Pacific Coast Highway Trip Report – Part 1

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Calling this a Pacific Coast Highway Trip Report is sort of a misnomer. Although we started in Orange County, California and headed north on PCH to north of Big Sur, we also veered off to head to Yosemite following our adventures on the coast. In any case, I thought it’d be fun to share photos and thoughts from our Pacific Coast Highway adventure. (“Pacific Coast and Random Inland Places Plus Yosemite National Park Trip Report” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, so I’m just going to lump it all together.)

Our incredible Pacific Coast Highway journey began with my friend Bill picking me up and us departing from Southern California early one morning, and setting off in search (well, we knew exactly where it’s located) of Big Sur. This was our most “intense” road trip thus far. Big Sur is about a 7 hour drive from where I live, and our goal was to photograph sunset there, plus some astro and sunrise photography after that.

Of course, with a 7-hour car ride, there is lots of “stuff” that happened in between leaving home and arriving at Big Sur that I’m cutting from the trip report. By stuff, I mean us talking shop in the car about photography and stopping to eat. Really exciting stuff…if you’re into geeky conversations or Jack in the Box. Let’s fast-forward through that to our arrival in Big Sur…

We got to Big Sur, or should I say Pfeiffer Beach, a couple hours before sunset. Prior to this trip, I thought Big Sur was simply a single location, but I learned while there that it’s actually a region that encompasses a lot of different areas. Learn something new everyday, I guess.

When we got out of the car, there was only one other car in the lot, and we were greeted by the man and woman getting out of that car. The man was also a photographer, and he struck up a conversation with us. Initially, he seemed pretty friendly and easy going. Then, he made a passing reference to his galleries and success as a professional photographer. At that point, I have to admit that I mentally checked out of the conversation.

As a brief aside here so I don’t sound like a total jerk, I’ve met dozens of professional photographers, and they seem to come in two varieties without much middle ground. The first is the chill and easy-going type, open to helping others and fun to be around. Initially, that was my take on this dude. The other end of the spectrum is the kind with outsized egos who clearly think highly of themselves, their “craft”, and their “art.”

This type is pretty easy to spot. As someone who has worked in (and grown tired of) a profession where most people have egos the size of Texas, I’ve found that photographers are just as bad, and I’m not a fan of this way people–regardless of their line of work–carry themselves.  Although this dude only made one remark in passing, my thought as soon as he said that was, “oh, here we go.”

In hindsight, I totally misjudged him, and that’s my bad. I realized I had misjudged him the moment he uttered his name: Jeff Mitchum. Yes, the Jeff Mitchum. The photographer who recently sold a print for $1.8 million. There’s an expression, attributed to Muhammad Ali, that “it’s not bragging if you can back it up” that suddenly felt sort of apt.

Except, in this case, it was that his actual credentials and accomplishments gave perspective to the passing comments he had made, and no longer did he feel like he was talking himself up, but rather, being modest. I now felt like I should be referring to him as “sir” and hanging on his every word.

We asked him a lot of questions and he obliged us with each of them, and even encouraged us to email him so he could assist us with a particular topic. It was quite clear that my first impression–that he was a “chill” dude–turned out to be true. Suffice to say, I felt a bit bad for making an assumption based on one little thing he had said.

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After talking with him for about 30 minutes, we headed down to the beach and began scouting spots for the sunset. I’ve already covered all of this in my post on the Keyhole “Light Show” on Pfeiffer Beach, so instead of rehashing that, I’ll share some new photos and some passing thoughts.

Instead of going for the typical spot on the beach, I decided to hike up to the hillside across from the Keyhole. Another photographer arriving on the beach about the same time as us decided to do the same, so he and I chatted for a bit while up there, waiting for the sunset.

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I don’t think it’s any secret that “thinking” isn’t my strong suit, and my initial plan was to photograph the Keyhole Arch until the sun disappeared behind the Keyhole, and then to run down to catch it falling below the horizon. The only problem with this strategy was that, from where I was, the sun wouldn’t drop behind the Keyhole–it would simply drop below the horizon.

If I waited for it to drop below the horizon, by the time I ran down, it would be long gone. Fortunately, in my spare time while up there, this simple fact finally registered, and I changed locations to get the sun hitting the edge of the Keyhole Arch before running down to the ground level.

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Ground level had several other photographers, all pretty much in the same area, but since I wasn’t using a tripod at that point, they were all cool with me running in front of them for a second and firing off a couple sets of brackets. After the sun dropped below the horizon and I had gotten all of the shots I wanted, I for some reason decided to walk out onto the slick rocks in the water with my camera bag on to try for a view from that perspective. In the process, I slipped and almost fell in the water.

