Photographing Big Sur's Portal Rock


Tucked away in the heart of Big Sur is Pfeiffer State Beach, home of a unique rock formation that sits just off the beach. I've heard it called "Portal Rock" and "Keyhole Rock." Whatever its name, for a few days each winter the setting sun comes streaming through the  portal for just a few minutes during the winter solstice in December, attracting photographers from all over the country.

The road to Pfeiffer Beach can be tricky to find: during my visits there was no sign on Highway 1, only a small yellow sign indicating a turnoff at mile marker 45.62. You'll make a sharp turn off the highway onto Sycamore Canyon Road and in about a quarter mile you will come to a sign that says “Pfeiffer State Beach Two Miles.” Continue and pay your fee at the park entrance. There are restrooms and a path leads from the parking lot down to the beach. Once on the beach, stay to the right of the creek and you'll see the arches. The large arch on the right is the most frequently photographed; the smaller arch can also be a good subject.

I arrived at the beach about an hour before sunset. There were a few visitors walking the beach, but photographers were already gathering so I staked my claim to a few square feet of sand and set up my tripod. It was chilly and by the time the sun set there were about 30 photographers standing tripod-to-tripod. A few interlopers tried to crowd in; glares from their neighbors generally resolved the problem.

This was also the evening of a king tide, which came rushing it at the same time as the breeze picked up and the sun went down. Before I realized what was happening, I was up to my ankles in cold seawater. The Pacific Ocean is chilly in December, but nobody moved.

Finally, the light was gone and everyone packed up and headed back to their cars, where I shook an acre of wet sand out of my boots. I spent the night in the rustic, but pleasant Fernwood Resort. There aren't many lodging options in Big Sur. Fernwood is a reasonably priced property with a tavern (Redwood Grill), motel, cabins, general store, and campsites. I stayed in a motel room which lacked a TV and internet, although I was able to pick up the wifi signal from the tavern, so I watched a movie. After a sumptuous dinner from the Redwood Grill, where I'd eaten several times before, I packed it in for the night. Very nice people and I highly recommend it.

If you can arrange to be here for the winter solstice, this is a worthwhile side trip from the Monterey area. A tripod and cable release are highly recommended. I shot at ISO 800; with the sun going down the light disappears quickly. Check the tide table: I was expecting the king tide, and if you're shooting at or near high tide, you may find yourself with wet feet if you move in closely.

But, it will be worth it.