The Best of Big Sur | California
Written by Julie Boyd | Photography by Julie Boyd
On the Central Coast of California, Highway 1 winds through a section of rocky coastline known as Big Sur. Flanked by the Santa Lucia Mountains to the east, and the turbulent waters of the Pacific Ocean to the west, this is truly a place where land meets sea. For roadtrip enthusiasts like Brian and myself, making the drive to explore this part of California is a must-do. Here are the five things we recommend seeing along the drive.
Travel back in time at Hearst Castle –What was once the estate of the publishing tycoon, William Randolph Hearst, is now a state historic monument. Its no wonder that this costal retreat nestled on the hills above San Simeon is now a big tourist stop, especially during the summer and holidays, but don’t let that deter you. If the gorgeous Spanish style architecture, famous Neptune Pool, and surrounding gardens aren’t enough to tempt you to visit this gem, take a tour of the beautiful house, which is fully furnished with exquisite antiques and an impressive art collection.
TIP: In order to make the most of your day, make a reservation online for an early tour. Though it is pricey, I recommend doing two tours – The Grand Rooms and the Upstairs Suites – because you get to see much more of he house. Plus, when are you going to go back? On our first visit, we did the Grand Rooms only at first and felt like we didn’t get to see much, so it was a good choice to add on the second tour. The Upstairs Tour included a smaller tour group, and it felt like you got to seem more of the house – including the living quarters, and Mr. Hearst’s private study and library. Book enthusiasts will be amazed at his vast collection of first edition and antique books. After the tour, visitors are free to roam the grounds. Don’t miss the Neptune Pool and the Indoor Pool. Both are very cool! Remember you have to take a tram up to the house, so you will easily spend a few hours here.
Hike the Ewoldsen Trail in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park – Don’t miss this, even if you aren’t much of a hiker, the trail is beautiful! This small little canyon is full of towering redwoods and lush ferns that follow a cascading stream. The air here is cool and wet, which is a stark contrast to the surrounding landscape. You can take a casual walk up to Canyon Falls, or make it a roughly five-mile loop that takes you up above the forest canopy. Read more about the hike from one of my favorite hiking blogs here: http://www.modernhiker.com/2014/06/12/hike-the-ewoldsen-trail-in-julia-pfeiffer-burns-state-park/
TIP: If you are driving north, the entrance is on the right side of the road about 50 miles north of Hearst Castle. The parking lot will be on the right side of the road. Bring cash to pay a small parking fee ($10). Keep in mind that this is an incredibly popular stop for tourists, so chances are there will be a wait to find parking if you are there on a weekend or holiday. As with most tourist stops, get there early to avoid crowds!
Visit McWay Falls. This is an iconic landmark in Big Sur that is not to be missed. After all, how often do you get to see a waterfall filling up a turquoise blue cove along an abandoned beach? The best part about stopping here is if you already parked to do the Ewoldsen trail, you don’t have to go anywhere! After the hike, head to the other side of the road via a small walkthrough tunnel. A short trot down a walkway will take you to the side of the opposite cliff, with tons of photographic opportunities to capture the stunning falls.
TIP: This spot is bound to be full of tourists and enthusiastic photographers, but it’s a beautiful sight to see. The best light for photos is in the afternoon when the sun is lighting it from the front.
Take Sunset photos at Pfeiffer Beach. This is the home of another iconic site in Big Sur, Keyhole Arch. The beach can be hard to access, but it is worth the trouble. In January, if conditions are right, the sun sets and shines right through the hole in the arch. Another interesting feature of this beach is the purple sand. Again, conditions have to be right, but usually if you hit this spot after it rains, you will be able to see some. There was a bit when we went, but it was so minimal that it did not make for a good photo.
TIP: If you are planning on doing photos of the sunset in January, stake your claim with your tripod early. There were a ton of photographers when we went, and those who came late had a hard time making a good composition. Also, finding the beach is a bit of an adventure if you don’t know what to look for, or plan ahead of time (note: you probably won’t have cell service for most of the drive). Coming from the south: After you enter the town of Big Sur, you will make a left onto Sycamore Canyon road. Here you will pay a small entrance fee (It was $10 when we went), and then you will make you way down a pretty rough, unpaved road. Just take it slow, and be careful, and you should be fine.
Explore Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. Point Lobos is a nice place to walk around and explore the rugged ocean landscape of Big Sur. There is a fairly extensive, and easy to walk, trail system that takes you through bright wildflowers, windswept cypress trees, and rocky beaches. Along the shore you might be able to spot some sea lions sunbathing or sea otters frolicking in the waves. Definitely don’t forget your camera because you will want to take a photo at every turn.
TIP: Point Lobos is located at the north end of Big Sur, so if you are staying in Carmel or Monterey, is an easy drive back to see it. Also note, to park in the reserve, there is an entrance fee of $10.
BONUS STOP: I couldn’t leave out the iconic Bixby Bridge. A quick stop on the north side of the bridge will give you the best vantage for a photograph. Please be careful, and courteous, as there is no formal parking lot to pull into.