Guide to Big Sur: the Drive of Your Life

When it comes to road trips, sun-drenched Big Sur is the stuff California dreams are made of. Who could resist the unspoiled coastline? Backed by a soundtrack of American pop from the late 1960s, this might just be the drive of your life.

By Katy
8 June 2018

If you find yourself yearning to unplug, where better to do so than the emerald-green western edge of the United States? Amid your summer jaunt to San Francisco or San Diego, make waves on a Big Sur road trip, an area renowned for its raw coastal beauty.

Experience the Ocean Scenes of the Pacific Coast Highway

The Pacific Coast Highway is probably America's most beloved driving route after Route 66, and the two couldn't be any more different. While the Mother Road is characterised by classic cars, kitsch roadside diners, neon signs and rhythm and blues, its coastal counterpart (also known as Scenic Highway 1) conjures up images of a coastal drive in a convertible, palm trees swaying in the wind to a playlist of sun-soaked 1960s pop.

The route itself snakes from California's northern border with Oregon down to San Diego in the south, but Big Sur itself is found somewhere in the middle – just south of Monterey. As the longest state route in California, it takes around 10 hours to complete if you don't make any stops. But with the stunning views, seaside villages and untouched forests at every twist and turn, pausing every so often is an absolute must.

Big Sur: the Drive of Your Life

At around 1000km, the Pacific Coast Highway might be one of the longest driving routes in America, but it wasn't quite planned that way. The road was actually built in a piecemeal fashion in the 1930s and as such, people often refer to various segments separately. The most famous section? Perhaps today that's Big Sur, which was one of the most isolated areas of the United States until the Carmel–San Simeon Highway (part the Pacific Coast Highway) was completed in 1937.

Along with its incredible ocean views, Big Sur is well known for its winding, narrow road, often cut into the face of seaside cliffs. It took 18 years to build and stretches for 90 miles from San Luis Obispo to Carmel-on-Sea. If you drive it, you'll cross natural wonders such as the the Big Sur River valley and its unspoiled redwood forest, as well as iconic landmarks such as Bixby Creek Bridge, an arched structure that passes over the mammoth gorge of the same name.

'The Greatest Meeting of Land and Sea'

In the early 1900s, Tasmanian-born landscape painter Francis McComas became a figurehead of the Bay Area art scene, celebrated for his mesmerising watercolours. Inspired by the dramatic vistas around him, he proclaimed Big Sur 'the greatest meeting of land and sea in the world'. And who are we to argue?

In many ways, this particular area of California is still as wild and unspoiled as we see in McComas’ paintings at the turn of the century. As for the name Big Sur, it comes from the Spanish settlers of the late 1950s. Fascinated by the unexplored and unmapped area of wilderness along California's south coast, they called it 'El Sur Grande', which translates to 'The Big South'.

Cruise California's Dramatic Coastal Visas

What makes Big Sur so visually unique is its placement between the Santa Lucia Mountain Range to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west. The coastline is famously rugged, which means the landscape is too changeable to make it suitable for any significant building developments. For road trip connoisseurs that like to be at one with nature, this particular segment of the Pacific Coast Highway is about as idealistic as it gets.

The road weaves in and out of craggy mountains, hugging the sea, which means drivers are treated to panoramic views from just about every angle. Be prepared to pull to the side of the road – where it’s safe to do so of course – and have your camera ready to snap breathtaking backdrops that evolve as the road takes its course.

Five Things to See in Big Sur

Big Sur is awash with natural wonders, making it the perfect place for an outdoor adventure. Here are five unmissable points of interest along the way:

· Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park: Centred on Big Sur River, this state park has earned the nickname 'mini Yosemite' for its extraordinary landscapes.

· Bixby Creek Bridge: One of the most admired bridges in the world and the road's most photographed spot, think of this as Big Sur's version of the Golden Gate Bridge.

· Esalen Institute: New age spiritual retreat centre established in the 1960s, famous for its natural hot springs with panoramic views of the ocean.

· Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park: Named after a well-respected pioneer woman from the Big Sur region, this park is famous for its ancient 300ft redwood trees.

· McWay Falls: An 80ft waterfall that flows from McWay Creek in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park all the way into the Pacific Ocean.

Why Big Sur Needs You

While Big Sur continues to draw drivers who come to experience its scenic beauty, the coast has been subject to landslides and erosion across the decades. The highway has been closed off more than 55 times, and in storm season 2017, a colossal landslide blocked the road at Mud Creek, near the San Luis Obispo border.

The northern section has already reopened across Pfeiffer Canyon, and the rest of the road is expected to open again in September 2018. Still, Big Sur needs tourism more than ever before after suffering economic downturn after the landslides. You can still drive the route and enjoy the forced detour inland.

Ready to make your Big Sur road trip dream a reality?

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