f you’ve ever driven on the Pacific Coast Highway, also called Hwy 1, between San Francisco and Los Angeles, you’ve seen Big Sur. The drive is a stunning panorama of dark cliffs, deep canyons, rolling hills and ocean vistas that comprise 90 miles of the California coastline– roughly from Carmel to San Simeon, Cambria, or Morro Bay.
This is without question one of the most breathtaking scenic drives on the planet, so you should be prepared for it with lots of room on your camera’s digital memory card and a spare supply of gasps and ooohs and ahs. You don’t drive this stretch of scenic highway just to get from one place to another; this highway IS the destination!
The name “Big Sur” is derived from the original Spanish name “El Sur Grande”, which translates as “the Big South”. If that seems like an odd name you must think what it seemed like to the early settlers in Monterey. That whole coastal area to their south was HUGE, unexplored, mysterious– and its coastline was deadly to ships.
The most famous landmark in the area is the Lone Cypress just outside of Carmel, which is also the logo for the Pebble Beach enclave and is trademarked by that company. (You cannot use the tree and photos you take of it in promotional materials for anything.) To really see this you must pay a small fee at one of five gates into this exclusive area and take the fabled 17-mile drive. Besides the golf courses, this drive will take you past mansions, secluded wooded areas, favorite picnic spots and fabulous photo opportunities.
Really, for the price of a movie you shouldn’t miss this opportunity. Wildlife galore, beautiful scenery, take a picnic lunch and make an afternoon of it!
The best months to visit here are, in my opinion, May and October/November. May brings clear skies and wild flowers, so the surrounding hills are a riot with the gold of poppies and wild mustard and the blue of lupines. With Fall comes the return of the Gray Whale Migration and the Monarch Butterflies. You can see the Monarchs flying all over Big Sur in the winter, especially around their wintering grounds at Pfeiffer Beach. The whale migration is easily viewable from the roadside turnouts along the entire route as they make their way south to their wintering grounds along the Baja, Mexico coast.
In the Los Padres National Forest and Ventana Wilderness you’ll find endless coastal mountain environments for hiking, backpacking and camping if you’re into that. If you prefer a little more comfort you’ll find some of the world’s finest resorts, inns and restaurants along the way– each designed with views of the spectacular Big Sur coastline in mind. Some of the best stops along the way include Point Sur Lighthouse, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Henry Miller Library, Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn, Nepenthe Restaurant and Phoenix Gift Shop, Coast Gallery, Hawthorne Gallery, the Ventana Country Inn and Restaurant, the Post Ranch Inn, Big Sur Lodge, The River Inn and the Esalen Institute.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, a special favorite, is a state-protected park in Big Sur, located in Monterey County, California. The park is administered and maintained by California State Parks. It is located 37 miles (60 km) south of Carmel and covers over 3,000 acres (12 km2) of land. A main feature of the park is McWay Cove and McWay Falls, which drops over a cliff 80 feet (24.4 m) into the Pacific Ocean, as well as the smaller McWay Creek Falls. Also, the park is home to 400 feet redwoods which are over 3,500 years old. The park is named after Julia Pfeiffer Burns, a respected resident and rancher in the Big Sur region in the early 20th century, who lived in the area for much of her life until her death in 1928.
If you want to drive south into Big Sur proper, you might as well start at beautiful Point Lobos. This is a nature preserve and state park just south of Carmel, with a unique natural history. The scenery is staggering here, with views of marine mammals, birds, and the thunder of the ocean waves to accompany your drive.
Fully named “Punta de los Lobos Marinos“, or “Point of the Sea Wolves”, Point Lobos was established in 1933 and got its name from the rocks below, where the sound of the sea lions carries inland. This reserve has often been called “the crown jewel of the State Park System”, and it deserves this accolade. Not only is it visually magnificent, it has outstanding recreation opportunities and nearly every aspect of its resources is of scientific interest. There are rare plant communities, endangered archeological sites, unique geological formations, and incredibly rich flora and fauna both on land and sea.
The abundant wildlife and hiking trails make Point Lobos a favorite with visitors year round. There is an interpretative station located at the Sea Lion Point parking lot. Sea Lion Point Trail is a popular marine mammal viewing area for harbor seals, sea otters, and sea lions. China Cove is a good place for bird watching, especially May through September during nesting season. The pine woods along any of the trails is good for woodland birds. Other animals, such as mule deer, are best seen early in the morning or in the evening. A museum located adjacent to Whalers’ Cove details more of the area’s human habitations.
