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Paddling Big Sur

Photo: Kayak Guide Bryan Jones at  Big Sur

Even a novice can paddle the swells of California's Big Sur.
Kayaking Big Sur primer

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Paddling Big Sur
By Peter Heller   Photograph by Woods Wheatcroft   Map by Steve Stankiewicz
Photo: Kayaking guide Bryan Jones at Big Sur
DIG IN: Kayaking guide Bryan Jones paddles past the break near Point Lobos.

Sure, the waters along California Highway 1 are daunting. But as Peter Heller discovered, skilled kayaking guides are making this spectacular coastline accessible to more than just the hard core.

A quarter mile off the coast of Big Sur, paddling sea kayaks into the teeth of a 15-knot wind and a building swell, and I was dividing the visible world into things to think about and things to ignore. One of the things not to ponder was that we were the only boats on the water: Not a single other craft graced the horizon. Also: sharks. We were only a few miles from a confirmed great white shark buffet at Piedras Blancas, a point to the north where elephant seals were now hauled out with their pups, and trying, like us, to stay off the menu. I decided now was not the time to think about how fantastically well the great white population was doing since the fishing ban of 1993, nor to wonder where the great white that the Monterey Bay Aquarium had released into the sea only days before might be. While in captivity, she'd gained a hundred pounds in six months and had begun killing the gentler soupfin sharks in her tank. "Exhibited aggressive behavior" is how the biologists put it. She was out here somewhere.
On the other hand, there was plenty to dwell on: It was spring, and the coastal range was green, the last tender green before summer. The Santa Lucia Range rose abruptly from the headlands in a great muscular wave, mostly treeless but for patches of pines and oaks, and the rugged draws and ridgelines were softened with coyote brush and grass. When you got closer to the shore, you could see that the meadows running down from the hills were flush with the purple of lupines and wild pea flowers, and spotted with golden poppies. They were lovely. So was the point of San Simeon we had just left behind. Tall Monterey pines and cypress crowded out to the cliff's edge, and the waves battered the rocks and sent spray into the trees.
We'd gotten quite lucky with the sunshine, as it had been foggy, wet, and rainy for several consecutive days before we arrived, but we'd been less fortunate with the wind and swell, which are notoriously unmerciful in April. In truth, we knew April was pushing it, but my old friend Landis Arnold and I couldn't help ourselves. We wanted to be the first to check out what would become, over the summer, one of the first extensive, outfitted sea kayaking trips in Big Sur—an effort spearheaded by Josh Mendenhall, 29, the senior kayaking instructor for Monterey Bay Kayaks. Now with better gear and paddling techniques available, Mendenhall contends that Big Sur is more accessible to less experienced kayakers, at least when accompanied by guides, and is ideal in September, when the winds settle and the conditions can be calm and perfectly, well, pacific.

Did accomplished paddler Peter Heller get swallowed by Big Sur's pounding surf? Pick up the September 2005 issue of Adventure magazine.

Map: California's Big Sur

Adventure Guide:
 Kayaking Big Sur
When to Go: The weather along the Big Sur coast is always unpredictable. But winter swells have largely died down by May, and paddling conditions, while generally good through November, the height is in September.
Getting There: A number of airlines, including United Expres (, offer direct flights to Monterey Peninsula Airport, only 30 miles (48 kilometers) from the
Big Sur valley. Or, fly into San Francisco or San Jose International Airports (100 miles and 80 miles (160 kilometers or 129 kilometers) from Monterey, respectively) and rent a car.
The Big Sur coastline is extremely exposed and offers few accessible launching and landing spots, making a guide necessary for all but advanced paddlers. Check the weather before setting out (, and think twice before heading into winds over 15 knots.
Equipment: Beyond the requisite sea kayak and paddle, bring a helmet for launching and landing in rocky surf. The variable weather and chilly Pacific water (usually in the low 50s (10 degrees Celsius)) call for a Farmer John wet suit, fleece underlayer, and weatherproof jacket. A first-aid kit and basic repair supplies (crescent wrench, screwdriver, and duct tape) are essential. If you go solo, don't forget emergency signaling devices, like a whistle and a mirror.
Outfitters: Big Sur Kayak Adventures, the author's guide, leads trips along the Big Sur coast. Their Andrew Molera–Point Sur Adventure covers one of the calmer stretches of coast and includes views of the Santa Lucia Range and two short hikes ($75; Cambria-based Sea for Yourself Kayak Outfitters ( offers four tours, rents kayaks ($55 a day) out of San Simeon Cove, and operates tours for Treebones Resort (see "Lodging").
Lodging: Ventana Campground ($28; features 80 campsites in the redwoods along Highway 1. You can rent a yurt at Treebones Resort ($119;, 45 miles south of Big Sur. The Esalen Institute offers "personal retreats" ($105 a night;, complete with access to the institute's hot springs and movement classes.
Dining: A national historic site, Deetjens Big Sur Inn (+1 831 667 2377) is as renowned for its eggs Benedict as it is for its rustic atmosphere. Swing by the Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant ( for coffee and a potato frittata served in the gardens overlooking Mount Manuel.           
—Claire Stanford

Get more adventure travel trip ideas in the September 2005 issue of Adventure magazine.

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