Glen Oaks: A Weekend in the Big Sur Redwoods

Pampas grass along Pacific Coast Highway in Big Sur | Cedar + Surf
It was here in Big Sur where I first learned to say, ‘Amen.’
— Henry Miller

Into the Sur

There's a reason why the drive through Big Sur is on every list of "must do" US road trip adventures.  Each roadside pull-off rewards handsomely with vistas that truly take your breath away - the Santa Lucia mountains plunging dramatically into the sea, birds riding updrafts along the rocky cliff faces, and the powerful Pacific waves crashing ashore below.  I'm not exaggerating when I say that Big Sur is one of my favorite places on earth and if I could spend every weekend walking the shore, hiking the canyons, or nestled somewhere in the redwoods, I absolutely would.

This part of the coastline remains untouched, with minimal human interference except for the narrow two-lane highway that winds precariously along the coast.  Highly restrictive development plans have saved this area from human ambition - billboards and advertisements are prohibited and business signage must blend quietly into the surroundings. Though the roadside pull-offs are a generally a swarm of cars, campers, and people (especially in the summer - each year, Big Sur sees as many tourists as Yosemite, but with far fewer resources to accommodate) it's still possible to escape the masses with minimal effort.

Pacific Coast Highway in Big Sur | Cedar + Surf

I joke with Ryan that I lived in Big Sur in a past life and I’m only partially kidding because it definitely feels that way, or perhaps I’ve read too much Henry Miller. I think the reality is that the earthy scent of a damp forest floor, the smell of pine and cedar mixing with the marine layer, and the tranquility of unspoiled places remind me of my grandfather and our summers spent fishing in remote regions of Canada. I miss him and I feel like he’s closer somehow when I’m in a place I know he would love. I know he approves of this recent foray because he bought me my first camera and told a curious 10-year-old to “go take a walk in the woods,” happily paying to have my film (yes, film!) developed as I filled each roll.

Pacific coast in Big Sur, California | Cedar + Surf

Getting there

Generally recognized as the coastal region between the Carmel Highlands and San Simeon, the drive through Big Sur isn't for the faint of heart and this section of PCH has been closed almost 60 times due to landslides. We had just moved to California when the road reopened in July 2018 after a record 14 month closure that cut locals and tourists alike off from the southern part of Big Sur - the result of the largest landslide ever recorded there. The newly-built hillsides won't fully stabilize for two winters and are monitored with motion sensors that record potentially problematic movement (just in case the drive alone doesn't cause that cold palm sweat to develop...) 

On this trip, we drove up the coast the day after unusually heavy rainstorms (downpours serving as the first real "test" of the new road) and navigating around the boulders that washed into the roadway was a humbling reminder of how insignificant we are compared to the forces of nature surrounding us. Guardrails offer a sense of safety on parts of the road, but not all of it, and it was easy to understand how people mistakenly drive off of cliffs, particularly if driving at night or in bad weather (neither of which I’d recommend.)

Foggy marine layer in Big Sur, California | Cedar + Surf

Glen Oaks

Habitually tired introverts, we're always game to avoid crowds, so we planned a trip for Thanksgiving weekend, hoping that we'd have the place mostly to ourselves (wish granted!)  Our trips are usually people-free by design, and as any introvert who spends 50 hours a week talking to people will tell you - as much as we love interacting, a true recharge requires solitude. Give us cabins, books, and the sound of the breeze blowing through pine boughs - enter Glen Oaks

You’ll find Glen Oaks in Big Sur valley, about 20 miles south of the Carmel Highlands. The property spans both sides of Highway 1, a combination of 16 motor lodge rooms and several cottages on one side, with cozy cabins and the Big Sur Roadhouse restaurant on the other. We stayed in the secluded Big Sur Cabin, which is on the edge of the property nestled in a beautiful redwood grove along the Big Sur River.

