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Backroading the 'Big South'
Going farther in California's Big Sur
By Tony Huegel

As I let the Isuzu Amigo mini-SUV idle at a pullout along central California’s Big Sur coast south of Monterey, a thought occurred to me: Isuzu might want to add a caveat to its “Go farther” mantra. Like, “Go farther, except when …”Coast Road


Except when there’s a man of authority parked at the entrance to the mountain road that I know can indeed take me beyond the bounds of everyday motoring, and he will not let me by.

The Isuzu Chant

I’d spent two days listening to Isuzu officials explain to the automotive media their strategy for securing their share of the four-wheel drive SUV market: Be loud. Be heard. Be focused. Lure restless souls with an evocative chant, Go farther … Go farther ...

I’d decided to take their advice, to find that zone called farther. I would spend a day exploring the backroads of Big Sur that spur into the mountains above California's coastal Highway 1.

On the morning of my departure, the hazy sea air was still spiced with the smoke of the smoldering Kirk Complex fires, a trio of lightning-caused blazes that had charred almost 85,000 acres in Los Padres National Forest, which encompasses much of inland Big Sur.

Big Sur's backroads, while dirt, are largely high-clearance two-wheel drive roads that don't require four-wheel drive. They provide loftier and more private coastal vistas than State Highway 1. I was concerned, however, that at some of them would be closed.

The Santa Lucia Range is the largest of the South Coast ranges. They vault from the sea to more than 5,000 feet, creating one of the world’s most breathtaking coastlines.

Largely undeveloped and unpopulated, they encompass some of coastal California’s last remaining wildlands. And through them thread a number of relatively little-known mountain roads. I knew I’d find someplace to go.

Bixbie BridgeI headed first to Bixby Canyon, where Bixby Creek pours into the Pacific below Bixby Bridge. Originally called Rainbow Bridge, the 260-foot-high span was the highest single-arch bridge in the world when it was built in 1932.

When I got there, southbound traffic was stopped at its north end for construction. I made a quick left turn out of line, and maneuvered between the construction equipment and onto a charming little relic of bygone California, winding and narrow Old Coast Road.

Beatnik Byway

As I followed Old Coast Road into the Santa Lucia, I stopped to gaze down into a wooded canyon that lay east of a ridge between two different worlds: two-lane Highway 1, pinched between the mountains’ soaring escarpment and the craggy coastline’s relentless waves; and this quiet backwater, dotted with hideways.

In the late 1950s, the Bixby Canyon cabin of San Francisco poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti was visited often by Beat Generation luminaries, including On the Road author Jack Kerouac.

In the summer of 1960, Kerouac sought refuge at the cabin from the pressures of his growing fame. But the chronic alcoholic couldn’t leave his inner demons behind. The isolated, wild environs that bring solace to many instead abetted drunkenness, paranoia, depression, dementia and a mental breakdown, which Kerouac described in his novel Big Sur.

Big Country

After the road turned south and away from Bixby Creek, it descended to meandering Sierra Creek, where the road was lined with moss-draped trees, ferns and coastal redwoods.

I stopped along the creek to savor the sweet forest air. Then the road took me to the crest of the ridge, where I could gaze out at the Pacific Ocean.

From there I descended to a pair of single-lane, plank-floored bridges across the Little Sur River, a state-protected waterway that supports spawning steelhead trout and, at its headwaters, Big Sur’s largest redwood forest.

After about 10 miles I emerged back on Highway 1 (a.k.a Cabrillo Highway, after the Portuguese navigator who sighted the Monterey Peninsula in 1542), at Andrew Molera State Park, a remnant of an old Mexican land grant.

The Californios who ruled from Monterey in pre-statehood times called this rugged land el grande pais del sur, the big country of the south. Anglos shortened it to Big Sur.

Homesteaders arrived in the 1870s, tourism in the 1880s. At small landings along the coast ships were loaded with lumber, tanbark and lime. Highway 1 was threaded along the coast in the 1930s. In 1965, the serpentine segment between the Carmel River south to the county line was designated the Golden State’s first official scenic highway.

Cherry Stem

At the hamlet of Big Sur, I stopped beside the Big Sur River, where visitors lounged in log chairs and benches set in the rocky riverbed behind the Big Sur River Inn. Continuing south, about four miles beyond the village of Lucia I reached the turnoff to Nacimiento-Fergusson Road, where I encountered the roadblock.

It was a disappointment. I knew where this paved canyonside road would have taken me. Where it reaches the crest of a high ridge, for example, one finds a four-way intersection. From there, a narrow dirt road that is “cherry stemmed” north into the Ventana Wilderness leads to a short hiking trail to the 5,155-foot summit of Cone Peak, which provides a sweeping panorama of Big Sur.

Another dirt road runs south along Coast Ridge, providing more views. Moving inland toward U.S. 101, Nacimiento-Fergusson Road descends to the Army's Fort Hunter Liggett.

Gold Strike

Farther down Highway 1, I found one more chance to penetrate the mountains: Willow Creek-Los Burros Road.

It was in better shape than Plaskett Creek Road, but not as scenic. Yet it did go all the way to Coast Ridge Road, which connects to Nacimiento-Fergusson Road at the north end, making a loop possible.

It was getting late, so I decided to follow this road and conclude my off-highway travels after eight twisting miles, when I’d reached the summit of San Martin Top, a peak that rises 2,702 feet above the ocean.

A couple of miles before I reached the top, I detoured down to the campground at Alder Creek.

Gold was found in these parts in 1887, sparking establishment of the town of Mansfield nearby. It had 200 souls, a hotel, post office and five saloons. Fire destroyed it in 1909, and the gold and silver mining in the area ended in 1915.

I had a top-of-the-world view at San Martin Top, where I could look south for many miles at waves washing over the rocks, at cars and motor homes inching along the Pacific Rim, at mists drifting in from the sea.

Leaning against the Amigo, longing for one of those inspiring Pacific Coast sunsets, I knew that Isuzu was right, that we can, and should, go farther.

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All content © 2011 Tony Huegel. Permission to reproduce is denied without written consent.
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