California’s Big Sur Coast: A Scenic Drive
Author’s Note: This article “California’s Big Sur Coast: A Scenic Drive” is also a chapter in my travel guidebook/ebook Northern California Travel: The Best Options. That book is available in English as a book/ebook and also as an ebook in Chinese. Parallel coverage on Northern California occurs in my latest travel guidebook/ebook Northern California History Travel Adventures: 35 Suggested Trips. All my travel guidebooks/ebooks on California can be seen on my Amazon Author Page.
By Lee Foster
A Big Sur drive presents one of the most dramatic coastlines 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 in summer and rain in winter can add somber drama to the changing perspectives. Spring and autumn allure with piercing visual clarity and extraordinary color.
Occasional scenic turnouts on this Highway 1 path 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. Always, the violent surf pounds incessantly on 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.
Consider Carmel as a Base for Exploration of Big Sur
Many visitors use the Monterey area, especially Carmel, as a base for exploring Big Sur. Carmel has an abundance of excellent inns and restaurants.
One choice option, an illustration of the intimate Carmel style, would be the Coachman’s Inn, a Four Sisters Inn, on San Carlos between 7th and 8th, 831-624-6421, https://www.coachmansinn.com. Guests enjoy 30 well-appointed rooms, with all amenities, plus convivial mingling in the common area for wine time in the evening and breakfast before a day of excursions. Generous pourings of evening wine complement the home-made hot cheese dip hors d’oeuvres. Breakfast will likely feature baked egg and ham dishes with scones. The location puts you within walking distance of downtown Carmel shops and small restaurants. Lovely Carmel Beach, nearby, entices for walks.
Start Your Big Sur Adventure at Point Lobos
Start the drive just south of Carmel at 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 lingers at Point Lobos could spend much of the day there. Pause for an hour at least to give this treasured seaside state park a look.
One treat here is the special vegetation, meaning the Monterey pine and Monterey cypress, plus the offshore kelp beds. The fauna is as rewarding as the flora. Sea otter, seals, sea lions, and passing whales delight the visitor. Sea Lion Point and Trail would be a choice place to walk out to the bluff overlooks for a view of the kelp forests and non-stop wave theatre.
Whale watching is a popular pastime at Point Lobos 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 Scammon’s Lagoon in mid Baja California to give birth and mate again. 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 tend to be closer to shore and expend more energy on leaping and spouting.
The final parking lot in Point Lobos in the Hidden Beach area is a delightful stop. Pause here to step out for a view of the long ocean and rocky shore landscape looking north. Walk south here on the Bird Island Trail to see a joyful nature accessible only to the walker.
Heading South into Big Sur
As you head south, the first major landmark is Garrapata Beach Park, a stretched-out state park with many access points and little signage on the road. Look for turnouts next to the road. Garrapata starts about four miles south of Point Lobos. Park on the shoulder and walk the trails to rock faces and to some coarse sand beaches with lovely rock and cave formations. The north end of Garrapata is rocky, the south end is sandy.
Improvements at Garrapata in recent years highlight tourism development at its best, something to savor before becoming familiar with the challenges of Big Sur tourism farther south today. California’s visionary citizens financed with state park bonds an elaborate Garrapata Beach Bluff Trail, with careful steps allowing safe passage over several miles of steep terrain. This Garrapata Beach Bluff Trail disperses travelers into life-enhancing private moments with nature. Stunning sea views at Garrapata are among the loveliest in all of Big Sur. What was done right at Garrapata is in sharp contrast with some of the out-of-control challenges of travel to Big Sur, as noted below.
South of Garrapata, at the 11-mile point, a road leads right to Rocky Point Restaurant. Rocky Point, with its floodlit surf in the evening, possesses a fairytale aura at which to place seafood in front of the patron and have it flavored, imaginatively, with sea salt air. Certainly, 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.
Overtourism Social Media Challenges at Big Sur Bixby Bridge
Spreading travelers out on the long personal nature-discovery trail at Garrapata is a sharp contrast with the pressure of popularity you will find further south. Choke points include Bixby Bridge, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park with its Keyhole Rock beach, and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park with its McWay Falls.
Social Media, especially Instagram and Facebook, have made these locations immensely popular. The movie and TV series Big Little Lies, with its shots of the Bixby Bridge, make both the U.S. and international traveler want to experience this place. A wise traveler will do everything possible to travel on a weekday rather than weekend, in the off-season if possible, and get an early start in the morning.
Concern over summer and autumn wildfires is a further new element, after the huge Soberanes Fire in 2017, which burned 132K acres east of Garrapata, due to an illegal camping open campfire. Containing the fire cost an estimated $260mil, making it the most costly wildfire in U.S. history. Escape routes for locals in a wildfire situation and protection of land and property threatened by wildfires have become priorities in the management of Big Sur.
Landslides in wet winters, about 20 in the wet year of 2017, can close the road for long periods, so check local conditions at the time of your intended trip. Road repair in summer and autumn is an annual factor. The Mud Creek landslide of 2017 totally closed the Big Sur Highway 1 for one year. Allow for slowdowns due to ongoing road repair.
Big Sur travel has its challenges, affecting both visitors and the locals.
