When you’re talking about Big Sur, it’s not just the destination, it’s the journey, an exceptional one that begins about 20 miles (45 minutes) to the north.
In the mood to to come with us on a trip to this magical place? Then jump in the backseat of our car and join us! We're leaving now!
Given its relative close proximity to SSCS (definitely a fringe benefit of working here) and the (somewhat) concentrated population of the Monterey Peninsula, it’s hard to believe just how remote and otherworldly the Big Sur and its surroundings can seem. That's part of its appeal: visitors can voyage to a timeless, otherworldly destination and, if they so choose, be back in time for dinner in Carmel, Monterey, etc.
It all starts at the southernmost limit of Carmel, California, the intersection of Rio Road and the only road that matters, at least for the balance of this trip, California State Highway 1.
The departure point isn't all that special. A modern shopping center called the Crossroads with some good fast casual restaurants (shout out to R.G. Burgers!) figures prominently. There is little indication you are about to leave civilization to be embraced by nature's overwhelming presence.
Well, we guess the pig crossing sign might provide some kind of clue.
As we begin our progress southward, the Pacific Ocean to wastes little time making its presence known on the right (where it will remain for the duration of the trip) as the hills, houses, and trees recede in deference to Monastery Beach.
The beach, though a consistently popular place to visit, has a reputation for treacherous currents and life threatening undertow. For that reason, locals know it as Mortuary Beach. One local writer, a part-time diver himself, wrote a short story by that name about the potential devastation that can befall even the most prepared.
The fact remains, however, that the true name of the beach is Monastery Beach, and that’s because rising into the sky, right across Highway 1, is the Carmelite Monastery, built in 1931 and home to a cloistered order of Carmelite nuns. Its beautiful, peaceful grounds are maintained by the order.
A small convent just south of the monastery is quaint in its own right.
Less than a mile down the road from Highway 1 is the first major highlight of our journey: Point Lobos State National Reserve. This isn’t the last state park we’ll be visiting, but it is one of the most impressive and easily can stand up against any recreational area in the California State Park System.
The thing that makes Point Lobos (and quite frankly, so many other attractions on this journey) so great, is the staggering juxtaposition of earth, sea, and sky that’s featured throughout. We hope the pictures included here provide a sense of just how impressive the combination can be.
Insider’s tip: it’s $10 to bring your vehicle into the Point Lobos proper, but if you are willing to park on Highway 1 and walk back in (it’s a little over a mile until you get to the good stuff), you can enjoy the surroundings for free.
Once you pass Point Lobos, you only have to travel a fraction of a mile before you arrive at the Carmel Highlands, the last true vestige of civilization before the Big Sur Coast begins.
The Carmel Highlands is (are?) an unincorporated, but high end residential area. Most homes are off the main highway and somewhat hidden. The seclusion is no doubt why many celebrities past and present have established vacation and permanent homes here.
You’ll know you’re in the Highlands when you round the bend and the Carmel Highlands General Store comes into view, the last place you can fuel up before Big Sur.
(For another taste of the Carmel Highlands, although a somewhat dated one, you might want to check out the thriller Play Misty for Me with Clint Eastwood. A centerpiece of the movie is a house in the Highlands. The movie is suspenseful in large part because of the remoteness of the area. When it gets dark at night, it gets DARK.)
Keep going past the general store and you’ll pass one of the more romantic hotels on the whole peninsula, the Hyatt Carmel Highlands. You’ll have to crane your neck upwards to see it from Highway 1, however, as it towers over the northernmost part of the Big Sur Coast, affording guests spectacular room and restaurant views.
I guess you could say it’s a honeymoonin’ kind of place. Here’s the view from across the road looking down into and across the Pacific Ocean.
