Big Sur Memories – Ranch Adventures

By Tim Ryan

The wave was a transparent green, shoulder high, and offshore winds holding up the face just enough for each of the surfers to get consistently sweet little barrels. One surfer wore just a wetsuit vest; the other guy just trunks. They shrivered in the 52-degree sea.

I saw these waves in Greg MacGillivary’s 1964, all California  film A Cool Wave of Color. (Admission $1.25 with MacGillivary doing live narration.)

The memory of those empty, playful tubes mesmerized and haunted me for years as I’m sure it did other surfers.


The filmmaker never revealed where the spot was. He simply called it “Paradise.” He told the audience that perfect, empty California waves still exist, but you just have to search for them.

It would be 15 years before I found that wave and only after I had relocated to California’s Central Coast. It would be a year before I had the place figured out on what type of swell, wind and tide conditions made it “Paradise”.

cad_andrewmolara DSCN2857

On my current 16-day journey from San Francisco to San Diego, I’d been talking about the place with my surfing buddy Steve, regaling him about those empty, playful tubes and the bone chilling offshores.

Big Sur Rivermouth is a fickle wave and the best swell direction is south. We’re here in April so the chances for that are slim.

BSR overview

Hiking out of Big Surf River mouth
Hiking out of Big Surf River mouth

Leaving Santa Cruz, we say aloha to the growing west-southwest swell and keep our fingers crossed that thee spot would show its beauty. We hurried by Moss Landing and the pounding shore break of Carmel Beach reaching Andrew Molera State Beach just before noon.

The mile-plus walk to the headland-protected beach greeted us with 2-foot ankle snappers. Shucks. Steve saw the potential, and after enjoying the scenery and quiet for 45 minutes we continued south under leaden skies and a brisk west wind hoping for surf. Sand Dollar Beach, 25 miles south, is overhead with few channels to escape so we called it a day. Instead,  I would bore Steve with my memories of living on the central Coast for six years.

I moved to Cambria from Los Angeles in 1978, excited about surfing new places with less crowds. It didn’t take long for me to discover several quality rideable waves between Morro Bay and Carmel to the north.

My now wife, Nancy, and I lived in a cozy, two bedroom cabin on a knoll with views of the ocean through the towering pine trees. I got work with a county road crew – well that lasted three days – lifeguarding at the Cambria Pines Lodge, then my first newspaper job at The Cambrian after I took photos of a drunk driver who had driven into – ironically – the town’s only liquor store.


Cambria cabin

Tim & Steve above in 1980 and below in 2014
Tim & Steve above in 1980 and below in 2014

When I wasn’t working I would usually set out mid morning with my dog to search for surf. South was always more crowded than north. I’d  hike over fields of tall grass, golden poppies, wild orchids, and around cypress pines  to wonderful beaches packed with giant driftwood, seals and the occasional foraging otter.

I loved the isolation, being alone with my thoughts, and, of course, having waves to myself.

I boasted to Steve, who was living in Southern California, about the untapped paradise I was enjoying. Finally, he visited me and I took him to one of my favorite seasonal spots: San Carpojo Creek in nearby Monterey County along Highway 1.


The peaky break is formed after heavy winter rains flow out of the canyon to form a near perfect sandbar and deep channels on both sides.  It could hold double overhead sized waves peeling in both directions. There was a head high west swell running so I prodded Steve that we would surf it.

The area is physically intimidating. High cliffs surround the beach except where the winding creek flows into the ocean. No houses are visible. The only sound is wind and crashing waves.

We paddled out in the rip and were quickly swept to where consistent overhead peaks thundered through. Just to the north  were the Big Sur’s sea cliffs towering a 1,000 foot.

It was classic morning glass, green and clean and a bit mean; steep takeoffs followed by zippy sections for 100 yards. And it was getting bigger.

“What’s that!” Steve asked, pointing a few hundred yards outside.

“A dead gray whale,” I said. “Sharks have been feeding on it for a few days.”

Then Steve’s eyes swept north along the sea cliffs where he spotted a waterfall a hundred-feet high cascading directly into the ocean. When two otters and a harbor seal  popped up between us, Steve yelled “What the….!”

“This isn’t Huntington Beach,” I said.

After an hour and several waves, Steve paddled to me: “This place is just too overwhelming. I’m going in.”

Honest sentiments from a good and smart surfer. By nightfall, the surf here would be in the 15-foot range. I failed to mention to him about the occasional great white shark cruising closer to shore for a meal. I  promised too find us a more subdued spot.

Back to reality of the now…

Now we were leaving Santa Cruz after getting reports that a swell was expected to hit the Santa Barbara coast within two days. We packed up as fast as we could.

As we approached Gaviota in northern Santa Barbara County, the primary entrance to the fabled Hollister Ranch surf,  memories of our stealthy Ranch surfing days became the primary topic of discussion.

The Ranch has some of the finest surf in California. It is also private and well guarded, not only by a security team but by residents who are fortunate enough to own parcels there. It’s nearly 15 miles of pristine coastline where the wind is consistently offshore. It’s dozens of point and reef breaks take northwest, west and south swells.

