If California’s coast is a treasure, then Big Sur is its jewel. The dramatic, beautiful region, where the redwood-studded Santa Lucia Mountains plunge straight into the mighty Pacific, rivals any other place on Earth for scenery and serenity.
To be clear, we’re talking about the 70-mile corridor of remote, undeveloped coastline that links the Monterey Peninsula south to the San Luis Obispo area, through which Highway 1 twists and turns through dappled forests and winds along crumbling cliffs. Here the roadway isn’t just a charming thoroughfare, it’s the community’s lifeline to the outside world.
You won’t find any high-rise hotels or chain stores or even a downtown shopping district in Big Sur. Restaurants, gas stations and even bathrooms are few and far between. The overarching vibe is understated and rustic: Unless you’re shelling out for a high-priced room at one of the few luxury resorts tucked into the trees, you’re probably sleeping in an old wooden cabin or a tent on the ground. And yet, Big Sur attracts about 6 million visitors a year, a higher volume than Yosemite National Park.
There is obvious appeal to casual tourists: sweeping ocean views that compel drivers to pull over at every turnout, the landmarks-cum-selfie magnets Bixby Creek Bridge and McWay Falls, and the familiar comfort of state parks stationed along the highway. But if that’s the Big Sur you know, you’re barely scratching the surface of an incredible place.
Eighty years ago, the region served as a refuge for Hollywood celebrities escaping the spotlight. Then it became a bastion of backwoods beatniks, hippies and homesteaders, who are said to have planted some of California’s first cannabis farms there. That alternative-lifestyle heritage lives on in places like the Henry Miller Memorial Library, a bohemian bookstore and performance venue named for the late poet; Sykes Hot Springs, the clothing-optional backcountry hangout; and the Esalen Institute, the holistic retreat center where people go to find themselves.
Heady vibes aside, Big Sur today is as true a hideaway as you’re likely to find in such a world-class setting.
Most of the mountainous terrain east of Highway 1 is untrammeled wilderness, but blocks of nature parks and preserves along the road make it easy to find the best beaches, trailheads and campgrounds. Pfeiffer Big Sur and Julia Pfeiffer Burns state parks are centrally located and bookend the local pub, deli and bakery as well as the wonderful historic restaurant Nepenthe.
Hiking trails branch off the highway all over the place. Short walks to the west get you to coastal bluffs and pocket coves where you might find yourself alone, transfixed by the hypnotic pounding of the Pacific surf. To the east, the soaring mountains are cut through with steep river canyons. The grueling terrain — at the Big Sur River Gorge, Partington Cove or farther south at Salmon Creek, for example — rewards hikers with high views of the jagged coastline.
Dotting the landscape near and along Highway 1 you’ll also find art galleries, waterfalls, an elephant seal refuge and more overlooks than you can count. Driving south, you’ll know the experience is coming to an end when the mountains flatten out and you hit the turnoff for Hearst Castle, a century-old palatial estate-turned-tourist attraction in San Simeon. You’ll feel a visceral comedown leaving Big Sur, but this special place will be there when you’re ready to come back.