The rugged stretch of California coastline between San Simeon and Carmel has always done its best to ward off interlopers. Even the otherwise-ambitious Spaniards gave it a miss at first. Centuries later, there was still no road through the land that explorers referred to as "el país grande del sur," which may or may not translate roughly as "that place where the parking was so bad, we left and went somewhere else." When the project to build what would become the most adored segment of California's Highway 1 was finally started, it took 18 years to complete. Residents, what few there were, remained largely off the grid until the 1950s.
Today, visitors to Big Sur can glide through roughly 85 miles of stunning scenery in a couple of hours, but the region remains an overwhelming and somewhat unknowable place to many. It's crowded, for starters -- Big Sur after all, is right up there with New York's Times Square on the list of must-sees for many visitors to the United States, let alone us Americans. In addition, many attempt to simply wing it, not realizing how easily the best bits can be missed entirely. Muddling through is fine, but to really get something out of the experience, it's best to come prepared. After years of driving this fabled stretch of road pretty much every way it can be driven, here's what I wish I'd known at the outset.
#1. If you're in a rush, take the freeway.
Big Sur is not something to be checked off on a list of things to do in California. California takes a lifetime to experience properly. That's what makes California great. Give Big Sur at least a day, for goodness' sake. If you can't do that, you're not going to get much out your visit.
#2. Plan ahead.
Forget Google Maps, forget the apps, forget your phone entirely -- service drops off pretty much instantly and stays scarce the entire route. If you want to know what the best hikes are, where the best food is, which state parks you can skip and which ones you absolutely have to brake for, you need to find that out in advance. Just like in ancient (pre-2007) times.
#3. Overnighting is not essential.
While you shouldn't rush through, a full day is actually plenty of time for a first visit to Big Sur. Some people will disagree, but some people have a lot more time on their hands than most, which is really nice for them. Staying over is great but it's inevitably going to be too expensive. Maybe you'll love that $300/night rustic rental cabin 20 minutes from the coastline, or that $1,000 room at the Post Ranch Inn. Perhaps you'll go home and tear your house apart because you liked the retro-fab interiors at Glen Oaks so much and want to copy them. That's great. But there's no denying the fact that your money's going to go a lot further, the moment you leave. And, when you leave, it's not like you're crossing the Hudson River into Secaucus. You're heading toward other parts of California's incredible coastline. Don't be mad.
#4. If you do stay over, be smart.
On the high end, it's always the Post Ranch Inn over Ventana -- Post Ranch has the best location of any hotel along the coastline. On the low end, it's probably Treebones Resort above all else, but don't overspend there. It's essentially camping -- sometimes it's literally camping. Beyond that, the classic Big Sur Lodge, inside Pfeiffer State Park, is a good bet when you can get a decent rate. For a place of your own, take a look at Airbnb.com and Flipkey.com, where you can sometimes find views for a fraction of what you'll get at a hotel. Finally, consider the New Camaldoli Hermitage, a monastery with a prime mountainside location. New Camaldoli is not for everyone -- actually, it's not for most people -- but if silence, simplicity and a total disconnect from the outside world is what you're after, a stay here can be a remarkable experience.
#5. There's no such thing as the "perfect" location in Big Sur.
It's not a town, it's a region. Things are quite far apart. Wherever you stay, you're going to be far from something. Sometimes, a lot of things. Also, that oceanfront perch you're dying to check into, the one that looks so pretty in the pictures? More often than not, it's on the other side of Highway 1. Yes, the road gets quiet at night. Until it doesn't. If the resort or hotel or campground doesn't have a map posted on their site, ask.
#6. No matter how beautiful, Big Sur is a tourist trap.
This is an extremely popular tourist destination with a shallow labor pool. As such, too many service employees here are amateurish at best. (And don't think you're safe on the high end, either, far from it.) To be blunt: It's all highway robbery -- the point is to get taken for as little as you can. Just accept that your business isn't all that important to these places, and you'll be fine. If you can't deal, step aside -- half of Germany would like to check in and/or order an $11 sandwich, please.
#7. Staying at either end often offers great value.
At the northern gateway is the Monterey Peninsula, which has plenty of traps of its own, both of the sand and the tourist kind. Still, here you'll find Pacific Grove, a quaint town in a prime position at the tip of the peninsula. Asilomar, a historic YWCA conference center in a state park, sits on a remarkable, rocky stretch of coastline. Rates can run quite low, even though you're just across the street from the world-famous Pebble Beach golf industrial complex and the beginning of their 17 Mile Drive toll road. (Sidenote: Save your $10 and go for a walk along Spanish Bay instead -- it's practically out Asilomar's front door, and that's one of the drive's best bits anyway.) If Asilomar is booked up or too pricey, a collection of affordable (and sometimes quite charming) motels just across the street will work as well. The Rosedale Inn, for example, has fireplace rooms for as little as $79, plus free continental breakfast. At the southern gateway to Big Sur, the little beach town of Cayucos may be a short drive from the action, but there's something so breezy and pleasant about this seaside village, entirely walkable and with a handful of very good dining options. (At Ruddell's Smokehouse, they take tuna straight off the boat and smoke it, serving it up in giant tacos and over very good salads. Eat here.) Lodging isn't necessarily up-to-the-minute, but that's kind of the point. If Cayucos is too busy or too rich for your blood, Morro Bay is a couple more minutes to the south and possesses its own kind of charm.
#8. Stagger your start time.
