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It was early evening by the time we left Hearst Castle. We stopped a few miles north of San Simeon to check out the elephant seals that reliably make their home on one small, rocky section of California’s shoreline, and then headed further north towards Big Sur.


Driving Highway 1 was on our list of California must-dos, but the light at the end of the day was terrible, with the sun setting right in front of us as we drove northwest along the coast. Not only did it make it nearly impossible to appreciate Big Sur’s jagged beauty, but it also made driving extremely difficult. We stopped for pictures once or twice and then got down to the business of finding lodging for the night.


We had gotten a recommendation on a campsite, but as we made our way north of Cambria we began to suspect that we would be out of luck. We passed several campgrounds that were full before arriving at the one that had been recommended to us, which was also full. In planning our road trip, we had made bookings in chronological order and ran out of time before we got this far into the trip. We had only planned to spend one night in Big Sur and thought we could wing it. We did not account for the fact that the night in question was the Thursday before Memorial Day — Big Sur was overflowing with tourists.


One thing we had had the forethought to book was a nighttime visit to the Esalen Institute. Located about halfway between Carmel and Cambria, Esalen is a hippy retreat with some of the most scenically located hot springs one can imagine. Guests at Esalen, who come for massage classes, yoga retreats, or in search of a secluded sanctuary to practice meditation, must stay at least a week. However, every night Esalen opens its doors to twenty visitors, who are allowed to use the hot springs between 1-3am.

Death Valley was expensive, but it made sense that the few places to eat, fill up on gas, and spend the night in the middle of a desert would be a bit overpriced. We had not been expecting Big Sur’s price inflation and our jaw dropped at the gas station in Gorda, where gas was a few cents shy of $7/gallon. Lodging was equally pricy, with the handful of rooms that were still available costing several hundred dollars per night.

We finally did find a campground with open spots — it was at Big Sur’s northern end, almost an hour’s drive from the hot springs, and charged $50 for the privilege of erecting one’s tent. Considering the fact that we’d be spending half the night at Esalen, we decided it wasn’t worth it, especially since staying there would mean driving the length of Big Sur four more times. Instead, we had a late dinner, sipped some hot cocoa, and after killing a couple of hours drove back to Esalen to await our turn to go night bathing.


A few minutes before 1am, a golf cart ascended the steep hill that led down to the Esalen Institute. We got out of the car and joined a throng of people shivering in the nighttime cold while the Esalen employee went over the Institute’s guidelines: bathing was clothing optional; there were two options – the “quiet” hot springs outside and the “silent” ones inside; visitors must be mindful and respectful of Esalen’s guests, some of whom we saw sitting around a campfire as we made our way down to the pools.

The cold air, hot water, and roaring ocean, which crashed melodiously into the cliffs, made for a pleasant couple of hours. The hot springs are set on a rock shelf several hundred feet up a cliffside and we were fortunate to have a nearly full moon illuminating the ocean. The setting is the reason that visitors brave the late hour and sacrifice sleep to bathe at Esalen, so pretty much everyone chose the outdoor “quiet” pools. There are several individual tubs — porcelain bathtubs that had been dragged out to the cliff and which could be filled with the thermal waters — and a couple of large pools. We piled in to escape the frigid night air, pulled the plug to drain some of the more tepid water, and refilled the tub with hot, thermal water, which had a healthy smell of sulphur to it.


We were the last ones out, and it was past 3:30am by the time we washed off and got back to our car. Instead of driving back to the campground, we found a quiet spot a mile or two north of the Institute, flipped back our seats, got out our sleeping bags, and caught a few hours of shuteye in the car before waking up with the sun to explore Big Sur.

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