Astrophotography 3: Camping in Big Sur

This is a blog about a camping experience that wasn’t supposed to happen.

The plan for our California road trip was to arrive in San Francisco on Saturday night, spend Sunday exploring the city, then Dirk and I would part ways on Monday morning – I would fly home to Pittsburgh, and he would drive to Reno to work for a few days.

To be completely honest, I was ready to re-enter civilization by Saturday morning.  Though Dirk caved in and showered Friday evening at our comparably well-equipped campsite in Pfeiffer Big Sur, I was holding out for a long hot shower in our San Francisco hotel.  Yes, for those doing the math, that’s right:  I had not showered since we left Vegas on Monday morning.

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By that point, it had become a doctrinal stance for me:  I was not showering until we were not camping anymore.  A stance, coincidentally, that Dirk confirmed was correct – he admitted that his shower at the campground in Big Sur was not nearly as satisfying as he expected.

I digress.  Our intent as we left Fernwood Campgrounds that Saturday morning was to drive south on the Pacific Coast Highway until we hit the landslide road closure, turn around, and head north all the way back to San Francisco.  We were running low on food, water, and other supplies, I was filthy, and were both fairly tired.  We lost cell service Friday afternoon and had not been in contact with our spouses since.  It was a good time to end the wilderness camping portion of the trip and re-emerge into society.

Our California Road Trip:  Camping in Big Sur

Luckily for us, our road-trips often don’t go as planned.

In fairness, it seems inaccurate to call this blog a part of the Astrophotography series.  The pictures I got of the night sky that Saturday evening are some of the best I have ever taken – maybe the best.   But to strictly focus on the night sky would be to ignore a conglomeration of factors that made this one of the most incredible changes of plan I will ever experience.

As we meandered south, we were both overwhelmed by the powerful beauty of the landscape.  Even Dirk, who has done this drive before and insisted that “we can’t stop at every interesting lookout point or we’ll be pulling over every five minutes,” was nevertheless riveted by the brilliant sky over the deep blues and greens of the Pacific… not to mention the rusted scrub-land surrounding us.

The rolling green and tan hills of Big Sur drop off down to a sandy beach, washed with the white foam of the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean

At one point, Dirk was driving along when he excitedly jabbed his finger out toward the ocean, exclaiming “HOLY SHIT!” and slamming on the brakes to pull into the nearest lookout.  Captain Ahab had somehow spotted humpback whales breaching about 100 yards off the coast as he was driving and managed to pull off the road without killing us.  We spent a good five or ten minutes standing in awe, watching these massive creatures blast through the surface of the chop, then slam back down in a explosion of white plumes.

I think that’s when the spirit of the day began to turn, began to feel like… maybe we shouldn’t be quite so ready to head back to civilization.  What we were witnessing was simply too monumental to be hurried along in a touristy fashion.

The feeling strengthened when we began winding our way up the foothills on the ridiculously-twisty Nacimiento-Fergusson Road….. and it was cemented when we reached a banal brown and yellow wooden sign denoting restrictions for what appeared to be a wild campsite back a gnarled dirt road.

Blue sky Nacimiento-Fergusson Road Big Sur Pacific Coast Highway
Nacimiento-Fergusson Road

Of course we took the dirt road.  One thing we both know is that when you are on vacation, if you see something that looks interesting, take the time to explore it.  I’ve had countless amazing experiences taking unplanned detours;  in this case, it ended up becoming one of the most cherished memories of my life.

Camping in Big Sur, California

As we bumped and bobbed our way back the dirt road, we came upon a very promising campsite:  Totally isolated behind a line of trees, it came with nicely cut logs ready-made for sitting around a campfire.  There was a distant view of the Pacific on one side and the maroon peaks of the Santa Lucia mountains on the other.  We backed the truck in and started to make ourselves at home.

In spite of the perfection of this site, malcontent was laced into Dirk’s body language.

He had a feeling we should explore further down the dirt road to see if we could find something better.  I have to admit, I thought he was completely insane.  Find something better?  This WAS the better campsite – how did he not see that?!

