Want to take the ultimate California road trip? Drive California’s Highway 1 along the Central Coast. It’s rightfully rated as one of the top road trips in the world.
This is a particularly breathtaking drive, especially through Big Sur, where the Santa Lucia mountains plunge into the sea, and the surf and wind relentlessly pound the rocks and shore below and bend the native cypress trees into otherworldly shapes. You’ll see coves painted in shades of turquoise, sapphire, and teal, that will make you long to plant your flag and declare that beach your own. It’s a wild remote beauty that will definitely have you pondering the mystery of the universe, if you’re the pondering type.
Before you embark on the ultimate California road trip, let me share a few tips to help you along the way. While it’s a fun drive, it can be very challenging and demands 100 percent of your attention.
I’ll also share some of the top attractions from Monterey to Cambria. Keep in mind this is a small selection. Honestly there is so much to see and do, especially if you’re an outdoor enthusiast, I can’t cover it all in one article.
The trip takes about five hours if driven at a leisurely pace. You can drive from the north to the south (Monterey to San Luis Obispo), or south to north. I drove it both directions, taking longer to drive back because I had no place I had to be at the end of the day. I also liked driving north to south best, because the ocean was on my right side and it was easier to pull off in the turn-outs to take pictures.
Top Tips For Driving Highway 1
Driving a comfortable and reliable car is a must. This is a two-lane mountain road. In some places, the shoulder is quite narrow and there’s not much between you and the sea below. There’s a forty to fifty mile stretch that’s full of hairpin twists and turns. I drove a 2015 Kia Forte which handled the curves perfectly. I actually felt kind of proud of myself making this drive on my own. Honestly, I’d not have done it my own car, a gently worn Nissan Sentra – it just doesn’t have the same turning radius or get up and go as the Kia did. I was happy I could pick up speed quickly, and I think that’s an important consideration. You’ll be pulling over a lot to admire the sweeping vistas – and of course snapping lots of photos.
Go in the off season. The main reason to go in the off season is probably obvious, but let me be clear: driving this road with heavy traffic would make it that much more challenging. The distance from Cambria to Big Sur is only 60 miles but it takes at least two hours depending on how many stops you make.
California gets plenty of sunshine, and it’s not that cold in the winter; even in the off season, the weather is temperate. I was there the first week of the year and it was chilly in the mornings but sunny, and warmed as the day went by. Just be sure to dress appropriately.
If you go during the off season, the only activity that you may miss out on is working on your tan. You can still surf, hike, go whale-watching, and enjoy everything else that makes California so popular.
Here’s a great article from USA Today about whale watching on the California coast.
Be sure you’ve filled up the car with gas before you hit the road. Between Cambria and Big Sur, there are 40 miles of highway – and no gas stations.
If you need to use the bathroom, don’t wait. Again, there’s no place to stop, even on the road side. The only places to pull over are turn outs, where there will be other tourists. No privacy.
Don’t rush it. This drive is truly one of the bucket list experiences that people dream about. Take your time. Smell the ocean air, notice the natural beauty around you, stop and look for whales migrating up the coast, and feel the tension leave your body as the relaxed California atmosphere permeates every cell. Do you feel it?
Make sure you have a great camera with you, and that you have a fully charged battery and plenty of memory on the card. Be sure to ask someone to snap a photo of you in that stunning scenery. I saw plenty of people with selfie sticks, a trend I won’t imbibe in, but it is an option if you’re traveling alone.
If you suffer from carsickness, be the driver. Once you enter the Big Sur area, the road is a bit of a roller coaster. If for some reason you cannot drive, be prepared with some non-drowsy Dramamine; you don’t want to fall asleep and miss all the gorgeous scenery.
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About twenty miles north of San Luis Obispo is San Simeon and Hearst Castle. Once the home of publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst, the castle is now a state park and a vacation destination in itself. Hearst and his father spent a lot of time camping on this land and when young William Randolph inherited the land from his mother, the story goes that he told the architect, Julia Morgan, he wanted to “build a little something.”
I took the Grand Rooms tour when I visited this time.Though the house is a magnificent example of Mediterranean and Gothic architecture, and filled with antiquities from all over the world, my favorite part of the tour remains the indoor Roman pool. From the exquisite blue tile work to the beautiful soft ambient lights and the mirror reflection of the water, this pool begs you to lose yourself in its deep blue calm.
I love the stories of famous personalities, frequent guests at the castle, sneaking out to the pool after hours for a little romantic interlude in one of the many secluded corners. Cary Grant was quoted as saying “The Roman pool is a great place to get to know someone just a little bit better.” I wouldn’t mind meeting up with him there at all.
You’ll want to book a castle tour in advance. After the tour, you can wander around the grounds outside to your heart’s content. Plan to spend at least two hours here.
