Far from the madding crowds

Obligation only compelled me to succumb to touristic hegemony and make a sojourn to the Hearst Castle, 14 miles south of this speck of a town hugging the southern border of glorious Big Sur.

As I made the winding, hypnotic drive down Highway 1, I thought about what a pleasant, peaceful trip it had been to this point, how eschewing the obvious, tour guide-approved Big Sur attractions – Pfeiffer Beach, Molera State Park, a massage at Eselen, the $42 steak at Nepenthe – had made all the difference. It lowered my blood pressure, raised my spirits, offering an uninterrupted spell of introspection you just can’t achieve among the masses.

Yes, even in winter, considered by some the off-season, Big Sur is a major tourist draw – fine if you don’t mind sharing those intimate sunsets with a gaggle of shorts-and-black-socks-wearing German travelers. At the risk of appearing misanthropic, sometimes people are just too much.

So the idea here was, to paraphrase the late David Foster Wallace, get away from getting away from it all, while still reveling in the splendors Big Sur has to offer. It did not mean residing in some lean-to deep in the Los Padres National Forest, but rather just finding interesting places to visit and hunker down off the well-trod touristic path.

There are, somewhat surprisingly, many from which to choose.

Go 25 miles east, on the little-used but scenic Naciemiento Fergusson Road, and you’ll find two incongruously situated historic places – Mission San Antonio de Padua and the Julia Morgan-designed Hacienda, William Randolph Hearst’s erstwhile ranch house, pre-Castle – smack in the middle of Fort Hunter Liggett Army Base.

Head back over the Santa Lucia Range, and you’ll encounter several gorgeous, seldom-used (at least in winter) hiking trails: Buckeye at Salmon Creek, near Gorda, and Mill Creek, near Lucia.

Relative solitude, too, does not mean roughing it. Rather than staying at the pricey resorts in the northern regions of Big Sur, or going cheap and opting for that Motel 6-Days Inn-Quality Inn trifecta in San Simeon, the family-owned Ragged Point Inn is more than an acceptable compromise. At $125 a night (winter rates), you get rooms with patios not 20 feet from the cliffs and even a personalized trail down to the black-sand beach where only a select few have dipped their toes in the surf.

People seem so hellbent to push on to Hearst Castle that they overlook Ragged Point, or just used it as a chance to gas up. As I pushed on to the Castle, I figured a gradual re-immersion into the madding crowd would be wise. That meant a stop 4 miles north of the Castle at Piedras Blancas, home to a growing elephant seal rookery. Only about 10 cars were parked at the vista area to check out these blubbery beasts, but I stayed until one behemoth bull the size of an Escalade lifted his hulking mass and jiggled off to the water line by himself. I left him to his solitude, away from the dozens of supine blobs lining the beach, and pulled into the Hearst Castle visitors center parking lot 10 minutes later.

Here, in toto, is my experience at the Castle (where I’ve been before, by the way): I swerved around an armada of buses with Chinese writing on the side, nearly got sideswiped by an RV with Utah plates, and parked way in the back next to a white Chevy Suburban from Colorado with luggage spilling out the back and squalls coming from a car seat. I got as far as the food court in the visitors center, where I could see a line 20 deep to buy tickets for the tour, then scurried back to the car and hightailed it back to relative calm.

So if you’re looking for a blow-by-blow, wing-by-wing rundown of Hearst’s monument to his own empire, you need to look elsewhere. What I’m offering is an alternative Big Sur experience, in which the only mass of humanity you’re likely to encounter comes when you hit Monterey on the drive home.

Mission San Antonio/Hacienda > Hearst Castle

The thick wooden door nailed into the adobe entryway groaned when I opened it, and out popped Frankie Grau, wide-eyed and startled. She had reason to be surprised; the guest book showed that I was the only visitor that day and one of 11 all week.

Odd, considering Mission San Antonio was the third of California’s 21 missions, and one of the largest at 80 acres. Flanked by verdant gardens and fountains and lined with gnarled oaks and stately walnut trees, it sports a museum with many offerings, including a unique glimpse into the original underground wine vat, where the padres crushed grapes and sent the juice through an open drain and down into barrels.

Not so odd, considering that the mission is 25 miles from Highway 101 to the east and 22 mountainous miles from Highway 1 to the west. Oh, and there’s the fact that the mission is behind the forbidding razor wire of an Army base.

