The Big Sur stretches roughly from Carmel to San Simeon along California’s stunning coastline for around 85 miles. It doesn’t have an official start or finish, so I thought this quote from the Lonely Planet guide to California summed it up perfectly: “Big Sur is more of a state of mind than a place.” I had read so much about this beautiful stretch of coastline along Highway 1 before I arrived in California but I didn’t expect it to be so cut off from the rest of California, it is literally one winding road with ocean on one side and rocky cliff overhangs or forest on the other. There was pretty much no phone signal on the entire route either. This is something I actually love when I’m away, that feeling of being totally cut off from the rest of the world for a short time to just be able to completely focus on new surroundings, take it all in and relax.
Matt and I drove Highway 1 from San Francisco to Los Angeles, I would really recommend driving south along the Big Sur with the ocean on the right hand side. All the lay-bys and viewpoints are on this side of the road so it makes it a lot easier to pull over and pull out again when it is busy.
There is so much to see and do on this part of the Pacific Coast Highway, it could be done in one day but the road is pretty small and slow with sharp corners at times. Plus with plenty of viewpoints along the way you definitely don’t want to rush. We stopped for the night at a campground, it really added to the experience.
Here are my 9 favourite things to do…
1. See elephant seals
Point Piedras Blancas is the place to stop to see an elephant seal rookery. Elephant seals can spend up to 10 months at sea and are able to dive an incredible depth of 1000 – 3000 ft. Males can grow up to 16ft in length and weigh as much as 2300kg. These magnificent creatures are huge and very noisy! Watch males tussling in the water for rights over females while the rest snooze and laze around on the sand. Grunting, snorting and belching are to name just a few of the strange noises that can be heard coming from the beach! For more information check out: www.elephantseal.org.
2. Have a glass of wine at Nepenthe
This lovely little spot has two options for eating and drinking, Nepenthe Restaurant or Café Kevah. It is the perfect place or excuse to have a rest on your drive with an afternoon beverage and a chance to take in those stunning views. Both eateries are situated high up with gorgeous views of the rugged coastline and Pacific Ocean. Matt and I chose to visit the restaurant, as it was higher up, the only trouble was the sea mist had come in and through the fog we could see nothing! Still, it was nice to stop off and have a glass of rosé.
3. Whale watch
There are plenty of opportunities to go on organised whale watching trips along the coastline, Monterey is a great place to book from. We were lucky enough to spot whales all along the Big Sur. If you want to save some money pull into a viewpoint and just watch the horizon. To see whales breaching is an incredible sight, or even just a slight peek of a tail slipping gracefully under the water. Whale Watchers Café at Gorda Springs Resort was a marvellous place for breakfast on the road. With ocean views from the café we ate a hearty breakfast and got to spot whales too.
4. Bixby Bridge
This bridge is a very famous landmark on the Big Sur. Built in 1932, it is one of the world’s tallest single span concrete bridges standing proud at 280 ft high. Driving south there is a lay-by on the right hand side just before the bridge, although usually very busy with tourists it is definitely worth stopping to take a photo of this very impressive structure. Whilst I loved this bridge there are others very similar along the route so stop at one of those for views without lots of other people around!
5. Go for a walk
There are so many great areas to walk along Highway One; Point Lobos State Natural Reserve was one of my favourites. Rugged coastline with kelp forests home to sea lions and sea otters make for an exciting walk. The park has mapped out trails with plenty of history, hike to Whalers Cove where a whalers cabin still stands and is now a museum. As well as walking, buy a permit to snorkel or dive amongst the kelp beds, awesome marine life and underwater caves await. If you are camping in a state park keep hold of your permit as this can be used to park for free in other parks and reserves.
6. Pitch a tent (or park up in a van)
One of the cheapest ways to stay overnight on the Big Sur is to camp. We hired a campervan through Wicked Campers and loved having the freedom to explore and stop where we wanted. We stayed overnight at Plaskett Creek campground, just over the road from Sand Dollar Beach. Cooking on a campfire and stargazing was a brilliant experience. The campsite cost a total of $34, a bargain compared to the hotels along the route. There are quite a few campgrounds along the Big Sur, my advise would be to book in advance during peak seasons as pitches at the more popular sites can get reserved very quickly. Having said that a few of the campsites do offer a limited number of pitches to simply turn up and pay for on the day. Take plenty of layers if camping, as it gets quite cold when the fog comes in.
7. McWay Falls
This iconic waterfall is definitely worth stopping for, found in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park this beauty is 80ft high and cascades onto the beach below. Park up and follow the half-mile trail to the coast, you can also spot whales at this picture perfect spot. I saw so many images of this iconic beauty before the trip and loved seeing it in real life. Benches along the trail allow you to sit and take in the beautiful views.
8. Watch the sunrise at Sand Dollar Beach
What could be better than watching the sunrise over the ocean with fog hanging over the hills behind and not another soul in sight? Waking up early in our camper we strolled over the road from Plaskett Creek campground and straight onto the bluff overlooking this crescent-shaped bay. The waves looked iridescent in the low light and the stillness of the early morning was incredible. I wish I had, had a surfboard with me as there were some great little peelers breaking out there!
9. The drive
The Big Sur is an iconic route, remember don’t rush the drive, take your time and enjoy! The road can get busy at times and often people behind us wanted to drive faster, so we just pulled over and let them carry on. Whether you experience it in the sunshine or the fog it is an epic journey and a blanket of fog hanging just above the coastline made for awesome photo opportunities. Pull over at every opportunity and take in the scenery. There were fresh fruit stalls at a lot of lay-bys; one day we bought avocados, blueberries and figs. It was so nice to have a picnic with local produce and stunning views. Mustangs seemed to be a popular choice of ride all along this stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway, cruising with the roof down looked like a very cool experience.