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Big Sur: Driving the California Coast

Updated on June 22, 2011

Exploring Big Sur

McWay Falls / Photo by E. A. Wright
McWay Falls / Photo by E. A. Wright

California's Dramatic Central Coast

Between Carmel and Cambria, a narrow road winds past some of the state's most dramatic scenery. Mile after mile, towering coastal mountains drop away to meet the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean.

Waterfalls and secluded coves lie around nearly every hairpin turn along the area's one highway.

Inland, stands of coastal redwoods tower and impress, while elephant seals congregate on the beaches to the south of Big Sur.

When to Visit Big Sur

The best time visit is in the late winter or early spring when the mountains turn a dazzling green and waterfalls come to life.

Visitors in other seasons will see a starker landscape with mostly dry, straw-colored hillsides.

  • In the winter, come prepared for rain. In the summer, be aware of wildfires. Expect morning and evening fog throughout the year.

California's Central Coast in Winter

Photo by E. A. Wright
Photo by E. A. Wright

The Route to Big Sur

Big Sur lies along a relatively hard-to-reach stretch of California's central coast. Exploring the scenic Pacific Coast Highway between Carmel and Cambria is half the pleasure of naming Big Sur as a destination.

From San Francisco

  • Take 101 south past San Juan Bautista, then take 156 toward Castroville, where the road meets Highway 1. Stay on 1 heading south past Monterey.
  • Distance: 150 miles, one way

From Los Angeles

  • Take 101 north to San Luis Obispo, then take Highway 1 toward Morro Bay. Stay on 1 heading north.
  • Distance: 300 miles, one way

Scenic Big Sur

Photo by E. A. Wright
Photo by E. A. Wright

California's Highway 1

Winding and narrow, with vertigo-inducing lookouts, Highway 1 through Big Sur is not the easiest drive. But the views along that narrow ribbon of road are spectacular.

More about Highway 1

Photo by E. A. Wright
Photo by E. A. Wright

Big Sur's Bridges

High, arched bridges such as this one have carried traffic along the jagged Pacific coastline since the 1930s.

They've become an important part of the scenery. The bridges are photographed as often as the gorges they span.

Soaring Big Sur bridges include Rocky Creek Bridge and Bixby Creek Bridge.

McWay Falls, an unusual cliff-to-beach cascade, is one of the highlights of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.

There's no trail down to the beach, but that emptiness makes this scene all the more stunning to see.

Waves at McWay Falls

Other Big Sur Waterfalls

McWay Falls is not the only waterfall worth seeing near Big Sur.

  • Salmon Creek Falls: Round a bend in the highway and two shoots of water join in an impressive "V."
  • Limekiln Falls: Wildfire damage has left Limekiln State Park closed for now, but when open, the falls and trails in the park are beautiful.

Limekiln State Park

Photo by E. A. Wright
Photo by E. A. Wright

Stop in San Simeon and see the seals

The mountains fade as you pass San Simeon, but the real scenery is on the ocean side: elephant seals.

According to the Cambria-based group Friends of the Elephant Seal, about 15,000 seals call the coast here home. Stop and have a look over the beaches of Pierdas Blancas, just north of Cambria.

Elephants Seals

Photo by E. A. Wright
Photo by E. A. Wright

More about Big Sur

How Include Big Sur in a California Road Trip

Hiking near Big Sur

Camping near Big Sur

Gas Stations along Highway 1

  • Big Sur, near Andrew Molera State Park
  • Gorda

Big Sur Poll

What's most stunning in Big Sur?

See results


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    • GetitScene profile image

      Dale Anderson 5 years ago from The High Seas

      I've sailed the California coast and I can tell you it's one beautiful place.

    • Little Red Wagon profile image

      Mickie‚Äôs Little Red Wagon 5 years ago from The South

      While visiting Carmel this past May, I drove along Hwy 1 on my own. Breath-taking. I have also visited the Hearst mansion and thought it was one of the best tours ever.

    • Mmargie1966 profile image

      Mmargie1966 5 years ago from Gainesville, GA

      Absolutely wonderful hub! Thanks for sharing.

    • cambriahermit profile image

      cambriahermit 7 years ago

      How can you send someone all the way to the elephant seals and not even mention the coolest town just a bit further south than Hearst Castle? Cambria is a fantastic place, right on the coast. Silly to get this close and miss out on Califonia's best-kept secret!

    • EverythingMouse profile image

      EverythingMouse 8 years ago

      I am very fortunate to have been able to drive this coast road many times - it is always a great experience.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 8 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Wow! These photos of yours are absolutely spectacular! This is a part of California that I have not yet seen. Gorgeous! Thanks for sharing.

    • mega1 profile image

      mega1 8 years ago

      Thanks for sharing those magnificent photos - its been awhile since I've been down that way. I don't know what the fires have done to the landscape down there, maybe nothing you can see from Rte 1, maybe I don't want to see.

    • euro-pen profile image

      euro-pen 8 years ago from Europe

      Very amazing. Driving along the U.S. westcoast is an attractive travel destination for keen travellers here in Europe. I have to admit that I was not familiar with all the details you mention here. Your hub makes me definitely eager to go there and travel along the road.

    • dohn121 profile image

      dohn121 8 years ago from Hudson Valley, New York

      What amazing photos! I want to jump in my car and head off now! Thank you for this, E.A. Wright. It's good to hear from you again!