Riding California's Central Coast

Exploring Big Sur
  |  Gorp.com
Wrack and debris on the beach at Big Sur.
Where sea meets land

Riding at Big Sur is a real"feel good" experience for a variety of reasons. It's impossible not to fall in love with the land: meadows, redwood forests, clear streams, breathtaking beach. The guides are knowledgeable about the area, quick to point out and identify distinctive birds and plants, and well-versed in local folklore. And the animals themselves all would have stories to tell if they could. All have been rescued from deprived or abusive situations, and are rented out half the year to riders at Andrew Molera State Park. Because the horses all have hard-luck backgrounds, they're somewhat more idiosyncratic than most school or rental horses. For example, they're very picky about the company they keep. Our guide lined us up according to how the horses get along with one another. One of the stable hands advised me to keep my mount away from a lively little gelding, unless I wanted to take a "five-ticket ride." Before we started out, we were warned not to let our horses get too close or crowd one another, because they'd get territorial and start kicking. In spite of the warnings, or maybe because we heeded them, the horses were well-behaved and our ride was uneventful in the manners department.

It was a little foggy when we left the ranch, but it quickly burned off in the early afternoon sun. We crossed a wildflower-covered meadow, then entered a forest full of huge redwoods. One of the largest trees, about 1,800 years old, had recently been struck by lightning, but nevertheless it had survived and was showing a little bit of new growth. Another redwood, not nearly as large, grew straight and tall from the center of a huge split boulder. The forest was alive with wildlife: hawks soared overhead, hummingbirds buzzed around us, black-tail deer paused to look us over and then took off. The Big Sur River crisscrosses the woods and we crossed it in several places. For the most part, the horses weren't extremely lively, but they could be coaxed to trot. They knew the trail well and didn't show much interest in varying from the routine.

The stretch of beach we rode along is remarkably beautiful, sandwiched between the ocean and a fresh-water lagoon that is the end of the Big Sur River. There are many rock formations just offshore, with roaring waves breaking over them. This is a good spot for otter sightings, and we were lucky enough to see several, lying on their backs, riding the waves. The beach is loaded with driftwood, including giant branches and whole trees. Though this beach had been thoroughly cleaned a few years ago, these huge new driftwood deposits are courtesy of El Niqo.

On the way back to the ranch, we passed the site of the original Molera farm buildings. After more than 100 years, all that remains is the barn's foundation. Our guide told us that this is the site where Monterey Jack cheese was invented. Apparently, one of the Molera farmworkers (named Jack) had too much to drink one night when he was making cheddar cheese, and he skipped one of the essential steps. Rather than throw away a whole batch of cheese, the farmer decided to sell it labeled with the offender's name, so if anyone was unhappy with it, they'd know where to fix the blame. It turned out to be not such a bad mistake after all, and Jack got quite a bit of attention as the inventor of a tasty new kind of cheese. The terrain varied from meadow to mountain to beach, giving us an opportunity to experience several kinds of riding conditions. The two-hour ride covered a lot of beautiful land, and it was all the more interesting due to our well-informed guide.

Essentials: Andrew Molera State Park (831-667-2315) is in Big Sur, 22 miles south of Carmel. Take Route One to the state park entrance, make a right into the park, then a left at the stable gate. Molera Horseback Tours, (831-625-5486 or 800-942-5486) offers five scheduled rides daily, from one hour ($25) to two-and-a-half hours ($59) long; private rides cost $36 per hour, per rider. Although no riding experience is required, riders must be at least six years old; no one over 250 pounds will be accommodated. Loaner helmets are available. There is a lot of meadow riding, so bring sunblock and a hat. A sweatshirt or jacket will come in handy for the beach portion of the ride.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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