You're going to wake up wanting to get right to it in the morning, and that's fine, but be aware that everyone else who's overnighted nearby is going to be thinking the same thing. Also be aware that people have to commute to their jobs on the same road you'll be trying to drive. Stagger your travel, either waiting until the smoke clears, or stopping a lot along the way until things clear up. There's no real hurry, anyway -- nothing quite like the late afternoon light when it collides with wisps of coastal fog. Plus, driving the last patch of road after dark isn't the end of the world, either, should you decide to stick around for the sunset. And you should.
#9. Don't be a snob. The highlights are often highlights for a reason.
The likes of stunningly scenic McWay Falls (pictured up top -- I snapped that on my iPhone, those colors are 100 percent real) and Pfeiffer Beach don't need to justify themselves to you. The former doesn't require paying state park admission; you can find a spot along the highway, right above the Waterfall Trail that takes you to the viewing area. At Pfeiffer Beach, suck it up and pay the $5. Of course, all these admission fees can add up. Unless you're going to give it the time it deserves, Andrew Molera is safely skipped -- it's a long walk through some rather dry, average scenery (it gets hot in there, too) to the beach (Pfeiffer is better) and the more impressive Headlands Trail, but to do it all, you're looking at three miles, which is more than most people feel like walking. Unless you're going to go the distance, save your $10. (Though you can always park on the road and sneak in, like many do.) The same goes for Point Lobos State Park, which besides often being so busy they won't even let you in, is just too crowded considering there are plenty of coastal bluff walks and unmarked little coves you can venture into on your own, just a short drive to the south.
#10. Getting off the beaten path is really, really recommended.
There are, believe it or not, other roads besides Highway 1. Explore them. Narrow Palo Colorado Road disappears into a redwood forest dotted with envy-inducing Hobbit houses, while superbly treacherous Nacimiento Road (be careful!) makes a spectacular climb up and over the coastal range and down into a remote valley, where the remarkably primitive Mission San Antonio de Padua sees few visitors. Note: The campsites on federal land along a scenic creek running parallel to the road about 45 minutes away from Highway 1 make a fine alternative to the overcrowded coastal options -- $15 a night and no reservations required.
#11. There is actually some good food here.
The list is short, but potent. At the southern gateway is Sebastian's General Store, located at Hearst Ranch in San Simeon. They open at 11 in the morning; this is a fine place to eat an early lunch. Get the burger or the roast beef sandwich. It's historic, it's charming -- you'll like it. Up at the heart of what passes for an actual village of Big Sur (just barely!) is the justifiably famous Big Sur Bakery, perhaps your best bet along the entire route. Their sweets are superb and sell out too soon. The actual menu -- flatbreads, entrees, soups, salads -- is far more serious than you might expect in such a casual location and generally very good. Caveat: If they're busy, be prepared to wait, sometimes too long. Impatient types can always just grab some goodies at the counter and keep moving. (Be aware that this is the only proper espresso bar along the entire route. There are other places to get coffee, sure, but this is the one you want.) If you require a proper sit-down meal, Sierra Mar's up-in-the-sky location at the exclusive Post Ranch Inn cannot be beat, here in Big Sur or in most places, to be honest. A $50 prix-fixe lunch menu is available to the public; reservations are a great idea. The food is fine, the service can be tepid. (A great way to get their attention: Try to walk off onto the resort's very private property. They usually wake right up.) For a sit-down lunch experience that's more low-key, the Big Sur Roadhouse serves three meals daily, straight through until 9 p.m., making it the best option for people who don't like to plan ahead. Good food, good drinks, nice vibe. Breakfast is good too, but if you're coming south from Monterey at that hour, it's tough to beat pastries and coffee at the Big Sur Bakery.
#12. And if you're hungry when you get out...
Southbound, I always save my appetite for Robin's in Cambria. Touristy, but popular for good reason. Even if you just go in for the salmon bisque, some very good garlic bread and a glass of Central Coast wine, you've done good. Service is usually nice and the prices are fair. Northbound, Restaurant 1833, just a few minutes off the highway in Monterey, is a classy kind of place -- stop in for a cocktail and a bit of chill time by the fire pits, at least. If you want something quick, it's fun to stop in at the market and deli operated by Earthbound Farm (yes, that Earthbound Farm), a few minutes off the highway in the scenic-in-its-own-right Carmel Valley. A wander through the you-pick herb garden out back can be just the thing, after all that driving.
#13. When you're done, be done for the day.
Rushing off to San Francisco or Los Angeles when you're through with Big Sur is a crime. There's too much else to see. The drive from Santa Cruz to San Francisco along Highway 1 deserves a day of its own. Santa Cruz itself is a must, so are the Santa Cruz Mountains -- think wineries and great redwood hikes. Southbound, don't miss Morro Bay for exemplary garlic fries (Giovanni's) and local seafood down by the docks, or quiet coves and forests of eucalyptus tucked away inside Montaña de Oro State Park in nearby Los Osos. Santa Barbara's wine country is also along the way -- that takes a day to do correctly, but if you've only got a little time, hit Zaca Mesa for a bottle of crisp and refreshing Viognier in their pleasant courtyard, stop at Martian Ranch to taste of some of the region's latest hits, then do lunch at Bell Street Farm, or early dinner at Full of Life Flatbread -- either way, you'll be eating some of the best food on the Central Coast.
#14. One last time: Slow down.
It's easy to get into a rut of trying to make time, trying to overtake people, trying to break free from traffic snarls. The only thing to do when you get to this point is to pull over at one of the many (many!) turnouts and chill for a minute. If all you're taking away from your visit to one of the continent's most beautiful places is that the traffic was terrible, you did it wrong.
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