California Highway One

Down to Big Sur
Photograph of Monterey Cypress on a cliff above the Pacific

The drive crosses the Bixby Creek Bridge, an engineering marvel rising 260 feet above a deep gorge. The highway rises from the bridge to a viewpoint above Hurricane Point. At low tide you can see shipwrecks near Point Sur, often called the "graveyard of the Pacific." The 34 acre chunk of land surrounding the lighthouse is a state park. In the winter, whale watching is superb here. If you're lucky, you'll see one or more California gray whales passing from Alaska to Baja California, or back. These whales can weigh as much as 50 tons, attesting to the nutrition-value of krill.

Soon, you're in Big Sur country. The twisting and turning precariously above the hungry ocean gives way to a flat stretch of land. Andrew Molera State Parkextends along the lower section of the Big Sur River. This park offers several decent hiking trails, a primitive, 50 site campground, and a two-mile long stretch of beach.

The town of Big Sur ambles through the six-mile Big Sur Valley. Big Sur is much less starched than Carmel—a fun town to explore, even venture a little shopping for pottery and honey and such. When you decide to leave town, you'll soon come upon Pfeiffer-Big Sur State Park. At 821 acres, this is a small but popular park. For a tiny area, the woodlands are dense and varied: oaks, maples, redwoods and willows along the river bottom give way to oak and Santa Lucia fir in the chaparral of the drier hills above. The park offers a 217 camp sites, and a couple wonderful trails, notably one to Pfeiffer Falls. This park offers possibly the easiest access to the Ventana Wilderness.

The Ventana Wilderness contains 167,323 acres straddling the Santa Lucia Mountain Range. Much of the Santa Lucia Range is included in Los Padres National Forest. The Ventana is one of the great wildernesses: criss-crossed with 200 miles of trail, you can hike from stands of lush coastal redwoods to sub-alpine, bare rock mountain tops. The most popular trail, for good reason, is the Pine Ridge Trailthat originates near Pfeiffer-Big Sur State Park. Not only is the scenery along the way spectacular, you can treat yourself to dips in swimming holes and hotsprings along the way. If you want a little more isolation, consider the trails in the Cone Ridgearea. The Cone Ridge Trailascends steeply to a summit offering electrifying views all the way to the High Sierras. For superb ocean views, consider the Vicente Camp Trail, with starts near the national forest's Kirk Creek Campground and follows the west side of the mountain saddle for five miles to a campsite set among the redwoods.

If you want to get off the beaten track a little, search for Forest Road 19S05 about a mile past the state park. This road wanders down Sycamore Canyon to Pfeiffer Beach, a rugged, explorable stretch of narrow sand beaches and evocatively battered rocks. Past Sycamore Canyon, the highway passes through Nepenthe, which features a vista almost 1,000 feet over the ocean.

The next 60 miles are on national forest land, with no towns to speak of. Make sure you're gassed up. And alert. Though you're not going to fall asleep from straight-line boredom, you want to be ready to negotiate the upcoming twists and turns. Along the way you'll want to stop at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. This is park is another gem, with great hiking trails, camping, a two-mile long beach, and a winter whale watching program.

Past the park, the Naciemento-Ferguson Roadheads east over the Santa Lucia Mountains to U.S. 101. You can take a side road to the 5,775 foot summit of Cone Peak, with views out over the Ventana Wilderness. Civilization rears a timid head at the small town of Pacific Valley, where you'll find a national forest ranger station. You can hike from the station to seventy-foot Salmon Creek Falls. On the way out, you'll want to stop at the Willow Creek Vista. Highway One reallystarts to twist and turn, winding its way around features with such telling names as Breaker Point, Ragged Point, and Point Piedras Blancas (which means"white rock" point - after the guano covered rocks).

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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