A day after our trip to Mission San Antonio, the fingers of my right hand were sore from clutching the passenger side grab handle of a Honda Element.
Those white knuckle curves along Highway 1 — where a second of inattention can result in dramatic death — aren’t recommended for someone with a fear of heights. But, as a friend had promised, the road to the mission was indeed an epic day trip.
Given that we’re still in a recession, and gas prices are still more than three bucks a gallon, we figured many people would be more reluctant to take long trips this summer. Yet since we also live in a tourist destination with lots of hidden gems, we’ve decided to occasionally feature some fun mini-road trips over the next few months.
Most locals have at least traveled as far as Ragged Point on Highway 1. Considered the southernmost end of Big Sur, it’s the best place in the county for curvy, mountainous roads with spectacular ocean views. But few have actually driven through those mountains to the east. And even fewer have made it all the way to Mission San Antonio, the third of the 21 missions built in California.
So photographer Joe Johnston and I embarked on our own mission on a foggy morning around 8:30 a.m., hoping to make it back to San Luis Obispo by the end of the work day.
If you wanted to drive straight to the mission, by way of Highway 1, you could probably make it round-trip in, say, three hours. But, of course, this is your leisure time — so take time to smell the roses. (Or, in this case, the oaks.)
Even before you get to the big mountains, consider a brief stop to see the elephant seals on the beaches of Piedras Blancas in San Simeon. Right now the females are out to sea, but there were about 60 males lounging on the sand when we visited. While in San Simeon, you might just stop in the visitor’s center at the Hearst Castle. After all, the trip you’re going to make offers a lot of Hearst history.
As you head up to Ragged Point, you should take the time to stop at the little oasis that is home to the Ragged Point Inn. Here you can see the union of the mountains and ocean in all of its splendor. While we were there, a maintenance worker was fixing the stairway leading down the trail to the beach. While the trail was closed the last several times I was here, now you can walk all the way down – and the newly designed trail makes it easier to make the 400-foot ascent to the top.
A hair-raising road
After Ragged Point, we continued north, past Gorda, to Nacimiento Fergusson Road, located four miles south of Lucia. Due to its winding nature and forest setting, it’s a popular road for motorcyclists. But, as I mentioned earlier, it’s also a bit hair-raising. As you climb to nearly 4,000 feet (The biggest peak here is close to 6,000 feet), you quickly begin to notice the lack of guard rails. And while there are plenty of places to pull off to check the views, on most stretches, there’s no shoulder to the road, which means the only thing between you and a horrific fall is about three or four feet, depending on how much you hug the edge.
Of course, this road offers spectacular views, though at times I found myself unable to look, somehow thinking that if I leaned hard to the left, we would be more likely to stay on the road. With sweaty palms, I noticed that many trees near South Ridge Road were charred from that Big Sur fire a few years ago. Yet, the black branches provide a painterly contrast to the lush green that has grown in since the fires and the golden brown brush that marks summer in the mountains.
Around this point, the coastal fog gives way to inland heat. And — after about 20 minutes of nail biting curves — those sketchy cliff stretches give way to flatter ground. Now deep into the Santa Lucias, you’ll pass two heavily wooded campgrounds as you head toward Jolon and the Fort Hunter Liggett military base.
For thousands of years, the Salinan Indians were the only inhabitants here. But in 1771, the Spanish padres arrived to establish a mission and convert Native Americans. Nearly a century later, the gold rush brought more diversity to the area, prompting Jolon to grow. By the 1920s, the rush had ended, and William Randolph Hearst purchased massive amounts of land here, later selling 160,000 acres back to the government.
Mission San Antonio
Needing another training facility as World War II raged, the military established Fort Hunter Liggett, the base you’ll enter heading east. The base is quite large, so it takes a while to see any buildings. When you do, you’ll quickly spot the Hacienda, the Julia Morgan-designed lodge that was Hearst’s getaway from the Castle. Back in the day, stars like Clark Gable, Jean Harlowe, Spencer Tracy and Will Rogers stayed at the Hacienda, first constructed in 1929 and styled to match the nearby mission.
With limited time, we went straight to the mission, which was built in 1773. With its remote location and lack of people (There were only five other visitors the entire time we were there), it feels like a ghost town. But the mission is still in operation – as is evidenced by the lit candles inside the church. (There’s also a gift shop and two friendly cats.)
While the mission is not one of the best known in California, it does have two notable distinctions: The first marriage in California took place here in 1773, and the 500-pound bronze bell in the center niche was the first mission bell made in California.
When we arrived, a large turkey vulture was perched on the mission’s rooftop cross, offering a foreboding visual. But the mission itself is inviting.
After perusing the Padre’s Garden, we entered the church to find a “Special Prayer Requests Book.” Most visitors wrote prayers for children, the troops or friends. One parent wrote an interesting prayer seeking help for her son David, who “has followed after a false religion in India.”
After our visit to the mission, we considered the trip accomplished and continued east until we reached Highway 101, roughly 30 miles south of King City. The trip back wasn’t mountainous, but out of habit, I held on to that grab handle until we arrived in San Luis Obispo just before 5 p.m.
SLO Travels: This is the first in an occasional series about local scenic drives.