by Lee Foster
A Big Sur drive presents one of the most dramatic coasts in California, winding 26 miles between Carmel and Big Sur.
The road twists along rugged, rocky cliffs, passing sandy beaches, all against a backdrop of low coastal mountains. Fog can add drama to the changing perspectives. Occasional scenic turnouts highlight selected views. A traveler notices the smell of sage in the air, the appearance of ships on the horizon amidst a coastal and sea wilderness, the changing color of the sea from green to deep blue to gray under altering light conditions, and always the violent surf pounding the granite shore in a cosmic lullaby.
The drive runs 75 miles all the way from Point Lobos down to Hearst Castle at Santa Lucia. However, for most travelers the final point of a Big Sur excursion is Nepenthe’s restaurant and bar, just south of Big Sur. Most visitors make the trip in their private or rented cars.
Start the drive just south of Point Lobos, the spectacular outdoor treasure of trails, groves, shoreline, and beaches that is a crown jewel of the state park system. A traveler who vacillates and pays the modest entrance fee to tarry at Point Lobos will probably find the entire day absorbed there, without moving on to Big Sur. It is difficult to do both Point Lobos and Big Sur in one day’s time.
South from Point Lobos, along the Big Sur Drive, there are a few good beaches, if you know where to look. It takes a local informer to share the secret of Ribira Road Beach, just south of Point Lobos. As you turn into Ribira, it looks as if you have entered a suburban cul de sac of comfortable homes. At the end of the road, a stairway leads down to an excellent beach, good for the traveler who wants a close-in beach walk or picnic area.
Just south of Point Lobos, the left turn onto Highlands Avenue takes you to two prominent lodgings of the region. The Tickle Pink Inn is a quiet cluster of 35 lodging rooms set on a spectacular bluff high over the sea. This choice lodging is one of the least publicized in the region. Highlands Inn amounts to a full-service hotel with restaurants, pool, and piano music to set the mood.
As you head south, the first major landmark is Garrapata Beach, a stretched-out state park with many access points and few markings, beyond turnouts next to the road. Garrapata starts about four miles south of Point Lobos. Park on the shoulder and scramble over the trails to rock faces and to some coarse sand beaches with lovely rock and cave formations. The best Garrapata spots are where the largest cluster of cars can be found next to the highway. The north end of Garrapata is rocky, the south end is sandy.
South of Garrapata, at the 11-mile point, a road leads right to Rocky Point Restaurant. Rocky Point, with its floodlit surf, possesses the ultimate coastal location at which to set seafood in front of the patron and have it flavored, imaginatively, with sea salt air. Enjoy the view and a drink or meal at Rocky Point. The gourmet might also consider the Ventana Inn and Post Ranch Inn, farther south, for fine dining.
At the 11.3-mile point a tempting side trip, Palo Colorado Road, extends to the left. As the name suggests, the road winds through a “trees colored red” forest redwood environment deep into the hills, finally ending up eight miles later at Bottcher’s Gap, a primitive campsite and access point to the Ventana Wilderness in the Los Padres National Forest. Big Sur is the southernmost natural range of the famous redwood trees, which flourish along a coastal strip from Southern Oregon to the Soda Springs drainage of Big Sur. Redwoods like the moist winter and cool foggy summer climate along the coast. The dryness of this environment in summer is deceptive. Back in the Big Sur hills, a 50-inch per year rainfall level is common.
Back on Highway 1, Bixby Bridge is the next attraction. Bixby may be the most-photographed bridge in the world after the Golden Gate, partly because it was, for a time, the longest concrete single-span bridge in existence. Observation points provide stunning views of the ocean. It is difficult to imagine how inhospitable to travel this region was until bridges, such as Bixby, provided the final links in the road, in 1937. Prior to that time, in the Spanish mission era, the padres and soldiers turned inland, far to the south, at Nacimiento Grade, and penetrated the mountains to Jolon, then traveled north along the easy routes in the Monterey/Salinas Valley to Monterey, bypassing entirely the impassable world of Big Sur. Big Sur was then known simply as El Sur Grande, “the great south area,” which suggests how the center of the California universe was Monterey, and how Big Sur was that impenetrable land south of the Spanish capital of Monterey. During the 19th century, boats brought supplies to the isolated ranching families and lighthouse tenders who inhabited this area. A family might wait three to four months for any contact with the outside world.
