Driving Into California’s Big Sur Offers a Refreshing Getaway

Updated on March 28, 2018
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Writer, explorer, and road trip warrior, John Marshall fondly recalls the details of his first drive through California's Big Sur region.

In this undated photo, the sun sets on the Pacific Ocean off California's Big Sur region.
In this undated photo, the sun sets on the Pacific Ocean off California's Big Sur region. | Source

Driving Route 1 Is Both Thrilling and Soothing

A drive along State Route 1 down California’s Big Sur coast offers what may be the nation’s most awe-inspiring, soothing, and restorative road trip. Though a stretch of the roadway remains closed in two spots, travelers who want to beat the crowds will still find plenty of opportunities to revel in the area’s stunning beauty.

Tucked about halfway between the state’s two major urban areas—Los Angeles and its sprawling suburbs and the San Francisco Bay Area—a road trip along this stretch of rugged coastline offers a unique opportunity to enjoy California’s most striking seaside scenery.

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve in Big Sur.  Despite road closures on Highway 1, the park is still accessible from the north.
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve in Big Sur. Despite road closures on Highway 1, the park is still accessible from the north. | Source

Partial Road Closure Due to Landslide

Highway 1, the only major road through the remote coastal area, is an iconic stretch of asphalt that snakes along the base, or in some areas is carved into the side of the Santa Lucia Mountains, a mysterious looking and mist-covered range that rises some 5,000 feet above the rocky coastline.

But during huge storms in 2017 a massive landslide in one area of Big Sur covered the entire roadway with dirt and debris, while a slide along another stretch of the highway badly damaged a bridge. The havoc wreaked by the storms cut off access to a wide stretch of the nearly 90 miles or so of coastal highway.

Still, a long section of Highway 1 from the north is now open, where drivers heading south from Carmel can travel about 60 miles along the Big Sur coast before having to turn around at the tiny community of Gorda. Also still open and accessible is nearby Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, a remarkably beautiful spot of towering ocean headlands where visitors can look down into quiet coves below and watch harbor seals and sea otters play in the water or doze on the sand.

A little bit further south, and still accessible, is the iconic Point Sur Lighthouse, which was built in 1889 to guide ships along the rugged coast. Tours of the lighthouse are available year round.

The region is also home to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, a massive preserve covering more than 1,000 acres of coastal wilderness.

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is a huge preserve with more than 1,000 acres of coastal wilderness.
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is a huge preserve with more than 1,000 acres of coastal wilderness. | Source

For drivers coming from the south, Highway 1 is closed just north of Ragged Point, which is another roadway stop offering stunning views of the ocean and beaches below.

And before entering the Big Sur area, northbound drivers roll through the pastoral countryside of California’s Central Coast, with the tiny seaside community of San Simeon the last stop before entering the magical region.

In the steep hills overlooking San Simeon towers the Hearst Castle -- the former home of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Now the mansion is a historic landmark offering tours of its opulent rooms and expansive grounds, providing a glimpse of how the “one percent” lived during America’s Great Depression. It is a stop I highly recommend.

In the hills overlooking San Simeon towers the Hearst Castle -- the former home of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst.
In the hills overlooking San Simeon towers the Hearst Castle -- the former home of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. | Source

Full Roadway Expected to Open in August

In any case, whether coming from the south of the north, drivers can still motor along stretches of Highway 1 as it winds and twists on the edge of towering seaside bluffs.

The entire drive, which is expected to re-open in its entirety in August of 2018, is at one moment relaxing and refreshing, offering expansive views of the region’s gorgeous vistas. But then as one approaches the next sharp curve in the roadway, the trip can immediately become exhilarating, exciting or just plain scary.

When completely open Highway 1 through the Big Sur region is about 90 miles of curvy, winding, but also stunningly beautiful roadway. Enter the region on Highway 1 from Carmel in the north, or from San Simeon in the south. But remember from the north the highway remains closed near Gordo, while from the south, it’s closed near Ragged Point.

Recalling details of my first drive on the highway during a summer road trip are memories I’ll forever cherish.

But later journeys -- the most recent with my girlfriend and partner of several years -- and trips in between where the sound of the tires gripping the roadway was my only companion -- have been comparably refreshing.

For those making the road trip, San Simeon, along the southern approach, is about 230 miles, or about four hours north of Los Angeles.

Carmel, on the northern approach, is about 120 miles, or about two hours south of San Francisco.

When to Go

Though Northern California can get hit by big rain storms from late November into the spring, the state is experiencing another long dry spell.

Crowds are also minimal during the late winter and early spring, leaving Highway 1 wide open and the hotels and motels along the roadway with plenty of vacancies.

And thanks to whatever rain has fallen during the winter, the surrounding hills and mountains are covered in green, a magical type of mist rises from the heights and the air is filled with the combined pungent aroma of the sea and countryside. I once did the trip in late January and felt I had the entire region mostly to myself.

As for the summer, it’s still a beautiful trip, but expect the hotels and motels to be filled and whatever vacancies available to be especially pricey.

For updates on road conditions visit the California Department of Transportation's website.



Highway 1 Hugs the Coast Through the Big Sur Region

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      • JS Marshall profile image
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        John Marshall 6 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        Beautiful area to have as your home town jkenworthy. Thanks for the note!

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        jkenworthy 6 weeks ago

        Great article about my home town! Point Sur Lighthouse, McWay Falls and hiking in Pfeiffer State Park are not to be missed! For additional information on where to stay/eat and other activities, check out this local website: www.lymieonthego.com.

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