The details

The Big Sur Cabin is about 20 yards from the river - so close that you can hear the water rushing over rocks from the front porch. Due to the highway proximity, I was a little concerned about the possibility of hearing traffic, but that wasn’t an issue at all. Conveniently, there are two fire pits - one in the front yard with a view of the river and one in the fenced-in backyard. It had rained quite a bit before our stay, so we appreciated the fire starter kit and dry supplies in each location. The claw foot tubs in the backyard sold us on this particular cabin, though any stay at Glen Oaks would be relaxing and enjoyable. The Little Sur cabins looked especially cozy and had an equally peaceful spot in the redwoods near the river.

Antler chandelier - Big Sur Cabin at Glen Oaks | Cedar + Surf

The gas-fired cast iron stove and heated floors were perfect for a chilly November stay, but note that, like most places in Big Sur, there is no AC. Personally, I don’t think this would be an issue given that this area doesn’t get extremely hot and you’re tucked into a shaded redwood grove by a river, so I wouldn’t factor that into a decision to stay or not stay. The lack of a television is always something we appreciate. I rarely turn the TV on when we’re away somewhere, but it’s really nice when there just… isn’t one. There is WiFi, which was useful given that Big Sur has virtually no cell phone service, but it would be quite easy to completely unplug if you wanted to. I was reading Michelle Obama’s Becoming on this trip, and, in it, she described her and Barack’s road trip honeymoon… through Big Sur. Relatable #couplegoals, as always.

Big Sur Cabin Claw Foot Tub | Cedar + Surf

Attention to detail made a romantic getaway even more enjoyable and we appreciated thoughtful touches like Adirondack chairs along the river bank, a s’mores kit for the fire pit, and complimentary local wine. The entire property screams, “dreamy wedding venue” so I had to see what like-minded ladies did just that. Of course we love a great elopement and this wedding in the forest was ethereal. Never underestimate the creativity a few bottles of wine can foster, as the Cialis commercial reenactment now hanging in our bathroom reminds us:

Claw Foot Tub - Big Sur Cabin at Glen Oaks | Cedar + Surf
Big Sur Cabin at Glen Oaks | Cedar + Surf
Big Sur Cabin at Glen Oaks | Cedar + Surf

Shown below: A worried Ellie at threat level orange. She stereotypically hates baths and fails to comprehend why anyone would ever willingly submerge themselves in water. I usually have a very worried audience pacing circles around the tub and staring at me until I safely “escape” the water-filled portal to hell.

Big Sur Roadhouse

If you’re staying at Glen Oaks, I’d definitely recommend stopping at the Big Sur Roadhouse for breakfast, where they serve complimentary homemade donuts and coffee for guests each morning. Since that wasn’t enough for us as a pre-hike breakfast, we ordered a full meal complete with mimosas and enjoyed the cozy fireplace and board games while we waited. Try the maple butter breakfast sandwich or the French toast, but note that they only serve breakfast and lunch.

Planning Tips

You’ll need to plan ahead if you’re trying to stay in Big Sur. The lack of development means very limited accommodations and the most popular options are often fully booked 6-8+ months in advance, especially in the summer. We booked a Thanksgiving weekend trip in July and, even in the off-season, I didn’t exactly have my choice of dates. Big Sur is known for being pricey with everything from food to lodging, but Glen Oaks is on the lower end of the spectrum (far less than neighboring Post Ranch Inn or Ventana.) If you’re coming to the area and can’t find lodging in Big Sur, I’d recommend staying in San Simeon, Cambria, or even San Luis Obispo, all of which are beautiful and easier on the wallet. If you’re heading north, a stay in the wine country of Carmel Valley would be ideal, though this area isn’t known for being particularly budget-friendly either.

Big Sur from above

Truth be told, I’m still working on getting my drone footage to a point where it’s actually worth watching. Flying it smoothly through coastal winds and panning around in a manner that doesn’t make you nauseous is more challenging than I realized (for some reason, this is much easier for Ryan, I think because the iPhone/drone remote combination mimics a video game controller and my last experience in this realm was SNES in 1993), so I have some practicing to do before I swap this video out with ours. I honestly haven’t even downloaded the footage from our last few trips, so I’ll leave an aspirational placeholder of much higher quality:

As seen...

Me: fleece, denim, hat

Ellie: leash, collar, tags, travel carrier

Accessories: blanket, backpack

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Where to stay in Big Sur: Glen Oaks Big Sur | Cedar + Surf