At the westerly extremity of Point Sur, the Point Sur Lighthouse Station stands on a promontory of volcanic rock and thrusts a million-candle-power beam visible for 25 miles. The lighthouse has been alerting passing ships since 1889 and is now a State Historic Park. Unfortunately, access to the lighthouse remains difficult, due to a Navy research installation nearby. Four lighthouse tenders and their families lived in isolation here from 1889 until 1937, serviced only by the occasional supply boat bringing in food, fuel, and medicines. The lighthouse itself boasted an ingenious Fresnel lens, 18 feet high, which could bend and focus the kerosene wick light to the intensity of a powerful beam. A few cattle ranching families lived near the lighthouse. Extensive meadows in the vicinity behind the lighthouse made this terrain the best single stretch of grazing land in the region.
The first major park you encounter south of Point Lobos is the Andrew Molera State Park, 16 miles south. Molera’s boundaries encompass the Big Sur River watershed. This is a walkers’ and campers’ park. For the day tripper, the park offers a fine picnic area, with tables, in a grove of alders at the trailhead parking lot. Molera Beach awaits visitors who make a mile-long walk to the mouth of the Big Sur River. Appealing trails lead along the bluffs. You pass an old log cabin, once part of the Molera Ranch. Molera Park encompasses four miles of ocean front and 16 miles of trails, including a River Trail and a Ridge Trail. First come, first served camping is available for campers whose style includes walking in with their gear 1/3 mile to the campsites. Small rainbow trout are visible in the Big Sur River in summer. During the winter, salmon and sea-going steelhead trout fight their way upstream to spawn. A trail-riding concession, Molera Trail Rides, offers scenic horseback excursions.
Molera is a good place to view the songbirds and shorebirds of the region and to celebrate the California Sea Otter Game Refuge, which stretches all along this Big Sur Coast. The sea otters are an environmental success story, narrowly surviving a brush with extinction in the 19th century, when the Russians hunted them for their prized pelts. Now the sea otters have returned to stable numbers and have extended their range, decimating the abalone fishery because sea otters need to eat a third of their weight each day in shellfish just to keep their 103-degree temperatures fueled in the 55-degree water.
South of Molera, you reach the first of several private commercial establishments in Big Sur. Here the road turns inland through a forest and meadow country, with scattered redwood groves and cottonwoods.
Where to Stay
River Inn Resort is the first business you’ll encounter in 19 miles of driving south from Point Lobos. The small commercial establishments along here tend to be full-service stops, complete with motel lodging, restaurant and bar, gas, groceries, and gifts. River Inn adds to the mix a heated swimming pool.
Adjacent is Big Sur Campground, a private camping area, not to be confused with Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, two miles south. The private campgrounds complement the state park camps in the region. These private camps respond with entrepreneurial energy to camper demand for functioning hot showers and dependably clean restrooms. The private camps also cater to RV travelers, who want hookups, as well as to tent campers. Generally, both the private and state park camps have scenic redwood environments here, adjacent to streams. Big Sur Campgrounds has a few A-frame cottages for drive-in camping.
At the 20-mile point, you’ll see Glen Oaks Motel on the right.
Alongside Glen Oaks you’ll notice Ripplewood, a small motel and grocery store with restaurant and a service station.
A half-mile south is Fernwood, another modest all-purpose stop. Fernwood carries a good selection of wines and cheeses for a picnic.
Finally, the grand stop is 821-acre Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, where you’ll find redwood forests, miles of trails, 218 campsites (no hookups), rangers to lead hikes and give talks, and a two-mile beach. The campgrounds fill quickly, especially in summer and on weekends.
Pfeiffer Beach is extraordinary, with impressive rock formations, cliffs, sand dunes, and a shallow lagoon. Swimming can be dangerous due to surf, but the beach is excellent for sunning, picnics, a stroll, or tide-pool watching. The beach is two miles off the main road down Sycamore Canyon Road, south of the main park entrance, marked only by a sign saying “Narrow Road.” Protective rock formations at the beach are merciful barriers in windy weather. The artistry of the sea has carved windows and trenches through the offshore rocks.
Either the beach or the inland part of the park are excellent day-use areas for a picnic. The inland park picnic sites flank the Big Sur River.
Pfeiffer Big Sur Park also hosts the Big Sur Lodge, which is, along with the Ventana Inn and Post Ranch Inn, the choice lodging in the region. Big Sur Lodge consists of clusters of modern cabins set in an oak woodland area, above the redwoods, complete with a swimming pool, rare in Big Sur.
A traveler who hears a name, such as Pfeiffer, may wonder how it became associated with this landscape. Most of the Big Sur names come from the hearty pioneer folk who settled in the 19th century. Several Spanish-name individuals acquired large land grants in Big Sur, but in 1853 anyone who would settle here could apply for a patent of 160 acres at $1.25 per acre. In 1869 Michael Pfeiffer and his French wife, Barbara, with four children and all their earthly possessions, including chickens, cows, horses, and seeds, made their way south from Monterey to Sycamore Canyon to live out their days. Other pioneers who led isolated lives and left their names on the landscape are the Grimes, Partingtons, McWays, and de la Torres.
