Big Sur: Scenic Drive on Highway 1

McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Big Sur, CA

We’ve read before that a road trip on California’s Highway 1 or the Pacific Coast Highway is one that’s made for the movies, the sort of drive with tightly twisting turns and dramatic vistas of wide beaches and wind-swept cliffs back dropped by hills shrouded in fog. So when we were up in central California with a group of friends, we grabbed the chance to travel back to our home in San Diego via California’s legendary highway. We were not disappointed at all.

California State Route 1 or Highway 1 stretches from the town of Leggett in the north down to Orange County in southern California where it joins Interstate 5 and continues on to the Mexican border. The most dramatic sceneries may be found on a 90-mile section of coastline from Carmel to San Simeon, known as Big Sur. This portion of Highway 1 is considered to be one of the most scenic driving routes in the U.S and ranked second among all U.S. destinations in TripAdvisor’s 2008 Travelers' Choice Destination Awards. Big Sur has attracted writers, painters, musicians and photographers who flock to the area for inspiration. And, as we found out ourselves, the scenic beaches, rugged cliffs, lush redwoods and verdant hills stretched out over scores of miles both excite the senses and soothe the soul. No wonder this place is an artist’s haven.

Big sur coastline showing the McWay Rocks island group
Big Sur coastline looking south; the McWay Rocks Island Group is visible in the foreground

Starting from Carmel, Highway 1 takes you through spectacular views of the Pacific coast as it straddles the Sta. Lucia Mountains’ western side. The highway winds down the coast in an undulating manner. At one point you might be at sea level and in another instance you could be gazing down a thousand foot cliff straight into the Pacific Ocean below. Sightseeing while driving - a constant source of arguments between us on road trips - is minimized by the many viewing decks located at vantage points along the route allowing motorists to stop and admire the landscape. Big Sur is sparsely populated. There are no urban areas and there are only a few clusters of restaurants, gas stations and lodging accommodations along the 90-mile stretch of roadway. As a result the place has remained largely unspoiled and has retained its frontier charm and rugged beauty.

McWay Falls and cove at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Big Sur
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park showing cove and McWay Falls

There are nine state parks alone in the Big Sur area - Garrapata and Andrew Molera State Park just to name a few. Our favorite however is Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park which has one of the most famous views of the area: the McWay Falls, an 80-foot waterfall that plunges from a cliff unto a sandy beach cove. There are several trails inside the park that take you through groves of giant redwood trees and to spots by the sea that are perfect for whale watching. We took a quarter-mile trek on one of the trails to a viewing deck that overlooks the McWay Falls and its surrounding cove. (Visitors are not allowed into the cove itself to help preserve it.) This particular trail glides above the beach below allowing us to view and photograph McWay Falls from various angles. At the northern end of the trail the view of the coast and the Pacific Ocean is amazing. A wedding was taking place when we arrived here. It wasn’t hard to see why folks would select this site for such an occasion.

Close-up view of McWay Falls, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
Closer view of McWay Falls

Another famous landmark in Big Sur is the Bixby Creek Bridge, a 265-foot-high arch bridge over a section of rocky cliffs that resemble a dinosaur. Completed in 1932, this bridge has often been used in various advertisements for its beauty and surrounding scenery.

Big Sur coastline looking north
Big Sur coastline looking north with the Bixby Creek Bridge in the background at right

We passed by Big Sur in the summer (and even then it was a bit chilly at particular sections of the highway). Had we dropped by in spring, many parts of the area would have been covered by blossoming Indian paintbrush, goldenrod, yellow lupine, and orange poppies, further enhancing the already dramatic views of the coast.

Beyond Big Sur

It’s hard to leave a place like Big Sur so soon but we had to hurry on with daylight’s end just a couple of hours away. At the southern end of Big Sur is San Simeon a place famous for the Hearst Castle and the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery. The latter is home to thousands of elephant seals who were nearly hunted to extinction but have made a remarkable comeback. These animals congregate in several colonies during their mating season from December to April, but because it was already May when we arrived the colonies were beginning to disperse.

view of Highway 1 and surrounding hills on the way south towards Cambria
Heading down south to Cambria through fog-shrouded hills along Highway 1

The seaside villages of Cambria and Morro Bay come after San Simeon. Cambria is a coastal village lined with beautiful cliffs and beaches that has attracted tourists. Morro Bay is another picturesque seaside town famous for Morro Rock, a large volcanic outcrop along the coast. Unfortunately it was almost dark when we passed by and could barely make out the Rock as we drove through the town.

It was totally dark when we arrived at San Luis Obispo for dinner. Home to California Polytechnic State University or CalPoly for short, San Luis Obispo is a lively city that contrasts sharply with the frontier feel of Big Sur and its surrounding region. And yet it didn’t have the madness that we often associate with a crowded urban area. It would have been nice to stroll around San Luis Obispo during the day but maybe that belongs to another time. For now it was back to San Diego with the memories of our Highway 1 road trip still warm on our sleepy minds.

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