Surf Travel Reports

Wave Hunting in Big Sur

A California Road Trip

The hawk flew over the hood of my car. I slowed down a bit, and watched as it perched on a fencepost, a squirming rattlesnake in its talons. The snake’s tail flailed around desperately—with obvious terror—as the hawk bent down, and in one swift motion tore off its head. The hawk then began to voraciously rip away chunks of flesh, as the snake’s tail continued to writhe about sporadically. It eventually stopped moving.

That was the first thing I saw when I arrived at Big Sur.

Named long ago by the insightful Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portola for its vast uncivilized expanses south of the relative security of Monterrey, el pais grande del sur (or Big Sur) stretches nearly 70 miles from San Simeon to Carmel.

Even with the introduction of paved roads in the 1920’s, and electricity in the 1950’s, Big Sur is still a wild place, complete with colossal redwoods, roving mountain lions, and daunting cliffs straight from “The Land Of The Lost.” That rugged beauty has attracted pilgrims of all kind over the years: from common tourists and naturalists, to artists like Jack Kerouac, and even movie stars like Rita Hayworth; all drawn to this shrine of unadulterated natural magnificence like moths to a flame.

Sand Dollar State Beach

Yet, there has always been one particular facet of Big Sur’s isolated nature that especially fascinated me: the possibility for untapped surf.

With mile after mile of exposed coast—devoid of the crowds of Los Angeles and well outside the nagging shadow of Point Conception—an adventurous surfer should be able to find ample and epic waves, right?

Well, according to Surfer Magazine’s Guide to Central and Northern California, of the 70 miles that comprise the Big Sur region, there are only a half-dozen known surf spots. For those who are geographically challenged, that is comparable to driving from L.A. to Santa Barbara and witnessing only a handful of gas stations. To me, those numbers seemed ridiculous. There just has to be more surf spots waiting to be discovered.
I couldn’t let go of the thought, that somewhere, hidden in some primordial cove, guarded by a posse of scarred white sharks and toothless locals, were these mammoth waves breaking cleanly over lush kelp forests, just waiting to be ridden. Save from the possibility of ending up like Quint from Jaws, nothing would deter me from finding my surfing Holy Grail.

I had only a short weekend in November to go on my trip. I was taking work off on a Friday, driving up from Los Angeles all day, and spending the night in San Simeon. I would surf most of Saturday, camp for the night, and then come home the next day. With such a short time frame, I wouldn’t be able to do much exploring, but I should be able to a get slight taste of Big Sur surfing.

Surfari Day 1: The Road Warrior

The day of my departure arrived, and after saying my goodbyes (and receiving a request to say “hola” to Mr. Whitey), I left home and headed north.

230 miles, five hours, and two Cliff Bars later, I was in San Simeon. What had once been stunted chaparral when I left L.A. had given way to rolling green hills and thick forests. In the distance, low clouds clung tentatively to the towering Santa Lucia Mountains, and the coalesced smell of pine trees and salt filled the air. I checked into my motel in the late afternoon. With a few hours of daylight left, I decided to head up to Big Sur for some surf reconnaissance.

I followed the snaking highway north, past endless rows of barbed wire and herds of meandering cattle. I paused momentarily at an elephant seal rookery to take in the sights (and the surprisingly nauseating smells), and I watched as overhead sets pounded coldly offshore, possibly hinting at what was waiting for me. I continued driving, past the abandoned Piedras Blancas Motel, where a dozen or so sheriffs—including one who bore an uncanny resemblance to Chief Wiggums—stood glaring at several trespassers.

Piedras Blancas Lighthouse

As soon as I left San Luis Obispo County the avian sideshow and a rather sudden downpour welcomed me to Big Sur.

The road rose sharply, and clutched tightly to lofty cliff faces. Even from up high I could see powerful sets rolling in, crashing violently against lonely sea stacks, conjuring up thoughts of an albatross necklace, and then the unavoidable contemplation of whether or not piracy would be a good career move.

After passing the town of Gorda (you can wave to the entire population as you drive by), I made it to my first surf spot: Willow Creek State Beach. Standing in the parking lot, soaking with rain, my stomach immediately sank. The waves were double overhead, spiteful and unforgiving, closing out swiftly on a shallow rock bed. Not a soul was in the line up. At this point, wet and alone, I was contemplating writing “shark bait” across my forehead.

Two others joined me after a while. One grabbed his short board and rushed out into the water. He caught one wave, and his leash snapped. He eventually made it back to shore, looking as battered and broken as a punch drunk boxer.

