PFEIFFER BEACH is one of the most beautiful stretches of sand in Northern California — but getting there isn’t easy. It lies just off Highway 1 in Big Sur, a rugged and isolated stretch of coastline 150 miles south of San Francisco. Even once you’ve located the unmarked road leading down to the beach, as I do on a drizzly Saturday in December, you need to be prepared for the unexpected. Specifically: One and a half miles ahead, I encounter a white placard marked “Hazardous River Crossing.” Just behind it, the road dips. During drier months, the topographical change may not mean much, but today the roadway is interrupted by a 20-foot-wide swift-moving stream, its depth unknown.
I consider gunning the engine of my rented Chevy and driving on through, Dukes of Hazzard style. Up ahead, though, I see a more prudent couple have parked their car and removed their shoes to ford the stream. (Apparently chivalry isn’t dead: The boyfriend piggybacks the girlfriend across.) I follow their lead, parking, de-shoeing, and crossing the knee-deep rivulet. Up ahead, past the parking lot, I reach the beach. The sand is a luminescent purple, the color drawn out of the rocky cliffs above. Tangles of thick, ropy seaweed dot the beach. It’s too cool to swim, and this area has notorious riptides, so I walk north, enjoying the sound of the surf and a break in the rain.