So went my line of thinking, and much to my shame, my argument for not leaving the site.  I was sure someone else would take the site, and when we didn’t find something better we would be out of luck.  After much cajoling and reassurance, I agreed to pack up and see what lay ahead.

Thank God I acquiesced.  I’ve never been more wrong, and he’s never been more right – and I’m eternally grateful he was.

After several frustrating miles of bouncing past one occupied site after another, we crested a small slope and caught our first glimpse of what truly was the perfect campsite … I call it one of the top ten individual sites in America.  He said the ridiculous grin on my face was the most gratifying thing he’d ever seen, and forced me to allow him to take a picture of it as compensation.

Scott Take Back Roads Big Sur Pacific Ocean campsite
Big Smile on Big Sur

I’ll be honest, a written description won’t do the campsite justice.  Watch the video linked above.  Even the video barely does the site justice.  What you can’t fully perceive watching the video is the enormous scale of the area:  sweating mildly in the unseasonably warm setting sun, we could discern the spouts of water as each whale surfaced to breathe.  What we could not discern from that distance were the cars navigating the barely-visible ribbon of Route One….

The setting sun slowly melded into a wide golden band streaking towards us along the surface of the water.  Shortly thereafter, the golden light disappeared, transforming into a blend of peach and orange that felt too rich and vibrant to be real.  Deep blues and purples followed next, with just a tinge of fire along the horizon.

sunset over big sur california pacific ocean coast california coastline pacific coast highway

Immediately following the last vestiges of sunlight were locomotive blasts of cool mountain wind rolling downhill towards the warm void over the ocean.  These powerful gusts were loud enough to hear a good 15 seconds or more before they arrived. Recognizing the potential for disaster, we quickly folded our chairs, donned our headlamps, and got to work securing the tent with large rocks and Boy Scout knots of rope.  The tent was soon anchored to the truck by a confusing cobweb of 750lb Paracord.

If there was a downside to our night on Big Sur, it was dinner:  an abysmal slop of leftover soup and rubbery pasta, warmed over Dirk’s gasoline camp stove situated between two small boulders for shelter from the wind.   Surrounded by bone-dry grasses and buffeted those forceful gusts, I understand why open fire was banned in this area of California…. which meant that even if we still had sausage or chicken, we wouldn’t have been able to cook it.

Milky Way stars starry night sky live oak
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Our spirits would not be doused by a single miserable meal.  We sated ourselves instead with the astronomical fireworks arcing overhead as the night progressed.  Our only real conversation was a brief debate over whether the Milky Way would rotate with the Earth during the course of the evening – it does – one of my few philosophical victories that week.  Beyond that, we consumed the sky that final night in silence.

As had become my standard, I awoke the following morning while the grey pre-dawn gloom still dulled the landscape.  For the first time, however, Dirk woke up almost immediately after I did.  We stood together, eating our cowboy breakfast of bread and jerky sandwiches and watched the rising sun bathe our surroundings in its cheerful yellow rays.  Other than the mountain man’s breakfast of Friday morning, it was the most fitting meal of the trip:  simultaneously quaint and full of flavor, it was unquestionably satisfying.

A couple hours after Dirk dropped me off in San Francisco, I sat under one of the enormous pine trees in Fort Mason National Park, puffing my pipe and reflecting back over the trip.  The sun was setting over the Golden Gate Bridge, and there was a rather lively outdoor jazz concert playing nearby.  The juxtaposition of natural beauty and the hustle and bustle of human noise was a surprisingly pleasant transition back to civilization.

I called Dirk and explained where I was and what I was doing.  My assessment was quick and honest:

“I think this has been one of the best trips of my entire life.”

He reflected silently for a couple seconds before responding.  I appreciated that.

“You know what, my friend.  I think it’s been one of the best trips of my life as well.”

Sunset Fort Mason San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge Alcatraz Island San Francisco Bay
Sunset over the Golden Bridge, San Francisco Bay, and Alcatraz Island

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  1. Thanks for sharing your adventures with us. I thoroughly enjoyed the campsite video and the story about the whales is wonderful. Thanks again.

    • Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed it! I’m wrapping up the night-time / astrophotography blog from that night as well, and it should be posted soon!

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