It is one of America’s best-kept secrets: few travel books mention it, yet it has some of the United States’ most incredible scenery. Imagine a jagged coastline formed by the violent meeting of land and sea; an area where mountains have suddenly erupted from the ocean, creating miles of secluded beaches, caves, towering cliffs, and deep canyons. That area is Big Sur, California, set in the midst of one of the world’s most spectacular coastlines.
Situated about 150 miles south of San Francisco on Highway 1, Big Sur has nothing in common with San Francisco nor the majority of California’s towns and cities. Big Sur is a primitive nature-lover’s paradise, offering plenty of opportunities for hiking, swimming, kayaking, diving, surfing, windsurfing, kiteboarding, and golfing. It is an escape from city life. The village of Big Sur has only about 1000 inhabitants and a few houses. It is so unassuming that it is easy to drive by and never know that you were there. Generally when people talk about visiting Big Sur they are referring to the coastline, which extends south of the town of Carmel, a famous artist retreat, to San Simeon, the site of the world-famous Hearst Castle. In total this coastline is about 90 miles long with the village of Big Sur lying mid-way between Carmel and San Simeon.
Carmel was originally settled around 1906 by artists and wealthy San Francisco residents. It was designed to be an exclusive town with tasteful architecture and tasteful residents. Even today this little oceanside town looks like a 19th century European village. Its most enduring quality is its refusal to join the modern world: there are no fast-food outlets, no used-car lots, no high-rise buildings, no neon signs, and no traffic signals. Carmel has some of the most stringent zoning laws in the USA, many of which were passed in 1929. Downtown Carmel with its many boutiques and art galleries is well worth the visit. Make sure to also visit 17 Mile Drive (the site of the world-famous Pebble Beach Golf Course) and Carmel Mission, which dates back to 1771.
A few miles south of Carmel you will begin your trip along the Big Sur coastline. It is so rugged that you will wonder how anyone could have built a highway along it. The highway snakes along the coastline, twisting and turning, endlessly going up and down. This tortuous highway is an incredible feat of engineering. In just a few miles you can ascend to 1,000 feet above sea level and then plunge downward. At times you will feel that whoever built this highway must have also invented the roller coaster! As you turn every corner you will see before you a vast stretch of mountains falling sharply into the Pacific Ocean. The raw, savage beauty of the waves crashing onto the beaches and against the huge cliffs will leave you breathless.
Everywhere you drive, especially in spring and summer, you are bombarded by a multitude of colors: dark green from the pine forests; hillsides have turned red from the California poppies or yellow, white, and blue from the abundant wildflowers; light blue skies are above you and a seemingly endless sapphire-colored ocean is beside you; and interspersed along the entire coastline are emerald-green tidal pools. This profusion of colors makes an already scenic drive, even more spectacular!
Believe it or not, this incredible highway was built by convict labor. Little has changed since it opened in 1937. As you drive its length you will notice the absence of streetlights, billboards, and towns. This area is so well preserved in its original state that you will feel like you are driving through an area that has been lost in time. This is incredible when you consider that there are about 37 million people living in California! Yet driving along this coastline there is only you, the highway, the mountainous terrain, and the ocean. As far as the eye can see there is no one living here!
The only known inhabitants of this area were the Esselen Indians that have long since vanished. The few westerners who moved into this area did not begin to settle here until after 1850. The only real settlement has been the village of Big Sur, used as a retreat by artists such as the famous landscape photographer, Ansel Adams, and famous writers such as Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac.
The Big Sur coastline looks like one huge park, with the only signs of modern life being a few gas stations, restaurants, and resorts. These are so few in number and blend in so well with the natural environment that you don’t even notice them.
Stop in for lunch or dinner at Nepenthe Restaurant (located at 48510 Highway #1), just a few miles south of Big Sur village. This restaurant was the former site of Orson Wells and Rita Hayworth’s cabin. Operating as a restaurant since 1949, it is perched on top of a 800-foot cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It’s worth dining there just to see the breathtaking view! For an elegant dining experience, go to nearby Ventana Restaurant overlooking both the mountains and ocean. If you prefer intimate dining at a more moderate price visit the Big Sur Roundhouse Restaurant (across the street from the Glen Oaks Motel). Dine beside the fireplace or on the outside patio. Its menu serves a wide variety of California-Latin American cuisine.
If you decide to stay one or more nights in the Big Sur area there are only a few places offering accommodation. For luxury accommodation stay at the Ventana Inn & Spa (48123 Highway #1), a 243-acre mountainside resort that is perfectly blended with its natural surroundings, offering such amenities as heated swimming pools, Japanese-style hot baths, sun decks, and a dry sauna. The skillful use of elegant low-rise wooden buildings set in the midst of trees, plants, and flowers, using the Pacific Ocean as a backdrop has regularly earned this resort the reputation as being one of the world’s best hotels.
