Big Sur

Big Sur

Big Sur is a sparsely populated region of the central California, United States, coast where the Santa Lucia Mountains rise abruptly from the Pacific Ocean. The terrain offers stunning views, making Big Sur a popular tourist destination. Big Sur's Cone Peak is the highest coastal mountain in the lower 48 states, ascending nearly a mile (5,155 feet/1.6 km) above sea level, only three miles (4.8 km) from the ocean. [Henson, Paul and Usner, Donald. "The Natural History of Big Sur" 1993, University of California Press; Berkeley, California; page 11]

Although Big Sur has no specific boundaries, many definitions of the area include the 90 miles (145 km) of coastline between the Carmel River and San Carpoforo Creek, and extend about 20 miles (32 km) inland to the eastern foothills of the Santa Lucias. Other sources limit the eastern border to the coastal flanks of these mountains, only three to 12 miles (4.8-19 km) inland.

The northern end of Big Sur is about 120 miles (193 km) south of San Francisco, and the southern end is approximately 245 miles (394 km) north of Los Angeles.


Native Americans

Three tribes of American Indians—the Ohlone, Esselen, and Salinan—were apparently the first people to inhabit the area now known as Big Sur. Archaeological evidence shows that they lived in Big Sur for thousands of years, leading a nomadic, hunter-gatherer existence. [Elliott, Analise. "Hiking & Backpacking Big Sur" 2005, Wilderness Press; Berkeley, California; page 21]

Few traces of their material culture have survived. Their arrow heads were made of obsidian and flint, which indicates trading links with tribes hundreds of miles away, since the nearest sources of these rocks are in the Sierra Nevada mountains and the northern California Coast Ranges.

They followed local food sources seasonally, living near the coast in winter to harvest rich stocks of mussels, abalone and other sea life, and moving inland at other times to harvest oak acorns. Bedrock mortars, which are large exposed rocks that these people hollowed out into bowl shapes to grind the acorns into flour, can be found throughout Big Sur. The tribes also used controlled burning techniques to increase tree growth and food production. [Henson and Usner, pages 269-270]

Spanish exploration and settlement

The first Europeans to see Big Sur were Spanish mariners led by Juan Cabrillo in 1542, who sailed up the coast without landing. Two centuries passed before the Spanish attempted to colonize the area. In 1769, an expedition led by Gaspar de Portolà were the first Europeans known to set foot in Big Sur, in the far south near San Carpoforo Canyon. ["Ibid.", page 272] Daunted by the sheer cliffs, his party avoided the area and pressed far inland.

Portolà landed in Monterey Bay in 1770, and with Father Junípero Serra, who helped found most of the missions in California, established the town Monterey, which became the capital of the Spanish colony "Alta California". The Spanish gave Big Sur its name during this period, calling the region "el país grande del sur" (the Big Country of the South) which was often shortened to "el sur grande," because it was a vast, unexplored, and impenetrable land south of their capital at Monterey.

The Spanish colonization devastated the aboriginal population. Most tribe members died out from European diseases or forced labor and malnutrition at the missions in the eighteenth century, while many remaining members assimilated with Spanish and Mexican ranchers in the nineteenth century. ["Ibid.," pages 264-267]

Ranchos and homesteads

Along with the rest of California, Big Sur became part of Mexico when it gained independence from Spain in 1821. In 1834, the Mexican governor José Figueroa granted a 9000 acre (36 km²) "rancho" in northern Big Sur to Juan Bautista Alvarado, and his uncle by marriage, Captain J.B.R Cooper, soon after assumed ownership. The oldest surviving structure in Big Sur, the so-called "Cooper Cabin," was built in 1861 on the Cooper ranch [ [ "Big Sur Cabin" - Davis, Kathleen - California Department of Parks & Recreation website] ] .

In 1848, as a result of the Mexican-American War, Mexico ceded California to the United States. After passage of the federal Homestead Act in 1862, a few hardy pioneers moved into Big Sur, drawn by the promise of free 160 acre (0.6 km²) parcels. Many local sites are named after the settlers from this period: Gamboa, Pfeiffer, Post, Partington, Ross and McWay are common place names. Consistent with the Anglo-Hispanic heritage of the area, the new settlers mixed English and Spanish and began to call their new home "Big Sur."