Pfeiffer Park offers access to hundreds of square miles of backcountry in Los Padres National Forest and the 167,323-acre Ventana Wilderness, appreciated by the hiker and backpacker. South of the Park you’ll find a U.S. Forest Service station where trail permits and information can be obtained. Trail permits are required if you want to make fires, which may be prohibited entirely at certain times of the years. Good maps are available for purchase, indicating over 25 designated back-country camping areas. The style of backpacking now appropriate is called “no trace camping,” with all evidence of human activity packed out as well as in. Highest point in the back country is 5,200-foot Cone Peak. The canyons are steeply cut by several small rivers and streams, some of which run only seasonally. In the back country, deer, mountain lion, and boar are plentiful. Some unusual plants, such as the Santa Lucia fir, thrive here.
South of the Park, Big Sur Bazaar presents an interesting assortment of local artisan crafts, including pottery, wood sculpture, and reed basketry. Like so many stores in this region, the Big Sur Bazaar also stocks a range of CDs with “environment” background music that approximates seasonal changes or phenomena, such as storms. After a day in Big Sur, mesmerized by the general euphoria of the surroundings, a traveler is tempted to take back a CD that could somehow approximate the experience. Photo books of the region are also popular.
Adjacent to the Big Sur Bazaar is the official U.S. Big Sur post office, CA 93920.
A Begonia Gardens and Service Station next appears, at Loma Vista. Although gas is available at several points in Big Sur, a wise traveler will fill the tank in Monterey/Carmel and not put attention into this potentially worrisome detail in Big Sur. Concern about gas availability can distract from the pleasures of the landscape.
Ventana and South
At the 28-mile point south from Carmel, you reach Ventana Inn and Restaurant, another substantial restaurant/lodging opportunity in the region. The restaurant is a good lunch or dinner stop. Try the endive salad followed by the veal saute. The restaurant’s deck places you 1100 feet over the sea at a crest in the oak woodland hills. On a ridge in back of the restaurant are the 40 weathered-cedar rooms that comprise the lodge, complete with anticipated amenities, such as a hot tub. The Ventana Inn, whose style might be called casual elegance, prides itself on its no-activities approach to visitors. Activities beyond meditative enjoyment of the landscape would seem sacrilegious here.
Just behind the restaurant, you can hike up the Coast Ridge Road five miles to the top of the ridge. Even part of the hike shows spectacular views. For the serious hiker interested in the Ventana Wilderness, good trail maps from the U.S. Forest Service are a necessity.
Whale watching is a popular pastime at Ventana in the winter months of December and January. Enthusiasts follow the southbound migration of the Pacific gray whales, moving from chilly Arctic waters to warm Scammons Lagoon in Baja California to give birth. The whales can also be seen in March and April, as they head north, but the southward migration is more spectacular to view because the whales are closer to shore and expend more energy on leaping and spouting.
Across the street from the Ventana Inn is another luxury property, the Post Ranch Inn. Post Ranch Inn places you high over the sea in a tree-house and cliff-house environment. Restaurant Sierra Mar features contemporary cuisine, a bar, and a warm “basking” pool on the cliff.
A half-mile south of Ventana, you’ll find the famous watering hole called Nepenthe. This restaurant-bar overlooks the Big Sur coastline with a spectacular view. Orson Welles built the property in 1944 for his bride, Rita Hayworth. Nepenthe is constructed of redwood and was designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. Perched on a cliff 800 feet above the sea, it is one of the most romantic “honeymoon cottages” of all time. In 1947 Bill and Lolla Fassett acquired it and opened Nepenthe. The clientele is a mix of locals and the passing tourist. A drink on the deck, when the moon is full, can be an unforgettable Big Sur evening, and can help create the “surcease from sorrow” mood that the name Nepenthe means. The decks of the two restaurants are close to the ocean and perch directly above it. Two restaurants allow a choice here. At the Nepenthe Restaurant, on the upper deck, try the Phoenix Steak or the Fresh Red Snapper. At the Cafe Amphora, on the lower deck, try the excellent brewed coffee, an omelet, or a whole-grain sandwich. If you become thoroughly steeped in the Edgar Allen Poe words that name the establishment, try the Ambrosia Burger. A gift shop contains a large selection of crafts, such as gold jewelry and glassware from Big Sur or California artisans, plus a selection of books on the region.
For many travelers, the drive down to Nepenthe and then back to Monterey comprises enough of an adventure for one day, allowing time for the meandering stops to which a leisurely traveler is entitled.
However, if you persist farther than Nepenthe, your first encounter will be a literary one.
