Leaving the heat and emptiness of Death Valley behind, we passed through the small town of Baker. Mostly unremarkable, other than a completely larger-than-life Mad Greek Café – it also has the World’s Tallest Thermometer, which was only reading 109F (43˚C) at 6PM. But that was neither here-nor-there compared to Mad Greek Café, which not only had some fantastic Greek food, it also was possibly the best parody of stereotypical Greek culture. This probably should have been in the last post, but, whatever.
I may have been in a food coma from the souvlaki dinner, but I continued driving towards LA until we reached Barstow. The initial plan had been to just give up and spend the night in the Walmart car park, but it felt a little more sketchy than a usual Walmart car park (an accomplishment), and managed to find a nearby truck-stop’s car park that we could make use of – they even had (pay) showers.
There wasn’t much need to wake up early (there was nothing remotely scenic here), but that didn’t stop us from waking early.
Angeles National Forest
Rather than heading into L.A., we decided to just skirt the north of the sprawl, and visit Angeles National Forest – I visited briefly last year, and was amazed by it. This time, rather than just thrashing a rental car up and down the twists and turns, we opted to stop and hike a (very small) section of the Pacific Crest Trail – which takes most people around 3-months to complete the entirety. Even though I’d visited before, it still blows my mind that such wilderness exists so close to L.A.
Even though it was well into June, there was still snow up here on the peaks. It was also a little shocking (in a very relieving way) for our bodies to have cool temperatures and refreshing air again. As usual, it was difficult to end the hike, without having a ‘destination’ to reach, and the constant allure of seeing what is around ‘just one more corner’.
But, time was getting away, and we were still just outside of LA, with a long way left to drive. We considered a bit of a detour to see Santa Monica, but with traffic banking up all around us, we realised it was futile, and changed course towards Big Sur.
After a long afternoon of motorway driving, which thankfully was exceptionally comfortable in this R.V, the sun was starting to set, and we needed to eat dinner. We’d made it as far as Pismo Beach, and had managed to find a small public park that overlooked the ocean to enjoy the sunset. It might not have been the most memorable of sunsets, but it sure beat eating in a Walmart car park (not that this was ever an option).
The long afternoon of driving was over, but now a long evening of driving lay ahead of me. Ordinarily we’d just stop when the sun set (not much point in scenic driving at night time), but we’d made reservations at a rather special/exclusive public bathhouse/hot spring/wellness retreat – Esalen Institute. Ordinarily, the only way to bathe here is to be a guest in one of their wellness retreats – which are quite long/expensive/not my thing. Thankfully, there is another option, which is the evening public bathing session. Every morning at 9AM, 30 tickets go on sale for people to use their baths. The catch? Entry is at 1AM…
I drove as long and as far as I could, until I started to feel tired/unsafe. The amazing benefit of the motorhome is being able to pull over and have a sleep, which I did for a little over an hour.
It was a real shame to be missing out on the views of the Pacific Coast, but we consoled ourselves knowing there were more tomorrow – plus, I’d already driven this once before, though in a considerably larger motorhome. The darkness was absolute, with barely another car, street light, or house along the old Route 1 highway. We did stop to go visit the Elephant Seals, and to be honest, visiting at night time was absolutely terrifying, with their otherworldly grunts that caused your chest cavity to resonate to a frequency below what my ears were able to hear. It was visceral. I knew that they were far below on the beach, but in the absolute darkness of a moon-less sky, not being able to keep track of where these giant sea mammals actually were scared me enough to have me racing back to the safety of the R.V!
We arrived at Esalen Institute a little before 1AM, and joined the others that were standing around waiting. We were collected and brought down into the center, versed in the etiquette of bathing here (clothing optional), and left alone in near pitch-black darkness to enjoy the waters.
And, enjoy the waters we did. There were several different baths, which had fire hose-sized taps that could be turned on to add more hot/cold water to the baths, as well as giant plugs to empty the baths. All easier said than done to operate in the darkness. The baths varied in size from a single person timber bath, through to much larger stone/concrete baths. The water is all natural hot spring, so it had the beautiful silky feeling of mineral waters, as well as the slight sulphuric smell that comes with it.
I tried several of the different baths, but other than changing the temperature, it was mostly the same. If this was all Esalen had to offer, it would be enjoyable (I miss natural hot springs), but the water was nothing in relation to the setting. Esalen baths are built on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Big Sur. There is next-to-no light in the bathing area, save for some feint glows around the walkways, which were dimmer than the flame from a candle. This combined with a moon-less night meant that the only light was coming from the Milky Way, which was nearly as vivid as I’d ever seen it, nearly casting a glow across the ocean below.
I’ve been lucky enough to have visited some amazing hot springs, and I’ve also been lucky enough to have been some remote places in Australia and Mongolia to see the Milky Way, but having the two together like this was something I’ll never forget. If it wasn’t so far from San Francisco, and at such an awkward time of the evening, I’d go all the time, and can’t recommend it highly enough.
Before I knew it, our two-hour window was coming to a close, and we were showering and returning to the R.V. Thankfully with the R.V we didn’t have to drive very far before finding a quite open space on the side of the road to pass out and sleep. The thought of driving to San Francisco at this time of the morning, after having spent nearly two-hours in hot springs seems impossible/suicidal.
I didn’t have my camera with me in the baths (and it would have been impossible to photograph anyway without a tripod), but I attempted a quick photo from my phone as we were leaving. It was pointless, but somehow it seemed better than nothing.