As we move south of the Hyatt, we say goodbye to civilization as we know it, at least for awhile. Highway 1 curves to the left, a vista opens up, and you’re confronted with all of the beauty and promise that the Big Sur Coast has to offer (in case you’re interested, our car will eventually travel the perimeter of that mountain in the distance jutting out to the right):
This first look will not disappoint. For the next 15 miles we’ll weave back and forth on a ribbon of road that winds between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Lucia mountains abutting it. If you had to pick one attribute that makes the Big Sur Coast uniquely memorable, it is this legendary juxtaposition of earth and water. Our next stop, Garrapata State Park, is the perfect opportunity to experience this convergence firsthand. The park’s hard to miss, not only because of the surfeit of cars you’ll find parked nose in on the left (going south), but because of this landmark farmhouse (at least everyone says it’s a farmhouse):
Garrapata is prime hiking territory and highly recommended for those staying on the Peninsula, partly because it doesn’t take that long to get there. It’s also notable in that it offers two distinct kinds of experiences to those on foot. Take a walk on the “mountain side” and it won’t take long before you find yourself nestled within ferns, pines, and other greenery that form an insular setting creating a world far removed from the coast. If you’re in good shape, you can make this adventure as challenging as you like by continuing up the Santa Lucia mountains as far as you can go (if the sun is out it can get plenty hot on the mountainside, so make sure you bring lots of water).
If your preference is trekking out in the open with panoramic views of the ocean, just cross Highway 1 to get to any number of trails that allow you to do just that. Watch your footing, though. You don’t want to tumble down the steep bluffs leading to the raw, natural beaches below.
Time to get back in the car. Just so you know, we’re going to keep our mouth shut for awhile and let the scenery speak for itself. After that, we’ll probably be pretty hungry and we have a good idea where we might pause for lunch. In the meantime, keep your eyes open and enjoy the views, both on the mountain side…
…and the ocean side.
Okay, we’re almost half way to Big Sur, so this is probably the perfect time to replenish ourselves. Out here, when you’re talking lunch (or dinner) there’s only one option, the Rocky Point Restaurant. It’s a nice sunny day, so maybe we should sit out on the patio. It looks pretty inviting, don’t you think?
If you’re in the mood for some lunchtime conversation, maybe we’ll tell you about the Dark Watchers, who some say roamed the wilds of Big Sur long before the Esselen Indians. Does that sound interesting? We thought so.
Big Sur has a well-deserved reputation for being a magical place, and there are many reasons for that—its remoteness, the shroud of fog in which it is often draped, the hidden trails that wind through the recesses of the Santa Lucia mountains, to name a few. While those kinds of traits add to the beauty and mysticism of the area, they also lend the region an aura of the supernatural.
Which brings us to the Dark Watchers. As elusive as Bigfoot and the Yeti, these apparitions have inhabited the Santa Lucia Mountains at least as long as the indigenous peoples of the area. In fact, some say they are represented in the earliest cave paintings of the Chumash tribe. Early Spanish explorers called them “Los Vigilantes Oscuros.” Local author John Steinbeck alludes to them in his short story, “Flight.”
Most often seen during dusk by isolated hikers and campers, the Dark Watchers are human in form, though imposing in their height, which is estimated at least seven feet. They wear long dark capes and wide-brimmed hats, using walking sticks to assist them as they wander amidst the mountains. Their habit of gazing longingly into the mountains is well-documented, but what they may be looking for—indeed, their very purpose—remains a mystery. If you are interested in exploring this local legend in more detail, In Search of the Dark Watchers, a fantastic coffee table book with art by California landscape painter Benjamin Brode and text by Thomas Steinbeck (John’s son), is a good place to start.
Continuing southward, we’re going to take a quick detour inland onto Palo Colorado Road, which intersects the highway at an area known as Notley’s Landing (which was a populated village from 1898 to 1907). Since it’s mid-day we’re likely not going to run into any Dark Watchers, but Palo Colorado emits a spookiness of its own, at least when you first drive in and see a sign advising that you “Turn on Lights” even at noontime. This is the deep woods. Who knows what we might find?
As it turns out this is one of the more remote enclaves you’ll find along Highway 1, an area full of rustic cabins nestled beneath a redwood forest.
You won’t find too many modern amenities here, but that’s not what motivates people to live here. It’s the quiet and the isolation. If someone dropped you here by parachute you’d never guess you were a fraction of a mile away from a major throughway.
