BIG SUR — Fifty years ago next month, the public took its first ride along one of the world's most scenic highways. A ceremonial dynamite blast on June 27, 1937, signaled the opening of the coastal highway between Monterey and San Luis Obispo.
Convict labor, $10 million and 18 years went into creating a paved two-lane route along steep mountainsides that plunge to the Pacific. The newly opened highway brought easy access to Big Sur, a beautiful span of wilderness guarded by the ocean and Santa Lucia Mountains.
Since then the spectacular drive along California 1 between Carmel and San Simeon has become a major attraction.
Every day hundreds of motorists navigate the narrow and winding roadway to enjoy breathtaking vistas of the unspoiled Big Sur coastline. Adding to your visual pleasure is a variety of restaurants, inns and state parks along the 93-mile route.
Small signs mark the locations of these scattered visitor facilities, but you won't see any billboards or other advertising. In fact, the Big Sur section of California 1 may be the least commercial roadway in California.
In 1966 it was dedicated as the state's first official scenic highway. As you drive along, Mother Nature provides a continuous show.
Sea Otters at Play
Near the rocky shore you'll see sea otters frolicking in kelp beds; bring binoculars for a close-up look as the furry critters eat shellfish while floating on their backs. Also keep an eye open for brown pelicans, red-billed oyster catchers, cormorants and other sea birds.
In Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park you can walk through a grove of coast redwoods, grand trees that grow only in a narrow region from Monterey County north to Oregon. Be on the lookout for wildlife that ranges from squirrels to black-tail deer. Raccoons and opossum are nighttime visitors at the campgrounds.
Big Sur is home to human residents, too, but they seem as elusive as the animals. Even their houses are hidden, with access from the highway by private roads. The best chance of meeting local folks is at the Big Sur post office.
There isn't a town of Big Sur, nor even a business center. The most buildings you'll see are scattered along a six-mile stretch where the highway curves inland from the coast through Big Sur Valley.
That's where you'll find lodgings, restaurants, general stores, gas stations, campgrounds, art galleries and the post office. Elsewhere along the road are other inns and eating places.
For the most relaxing visit to Big Sur, plan at least a daylong excursion. Make reservations to spend the night there, or headquarter to the north in Carmel/Monterey or to the south at San Simeon/Cambria.
On the Ocean Side
If you're traveling one way through Big Sur we suggest driving from north to south because you'll be on the ocean side of the highway and will get the most dramatic coastal views. It's also safer when turning into roadside pullouts and parking areas that overlook the Pacific.
From Los Angeles, drive north on U.S. 101 to Salinas, then exit on California 68 to join California 1 south at Monterey. You'll drive past Carmel and Carmel Highlands before entering the majestic coastal area known as Big Sur.
Take your time on this super-scenic drive. The road is curvy and occasionally climbs to 1,000 feet at the cliff's edge, so pull off the highway for safer sightseeing at the turnouts provided--and to let impatient drivers pass you by.
Fog occurs frequently in summer, giving a misty mood to Big Sur as well as unnerving some motorists. The fog usually burns off by midday, but there can be scattered patches along the highway that call for extra careful driving.
Bring clothing for both cool and warm weather; damp, foggy mornings can give way to sunny and hot afternoons. Because of its location inland between mountain ridges, Big Sur Valley often is bathed in sunshine while coastal sections of the highway remain dimmed by fog.
Among the first of numerous stops you can make is the narrow side road to Rocky Point that takes you close to the ocean and also to a restaurant that serves lunch and dinner daily.
A major Big Sur landmark is the Bixby Bridge, a 1930s engineering feat that spans a wide canyon with the support of a graceful concrete arch.
Farther south is Point Sur, an outcropping where a lighthouse was built in 1899 after several ships were wrecked along the Big Sur coast. Nowadays it has a foghorn too.
You'll pass Andrew Molera State Park before reaching Big Sur Valley and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, home to the popular Big Sur Lodge that has cottage accommodations and a restaurant. The lodge offers 62 units at $71-$115. Phone (408) 667-2171.
Adventurous visitors can follow the very rural Sycamore Canyon Road two miles off the highway to Pfeiffer Beach. Take the path through cypress trees to a lagoon and wind-swept sand dunes. (An undertow makes swimming unsafe.)