Industrial era and gold rush

From the 1860s through the turn of the twentieth century, lumbering cut down most of the coast redwoods. Along with industries based on tanoak bark harvesting, gold mining, and limestone processing, the local economy provided more jobs and supported a larger population than today. In the 1880s, a gold rush boom town, Manchester, sprang up at Alder Creek in the far south. The town boasted a population of 200, four stores, a restaurant, five saloons, a dance hall, and a hotel, but it was abandoned soon after the turn of the century and burned to the ground in 1909. [Woolfenden, John. "Big Sur: A Battle for the Wilderness 1869-1981" 1981, The Boxwood Press; Pacific Grove; page 72] There were no reliable roads to supply these industries, so local entrepreneurs built small boat landings at a few coves along the coast, such as Bixby Landing pictured here. [Wall, Rosalind Sharpe. "A Wild Coast and Lonely: Big Sur Pioneers" 1989, Wide World Publishing; San Carlos, California; pages 126-130] None of these landings remain today, and few other signs of this brief industrial period are visible to the casual traveler. The rugged, isolated terrain kept out all but the sturdiest and most self-sufficient settlers. A 30 mile (50 km) trip to Monterey could take three days by wagon, over a rough and dangerous track. [Eliott, page 24]

Before and after Highway 1

After the industrial boom faded, the early decades of the twentieth century passed with few changes, and Big Sur remained a nearly inaccessible wilderness. As late as the 1920s, only two homes in the entire region had electricity, locally generated by water wheels and windmills. [Henson and Usner, page 328; Woolfenden, page 64] Most of the population lived without power until connections to the California electric grid were established in the early 1950s. Big Sur changed rapidly when Highway 1 was completed in 1937 after eighteen years of construction, aided by New Deal funds and the use of convict labor. Highway 1 dramatically altered the local economy and brought the outside world much closer, with ranches and farms quickly giving way to tourist venues and second homes. Even with these modernizations, Big Sur was spared the worst excesses of development, due largely to residents who fought to preserve the land. The Monterey County government won a landmark court case in 1962, affirming its right to ban billboards and other visual distractions on Highway 1. ["National Advertising Co. v. County of Monterey," 211 Cal.App.2d 375, 1962] The county then adopted one of the country's most stringent land use plans, prohibiting any new construction within sight of the highway.

Big Sur artists and popular culture

In the early to mid-twentieth century, Big Sur's relative isolation and natural beauty began to attract a different kind of pioneer — writers and artists, including Robinson Jeffers, Henry Miller, Edward Weston, Richard Brautigan, Hunter S. Thompson, Emile Norman, and Jack Kerouac. Jeffers was among the first of these. Beginning in the 1920s, his poetry introduced the romantic idea of Big Sur's wild, untamed spaces to a national audience, which encouraged many of the later visitors. Henry Miller lived in Big Sur from 1944 to 1962. His 1957 novel "Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch" described the joys and hardships that came from escaping the "air conditioned nightmare" of modern life. The Henry Miller Memorial Library, a cultural center devoted to Miller's life and work, is a popular attraction for many tourists. Hunter S. Thompson worked as a security guard and caretaker at Big Sur Hot Springs for eight months in 1961, just before it became the Esalen Institute. While there, he published his first magazine feature in the nationally distributed Rogue magazine, about Big Sur's artisan and bohemian culture. Jack Kerouac spent a few days in Big Sur in early 1960 at fellow poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti's cabin in the woods, and wrote a novel titled "Big Sur" based on his experience there.

The area's increasing popularity and cinematic beauty soon brought the attention of Hollywood. Orson Welles and his wife at the time, Rita Hayworth, bought a Big Sur cabin on impulse during a trip down the coast in 1944. They never spent a single night there, and the property is now the location of a popular restaurant. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton starred in the 1965 film "The Sandpiper", featuring many location shots of Big Sur, and a dance party scene on a soundstage built to resemble the same restaurant. "The Sandpiper" was one of the very few major studio motion pictures ever filmed in Big Sur, and perhaps the only one to use real Big Sur locales as part of the plot. The DVD, released in 2006, includes a Burton-narrated short film about Big Sur, quoting Robinson Jeffers poetry. Another film based in Big Sur was the 1974 "Zandy's Bride", starring Gene Hackman and Liv Ullman. [ [ Movies Made in Monterey - Z] ] . An adaptation of "The Stranger in Big Sur" by Lillian Bos Ross, the film portrayed the 1870s life of the Ross family and their Big Sur neighbors. In music, The Beach Boys devoted the three parts of their California on the band's 1973 album Holland to a nostalgic depiction of the rugged wilderness in the area and the culture of its inhabitants. The describes the outdoor environment of the region, the is an adaption of the Robinson Jeffers poem "The Beaks of Eagles", and the discusses local literary and musical figures. Big Sur is also mentioned by the Red Hot Chili Peppers in their 2000 single "Road Trippin'". The song tells of a road trip in which lead singer Anthony Kiedis, guitarist John Frusciante and bassist Flea surfed at Big Sur following John's return to the band.

