaunt.

 

We restocked and started to trudge up the road.  It was even steep when you walk it.  And even thought the air temperature was maybe 72 degrees, it was like you were up in the mountains, which is weird because we were on the coast, but we weren’t really either; we were 3,000 feet above the coast, but the sun felt much hotter on our skin – like it was 90 degrees or something.  Fortunately, as the road weaved in and out around ridges and into the gullies, we could stop to catch our breath in the shade and out of the wind.  We needed to catch our breath for what we found up top.

 

We could hear the voices of campers above us as we walked the last incline to the large open area out by the hang glider launch pad.  However, we were not prepared for the number of folks and rigs we saw.  When we drove by yesterday and were looking about for a site, there were 2 tents on the launch pad, 1 and a half really as one tent looked like one of those stupid smart cars.  Now, the launch pad was covered door to door with 10 or 12 vehicles.  Many had also pitched soccer tents to provide some shade – it looked like a freakin parking lot.  Below that, alongside the roads in every semi-flat wide spot were a vehicle and a tent.  We hiked up a track about mid slope of the rise above the entire area that now was blocked by a metal fence to protect the hillside from the yahoos.  From this point, we could look out and see another 10 camps, every mound, and every flat spot, under every tree people were hunkered down.  We couldn’t see the spot where we had camped before as it was on the other side of the hill to the South, but we could hear people hootin and a hollerin.  The place wasn’t loud necessarily, but it felt busy and high energy.  Maybe the sun was getting to us.

 

We couldn’t stay long, it was too sad to see so many people packed into this area.  It had been 6 years since we had been here but boy had the word gotten out.  We scrambled back down the road we had come from to escape the masses and the buzz of people and rigs and noise.  When we got back to our spot, our new neighbors still had not returned from their ray excursion.  We were happy about that.  We moved our chairs to the edge of the camp, behind the kitchen, where the hill falls off the Continental shelf into the Pacific.  Here we found shade, and calm, and quiet.

Aside from the mellow buzz of the honey bee hive tucked into a rotten notch of one of the giant limbs of the White Oak whose Easterly limbs shaded my tent on the edge of the ravine.  It was good to rest from the day’s adventure and clear the visions of the population on the plain above.  It was time for a beverage.   We drug the coolers into the shade and used them as foot rests, and rest we did.  In a bit the neighbors came home, but they were so quiet and mellow, we barely noticed.

It was time for another cocktail yes, but it was also time to start thinking about dinner.  Kristen had made a superb stew (otherwise known as Pot roast and potatoes with carrots and onions in a lot of juice) that I froze and brought for dinner.  We set it out on the grinding rock to defrost.  I started a fire and Steve got out some salad and hors d’ vors.  We were getting into the evening mood.  All of a sudden we were attacked.

In from the East, at about 20 miles an hour shot two cars up into our clearing and right to the edge of the hill.  One car parked 4 feet from the neighbors rig, and the van parked four feet from it leaving maybe 8 feet to the truck.  Out squealed 6 or 8 young college type girls and 2 nerdy dudes.  They jumped around and hugged each other and kept on squealing.  It was one of the rudest, most oblivious, insensitive, uncaring, self-indulgent, myopic actions I have ever witnessed in my life, and certainly in my camping/outdoors life.  We were incredulous.  We just stared at these kids for a while watching them flit about, get stuff out of the car, gaze out at the ocean and generally begin to make themselves at home.  Steve and I were getting fairly worked up but I wanted to stay calm and see what they had in mind.  They couldn’t possibly be thinking about staying here, even though they were loitering 3 feet from Steve’s tent.  They must be here to watch the sunset, wait for friends, or just to take a break.  To rip up into someone’s, nay two people’s camp sites was incredibly rude enough; to think about staying here was beyond consideration.

 

Unfortunately, all signs seemed to be indicating a longer stay rather than a briefer one.  One of the girls got out her yoga mat and began an extensive session not 4 feet from Steve’s tent.  The other girl pitched herself over the edge of the hill and sprawled out in the sun amidst the lupine, poppies, buttercup, milkweed, and poison oak.  One of the guys was gathering sticks.  While, as a middle aged American male, I had fantasized about a group of sorority girls joining us on a camp trip, somehow this particular reality was too much for me to bear.

