Big Sur on California’s Central Coast
A section of rugged and beautiful California coastline known as Big Sur stretches for 90 miles from Carmel-by-the-Sea—150 miles south of San Francisco—to San Simeon—300 miles north of Los Angeles.
Originally known as El Sur Grande (The Big South) Big Sur is home to one of the most picturesque sections of Scenic Highway 1 — California’s first Scenic Highway.
The spectacular scenery begins with your first view of the Pacific Ocean as you head south from Carmel. You can see Carmel Bay and Carmel State Beach from the point where Highway 1, also known as the Pacific Coast Highway or just PCH, meets the coast near the mouth of the Carmel River.
Point Lobos — and Point Lobos State Reserve a popular place for sightseeing, photography, painting, nature study, picnicking, SCUBA diving and jogging — is located three miles south of Carmel.
If you pay attention as you head further south you’ll discover Garrapata State Park covering almost 3,000 acres with two miles of beach front. A 50 foot climb takes you to a beautiful view of the Pacific and you’re still 18 miles from Big Sur. It’s easy to miss Garrapata State Park as there are no signs for the park. Watch for the sign for Garrapata Creek Bridge which is just south of two small unpaved parking areas on either side of Highway 1 which are the only clues to the location of this spectacular beach.
Go down the short wooden stairs on the ocean side of the road and follow the trail to the edge of the cliff and then to the right until you come to a stream canyon where you can follow the trail down to the beach. The day this picture was taken in early February the air temperature was in the high 60s.
Highway 1 is a narrow winding road for most of its length through Big Sur and can be heavily traveled in popular tourist months, but off the road you are likely to see more cattle than people.
Camping is a popular activity in Big Sur. Several state parks and private campgrounds are available and provide a variety of camping experiences. Some locations are on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Historic Bixby Bridge, just over 13 miles south of Carmel, is often used in advertisements for cars, credit cards and airlines because of its beautiful location. The two lane arch bridge over Bixby Creek was completed in 1932, part of a public works project during the Great Depression.
Jack Kerouac wrote about the area and his visit to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Bixby Canyon cabin in his book Big Sur. The bridge and the highway have become symbolic of the natural beauty and freedom of the California coast and lifestyle. One of the oldest types of bridges, arch bridges have great natural strength in addition to being aesthetically pleasing. In order to complete the costal highway five canyons needed to be spanned. Further down the coast another multiple arch bridge crosses Big Creek.
You can get a feel for what travel down the coast was like before Bixby Bridge and the section of Highway 1 to the south were constructed by taking The Old Coast Road from Bixby Bridge to Andrew Molera State Park. This winding dirt road—a single lane wide and quite a rough ride much of the way—is only passable by two wheel drive in dry weather. Forest, farmland and Pacific Ocean views are worth the trip if you have the time. You may see more bikes than cars — we met just one other vehicle.
There’s lots to see as you travel along the coast through Big Sur including two lighthouses — Point Sur Lighthouse to the north and Piedras Blancas Lighthouse near the southern end — redwood forests and parks — Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and Limekiln State Park (Limekiln Falls) — and numerous beaches.
Julia Pfeiffer State Park is worth a visit if just to make the one-quarter mile trek on the Overlook Trail to one of the best views of the Big Sur California coast you are likely to find. The most famous view is to the south where McWay Falls, an 80 foot waterfall, drops onto a secluded beach at the oceans edge. A few steps away the view to the north is also spectactular. Julia Pfeiffer State Park is named after a pioneer woman who was well respected in the Big Sur country.
Migrating whales can frequently be seen during December and January from benches placed at the end of the Overlook Trail. Sea otters, harbor seals and California seal lions can sometimes be spotted in the cove.
A little further north on Highway 1 one of many view points provides limited parking and a look back down the coast to this same cove. The waterfall is located near the center of this picture but is just out of view from this vantage point.
Generally cool weather even in the summer and difficult to reach, Big Sur beaches are still worth the effort. Most recommended are Andrew Molera State Park, Pfeiffer Beach and Sandollar Beach. You can also get to the ocean in Big Sur at Garrapata Beach, Partington Cove, Mill Creek and Willow Creek. Beachcombers and rock hounds may want to visit Jade Cove.