Writer, explorer, and road trip warrior, John Marshall fondly recalls the details of his first drive through California's Big Sur region.
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 sections of the iconic roadway are occasionally closed by landslides caused by winter rains, during California's dry summers the entire highway is wide open, offering travelers uninterrupted 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.
Highway 1 Only Major Road Along the Big Sur Coast
Highway 1, the only major road through the remote coastal area, is a winding 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.
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 had cut off access to a wide stretch of the nearly 90 miles or so of coastal highway.
But with the highway wide open, drivers heading south from Carmel, and the San Francisco Bay area, or north from Cambria and the Los Angeles area, have access to all of the region's scenic spots, including Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. The reserve is a remarkably beautiful hideaway of towering ocean headlands where visitors can look down into quiet coves below and watch harbor seals and sea otters bounding about in the surf or dozing away on the sand.
A little bit further south 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.
For drivers coming from either direction, Ragged Point is another roadway stop that offers 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.
Driving Along Big Sur Both Relaxing and Thrilling
Whether coming from the south or the north, drivers can enjoy motoring along stretches of Highway 1 as it winds and twists on the edge of towering seaside bluffs.
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The drive 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.
In all, 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. 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
As Albert Hammond sang in a 1972 hit song, "It never rains in California, but girl don't they warn ya, it pours man it pours," Northern California can get drenched in huge rain storms from late November into the spring. But rain is so rare during the summer and into the fall that when it does rain it's the top news story on the local news stations.
Crowds are 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, but during the summer expect the hotels and motels to be filled and whatever vacancies available to be especially pricey. Immediately after Labor Day weekend though the crowds drop off and room rates decline.
Thanks to the winter rain and the year-round coastal mist that clings to the coastline, the surrounding hills and mountains are typically covered in green, with magical wisps of fog rising from the heights, filling the air 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. I've also done the trip during the summer, when it's busy, but the drive is still a pleasure.
For updates on road conditions visit the California Department of Transportation's website.
Highway 1 Hugs the Coast Through the Big Sur Region
Questions & Answers
Question: My family is planning a trip to SF area in late June. Would it be better to do a BigSur and Monterey excursion on the front-end or last part of the trip?
Answer: I might suggest you plan the visit during the front-end of your trip. The area is so beautiful that you might decide to spend an extra day or so.
Question: We are planning a road trip to San Francisco to Los Angeles in mid-December. Will highway 1 be open then?
Answer: Yes, highway 1 will be open. Here's what I wrote in the article: "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."
Question: I am planning a trip to Big Sur in late August. A section from Ragged Point to Gorda will still be closed. Will I miss much in that area? I have the option to delay the trip to late spring, 2019. Is it worth delaying?
Answer: If you're coming from the north, you will still be able to enjoy most of Big Sur -- or about 60 miles -- before reaching Gorda. It's a beautiful spot by the way for a turnaround point. So, I wouldn't see the need to delay the trip until 2019. On the other hand, if coming from the south, you would only be able to see about 15 to 20 miles of Big Sur before having to turn around or take an extremely lengthy detour.