The other individual, his face and hair crusted with sand and dried salt, told me he was short on cash and gas. He then offered to sell me some of the homegrown weed he had stacked in his trunk, of which he had obviously been partaking. It wasn’t the morale boost as I was looking for.

I drove back to my motel, and prepared for the next day.

Surfari Day 2: Big Wednesday (actually Big Saturday)

The next day the dreary cold had retreated, the sky was clear, and the sun was shining. Ol’ Neptune had obviously taken pity on me.

I checked out of my motel and hit the road. I avoided Willow Creek, and headed even further north. Eventually, I arrived at Sand Dollar Beach. I hiked a ¼ mile down from the parking lot and saw an empty line up, but very promising head high sets. After donning my neoprene armor (full 4/3 with hood and booties) and waxing up my trusty 6.2 thruster, I paddled out into the frigid water.

Somewhere North Of San Simeon

The water was clear, and bull kelp lay strewn lazily across the bottom. At first, a lone elephant seal (whom–in a bout of twisted humor–I named Chum) and I were on the only ones in the water. But a sizeable crew of local surfers later joined us, which was quite surprising. Being a large beach break, the waves and line up at Sand Dollar were constantly shifting, keeping me on my toes—or stomach—depending on your point of view.

As the day progressed, the sets gradually became larger and began to close out, and the line up thinned a bit. I was lucky though, and was able to finish the day on a stoke-inducing right, pulling a quick cut back and off-the-lip that left me smiling.

With the sky getting dark, I decided to make camp at Plaskett Creek. As soon as I pitched my tent, there was a sudden shower. I spent the whole night listening to the thudding of the falling rain, feeling content with my waves and hearty dinner of chicken noodle soup.

Wet Camp

Surfari Day 3: Homeward Bound

The next morning, I awoke to find the roof of my tent sagging with rain. With the reality of a workweek setting in, I drained the water off my tent and packed it up. I said adios to Big Sur, and started driving home.

On a whim, I stopped by the pungent elephant seal rookery again, and remarkably, in a nearby cove, there were several surfers in the water. There they were, decked out in rubber head to toe, ridding freezing waist-high waves, completely content with sharing the line up with several dozen blubbery shark snacks. When I had driven by this area yesterday the waves had looked too chaotic to ride, so I had ignored them.

“And we’ll all sleep together in a real pile!”

Thus, like cold ocean spray to the head, the realization rushed over me. If there were waves here, what other spots did I (or others) simply write off as being poor? What I had surfed yesterday had represented a tiny fraction of the possible surf resources in Big Sur. I had spent two days here, when in all reality, I could have spent a whole lifetime searching every cove in the region for surf. Those waves are there; the challenge is just getting to them. The weather is harsh, the swell can switch from ship-sinking to perfection overnight, and you risk the chance of being eaten alive, but the sizable crew of local surfers proves that good surf can be had. I found surf at Big Sur, and I was only there for a weekend. The only thing preventing the discovery of new spots are natural obstacles, and with determination (and a bit of bravery), they can be overcome and more waves can be had. Just be smart and don’t do it alone, or you too might be privy to the same fate of my surf buddy Chum.

Surfer At Willow Creek
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Stefan Slater

Stefan Slater is from Los Angeles, CA. He is a freelance writer and started surfing when he was 14. His favorite surf spots in L.A. are Malibu Point, El Porto, and County Line.

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5 thoughts on “Wave Hunting in Big Sur”

  1. Mr. Slater…

    Nice account of what must have been a wet and chilly trip North all dressed with an occasional dip in the suds. I doubt there are any secret spots there however. Just like here in SoCal the locals know the locale. Still, it was fun to ride along.

  2. Stef,

    Nice well written and interesting article. Sounds like a fun trip of exploring Big Sur country. Nice photography also.

    You should think about doing an article on surfing the mighty waves of Lake Erie. I have heard there is a group of transplant Californians here in Cleveburg that gather and ride the waves in the late fall during storms where the waves can get up to 10 feet. Reminder that the great lakes can have giant waves in late November. Just ask the poor sailors that were on the Edmund Fitzgerald. God rest their soul’s.

    Uncle J

  3. big sur locals (yes, they exist) will eat most of you socal twinkies for breakfast.

    nobody cares about your idea of what is and isn’t secret.

    show up with a truckload of people and set up a tripod and you’re gonna get beatdown.

  4. Stef:

    Great article. Sounds like a great place. See that Jeff mentioned Lake Erie for something different in surfing. You should check it out.

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