I was exhausted, but I couldn’t help taking one quick photo of the Milky Way over the ocean. I could have spent more time making sure focus was right, and that the camera was even pointed at something worth looking at, but hopefully this gives an idea of what the evening’s experience was like – maybe sit in a scaldingly hot bath with all the lights turned out, and the sounds of waves crashing at a medium volume.
I was pleasantly surprised with where we’d spent the night, with beautiful views of the road as it hugged the contours of the cliffs above the coastline. We probably weren’t officially allowed to stay there, but I guess that’s one of the benefits of arriving at 3AM, and being up again at 8AM, which I’m assuming is long before police have the opportunity to ask you to move along.
This wasn’t my first visit to Big Sur (I visited with other friends, also in a motorhome, last year), so I had a bit of an idea of what to expect. It was as beautiful as I’d remembered now that we had the benefit of daylight.
It was only a short drive from Esalen to McWay Falls, which was in the midst of some serious construction work to handle the tourism load. We were lucky that we arrived nice and early, as parking was already filling up – and this wasn’t even taking into consideration the limited areas a motorhome could park.
Still, McWay Falls is worth the effort, as it might well be one of the most perfect beaches I could imagine, with the small sandy cove, vivid turquoise waters, and the cherry on top – a small waterfall dropping right onto the beach. It would be incredible to be able to enjoy it from the beach itself, but at least this way everyone gets to appreciate it (from a distance) without it being littered with people and their belongings.
Somewhat disappointed that we were not able to enjoy the beach at McWay Falls first hand, we took one of the next opportunities to hike down to a beach. While this might not have technically been a beach, it was still nice to get down to the ocean – even more so as there were very few other people down here, at least compared to the hustle at McWay Falls.
There were actually two coves here, with the main one accessible through a crude/handmade tunnel, but there was a feint trail that led off in another direction, taking us to a much smaller cove. It was also rocky, and not really safe to enter the water, but, there was a freshwater stream filling pools with skin-numbing water. It was ultra fresh, and about the opposite levels of relaxation compared with the baths last night. Still, there was something special about sitting in freshwater cascades while looking out at the ocean crashing just below.
We were more-or-less about half the along the drive through Big Sur State Park – oh, and while I think of it, I found it really confusing how many different types of parks they have here. National Parks, National Forests, State Parks, State Forests… all with different entry passes. The road ducked and weaved away from the Pacific Ocean and into pine forests, and then back along the rocky coastline as we continued to drive north.
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Ambrosia Burger from Nepenthe This restaurant had come up in conversation a few times with strong suggestions for their burger, so this time while driving through Big Sur, I remembered to stop and see what the fuss was about. Firstly, and this needs a mention, the views from this place are stunning, and worthy of a visit alone. Ok, the burger. It’s advertised as a ‘ground steak sandwich’, with sauce and optional cheese – and that’s it, no salads. However, the French roll it’s served in wasn’t a brioche, but rather something more substantial. 4 / 5 – a fantastic patty, let down by overbearing doughy bread. (3.5 if it didn’t have the views!) #bigsur #nepenthe #nepenthebigsur #ambrosiaburger #burgerreview #burger
We decided to stop in at the incredibly popular Nepenthe. It was between lunch/dinner, so it was possible to get a seat – but not quite quiet enough to get a seat on the outside balcony, with the amazing views of the coastline down below. For what it’s worth, they make a decent burger – though, it could be improved.
The forest eventually subsides, and long sandy stretches of coastline return. But, just as the beaches teased at McWay, so to did they tease here. One of the beautiful beaches is part of an operational lighthouse and naval facility, that is situated high on a rocky bluff, and another is part of private property that is protected by a long barbed wire fences… neither were accessible to the likes of us.
Bixby Creek Bridge
It’s a toss up between McWay Falls, and this bridge for the most iconic ‘Big Sur’ view. It’s also an equal tossup between which is a bigger parking disaster. Lets not dwell on the negatives. It’s a beautiful bridge, in an epic location that is truly hard to improve upon. Even though I’ve driven past before, I felt the need to want to stop and enjoy the view again – and take a few dozen selfies. Like McWay Falls, it’s also not possible to access the beach – well, at least not officially – there are definitely signs that people have been down there. If you’ve ever watched Big Little Lies (stop reading this now and go watch it if you haven’t!!), then this bridge is probably very, very familiar to you – though, if you’ve actually ever been here, it makes no sense in the show, and I think it’d make a great drinking game every time they have a scene where someone drives across it. But, I’ve gone off topic again.
The rocky shoreline of Big Sur mellows out as you travel further north towards San Francisco, with long stretches of sandy beaches that you can actually go and visit – this being one of them. I first came to Moss Landing several years ago, and joined some friends on a sea kayaking adventure to see the sea otters that live in the protected lagoons (sloughs). But, tonight, it seemed like a perfect place to stop, watch the sunset, and spend the final night of the journey.
And, it didn’t disappoint, with typical trademark California Sunset setting the sky aglow, in amazing warm peachy hues. It was also about as warm as the sunsets that I’m used to now, with frigid winds numbing any exposed flesh – a minor price to pay.
But, eventually the light faded away, and my nose was running uncontrollably, and the heat of Death Valley was a long forgotten memory.
It was a perfect view to end another amazing road trip around California, which is truly a vast and beautiful place, filled with beaches, deserts, mountains, forests, and all sorts of other landscapes in between.