BIG SUR, Calif. — It’s easy to get distracted by the beautiful costal scenery and pass by the poorly marked locked gate at Point Sur, but if you join any one of the weekly tours, Jim Oswald or any other tour guide with the Central Coast Lighthouse Keepers group will open the gate and take you inside the Point Sur lighthouse.
“People come all the time that [say] they’ve driven by this for 30 years and never come up here,” said Oswald.
Built in 1889, the Point Sur lighthouse protected cargo and passenger ships from the rocky, shallow waters along the Monterey coastline. A large electric light rotates at the top of the lighthouse today, but in the beginning, lighthouse keepers had a much more primitive way of signaling ships.
“It’s started out as a wick -- five wicks -- and that’s why they called these guys 'wickies.' They would light that and trim it and make it a nice, bright light,” said Oswald. “You could see the flash of this light 23-and-a-half-miles, because that is where the horizon is.”
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Point Sur is one of the windiest lighthouses in California and despite the warning lights, several ships wrecked or ran aground in this area. The most notable wreck was not a boat, but a Navy airship: the USS Macon.
“Coming along the coast here in 1935, a gust of wind tore the tail and the helium escaped and it crashed here into the ocean,” said Oswald.
The lighthouse tour involves a fair amount of walking, which gives you an idea of what lighthouse keepers had to do on a daily basis. Their living quarters were simple, and before Highway 1 was built there was no electricity and the plumbing was primitive.
“Back in the day there was an outhouse here and everything just went into the ocean,” said Oswald.
The job of a lighthouse keeper was tough and lonely but extremely important. Ships still use lighthouse beacons today, but the Point Sur beacon no longer requires a keeper.
"This whole rock and all the buildings, everything, are now taken care of with this one solar panel and these LEDs,” said Oswald.
If you are interested in taking a tour of the Point Sur lighthouse, volunteers lead a three-hour walking tour on paved roads. The walking distance is less than a mile, which includes 61 steps.
Tours take place Saturdays at 10 a.m. and Wednesdays at 1 p.m. Meet along the west side of Highway 1 at the farm gate, 19 miles south of Rio Road in Carmel. Find more information here.
I hope to see you on the backroads! -John Bartell
MORE TO EXPLORE FROM BARTELL'S BACKOADS: The view is great but if you take the 313 steps down to the Point Reyes Lighthouse, the walk back up will have you gasping over more than the scenery and passing whale migration.