Big Sur's hazy forecast: Fall is the best time to visit

Scorched by wildfires, the famous Cali. coastline still lures fall visitors.

BIG SUR, Calif. -- Tucked into a steep redwood hollow and cobbled from local lumber by a Norwegian immigrant in the 1930s, Deetjen's Big Sur Inn has welcomed coastal wayfarers from Jack Kerouac to Robert Redford on its own, take-it-or-leave-it terms: No phones, TVs or room keys, and walls so thin "your neighbors can almost hear you breathe."

But two months after a massive Big Sur wildfire closed Highway 1 during the peak of the tourist season and snaked through the Santa Lucia Mountains to within 15 feet of Deetjen's historic cabins, it's clear that nature is calling the shots here.

Peering up at singed hillsides still off-limits to hikers, Deetjen's general manager Torrey Waag points to sandbags, retaining walls and "erosion control blankets" his staff has marshaled to help mitigate damage from winter rains looming on the horizon.

"The worst-case scenario? We get a wall of debris coming down the canyon," says Waag, who will close off at least one cabin this winter as a precaution.

"It's scary … but if it happens, it will happen whether I worry about it or not."

A cycle of disaster and recovery has always defined the staggeringly scenic landscape that bohemian author and frequent Deetjen's patron Henry Miller described as "forbidding to the man of the pavements … inviting, but hard to conquer."

Stretching roughly 90 miles between Carmel and San Simeon, Big Sur's boulder-strewn coastline, operatic winter weather and punishingly steep terrain discouraged all but the hardiest settlers. The area's lifeline, Highway 1, wasn't built until 1937. Electricity didn't arrive until the late 1940s. Telephone party lines lasted into the 1970s, and cellphone coverage is spotty at best.

Traffic along Highway 1, a two-lane roller coaster that draws about 3 million visitors a year, is disrupted by rock and mudslides so regularly during the rainy season that "it's not if the road will close during the winter. It's when, where and for how long," says 25-year resident Kate Novoa. El Niño-related washouts closed the highway for 10 weeks in 1998, and for 14 months in 1983 and 1984.

For now, though, as summer fog gives way to a long stretch of what locals say is the best weather of the year, Big Sur remains far more inviting than forbidding.

The lightning-sparked Basin Complex blaze, which started June 21, was among more than 1,500 to scorch the Golden State so far this season and one of the largest to threaten Big Sur's tourism infrastructure in the past century. It hopscotched across more than 250 square miles of the surrounding Los Padres National Forest, prompting mandatory evacuations, destroying 26 homes and advancing to the eastern edge of Highway 1 in several areas.

But no hotels, restaurants or other businesses burned, and Big Sur's besotted tourists — nearly half of which are foreign this year — returned in force as soon as the highway reopened in mid-July.

Writer Laura Elliott, whose husband is project manager of an $18 million renovation at one of Big Sur's most famous lodgings, the Ventana Inn & Spa, was one of several residents to chronicle the fire and its aftermath. And, like her fellow bloggers, she fielded a stream of concerned e-mail from past visitors. (Wildfire damage at Ventana was limited to landscaping. But a later, unrelated structural fire destroyed the resort's Cielo restaurant, which won't reopen until next spring.)

"Big Sur isn't just a place. It's a personality," Elliott says. "And it connects with people in a way that's different from other destinations."

For backpackers who come here to explore the mountains and canyons east of Highway 1, that connection has been temporarily severed.

At Big Sur Station, an information center for the area's state parks and Los Padres National Forest, laminated photos of blackened oaks and mangled walkways provide graphic evidence of the fire's reach. The backcountry's burned areas will likely remain closed to visitors until next spring, along with such popular day hikes as Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park's Pfeiffer Falls, Oak Grove and Valley View trails.

But while the chaparral-covered hills above the entrance to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park look as if they have been scraped and dusted with dark chocolate, the park's iconic attraction, McWay Falls, remains as postcard-worthy as ever as it tumbles 80 feet over a seaside cliff.

So, too, does the view down the coast from Nepenthe — where third-generation owner Kirk Gafill, who had watched more than $600,000 in lost business go up in the flames that danced along nearby ridgelines, is once again dispensing juicy Ambrosia Burgers.

At Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur's most scenic and easily accessible strands, toddlers still splash through fog-shrouded tide pools as surfers brave the swells offshore.

And at the Esalen Institute, a New Age landmark where clothing-optional mineral baths have replaced those washed away by torrential winter rains a decade ago, recent retreat guest Jake Pass was so riveted by vistas of the Pacific during his drive down from San Francisco that he "never even noticed or thought about the fire."

He would if he had hiked with local tour guide Stephen Copeland, ankle deep in white ash a few hundred yards off Highway 1 near Andrew Molera State Park.

"It's a shocker today, but this was one of the most beautiful, magical places on the planet," Copeland says, standing amid a ring of charred redwoods that had served as a popular wedding chapel before the Basin Complex blaze left its mark.

And, he says, it will be again.

Wild irises and redwood sorrel are already poking through the ash, and whiffs of California sage — a pungent, intoxicating cross between Vicks VapoRub and maple syrup — have supplanted the smell of smoke.

Yes, if heavy rains turn hillside ash to mud this winter, the resulting mess "could peel up Highway 1 like a Band-Aid," Copeland says.

But "two years from today," he continues, "you'd never know we'd had a fire."