Florida Man on the Run

Through Big Sur: Driving from LA to Monterey

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No drive along the Pacific Coast Highway is possible without driving through the natural and rugged beauty of Big Sur. Even when one must detour around a mudslide, the land is gorgeous. Missing some of the coast was partly made up through the land we did have an opportunity to see. I had split this part of the journey into two days. The first was Los Angeles to Cambria; the second Cambria to Monterey. The first part of the journey was largely uneventful until the very end. The second part was full of twists and turns (literally) and consistently took my breath away (literally). Be sure the check out the gallery at the bottom for more pictures than what you’ll find directly in the post.

Into Santa Barbara

After a few hiccups in obtaining our rental car, we got on the road around 11am. Much later than I would have liked, but it was unavoidable. Pushed for time, I focused on making good time to Santa Barbara where we could stop for lunch. The only stop planned was at Point Dume. While we did stop, some time was saved by our illegal parking preventing us doing the full hike to the top. Fairly quickly we found ourselves getting off the highway in Santa Barbara.

Panorama from the meadow below Point Dume

This was the first point where I realized this trip could have just been LA to San Francisco. It was time to grab a late lunch, so we parked just off State Street. This main thoroughfare is packed with tons of shops and restaurants. The weather was spot on to eat lunch outside and we settled on PizzaRev inside Paseo Nuevo. The shopping center has some pretty walkways and was the perfect atmosphere for lunch. As we left lunch and walked the street I could tell we were going to miss quite a bit. A quick drive by the courthouse was not sufficient and if you’re in Santa Barbara go see it. I know that we will be coming back to make a whole day in the city.

Onward to Morro Bay and Cambria

It was already getting into the late afternoon when we finally left Santa Barbara. It was a race to make it north to catch the sunset. Between Santa Barbara and Morro Bay there wasn’t a ton I wanted to stop for, so it again made for a quick drive. Morro Rock wasn’t my original destination for the sunset, but once we arrived we couldn’t leave.

Sunset at Morro Rock

When you first see Morro Rock the sheer size will catch you off guard. I had seen pictures, but it was much larger than I had previously thought. The long beach next to it was full of people ready for the sunset, but that wasn’t the best view. The sun was going to set somewhat behind the rock, so we decided to go around back. It was clearly the right choice. Behind Morro Rock is a long jetty, with plenty of rocks to clamber over. Once on the backside, there is a fantastic view of the sun setting. It casts its final golden rays onto the jetty rocks, all of which were once part of Morro itself. That was our first pacific sunset and it was unbeatable.

The early evening drive into Cambria was the cap to a long day. I had been up and going since 8am and pulled into our hotel just before 8:30. Our days had been planned to be only 8 hours long and this one clearly missed the mark. Fortunately, my hotel booking skills came through in the clutch. The Rigdon House in Cambria is an absolute gem. What I though was simply a standard King room turned into a full suite. The room was absolutely perfect and one of the finest I’ve stayed in anywhere. The rest of the grounds are beautiful as well with a great back patio and pleasant breakfast area. I’m already planning a future vacation simply around being able to stay a few nights at the Rigdon.

A Winding Detour into Big Sur

The love of the Rigdon House caused a late start the following morning. We stayed longer than intended to enjoy breakfast and the cool crisp morning air. Cambria is a quaint little town and it was hard to pull ourselves away to the long detour ahead. The slide which covers a portion of the PCH near Ragged Point will remain until September 2018. This forced a long alternate route through Paso Robles and eventually onto Nacimiento-Fergusson Rd.

2020 Update: The Pacific Coast Highway is no longer blocked north of Cambria. I haven’t had a chance to return and drive the portion of the PCH that I missed yet. With that being said, I think the detour inland was an amazing opportunity to see parts of California that might normally be missed. Consider making the detour part of your time in Big Sur.

Looking towards the coast from Nacimiento Rd

The drive into Paso Robles featured some amazing mountain views of its own. While not as curving as the drive back to the highway, it didn’t leave us disappointed. Past Paso Robles the land became much flatter which just made me less prepared for the road to come. Nacimiento Rd is found after a drive through Fort Hunter Ligget. The road is innocent enough at first, but this is only in the lower portions. It eventually needs to cross the mountains and come down the other side. This is where the true beast come out. Nacimiento Rd is not for the faint of heart or a newly minted driver. The road is narrow (at times fitting two cars would be dangerous) and extremely winding. The views it produces, however, are some of the most stunning I have seen.