Palo Colorado, the road, continues miles past Palo Colorado, the community, and ends in Bottchers Gap Campground with any number of hiking trails that provide stunning views of the Santa Lucia Mountains and the Ventana Wilderness (and also home to Camp Pico Blanco, a Boy Scout camp). Unfortunately, we don’t have time to check out the full length of the road today, so we’re going to carefully make a u-turn and head southward again. Our reward will be getting a close look at one of the most iconic landmarks on the Big Sur Coast.
There are five bridges spanning Highway 1, constructed during the Great Depression. The one most associated with the Big Sur Coast, and which has come to stand a symbol of the magnificence of its coastline, is the Bixby Creek Bridge.
Completed in 1932, Bixby Creek Bridge has become ubiquitous in popular culture. In addition to functioning, for all intents and purposes as a regional trademark, local news shows, car commercials, television series, and movies use it often when they need to up their aesthetic game. It even has adorned a postage stamp. Truly, the only way to absorb the full extent of the bridge’s awesomeness is to park, get out of your car, and take it in on foot. Be careful, though. On weekends and holidays the area is swimming in traffic. Vying for a parking spot becomes akin to a competitive sport.
We have just one more point of interest before we reach Big Sur, the Point Sur Lighthouse. We won’t be able to get any closer to it than the road because it’s winter right now. Tours are scarce and the gate is closed, but this Victorian Era lighthouse is still picturesque when viewed from a distance, mainly because it stands atop a volcanic rock 361 feet in height. If we have a recommendation about this place it’s to try to take a moonlight tour in either April or September when your odds of being blanketed by fog are at a minimum.
As we continue south toward the heart of Big Sur, it's not unusual to get the feeling that you are entering a fantasy land of some sort, perhaps through a magical portal. Our car’s been out in plain view for quite a few miles, with the wide blue Pacific on one side and the unencumbered rise of the Santa Lucias on the other, when Highway 1 begins to descend. It happens quickly. The sun disappears. The ocean’s gone. You’re at the bottom of a redwood forest. You’re the threshold of Big Sur’s heart, the Big Sur River Valley.
Let’s keep going.
The Big Sur business district (in the loosest sense of the word) doesn’t extend far beyond either side of Highway 1. As a result, you’ll find many campgrounds, natural reserves, and parks to visit.
There’s also the Ventana Wilderness, which incorporates the Santa Lucia Mountains and dozens of interesting trails. We once hiked the 11 or so miles through the wilderness to Tassajara Hot Springs and back again in the same day. Splashing around in the natural hot springs was pretty cool and the scenery was amazing, but we were wiped when got back to our campground.
Anyway, Big Sur is home to a variety of lodging types, but you won’t find an overabundance of them. Wikipedia estimates that there are only 300 motel and hotel rooms between Carmel and Hearst Castle, which is about 66 miles south of Big Sur. Visitors come here for the isolation, unique low-key dining establishments, and artisanal goods. The irony is, given that there’s only main road (Highway 1) in and out, the place can get pretty jammed up on the weekends and in the summer, resulting in the kind of stress that is the exact opposite of what people come to experience.
That’s one of the perks of being a local that works at SSCS. We’re here on a Wednesday in February, so we’ve got it pretty good. It’s quiet enough that we’ll probably hear the rustle of redwood branches in the air around us and the gentle lapping of the Big Sur River as it rushes over and around the rocks and roots that intermingle with it.
So let’s keep proceeding.
The first major hub of activity accessible from Highway 1 comes up on your right, The Big Sur River Inn. Besides a small number of rustic rooms, there’s a pretty good restaurant (we say this from experience, we’ve had at least three Valentine’s Day dinners there), a general store, and a small shopping hub. However, there’s no question that the Inn’s biggest attraction is the vast green lawn spreading out from the back of the property right up to the Big Sur River. Large wooden chairs are provided that you can enjoy on the grass or pull right up into the water if it’s a hot day. The restaurant has a deck that looks right out over this landscape. The atmosphere is unparalleled.
