Now that repairs are complete, you can once again drive the legendarily scenic Highway 1 through Big Sur. With its redwood forests, towering cliffs and incomparable coastal views, Highway 1 ranks among the world’s most spectacular stretches of road. Better yet, the broad range of it points of interest offers the perfect mix: rugged, posh and historic. So, fill up on gas—or treat yourself to a sporty rental so you can better handle Highway 1’s serpentine course—and follow this guide to the experiences that await along the stretch from Cambria through to Big Sur.
Go hiking and camping
Just off the highway, you’ll find your pick of trails—ones that wind through redwoods and those that lead to hidden coves along the coastline. While most people stop at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park to grab a picture of McWay Falls, which plunges 80 feet from the cliffs above to the beach below, consider taking the one-mile round-trip Partington Cove Trail down the cliffs and through a historic tunnel. You’ll emerge in a secluded spot once used to ship tan oak and moonshine. At Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, Buzzard’s Roost Trail comes out from the redwoods onto a high ridge that overlooks the Pacific. Or go camping: Kirk Creek Campground in the Los Padres National Forest is renowned for its bluff-top, coastal-view campsites and nothing beats a night under a canopy of stars. Or sleep among 40 acres of redwoods in Ventana Campground. If you decide to skip cooking one night, the campground’s new SurStream, a snack bar in an Airstream trailer, serves up wraps and barbecue.
Taste Big Sur’s big eats
At Ventana Big Sur resort, The Sur House pairs panoramic coastal views with chef Paul Corsentino’s fine-dining menu, which emphasizes locally sourced ingredients. Then, for yet another stunning vantage point, don’t miss the Sierra Mar restaurant at Post Ranch Inn. Atop the cliffs, with floor-to-ceiling windows, the restaurant seems to float over the Pacific. The menu ranges from such lunch favourites as the Sierra Mar burger, topped with smoked sun-dried tomato and Monterey Jack cheese, to a four-course prix fixe dinner menu that includes a succulent seared king salmon. Set among the redwoods, the intimate Big Sur Bakery is as much loved for its ginger scones and cinnamon bloom pastry as its inventive wood-fired pizzas. For many Big Sur visitors, no trip to the region is complete without an Ambrosia Burger at Nepenthe restaurant, where a seat along the patio rail delivers an unforgettable view from 800 feet over the ocean.
Explore creative Big Sur
Big Sur’s blend of beauty and solitude has long drawn writers, painters and other artists looking for inspiration. Honouring the legacy of its namesake writer and artist, the Henry Miller Memorial Library is a cultural hub for Big Sur thanks to an eclectic summer music program and the Big Sur International Short Film Screening Series. Built from reclaimed redwood water tanks, the architecturally distinctive Big Sur Coast Gallery showcases the works of leading sculptors, painters and photographers. Find exquisite jewellery and gaze at the contemporary Big Sur–themed art of Erin Lee Gafill (a member of the family that founded Nepenthe) at The Phoenix, the shop located below Nepenthe Restaurant. And south of Big Sur, the coastal village of Cambria’s Main Street is lined with galleries, including Ephraim Pottery and The Vault Gallery, a prime spot to discover California plein air painters.
Bring the whole family
With hundreds of massive elephant seals barking at Piedras Blancas near San Simeon, as well as sea otters riding the surf, kids will love looking for wildlife along Highway 1. Starting from Andrew Molera State Park, the Ventana Wildlife Society conducts two-hour tours that scan the skies for California condors—the largest flying land bird in North America. Treat your crew with a stay in a two-family yurt at Treebones Resort, a glamping destination with a swimming pool and a sushi bar. For a family-friendly hike, try Limekiln Trail in Limekiln State Park; you’ll cross three bridges before your reach the remnants of four enormous furnaces once used to process lime for mortar.
Discover amazing architecture
While Highway 1 celebrates natural beauty, be sure to check out its landmark structures as you go. No Highway 1 trip is complete without a stop at Hearst Castle, where, in addition to its regularly scheduled tours, you can arrange intimate, private tours that can last as long as four hours. The Big Sur coast has always been a treacherous stretch for ships, and two historic lighthouses that have helped guide mariners are open for tours. Just minutes from Hearst Castle, Piedras Blancas Light Station dates to 1875. Farther north, Point Sur Lighthouse commands a volcanic outcrop that offers one of the most amazing panoramas along this stretch of coast. And don’t forget the showstopper: 15 miles from Carmel, you simply must pull over at one of the turnouts to grab a selfie at Bixby Bridge, the epic arched span, opened in 1932, that crosses over a 260-foot-deep chasm.
Your next stop, San Luis Obispo, may just be the perfect embodiment of the Central Coast. With its nuanced food and wine scene, rich history, and a decidedly mellow vibe, SLO (as the locals call it) is a must-see. This college town also features a slice of ranch culture—thanks to the area’s Santa Maria-style barbecue—and has ranked in past surveys as one of the happiest cities in America.
The spirit of downtown SLO is captured in Mission Plaza and Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, which dates back to 1772 and overlooks the plaza. Explore the mission and its museum or show up on summer Friday nights for live music on the plaza. Year-round the first Friday of the month offers Art After Dark, with downtown SLO galleries opening their doors for wine tastings, snacks, and chats with local artists. A few blocks away, every Thursday evenings, you can find the city’s farmers market, a showcase for San Luis Obispo’s culinary landscape, including local tri-tip, tamales, craft beer (sample those at The Libertine Brewing Company), and the acclaimed clam chowder from Splash Café. Enjoy the locally sourced scene more intimately at Novo Restaurant & Lounge, which pairs a globally inspired menu with an idyllic creek-side setting.
Be sure to pay a visit to the 110-room Madonna Inn when you are in town. You can finish the day with a slice of the famed pink champagne cake and then retire in one of its quirky themed rooms, such as the Caveman, the Love Birds, and the Fox & Hound.
SLO delivers the goods on the wine-tasting front. Bottles bearing the world-renowned Paso Robles appellation can be found only about 30 miles away. But don’t miss the nearby Edna Valley region, in particular the Chardonnays of Edna Valley Vineyard and the Pinot Noirs of Tolosa. Then, check out the under-the-radar wineries of Arroyo Grande Valley, including the sparkling wines at Laetitia Vineyard & Winery.
San Luis Obispo County—a.k.a. SLO CAL—is home to an array of cool small towns, too. On your way into SLO, try the epic tri-tip at Jocko’s steak house in Nipomo, explore the dunes at Pismo Beach, and then say hi to the lounging sea lions off the coast of Avila Beach. Other essential stops as you then head north toward Hearst Castle include the harbour village Morro Bay, beachy Cayucos, and picturesque Cambria, set on beautiful seaside bluffs.
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