I started looking at them fairly intensely but I could never catch one in the eye.  They never even seemed to know, certainly not acknowledge we were there.  I eventually walked over to Ryan, but I could not speak as I stood next to him.  I just made faces and noises that he completely understood.  Finally, I was able to form words and we made sure that were both felt the same about this new situation and we were interpreting all this activity the same way.

At some point, the 2 guys were at the trunk of the car so we approached them and asked if they intended to stay here.  The more nerdy guy immediately said yes.  The larger bearded guy, perhaps of French descent, said they were not sure, that the other van had left to find the rest of their group and consider the options.  Ryan and I, I thought, did a very good job of explaining our position on the situation and how we most definitely did not see them staying here.  The 2 guys listened.  I also suggested that the way they entered our scene, and then never acknowledged us, was highly offensive and some folks out in the woods might react very poorly to it and they should be more aware, more sensitive to others, more cautious, more polite.

They seemed to get it.  The nerdy guy backed the car up to the road and the yoga girl got her mat and the big French guy (reminded me of Matt Brophy from UM baseball – maybe it wasn’t Matt but our big bearded first baseman – you know who you are) got the sunbather off the hill and they all retreated out of our camp and sat on a massive stump alongside the road, out in the sun, heads hung low.  It was so terrible to spoil their fun and wreck their mood and excitement.  They looked so bummed and distraught at having lost such a killer spot.  I felt terrible taking that away from them, giving them a lecture, and then sending them off, but I also felt like we were occupying a site, had already shared it with other people, and their presence was going to have such a huge impact on our scene that it was just too much.

 

It is entirely possible, that if they parked their rig at the road, walked in, asked us if it was OK to share the area, were polite and considerate like Ryan and Nicole were, they could have stayed in the area along the road, and of course walked across the opening to the view whenever they wanted.  They certainly would have impacted our scene, but you could imagine the impact would have been far less if they showed they were aware of the bigger picture, and the positive vibes of having some more happy good people around would have helped offset the impact.  But I don’t think it was too cold or hardened that considering their behavior, we didn’t want to risk all of our scene for them.  The signs all pointed to them totally washing away what we came here for.

 

It killed me to look over my shoulder from time to time to see them still sitting on the stump heads low, faces drooping to the ground.  It was even weirder when two of them were left and the other car was gone.  Thankfully, on one glance they were gone and a great rush of relief ran all through me, back and forth up and down.  We commiserated with Ryan and Nicole to again compare notes and get a reality check.  It had happened and it was now gone.  We could relax again and get back into the groove for our last night.

Not even close.  As we were talking with Ryan and Nicole up by their car, 4 cars came slamming into our spot again, within feet of the rigs, feet of Steve’s tent and feet of all of us, now standing in a group.  This time, we didn’t even let them get out of the cars.  Ryan and I approached the closest car and let them know they couldn’t stay here.  We just had this conversation with another big group and it wasn’t going to happen.  These guys were a little less willing to pack it in, I guess in light of their being an even bigger group and it getting later in the day to look for other spots.  They gave us the low on gas bit, the only one tent (unlike the only one bag) story, the “we’ll be good” – you won’t even know we are there; it’s crowded up there, etc., etc.  Reluctantly, they packed up and split.  Steve got my keys and moved the truck to all but block the access to the clearing.  It was clear we needed to guard our spot.

The vehicles continued to roam up and down the road.  Most I suppose were folks returning to their spots after a full days adventure, or maybe heading up top for a better view, but vehicles and people were definitely on the move.  We needed to refresh, regroup, recenter, refocus, reset.  We needed a cocktail and so it was.  I made a stiffy for Mr. Storelli and myself and we enjoyed it thoroughly.  Steve played some excellent tunes and the wind died down a bit and the stew was outstanding.

We didn’t eat all of the salad so Steve brought it up to Ryan and Nicole and they seemed to very much appreciate it.  He also invited them down for some of Barbara’s most excellent homemade apple pie.  Their timing was perfect.  After some deliberation, we decided the glass Pyrex plate the pie was baked on was in the oven when it was baked, so it certainly ought to be OK to just put the whole thing in the Dutch oven to warm up…

We had the pie in the oven on the grate over the fire for what seemed like just about the right amount of time.  Out of the darkness appeared Ryan and Nicole, returning Steve’s plastic salad container and holding empty plates.  We took the oven off the grill and Steve scooped out two killer pieces of pie for our guests.  As he scooped in for the third piece, glass shattered and the pie kind of slumped in a odd heap in the bottom of the oven.  Steve and I were quite taken aback as neither thought there was any chance of that happening, let alone right in our faces as we squatted low over the oven scooping out the pie.