Palo Colorado Road
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 coastal 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.
Photogenic Bixby Bridge
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 from the northern end provide stunning views of the ocean. Allow plenty of time to get a parking spot and take a look.
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. They avoided 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.
Point Sur Lighthouse Station
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.
Access to the lighthouse remains limited, partly due to a Navy research installation nearby. Check the state parks Ranger Station and Visitor Center, a few miles south, for information on guided tour options. Details on guided tours will appear on the closed gate as you drive past the facility.
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 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 one of the best stretches of grazing land in the region.
Andrew Molera Park
The first major park you encounter south of Point Lobos and beyond Garrapata Park is the Andrew Molera State Park, 16 miles south. Molera’s boundaries encompass the Big Sur River watershed. However, access to the lovely beach now requires a walk. You must park in a lot near the road and walk a mile in to the beach.
Molera Beach awaits visitors who make the trek to this 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 oceanfront and 16 miles of trails, including a River Trail and a Ridge Trail. First come, first served camping is available for campers whose style allows walking in with their gear 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.
Songbirds and Sea Otters
All the state parks of the Big Sur area are good places 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. Sea otters can often be seen at Point Lobos.
Now 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. Sea otters strive to keep their 103-degree temperatures fueled in the 55-degree water.
South of Molera, you reach the first of several small private commercial establishments in Big Sur. Here the road turns inland through a forest and meadow country, with scattered redwood groves and cottonwoods.
Camping and Lodging in Big Sur
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. 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.
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
Finally, the grand stop is 821-acre Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, located mainly on the inland side of the highway. Here you’ll find redwood forests, miles of trails, 218 campsites (no hookups), and rangers to lead hikes and give talks. The campgrounds fill quickly, especially in summer and on weekends.
This inland part of the park is an excellent day-use areas for a picnic. There are plenty of parking spaces and picnic tables.
Pfeiffer Big Sur Park also hosts the Big Sur Lodge, which is, along with the Ventana Inn and Post Ranch Inn, among 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.
Pfeiffer also includes Pfeiffer Beach on the ocean side of the highway. farther south. But access is difficult. There are only a limited number of parking spaces. A ranger will set up near the highway at busy times to turn visitors away. Early morning is the best assured access time. Social Media has popularized Pfeiffer Beach.
However, if you can enter, 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 yellow 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. The famous Keyhole Rock gets a lot of Social Media attention.
Big Sur Garrapata Beach California
The Central Ranger Station
A central Ranger Station exists just south of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park on the inland side of the highway. This is a good stop for maps, information, current conditions, and suggestions for your visit. The station also hosts an excellent bookstore with nature and travel guides informative on the region.
Stop here for trail permits for backcountry hiking and camping. Current regulations will direct what is legal for campfires or stove fires.
Pioneer Families of 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, arrived with four children and all their earthly possessions, including chickens, cows, horses, and seeds. They 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.
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.
The Road South
Several roadside small businesses, one engaging destination bar and restaurant lookout known as Nepenthe, and the famous McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park complete the main Big Sur story.
On the right, you pass the official U.S. Big Sur post office, CA 93920.
Gas stations are not numerous. Although gas is usually 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 Inn and Restaurant is 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.
Across the highway from the Ventana Inn is its competitor in the luxury category, 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 destination watering hole called Nepenthe. This restaurant-bar overlooks the Big Sur coastline with a spectacular view. Movie mogul Orson Welles bought the property in 1944 for his bride, actress 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. Expect parking to be tight in the new Big Sur overtourism era.
Two restaurants allow a choice here. At the official 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.
Mystique of Big Sur
A drink on the deck at Nepenthe, 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 Nepenthe restaurants are close to the ocean and perch directly above it.
For many travelers, the drive down to Nepenthe and then back to Carmel or Monterey comprises enough of an adventure for one day, allowing time for the meandering and serendipitous stops that a leisure traveler enjoys.
Henry Miller Library
The modest Henry Miller Memorial Library is another stop in this immediate area. Writer 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.” Writers have reached for superlatives in describing Big Sur, as in “The greatest meeting of land and sea.”
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.
One of the major arts and crafts outlets in the region is 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. 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. There is parking along the highway. If you walk to the beach, tide-pooling is excellent here at low tide.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
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 McWay Falls, the only waterfall on the California coast that empties directly into the ocean. The walk out to the waterfall is engaging, along the stream that finally catapults over the edge. As mentioned earlier, parking can be congested. McWay Falls is another Instagram-worthy selfie.
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. Esselens is the name of the original Native American tribe, persisting here in relative isolation, even after the Spanish era.
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.
South to William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon
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.
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 destination if you continue 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 in America’s development when culture meant European trappings.
In recent times a major Elephant Seal Rookery has developed along the ocean just north of San Simeon. This phenomenon, also occurring at Point Reyes, is an offshoot of the highly successful Elephant Seal colonization at Ano Nuevo on the San Mateo Coast,
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 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.
Lodging in Carmel is a good option for an adventure down to Big Sur. One good choice would be the Coachman’s Inn, a Four Sisters Inn, on San Carlos between 7th and 8th, 831-624-6421, https://www.coachmansinn.com.