They don’t call it “The Greatest Meeting of Land and Sea” for nothing. Stretching 90 miles from San Simeon to Carmel, the Big Sur coastline is a winding wilderness populated with dramatic mountain peaks, where the Pacific Ocean meets the jagged California cliffs. The scenic coastline beginning just an hour from San Luis Obispo, Big Sur acts as an enchanting escape from the toils of everyday life; a place where time simply stands still. Once inhabited by the Esselen Native Tribe, the area is now protected land, and is enjoyed by beach-goers, road-trippers, and backcountry adventurers alike.
As a Cal Poly student in a pandemic, my weeks are spent attending lectures virtually from local coffee shops, and my weekends are spent finding ways to get outside and experience the beauty of the Central Coast. I’ve always loved hiking, camping, adventuring, and really anything that allows me to explore the natural world. However, I would have never taken myself for much of a backpacker (I, like many, preferred a 5 mile hike over a 25 mile hike), until the pandemic hit, and I found myself craving more out of life.
Some of the most breathtaking spots in the world can’t be reached by car, or even by day hike. Over the past few months, I’ve learned that there’s something special about spending a night outside at a spot you had to really work to reach, where you’re more likely to see a wild animal than another human being. There’s something to be said about the feeling of carrying everything you need to survive on your back, focusing on each step and the ecosystem surrounding you. It forces you to think critically about the world, and to ask the important questions, like “who pollinates that plant?” and “how are those trees connected?”
As counterintuitive as it may sound, the true beauty of backpacking is suffering. It forces you into situations where you feel uncomfortable. This is necessary in life. Going without makes you fully appreciate the things we take for granted: ice cold water, a warm meal, and a WiFi connection. While it forces you suffer at times, it also sets you free, and reminds you of the way life was meant to be lived.
What better place to experience this than the playground in our own backyard? I embarked on two backpacking trips in Big Sur in the past few months. The first trip was in the Los Padres National Forest, where we summited Pico Blanco, a peak in the Santa Lucia Range. About 20 miles south of Carmel-By-The-Sea and 78 miles north of San Simeon, this hike was in the northern stretch of the Big Sur coastline. The adventure was packed full of Redwood forests, banana slugs, epic coastline views, and PB&J’s.
Upon summiting Pico Blanco at around 5 pm, the fog was rolling up from the valley and blocking our ocean view, giving us sneak peaks every few seconds of the beauty behind the clouds. At this point, I wanted to give up on the view and hike back down to find a place to set up camp for the night. I am not the biggest fan of hiking in the dark (due to an irrational fear of mountain lions). But my boyfriend was not giving in so easily. He was determined to stick it out for that moment of clarity; to see the fog part and the sun set over the ocean. “Ten more minutes” turned into twenty more minutes, which turned into thirty more minutes. As we came up on that forty-five minute mark, it finally happened. The fog disappeared before us, revealing a scene right out of a dream. The earth was showing off, making our wait worth it. The sun stretched across the ocean, across the green rolling hills and the surrounding jagged peaks, warming our skin and reminding us of why we were crazy enough to hike 15 miles in a day.
My second Big Sur backpacking trip was the Salmon Creek Trail, Cruickshank Trail, and Buckeye Trail Loop, within the Silver Peak Wilderness. Just 62 miles north of San Luis Obispo, this trail is easily accessible from SLO county and makes for an epic weekend adventure. One of the beauties of Big Sur is the diversity of the landscape. One moment you’re deep in a Redwood Forest, and the next you’re trekking through coastal chaparral, only later to be surrounded by yuccas. On this particular trip, we decided to stray away from the loop we had planned to hike. The camp that we had planned to sleep at that night ended up being heavily populated with tents by the time we got there. It also didn’t offer the breathtaking views we were striving for. So we decided to follow a less maintained trail towards a coastal peak, hoping that it would be worth it.
At this point, as we bush-whacked along, each step was labored. We had been hiking quite literally all day, and really just wanted to stop and pitch our tents for the night. Once again, my boyfriend was the only one pushing us to keep going. “Just a half mile further” turned into a mile, which turned into a mile and a half. Just as we came up on a 2 miles, there it was. The perfect camping spot. Overlooking the ocean and the winding coastline, spotted with pine trees and sage brush, we finally had found THE spot, just as the sunset filled the sky. Sometimes, it’s important to let go of inhibitions and fear and follow the person who’s chasing what matters.
If you’re still on the fence about backpacking, don’t knock it till you try it. If you’re worried about mountain lions (like I was), I’m sure you will be relieved to know that mountain lion attacks are extremely uncommon (you’re more likely to be struck by lightning than be attacked by a mountain lion). Borrow some gear and find a trail that suits your fancy. Grab a friend, some bear spray, as many PB&J’s as your pack can fit, lots of water, and get out of your comfort zone. Go reach that spot you’ve been dreaming of!