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two girls wearing sweaters with arms around shoulders stand on a cliff in Big Sur Willow Creek smiling

Disconnecting up North in Santa Cruz and Big Sur

two girls inside the car take a selfie in sunglasses during a road trip up the coast of California

The first of many selfies.

About seven years ago this past April, I was surfing San Clemente State Park when I noticed this curly-haired chick wearing only a green Brazilian bikini paddling around in the lineup. The water had to be at least 60 degrees—nothing new for Southern California at this time of the year, but balmy by comparison from where she was from.

Curiosity got the better of me and we struct up a conversation being the only two women surfing at State Park that day. Lauren, being from New York, thought 60 degrees was warm water, thought all the guys on Tinder sucked, said we should go for the sets and paddled straight to the peak at pumping State Park—zero effs given.

Instant friendship.

A few weeks ago, that same surfer girl and I decided to pack up my Subaru and drive up the coast to Santa Cruz and Big Sur to find some surf, eat A LOT of snackies, camp and just plain disconnect from this crazy world. In fact, she made me turn off work notifications and that was the BEST decision ever.

a bright pink champagne cake sprinkled with white powdered sugar at the Madonna Inn

Marveling at the pink champagne cake at the Madonna Inn.

We had always talked about a trip together—I mean, why not?! She and I are typically on the same pages in life and (almost) the same speed in the surf. Although she has been known to tackle 15-foot peaks at Todos Santos, but that’s another story.

As with most surf road trips, we said ‘let’s leave at 6:00 a.m. and beat LA traffic!” My cat had other plans by keeping me up all night long and we also just plain lagged. But! Somehow traffic wasn’t that bad and we made it up to Ventura before 9:00 a.m. We stopped at my favorite little coffee shop, Sandbox Coffeehouse, to grab an awesome Chai latte and to (briefly) check C Street. Of course, it wasn’t working. To be continued…

a girl stands on a big rock by the ocean with her hand outstretched towards the ocean

Today, we have the small wave special served cold.

We burned past Santa Barbara and Carpinteria. We slipped past wine country and stopped at the Madonna Inn for a tasty, sweet treat. Deciding to take our time, we headed straight to Santa Cruz and would check Big Sur and Morro Bay on the way back. There was no swell in the forecast, so we weren’t in any rush.

After checking Moss Landing’s

a partly cloudy and windy beach scene with rough waves and yellow sand

Moss Landing, anyone want to surf?

wind-blown beach breaks, we made our way into Santa Cruz, the hippie capital, and surfed Jack’s, close to Pleasure Point. Of course, the sun was setting and the water was, once again, a balmy 58-60 degrees. Lauren insisted we trunk it for our first sesh. Teeny tiny waves met our bikini-cladded bods as we skidded and surfed with longboards underfoot. I realize—I miss longboarding so much. The cold got the best of me first and I took the tiniest wave in. Lauren and I decided hot soup was the ticket for a post-surf dinner and we found calamari, a glass of wine and clam chowder at Water Street Grill most satisfying.

light streaming through the trees in the forest

It is, indeed, a good morning, Henry Cowell campgrounds!

We made our way to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park around 9:30 p.m. and set up camp. The next day, the surf was once again tiny, so we decided to hike around—albeit taking it easy with Lauren’s injured Achille’s. A mellow 6-mile hike literally over the river and through the redwoods was the day’s adventure—major picture porn ensued and my iPhone was a shutter slut. (see photo slideshow below)

The next day, we gave Steamer Lane a shot, although there wasn’t too much to be had. There were the occasional shockingly bigger sets and Lauren and I scored, under the approval of two local guys—one was a regulator named Carols who told an errant kayak surfer (as nicely, but firmly as possible) to beat it. Thank you, Carlos!! We thanked him and struck up convo.

looking up into a tall redwood forest canopy

We’re surrounded.

On my first wave, I forgot kelp is a thing up there and inertia got the best of me when my board stopped short. The most epic wave of the trip was Lauren’s…she decided to trunk it AND wear her most awesome hat. Besides the fact that she looked like she belonged in Southern Baja, she took off on one of those “bomb” set waves and her hat nearly flew off as she cruised down the face and I paddled up the shoulder laughing hysterically. Thankfully she saved it, otherwise it was going to be my rescue mission. I must have died laughing. Best. Wave. Ever.

two girls standing in a forest making funny faces

This hat is legendary.

