Pacific Coast Highway and the Big Sur - One of the Most Romantic Drives in the USA

This is a drive that everyone should take at least once in their life - it is a beautiful way to see just how diverse California geography can be! From our hotel in Santa Barbara to our next hotel in Monterey Bay was a distance of 234 miles (see our route map below) - but the twists and turns that this highway goes through on the way to Monterey just have to be seen to be believed! It is also the perfect trip to take with your significant other. Get in your car, pack a picnic lunch or get reservations for a romantic restaurant along the way.
Please be aware that this highway is known by several names, ie; Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), Cabrillo Highway, Shoreline Highway, or Coast Highway. Within this page, we will refer to it as "Pacific Coast Highway".

Click Image to view a larger map

The complete history of this highway can be found here (Wikipedia Page) This is an interesting story, and it covers the history of this highway thoroughly.

Driving Tips for California SR-1

  • Avoid a Weekend visit - traffic becomes difficult!
  • Fill your gas tank in Morro Bay or San Luis Obispo, there are no stations on SR-1 until you get close to Carmel. If you have internet access, use the excellent GasBuddy.com website to find the cheapest gas wherever you are.
  • Make sure your car is in good working order because you wouldn’t want to break down along the way.
  • Stop when the mood strikes, there are a number of turn-outs and parking areas, take advantage and get some pictures or enjoy the views.
  • Don’t forget to stop and appreciate your partner, spouse, date and kiss!
  • Consider a restaurant reservation - the Nepenthe Restaurant has indoor & outdoor seating with great views of the Ocean below. But do not forget - reservations are essential due to it's popularity.
  • Consider stopping for a hike along the way. Click here for a good list of hiking trails & suggestions.
  • There are some great beaches and seaside towns that require you to get off the highway and explore them.
  • Always have snacks and water in the car, and a cool-bag to put them in. It can get pretty hot in places in the summer, and water's essential.
Morro Bay   Map

Our route to Monterey from Santa Barbara was simple; straight north on the 101 to Morro Bay, and then north on route 1 until we got to Monterey. Along the way, our intent was to stop at whatever looked interesting, and that wound up being Morro Bay. We stopped briefly in San Luis Obispo for an iced coffee and a snack and then drove on to the coast.

When we came across Morro Rock which you can see from the highway we had to stop. As you can see from the pictures it’s a large rock sitting amidst the Pacific Ocean just off shore. There is a causeway that connects it to the mainland which makes it a tied island. The uniqueness of the rock inspired us to learn more. We discovered that it is a volcanic plug which is created when magma hardens within a vent of an active volcano. According to wikipedia Morro Rock is 23 million years old and one of 13 such volcanic plugs in the area. It is illegal to climb the rock due to its fragile nature. There is some interesting information on the wiki site regarding the rock and the tribal history of the Salinan and Chumash tribes.
NOTE: To read more about "Volcanic Plugs" click here as most of the larger hills between San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay are all volcanic plugs.

The Morro Bay Pier gave us an exceptional view of Morro Rock and also placed us in an area with a number of small shops and restaurants. Depending on the time you arrive it could be a good place to stop for breakfast or lunch and shop in the many local stores by the harbor.

Exploring Pacific Coast Highway

After enjoying Morro Bay and stretching our legs, we rejoined SR-1 and headed north again. Along the way to Ragged Point, are several beautiful beaches and the views from SR-1 are outstanding. Ragged Point is considered to be the southern boundary of the Big Sur. Halfway there and you will pass San Simeon, home of the Hearst Castle.

You won't be able to see it in the smaller image, but if you click image # 1 you should be able to see Hearst Castle at the top of the Santa Lucia Mountains, 1,600 feet above the Pacific Ocean. Unfortunately for us, the access road from route 1 to the Hearst Castle was still undergoing repairs from storm damage - so the image here is as close as we got. The Castle had been part of our overall plan but one cannot argue with road damage.

I had seen it years ago but Celeste has never been. Hearst Castle is something that should be on your list if you take the drive. It’s a fascinating castle.


 Hearst Castle Quick History 

Hearst Castle’s history begins in 1865, when George Hearst purchased 40,000 acres of ranchland. After his mother’s death in 1919, William Randolph Hearst inherited thousands of acres around San Simeon, and over time, he purchased more. The spread eventually encompassed about 250,000 acres. With architect Julia Morgan, Hearst conceived a retreat he called La Cuesta Encantada—Spanish for "Enchanted Hill." By 1947, when Hearst had to leave the remote location because of his fragile health, the estate was still unfinished even though it comprised 165 rooms and 123 acres of gardens, terraces, pools and walkways — all built to Hearst’s specifications and showcasing a legendary art collection.
Click here to read the Wikipedia article of Hearst Castle - this story is fascinating.

Big Sur area of Pacific Coast Highway   Map

The Big Sur area of the Pacific Coast Highway starts at San Simeon and ends near Carmel Highlands, just south of Monterey. The Pfeiffer Big Sur state park runs along this part of the coastline and offers camping, hiking, restrooms and a nature center. Check out the California Parks page for more info.

Image # 1 shows the Bixby Creek Bridge; when it was completed it was the highest single-span arch bridge in the world, and it remains one of the tallest and is located just 13 miles south of Carmel, CA.

The geography begins to change at Ragged Point on route 1 as you drive north. Ragged Point is located at the southern end of the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, which extends (in the northern area) nearly to Point Lobos just south of Carmel. More trees are present, and there are a small number of restaurants on the Ocean side of route 1.

Speaking of restaurants, there is one in particular that is perched on a cliff above the Pacific Ocean coastline that is famous, the Nepenthe Restaurant. They have a large open air terrace, and there is inside and outside seating available for diners. We did not have time to stop for a meal, but the available parking was completely filled, giving us some idea of the popularity of this restaurant.

  

The restaurant image is the property of Jerrye & Roy Klotz, MD via Wikimedia Commons using the CC BY-SA 3.0 license. All other images, unless otherwise noted, are the property of Just Traveling Thru, LLC.

NOTE: The reviews on Yelp are all over the place, but click here to read what people have said about this beautifully located restaurant.

Northern and Central California; A Two Week Driving Itinerary Trip Stops
Trip Overview
San Francisco
Bonita Point
Santa Rosa
Muir Woods
Rush Creek Lodge
Yosemite National Park
Forestiere Gardens
Santa Monica
Santa Barbara
Pacific Coast Highway
Monterey
Carmel-by-the-Sea
 

 
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Note: All images on this page are the property of Just Traveling Thru, LLC unless otherwise noted.

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