Big Sur, California

The California coast is full of beautiful spots, but Big Sur is like nothing I've ever seen before. It's set right on the coast in the Los Padres National Forest, just south of Monterey and Carmel and north of the San Caporforo Creek and San Simeon. What makes this place so magical is that the Santa Lucia mountains seem to emerge straight up from the beach, creating incredible views.

In fact, Cone Peak pops up right off the coast, soaring a mile above sea level. We even learned that it's the highest coastal mountain in the contiguous United States. Not many people live in this area, but it is popular with artists and painters. Because it's in a national forest, Big Sur is easy to explore. Steve and I just parked our RV at a trail head and set out to explore the coastline on foot We wandered through pinyon juniper forests, golden grasslands, and into some thick stands of redwoods. It was just stunning!

This is one of the few places in the world where you can see the endangered California condors. I told Steve when we first arrived that I wouldn't leave without seeing one. That's the beauty of traveling by RV, I said -- you can make snap decisions if you want, or just get stubborn and decide not to leave a place until you're good and ready. Steve looked like he wanted to quibble until he heard that this is also known as a great fishing spot. That brought him around like no argument from me ever could!

February also turns out to be prime time to watch for California gray whales as they migrate up the coast from Mexico to Alaska. So we decided on a compromise. Every other day we'd do what I wanted, which was to hike in the Los Padres mountains and on the coast, watching for condors and gray whales. And every opposite day we'd go fishing. I actually don't mind fishing too much and would be happy to do it most days, but that's a secret -- don't tell Steve.

On the first day I got my pick, I packed up my fishing gear and got Sally to come with me down to the coast, so I could try coast fishing. I can't say I had much luck, but then I don't have a lot of experience casting into the ocean. At least the views were pretty, and Sally packed us a great lunch.

And we saw a gray whale, which was pretty exciting. It was breaching -- rising up out of the ocean and flopping back down in a huge spray -- a couple of hundred feet off the coast. We didn't even have time to get out the binoculars, it was that quick. We both saw it, though, and it gave me goose-bumps, it was that neat. Sally was just beside herself and couldn't stop talking about how she was going to email everyone we knew as soon as we got to a campground with wi-fi.

We took a hike into the mountains the next day, and when it was my turn again, I chose to try fishing on Salmon Creek, one of the smaller waterways in the Los Padres Forest. I have a lot more experience with streams, so it's not surprising that my fishing day went a lot better. Still, I was pretty gratified to come home with two nice, fat trout. Sally and cooked them up for dinner with slices of lemon -- my favorite.

The next day, we took a day off our alternating-day plan and spent some time exploring the small towns in Big Sur. There are three: Big Sur, in the Big Sur River valley, Lucia, near Limekiln State park, and Gorda, on the southern coast. We had a great time driving from town to town, stopping at the view points in between to admire the sight of the ocean crashing over the base of the mountains. Like Sally said, here it's like the mountains are standing with their feet in the water, wiggling their toes.

After about a week more of alternating days, it finally happened. We were climbing up one of the San Pandre hills when I saw Sally look up and heard her suck in her breath. She didn't say anything, just pointed. The condor looked huge, soaring above us. It had a massive wing-span and its feathers were spread at the tips, the way an eagle's feathers are, only it was all black. We learned later that a nesting pair was spotted last year in Big Sur -- the first nesting condors to be seen here in more than a hundred years. I felt awfully special to be sharing the same air space with one, if even just for that moment. They're rare animals, and there truly is something majestic about them.
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