Driving California’s Pacific Edge on Big Sur Coast

Big Sur is a place, a region, a destination, a mindset, a way of life.

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Big Sur is Highway 1, the Santa Lucia Mountains, hairpin road turns and crumbling rocky hillsides where cliffs drop to the sea; sometimes taking the road pavement in the process.


Heavy rains in winter months tend to wash rocks into road portions along Pacific Coast Highway 1 between Cambria and Carmel.


Big Sur is coastal redwoods, wild flowers, mountain lions and condors, sea birds, sea lions and sea otters, cormorants, gulls, hawks, elephant seals and harbor seals, and whales in winter months in blue, white and gray sea.


Elephant Seal Beach near San Simeon. April and May are molting season months when hundreds of female seals lie on the beach while their winter hair and skin sloughs off in the sand in an abrupt catastrophic molt.

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Big Sur is self-help, self-reliance, help thy neighbor, planned and spontaneous concerts and entertainment, cliff top restaurants and bars, rural high spender retreats, luxury hotels and backpacker campgrounds.


Nepenthe Restaurant Big Sur sits 800 ft above the Pacific Ocean.


Big Sur burns with fire at times.

Big Sur is ranchers, writers, skilled artisans, mechanics, waiters and outdoor caretakers of this vast rugged space on California’s Central Coast.


Cattle Ranching in San Luis Obispo County on the southern portion of the Big Sur coast drive.

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Big Sur is running away, finding yourself, a place for solitude, a place to embrace nature and humanity.

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Big Sur is a place where you meet the unexpected pleasures of life on the Central Coast of California.



Where is Big Sur?

Big Sur loosely refers to the 135 miles of California Highway 1 coastal road on the western side of the Santa Lucia Mountains winding along the Pacific’s edge from San Luis Obispo to Monterey.


The town of Big Sur sits in a forested valley of redwood trees about 30 miles south of Carmel, and consists of some small markets, restaurants, a few small hotels, several campgrounds and state parks. The population runs around 1,000 year-round residents for an area of several square miles and tourists seem to outnumber the sparsely populated locals most of the time.


Big Sur River valley forest canopy.

Big Sur village is the largest concentration of people along the 100 miles of Highway 1 from Cambria (population 6,000) and Morro Bay (pop. 10,000) in the south to Carmel (pop. 4,000) in the north where the Monterey Peninsula towns offer all services to a local population of about 100,000 residents in the several towns along the southern Monterey Bay coastal area.

Lucia (52 miles south of Carmel), Gorda (60 miles south of Carmel), Ragged Point (75 miles south of Carmel) and San Simeon (90 miles south of Carmel) are other locations with gas stations and a small amount of lodging along the 100 miles of Highway 1 between Carmel and Cambria. These are blink-your-eyes and pass-them-by locations and you find only road, mountains and sea between these blips of service towns on the 70 mile stretch of Highway 1 from Cambria to Big Sur village.

San Luis Obispo (population 45,000) where Highway 1 merges with Highway 101 going south is a university city with shopping malls and all services.

A tourist driving the California central coast along Highway 1 from Monterey to San Luis Obispo basically commits to driving 3 hours and generally longer if you stop for anything like a walk or photos or eating along the rugged coast once you head south past Carmel in Monterey County or north past Cambria in San Luis Obispo County. This 100 mile stretch of road has only a few places with services and there is only one paved road, Nacimiento-Fergusson Road crossing west-east into the Santa Lucia Mountains coast range from Highway 1.

[This post originally stated there are no paved roads across the Santa Lucia Mountains. I did not realize Nacimiento-Fergusson Road about four miles south of Lucia is a paved road going to Highway 101. I have never driven the road. I think I need another road trip.]


Morro Rock at Morro Bay, California.

Loyalty Traveler note: I drove Highway 1 from San Luis Obispo home to Monterey, California on April 27, 2012. The drive was a wonderful experience and four hours was not near enough time to do anything but drive and snap some photos.

A trip to Hearst Castle, dining at an ocean view restaurant, hiking in a redwood forest and swimming in a mountain stream are all enjoyable activities along the way. The Big Sur coastal drive is a place to spend the day or days exploring this stretch of road along the rural central coast of California in San Luis Obispo County and Monterey County.