This was a really idiotic idea: best case scenario, I end up with a cool perspective of a scene that was now dull because the sky was clear and the sun had set, leaving behind only a blue-grey glow. Worst case scenario, I fall in the cold water, ruining all of my camera gear and potentially getting hurt. Even if everyone went flawlessly, the risk wouldn’t have justified the potential reward. Of course, since I don’t think (see above), I didn’t contemplate any of this in advance.

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From Big Sur, we continued up the Pacific Coast Highway, stopping at a random roadside store for coffee and snacks. I’d describe this as a bit of a “backwoods” store, and I waited for a while in line as the dude in front of me–dressed head to toe in camouflage and sporting quite the beard–tried to pay for his 40 with a plastic ring that I assume he found on the ground. For those wondering, the store did not accept this form of payment.

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After killing some time in transit, our next stop was McWay Falls. We had been debating trying to hike down to the falls themselves, a tricky and potentially dangerous prospect, but this time, thinking was involved!

Before starting the hike, we looked at the falls and saw that they weren’t illuminated by the light of the full moon as we expected, but rather, they were–and would be–in a shadow created by the rising moon. At that point, we figured the effort wouldn’t be worth the payoff.

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We still spent about 30 minutes photographing McWay Falls, and got some reasonably neat shots of it. This shot looks almost like broad daylight, but actually, it’s a 176-second exposure. Before this, I actually took a 386-second exposure, but missed the manual focus in the dark. Lesson: always start with a few short test shots maxing out the ISO to make sure you nail the focus when shooting in the dark.

Bixby Bridge was the next stop, and by the time we arrived there, it was pushing 10 or 11 pm. I’m not exactly sure, as my camera’s clock was incorrectly set (pretty sure we didn’t arrive there at 1 pm, as it claims) for some reason.

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We likewise shot here for around 30 minutes, and I really like how the full moon illuminated the Bixby Bridge. I was able to get really close to the bridge on a hillside adjacent to the ocean.

It was a little unnerving at night with cars flying by and the ocean directly below me, but it seemed safe and I think in this case, the limited risk was well worth the reward.

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Following this stop is when things really got exciting: we headed to Santa Cruz and stopped at Burger King! If a visit to Burger King doesn’t get you excited, I don’t know what will. This was actually the nicest Burger King I have ever seen; it had a new, fluid design with a lounge type of look, televisions and lounge chairs all over, and a really clean look. We got some food and loitered here for around an hour, and I may or may not have taken a short nap in one of those comfy chairs. You know you’re really living the high life when you take a nap at a Burger King! 😉

This was the first time in a while that we had internet, so I scouted out a potential new location: Shark Fin Cove in Davenport. Normally, Bill does meticulous research (or works off his knowledge of the area), knows exactly where we should go, and I just sort of ride his coattails. In this case, I spontaneously suggested this location, and tried to figure out where it was based on suspect info I found via Google.

When we arrived at the location, we parked on the side of the road, and hiked out to where I was “sure” Shark Fin Cove was located. I think we walked about a mile before finally finding it. The things I had read indicated you could hike down to the cove, but after some conversation, we decided the hike would be pretty dangerous at night. Instead, we started photographing Shark Fin Cove, shooting for about 10 minutes before a lightbulb went off in my head. This wasn’t a cove and it didn’t look anything like what I had seen in the photos.

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Instead, I present to you, “Fake Shark Fin Cove.” It’s not really a cove, but it does look like a shark fin (maybe not from this perspective, but I swear it does). At that point we stopped shooting, wandering along the coast line trying to find real Shark Fin Cove, but we couldn’t locate it anywhere. After a while of wandering around aimlessly along the coast, I found a FourSquare post with directions to the real Shark Fin Cove.

By this point, we had walked past the car about a half mile in the other direction, and learned that Shark Fin Cove was still over a mile away. (At least we were heading in the right direction!) We decided to head back to the road and drive to a spot closer to Shark Fin Cove.

Once we drove a little farther, we saw what was pretty clearly the parking area for Shark Fin Cove, so we stopped and headed down. By this point, it was about 1 am. Beach access was still a little tricky here, but unlike at Fake Shark Fin Cove which was pretty much an ocean cliff, there were stairs here and rocks that provided a more gradual descent.

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From the beach, it was obvious we were finally in the right spot. This turned out to be a stunning location, and thanks to the tide being low, we were able to walk out to a sea cave that allowed for framing of the rock shark fin.

Well, it wasn’t quite this easy as we first tried walking over some stinky seaweed and other random ocean-stuff that our shoes quickly sunk into, but we found a much easier path after managing to get our feet wet.

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We spent around an hour down there, and there were tons of different angles and photo spots to try. It’s definitely on my list of places to revisit.

