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Big Sur Adventures: Tin House / Tan Bark Trail Hike

Posted Sep 14 2011 12:00am

Two brief announcements before today’s post …

1) You’ve still got time to sign up for the Barefoot Ken Bob book giveaway contest , with the winner announced on Saturday.

2) If you’re a fan of Sugoi apparel – I’ve reviewed their products in the past, and always been impressed - there’s a flash sale at The Clymb  you should definitely check out. From now until Sept 19th at 9AM PDT, you can save up to 55% on some sweet Sugoi running and cycling performance apparel. Go check out the sale , then come back here for an escape into the redwoods.


“Huggin' and a kissin', dancin' and a lovin' -
Wearin' next to nothing ‘cause it's hot as an oven -
The whole shack shimmies!

Funky little shack! Funk-y little shack … ”

- The B-52’s, “Love Shack” (video after post)

Although it’s just a short drive down the road from us, sometimes Big Sur seems like an entire world away.

Its shady redwood forests and abundant streams stand in contrast to the open hillsides and dry landscape of the Monterey Peninsula just a few miles (OK, more like 25) to the north. Its rustic cabins and tranquil isolation are a marked change from posh Carmel or Pebble Beach estates and the constant influx of tourist traffic further up the road.

In other words, it makes for a wonderful place to escape. However, in recent years the quiet beauty of Big Sur has been even more secluded than usual, as huge portions of this area were ravaged by wildfires in 2008. Nearly all of Big Sur’s hiking trails were closed that summer, and remained off-limits to the public until select portions were re-opened just a couple of months ago.

(As usual, click any photo to enlarge)

Last weekend, with the school year in swing and the everyday hassles of life creeping up on us, the timing seemed right for a temporary escape – so headed down the coast to one of Big Sur’s most distinctive trail destinations. We parked at a pullout on the side of the road, took in the rugged coastline for a few minutes, and made our way into the hills.

Our route would follow the Tan Bark Trail, named for … well, more about that in a minute. In the meantime, see those grownups in the picture? That would be Grandma and Grandpa, who we always welcome on outings like this - because if there’s one thing cooler than a beautiful hike with the kids, it’s a beautiful hike with three generations of family.

Grandpa’s an especially interesting resource to have along, because he has a wealth of information about Monterey County history, having lived here virtually his whole life. He also happens to be a contractor – so he can take in a beautiful scene like the one above, and say things like, “Hey, that’s a relay box on the ground! Someone’s running electricity out here!” I know – I didn’t see it at first, either.

This wasn’t an easy geriatric hike, however; the trail quickly climbs upward along Partington Creek …

… and up some steep switchbacks to gain about 1800’ over the course of three miles through the forest …

… not to mention through the fog, a Big Sur staple that lays as heavy as a wet blanket over the surroundings …

… giving everyday scenes like a cluster of redwoods a quality that is equal parts totally cool and distinctively eerie.

Here’s a trail lesson from Grandpa: this is a tan oak tree, which was frequently harvested for – you guessed it – tan bark, the namesake of this trail. Huge amounts of bark were taken from this area and loaded onto boats in the cove at the bottom of the hill (also at the end of this post) for distribution to San Francisco, and from there, to all over the world. The bark is used by leather manufacturers for tanning hides, and during the late 19th and early 20th centuries this was one of the biggest material industries on the California coast. Today tan bark is also used for playground mulch – or if you’re like our family, you can just use the trail as your playground and leave the bark on the trees.

(And sure, I could have just looked all that information up on Wikipedia –but there’s no WiFi in these canyons. All things considered, that’s probably a good thing.)

Onward and upward, the sun was finally starting to pierce through the fog – either that, or it was the Rapture. We could have been convinced of either one.

This sparse assortment of rocks is actually an old settlement called Swiss Camp that was inhabited in the 1920s. By this point, you’ve done pretty much all your climbing …

… and soon come across a sign pointing you towards the Tin House, where things really get interesting.

Before visiting the house, however, it’s never a bad idea to take in the view – even if most of that view is obscured by the thick fog you just climbed through.

A short distance down the fire road, the Tin House becomes visible in the thicket …

… that has overgrown the house on most of three sides.

One side of the house is still cleared, however, so you can hop up onto the patio …

… and head over to the open door frame in front …

… and venture into the remnants of an ambitious project gone horribly wrong.

The local legend goes something like this: the Tin House was constructed in 1944 by Lathrop Brown, a former Congressman from New York who purchased large parcels of Big Sur land in the 1920s. He and his wife built one house on a nearby river, and later wanted a second residence that was situated above the omnipresent layer of fog. Building materials were in short supply due to the war, so the Browns used tin sheeting from local gas stations for the exterior, while furnishing the interior quite lavishly.

Once the house was completed, the Browns moved in and made two very disturbing discoveries: 1) an all-metal house gets as hot as an oven during the day, and 2) when the tin cools off and shrinks, it makes a horrible crinkling sound that kept them awake all night long. The couple lived in the house for all of one day and night before packing their belongings and moving out, never to return.

Obviously, tin doesn’t age very gracefully, either, as the structure has been ravaged by the elements over the ensuing years. However, if you’re careful, you can still tiptoe around the crumbling metal and broken glass and tangled plumbing and stray electrical lines to explore what was once a spacious, beautiful home.

Grandpa came in handy here as well, explaining how rooms such as this kitchen were probably laid out …

… and appreciating the craftsmanship of a side-staggered chimney standing defiantly against the wreckage. He appreciates good work when he sees it …

… and was probably thinking about how this place could probably be fixed up as a fun project sometime. Fortunately, he’s got enough at home to keep him busy.

After exploring the home for a while, we headed back through the ghostly living room …

… and sat on the patio to enjoy a lunch with a view. You can see why this spot would appeal to someone looking to settle down off the beaten path, if it weren’t for that whole “furnace during the day, noisy during the night” thing.

Quick footwear note: shoes for this hike were Vibram’s FiveFIngers KomodoSport LS, which I’ll be reviewing here … tomorrow! If you can’t wait that long, here’s the short version: they’re awesome. (But really, you should come back tomorrow.)

Once our legs were rested and our bellies were full, it was time to bid the funky little shack farewell and make our way down the hill – this time on the eponymous Tin House trail, which is mostly a wide fire road that descends from open vistas …

… through the cover of redwoods …

… and finally back into the looming fog of the Big Sur coastline. It’s hard to gauge your elevation on a trail like this, but as you get closer to the bottom …

… you start getting glimpses of the rocky shore, and know you must be getting near sea level.

The trail bottoms out at Highway 1 about three-quarters of a mile south of where we started, so making a loop requires a walk back along the roadway, which is thankfully almost all downhill.

When you return to the Tan Bark trailhead, there’s a bonus option of following the trail another mile downhill to water’s edge at Partington Cove, and taking a side trail through a tunnel and across a small footbridge to the landing dock where countless boats came to be loaded up with bark.

With tired little legs, we called it a day at this point – but the nice thing about being so close to this faraway world is the possibility of returning here another time to do some more exploring.


And of course, the most obvious line that I omitted from the intro song which pertains to our destination: Tiiiiin roof! Rusted.

The B-52’s, “Love Shack” (click to play)

*See other photo tours under tab at top of page.

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