Part 3: Big Sur and Back to San Francisco (1 Day)
After enjoying a simple but adequate breakfast in bed at the Carmel Lodge, we were about to embark on the rugged part of this Pacific Coast Highway road trip, a perfect climax – Big Sur. But as you know by now, morning fog means you want to kill some time and give the sun a chance to break through before reaching the day’s highlights (check the weather reports though). So there were two more things to check out in Carmel before leaving.
The first stop was a quick one in Carmel’s upper residential area on the lovely Torres Street, where the road is constructed around the trees and not the other way around. All houses are super cute here and look more like fancy wood cabins. However, between 5th and 6th Avenue, you’ll spot a different looking house, straight out of a fairytale. This house is named the Hansel and Gretel house and you’ll understand why when you see it up close.
Before leaving for our last stop in Carmel, we stopped by at Carmel Bakery for a second time, this time stocking up for the day’s drive. We drove about 5 minutes out of town to Carmel Mission, a Spanish Mission established in 1771 by Junipero Serra. A very worthwhile $6.50 admission takes you back in time into this tranquil mission. This place has a lot of history, having changed hands between the missionaries, the Mexicans and finally the Americans. Having gone through extensive periods of restoration, the mission is a great escape. Stroll through the basilica and the outer gardens and really get the feeling for what it was like here, centuries ago.
By noon, the fog had not cleared over Carmel and we started our final California Route 1 journey to Big Sur. The landscape just south of Carmel down to San Simeon 90 miles to the south, is extremely rugged and part of it is known as Big Sur. We are talking about towering cliffs, a snaking road and sharp bends – with the secret sauce, the Pacific Ocean. Big Sur is the picture you have in your mind when you think about California HWY 1 and in fact, many television car commercials are shot in this area. You’ll find yourself stopping the car after almost every bend in the road, as majestic scenery is revealed in front of you. There are plenty of stopping options but be careful with overtaking as it’s mostly a one laned road. Driving times will also be a lot longer with all the worthwhile stops so plan accordingly and in general – this is probably one of the nicest drives you’ll ever make so take the time to relax and enjoy the beauty of Big Sur.
The first real stop on our journey was Bixby Bridge, 30 minutes south of Carmel. You’ll probably recognize this bridge from photos or commercials and there’s a good place to stop just north of the bridge (don’t be confused with a much smaller and similar-looking bridge a few miles before). Bixby Bridge was completed in 1932 and it’s one of the tallest single-span concrete bridges in the world. Take the time to stroll around and walk down just below the bridge on the marked path for great ocean views. We even spotted some California Condors flying around.
We continued heading south and it was still pretty cloudy. A few miles south of Bixby Bridge, you’ll notice a huge rock rising from the ocean with a lighthouse at the top. This is Point Sur Historic Park. We didn’t stop here but it looked pretty cool. A few more minutes of driving and the sun finally made its first appearance of the day and would stay with us as we continued to drive south. After a few miles, we passed by Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, where you’ll find some lodging and eating options. There are some fine walks in this area and one of them is a stroll down to Pfeiffer Beach, famous for its natural rock arch. It’s extremely hard to locate and apparently you need to turn on Sycamore Canyon Road. We missed this turn and by the time we realized it, were already miles to the south.
Continuing to stop at many beautiful spots along the way, we passed by another beach we wanted to explore but ended up short on time, Partington Cove. You’ll see quite a few cars parked on the side of the road but other than that, it’s pretty hard to find. There’s a nice hike down to the secluded beach which takes you through a man-made tunnel. Our last stop on Big Sur would be McWay Falls, just after the entrance to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Just before you reach McWay Falls, you won’t be able to miss a large vista. Stop the car here for great north and south views. The view is breathtaking and we even saw quite a few Gray Whales snacking just off the coastline.
And now to McWay Falls. Park the car on the side of the road but be careful (not sure if there’s a proper parking spot) and walk down the path to one of the nicest spots we ever visited. McWay Falls is a waterfall that spills directly into the ocean and in low tide, spills onto a beautiful golden crescent-shaped beach (try and come when the tide is low). You can’t go down to the beach and that further adds to the beauty of this place as only the birds can catch a tan and cool off in the freshwaters. The waterfall spilled directly into the ocean at all times up until a very serious 1983 landslide which completely altered this area (it still gets battered by winter waves). It’s actually a lot nice like this and you’ll want to spend hours staring at this memorable spot.
Be sure to walk to the edge of the path. The views keep getting better and better and there’s a great view looking to the north as well as signs which explain the history of this place. This spot was the home of the Brown family, who had this view all to themselves until 1961, when Helen Brown donated this area to the state and asked that it be named after Julia Pfeiffer, one of the area’s pioneers. Before leaving, be sure to relax for a few minutes. Listen to a beautiful natural orchestra of waves crashing onto the beach, retreating into the ocean, and within those few seconds until the next wave comes in, the sound of the waterfall crashing onto the beach – all with a picture-perfect postcard view! This was definitely the highlight of the day.
The clock showed around 4 pm and we wanted to head back to San Francisco. The best way back is turning around and heading back towards Carmel on the Pacific Coast Highway. The drive to San Francisco is 160 miles and takes just over 3 hours (if there’s no traffic). You’ll connect to the much faster 101 Freeway just after Salinas.
Aside from eating great burgers and maybe catching a baseball game, another ‘must-do’ in the US is of course … shopping. En route from Big Sur to San Francisco, we stopped at Gilroy Premium Outlets, where 145 brand stores await your credit card (it’s also a good way to kill time until rush hour is over). This place deserves a good few hours and you’ll want to use a car to navigate from one part of the mall to the other. We didn’t have too much time and did a quick round before heading back to San Francisco. We arrived back in San Francisco at about 9 pm, tired but full of great memories. A road trip on California’s Pacific Coast Highway is indeed a traveler’s ‘must-do’.
- We definitely were on the losing side of the ‘waiting for the fog to clear strategy’ this time around. It was actually still cloudy in the Carmel area on our drive back. So don’t trust the weather report too much or at least check what the weather is like down in Big Sur, as a few miles can make the difference.
- Had we more time, we could have gone down to a few more beaches or taken things a little bit slower than we did.
- There is still so much to see further south as the coast continues to be rugged for miles. Other points of interest also include Hearst Castle, San Simeon, and San Luis Obispo. Of course, the classic route takes you to super relaxed Santa Barbara, Malibu, and eventually Los Angeles – but you need at least a full week for this journey.