Big Sur Coast: Drive Along the Central Coast of California

After 14 years of backbreaking construction, this stretch of Rte. 1 was opened to traffic in 1934, eventually gaining fame

After 14 years of backbreaking construction, this stretch of Rte. 1 was opened to traffic in 1934, eventually gaining fame as one of the world’s outstanding scenic highways. As the drive snakes down the Big Sur coast—an area defined, more or less, as lying between Monterey and San Luis Obispo—it passes pristine beaches, wave-battered cliffs, shadowy forests that fill the valleys of the Santa Lucia Range, and offshore waters that are filled with life.

1. Monterey
Once under the crown of Spain, whose ships landed here in 1602, Monterey was claimed for America in 1846, when the Stars and Stripes was run up the flagpole at the Custom House. The area was a lonely outpost then, a haven for smugglers and a few farmers and ranchers. The abundance and grandeur of the peninsula, though, would in time attract many, and today tourists flock to Monterey to share in the riches.

To learn about the town’s colorful past, sample the well-marked walking tour that leads through Monterey’s historic district. On the shore of the bay lies Cannery Row, once a factory-filled hub for fish processing. The canneries —as well as the odd lot that worked and lived in the area—were immortalized by novelist John Steinbeck.

No longer a rough-and-tumble, foul-smelling industrial center, Cannery Row has been spruced up and nowadays offers a wax museum, restaurants, shops, and the top-notch Monterey Bay Aquarium. The seaside marine park is full of surprises, with creative displays that allow close-up viewing of many marine denizens, including wolf eels, sea otters, sharks, bat rays, and jellyfish.

2. Pacific Grove
Although it was settled just up the peninsula from Monterey in 1875, Pacific Grove was in many ways light-years away. Its Methodist founders, seeking a seaside retreat for religious contemplation, shunned their rowdy, often bawdy neighbors. Today, however, the boundaries between the two towns have blurred, as parks, stores, offices, museums, and homes have spread across the peninsula.

For spectacular vistas follow Ocean View Boulevard along the shores of Monterey Bay, stopping off at Lovers Point Park and Point Pinos Lighthouse. Sunset Drive, another road with fine views, parallels the Pacific side of the peninsula and leads to Asilomar State Beach, where the wide swath of sand is perfect for strolling, beachcombing, or—reminiscent of the town’s early inhabitants—soul-searching reflection.

True to its nickname, Butterfly Town USA, Pacific Grove enjoys another distinction. It is the winter home to hordes of monarch butterflies. Lured by mild weather, the insects fly in from as far away as Canada and congregate in dense clusters on eucalyptus and Monterey pine trees. They are usually best observed in George Washington Park and in a grove on Lighthouse Avenue. (Don’t disturb them, though: the town imposes penalties on anyone who does.)

3. 17-Mile Drive
Sunset Drive swings inland after Asilomar State Beach, passes the well-landscaped grounds of a conference center, then intersects with 17-Mile Drive. Monterey cypresses, gnarled by the wind and ocean spray, are among the highlights along the toll road, which loops through part of the Monterey Peninsula. Other roadside delights include 1920s mansions, world-class golf courses, rocky headlands, and—of course—the Pacific Ocean. Tour maps are provided at all five of the entrance tollgates.

4. Carmel-by-the-Sea
After touring 17-Mile Drive, exit at the Carmel gate, avoiding the traffic bottlenecks that sometimes occur on Rte. 1, and head into charming Carmel-by-the-Sea. Once in the upscale community, you’ll find a patchwork of cottages, shops, galleries, sandy beaches, and a restored 18th-century Spanish mission. Long a haven for artists, the town has counted renowned poets, novelists, and painters among its inhabitants. But no matter what one’s line of work, it’s easy to be inspired by the area’s scenic beauty.

Follow Scenic Road, which skirts the Pacific, to its end at Carmel River State Beach, one of the less-crowded spots to enjoy the seashore. Although the ocean is quite chilly and the currents are strong, the sandy beach is a quiet escape.

5. Point Lobos State Reserve
The storm and stir of the earth’s largest ocean have left a dramatic, indelible mark on the wild headlands at Point Lobos State Reserve. Take the trails that wend along the craggy fingers of rock, their crests capped with gnarled Monterey cypresses, to land’s end. In the inlets below, the large, surging waves crash and tides come and go.

Sea lions—the barks of the males barely audible above the roaring surf—dot the small islands that fringe the mainland. To observe sea otters, bring along binoculars and look to the area just beyond the surf line; lolling belly-up in the kelp beds, the frolicsome animals use stones to smash open abalone shells. Much more awaits you here, but to enjoy the many sights, try to arrive early, since the refuge sets a daily limit on the number of visitors given access.

6. Garrapata State Park
The bad news is that garrapata means “tick” in Spanish, and in the wilds along the central coast, the little bloodsuckers are fairly common, especially in the spring and fall. Check your clothing after walks. Now the good news: Garrapata State Park comprises a diverse, pristine seaside, with steep, rocky headlands in the north and sandy beaches in the south.

Rte. 1 passes for some four miles within the borders of the park, which has no headquarters and no large parking lots, just turnouts where numbered gates mark trailheads. Some of the best scenery can be reached from gates 13, 15, and 16. The trails from these access points cross Soberanes Point, a verdant ledge above the sea.

