Road Trip Through Big Sur on Rt. 1
California’s most enchantingly mesmerizing road trip.
California has served as a muse for singers, architects, designers, writers and countless artists since it was first explored and mapped out in the 16th century. One of California’s most enchanting drives is through Big Sur, a rugged stretch of coastline between Monterey, Carmel and San Simeon, over a hundred miles of pure scenic bliss. To the east the Santa Lucia Mountains provide a breathtaking border, and to the west there is nothing but steep cliffs, hidden beach coves, and ocean as far as the eye can see. State Route 1 traverses this bit of coastline with two lanes, and this part of the country is notable for its dreamy state parks, misty horizons and winding turns. Whether you’re in the mood for hiking, camping, wine-tasting, or discovering scrumptious foodie delights, a road trip through Big Sur has something for everyone. You’ll be hard-pressed to find another stretch of road as breathtaking as State Route 1.
Old Fishermans Grotto
Beginning in Monterey, indulge in some delicious seafood at Old Fishermans Grotto or Fish Hopper. Both are popular spots for seafood-lovers, and offer beautiful water views.
17 Mile Drive at Pebble Beach
Then, it’s straight onto 17 Mile Drive, a scenic road through Pebble Beach and Pacific Grove. There are loads of gorgeous trees along this drive, including the 5,300-acre Del Monte Forest Cypress trees.
If you’re in the mood for some fine dining, you’re in luck, becuase Big Sur is kinda famous for that too. Casanova Restaurant is a romantic eatery that used to be a charming private home, and Vincent Van Gogh once visited! A popular dish to get here is the spinach gnocchi.
Carmel, CA, USA
Carmel-by-the-Sea is a city in Monterey County known as a haven for artists, writers and poets. In fact, it was established in 1905 as an art colony. It’s located two hours south of San Francisco, and it’s incredibly dog-friendly and prides itself on its alternative culture. In fact, there’s even a law against wearing high heels without a permit!
Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo
Then, visit Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo in Carmel Valley. This is a beautiful, old Spanish mission on a hillside just a half mile from the sea, founded in 1770. Today visitors can explore the church, pore over the five on-site museums, and spend time in the peaceful courtyard.
Point Lobos State Reserve
Then pull over at Point Lobos State Reserve. This is believed to be the “crown jewel” of California’s state parks. There’s a vast coastal area that you can hike or drive along, and even a whaling museum.
Bixby Creek Bridge
Soon after, you’ll come to Bixby Creek Bridge, an historic bridge opened in 1932; it’s been a Big Sur fixture ever since. It’s also one of the world’s most photographed bridges, and it’s not hard to see why.
Point Sur State Historic Park
After that, head down to Point Sur State Historic Park. There’s a three-hour guided tour of the park, which is great for families. They explain the history of the park and the lighthouse, and you get to actually go into the lighthouse. Afterwards, there’s a trip to a museum and a small gift shop. The tour is $12 for adults, $5 for children. Bring warm clothes, because it can get windy. TIP: Call well ahead of your visit to arrange a tour.
Big Sur River Inn
When you’re ready to call it a night, check into the Big Sur River Inn, an historic lodge located right along Highway 1, and only a few miles from Pfeiffer Beach. The buildings were constructed in the 1930s and the whole place still retains a laid-back, old California feel. There’s also an on-site restaurant and general store. When you stay here, plan to spend some time sitting on one of the chairs in the river, with a refreshing cocktail in hand.
Then head to Pfeiffer Beach to see the Sun Portal. This sea archway creates an incredible natural sun portal between December and January, when light pours out of the archway.
Post Ranch Inn
For more upscale dining, the Sierra Mar Restaurant at Post Ranch Inn boasts stunning cliffside ocean views, and offers very fine dining with a four-course, prix fixe menu that changes daily. It also features one of the largest wine collections in all of America. And, if you’re looking to spend some money, you’d be hard-pressed to find a place more luxurious than the boutique Post Ranch Inn, built directly atop the cliff. There are no TVs here, just rustic simplicity, and there are even treehouses you can rent. Bonus: you can take yoga or stargazing classes if you choose to stay here.