Big Sur also became home to centers of study and contemplation - a Catholic monastery, the New Camaldoli Hermitage in 1958, the Esalen Institute, a workshop and retreat center in 1962, and the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, a Buddhist monastery, in 1966. Esalen hosted many figures of the nascent "New Age," and in the 1960s, played an important role in popularizing Eastern philosophies, the "human potential movement," and Gestalt therapy in the United States. Big Sur acquired a bohemian reputation with these newcomers. Henry Miller recounted that a traveler knocked on his door, looking for the "cult of sex and anarchy." [Miller, Henry. "Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch" 1957, New Directions Publishing; ; page 45] Apparently finding neither, the disappointed visitor returned home.

Big Sur today

Big Sur remains sparsely populated, with about 1000 inhabitants, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. The people of Big Sur today are a diverse mix: descendants of the original settler and rancher families, artists and other creative types, along with wealthy home-owners from the worlds of entertainment and commerce. Real estate costs are as impressive as the views, with most homes priced above $2 million. There are no urban areas, although three small clusters of gas stations, restaurants, and motels are often marked on maps as "towns": Big Sur, in the Big Sur River valley, Lucia, near Limekiln State park, and Gorda, on the southern coast. The economy is almost completely based on tourism. Much of the land along the coast is privately owned or has been donated to the state park system, while the vast Los Padres National Forest and Fort Hunter Liggett Military Reservation encompass most of the inland areas. The mountainous terrain, environmentally conscious residents, and lack of property available for development have kept Big Sur almost unspoiled, and it retains an isolated, frontier mystique.

The Basin Complex Fire of 2008 forced a two-week evacuation of Big Sur and the closure of Highway 1, beginning just before the July 4 holiday weekend. [cite news | url= | title=Big Sur evacuated as massive wildfire spreads | | publisher=AP | author=Fehd, Amanda | date=July 3, 2008 | accessdate=2008-07-07] The fire, which burned over 130,000 acres, represented the largest of many wildfires that had broken out throughout California during the same period. [ [ Threat to Big Sur eases] by Steve Rubenstein, John Coté, and Jill Tucker, "San Francisco Chronicle", July 9, 2008.] Although the fire caused no loss of life, it destroyed 27 houses, and the tourist-dependent economy lost about a third of its expected summer revenue. [cite news | url= | title=Progress Reported in California Fires | work=New York Times | publisher=AP | author=Uncredited | date=July 19, 2008 | accessdate=2008-07-19] [cite news | url=| title=Fire Damage Takes a Toll on the Economy in Big Sur | work=New York Times | publisher=New York Times | author=Cathcart, Rebecca | date=August 1, 2008 | accessdate=2008-08-02]


It is impossible to generalize about the weather in Big Sur, because the jagged topography causes many separate microclimates. This is one of the few places on Earth where redwoods grow within sight of cacti. Still, Big Sur typically enjoys a mild climate year-round, with a sunny, dry summer and fall, and a cool, wet winter. Coastal temperatures vary little during the year, ranging from the 50s at night to the 70s by day (Fahrenheit) from June through October, and in the 40s to 60s from November through May. Farther inland, away from the ocean's moderating influence, temperatures are much more variable.

The official National Weather Service cooperative station at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park reports that January is the coolest month with an average maximum of convert|60.0|°F|°C|1|lk=on and an average minimum of convert|43.2|°F|°C|1|lk=on. August is usually the warmest month, with an average maximum of convert|77.3|°F|°C|1|lk=on and an average minimum of convert|50.2|°F|°C|1|lk=on. The record maximum temperature was convert|101|°F|°C|1|lk=on on August 15, 1994. The record minimum was convert|27|°F|°C|1|lk=on, recorded on December 21, 1998, and January 13, 2007. There are an average of 8.8 days annually with highs of convert|90|°F|°C|0|lk=on or higher and an average of 1.4 days with lows of convert|32|°F|°C|0|lk=on or lower. Average annual precipitation at the state park headquarters is 41.94 inches, with measurable precipitation falling on an average of 62 days each year. The wettest year was 1983 with 88.85 inches and the driest year was 1990 with 17.90 inches. The wettest month on record was January 1995 with 26.47 inches and the most precipitation in 24 hours was 9.23 inches on January 31, 1963. More than 70% of the rain falls from December through March, while the summer brings much drier conditions. Measurable snowfall has not been recorded in coastal Big Sur, but is common in the winter months on the higher ridges of the Santa Lucia Mountains. [Western Regional Climate Center website] The abundant winter rains cause rock and mudslides that can cut off portions of Highway 1 for days or weeks, but the road is usually quickly repaired.

