First Encounters: Big Sur

It's 2017!

Happy New Year everyone! One of my resolutions is to post my adventures at least twice a month to keep myself motivated to both post and travel more, so stay tuned for more of these! 

Last week before the year ended, I took a small day trip with a few friends down to Big Sur National Park. At first, I was a bit disappointed at the amount of beautiful sunshine that greeted us while driving down Highway 1 (since shooting in direct sunlight isn't the greatest), but as the day moved on into Golden Hour, the lighting became more agreeable.

Highway 1 and Big Sur


Located along the coast, Big Sur usually has a mild, cooler climate. In the summer, the park's highs and lows range around 70-77 F and 44-50 F, respectively, with varied sunshine or overcast weather.  In winter, you can expect a slight drop, with highs and lows ranging around 60-65 F and 42-44 F, respectively. 

Normal hiking gear is recommended (unless you do the car method like us) for day trips, including some sturdy shoes (Normal exercise shoes like Nike's should be fine, other hiking boots work very well too), some good pants and shirts and jackets to adjust with the weather. Car camping essentials are listed here, thanks to the park's recommendations. 


From our home base in San Jose, we travelled about 120 miles to McWay Falls, our final Destination. From San Jose to Carmel, there are many places to fill in gas; after Point Lobos, however, the only other few gas stations are in the beginning of the park near the Big Sur River Inn.



Highway 1 (Before Big Sur)

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

Point Lobos is a small state park located next to Carmel-by-the-Sea (one of the most interesting names I've heard a town be called).  Entry is about $10 for cars, but if you park off the side of the highway right outside, it's free-99 (you just have to walk everywhere). It's a great place to go hiking on easy trails along the Monterey Coastline, but we decided it'd be way faster to drive to all the spots.  Our first spot was Sand Hill Cove, followed by China Cove farther into the park, which required a bit of walking.

Sand Hill Cove

A small drive/hike from Sand Cove lie China Cove and Bird Island. Though the actual beach is off limits, you can still get some great shots walking around the top (and even see some sea lions playing in the shallows!). 


After walking around the Cove for a while, we decided to move onto our next destination in order to hit everything before the sunset.  Driving 20-30 minutes past Point Lobos, we arrived at the famous Bixby Bridge. 

I wasn't too thrilled to catch the bridge at noon, when the sun was brightest. On the other occasions I travelled down to shoot, the weather has normally been cloudy or overcast, which brings out the nice tan and green hues, so we decided to catch the sunset here as we came back from McWay Falls. 

There's a small parking area near the bridge, but people normally park along the side of the road (which creates a bit of traffic at times, but nothing too time-consuming. On really nice days, it gets a bit harder to park, but generally you can get a good spot. Just be aware of potentially getting ticketed by the cops since you're technically not supposed to park on the side, but with that many people they usually just warn people to leave. And yes, also watch out for the hordes of tourists also taking pictures of the famous bridge, built in 1932.

After spending some time here, we continued down the path into Big Sur itself. Alex found a great place to shoot on Instagram called the Big Sur River Inn, where we could get some food and shoot around the Big Sur River as well.

Big Sur River Inn is a small pit stop along Highway 1 in the National Park, offering both restaurants and a quaint place to stay along the river. On Instagram, we saw that people brought down chairs from the patio into the river for a more relaxing way to cool off (even though it was the middle of winter and it was already cold as is), but Gilham decided to wade around anyways.  

You can rent rooms there for about $170/night if you choose to stay the night; otherwise, we took our pictures and went on our way.

While walking around, I ran into Shaun Evaristo and Aye Hasegawa, two of my favorite dancers. Can't believe I didn't say hi, probably too starstruck to think about it until after the fact...

Pfeiffer State Beach

A mere $10 entry fee allows you to drive/walk down to Pfeiffer State Beach.  You have the choice to stay the day at the beach, or camp overnight at one of their campgrounds. There are a few parking lots near the beach, so you shouldn't have too difficult a time getting in. 

The main attractions are the towering rock structures that line the beach, which make great photo opportunities for landscape or portraits.  We arrived around 2:30pm, just as the light was starting to become more attractive and the tide starting to rise. This also would have been a great place to catch the sunset, capturing the sun's rays in the small doorway of the main rock formation.

Alas, time was running thin, and we had one last stop a half and hour away from Pfeiffer before the sunset back at Bixby Bridge. We packed up our things and ran back to the car, drove up the hill to the main Highway down to our last destination.

First of all, I don't care how many photos people have taken of this place, I too would post this a million times or more if I could. McWay Falls is truly a magical place - it literally looks like one of the default desktop backgrounds for your computer. The 80-foot waterfall that runs into the cove stems from the McWay Creek that runs through the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (thanks Google!). 

Although you can't get down to the actual beach itself (thankfully, otherwise we'd just see people down there instead of untouched sand), the trail that runs from the parking area to the edge offers multiple view of the falls. We decided to stay here for the first part of the sunset since we figured we couldn't get back to Bixby in time - probably a better decision anyways. This was by far my favorite place to shoot out of the areas we visited today, regardless of how far it was from Carmel. 

We need the tonic of wildness...At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Since I had to get back to the Bay around 8, we had to cut our sunset short and drive all the way back. One thing to note is that Highway 1 always gets traffic around Point Lobos - one lane roads + cars leaving the beach turning left never results in anything good. We sat in traffic for a good half hour before getting to Carmel; looking behind at the growing line of cars, I'm glad we didn't leave any later. 

After stopping off at Carmel, we headed home via Highway 1 and 17, through the Santa Cruz Mountains. If we had more time, we could've easily gotten dinner there or back in Carmel. 


I would have liked the weather to have been more agreeable for such a long trip, but the journey was still a lot of fun. I try and keep consistent when it comes to lighting, since my style tends to shift around a lot and it's easier when the lighting's the same, but you have to be flexible at the same time.

I would've also liked to stay longer at McWay and see the sunset - looking at Instagram and other places, the sunsets there look amazing (especially when there's a lot of color). Our sunset contained a lot of warm hues (especially oranges and reds) that made it a little difficult to adjust temperature to; nevertheless, it made a great end to a great day.

IMPORTANT: Cell reception past Point Lobos is scarce to none (especially if you're with a great company called Sprint), so friends and family may become worried if they find you're not texting them or calling them back. Make sure you tell people where you're going! There's a little bit of wifi at Big Sur River Inn, but not much else besides that.

Also, be prepared for weather in the area! Highway 1 is beautiful, but can also be hazardous, especially at night, and even more so during a storm. Landslides, flooding, and winding slippery roads can cause many accidents along the road, so many sure you take caution and plan ahead! 

Thank you so much for reading! If there's anything you want to see more of, or any other information you would like to see, feel free to write it down in the comments!

Until next time.