If you’re in the mood for some decadent cliffside dining, head to Nepenthe Restaurant, request a terrace seat and order the Ambrosia Burger, with a slice of chocolate cake for dessert.
Your next major stop is Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park where you can get a gorgeous shot of McWay Falls. I wouldn’t recommend hiking down to the waterfall cove since it’s quite dangerous, but with this vantage point, you won’t feel like you’re missing out on anything at all. There are plenty of places to take beautiful pictures of the waterfall. There are two campsites at the park and they’re both incredibly popular, usually booked up to 6 months in advance.
Esalen Hot Springs
If all this Big Sur adventuring has made you feel spiritual, then head to Esalen Hot Springs and Esalen Institute, where you can soak in an ocean-facing hot spring, get a massage, or simply meditate and contemplate the meaning of just about everything.
Limekiln State Park
Next, you’ll come to Limekiln State Park, a coastal state park featuring several lime kilns that were used in the late 19th century. It’s also home to a beach and a stunning redwood forest, but the big showpiece is Limekiln Falls, a 100-foot cascading waterfall.
Hermitage in Big Sur
Since Big Sur is a mecca for spiritual adventurers, there’s no shortage of religious and metaphysical places to visit, such as the Hermitage in Big Sur. This Camaldolese Benedictine monastery is one of the world’s most drop-dead gorgeous monasteries. It’s won worldwide renown for its panoramic ocean vistas, and its fruitcakes!
For more rustic camping, there’s the Ponderosa Campground, which is run by the United States Forest Service in the Los Padres National Forest. One of the campground features is the Nacimiento River that runs through the backcountry camp, and it’s just 13 miles off the Pacific Coast Highway.
Sand Dollar Beach
Then dip your toes in Sand Dollar Beach, one of the largest sandy beaches in Big Sur. There’s a $10 entrance fee, and stairs that lead straight down to the beach.
Another great place to spend the night in Big Sur is Treebones Resort, an affordable alternative to Post Ranch Inn. This “glamping” resort is 30 miles from Big Sur Village and features yurts, campsites, and a “human nest” (look it up, it’s pretty crazy!) If you’re hungry, there’s a sushi bar, restaurant and convenience store also onsite.
Ragged Point Inn & Restaurant
Drive a bit to Ragged Point, where you can spend the night at the Ragged Point Inn & Restaurant. It’s an amazing inn with incredible views of the coast and mountains.
Piedras Blancas Light Station
About 10 minutes from Ragged Point is the Piedras Blancas Light Station in San Simeon. It’s a beautiful 19th century lighthouse open year-round for tours. San Simeon is a very tiny hamlet, home to only 440-ish people, but it’s considered “the biggest ‘little’ town in California,” and is home to the Piedras Blanca Elephant Seals Rookery.
A trip to Big Sur just wouldn’t be complete without stopping at Hearst Castle to gawk at the newspaper baron’s massively gaudy estate. It’s seriously so decadent it’d make Liberace blush.
San Simeon State Park Camp
Finish off the outdoors part of your Big Sur adventure at San Simeon State Park, located between Cambria and San Simeon. This 3,400-acre park was established in 1932 and has been a favorite destination for nature-lovers for decades.
For a light lunch, there’s Robin’s Restaurant in Cambria. This place specializes in a varied menu of Mexican, Thai and Indian cuisine, which make it a local favorite.
Halter Ranch Vineyard
After all that driving, treat yourself with a detour just a few miles inland to So-Cal’s wine country. A few beautiful vineyards in the surrounding area to tour include Harmony Cellars, L’Aventure Winery, Wild Horse Winery, and Halter Ranch Vineyard.
The best time of year to visit: Big Sur is actually beautiful to visit all year-round. However, the high season for tourists is generally April through October. This is when the weather is at its best. Most facilities are open during this time and the weather is gorgeous for beach walking and trail hiking. There are rain showers that can come on quite abruptly, but then they dissipate into a pretty mist. Off peak season is November through March. There’s not as much fog during this time, which makes driving easier. Less visitors makes lodging much more affordable, however some businesses are closed in off-season or have shorter off-season hours. If you’re looking to visit purely for the scenic vistas, then December is one of the clearest months for photographing the region.
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