The left and right sides of Highway 1 are scattered with other small, non-pretentious inns that fill up fast during tourist season. There’s Ripplewood, which features a restaurant and a village of cabins down by the river off of the highway:
Up on the right, not too far further, is another wood-themed destination, Fernwood. It, too, has a general store and a restaurant, along with a small, unique-looking motel:
When it comes to lodging, however, you should know that Big Sur is more than simply back-to-basics, small scale retreats. It’s also home to some of the most luxurious (and pricey) resorts in the state (oddly enough, there isn’t really anything available between the two extremes). One of the most picturesque of the high-end destinations is a place that takes its name from the wilderness abutting it, the Ventana Inn and Spa:
World renowned, the Ventana Inn accommodates visitors with a wide variety of lodging options, including villas, suites, and cottages, all of them exuding elegance. The grounds aren’t so bad, either:
The Ventana Inn is on the southern edge of Big Sur. Before we finish this post, though, we’d like to put in a word for the Big Sur Bakery, a craft bakery that has a reputation for quality that extends far beyond the Big Sur River Valley, just as its menu extends well beyond baked goods. We happen to like it, not only because it’s in a peaceful location off the road, but because it’s picturesque, looking exactly as a bakery in Big Sur should:
There are any number of interesting locations just south of Big Sur, before Highway One thins out and begins to wind its way down to San Simeon and Cambria. It’s a mostly deserted stretch (unless you count such isolated respites as Lucia, Pacific Valley, and the Treebones Resort) that’s a time-consuming, tough (treacherous at night) drive.
But you don’t have to venture out on the remote part of the road to enjoy what lies beyond Big Sur. We’ll start with Nepenthe, which is close enough to be considered part of Big Sur Proper. It’s a restaurant, but the grounds (collectively referred to as Nepenthe) also contain the Café Kevah. Both are outdoor eateries that sit high on a bluff with stunning views of the coastline.
The fog had rolled in by the time we got there, which dampens the effect of the above picture (not that you could tell, but there’s actually scenery in the background). However, the header photo of Part One of this series gives you a nice look at the view on a clear day, although we have to admit that same view on a foggy day does have its own ethereal charm:
Nepenthe is also home to the Phoenix Shop, an upscale book store/boutique that also carries ceramics, toys, musical instruments, and other merchandise that might be described as “New Agey”, or if you prefer, “for discerning consumers.” Here’s a picture of the store that provides some scope by showing the stairs climbing up to Café Kevah. Note that Nepenthe, the restaurant, is located yet another level above the cafe.
Before we show you what we discovered beyond Nepenthe, you should know that our original reason for traveling further was finding the Esalen Institute. Esalen is a retreat which, according to Wikipedia, “focuses on humanistic alternative education.” Yeah, we know that description (and those on the organization’s website) is a bit non-direct and (dare we repeat the term) “New Agey”, but there is no question Esalen has a widespread reputation for being one of those places where you can just feel the psychic energy flowing.
We didn’t find it, likely because (as we found out later) it existed somewhat off the beaten path, probably to keep looky-loos like us from intruding on the vibe. Fortunately, that didn’t stop us from running into a few other interesting locations that are worthy of sharing.
The area around it also contained some interesting artwork. Speaking of artwork, the Hawthorne Gallery had an interesting building and interesting displays. The area surrounding it is vast and filled with large pieces—a veritable park full of artwork. We’ll let the building and a couple of the pieces speak for themselves.
Continuing in the direction of far away Hearst Castle on our futile search for Esalen, we had the good fortune to pass, quite by accident, Deetjen’s Bug Sur Inn right off of the highway. This place has a reputation for being one of the best bed and breakfasts in the Big Sur area, and while we had heard of it, we had never taken notice of it. We have to admit, it looks quite inviting:
Finally, running out of time, and not wanting to get too far out into the boonies, we looked for a place to reverse direction. Fortunately, the Big Sur Coast Gallery was there for us to make a safe u-turn. Even better, it turned out to be fairly photogenic:
The rest of our day was spent on the way back to SSCS. It’s hard to believe, but the photos that have been featured were taken in a roughly 5 ½ hour period, from about 8:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. That gives you some idea of the density of attractions that pack the Big Sur Coast, especially when you consider all the subjects that we didn’t cover.
We hope all our readers get the chance to take a leisurely drive down to Big Sur and spend a few days in this singular location. You won’t regret it.