“We’re the least-known and least-visible because we’re the least-accessible,” said Grau, the gift shop manager and docent. “There’s no other mission surrounded by a base. It’s very confusing for people. If you’ve never come on to a base, it’s intimidating. The signage is lacking, too. There’s a little sign out there that says ‘mission,’ but there’s a great big sign that says ‘subject to search.’ Figure that out. It really scares people.”

Grau hastens to add that she harbors no animosity toward the Army and, in fact, she likes that she can thank soldiers for their service if they ever visit the mission. But as a tourist draw, or even a field trip for those fourth-graders on a Mission mission, the location is lacking. The museum itself, though, is not. Its artifacts and exhibits cover the period before the area even became a mission, back when the Salinan Indians called all of the Army base home. Remnants from a sweat lodge stands in the courtyard, near the mill where, after the mission opened in 1773, blindfolded mules harnessed to a pole ground grain. Bronze and 500 pounds, the first mission bell made in California graces the quad.

As manager of the gift shop, Grau has raised funds lacking from visitors fees by making the gift shop an artist collective consignment operation, with fine offerings of artisan jewelry and ceramics and paintings sacred and secular.

“It’s the most authentic mission,” Grau said. “It’s a real shame people don’t come. It has the title ‘The Hidden Treasure.’ It’s an active parish but smallest of any mission – 33 families, almost all seniors. They come a long way from all directions.”

I apologized for taking up Grau’s time, but she waved a hand and says she had all day. I told her I planned to visit the Hacienda, one of Morgan’s architectural masterpieces built for Hearst but now a hotel on military property (Hearst sold all his land to the Army in 1939) and run by the military.

“Good luck,” she said. “Be ready for a full ID check.”

Indeed, when I pulled the car to the front gate, a fatigue-wearing soldier asked my business.

“I’d like to see Hacienda,” I said.

“Do you have a reservation?”

“No, I just wanted to see the building, maybe take some pictures.”

“One moment.”

He walked away, then returned a minute later and said no one can drive to the hotel unless they are staying there. I gave my journalistic affiliation and explained the Julia Morgan connection, but he seemed unmoved. He called the base’s public affairs officer, but got no answer. With my engine idling, I asked if I could just take a gander, 10 minutes tops.

“OK, I need your license, registration and insurance information.”

I was cleared. The Hacienda sits on a bluff beyond the barracks. By design, it resembles the mission below, but it’s built of solid, reinforced concrete. Though I couldn’t venture inside, it is said the rooms in the Tower are spacious and afford sweeping views of the valley. Hearst used to fly his Hollywood friends – Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy – up from San Simeon for weekend getaways and hunting outings. You can walk the perimeter of the lodge in five minutes, thinking about its prewar glory days, and not see a soul – something you can’t say for the Hearst Castle.

Mill Creek and Buckeye trails > trails at Pfeiffer Burns State Park

In the final mile of Nacimiento Fergusson Road, there’s a pullout on a bluff overlooking Highway 1 and the ocean. I saw no cars going in either direction during the 40-minute drive, but parked in that pullout was an SUV with hiking boots on the hood. Not far away sat an unshod man in a lawn chair peering through binoculars at the ocean.

Did I leave him alone to his solitude, as I cherished mine?

Of course not. My curiosity won out.

This gentleman, Bill Stewart, of Los Osos, had come north to do maintenance on the Mill Creek Trail, which starts across the road. After finishing, he reclined to do some whale-watching and actually spotted two humpbacks.

When I told Stewart I had planned to tackle the Buckeye/Cruickshank trails, a hilly 10-mile out-and-back in the remote Silver Peak Wilderness 3.8 miles north of Ragged Peak, he frowned.

“That trail (Buckeye), I hear, is eroded and exposed (to sun) a lot, and the falls are dry,” he said. “Now (Mill Creek) is a great trail. You should change your plans. As soon as you go in, 50 yards, you’re in redwoods. The stream always has water in it even with the drought. A lot of people don’t know about it because (the trailhead is) not right on Highway 1. You’re basically in redwood trees until you get to the other end. It goes to the base of the ridge.”