Farther to the south, near San Simeon, weather records were kept at the Point Piedras Blanca lightouse until 1975. Based on those records, January was the coldest month with an average maximum of convert|58.6|°F|°C|1|lk=on and an average minimum of convert|45.3|°F|°C|1|lk=on. September was the warmest month with an average maximum of convert|64.2|°F|°C|1|lk=on and an average minimum of convert|51.9|°F|°C|1|lk=on. Temperatures rarely reached convert|90|°F|°C|0|lk=on or higher, occurring only 0.1 day annually; nor dropped to convert|32|°F|°C|0|lk=on or lower, occurring only 0.5 day annually. The highest temperature recorded was convert|91|°F|°C|0|lk=on on October 21, 1965. The lowest temperature recorded was convert|29|°F|°C|0|lk=on on January 1, 1965. Annual precipitation averaged 20.28 inches. The wettest year was 1969 with 41.86 inches and the dryest year was 1959 with 9.71 inches. Measurable precipitation fell on an average of 48 days annually. The most rainfall in one month was 18.35 inches in January, 1969, including 5.28 inches in 24 hours on January 19. [Western Regional Climate Center website] Today, weather records are kept at the park headquarters at San Simeon and published in some newspapers. ["San Francisco Chronicle"]

Along with much of the central and northern California coast, Big Sur often has dense fog in summer. The summer fog and summer drought have the same underlying cause: a massive, stable seasonal high pressure system that forms over the north Pacific Ocean. The high pressure cell inhibits rainfall and generates northwesterly airflows. These prevailing summer winds from the northwest push the warm ocean surface water to the southeast, away from the coast, and frigid deep ocean water rises in its place. The water vapor in the air contacting this cold water condenses into fog. [Henson and Usner, pages 33-35] The fog usually moves out to sea during the day and closes in at night, but sometimes heavy fog blankets the coast all day. Fog is an essential summer water source for many Big Sur coastal plants. Most plants cannot take water directly out of the air, but the condensation on leaf surfaces slowly precipitates into the ground like rain.


The many climates of Big Sur result in an astonishing biodiversity, including many rare and endangered species such as the wild orchid "Piperia yadonii". Arid, dusty chaparral-covered hills exist within easy walking distance of lush riparian woodland. The mountains trap most of the moisture out of the clouds; fog in summer, rain and snow in winter. This creates a favorable environment for coniferous forests, including the southernmost habitat of the coast redwood ("Sequoia sempervirens"), which grows only on lower coastal slopes that are routinely fogged in at night. The redwoods are aggressive regenerators, and have grown back extensively since logging ceased in the early twentieth century. The rare Santa Lucia fir ("Abies bracteata"), as its name suggests, is found only in the Santa Lucia mountains. A common "foreign" species is the Monterey pine ("Pinus radiata"), which was uncommon in Big Sur until the late 19th century, when many homeowners began to plant it as a windbreak. There are many broad leaved trees as well, such as the tanoak ("Lithocarpus densiflorus"), coast live oak ("Quercus agrifolia"), and California Bay Laurel ("Umbellularia californica"). In the rain shadow, the forests disappear and the vegetation becomes open oak woodland, then transitions into the more familiar fire-tolerant California chaparral scrub.

Demographic estimate

The United States does not define a census-designated place called Big Sur, but it does define a Zip Code Tabulation Area (ZCTA), 93920. Because Big Sur is contained roughly within this Zip Code Tabulation Area, it is possible to obtain Census data from the United States 2000 Census for the area even though data for "Big Sur" is unavailable.

According to the US 2000 census, there were 996 people, 884 households, and 666 housing units in the 93920 ZCTA. The racial makeup of this area was 87.6% White, 1.1% African American, 1.3% Native American, 2.4% Asian, 0.0% Pacific Islander, 5.5% from other races, and 3.0% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 9.6% of the population.

In the 93920 ZCTA, the population age is widely distributed, with 20.2% under the age of 19, 4.5% from 20 to 24, 26.9% from 25 to 44, 37.0% from 45 to 64, and 11.2% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age is 43.2 years.

The median income for a household in 93920 ZCTA is $41,304, and the median income for a family is $65,083.