For more moderately priced accommodation stay at the Big Sur Lodge with its 62 cottages located inside Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. You can also stay at the Glen Oaks Motel, offering elegance in a beautiful rustic setting. For those on a budget try Big Sur Campground and Cabins, a 13-acre facility with campsites and A-frame cabins that are surrounded by a redwood forest right beside the Big Sur River.
As you drive along the Big Sur coastline you should take the time to experience first-hand some of its beauty by visiting one or more of the area’s parks and beaches such as:
1) Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
Located 26 miles south of Carmel, this 810-acre park offers visitors many scenic hikes through its forests of redwoods, willows, and oak. One of its trails will lead you to Pfeiffer Falls. You can also fish for trout and salmon in the Big Sur River. Accommodations are available right in the park: stay at one of its 218 camping sites or in Big Sur Lodge.
One mile south of the entrance to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park (at the end of unmarked Sycamore Canyon Road) is Big Sur’s most exotic location: Pfeiffer Beach. Walk along its sandy beach, explore its bluffs, and look out onto its imposing off-shore rock formations and bluffs. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor knew this beach well, as they filmed the movie “The Sandpiper” here.
2) Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
About 37 miles south of Carmel, this 1800-acre park, located in the midst of a redwood canyon, has several hiking trails and is famous as a diving spot for sea lions, whales, kelp beds, and over 50 varieties of fish. It also has a beach with beautiful scenery and interesting tidal pools for you to explore. Make sure to visit the 80-foot waterfall that flows out of the granite cliffs directly into the ocean. Some of this park’s higher-elevation trails will give you a panoramic view of the ocean as well as miles and miles of Big Sur’s rugged coastline.
3) Andrew Molera State Park
Located 23 miles south of Carmel, this 4800-acre park has over 3 miles of beach and 16 miles of hiking trails. It is also well-known for surfing, fishing, birdwatching, and camping. This park is a hiker’s dream with its oak and redwood forests. You may even get to see some of its marine wildlife which includes harbor seals, sea lions, and gray whales.
If you are fortunate, you may also see Blue, Humpback, and Orca whales (usually during the summer months).
4) Jade Cove and Sand Dollar Beach
Many people would be surprised to learn that the southern coast of Big Sur is famous for its reserves of jade, a semi-precious stone used in jewelry. Jade Cove is 27 miles south of Big Sur. If you want to visit a beautiful beach (which is also a hang-glider site) and at the same time try your luck at finding some jade, visit this area. It’s a great place for rock-hounds, beachcombers, and photographers.
You should also visit Sand Dollar Beach, which is only 2 miles away. This scenic beach is Big Sur’s longest beach and is well-known for surfing and fishing.
As you approach the end of the Big Sur coastline you will see in the distant hills the famous Hearst Castle. It is definitely worth a visit. As a matter of fact, it is the number two attraction in California after Disneyland! Built by the newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, it took over 32 years to complete. The castle has a main house with 100 rooms, including 38 bedrooms, a movie theatre, a billiard room, 2 libraries, and a medieval dining hall. Within the grounds are also 3 large guest houses, each resembling a Mediterranean villa as well as an indoor mosaic tile swimming pool known as The Roman Bath and an outdoor marble-lined pool known as The Neptune Pool. This latter pool is so large that it holds 345,000 gallons of water! With its Roman-style marble columns and statues, its beautiful multi-colored tiles, its massive size, and its mountaintop setting, it is guaranteed to impress you! You will never see another swimming pool like this!
It is more than coincidence that William Randolph Hearst, one of the world’s richest men, fell in love with the Big Sur area, deciding to build his spectacular castle here, nestled high in the mountains overlooking the entire area. With his wealth, he could have built his home anywhere in the world, yet he chose San Simeon, right on the edge of the Big Sur coastline. When you visit Big Sur, you will understand why he made that choice, as you too will fall in love with Big Sur. Few places offer such spectacular scenery, luxury, and tranquility at the same time—it is the closest place to paradise that you will find!
The easiest way to visit Big Sur is to fly into San Francisco airport and then rent a car and drive south along Highway 1 for about 150 miles or you can catch a connecting flight to the town of Monterey. Rent a car at Monterey Airport and then drive 3 miles south on Highway 1 to the town of Carmel. You can also access Big Sur by driving north from Los Angeles, but it is about a 300-mile drive.
About the author:
Eric Alexander Hamilton lives in Vancouver, Canada. He loves travelling and has lived in several cities such as Paris, London, and Zurich. His passions in life are photography and writing, particularly about travel, self-help and spiritual topics. To him, writing and photography are a natural match, as witnessed in his web site, www.lifedestiny.com. With each passing day, he is trying to follow the advice of the famous American writer, Jack London:, who said: “The proper function of man is to live, not to exist.” It’s advice we should all follow.