Travel Destinations

Monday, March 16, 2015

A California Coastal Drive Through Big Sur

Bixby Bridge California Coastal Drive Through Big Sur
Bixby Bridge and the California coast.
I had heard people wax nostalgic about driving the California coast many times, saying it was the most beautiful road trip they had ever taken.  I always wondered what part they meant because my California coastal drive experiences hadn’t blown me away.  Many of the routes along the California coast are shielded from the ocean by land masses, trees, or towns, and the parts that do have ocean views are very pretty, but didn’t evoke the strong feelings stirred in these other travelers.  I had driven the coast from San Diego to Paso Robles and from Oregon to San Francisco.  But what I hadn’t done was drive the California coast highway through Big Sur, the 90-mile stretch between Carmel and San Simeon, at least not until we recently took a road trip along this stunning portion of the California coast.  It was during this drive that I saw the light and realized that yes, California does in fact have one of the best coastal drives in the world.

It is amazing how long a 90-mile drive can take when surrounded by so much natural beauty.  We traveled from San Diego to Carmel by car and stopped for the night in the truck stop town of Bakersfield just so we could have as much time as possible the next day to enjoy California Highway 1 on our way to Carmel.  Six hours later we hadn’t seen everything we wanted along this rugged, picturesque coast.  Luckily we had the return trip home to visit some of the places we missed.  A California coast road trip not only provides gorgeous views of the coast, so fantastic California State Route 1 is a designated American National Scenic Byway and California Scenic Highway, but also offers a number of stops along the way at which to enjoy the surrounding natural beauty.  Here are just a few of the numerous stops and pullouts along this California coast drive.

McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park California Coastal Drive Through Big Sur
McWay Falls, a waterfall that falls directly onto the beach.
One of the most stunning sights of nature along the California coast is McWay Falls, a waterfall that falls from a tree-covered rock crevice onto the sand below.  McWay Falls is located within Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.  Nearby, with a view of the waterfall, used to be the home of Lathrop and Helen Hooper Brown, built in 1940 and called Saddle Rock Ranch.  Guests reached the home in a mining car funicular which the Browns dubbed “The Big Sur and Pacific Railway.”  The couple moved to Florida in 1956 and never returned.  Helen Hooper Brown, an heiress, gave the land and home to California to be used as a state park in 1961.  She requested the park be named after her friend Julia Pfeiffer Burns, “a true pioneer.”  The home was unusable for a public purpose so was demolished in 1966, though some of the walls and terraces remain.

Misty Sea Stacks

Misty Sea Stacks and Rocky Creek Bridge California Coastal Drive Through Big Sur
Misty Sea Stacks and Rocky Creek Bridge.
Another breathtaking view found just off the road is that of the Misty Sea Stacks with the Rocky Creek Bridge in the background.  This unusual area has large rocks jutting up from the ocean floor.  An arch has been created where the land protrudes sharply into the sea.  What is most unusual about this spot is to see cows grazing along the verdant land so close to the ocean.  The combination of the bright green and the jagged rocks feels more like Ireland than California.

Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery

Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery California Coastal Drive Through Big Sur
Elephant seals jousting at Piedras Blancas.
Elephant seals began frequenting the beaches at Piedras Blancas in 1990, so the non-profit organization Friends of the Elephant Seal formed in 1997 to educate visitors about elephant seals and provide a safe place for them to come where people could watch and learn more about them.  The population of elephant seals that visits the rookery is 20,000, though the number of seals present at any one time varies based on the time of year.  January through May is when you’ll see the most, as this is when the seals breed, give birth, and raise their pups.  Numbers drop in June through September, but this is when the larger males can be seen as they come here to molt, and you may even witness two males involved in a jousting battle.  The male elephant seals can grow up to 16 feet long and weigh up to 5,000 pounds.

Big Sur Bridges

Big Creek Bridge California Coastal Drive Through Big Sur
Big Creek Bridge.
There are a handful of bridges along the California coast crossing over rivers that empty into the Pacific Ocean.  These bridges include Big Creek Bridge, Rocky Creek Bridge, and the most famous, Bixby Bridge

Random Pullouts

Big Sur Sunset California Coastal Drive
Sunset along Big Sur's California coast.
The beauty of a California coastal drive through Big Sur is that beyond the state parks and signposted stops there are a number of random pullouts peppering the Cabrillo Highway that provide some of the most spectacular views.  If you see one you find appealing, just pull over.

Big Sur Restaurants

Cafe Kevah View California Coastal Drive Through Big Sur
The view from Café Kevah.
As so many stops and pullouts in Big Sur will greatly lengthen your drive time, you’re probably going to get hungry.  There are a few restaurants along the California coast highway that allow you to continue your enjoyment of the views while filling your stomach.  On our way north we stopped at the Whale Watchers Café.  Fare is simple, but good, and the main reason to stop here is the straight shot of a view over the ocean.  If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see whales out in that ocean while enjoying lunch.  The favorite restaurant along the coast of Big Sur is Nepenthe, a family-owned restaurant that first opened in 1949.  Nepenthe and the café below, Café Kevah, which opened in 1992, provide elevated views of the coastal cliffs and ocean along with some really good food.

Pitkins Curve Bridge California Coastal Drive Through Big Sur
The new bridge along Pitkins Curve.
These are just a sampling of the many things to see along Big Sur’s California coast.  Other popular spots include Point Lobos State Natural Preserve and the Point Sur Lighthouse (neither of which we could visit on this trip since we were traveling with our dogs).  If you’ve ever wondered what all the hype is about, drive this ruggedly beautiful section of California’s coast and prepare to be blown away.

Travel the World: Some of the roadside stops and views found on a California coastal drive through Big Sur.

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Katherine Belarmino and Romeo Belarmino are the authors of Travel the World, a travel blog for the everyday working stiff. They work full-time in non-travel related jobs, but take every opportunity they can to travel the world during their limited vacation time.