Strategies to enjoy semi-secret Big Sur.
Thursday, October 23, 2008
When asked, real Big Sur locals will almost always report that no, they do not know of any secret spots to enjoy around their domain. The less shy among them may openly laugh at that sort of question.
Fortunately, genuine Big Sur experiences that carry all the magic of a secret water hole often lie only a few yards from the highway, or just beneath the surface of an easily accessed creek.
Some of them (listed below) will require the use of mile markers, those small white posts on the side of the highway with numbers written vertically. (Heading south from Carmel the digits will be counting down.) All of them, however, will require an appetite for discovery.
Unsuspecting tourists drive past them on the southern side of Big Sur every day, unaware of their enchanting presence. In fact, most locals do not know about them either– adding to the thrill felt by people who pause to sit on their stone steps and daydream about how these seemingly secret fountains came to be.
A little history lesson: Inspired by thirsty travelers who wanted a fresh-water source along their journey, excavators and stone masons working in the Civilian Conservation Corps under the management of two men– Dr. John L. D. Roberts from Monterey and State Senator Elmer S. Rigdon of Cambria– hand-built six stone fountains around natural springs in the 1920s. The construction of the entire highway, including these side projects, were all part of the mammoth New Deal legislation levied by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to help give unemployed citizens jobs.
Five of the six fountains can still be enjoyed– especially after the first few good rains have them flowing. From north to south, they include Rigdon (at the 26 mile marker), Big Redwood (between Rigdon and Lucia, at marker 23), Lucia (just south of Limekiln at marker 19), Willow Creek (11.7, just north of Willow Creek Bridge) and Soda Springs (3.8 marker).
Each fountain rests in a spot hidden on the east side of the highway, built around the waterfalls and springs with sturdy masonry. Once spotted, they seem obvious. A closer gander reveals the name and short history etched into a plaque at each site.
A rewarding Big Sur adventure can be had simply by driving south and stopping to explore beneath each bridge. Under many of Highway 1’s beautiful bridges, including the South Coast span at mile marker 11.2, lie creeks or rivers. The right rivers reveal hundreds of crawdads fond of the shade and fresh water; the tasty crawdad flavor can resemble lobster when cooked correctly, and catching them is legal. Visitors should avoid catching babies and limiting their catch to help keep the populations healthy for return trips.
Willow Creek Bridge in particular is fruitful when looking for crayfish or a good swim; just south of the county line, San Carpoforo Creek is also good in winter. Jumping into the Little Sur at Big Sur Campground or River Inn and floating out through Andrew Molera State Park to the Pacific is also a great way to spend a day.
The best time to hit the mother lode that is Jade Cove near Pacific Valley to collect green gems is low tide after a big swell or storm– for obvious reasons.
But a sneaky imposter lies in wait to foil amateur collectors: Serpentine is the fool’s jade. Locals can spot the difference, but amateurs can use a few simple tricks to tell the two apart. For one, neophyte jade hunters can try tapping it on a boulder to see if it chips or cracks. If it does, it is probably not jade. They can also employ the scratch test– take a knife or key and scratch it on the surface of the stone. Since jade is one of the hardest rocks on earth, it will not break very easily and scratching it with anything other than a diamond would be next to impossible. For specialty pieces and professional purchases, web-combers should surf over to www.bigsurjadeco.com.
Most California residents know what a condor is, but few get a chance to see the largest flying bird on earth firsthand. Fortunately, some of the once-nearly extinct condors have grown fond of a home construction and restoration project on a cliff called Grimes Point near the Big Sur Coast Gallery at mile marker 41. The house and the surrounding redwood and pine trees that the condors enjoy lie west of the highway; multiple turnouts within a hundred yards in any direction of the main pullout above the construction site make for good lookout spots.
THE OLD COAST ROAD
Before the construction of the Bixby Bridge, this was the only way south. The dirt road twists from just north of the Bixby Bridge at mile marker 59.8 south to its opening across the street from the entrance of Andrew Molera (mile marker 51.2). Today the iconic bridge serves as a major convenience to drivers on a deadline, but the Old Coast Road is a classic Big Sur diversion for those who seek a good drive and have time to meander. The 10-mile winding road opens for glimpses of the Pacific, reaches an elevation of 2,000 feet and then leads back down toward the ocean.