The Coast Starlight trains runs east of Big Sur and the Santa Lucia mountains. You can disembark in Salinas, 45 minutes north of Big Sur and enjoy the Steinbeck Museum or Wild Things animal park, or disembark south of Big Sur in San Luis Obispo and head north on a road trip stopping first to see the elephant seals north of San Simeon.
Big Sur Visitor Bureau - History
The original human inhabitants were three tribes of Indians: Esselen, Ohlone, and Salinan with history going back thousands of years. They consumed mussels, abalone, and various sea life and led a nomadic existence on the coast when it was warm and inland during the winter. Arrowheads, a utensil, are all that remains now. It would be like a civilization digging us up in two thousand years and finding…a screwdriver.
Spanish mariners led by Juan Cabrillo were the first Europeans to see Big Sur, sailing past it without port in 1542. More than 200 years later, the founder of Monterey, Gaspar de Portola and others gave Big Sur its name – referring to the area as “el sur grande”, the Big South, Big Sur.
Big Sur was part of Mexico when Mexico escaped Spain in 1821. In 1848, after the Mexican American War, California was given to the United States. In the 1900’s, after a few decades of lumber harvesting and a brief gold rush, Big Sur settled into obscurity, a few home-steaders cut off from the world without complaint, one imagines.
The Point Sur Lighthouse opened on August 1, 1889. In 1927, a school teacher was hired in teach six children residing on the rock. You can tour the lighthouse year-round during the day or on special moonlight tours seven evenings per year. See calendar.
A doctor frustrated riding a horse to reach survivors of a shipwreck in Big Sur first proposed the road we now know as Highway 1, surveying the terrain himself from Carmel to San Simeon. Inmates from San Quentin Prison helped build the new highway, constructing 39 bridges with the help of Big Sur locals, including a writer named John Steinbeck. The lovely Steinbeck Museum is 45 miles from Big Sur, in Salinas California.
The Bixby Bridge is 260 feet high. Completed in 1932, it was one of the
largest in the western United States and a rare bridge built on a curve.
Courtesy of the California Department of Public Works.
The road was finished in 19 years. Artists, musicians, actors, and wanderers went to Big Sur and it became a unique refuge for people seeking peace and quiet in one of the most spectacular places on earth.
After 28 years of construction, the Hearst Castle, at the southern edge of Big Sur, was completed in 1947 and after the death of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst it was given to California in 1957. One million visitors per year visit Hearst Castle.
At the other end of the financial spectrum, Big Sur in the 1950s and 1960s was a place for hippies and loose ends drifting in between Los Angeles and San Francisco to hang out and get back to nature, let’s say. Locals recall stories of naked families living near the Bixby Bridge, lighting fires at night, being Big Sur during the day. Many of the artistic and adventurous types stayed, living in the hills or the magical Palo Colorado Canyon, a redwood rorschach.
Big Sur’s imprint adorns a variety of cultural figures: Joan Baez, Jack Kerouac, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Beach Boys, Crosby, Stills Nash & Young, Joni Mitchell, Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth and the most famous of them all, writer Henry Miller, for whom the local library is named.
The land is sweet and unforgiving and the air is high and blue. In the distance, you can see ships from shore in sea lanes and on a lucky day, the splash of a gray whale erupting from the Pacific. Big Sur is a permanent impression.
While memories of Big Sur last forever, it won’t. The perpetual and relentless waves are so powerful Big Sur is slowly giving way to the sea, eroding at the rate of 18 centimeters per year.