After you have crested the mountains and begun working down the other side, the change in weather is noticable. The valley is warm and clear. The coast is cool, wet and foggy. The landscape changes from scrubby bushes and trees, into lush forest and meadows. Experiencing such a vast change on a single drive was just another bonus gained from what I thought was a wasted two hour detour. I’m beyond glad to have done it.

Hiking Along the Pacific Coast Highway

A large part of this trip will involve hiking. It is the consumption of the natural beauty along this road that was the desire to drive it. I initially had settled on four primary stops in Big Sur. The length of the detour and actual time to drive it forced changes to the itinerary. I scrapped stops at Partington Cove and Pfeiffer Beach. However, I added a stop at Pacific Valley Bluffs due to their proximity to Nacimiento’s exit onto the PCH and the length of the hike. Adding Pacific Valley was an excellent choice. The expansive meadow right on the coast was a unique sight. It ended with a stunning cliff side view of the ocean. This stop provided us with an experience not obtainable with the two I cut out. It was the right call in the end.

A waterfall near the limekilns

Just north of the junction of Nacimiento and the highway is Limekiln State Park. Encompassing a lush redwood forest and three separate creeks, the park is magnificent. The three separate trails each follow one creek, but we only had time for one. This can be added to the list of reasons I intend on planning a vacation here again. The Limekiln Trail was our choice and features four limekilns built just after the turn of the century. These massive furnaces remain intact at the end of the trail.

The highlight of the trail is the serene creek it runs alongside. Featuring numerous small waterfalls, the creek follows you deep into the forest. It is your constant companion, soothing you as you walk under the cool canopy of redwoods. The trees silently keep you company and help remind you of the place you hold in the world. No matter what else I do on this trip, this will remain a highlight. If you are on this drive, Limekiln State Park is not to be missed under any circumstances.

McWay Falls, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
McWay Falls crashes into the surf below

Following Limekiln SP, we continued our drive north until reaching McWay Falls. As the only waterfall to exit directly into the ocean, its a wonderful sight. The hike proper is extremely easy and the “trail” is more a cleared gravel path. You can’t get down onto the beach, but the overlook provides breathtaking views of the falls and small cove in which it exists. For such a quick stop, I highly recommend putting it on your to-do list.

Arriving in Monterey

North of McWay falls is a long stretch of beautiful country. There are a large number of pull-outs which offer their own breathtaking views of the coast in both directions. When making the drive, I advise pulling off when what you see out your windows might make you wreak the car. We got a number of great photos along this portion of the road. You’ll also go through Big Sur “proper” here. There are a number of cool restaurants and shops, so stop if you like. We were running behind so unfortunately we couldn’t.

I will say that we did take the opportunity to take a few photos of the iconic Bixby Creek Bridge. It seemed impossible to just continue driving without joining the others on the road who had stopped. There was also another miniature detour in Caramel-by-the-sea and Monastery Beach. It was only upon writing this that I have come to learn there is an actual monastery nearby. I wish I would have known that and taken the opportunity to visit the grounds.

Bixby Bridge, Big Sur, CA
Panorama of Bixby Bridge and the Big Sur coast

Our day in Big Sur ended with a small inn just off the coast. Bide-A-Wee Inn and Cottages was a quiet place within walking distance of Asilomar State Beach. It is also nearby the 17-mile Drive, but we didn’t have an opportunity to take the drive. If you’re staying overnight in Monterey, I highly recommend the Bide-A-Wee for its location and price. I’ll have full reviews of Bide-A-Wee and The Rigdon House later.

Wrapping up Big Sur

There was a massive amount of places to see and do that I skipped. Enough to easily make an entire trip out of. While I’m eager to get into San Francisco and beyond, I wish I was on that Big Sur trip now. With so much left undone, there is no question I’ll be back.

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2 Responses

  1. We manage to spend a month or so in Big Sur every year. It’s good for the soul. We missed it last year when we were in Europe. The Basque Country came pretty close, though.

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