Not long before—I saw a sea otter pop up right beside me, an inquisitive look on its face and a small spider crab on its tummy. I dazzled and gushed with joy while it stared back and proceeded to crunch loudly on a spindly little crab leg. According to the two local guys, a momma sea otter has been hassling and biting folks out in the lineup lately–they think it’s because she has babies somewhere.

small waves breaking off a cliffside on a. sunny day

Steamer Lane, small and uncrowded.

While small waves hugged the cliffside and I waited my turn, I marveled at the rock layers and the sea stars, barnacles and kelp. What a perfect day for a snorkel or free dive! Best session of the whole trip, hands down. We made another attempt to surf 26th Ave, a nearby beach break, and though the waves were pretty much shore break, we found the best sunset views. A campfire, a solid burrito, a bottle of red wine and s’mores called us back to our campsite.

a girl wearing a bikini running out of the ocean with her hands up and smile on her face during the sunset

Trunkin it proof.

We made a few friends, too, who shared their biking adventures and we traded surf, bike and camping stories for our last night in Santa Cruz.

The morning was met with a hot dog from older hippie ladies by the Hook and some absolutely DELCIOUS pastries from Gayle’s Bakery based on Lauren’s recommends. We also did a stint at Grey Bears Thrift Store, and jetted as fast as my subie could carry our fat asses south towards Carmel, Monterrey and Big Sur aiming to find a camping spot. We checked some surf spots in Carmel, nothing too exciting, and dedicated our mileage to Big Sur.

Bixby Bridge in Big Sur California with fog and the beach

Obligatory pano of the Bixby Bridge. Not too shabby shot after tourist dodging, if I do say so myself.

secluded beach with rocks and windy conditions in a partly cloudy sky

Pfeiffer Big Sur

Winding in and around PCH, Lauren chauffeured and I got to marvel uninterrupted at Big Sur’s incomparable beauty for the first time. Lauren was a trooper and let me do the tourist thing of taking 10 thousand pictures at Bixby Bridge. Tourists gathered inches away from the cliffside to take group photos at this historical site while I gingerly snuck around for an uninterrupted angle.

We stopped at Andrew Molera State Park and after realizing we’d have to hike our stuff into camp, we opted to find easier grounds. Ironically, we staked a claim at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park—the spot where we were supposed to start a mini-backpacking trip. Our site was covered in leaves, a perfect critter notification system, I thought.

a girl wearing a headlamp tends to a campfire

We tried to summon The Doors’ ‘Light My Fire,’ but phone signals, ya know…

Night time crept in swiftly as the tall redwood trees darkened the campgrounds with their immense shadows. Building the fire proved to be a challenging effort and as food and drinks fizzled into s’mores and laughter, we could sense critters creeping in around us. We peered into the darkness outside our campsite and sure enough, eyes dotted the dark like stars poking through a black sky. Raccoons…we hope.

Didn’t help I told Lauren about my mountain lion encounter from 2010.

All night long, I heard animal shrieks and leaves crunching right outside my tent—raccoons, surely. Some time around 4:00 am, I heard a dog persistently bark and growl and at 7:00 am, a shriek and some scattered leaves came from Lauren’s tent. Eventually I woke up to find her calmly reading a book and then told me about this blue bird who took her by surprise. I think the animals were extra curious. Perhaps we smelled like s’mores and dirt.

a wetsuit sitting on a rock with a large spider crawling on top of it

A small critter makes itself at home on my wettie. 

The last day of our trip began with a search for a surf spot recommend from my friend Royce Fraley, but fog and zero Wi-Fi wouldn’t allow for it. Next time.

We checked another surf spot recommend–Pfeiffer Big Sur, and had our own stretch of beach all to ourselves. There was what looked like a right breaking off some rocks and I paddled out to investigate, but the solo mission plus the random rocks and super sharky vibes had me coming in after a few duck dives. I once heard of a man who duck dove and never came back up.

foggy and rocky coastline with a peaky wave breaking off shore

Would you go? Willow Creek looking peaky and tempting.

I later told Royce who joked and said I needed a guide. True. Laughing I thought—I just need a few more bodies out there to lessen those odds. Imagine that—I actually WANT people in the water with me…. well, a few…my friends only, but not as Great White snacks. Maybe that’s why that other spot he recommended was so territorial.

Eventually up and at ‘em again—we left our secluded slice of pre-colonized California and decided it was time to head back to reality. The pangs of anxiety rang to the tune of work, school and fur child, so I soaked in every hippie dippy, nature-induced high possible, like an addict savoring the last hit.

Lesson: Find more time to become un-notifiable.

 

More photos + videos:

Santa Cruz + Big Sur