Stewart was right. The Mill Creek Trail was as towering and lush as advertised. Better yet, I saw no other people, though several coyotes.

The next day, I tackled the more challenging Buckeye/Cruickshank path, and what was supposed to be a pleasant two-hour run turned into a 41/2-hour odyssey. The good news is, I got my solitude, as no other hikers ventured by. The bad news, no other hikers ventured by to point me in the right direction.

How is it possible to get lost on an out-and-back when you don’t even change trails? Somehow, I managed after the turnaround, 5 miles in, to get completely turned around. The single-track trail over narrow exposed ridges and steep, shaded canyons that seemed so obvious on the way out, petered out to nothing on the way back. One wrong turn was all it took, apparently, and I spent the next 45 minutes careening downslope looking for the trail, then scrambled on all fours back up thinking I had descended too far.

Thankfully, the rocky points in the ocean kept me going in the right direction. Nearing what the map would later tell me was Soda Springs Creek, about 2 miles from the trailhead at the Salmon Creek Ranger Station, I slipped on a rock and slid what had to be 30 feet down a ravine. When I dusted myself off, my legs had so many scratches and red welts it looked like a map of the L.A. freeway system. Tiring and not wanting to go uphill once more, I simply followed the steep, rocky creek down, figuring I’d eventually hit Highway 1. Less than a half-mile later, there was the Buckeye Trail, waiting for me.

Back at the trailhead, I was happy no one was around to bear witness to my dunderheadedness and see the bloodied stumps that passed as my legs.

Elephant seal rookery > whale watching at Nepenthe

Sure, you can sip cocktails on the patio at the chic eatery Nepenthe while waiting, sometimes in vain, for whales to make cameo appearances and spout a few times before moving on.

That pales however, to the entertainment going on almost continuously at one of the few land-based elephant seal rookeries in California. Since the early 1990s, the beaches between Ragged Point and San Simeon have been home nearly year-round to elephant seals, who mate, give birth and just hang out before heading back to their watery homes.

This being January, the huge alpha bulls literally take over the beach, sending the small youngsters scurrying (yes, seals are surprisingly swift when not inert) to the periphery. Things will really heat up comes late January and February, when the females arrive and the rookery becomes a hookup joint.

Cindy Corrigan, a docent for the Friends of the Elephant Seal, was telling me this when, suddenly, two bloated seals with the telltale hooked nose of the male reared up and started waddling toward each other. They looked like sumo wrestlers girding for battle. About 10 feet from a confrontation, the seal on the right backed off, slinking toward the water. The victor plopped himself down, perhaps spent from the effort.

“That guy may be big now, because he just got here from the ocean,” Corrigan said, “but he’ll lose 1,000 pounds during his three months here. Yes, 1,000 pounds. They aren’t eating. If he’d leave to go eat (in the ocean), some other bull would come and take over his harem. When the females get here, he’ll mate about 300 times a season.”

No wonder the bulls drop so much weight.

Meanwhile, if you insist on seeing whales from a distance, you don’t need to drop major coin at Nepenthe or the Restaurant at Ventana. You can do what Leigh Erickson and Mike Dobinski of Santa Cruz did and sit at the outdoor bar at the downscale Gorda Cafe and point and shout when the whales surface.

“This is as good as it gets,” Dobinski said. “Mimosas and whale watching. Are you kidding me? It’s unreal.”

Beach below the Ragged Point Inn > Pfeiffer Beach

Pfeiffer Beach is undeniably a gem, with its multihued sand, rocky outcroppings, surprisingly warm water, porta-potties and parking. Oh, and it allows dogs, too.

The downside is that many, many people know about Pfeiffer, which makes it busy even in the off-season. It’s not unusual for the small parking lot to fill up well before noon and a traffic jam will form waiting for a car to leave so you can pay $5 for the privilege of parking there,

An alternative for those who like a little privacy with their long, romantic strolls on the beach is to pull into the Ragged Point Inn – you don’t have to be registered guest – and descend 350 feet to the shore on a well-constructed switchback trail the hotel owners put in. The sand is black, as befitting Black Swift Falls, which runs parallel to the trail. It’s free and, during the hour I stayed there in the late afternoon, no one else disturbed my solitude.

And what deep thoughts was I mulling, you ask?

How I dreaded the 350-foot ascent back to my hotel room.