An exhilarating driving experience, this twisting, cliff-hugging, 123-mile (198-kilometer) route along the central California coast takes about five hours to complete at a leisurely pace. Designated an All-American Road—among the nation's most scenic—the drive encompasses both the Big Sur Coast Highway and the San Luis Obispo North Coast Byway.
The route starts in historic Monterey, visits the art colony of Carmel, and threads through Big Sur, where mountains plunge into the Pacific. Farther south, the landscape mellows to oak-studded hills as the road passes Hearst Castle on its way to Morro Bay. In places, the road has narrow shoulders and sharp drop-offs, so stay alert. This route can be tricky for RVs or other oversize vehicles.
Start in Monterey
Join California Route 1 in Monterey (Monterey County Convention & Visitors Bureau. tel. 1 831 649 1770. www.montereyinfo.org.). The town served as California's capital under Spanish, Mexican, and American flags, and by the early 1900s boasted an important sardine industry. Surviving sites include the Royal Presidio Chapel, Monterey State Historic Park, Custom House, Casa Soberanes, Larkin House, and other adobe buildings, as well as touristy Fisherman's Wharf and Cannery Row, home of the celebrated Monterey Bay Aquarium (www.montereybayaquarium.org).
After enjoying Monterey, drive 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) south on Highway 1 to Carmel-by-the-Sea (Visitors Center: San Carlos St.; tel. 1 831 624 2522 or 800 550 4333; www.carmelcalifornia.org), an upscale village of quaint colorful cottages, restaurants, inns, shops, and art galleries fronted by a broad beach fringed with Monterey pines. Among the highlights are Mission San Carlos Borroméo del Río Carmelo, second of the California missions, founded by Padre Junípero Serra in 1770; Tor House, the 1919 home of poet Robinson Jeffers; and mile-long Carmel River State Beach (tel. 1 831 649 2836), with its pelicans and kingfishers.
Point Lobos State Reserve
From Carmel drive 3.5 miles (5.6 kilometers) south to Point Lobos State Reserve (tel. 1 831 624 4909; www.pointlobos.org; $10 fee for car), a 550-acre (220-hectare) park encompassing coves, headlands, meadows, tide pools, and the nation's first undersea ecological reserve, covering an additional 750 acres (300 hectares), with kelp forests 70 feet (20 meters) high. Trails lead past Monterey cypresses, which grow naturally only here and in Pebble Beach. The park's 250 species of birds and mammals include black-tailed deer, gray foxes, sea otters, and sea lions. Migrating gray whales pass by from December through April.
After driving through Carmel Highlands, where impressive houses perch on granite cliffs above the sea, you reach the start of Big Sur, which extends 90 miles (145 kilometers) south to San Simeon. On this fabled coastline, redwood groves reach skyward, the Santa Lucia Range plunges into the sea, and waves are beaten to froth on ragged rocks. It's a place of elemental power that can make human affairs seem inconsequential.
Garrapata State Park
Route 1, opened in 1937, climbs higher than 1,000 feet (300 meters) above the sea. One of the few easy-to-reach beaches is at Garrapata State Park (tel. 1 831 667 2315; www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=579), about 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) south of Carmel Highlands. From Soberanes Point watch for sea otters, which are protected under California state law.
Old Coast Road
En route to Bixby Bridge, six miles (ten kilometers) farther, you can choose to leave Calif. 1 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 (tel. 1 831 667 2315, www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=582). The unpaved road is tortuous and impassable when it rains.
Much photographed Bixby Bridge is a single-span concrete arch more than 260 feet (80 meters) high and 700 feet (200 meters) long. Park at turnouts near either end to gawk or take pictures. Ahead, the highway passes Hurricane Point, a place of big winds and big views, 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. Toward the sea, sand dunes soon appear, rolling toward the 1889 Point Sur Lighthouse (tel. tel. 1 831 625 4419; tours Saturdays and Sundays, call for additional days April through October; $8; www.pointsur.org), a state historic park. In a few miles you reach Andrew Molera State Park (tel. 1 831 667 2315; www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=582; fee), whose broad beach, oak and redwood forests, and stretch of the Big Sur River are accessible only by foot.
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
Pass through the settlement of Big Sur, which offers food and lodging, and head for Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park (tel. 1 831 667 2315; www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=570; fee), 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, where the surf roars through arched rocks.
Less than 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) farther on the highway you come to Nepenthe (tel. 1 831 667 2345; www.nepenthebigsur.com), an indoor-outdoor restaurant perched 800 feet (245 meters) above the sea and famous for its views. About half a mile (0.8 kilometers) south, on the left, look for the Henry Miller Memorial Library (tel. 1 831 667 2574; www.henrymiller.org; closed Tuesdays), perched among towering redwoods. It displays books and memorabilia of the novelist who spent 18 years in Big Sur. Also stop 8 miles (12.8 kilometers) farther at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (tel. 1 831 667 2315; www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=578 Fee), whose terrain ranges from 3,000-foot-high (914-meter-high) ridges to an underwater preserve. Do walk the short trail along the seaside bluff to see McWay Falls pour 100 feet (30 meters) into a picturesque cove.
Lucia, Plaskett, Gorda, and Ragged Point
Ahead of you lies the southern stretch of Big Sur. The road clings to a precipitous coastline, and the only settlements in the next 40 miles (64 kilometers) are Lucia, Plaskett, Gorda, and Ragged Point. From here onward are hills and pastureland. You'll spy the Piedras Blancas Light Station on a point supposedly named in 1542 by Spanish explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo for its white rocks (stained with bird droppings).
After a spell away from the Pacific, the road reaches the town of San Simeon, a staging area for the five-mile (eight-kilometer) bus ride to Hearst Castle (tel. 1 805 927 2020 or 800 444 4445; www.hearstcastle.org; tours only, call for reservations; fee), begun in 1919 by newspaperman William Randolph Hearst. 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.
Continue six miles (ten kilometers) to Cambria (Chamber of Commerce: tel. 1 805 927 3624; www.cambriachamber.org), nestled against hills where Monterey pines thrive in porous soil of decomposed sandstone. On the ocean side of the highway, at Moonstone Beach, look for moonstones and California jade. Drive on four miles (six kilometers) to the colony of Harmony, where you might glimpse artists at work. 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.
End in Morro Bay
The end of your route is Morro Bay (Chamber of Commerce: tel. 1 805 772 4467; www.morrobay.org), easily identified by its landmark Morro Rock. A turban-shaped, extinct volcanic cone about 23 million years old, it is 576 feet (176 meters) high and sits on the bay. Peregrine falcons live here. To learn about local wildlife, visit the Morro Bay State Park Museum of Natural History (tel. 1 805 772 2694; www.morrobaymuseum.org; $2). Around Morro Bay you'll see great blue herons and, from October to March, monarch butterflies in eucalyptus trees.
Enjoy this drive any time of year, but beware of winter mudslides; see www.wunderground.com/US/CA/Big_Sur.html for local weather conditions; for current road conditions, see www.dot.ca.gov/hq/roadinfo. For more information on the Pacific Coast Highway, visit www.byways.org/explore/byways/2301 and www.byways.org/explore/byways/2475. The itinerary below describes a north-to-south route; if you drive from south to north, you'll have a few extra feet of roadway between your car and the hair-raising drop-offs to the Pacific Ocean.
—Adapted from National Geographic Guide to Scenic Highways & Byways (Fourth Edition)