Although some Big Sur residents catered to adventurous travelers in the early twentieth century, [Woolfenden, page 10] the modern tourist economy began when Highway 1 opened the region to automobiles, and only took off after World War II-era gasoline rationing ended in the mid-1940s. Most of the 3 million tourists who visit Big Sur each year never leave Highway 1, because the adjacent Santa Lucia mountain range is one of the largest roadless areas near a coast in the lower 48 states. The highway winds along the western flank of the mountains mostly within sight of the Pacific Ocean, varying from near sea level up to a thousand-foot sheer drop to the water. Because gazing at the views while driving is inadvisable, the highway features many strategically placed vista points allowing motorists to stop and admire the landscape. The section of Highway 1 running through Big Sur is widely considered as one of the most scenic driving routes in the United States, if not the world.

The land use restrictions that preserve Big Sur's natural beauty also mean that tourist accommodations are limited, often expensive, and fill up quickly during the busy summer season. There are fewer than 300 hotel rooms on the entire 90 mile (140 km) stretch of Highway 1 between San Simeon and Carmel, only three gas stations, and no chain hotels, supermarkets, or fast-food outlets. [ [ Lodging Guide to Big Sur, Big Sur Chamber of Commerce website] ] The lodging options are rustic cabins, motels, and campgrounds, or costly, exclusive five-star resorts, with little in between. Most lodging and restaurants are clustered in the Big Sur River valley, where Highway 1 leaves the coast for a few miles and winds into a redwood forest, protected from the chill ocean breezes and summer fog.

Besides sightseeing from the highway, Big Sur offers hiking, mountain climbing, and other outdoor activities. There are a few small, scenic beaches that are popular for walking, but usually unsuitable for swimming because of unpredictable currents and frigid temperatures. Big Sur's nine state parks have many points of interest, including one of the few waterfalls on the Pacific Coast that plunges directly into the ocean, located at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, although visitors are not allowed on the beach itself to preserve the natural habitat. The waterfall is located near the ruins of a grand stone cliffside house that was the region's first electrified dwelling. Another notable landmark is the only complete nineteenth century lighthouse complex open to the public in California, set on a lonely, windswept hill that looks like an island in the fog.

List of state parks (north to south)

;California State Parks Articles
* [ Carmel River State Beach]
* [ Point Lobos State Reserve]
* [ Garrapata State Park]
* [ Point Sur Lightstation State Historic Park]
* [ Andrew Molera State Park]
* [ Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park]
* [ Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park]
* [ John Little State Reserve]
* [ Limekiln State Park]

;List of state parks (Wikipedia articles)
* Carmel River State Park
* Point Lobos State Reserve
* Garrapata State Park
* Point Sur Lightstation State Historic Park
* Andrew Molera State Park
* Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
* Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
* John Little State Reserve
* Limekiln State Park

;Federal Parks
*Ventana Wilderness


Suggested reading

* "Big Sur", Jack Kerouac, Penguin Books, Reprint edition (1962, reprinted 1992), 256 pages, ISBN 0-14-016812-5
* "Big Sur: A Battle for the Wilderness 1869-1981", John Woolfenden, The Boxwood Press (1981), 143 pages, ISBN 0-910286-87-6
* "Big Sur: Images of America", Jeff Norman, Big Sur Historical Society, Arcadia Publishing (2004), 128 pages, ISBN 0-7385-2913-3
* "Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch", Henry Miller, New Directions Publishing Corp (1957), 404 pages, ISBN 0-8112-0107-4
* "Hiking & Backpacking Big Sur", Analise Elliott, Wilderness Press (2005), 322 pages, ISBN 0-89997-326-4
* "The Natural History of Big Sur", Paul Henson and Donald J. Usner, University of California Press (1993), 416 pages, ISBN 0-520-20510-3
* "A Wild Coast and Lonely: Big Sur Pioneers", Rosalind Sharpe Wall, Wide World Publishing, (1989, reprinted April 1992), 264 pages, ISBN 0-933174-83-7
* "A Confederate General From Big Sur", Richard Brautigan, Grove Press (1965), 159 pages


External links

* [ Great pictures of Big Sur] From
* [ A Short History of Big Sur] From the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce
* [ Big Sur Tourism Information] from the Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau
* [ A Guide to California's Big Sur] : A comprehensive visitor's guide to the Big Sur region
* [ "The Big Sur cabin"] : Dating the earliest cabin in Big Sur, 1861
* [ Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur]
* [ Ventana Wilderness Alliance] : Wilderness conservation and hiking trails info in the Big Sur area
* [,-121.775208&spn=0.932009,1.851196 Google Map of Big Sur]
* [ Microsoft Live Map of Big Sur]
* [ Hiking In Big Sur] Hiking In Big Sur
* [ Esselen Tribe Website] Esselen Tribe of Monterey County
* [ Big Sur on the Central Coast] Big Sur on the Central Coast
* [ Monterey County Film Commission] Monterey County Film Commission
* []

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