To book online and more information visit the website: www.hearstcastle.org
Elephant Seal Viewing Area
Just past Hearst Castle is the Pieras Blancas Elephant seal rookery. These animals are actually quite ugly, but interesting to watch. They’re also really noisy, especially during mating season. The shore area is dotted with large lava rock, and it can be hard to distinguish the seals from the rocks when they are in the water. The day I drove past, there was a backup of cars waiting to get into the parking lot. This is another good reason to go off season, or a weekday.
Attractions in the Big Sur Area
This may be the most photographed bridge in California, aside from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Bixby Bridge is a single-span concrete arch more than 260 feet high and 700 feet long. You can park at a turn out at either end to take photographs. Bixby Bridge, along with Garrapata and Rocky Creek Bridge, were built in the 1930s and paved the way for tourism to come to Big Sur. The only road prior to Highway 1 was the Old Coast Road. It remains an unpaved road and not suitable for standard passenger automobiles.
Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park
A great place for hiking, this park is best known for McWay Falls, a 100-foot waterfall that cascades from an 80 foot high drop off into the cove below.
The trail to get there is quite easy and it’s such an iconic spot, you really do have to see it. Don’t park on the side of the road. You’ll see that a lot of people do, but I think it could be dangerous; there’s plenty of parking in the park, itself, at least in the off-season.
The falls used to drop into the ocean, but due to a landslide several years ago, now drop on the sandy cove. It’s an idyllic spot and one that makes you wish you could actually get to it. There is signage everywhere warning against it. Be smart and admire safely from afar.
Nepenthe is an indoor/outdoor restaurant best known for its views, but it also has an interesting history. The restaurant and surrounding land has been in the family for over 50 years. There’s also a very nice gift shop there with handcrafted jewelry, unique fragrances, books, and children’s gifts.
North of Big Sur
After you pass Big Sur it’s about thirty or forty minutes to Carmel by the Sea. Carmel is also known as “the little town in the forest by the sea,” which is a lovely and quaint description. It has a bit of a European feel, because it’s really a place to walk. There are many unique shops, galleries, and great restaurants. The beach there is known as one of the best places on the Monterey Peninsula to watch the sun set.
Carmel was voted #2 Best Small City in the USA by Conde Nast Travel last year.
Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary
The black-and-orange butterflies spend much of the fall and winter in the local Monterey Pine trees, roughly from Halloween until Valentine’s Day. Residents of Pacific Grove help the butterfly’s habitat by planting purple and yellow flowers, such as lantana, yellow aster, Pride of Madera, and Mexican Sage, in what are called Butterfly Gardens.
Point Pinos Lighthouse
Since 1855, the Point Pinos Lighthouse has been a beacon for ships on the Pacific coast. It’s the oldest continually operating lighthouse on the west coast, and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Need to know: the hours of operation are Thursday – Monday 1:00 – 4:00 pm.
A personal side note: I left a ring in the bathroom at the lighthouse and didn’t realize it until I was back in my room several hours later. I miraculously thought to check if they had a Facebook page. Lo and behold, they do! I left a message about leaving the ring in the ladies room and asked if it had been found. The next morning, I was on my way to pick it up. You might say the lighthouse cast some illumination on how to best make contact with them, thereby reuniting me with my ring. Ok, it’s a stretch, but I will never forget the lighthouse.
From there you’re just minutes from Monterey and the world famous Monterey Aquarium and Cannery Row.
Monterey Bay Aquarium opened in 1984 and quickly became one of the most visited aquariums in the world, receiving over 2 million visitors per year. Located on the north end of Cannery Row, it’s on the former site of the Hovden Cannery, the last cannery to close, in 1973.
Cannery Row, originally Ocean View Avenue, is famous largely due to John Steinbeck’s novel for which the street is named. The book was the basis for a film named Cannery Row, featuring Debra Winger and Nick Nolte. One of the main characters, Doc, was real person – a scientist named Edward F. Rickets. His lab still exists and across the street is a Chinese-American owned store, also mentioned in the novel.
(I am reading an excellent book about Steinbeck and Monterey by author Susan Shillinglaw, A Journey Into Steinbeck’s California. You can purchase this book at the Aquarium or the Steinbeck house in Salinas if you go there. You can also obtain a copy through Roaring Forties Press).
Today Cannery Row is filled with shops, restaurants, and hotels, and is a tourist attraction in Monterey.
Great weather almost 365 days a year, a laid back attitude, and scenery that has inspired romantics, creatives, explorers, and adventurers for centuries – any time of year is a great time to take the Ultimate California Road Trip.
No matter when you go, California’s Highway 1 is the Ultimate California Road Trip.
My road trip was sponsored by Kia and See Monterey. However all content is editorial and I am under no obligations to write anything at all.
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