“How do we know when we’re in Big Sur?”
As the eight-lane super-highway yields to a serpentine two-lane blacktop, snaking its way along vertigo-inducing hairpins, it’s as if some Hollywood hotshot has just called ‘action’, and suddenly the landscape springs to life. The arid expanse of parched scrubland morphs into a lush, redwood-dotted landscape; the boundless blue of the Pacific churns and crashes against the rugged rockface; pockets of golden sand shimmer down below; and where did these mountains suddenly spring from?
“Ok, so now we’re in Big Sur”.
Big Sur, it’s said, isn’t a place but a spirit (though if we’re being pedantic it stretches roughly from Carmel to San Simeon). A by-word for the iconic Highway 1 – otherwise known as California’s Pacific Coast Highway – this storied stretch of the US West Coast is steeped in roadtrip folklore.
With scores of discerning tourists flocking to enjoy these stunning vistas, it was inevitable that the Central Coast would take to glamping in a big way. A scattering of luxury camping options have sprung up along the coast in the last few years, with accommodations ranging from rustic yurts to ultra-swanky rural retreats. There’s a burgeoning variety of amped up camping options for those who know that the great outdoors deserve an equally impressive indoors, and one place more than most can stake a claim to offering the best of both worlds.
South of the iconic Bixby Bridge, within a tranquil redwood-enveloped stretch of Highway 1, Glen Oaks Big Sur is what happens when chic boutique hotel meets classic Americana motel in a cosy cabin in the woods. Something of a Big Sur institution, a campsite and roadside lodge have occupied this enviable stretch of the Cabrillo for almost 60 years. From humble beginnings serving the scores of San-bound (Francisco and Simeon) drivers, this charming former pitstop has grown to a cluster of sophisticated woodland cabins, set deep amidst the redwoods. Well, to call them cabins is a little like calling the Batmobile a ‘decent little runaround’ – for though there’s a nod to 1950s aesthetics, there’s nothing antiquated about the holiday experience at Glen Oaks.
We stayed in Archies, a cute little cottage nestled uphill from the the main entrance. From the outside, our low-impact timbered digs blend seamlessly into their splendrous surroundings – a conscious decision in keeping with Glen Oaks’ green credentials (even the sofa upholstery is made from recycled tent canvases). Inside, the place is brimming with all mod-cons. With a cute little kitchenette, gas-powered cast iron fireplace and a king-sized bed you can get lost in. The underfloor heating in the bathroom (featuring two-person walk in shower) is an unexpected delight for all tired souls and soles who plan on traversing the innumerable spectacular hiking trails to be explored in nearby Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. And while there’s no doubting comfort is king here, it’s all refreshingly understated. Decor-wise, think warm hues of auburn, amber, and gold – like a New England autumn in the California wilderness.
A saunter across the road finds the trail leading through the redwood grove to the tranquility of the gently flowing Big Sur River. It’s only when you get up close to these towering iconic trees that you get a true sense of their scale – one so large it could easily shelter our hire car in its hollowed-out trunk.
And it’s amidst this utmost of sylvan seclusion that Glen Oaks’ most prized plots lie, the most coveted of which is undoubtedly The Big Sur Lodge, featuring its own private, open-air cast iron twin claw baths with accompanying firepit. Unsurprisingly it’s a hit with the honeymooners who, should they decide to leave the sanctuary of their luxe riverside lodge, can enjoy some artisanal California cuisine at the Big Sur Roadhouse on the edge of the forest. The outdoor terrace is the perfect setting for indulging in some languid al fresco dining, with an informal vibe and inventive, seasonal menu brimming with locally-sourced produce – all accompanied with more than a few glasses of famed Sonoma Valley wine.
Admittedly, it all stretches the bounds of ‘glamping’, but when you’re toasting s’mores over the communal firepit, with the cicadia chorus accompanying the gentle babbling of the Big Sur river, there’s no doubting this is a thoroughly outdoorsy experience. With mobile signal non-existent and not a TV in sight (a rarity on par with Bigfoot eggs here in the states), this really is a setting for unwinding. It’s little wonder why Big Sur was the go-to bolthole of choice for the iconic Beat writers. What Kerouac and Ginsberg would have made of our luxury surroundings is anyone’s guess, but the setting still provides a welcome digital detox for writers and creative types looking to disconnect to reconnect with their erstwhile muse.
