The first time I encountered Jack Kerouac, I was not hiking Big Sur. I was far away from the coast, sitting in a Midwestern college smack in the middle of farm fields. Even so, I began traveling with Jack in my readings as if we were old friends, as if I were part of that beat crew of his searching for nirvana in an empty glass. In my tiny college apartment, I tailed him to Mexico in On the Road and I caught glimpses of the meaning of life in Dharma Bums. I envied his free-wheeling life and I knew I wanted to emulate certain aspects of it. I mostly identified with those beat writers for their idealized views of nature. Their writings mirrored what I felt about places in the wild.
When I read Big Sur, I knew that my trail leads west to California redwood forests and to the majestic, ethereal panoramic views of the mighty, seemingly endless Pacific Ocean. I could happily lose myself there—in its sunsets and dramatically crashing waves. Kerouac's writings inspired me to move there. Hiking Big Sur was a realization of a dream for me and I continue to enjoy Big Sur camping whenever I can. Whether or not you've been previously inspired by Kerouac's writings, I feel confident that if you follow in his footsteps, hiking Big Sur like I did, you'll cherish the experience and inspire others to go hiking Big Sur with Kerouac too. I drive up from Huntington Beach, so it's quite a drive for me, but the Coastal Highway is a pleasure to travel. I highly recommend driving it.
Hiking Big Sur: Bixby Creek Canyon
For Kerouac fans, hiking Big Sur means traversing to Bixby Creek Canyon where the glorious Bixby Creek Bridge rises 260 feet high above the canyon below. For years, Kerouac fans have trekked to Bixby Creek Canyon to enjoy Big Sur camping. Today, it's nearly impossible to hike down to the beach that Kerouac immortalized in his book Big Sur. Trail starts often end at cliff walls with sheer drops toward the Pacific Ocean—and these can be pretty jaw-dropping, but I don't recommend getting too close. Valley view trails can provide some sightseeing opportunities, but these days, hiking Big Sur in Bixby means contenting yourself with views from the bridge—which isn't so bad as the coastal views rival anything along Pacific coast.
I have a dazzling photograph in my living room at home of a coastal view I shot from the bridge top. I can't always get away for Big Sur camping, but I try to keep Kerouac's favorite places close in mind even at home. I don't think there's anywhere else in the region where you'll feel closer to what Kerouac was trying to get at with that novel. I've found numerous places to pull over off the highway near the bridge. From each one, I've witnessed something different about the way the sea looks in position to the land. I would love to hike down to Kerouac's beach, but the land isn't just treacherous—it's also privately owned so you can get in trouble for trespassing if you're caught hiking Big Sur in those parts.
Keruoac based much of his book Big Sur on his experience living in a cabin in Bixby Creek Canyon. The small cabin belonged to a fellow beat writer, Lawrence Ferginghetti. Kerouac himself fell for the panoramic views of the area and spent time hiking Big Sur and hanging out on the beach as he worked on his novel. If you want to do some Big Sur camping, there are other areas in the region that are better suited to the experience today. However, a visit to the Bixby Creek Bridge is a must for Kerouac fans in order to see the same trail leads and coastal views that the writer so loved. I've read Ferlinghetti and other friends of Kerouac like the poet Gary Snyder, but it's Kerouac's words that get to me, that got me to put on my hiking boots and go out into the world. My copy of Big Sur is pretty torn up, but I've had the same one since those college days and I wouldn't trade it for anything.
Big Sur Camping
For me, hiking Big Sur means doing some Big Sur camping. It's too far away from my home for just a day trip. I tend to spend long weekends there—sometimes on my own, sometimes with just a friend or two. Los Padres National Forest features a myriad of picturesque places to pitch a tent. I've found that the southern stretches of the forest feature some of the best Big Sur camping sites. I've camped there and I can say that my pals and I greatly enjoyed ourselves and the scenery. We weren't able to explore as much as we wanted because it rained so I intend to return there at some point.
On the other hand, my favorite place to do some Big Sur camping is Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. If you can reserve a spot months in advance, it's worth the trouble as each site features a picnic table, fire pit, and grill. That's convenient because it's no fun to have to haul a lot of gear with you. I think traveling like Kerouac means traveling light. I don't care to bring more than the necessities so if you aren't a bare-bones kind of camper, you might want to consider one of the lodges or inns in the area. Several campgrounds aren't accessible by car; you have to hike in and that can be difficult if you bring a lot of gear.
On the other hand, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park features outstanding views of the Pacific and Pfeiffer Falls. I've never managed to reserve a spot—yet! As one of the most sought-after campsites on the coast, it's tough to get in unless you can reserve your campsite six months in advance. I can't always say if I can get away from work or family obligations that far in advance, but some day I hope to camp here.
Hiking Big Sur: Popular Trails
If you want to follow in Kerouacs footsteps, hiking Big Sur will certainly put you in a Kerouac frame of mind. I've done a fair amount of hiking the Limekiln Trails of Limekiln State Park. I love this area because it boasts a terrific mix of coastal views and pristine forests where I can think. This area is also popular for Big Sur camping, although I haven't camped here yet myself. It's always hard to decide where to hang my hat, but I tend to prefer campgrounds that are close to the sea. I want to hear those crashing waves.
Another of my favorite hikes is the McWay Falls Trail. Many people new to the region actually start out with this one because it's such a dramatic experience, such a great introduction to the splendors of this region. The McWay Waterfall is 80 feet high and the trail is less than a mile in length. Its coastal views of the Pacific Ocean defy what language can convey. As Kerouac intimates—you've got to experience it in person. If I'm going hiking in Big Sur with someone who has never been there before, I invariably take them here as I know it's sure to be a sight they'll never forget.
Other first-rate trails I love to explore when hiking Big Sur include the popular loop trail in Andrew Molera State Park, the Vicente Flat Trail, and the Pine Ridge Trail that features stunning tracts of redwood forests. I once sprained my ankle on Pine Ridge trail but was fortunately near the trail's edge. Really, it's best to hike with a pal. This is wilderness country and I've found cell phone service to be sketchy sometimes. Usually, I hike with a few friends and that's probably the thing to do when hiking Big Sur.
Hiking Big Sur shouldn't leave you stuck on the trails for your entire trip. If you want to enjoy this seaside region as he did, you owe it to yourself to visit Nepenthe, a legendary Big Sur restaurant where Jack Kerouac dined. Nepenthe opened in 1949 and is still open daily for business. Pop in for a glass of wine and toast to Kerouac. The restaurant serves Mediterranean-style cuisine so if you tire of trail granola or bonfire hotdogs, treat yourself at Nepenthe where so many other artists and literary figures have too, including Ernest Hemingway, Clint Eastwood, and Henry Miller.
Speaking of Henry Miller, you might as well visit the Henry Miller Library when hiking Big Sur. Author of Tropic of Capricorn and Black Spring, Miller also explored stream of consciousness writing as Kerouac did. If you're planning to enjoy some Big Sur camping, you might bring along one of his books to read at your campsite which I have found enlightening. Of course, don't forget your copy of Kerouac's Big Sur.
Finally, be sure to see the Point Sur Lighthouse. It's a California State Historic Park and, as such, does attract many visitors, but it was relatively quiet when I visited. People told me to watch out for ghosts in this haunting place. I certainly did, but all I managed to see were some seals on coast and many, many sea birds winging their way over the waves back to the cliff nests, I supposed. I never met with a ghostly Kerouac, but I do always feel close to him with hiking Big Sur or doing some Big Sur Camping, especially when I look out over the Pacific Ocean and feel at one with its Creator and all the land that surrounds me, that holds me up.