The Pacific coastline and old-growth forests are two of California's biggest scenic highlights — and these two natural wonders converge nicely at one of the state's most famous tourist attractions: Big Sur.
Located about 150 miles south of San Francisco, this part of the California coast offers non-stop amazement for travelers willing to drive the curvy Scenic Highway 1 the 90 miles of coastline that today encompass the Big Sur California scenic recreation area. Visitors see new panoramas around every curve — pristine beaches, craggy mountain ledges, fascinating rock formations amid swirling, sometimes angry coastal waters and, of course, the giant redwood trees that swallow up tiny vacationers posing for their vacation photographs.
Keep in mind, this road was not easy to build. Your scenic experience today comes at the expense of convict labor that was brought in over the 18 years prior to the completion of the road in 1937. Until Highway 1 was completed, most of this highway probably wasn't much wider than a harrowing goat path along the side of the steep coastal mountains.
While many travelers drive through Big Sur California on the way to someplace else, the area is also a prime destination that offers a variety of accommodations and enough hiking to keep visitors occupied for weeks. Several state parks and campgrounds are tucked into the coves or carved out of the forests to give vacationers an authentic camping experience and entry to the wilderness by way of numerous well-marked trails. A few cabin resorts are scattered along the coast and there are even a couple of high-end luxury resorts charging upward of $700 a night.
We felt we had just the right combination of amenities with the Big Sur Lodge, the only accommodations located in the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. This resort offers 62 housekeeping cottages spread throughout the park where trailheads and those big trees are never far away. While the cottages offer many resort amenities — big, spacious living rooms with comfortable new furniture, spacious bath areas with shampoos and lotions, a massive heated swimming pool footsteps from your unit — the overall feel was like going to summer camp (for those of us who can remember that far back). There were no phones, no televisions and,even in June, night-time temperatures were cold enough to start a real fire in the cottage's real fireplace.
Our unit featured two queen beds, one in a bedroom area and one in the "great room" or living room part of the cottage. These facilities are perfect for families with some units suitable for up to six people. A full-service restaurant is on the property — indeed, we were pleasantly surprised that our dinner there was high-quality and fair-priced, and not substandard just because the lodge has a quasi-monopoly. A few other restaurants are scattered up and down Highway 1 but our guess was that many guests at Big Sur Lodge were fully utilizing the kitchen facilities that are available in many of the cottages.
For hikers, this kind of destination is paradise. While it did get warm in the afternoon, the mornings during our June visit were crisp and ideal for walking through the thick forests of oak and redwood trees to waterfalls or climbing to vantage points offering even more spectacular views of the Big Sur coastline. All trails we were on seemed to be well-maintained. The trails in Big Sur California also were varied in both scenery and levels of exertion. We took easy trails out to watch waterfalls cascade onto scenic beaches as well as more difficult switchback trails up into the Santa Lucia Mountains.
The morning was good for hiking, while afternoon was the best time to drive the coast, stopping along the way to visit some of the shops, general stores and bakeries that you come across every few miles. One gets the impression that many of the "hippies" from the 1960's ended up here at Big Sur where, today, they enjoy a no-frills back-to-nature lifestyle selling various natural or locally produced products. There definitely is a new age flavor in many of the shops that is apparent from the music, fragrances and product offerings.
Another Big Sur point of interest is the historic Point Sur Lighthouse. Located about 19 miles south of Carmel, this lighthouse has been designated a State Historic Landmark and sits 361 feet above the ocean where it operated from the mid-19th century until l972, keeping ships away from the coastal rocks during foggy weather. Docent-led tours are given every Saturday and 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
No doubt about it, though — a Big Sur getaway most likely will include lots of hiking on a variety of trails. Here is a sampling of the most popular trails:
Pfeiffer Falls — This trail in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is just 1.4 milesroundtrip and takes you along a scenic passageway following the Pfeiffer Redwood Creek. The route goes through some of the area's finest redwood groves and ends at a 60-foot waterfall.
Valley View — Also in Pfeiffer Big Sur, this trail is two miles roundtrip and leads to an observation area where you can see the coastline and valley below.
Oak Grove Trail — This Pfeiffer Big Sur trail is 3.2 miles roundtrip from the Big Sur Lodge and intersects the Pfeiffer Falls Trail. This passes through a variety of ecosystems including redwood groves, open oak woodlands and dry chaparral.
Mt. Manuel Trail — Also located in Pfeiffer Big Sur, this is a strenuous 8-mile trail that gives you an overview of the Vantana Wilderness from 3,379-foot Mt. Manuel Peak.
McWay Waterfall Trail — Down Highway 1 a few miles is Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park which features this easy one-mile hike to an overlook which faces McWay Falls, a spectacular 80-foot waterfall that drops into the Pacific Ocean.
Ewoldsen Trail — Also in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, this is a moderate 5.7-mile roundtrip hike that offers great views of the coastline from hillsides covered in wildflowers and oaks.
Beach and Creamery Meadow Trail — A few miles north of Big Sur Lodge is Andrew Molera State Park which offers this 1.8-mile roundtrip hike that is recommended for kids. The trail follows the Big Sur River and features many different plant species as well as redwood trees.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: Big Sur California scenery starts just a few miles south of the Carmel/Monterey area and continues for 90 miles before the curvy road straightens out near Cambria.
WHAT: Big Sur California is the perfect combination of gorgeous coastline and mountain scenery and forests. It's a popular place to vacation and visitors can choose between a variety of lodgings and campgrounds.
WHEN: The weather at Big Sur California is moist and cool year-round, perhaps a little warmer in the afternoon during summer months. Fog will roll in during many mornings during the summer months.
WHY: The opportunity to enjoy a natural experience in some of California's most scenic countryside.
HOW: For more information on Big Sur California, visit www.bigsurcalifornia.org or phone 831-667-2100. For more information on Big Sur Lodge, visit www.bigsurlodge.com or phone 1-800-424-4787. Another great option in the Big Sur area is Ventana Inn & Spa, which you can reach at 831-667-2331.
Photos: Coastal views, McWay Falls, Big Sur Lodge cottage, Big Sur Lodge pool.
Photo credits: Cary Ordway, Sandi Ordway
OTHER DESTINATIONS: If you're looking for other California vacation ideas, be sure to check out other California Weekend articles on Yosemite National Park, Idyllwild, Julian and Sequoia National Park.
Getaway Media Corp publishes websites focused on getaway travel, including www.californiaweekend.com and www.northwesttraveladvisor.com. If you enjoyed reading about Big Sur California, be sure to visit our sites and read the hundreds of feature articles on the many getaway travel destinations in our coverage areas. Like Big Sur California, these other attractions are worth including in a your upcoming vacation or getaway. If you think about it, we're fortunate to live in a place where we can enjoy destinations such as Big Sur California without traveling thousands of miles. This is why Getaway Media Corp sites are so popular with the traveling public -- they showcase attractions that are close by and easy to visit on your next vacation or getaway.