Once we kind of took inventory or of eyes and exposed skin looking for blood or imbedded shrapnel, Steve stated the obvious, that he wasn’t going to have any.  I, on the other hand, didn’t want our friends to feel awkward that they got the only 2 glass free pieces of pie, so I stupidly scooped out a piece and ate it, every bite probed for slivers and slices of glass before I crunched down with my teeth.  It was perhaps the most tense pie eating I have ever done and led to an even more restless night wondering if I had swallowed any chards and would start trying to cough them back up, further wreaking havoc on my throat, tongue, lips, etc.  Not my best move.

 

The wind was continuing to blast so our minimalistic guests in shorts and flip flops did not stay long.  There was no heat to be derived from this fire as the wind blew it all over the place.  I added my final layer, a heavier jacket with a good shell that stopped the wind from penetrating to my skin, but also made it very warm, so all in all, I figured I might as well go to bed and see if the glass ingestion was going to play a role in the rest of the trip.

Fortunately, it did not.  I slept fairly well and awoke to another spectacular morning high above the Pacific on the Central California Coast.  It was still a bit breezy so I again went without the morning biscuits.  I made some coffee and grazed a little on this and that.  The neighbors bode us farewell and we again felt like we were camping without folks, as nice and considerate as they were, on top of us.  The road was busy with folks heading out, and by about 10:00, if felt like a totally different place; calm, quiet, relaxed, mellow.

 

We talked about how this spot had obviously been “discovered” between the college girls, the mountain bikers, and the hikers.  It was a very young crowd, but crowd nonetheless.  It was another lesson of the value of having midweek to go places and what a huge difference not going places when 95% of the rest of the people go there too.  Hopefully, someday, we will have a chance to comeback to this area midweek.  As we packed up, the pull to stay was strong.  The energy of the Pacific in the breeze notwithstanding, the entire place just seemed to exhale and relax.  It was tempting to think about staying, or at least prolong our exit.

As we got back up top, only the old Dodge camper van with the raised top was still up on the hang gliding pad.  It reminded me of a 60’s or maybe even late 50’ version my uncle Bob had.  He was like 6’ 6” so he had to have the higher roof to even half stand up in there.  Almost everyone was already gone.  The one spot Steve and I had not seen the day before was up a steep hill and had a 360 degree view.  We headed up the steep, badly rutted road to the top.  It was a good spot.  You would be surrounded by people, but at least they would all be below you, and you could position yourself and/or your rig to have some privacy.

 

There was a very cool oak tree up top with only half of its trunk, and that was only a couple inches thick; the entire middle was gone.  On top of that, the one third of the circumference that remained, had a 1 foot diameter hole in it, but the thing still had a pretty healthy, large, somewhat balanced crown.  It was a super trippy tree.  But the one I really wanted to photograph, I almost missed again.  I remembered it from our last trip – it was like a cartoon or a magic garden type of tree.  Not only was it massive, but it had all of these weird and mysterious growths – very strange shapes, textures, and lumps, even for an ancient White Oak on an exposed ridge, 3,000 directly above the Pacific.

As we left the high mound camp spot, we could look out and see into the crown of the White oak.  I had to take a double take for a moment as I thought I saw a bunch of monkeys high up in its branches.  Perhaps I did.  We drove to the bottom of the mound, back to the main road and up to the White Oak.  Just then about 6 guys were jumping down out of the tree.  They were all young, healthy, trippers, most with really long hair and shirtless.

As I got out of the rig and approached them around the base of the tree, I said that I thought I had seen a bunch of monkeys in the tree and I thought I had slipped a few continents.  I got a laugh out of them as they headed back to the camp spot and left me alone with the tree.  I knew instantly I wouldn’t be able to take any good pictures of it, even with the lupine flowering at its base.  If any of this area had any spiritual value at all, this tree was the lightning rod, absorbing equal parts Pacific Ocean, fresh salt air from around the world, clear, clean sunshine, and all the power of the grasses and wildflowers and the canyon and ridgetop forests.  This thing was something else.

