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Big Sur is a place of legend; a place where the mountains pushed headlong out of the sea to create an epic coastline of cliffs and canyons. The ruggedness of the area and the fact that the mountains have given very little leeway to anyone mean that very few people live in the area, making it seem all the more remote. That remoteness is part of the allure, creating a place where you feel like you are absolutely alone in the world, and a small speck in the world at that.
You can take as much or as little time as you want to drive the length of Big Sur, which stretches about 90 miles along Highway 1 (the Pacific Coast Highway) between Carmel in the north and San Simeon in the south. Just don’t be fooled — there is no way you’ll make the drive in 1 hour and 30 minutes as you may think. Highway 1 wends its way along the clifftops and you’ll often find yourself going well below the speed limit — especially if you get behind a poor guy that’s decided to take his RV along this hairy coastal road!
There’s no way you’d want to take the minimum amount of time to speed through this area anyway. I spent the better part of two days making my way north and that was far too little time, especially since I felt the need to stop in every turnoff I could possibly find. The views were simply unmatched, and while my brother was of the opinion that “it’s coastline — it looks sort of like the coastline we saw from the last lookout,” I strongly disagreed. Each view seemed to have a unique combination of picturesque bridges, deserted beaches, and huge crags jutting out of the sea that left me mesmerised.
For many, the lure of such vast, undisturbed vistas and the ability to completely immerse yourself in nature would be enough to click ‘buy’ on a one-way flight to San Francisco. However, if you’re not quite sold, here are 14 more reasons to pack your bags, pick up a rental car, and hit the highway.
Ok, so these seals are actually on a beach at “Elephant Seal Vista Point” in San Simeon, which is just south of Big Sur. But seriously — have you ever seen this many seals in one spot before? The view of all the seals arguing over their little patch of sand was mesmerising and I spent much longer than expected there.
I don’t often consider a road itself to be gorgeous, but the Pacific Coast Highway through Big Sur was. Not only was it the windy road of any car enthusiast’s dream, but the barriers, bridges, and other necessary structures to keep traffic safe were simply pretty, like the wooden barriers in the photo above. Even better: the stone barriers. Nice on the eye and even nicer for stopping someone from accidentally driving off a cliff.
Now I can’t vouch for every time of year, but late spring was a great time to be driving the Pacific Coast Highway because the sides of the road were ablaze in all sorts of different colours. The trees in the area were stunning as well; groves of redwoods tower all through Big Sur and it was sad not to have the time to walk in amongst them at the Big Sur River. Next time!
This waterfall, in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, is possibly the most famous spot in all of Big Sur and is one of the few places in the area where you can see a waterfall dropping directly down onto the beach. It absolutely lives up to (and exceeds) expectations and is one of the most naturally beautiful places I’ve seen in my travels. Interestingly enough, there was a landslide in 1983 that completely reshaped the geography of this cove; prior to that, the waterfall dropped directly into the sea.
Need I say more? There’s a picturesque coastline plunging down into the ocean and a sun setting over it. That’s a winning formula if I’ve ever heard one. Aside from how remote it was, how perfect would it have been to live in the house that used to stand in this spot on the McWay Falls track and watch this every night?
While the ocean is often inaccessible in Big Sur due to the size (and sometimes, the instability) of the cliffs, there are still a few options for getting up close and personal with it (although you probably don’t want to be too close given its temperature). Pfeiffer Beach, with its purple (yes, purple!) sand and interesting rock formations, is a good option right in the heart of Big Sur (and one that we completely missed — again, maybe next time). At the very northern end of Big Sur is Point Lobos State Reserve (pictured above), where you could wander for days and still not see all it has to offer.
Most of the photos (aka reasons) here could be considered scenic vistas, but these are some of the more sweeping views along the highway. As mentioned above, there seems to be a new vista around every corner that’s worth stopping for. That, in the end, is what Big Sur is about…and is why the area will sweep you off your feet as soon as you arrive.
Tip: While I drove the Pacific Coast Highway from south to north and truly enjoyed it, if you can, I would recommend driving in the other direction. While driving north does mean you get to drive in the inside lane and stay a bit further away from a few scary corners with steep drops, it also means you have a bit of a dilemma when trying to stop. Either you can pull across the highway into the opposing turnoff — often difficult because you can’t see traffic for very far in either direction — or you have to find an equivalent turnoff on your side of the road. Often these exist, but you’re then faced with sprinting across the highway. I got pretty good at it.