The modest Henry Miller Memorial Library is another half-mile south. Miller came to Big Sur in 1944 and was the best known of the circle of writers who gathered here. His books made Big Sur famous in some literary circles. Miller’s long-time close comrade, artist Emil White, donated his home and personal collection of Miller books to create the Library. Any Miller fan will enjoy the memorabilia here. Inquire locally when the library is open. Miller offered one of the better descriptions of Big Sur when he called this edge of the continent “the face of the earth as the creator intended it to look.”
Proceeding south, those who eschew the predictable comforts of upscale hotels in favor of rustic getaways might consider the artsy rooms at Deetjens. This Norwegian country-style inn serves breakfast and dinner, with reservations advised. Deetjens is a mile south of Ventana.
Five miles south from Ventana you encounter one of the major arts and crafts outlets in the region, Coast Gallery. This gift store and gallery shows a range of work by Big Sur artists, including Henry Miller lithographs. The summer Artist-in-Action program allows you to view an artist at work.
Another two miles south is Partington Cove, an interesting historic point. At the turn of the century the landing here, called Partington Landing, was a major shipping out point for tanbark oak. Tannin in the tanbark was used in the fur-tanning trade in Santa Cruz, San Francisco, and Redwood City. A sizable number of workers pursued this trade, making the Big Sur population more numerous then than today. The landing was also the main supply point in the region before Highway 1 pushed through. The site is not marked, except for a locked iron gate on the ocean side of the highway. If you walk to the beach, tide-pooling is excellent here at low tide.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, 8.6 miles south of Ventana, is primarily for day use, with picnic areas, fire grills, and restrooms. Several trails lead to interesting venues. The site to see is Saddle Rock Waterfalls, the only waterfall on the California coast that empties directly into the ocean. “Environmental” campsites are available for the camper who will walk in to the pristine settings, Saddle Rock and South Garden.
Another four miles south, or 12.2 miles south of Ventana, is the Esalen Institute, key site in the human potential movement. The setting includes notable natural hot springs. Only workshop attendees, rather than casual visitors, are welcome here.
Lucia is a small town 22 miles south of Ventana. In Lucia you’ll find a store with cabins, service station, and restaurant serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Another two miles south is Limekiln Beach, a beach with private access and a campground.
Pacific Valley Center, 29 miles south of Ventana, marks the half-way point between Big Sur and San Simeon. Pacific Valley Center provides a restaurant, hearty meals, and fresh-baked desserts. The small settlement includes a grocery store and service station.
Sand Dollar Beach and Jade Cove are about 32 miles south of Ventana. This is a good picnic stop if you plan a drive farther on to San Simeon. Sand Dollar Beach is sandy, with picnic facilities and restrooms. Jade Cove has streaks of jade in a string of rocky coves.
The major road cutting through the mountains in this central area is Nacimiento-Fergusson Road, 35 miles south of Ventana. This road is well-maintained, but in especially rainy weather call the Forest Service to be assured it is drivable. Nacimiento cuts through to the Hunter Liggett military reservation around the San Antonio Mission, a mission devoid of urban clutter. Another 12 miles beyond the mission is Highway 101.
The major destination if you are traveling south is William Randolph Hearst’s fantasy castle, San Simeon, now a State Historic Park, 96 miles south of Monterey. San Simeon occupies 123 acres on a crest of the Santa Lucia Mountains above the sea. Allow a half day to a day, depending on your tastes, for guided tours of La Casa Grande, the opulent edifice that Hearst financed and architect Julia Morgan built. There are several tours, starting with the overall tour and then concentrating on more specialized parts of the complex. Hearst’s agents, with a fiscal carte blanche, scoured Europe for the trappings of historicity and brought back every Greek vase and monk’s pew that was for sale. Hearst’s Castle is a monument to the era when culture meant European trappings.
Whether you drive from Monterey/Carmel down to Nepenthe and back, or pursue the road all the way to San Simeon, a Big Sur encounter will acquaint you with one of the grandest stretches of the coast of California.
Big Sur: If You Go
For information on all the small lodgings, restaurants, and shops along the rustic Big Sur route, view the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce website at www.bigsurcalifornia.org.
This article is one of thirty chapters in Lee Foster’s new book Northern California Travel: The Best Options (February 2013). See the book online at www.fostertravel.com by clicking on Norcal in the black bar at the top of the page or use Search Lee’s Writings for Norcal. The book can be ordered on Amazon or through other retailers as a printed book or ebook. The ebook version is also available in the Apple iBook Store and the other ebook stores for B&N Nook and Sony Reader. Lee’s books/ebooks on Amazon can all be seen together on his Author Page. See the Lee Foster Author Page