My time was brief but immensely enjoyable.  My disappointment over the photographic weakness was overcome by a gratitude for having the opportunity to be here.  But it was time to roll.  The poor condition of the roads mandated slow and careful driving.  Making time was not an option.  We kept our eyes on the immense amounts of Madrone and oak dead from past fires, now stark silver ghosts of the forest past.  The best I can tell, the area along N-F road and South out South Coast Ridge Road to Prewitt Ridge and beyond burned in September/October 2008 in the Chalk Fire.  The area has made a tremendous recovery; however the large snags still protrude high above the dense understory – a warning of what can happen and what in all likelihood will happen again.

 

We stopped at not much more than a wide spot in the road for a break.  The East side of the road was a vertical rock wall with wildflowers and yucca and succulents clinging in every nook and cranny on the face.  The West was totally open – nothing taller than waist-high brush and view out over the Pacific and across to the next ridge.  We parked the truck along the road to block it and potential dust/noise from passing vehicles.  There was plenty of room for tents, kitchen, etc. and another vehicle or two parked along the road for maximum protection.  It was along the road so you certainly didn’t feel way off in a secluded spot, but you also got the overexposed feeling from being the highest thing from that point to one of the Hawaiian Island volcanoes.

Back to the pavement of N-F Road was a nice change I was ready for.  It is a twisty –turny bugger, but we barely passed 3 cars on down to the Hunter Liggett.  Back at the junction Mission and Del Venturi Roads (N-F becomes D-V on the base), is the Mission San Antonio De Padua, the 3rd of the 21 missions established by Franciscans between San Diego (1769) and Sonoma (1823).  Father Junipero Serra was responsible for establishing San Antonio De Padua and 8 other missions.

The mission is probably worth a visit and maybe a tour, but I have not given it the time. I did of course take the wrong turn at the Mission and headed out Mission Road.  It’s not so much the wrong one as the less direct one, which is almost always the one I usually choose – by choice as opposed to accidentally.  Mission takes a big loop to the North, becomes Milpitas Road and then loops back South into D-V.

About 15 miles out Mission road, one comes to a massive super trippy rock formation at which, the base ends and you enter back into Las Padres National Forest.  This 5 mile stretch of the Las Padres is a jewel.  The Santa Lucia Creek and the numerous tributaries that feed it give the valley a much greener, lusher, softer feel.  The rock formations are really incredible, and the hiking and exploring opportunities are extensive – I’m sure it is a great place to mountain bike as well.  The distance from population centers and major roads really keeps the numbers of folks down, and the fact that it is a very small slice of national forest land beyond the military base makes it tough to even identify.  Admittedly, driving through the military base is a little strange, passing all the equipment and personnel, and that certainly is another deterrent, but accessing this slice of national forest land is worth the effort.

We drove a short loop road that comes along the back side of the rock and along Santa Lucia Creek.  It is not a campground having no water, table, rings, etc., but it does get used as such and for good reason.  There are numerous large oaks spread over large flat open grassy meadows.  There are cows to be sure, but they may be kept on the North side of the road.  There are a few other short roads or spurs that head down to the creek for other dispersed camping spots near the creek in the 5 mile stretch or so of road between the NF-HL boundary and the Santa Lucia Memorial Park that enjoys a fantastic setting at the head of the valley and the confluence of several creeks draining the higher elevations of the  Santa Lucia Mountains and the Ventana Wilderness.  We drove loop Road #4 and stopped at a site above the creek in the shade of the oak to have a little snack and a refreshing beverage.  It was a great spot with creek and rock views and no one else in sight.  There were perhaps only 3 or 4 other camps set up in the entire area.  There were maybe a dozen cars parked at the trailhead by the rock formation, but all the people must have been out on the trail or down at he crick.  It is definitely worth a return visit for a prolonged stay.

Not wanting to take the same way home, we headed into King City to find Highway 25 which parallels Highways 101 and I-5 but couldn’t be any different.  It passes through some of the best kept slices of what California used to be like 150 years ago, other than what we just left at Hunter Liggett.  It passes through old towns and even older town sites, rolling hills and vast open grasslands.  It ends up in the antithesis of urban sprawl – Tres Pinos and Hollister.  You can feel the spirit and joy escaping your body before you get any closer to our urbanized way of living in densely populated concrete and steel structures with little, or actually nothing “natural” anywhere to be found.

Once on I-5, it was simply a struggle to get home as quickly as possible.  I was excited to see my pictures and write my story and some day, add them to the web page.  It is sad that it is in such bad shape, but hopefully soon I will have more time to get it the way I want it to be.

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Big Sur (with Steve) Photo Gallery