The Henry Miller Memorial Library is one of Big Sur’s top rated attractions


The Henry Miller Memorial Library is a book lover’s dream. | Photo by Nick Hilden

The Henry Miller Memorial Library is a book lover’s dream. | Photo by Nick Hilden

I descend the 101 two and a half hours south of San Francisco, through the farmlands of Salinas, past the dunes of Monterey, and along a bluff that offers stunning views of the Pacific, which is lucky, as this portion coast is often hidden by mysterious mists. I pass over a series of beautifully arched bridges before the road takes me into a forest, shaded by giant sequoias.

This is where the Big Sur region begins: a handful of guesthouses, restaurants, and campgrounds you’ll miss if you blink. The Lilliputian town of Big Sur is characterized by its bohemian, off-the-beaten-path vibe that peaks when you reach a peculiar wooden house surrounded by trees in a shady ravine just south of town.

Books hang from the eaves. They are glued to the walls, arranged on tables on the wraparound deck, and even hung from the branches of a tree growing in the middle of the porch. This is the Henry Miller Library. Simply put, it’s the mecca for book aficionados.

Books hanging in the Henry Miller Library
Henry Miller’s old living room has been transformed into a bookstore. | Flickr / Kent Kanouse

The American writer Henry Miller lived in this house for several years in the late 1940s. Today it operates mainly as a bookstore, located in the old living room. The collection of course includes everything from Miller and most of the works of Anais Nin (with whom Miller and his wife had a complicated and hot relationship). You’ll also find books by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Virginia Wolfe, Haruki Murakami, Ernest Hemingway, Alan Ginsberg, Emily Dickenson, James Baldwin, and many more.

The library also acts as a non-profit association to support artists from all walks of life, offering a workshop and performance space with regular events. There are short film screenings, story contests, author readings, live music performances, and even the occasional outdoor dining. The path to the bookstore (lined with a handful of artwork) takes you through a stage that has hosted the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Flaming Lips, Philip Glass, Sharon Van Etten, Yo La Tengo, the Pixies and Patty Smith.

The bookstore organizes outdoor events to support artists. | Photo by Nick Hilden

As you walk through a tall wooden fence, the first thing you’ll probably notice is a letterbox with the name “Emile White” on it. He was one of Miller’s best friends and neighbors, as detailed in Miller’s delightful book. Big Sur and oranges by Hieronymus Bosch (which, by the way, is a fantastic audiobook to listen to while commuting into town). White continued to preserve the house after the writer’s death. Today the house is covered in colorful chalk scribbles and visitors are invited to add to the ever-changing mural.

While the library makes a wonderful day trip out of San Francisco, the city of Big Sur invites visitors to spend the night in one of its rustic accommodations. Glen Oaks offers trendy vintage-style cottages and rooms where you can feel transported to a plot from another era. Or treat yourself to adult versions of a Peter Pan-like fort in the elegant treehouses of the Post Ranch Inn. If you want to get completely bohemian, Alila Ventana really takes a look at bohemian living with a pool without clothes.

Typewriter at the Henry Miller Library
Handy typewriters to capture your suddenly inspired sparkle. | Photo by Nick Hilden

For a different kind of escape from reality there are also several quality campgrounds, arguably the most notable being Fernwood, which offers camping, glamping, cabins, a bar and grill, and sometimes live music from some big names.

As part of your literary pilgrimage, you should probably eat at Nepenthe, a former Miller hangout that offers California fare and high-altitude views. Although you can also opt for pub food at the Big Sur Taphouse or a solid sandwich at the Big Sur Deli, which also has a general store with local syrup, hot sauce, and cured meat.

Nearby Cannery Row has been the setting for many of Steinbeck’s novels. | Manuela Durson / Shutterstock

But there is another literary reference waiting in these oceanfront peaks. Nearby, Salinas was the hometown of author John Steinbeck. There you can visit his grave at the Garden of Memories Memorial Park. In Salinas you’ll also find the National Steinbeck Center, which offers an in-depth dive into the great author’s books and films.

Further south of Monterey is Cannery Row, which was the setting for many of Steinbeck’s greatest works. While Cannery Row in its day was a somewhat squalid and run-down place, its streets today are lined with a series of shops and restaurants, some of which sprawl over a stilted quay jutting out into the sea.

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Nick hilden is a travel, fitness, art, and fiction writer whose work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Men’s Health, The Daily Beast, Vice, Greatist, and more. You can follow his strange adventures via Instagram Where Twitter.


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