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Road Trip: Highway 1 Santa Cruz to Big Sur

Road Trip: Highway 1 Santa Cruz to Big Sur

Marvel at serious surfers, playful sea otters, and spectacular beaches on a drive down the coast

Posted 5 years agoby Sarah Feldberg

Highway 1 traces the edge of the continent for more than 700 miles, from the tiny town of Leggett in Mendocino County all the way to Dana Point in Orange County. But the stretch of road from Santa Cruz through Big Sur is arguably one of its most stunning, zig-zagging past rocky cliffs bashed by turquoise waves and the twisted silhouettes of Monterey cypress trees. Along the way, you’ll pass famous surf breaks, sweet cafés, and scenic beaches that practically beg you to pull over for a long stare. This is the stuff road trip dreams are made of, a route where you’ll want to pull over to catch a picture—and maybe a wave. Pack a bathing suit and a puffy jacket, and heed the call of the coast.

Stop one: Lighthouse Field State Beach 

Strolling, running or biking West Cliff Drive is a Santa Cruz staple. Watch surfers dance on the waves at Steamer Lane, then descend from the bluffs to put your toes in the sand. Distance to next stop: 1 mile

Stop two: The Picnic Basket

Just off the Santa Cruz wharf and boardwalk, this friendly cafe serves breakfast burritos, yogurt bowls, and fresh donuts filled with house-made preserves.
Next stop: 24 miles

Stop three: Elkhorn Slough

Rent a kayak and spend a few hours paddling this marshy inlet off Monterey Bay, where sea lions sun on sandbars and otters romp right next to your boat. Next stop: 19 miles

Stop four: Alvardo Street Brewing Company

In the heart of Old Monterey, Alvardo serves upscale pub grub and more than 20 house beers. Grab lunch in the historic dining room or throw back a pint the outdoor beer garden. Next stop: 4 miles

Stop five: Scheid Vineyards Tasting Room

Scheid owns 11 vineyards across 70 miles of the Salinas Valley and supplies grapes to various winemakers. Taste their own label, including rich Pinot Noir and juicy Chardonnay, in their Carmel-by-the-Sea tasting room. Next stop: 1 mile

Stop six: Carmel Mission Basilica

In 1771, Spanish priest Junipero Serra established a mission in Carmel. Today, you can visit the restored parish, where museums showcase its history and Serra’s own cell. Next stop: 14 miles

Stop seven: Bixby Creek Bridge

One of the most iconic spots on Highway 1, Bixby Creek Bridge soars 260 feet above the ground in a graceful arch connecting Pacific cliffs. Pause for an Instagram shot, then drive on. Next stop: 16 miles

Stop eight: Pfeiffer Beach

There’s no shortage of breathtaking views in Big Sur, but Pfeiffer Beach offers one of the best, a crescent of purple-striped sand rimmed by rocky cliffs with the famous keyhole arch just offshore. Next stop: 3 miles

Stop nine: Big Sur Bakery

This cozy, laid-back restaurant delivers wood-fired pizzas and satisfying entrees like sea bass topped with wild fennel butter. Snag a seat on the patio, and be sure to save room for dessert. Next stop: 1 mile

Stop 10: Nepenthe

Named for a soothing drug from Homer’s Odyssey, this landmark restaurant opened in 1949 and has since welcomed visitors who come for a bite at the edge of the world. Grab a glass of wine, gather around the fire pit and marvel at a landscape that is at once brutal and serene. Next stop: 5 miles

Stop 11: Partington Cove

Stretch your legs with a two-mile round-trip hike to the dramatic waters of Partington Cove in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, where you’ll also find a long tunnel carved into rock.

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