Road trip on the Pacific Coast Highway
The Pacific Coast Highway runs along the central California coast and offers an exhilarating driving experience. The twisting, cliff-hugging, 123-mile (198-kilometer) road threads through Big Sur, where mountains plunge into the Pacific. In some places, the road has sharp drop-offs and narrow turns, so stay alert. This route can be difficult to drive with RVs or other oversize vehicles.
Being one of America’s most scenic roads, the route was designated an All-American Road. Because gazing at the views while driving is not a good combination, the highway features many strategically placed vista points allowing motorists to stop and admire the landscape. Still, many tourists are known for driving obnoxiously slowly so that they can enjoy the scenery without ever leaving the highway. We advise to drive this road trip outside the regular holiday season and especially not during weekends to avoid those snails-on-wheels.
Start in Monterey
We join the California Route 1 in Monterey. The town served as California's capital under Spanish, Mexican, and American flags. Dozens of significant historical sites have been well preserved, most of them concentrated within a mile-long walk called the Path of History that loops through the compact downtown area.
Highlights are Fisherman’s Wharf, where bellowing sea lions wallow in the water, and the adjacent Custom House, the oldest governmental building in the state. From here you can follow the old railroad right-of-way west along the water to Cannery Row, where abandoned fish canneries have been gussied up into upscale bars and restaurants. A must see is the Monterey Bay Aquarium, regarded by many as the best in the world. Home to over 500 species of local sealife, the aquarium lets visitors gaze into the gently swaying stalks of a three-story-tall kelp forest, be hypnotized by brilliantly colored jellyfish, or face truly weird creatures that live thousands of feet below the surface of the bay.
Sea lions sunbathing at Monterey Bay
Driving to Big Sur
After enjoying Monterey, we drive south on Highway 1 to Carmel-by-the-Sea, an upscale village of quaint colorful cottages, and further to to Point Lobos State Reserve, a 550-acre (220-hectare) park encompassing coves, headlands, meadows, tide pools, and the nation's first undersea ecological reserve with kelp forests 70 feet (20 meters) high. Trails lead past Monterey cypresses, which grow naturally only here and in Pebble Beach. Migrating gray whales can be spotted from December through April.
After driving through Carmel Highlands, where impressive houses perch on granite cliffs above the sea, we reach the start of Big Sur, which extends 90 miles (145 kilometers) south to Hearst Castle. Big Sur is one of the most memorable sections of coastline on the planet, with mountains rising up from the Pacific Ocean, redwood groves reaching skyward and waves beaten to froth on ragged rocks. Spanish missionaries dubbed it El País Grande del Sur, the “Big Country of the South”. Highway 1 was cut across the very steep cliffs in 1937 after 20 years of convict labor and several fatalities.
En route to Bixby Bridge, you can choose to leave the highway and drive the 11-mile (18-kilometer) Old Coast Road, which climbs through remote forests and canyons and offers silent ocean views before ending at Andrew Molera State Park. If you intend to do so, be careful as the unpaved road becomes impassable when it rains.
Bixby Bridge and state parks
Bixby Bridge is a single-span concrete arch more than 260 feet (80 meters) high and 700 feet (200 meters) long. Prior to the opening of the bridge in 1932, residents of the Big Sur area were virtually cut off during winter due to the often impassable Old Coast Road that led 11 miles (18 km) inland. It is one of the tallest single-span concrete bridges in the world and also one of the most photographed, due to its aesthetic design and location. Ahead, the highway passes Hurricane Point and then descends to the mouth of the Little Sur River. Looking inland, you'll see 3,709-foot-high (1,131-meter-high) Pico Blanco, distinguishable by its lime deposits. In a few miles you reach Andrew Molera State Park.
Spreading along the coast at the mouth of the Big Sur River, Andrew Molera State Park is a grassy former cattle ranch. In the 1850s, immigrant John Roger Cooper bought the land and built a cabin, which still stands along Highway 1 near the park entrance. Well-blazed trails wind along both banks of the river down to the small beach, horses are available for hire, and there are quite a few nice places to camp. In winter, the park is also a popular resting spot for migrating Monarch butterflies.
Leaving Andrew Molera, we follow the highway inland into the deep and densely forested valley carved by the Big Sur River. Consisting of little more than three gas stations, a couple of roadside markets, and a number of lodges and restaurants, the mile-long village of Big Sur represents the only real settlement between Carmel and Hearst Castle.
About a half mile south of Big Sur village we find Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, where the Big Sur River runs through 964 acres (390 hectares) of redwoods, sycamores, and ferns. Then go 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) south and turn right on the 2-mile (3.2-kilometer) road down Sycamore Canyon Road to the white sands of Pfeiffer Beach. A short trail runs through a grove of trees before opening onto the broad white sands, loomed over by a pair of hulking offshore rocks. The water’s way too cold for swimming, but the half-mile strand is perfect for a little walk.
Nepenthe and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
Less than 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) farther we come to Nepenthe, a restaurant perched 800 feet (245 meters) above the sea and famous for its views. The hilltop where Nepenthe now stands was previously the site of a rustic cabin that Orson Welles bought for his wife, Rita Hayworth, in 1944. The restaurant itself looks like something out of a 1960s James Bond movie, built of huge boulders and walls of plate glass.
If for some reason you only have time to stop once along the road, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park should be the place. Spreading along both sides of Highway 1, the park includes one truly beautiful sight: a slender waterfall that drops crisply down into a nearly circular turquoise-blue cove. This is the only waterfall in California that plunges directly into the Pacific. From the parking area, east of the highway, a short trail leads under the road to a fine view of the waterfall, while another leads to the remnants of a mill.
We now reach the southern stretch of Big Sur. The road clings to a precipitous coastline, and we pass only some little settlements in the next 40 miles (64 kilometers) From here onward we see hills and pastureland.
Five miles south of one of the settlements called Lucia, the narrow Nacimiento Road makes an unforgettable climb up from Highway 1 over the coastal mountains. Though ravaged in places by recent fires, it’s a beautiful drive, winding through hillside chapparel and dense oak groves before ending up near King City in the Salinas Valley. Because the road passes through sections of the Fort Hunter-Liggett Army Base, you may need to show your car registration and proof of insurance.
Hearst Castle and Morro Bay
After a spell away from the Pacific, the road reaches the town of San Simeon, a staging area for the five-mile (8 kilometer) bus ride to Hearst Castle. Built in the 1920’s by newspaperman William Randolph Hearst, the castle cries out to be seen. Perched in the Santa Lucia Range, the 127-acre (51-hectare) estate features the 115-room main house and guesthouses, which mix classical and Mediterranean Revival styles, using European architectural elements, antiques, and artwork collected by Hearst.
We continue six miles to Cambria. On the ocean side of the highway, at Moonstone Beach, we search for moonstones and California jade. Ahead on Estero Bay, the small town of Cayucos dates from the coastal schooner era of the 1860s; the pier has good fishing for perch and sometimes rockfish, plus views of pelicans and cormorants.
The end of our route is Morro Bay, easily identified by its landmark Morro Rock. A turban-shaped, extinct volcanic cone about 23 million years old, it’s 576 feet (176 meters) high and sits on the bay. Peregrine falcons live here. Around Morro Bay we spot great blue herons and, from October to March, monarch butterflies in eucalyptus trees.