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When we finally headed back up to the car, we were greeted by two police cars who had pulled up behind Bill’s car. They approached us and began questioning us about meth use on the beach. I think this is probably as good of a spot as any to leave a cliffhanger for Part 2 of this report…

(Spoiler: we were not using meth on the beach, and we were not arrested for meth use. Remember, caffeine was our drug of choice on this trip!)

I know this installment was sort of boring in terms of the photos to text ratio, but hopefully as I get into a groove with these non-Disney trip reports, I can better document every excruciating detail of the trips. Because I know you all are dying to see photos of the inside of fancy Burger Kings.

Click here to read Pacific Coast Highway Trip Report – Part 2

For this trip along the Pacific Coast Highway, I carried my a Nikon D750Nikon D810Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 LensNikon 24-70mm f/2.8Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VRand Rokinon 12mm f/2.8 Fisheye, plus my MeFoto travel tripod, some other assorted junk, and tons of caffeine.

If you’re planning a California road trip or vacation, check out my California category of posts for other things to see and do. 

Your Thoughts…

Do ‘random location’ trip reports like this interest you? Have you visited any of these locations? Have you ever napped at a Burger King? Share your thoughts on this or anything else, or questions you have in the comments!

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24 replies
  1. Julie
    Julie says:

    Amazing photos! If I’d not read the text I would have assumed you were shooting these in broad daylight. We’ll be visiting Big Sur this spring break. We took a trip here about 7 years ago and now will be returning with all of the kids.

    Reply
  2. Amber
    Amber says:

    I hadn’t realized you guys moved to So Cal either…though that would explain all the In-N-Out photos, LOL. I grew up on the Monterey Peninsula so it was fun to click over here from the Disney blog and be met with (beautiful!) photos of Big Sur 🙂

    Reply
      • Amber
        Amber says:

        Thank you for the warning…at least now I know to brace myself for another bout of homesickness! There’s a lot of great photography to be had from off the beaten path (i.e., Hwy. 1) if you have the time and inclination to venture further onto the Peninsula. Carmel Valley (which is where I actually grew up) offers some stunners. Let me know if you’re interested in any suggestions 🙂

        Reply
  3. Melissa
    Melissa says:

    LOVE your trip reports!!! We did the Pacific Coast Highway in August, but we had to skip McWay Falls and Pfeiffer Beach because of the crowds (nowhere to park). Your photos are amazing and much better than the crappy ones I took (we were blessed with foggy days, so yeah…). This makes me want to do a return trip to the PCH and check these places out.

    And yes, I’d love to see pics of the inside of a Burger King!

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      Too bad about the crowds and fog. That’s one bad thing about the coast in the summer.

      We visited the Burger King again last week…but again, no pics. Another fun story to come, though!

      Reply
  4. Diana
    Diana says:

    Great photos and stories. We did the drive down the coast highway in the fall of 2013, but needless to say my photos are nowhere near as spectacular as yours. Bring on Part 2!

    Reply
  5. William McIntosh
    William McIntosh says:

    Love how these shots came out! The McWay Falls shots really do look like they were taken in the middle of the day. The selfie with the moon and the cave is incredible. Looking forward to Part II. Can’t wait to find out what happens next!

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      “Can’t wait to find out what happens next!” Ha…

      Going forward, I think I’m going to start making up stuff that you said or did, that way you really *will* have anticipation about what happens next!

      Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      I just meant it was boring in the sense that there aren’t a ton of photos like one of my typical trip reports. However, after giving it a few days, I think I’m liking the approach of only 10-15 photos per installment, rather than going crazy and including everything.

      Reply
  6. melios
    melios says:

    Gorgeous. These are the types of photos that make me want to book trips and take out my camera (though nyc a few weeks after the snow is mostly just gross…) . Really Nice report too, would love to see this type of report for some of the other destinations you’ve already featured on this site.

    Reply
  7. Sariah
    Sariah says:

    I love this! What a great idea! It’s really interesting so far. 🙂 I’d love to see more trip reports like this too.

    Thanks! 🙂

    Reply
  8. Jasmine
    Jasmine says:

    Wonderful trip report, so far! Beautiful photos, as usual.

    You said you live seven hours away from Big Sur. I didn’t know you moved to California (assuming you live in Southern California).

    Reply
  9. KCmike
    KCmike says:

    Must be the inner California Geek in me or my upcoming trip up and down the coast that has me saying “Hecks Yes” give me more of these kind of reports. This is seriously just as much fun/interesting as the Disney trips. Your photos are outstanding and I can’t believe that these are all night images. They seriously look like they are in the middle of the day. There is also so much crazy and funny things in the first installment. The guy trying to pay with a fake ring? The cops and meth on the beach saga? Glad to hear your gear didn’t fall into the drink.

    Mike

    Reply

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