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BIG SUR BECKONS

By Wendy van Diver
Bixby Bridge - Visit California/Myles McGuinness
Bixby Bridge - Visit California/Myles McGuinness

SEVEN HOURS NORTH OF DOWNTOWN SAN DIEGO along California’s rugged Pacific Coast lies the base of a magnificent, mystical land called Big Sur. With a formidable jagged, rocky terrain, it remains relatively untouched by human development. Yet one singular road, aptly named Highway 1, beckons you. At least once in a lifetime, you simply must heed the call. 

There’s even an aura of mystery in the name, Big Sur. It’s derived from el país grande del sur, Spanish for the unexplored and unmapped coastal wilderness lying just south of Monterey. This captivating area stretches about 90 miles from San Simeon to Carmel-by-the-Sea. It’s easy to navigate, because Highway 1 (also called the Pacific Coast Highway) is the only route: climbing, dipping, and winding along the very edge of the continent, with countless places to stop and take in the breathtaking views. In fact, Highway 1 through Big Sur is so distinct, it has been designated an American National Scenic Byway and California Scenic Highway, making it a destination unto itself. From south to north, here are the best places to stop along the way.

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PIEDRAS BLANCAS ROOKERY
Start your journey with an up-close and personal view of elephant seals. Fall is a particularly exciting time here. Through October, females and “teens” arrive on shore and, in November, the adult males start to arrive and stake their territories for mating season.

JADE COVE
Named for the jade stones that can be found on its shore, Jade Cove is located two miles south of Sand Dollar Beach. The trail from Highway 1 to the cove is pretty straightforward and it gives you a chance to admire the foliage and hawks soaring overhead. At low tide, you can stroll the beach as you admire the natural beauty of the surrounding green cliffs and watch for black or blue-green jade stones underfoot.

ESALEN INSTITUTE
This iconic nonprofit center provides an oasis for exploring and realizing human potential through experience, education, and research. Although it’s not appropriate to drop in unannounced, Esalen welcomes you with a robust program of weekend, five-day, and seven-day workshops that you can look at and reserve online.

McWay Falls - Visit California/Myles McGuinness
McWay Falls - Visit California/Myles McGuinness

JULIA PFEIFFER BURNS STATE PARK
Very pretty and easily accessible, this park offers seven marked trails, including the shortest, Waterfall Overlook Trail where you can get a view of McWay Falls, an 80-foot waterfall just yards from the ocean. Need more steps? Head north to Partington Cove, identified by a green gate. Follow the north trail to a small rocky beach or the south trail through a historic tunnel. Surf conditions are unpredictable, so swimming and wading are not advised.

BIG SUR RIVER INN
Originally named the Apple Pie Inn, this cozy accommodation was Big Sur’s first hotel and restaurant. It’s set on the banks of the Big Sur River, where guests sit back in Adirondack chairs and feel the water rush through their toes. If you don’t reserve a room, stop in the general store and order a meal at the restaurant. Check your gas gauge before you head north because your next chance for fuel is in 22 miles.

Big Sur River Inn - Lacey Sutton
Big Sur River Inn - Lacey Sutton

HENRY MILLER MEMORIAL LIBRARY
This intimate spot, complete with a garden for meditation, houses the literary and artistic works of Henry Miller. Considered rather edgy in his day (his first novel, Tropic of Cancer, was banned in the United States for nearly three decades after it was published in Paris in 1934), Miller resided in Big Sur for several years. He is credited with saying, “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” Browse the bookstore and simply take it all in.

NEPENTHE
Time spent in Big Sur is not complete without a visit to Nepenthe. This singular property,  perched atop a peak overlooking the sea, has a fascinating history including the likes of Henry Miller, Orson Welles, and Elizabeth Taylor. The restaurant building, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright protégé Rowan Maiden, is one with its surroundings. Nepenthe means the house of no sorrow. So smile, put your name in, and wait to be seated. Afterward, explore The Phoenix Gift Shop, offering an array of  gift items, clothing, and other treasures.

Nepenthe - copyright 2018, Tom Birmingham
Nepenthe - copyright 2018, Tom Birmingham

OLD COAST ROAD
Looking for a road less traveled? About 12 miles north of Nepenthe, on the right side of Highway 1, you’ll find a road marker for an enchanting, heavily wooded passageway into the Big Sur Coast Range. Most vehicles can handle the sandy road in dry conditions. Be sure to take it slow as you navigate the tight turns along narrow ledges.

POINT LOBOS
Just three miles before you reach Carmel-by-the-Sea, you’ll come upon Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. This stunning spot is popular, and cars are often parked outside the entrance, but don’t let that deter you. For a scenic, less-than-one-mile walk, follow the Cypress Grove Trail and watch for sea otters floating near the shore. Visit the Whalers Cabin and Whaling Station Museum too.

For more information, visit bigsurcalifornia.org.

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve - SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve - SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
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PLAN YOUR TRIP

WHEN TO GO
Always captivating, Big Sur is especially inviting in the fall, when the climate is moderate and mountain foliage alights with autumn hues.

WHERE TO STAY
Accommodations range from secluded resorts to campgrounds. We particularly like:

Post Ranch Inn
postranchinn.com

Treebones Resort
treebonesresort.com

Big Sur River Inn
bigsurriverinn.com

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
parks.ca.gov

MORE TO DO
Hiking and Bird Watching
Year-round

Steelhead Trout Fishing
Mid-November–Mid-February

Grey Whale Watching
December–March

DATES TO KNOW
Big Sur Food & Wine Festival
November 1–3

Big Sur Fall Harvest Arts & Crafts Fair
November 14–26