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How a family that wanted to get away from it all founded Big Sur

The search for peace and quiet led one family of homesteaders to settle a remote stretch of California coastline, and then they put Big Sur on the map.

BIG SUR, Calif. — A cabin away from it all is what you’ll find at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. The name Big Sur originates from the unexplored and un-mapped coastal wilderness south of Monterey. Spanish explorers called it El Sur Grande, which translates to “the Big South.”

“When people ask what is Big Sur, it is not one place or one thing. It’s 60 or 70 miles of coastline,” said park superintendent Marcos Ortega.

The first Europeans to permanently settle in Big Sur were Michael and Barbara Pfeiffer in 1869. They and their children were alone but built a series of cabins and began a secluded life of farming, beekeeping and logging.

“There were eight members of the Pfeiffer family, not all of them lived here,” said Ortega.

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By the turn of the century, John Pfeiffer’s simple one-room cabin became a landmark for travelers. He and his family helped others settle and explore the wilderness.

“It takes the right amount of resources and grit to stay out here,” said Ortega.

John and his wife Florence eventually opened Pfeiffer’s Ranch Resort on the site of today’s Big Sur Lodge. Nature was and still is the main attraction in Big Sur. Rugged seascapes and awe-inspiring waterfalls bring in people from all over the world.

“That is the beauty of the place. The wildness of the area. I hope it stays like this forever,” said Ortega.

To help preserve the area, Pfeiffer sold his 680-acre ranch to California State Parks in 1933. Bit by bit, the state purchased more land and named it after the Pfeiffer family including Pfeiffer Beach, Pfeiffer Ridge and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park which is home to the iconic McWay Falls. 

“If you can’t tell, this is a popular place to take a picture,” said Ortega.

The homestead cabin is a symbol of the Pfeiffers minimalistic way of life. The land in Big Sur is still very much untamed and that is the way the Pfeiffers wanted to keep it.

SEE MORE OF BIG SUR FROM THE BACKROADS: The Point Sur Lighthouse. Often unnoticed by those driving by, this lighthouse has one of the best coastal views in California, and you'll definitely get your steps in for the day.

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