7. Point Sur State Historic Park
Slicing a thin line between the sea and the spines of foothills, Rte. 1 continues down the coast, then leaps across the famed Bixby Bridge. Like many spots on the highway, turnouts here allow sightseers to stop and enjoy dramatic overlooks. Pull over at the bridge’s northern end, where the view includes not only the meeting of land and sea but the bridge itself. Arched high above a gorge, the concrete span hurtles across Bixby Creek, which empties into the sea some 265 feet below.

About five miles to the south, the drive nears a massive dome-shaped volcanic rock, which is crowned by Point Sur State Historic Park. The lighthouse here—its powerful beam can be seen for more than 20 miles—has warned sailors away from the treacherous point for over a century. Before its construction was completed, shipwrecks were common here on the coast.

Offered on most weekends, volunteer-led tours teach about the past keepers and their families. Isolated on the lonely promontory (before the highway was built, a horse trail was the only route down the coast), they had to be resupplied every four months or so by boat. Nowadays, automation has made caretakers unnecessary, but the old buildings that made their existence possible, including a barn and a blacksmith shop, are still standing.

8. Andrew Molera State Park
A study in variety, the park’s terrain encompasses wind-sheltered beaches, sea-cut cliffs, flower-filled meadows, free-flowing rivers, and a 3,450-foot mountain. After exploring the area’s hiking trails, consider settling in for the night at one of the primitive campsites, letting the rhythmic rumble of the sea lull you to sleep.

9. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
South of the park Rte. 1 swings inland—one of the few places where it does so—then passes through the sparsely populated town of Big Sur, which lies scattered along the valley of the Big Sur River. One of the best ways to explore the wilderness in the area is to visit Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. A hike up its narrow river canyon takes you to refreshing pools edged with smooth boulders. Trails also lead through a redwood grove, to waterfalls, and to fishing spots where you can try for trout.

About a mile south of the entrance to Big Sur State Park, Sycamore Canyon Road exits Rte. 1 for Pfeiffer Beach. This quiet oceanside stretch, where small patches of beach are wedged among the rocks, is pitted with caves and blowholes that were carved out by the sea’s surge.

10. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
After Rte. 1 descends from a climb that takes it nearly 1,000 feet above the sea, the drive enters Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. A must here is the Overlook Trail, which traverses the clifftops above the ocean. For a special treat, look down on McWay Cove, where a creek finishes its short journey with a fine flourish—an 80-foot waterfall tumbling down at the seaside.

Among the many birds that flock to these wilds are brown pelicans. Watch them sail across the sky, then dive headfirst for fish. An added plus, as on most of the California coast, are the gray whales; the huge marine mammals can be seen migrating back and forth between Alaskan and Mexican seas.

A different kind of graceful giant, the redwood tree, grows in the park’s interior. Hiking trails—sometimes steep but always rewarding—weave through the creek-laced area. Trailside sights include wildflowers and chaparral (a low, dense covering of shrubs).

11. Nacimiento-Fergusson Road
Just south of Kirk Creek, the highway intersects with Nacimiento-Fergusson Road. This paved 25-mile byway—a white-knuckle side trip with hairpin curves and panoramic views—traverses the Santa Lucia Range and ends at an army base not far from Rte. 101.
12. Jade Cove
Farther down the coast, Rte. 1 skirts Sand Dollar Beach—an excellent spot for seaside picnics—then comes to the signs and turnouts at Jade Cove. Take the short walk to the area’s pebbled beaches, which are hemmed in by sea-carved cliffs, and search for the semiprecious bits of jade.

13. Hearst Castle
About one mile north of San Simeon, Piedras Blancas is a year-round gathering spot for elephant seals. Stop for a while and admire these grotesque creatures.

Officially known as Hearst San Simeon State Historic Monument, the castle was built by publisher William Randolph Hearst on a hill overlooking the coast. The palatial estate took nearly 30 years to complete and contains a museum-quality collection of art—antique furniture, sculptures, paintings, mosaics, and tapestries—to complement the Mediterranean Revival architecture.

In the 1930s and 1940s, floods of famous guests—movie stars, politicians, athletes—were invited to the estate. Departing from the visitor center in San Simeon, shuttle buses climb to Hearst’s paradise, one of the state’s most popular tourist destinations. Four guided tours are offered each day to the public. Visitors can also enjoy the movie, Hearst Castle: Building the Dream, which is shown in the home’s own theater.

14. Morro Bay
Morro Rock, created by an ancient volcano, towers about 575 feet above the Pacific Ocean just north of Morro Bay’s inlet. It guards a nearly landlocked harbor with a variety of natural habitats—from mud flats and tidal wetlands to estuaries—protected from the sea by a long sandspit. The area is home to more than 250 species of birds, including peregrine falcons on Morrow Rock. Other area birds include black oystercatchers and great blue herons. Morro Bay State Park, midway down the bayshore, is crossed by trails and has a natural history museum. It’s a great spot to get an overview of the natural attractions of the area.

Drive south of Morro Bay to enjoy Los Osos Oaks State Reserve, which contains stands of 700-year-old oak trees. On the shoreline of the Pacific Ocean, Montaña de Oro State Park is named for the nearby mountains, which turn gold when fields of mustard and poppies bloom across their slopes. Walkers on the park’s trails can explore beaches, dunes, and cliffs.

Finish the drive by visiting Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa in the city of San Luis Obispo, founded in 1772 by Junipero Serra. Your visit to the Big Sur coast ends as Rte. 1 rejoins U.S. 101, midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

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