In the late 1960s, a real estate ad in Surfer magazine featured 100 acre parcels there for about $100,000. Here’s how sought after this property is. A popular singer recently purchased a one-twelfth share in a 100-acre parcel for $425,000.

Steve mentions our sneak-ins on foot into the Ranch in the late 1960s from the Jalama Beach side on the north, some six miles along  railroad tracks carrying surfboards, wetsuits and towels. So surf stoked on that first foray we walked out of Jalama Beach at 5 a.m. and neglected to bring water or food. We left well before sunrise.

“It was so foggy that when we got near a beach we couldn’t see a thing,” Steve recalls. “Then we heard waves close by and just headed in that direction and laid on the sand and slept until day light.”

Steve’s brother Dennis was with us. He was the first one awake sitting up staring toward the ocean. I was awakened by the sound of a single crashing wave. The fog hung 100 feet above the break.

Steve and his surfing buddy also were wakened by the sound.

“We couldn’t talk,” Steve said. “I couldn’t believe what we were seeing.”

A perfect, impossibly smooth, four-foot peak – morning glass – peeling flawlessly four 75 yards along the shale reef to a sandy beach. The wind was tickling offshore.

We moved so quickly too get out there it was as if someone had touched us with a cattle prod. Dennis caught the first wave knee paddling and I was next. Trimming and nose riding on long boards with no leashes; sharing waves, bonding  over surf and spills, adults giddy as children.

We surfed for nearly six hours then it was time to walk out with our gear. Sunburned, physically exhausted, hungry and thirsty.

“Remember my brother was so thirsty he drank water out of a cow trough,” Steve said.

“Yeah, he had to spread away the algae and hay floating on top.

We arrived back at the van at Jalama in darkness. The four of us sleeping impossibly soundly and happy.

In future trips to the Ranch, Steve and I – so tired of the walk – searched for another gate with a single lock rather than the several on the main Jalama gate.

The Bixby Ranch gate at Jalama Beach
The Bixby Ranch gate at Jalama Beach

We found a car-wide gate a mile inland with a single, commercial lock. We copied the serial number and when we got back to L.A. I had a locksmith make a duplicate key. A week later at 5 a.m. Steve and I stood at the “new” gate.  I held the key up in the moon light.

“For God’s sake see if it works,” Steve said.

I slid the key in the lock and turned it. Click! We were in.

The road was overgrown with tall grass and rocky. I essentially ordered the 17-year-old Steve to sit on the hood of my VW bug holding a flashlight out front since i didn’t want my headlights to attract attention.

“Yeah, it was down hill and I kept sliding off,” he said.

I wanted to get us on the main ranch road to Government Point as soon as possible.

“I remember hearing something big in the brush then saw this huge outline,” Steve said.

He leaned back against my windshield. I told him to keep the flashlight moving back and forth.

“There’s something out here,” he said.

“Don’t worry about it. You’re seeing things.”

“What I’m seeing is something big as this car.”

I locked my door just in case. When he scanned the grass in front of us with the light we both saw them.

“I nearly passed out,” Steve recalls.

About a dozen head of Angus cattle stood in our path staring back a few feet from the hood. They mooed in unison.

“Should I honk the horn,” I asked.

“Hell no, they may charge!” Steve yelled.

I eased the car toward the herd.

“Where the do you think you’re going!” he said.

The herd scattered, Steve survived, and and we surfed the perfect rights of Government Point alone for six hours before company arrived.


“How is it? It was legendary waterman Mike Doyle.

“Uh, perfect as usual,” I said.

Thirty minutes later eccentric and innovative surfer George Greenough paddled out on his spoon kneeboard. It was a great show.

Back to reality.

Approaching Santa Barbara, Steve suggests we drive up the Hollister Ranch road to the main guarded gate.

“I want to talk too the guy; he’s probably a surfer,” he says.

We pass through one open gate by a sign that says “Private property. No trespassing.”

There it is! Gateway to Nirvanna
There it is! Gateway to Nirvanna

Steve drops me off 75 yards from the main security gate so I can take photos of his “discussion” with the surfer guard.  Then he parks our garishly painted van 25 feet from the electronic gate.

Self explanatory
Self explanatory

He takes a slow, deliberate stroll toward the  sunglassed guard who steps out of his post, arms crossed on his chest. He’s not smiling and trying too stand tall.

Duel at noon at Hollister Ranch
Duel at noon at Hollister Ranch
Hi I'm Jimmy Buffett's buddy!
Hi I’m Jimmy Buffett’s buddy!
Steve charms the guard
Steve charms the guard

I don’t know what Steve or the guard are saying, but the guy keeps shaking his head. Steve talks to the guard for several minutes while the guy says little. Then Steve walks back to the van.

“We’re not getting in,” Steve laughs. “He also said you weren’t allowed to take photos. He’s heard all the stories before from guys who made the Ranch walk. All he said was ‘You do know you’re trespassing already?'”

“Gee, I was wondering about that,” Steve told the guard “Guess we should be leaving.”

California Street and Rincon here we come!