Update April 30: I added about 300 photos from my Ventura to Big Sur drive on Loyalty Traveler Facebook.

Ventura to Highway 1 Big Sur coast drive Part 1 shows Four Points by Sheraton Ventura, some Santa Barbara County landscapes and Highway 1 Morro Bay to San Simeon. These include photos of elephant seals.

Pacific Coast Highway 1 Big Sur shows landscape photos from Monterey County line north to Big Sur and Garrapata Creek.

Facebook seems much easier to use when you dump all your photos in one album. The tools are less useful when it comes to editing or deleting album photos. Therefore these are larger albums with most of my photos from the drive. Some day I might weed out some of the duplicates and less photogenic pictures.




  • Quasiconvexity April 28, 2012

    Beautiful post, Ric. Visiting Big Sur always brings with it a sense of “coming home” that I find hard to describe. Time for our next drive from LA! Thanks for bringing back wonderful memories.

  • Jenny April 28, 2012

    Great post, Ric! I love Big Sur too. 🙂

  • Peter S April 29, 2012

    I drove from SF to SD on highway one October of 2011. I abusolutely loved it. It is my favorite place in the United States. There is no place that can compare to it.

  • Phil April 29, 2012

    Yes what a wonderful post to pick up on a Sunday morning. Brings back some great memories. We did the coastal route from south to north a couple of years back. Drove up from OC to Cambria one day, over-nighted in Cambria, visited Hearst Castle in the morning and then up the coast to SF in the afternoon. My kids were only 5-6 years old then and despite their young age they loved it too. Absolutely some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.

  • Charles Clarke April 29, 2012

    Nice pictures. Especially the cute beggar.

    Is that a bridge they were working on? Where? Is that fake stone on it?

    I drove Highway 1 years ago, visiting Hearst Castle(take the time to do more than 1 tour if you can) and the redwoods on the way. I remember pulling over several times to let folks pass. They must either have been crazy or folks who know the road well because they were going about 20 over the speed limit around all those curves. I’m from Colorado and used to driving in the mountains in my sporty little car, but even I don’t take blind corners that fast!

  • A. S. April 29, 2012

    Great post. This is one of the trips on my “to do” list!

  • Ric Garrido April 29, 2012

    @Charles Clarke – the photo is from the area called Pitkins Curve and Rain Rocks near Limekiln Creek a couple miles south of Lucia in Monterey County.

    This is where there is one-way traffic controlled by a stop light. The Department of Transportation has been working on the road for several years building a rock shed due to landslides. This is the most frequently closed section of road and the project is about $35 million to build compared to a cost of over $100 million over the next 50 years to maintain temporary emergency work to keep the road open.

    Here is a California DOT document with photos showing how the hillside has slid into the sea over the past 25 years.


  • Jerry April 29, 2012

    My wife and I have made this trip several times , from San Luis Obispo to Monterey

    Most relaxing drive me have ever done
    My advise , make the drive from South to North

    2 things not to miss, the cove and waterfall at Phieffer State Park, about a 1/4 mile walk or more , but not to be missed

    Also, stop for drinks and an apetizer at Nepenthe ,the ocean on one side the mountains on the other.
    It usually takes us about 4 or 5 hours

    One last thing , in my opinion , best time would be Sept / Oct. , it can really get wet and foggy, in the summer and again in the winter

  • Charles Clarke April 30, 2012

    Thank you for the link. That document also answered why they wouldn’t just blast more of the mountain into the ocean and be done with it (the marine sanctuary).

    It seems like every few years a rockslide punches a hole in I-70 through Glenwood Canyon and causes similar problems. Though we don’t have as much moisture or geological activity as out there, so I can imagine it being much worse there. Though the freeze/thaw cycle is bigger here.

  • Ric Garrido April 30, 2012

    @Jerry – the picture of me used in all my social media images is sitting on the cliff a couple hundred feet above the Pacific Ocean at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park about 45 miles south of Carmel on Highway 1.

    The waterfall there is pretty.

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