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A change of pace: It's Big Sur, not Big Rush

Tired of feeling hurried while driving through Big Sur, a traveler decides to stop and savor the area, creating an unforgettable experience.

August 21, 2011|Jordan Rane

BIG SUR — Until recently, my relationship with central California's magnificent Big Sur coast was all about the drive. Ninety-three miles of zigzagging, fog-attracting, life-affirming, white-knuckling Highway 1 to savor from behind a windshield during the day and high-tail out of before the road darkened and the elephant seals turned in for the night.

However many times you zip through it, Big Sur is an overpowering vehicular experience, summoning waves of joy, awe and carsickness all in one movable sitting. But I've never been able to shake a certain hurried feeling here from behind the wheel. Something about all those hairpin turns, Rock Slide Area signs, gathering clouds, convoys of Cruise America RVs and inevitable road maintenance bottlenecks along this sinuous stretch of blacktop (which took nearly two decades to build and is forever being repaired after landslides or when hunks of it fall into the ocean) has always seemed to say, "Enjoy, but keep moving."

Then, last summer, I decided to forgo the usual Big Sur dash. Slow down. Pull over long enough to read the milepost numbers. Hang out for a few nights -- which is easier to do than it looks from inside a moving car even if you don't have an Esalen Institute reservation or a spare $1,785 for a Pacific Suite at the Post Ranch Inn.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, August 26, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Big Sur photos: An Aug. 21 Travel section article on camping in Big Sur was accompanied by captions for a cover photo and an additional photo inside the section that referred to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park as Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, a different park.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, August 28, 2011 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Travel Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Big Sur photos: An Aug. 21 article on camping in Big Sur was accompanied by captions for a cover photo and an additional photo inside the section that referred to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park as Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, a different park.

The heart of Big Sur Valley is dotted with less expensive (but still pricey) motels and thin-walled inns. But the best deal of all: opting for the fresh-air package at more than a dozen federal, state and private campgrounds hiding -- sort of -- along the Big Sur coast.

Toting an oversized Coleman tent, a cooler full of grub and my 8-year-old son, Jackson, for a long weekend camping odyssey on California's favorite coast, the tally for three nights of tenting it in Big Sur was cheap -- less than $100 even after factoring in the latest spike in state park campsite fees. Of course, during high season, roughing it in the great outdoors in Big Sur isn't exactly a novel idea. Others -- all kinds of others -- have caught on.

"It can get kind of nutty here in July and August," says Rick Kelly, camp host at Kirk Creek Campground, a tent- and trailer-packed headland wedged between Highway 1 and the crashing Pacific. "If I had to pick one time to come, it probably wouldn't be now," he adds, matter-of-factly, "but in mid- to late fall when you get the gray whales passing through and far fewer people. It's just spectacular at that time."

On a still pretty spectacular Thursday afternoon in Big Sur in late summer, Kirk Creek is packed with hikers, bikers, guitar-strumming post-grads, fussy babies in high chairs, gin rummy-playing grandparents, wiener-roasting European RVers, a toothless chap in overalls who tries to sell me a tattered John Grisham novel and a platoon of squirrel-hunting preschoolers who invade our campsite with squirt guns and spray me in the face when I raise my hands in mock surrender.

Nutty but nice

"It really is kind of nutty here," Jackson affirms, as we wind down a short path from the campground to a quieter cove along the craggy, wave-blasted shore, where miles of foaming coast undulate into the horizon and a bare-chested man bathing in an icy rock pool with a hand-carved trident in his hand smiles genially at us like a retired Neptune. "But it's still really nice," Jackson adds.

Agreed. Even during the peak season at Kirk Creek, Big Sur's sole oceanfront campground, the stunning atmosphere drowns out any nutty crowd-related gripes. Just remember to arrive with a reservation, or early enough in the morning to snag an open spot. Otherwise, forget it.

At night, the place calms down, and we doze to a perfect Big Sur soundtrack -- faintly crashing waves, a tickle of ocean wind, even the fog rolling over us feels audible. The next morning, we drive five miles down the road to Sand Dollar Beach, lower Big Sur's largest crescent of sand and a magnet for surfers, families and disappointed sand-dollar hunters. "I promised one for Mom," says Jackson, searching in vain under piles of rocks and strands of kelp piled like beached pythons. "Do you think she's really gonna believe me when I tell her that there were no sand dollars at Sand Dollar Beach?"

Anyway, it's a sweet spot. Plus, I remind Jackson, we didn't have to pay the $5 Los Padres National Forest beach entrance fee. Guests at Kirk Creek Campground (also part of Los Padres) get a free pass at Sand Dollar Beach.

"Is that supposed to make me feel better?" Jackson asks.

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