The underwater reserve around Point Lobos is famous for its large kelp forests and abundant marine life. Diving access is available at Whalers’ and Bluefish Coves and is limited to fifteen teams of divers per day by permit only. Reservations are a must for weekends and holidays.
Driving just south of Carmel Highlands you will come to a turnout in the road, with your first views of the rocky beach below, and cypress trees. Do take this turnout, and do take some more pictures!
From there you’ll enter an open section of highway headed down toward the hills that shelter the Big Sur valley. With the Pacific to your right and the golden hillsides up to the Santa Lucia mountains on your left, you are passing through Garrapata State Park. This park is subtly marked, with only one sign and nineteen discreetly numbered turnout markers, and aficionados prefer to keep it that way so it remains unspoiled. These numbered markers lead to some of the best Big Sur hiking trails. Garrapata State Park’s redwood groves and spectacular coastline are largely hidden from the road, seen only by those who take to its trails.
It’s lovely and open here as seen from the road, and when the poppies, lupine and wild mustard blooms the hills are riotous with color. Three or four miles further along you’ll have a terrific view of both the distant tree-covered hills and the shoreline to your right. There is another turnout just another mile or two along, overlooking a cove. Stop again for more pictures or just to admire it.
Rounding a curve not far past the turnout, you’ll pass the Rocky Point Restaurant (or stop for some chatter and a bite to eat). You can see the the Rocky Creek Bridge in the distance. While not as well-known as the Bixby Bridge, it is still a lovely sight.
Just a mile further on, about 13 miles south of Carmel, you’ll be almost to the famous Bixby Bridge. From the turnout before the bridge, you can see south down the coast to the crags of Hurricane Point.
The well-photographed Bixby Bridge, constructed during the Great Depression in 1931-32, is a marvel of engineering. Its central arch is 320 feet long and 260 feet high, over a canyon of a hundred feet in width. Construction was complicated by the high winds that are funneled up and down the canyon, wave action in the footings below, and the remoteness of the construction site.
A mile or so beyond the bridge, the road winds and climbs to the turnout at Hurricane Point. Do get out here and take pictures. Wonderful views! The winds for which the location is named will nearly pull the door of the car off as you open it. To the south you’ll see a sandy beach, and beyond that a view of Point Sur and its lighthouse. To the north at the center right of the picture is Bixby Bridge.
Even on bright, clear days, conditions here are usually blustery and chilly. Make sure you have a sweater with you, even in summer, and if you have a hat, take it off before you get out of the car!
From here as you begin to wind downhill to Point Sur, you’ll see the area’s magnificent white sand dunes to your left. A little further on is Point Sur and the lighthouse, which are part of the naval reserve– you can’t go in. But you can get out of your car and take pictures.
Leaving Point Sur, you’ll be driving south along the coast toward the beaches and dunes of Andrew Moleras State Park. As you pass through this park, you can see ahead the softly sloping hills of the Big Sur Valley. Cypress trees line the road like sentinels. Soon, you’ll be entering the most southerly habitat of the majestic coast redwoods, which range from the farthest north of California down to here. While they’re much more sparse here than in the thick forests of northern California, the Big Sur valley has several stands of them. You’ll drive through one of them here on your way into the lovely valley with its many rustic motels, restaurants, shops, and recreational areas.
The first of a series of these facilities, the River Inn, lies just ahead as the road curves south into the valley. And just a mile further along you will be deep into the redwoods, where you’ll come to the next group of tourist services– the Ripplewood Cabins and Grocery, and the Glen Oaks Hotel. Stop here for a stretch, a little something to drink, and some socializing.
After you leave Ripplewood, you’ll drive through another redwood grove on your way to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. This beautiful park is where the butterflies hang out during the winter, and you’ll also find redwood groves, conifers, oaks, sycamores, cottonwoods, maples, alders and willows – plus open meadows. Wildlife includes black-tail deer, gray squirrels, raccoons, skunks, and birds, such as water ouzels and belted kingfishers. Hikers can enjoy the many scenic trails, including a self-guided nature trail. There are rooms available at the Big Sur Lodge.
Coming out of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, you’ll roll right into Big Sur Center, with the post office and other services for the valley. After that you’ll be heading up the hill to the Ventana and Post Ranch Inns.
If you go much further south than this you’ll reach that part of Highway 1 that has tortuous curves which— although breathtakingly beautiful— can be very trying to drive. If I’m here on vacation this is usually as far as I go.
So stop a while in this area, relax, admire the view, and continue on or turn back; it’s your choice. But if you decide to drive on all the way to San Simeon, don’t say I didn’t warn you!
Photos courtesy Wikimedia Commons
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