OK, so we may be cheating a little but hey, a night of luxury to savour before embarking on some proper camping a leisurely drive further down the coast sets us in good stead. And this is a landscape that deserves all the time in the world – don’t expect to get anywhere fast as you stop every quarter mile to soak up the ever changing palette of Pacific sunset. Beside’s the nearby Pfeiffer State Beach (a setting for which the word ‘epic’ was surely coined), the route is festooned with viewing points, cleaved into the cliffside like unofficial markers for the descending sun – those further south frantically ‘chasing the sunset’ to find that perfect photo vantage point (is it even possible to take a bad picture here?) before sundown. And then an awed hush falls over the crowds, soundtracked by the churning surf below and punctuated by the click of cameras capturing one of the world’s most magical sunsets.
This stretch of highway boasts some of the most coveted campgrounds (that’s campsites to all Anglo campers) in the whole country. Most are state administered, occupying as they do the vast national parks, so securing a site (read pitch) with sea views in peak season can be a bureaucratic nightmare.
Predictably, our first stop Kirk Creek is fully booked. It’s little wonder – situated on a coastal bluff, the horizon seems to extend for eternity (though the trade-off for the view is the exposure to the elements). But just down the road, we find camping sanctuary at Plaskett Creek. Tucked amidst towering Monterey pines, this cool shady site offers a welcome respite from the sun’s relentless rays. While busy but not bursting with the customary array of RVs, a friendly onsite ranger emerges from her gargantuan winnebego informing us that, we’re in luck, there’s a spot available in one of the more remote corners of the site for a paltry sum of just $25 (around £20). This family-friendly spot is indicative of most of the state administered spots along Central Cali coast. Facilities are fairly basic – there are no hook-ups or showers onsite, but a few taps are dotted around for washing dishes. But then again, the way your average American packs for a week’s camping trip, we expect those colossal cruisers aren't short on supplies – kitchen sink included.
The pitches are immaculate and spacious (our nearest neighbours are a good 50 metres away) – though the drought-stricken earth can make short work of the toughest of tent pegs so be sure to invest in a strong set and a decent mallet to whack them in.
Open campfires are a big no-no here – the parched forest floor is like one giant tinderbox and hugely destructive forest fires are a sadly all too common occurrence – but each pitch has a fixed firepit-cum-BBQ (watch those floating embers!). There’s a stack of pre-bagged sacks of firewood and kindling for sale, the honesty box beside it a totem for the good-natured sorts who frequent this quiet coastal site.
The main draw here though is Plaskett Creek’s proximity to the stunning Sand Dollar Beach. Literally across the road from the campsite entrance, Sand Dollar is the Big Sur coast’s largest expanse of sandy shore. From the various look-out points atop the cliffs, you can really soak up the sense of drama this edge-of-the-world scene affords. Between admiring the scores of surfers performing feats of aquatic acrobatics, the eagle-eyed might just spot whales and dolphins migrating south along the coast. Down on the beach itself, if you see a sparkling amidst the rocks, it might just be jade. The precious green stone is abundant here (hence Sand Dollar perhaps?) and visitors are welcome to try their luck at beachcombing (only the loose bits, of course so leave the jackhammer at home) the ultimate Big Sur memento.
Alas, we didn’t get that rub of the green. But nothing could take the shine of experiencing this magical part of the planet. This isn’t the California of Tinseltown or the palm-lined boulevards of a David Hockney print (though if you feel the need to sate your hankering for Hollywood, LA is easily drivable). This is something more elemental – a flavour of the Great American Wilderness.
So, Big Sur then – not a place, but a spirit. It’s a well-worn platitude but as we negotiate the hairpin bends en route to our next stop down the coast, some twanging tremolo surf-rock courtesy of Dick Dale blasting out of the stereo, it’s one cliché we’re inclined to subscribe to.