Big Sur is a great area to explore. The drive down the coast on Highway 1 displays nature at its very best. Wandering through Point Lobos, hiking up one of my favorite trails through Garrapata, birding in Andrew Molera State Park, eating an “ambrosia burger” at Nepenthe, shopping at galleries and bookstores, and looking down the coast at the dramatic intersection of steep, green mountains and wild, blue ocean is all good.
By the time you reach Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, you are tired. Too many curves, too many stops at too many turnouts, and your back and stomach need rest. Even if you have a weekend, you are tempted to go no farther. If you missed southern Big Sur, perhaps it’s time to consider an alternative.
Up from the south
Rather than attempting the entire coast route in one long drive, why not start your trip at the southern end of Big Sur. It’s an easy one hundred miles down Highway 101 from Salinas to Paso Robles, and another 22 beautiful miles through the hills on Highway 46 to the ocean just south of Cambria.
Another alternative to driving is riding Amtrak’s Coast Starlight. The train leaves from San Jose at 10:07 a.m. and arrives at San Luis Obispo at approximately 3:20 p.m. A one-way reserved coach seat is $35. A rental car can take you on the rest of the trip.
It’s a slow but pleasant train ride with interesting views, especially over the Cuesta grade between Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo. The train follows switchbacks of almost 360 degrees, and climbs to 1,522 feet though tunnels built in the 19th century.
For a different perspective, you can drive under the 935-foot Stenner Trestle completed in 1894. To visit the trestle, drive north on Highway 1 to Stenner Creek Road.
A good place to start
Cambria is a village much like Carmel, with good restaurants, art galleries, and specialty shops. (I like Linn’s restaurant for good comfort food, and Cambria Pines Lodge for comfortable, quiet lodging and a pleasant breakfast buffet. If you eat too much at Linn’s, walk from the East Village up more than 300 rustic stairs to the lodge, but at night, be sure to bring a flashlight.)
If you like hiking, the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve offers trails suitable for all abilities. For more open space, Montana de Oro State Park has miles of cross-country trails just southwest of Cambria.
For a scenic drive or bike ride, take the Cambria to Cayucos loop. You begin at the east end of Main Street on Santa Rosa Creek Road to Highway 1 in Cayucos.
An easy drive north
Driving north on Highway 1 is less dramatic but easier than the northern section of Big Sur, and there is a lot to see. A few highpoints: Hearst Castle State Historical Monument, California’s largest population of elephant seals at the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse Station, Salmon Creek Waterfall, Jade Cove, Sand Dollar Beach, and Limekiln State Park.
The Castle is a monument to conspicuous consumption and bad taste, but it is magnificent in its own unique, gaudy way. I recommend the night tour. It is a two-hour walk up and down 300 stairs for over ¾ of a mile. Be sure to make reservations and bring comfortable shoes.
In contrast, seeing the elephant seals at the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse Station is easier than at Año Nuevo. The view site is only a few steps from the highway. The colony is now bigger, too, hosting an estimated 10,000 seals in 2000. The lighthouse began operation in 1875, and is now being restored.
As you drive up the coast, you can enjoy many lovely waterfalls, interesting coves, and small beaches. Although Limkiln has fewer miles of trail and a smaller campground than other Big Sur parks, it is a favorite destination for many hikers and campers.
For more information
For train information, visit Amtrak.com. For more about Cambria, see cambriachamber.org. For the Cambria Pines Lodge, search www.moonstonehotels.com. For Hearst Castle and Limekiln State Park information, look under www.parks.cal.gov. For Hearst Castle tour reservations, see Hearst.ReserveAmerica.com. For elephant seal information, visit www.elephantseal.org. To learn more about the lighthouse, go to www.lighthousefriends.com. Rental cars are available in San Luis Obispo from Enterprise, Budget, Hertz, and other major companies.