Big Sur beckons to many types of visitors. Nature-lovers come to camp and hike the pristine wilderness areas, to don thick wetsuits and surf the oft-deserted beaches, and even to hunt for jade in rocky coves. Some of these folks come to stay and find themselves at the amazing retreats hosted by the Esalen Institute.
On the other hand, some of the wealthiest people from California and beyond visit Big Sur to luxuriate at unbelievably posh hotels and spas with dazzling views of the ocean, flower-strewn meadows, art galleries, and fabulous cuisine.
Whether you prefer a low-cost camping trip or a pampered look into how the other 0.01 percent live, Big Sur offers its beauty and charm to all comers. Part of that charm is Big Sur’s determination to remain peacefully apart from the Information Age—yes, this means that your cell phone won’t work in many parts of Big Sur. Horrors!
The two most comprehensive visitors centers in Big Sur lie within Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park (47225 Hwy. 1, 831/667-2315, www.parks.ca.gov) and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (Hwy. 1, 12 miles south of Pfeiffer Big Sur, 831/667-2315, www.parks.ca.gov). At Pfeiffer Big Sur, you’ll find the visitors center grouped in with the Big Sur Lodge Restaurant, the hotel check-in, and a small store. This visitors center is a good spot to get maps and information for hiking here and at other Big Sur parks that don’t have manned visitors centers.
Farther south at Julia Pfeiffer Burns, the visitors center is easily accessible from the main parking lot. Again, rangers can advise you about hiking and activities both in their park and at other parks in the region.
“Highway 1” sounds like a major freeway to many visitors, and down south it does get big and flat and straight. But along Big Sur, Highway 1 is a narrow, twisting, cliff-carved track that’s breathtaking both because of its beauty and because of its dangers. Once you get five miles or so south of Carmel, expect to slow down especially around the hairpin turns carved into vertical cliffs.
If you’re coming up from the south, Highway 1 is fairly wide and friendly up from Cambria, only narrowing into its more hazardous form as the cliffs get higher and the woods thicker. Be aware that fog often comes in on the Big Sur coast at sunset, making the drive even more hazardous (and much less attractive). If you must drive at night, take it slow!
Plan to spend several hours driving from Carmel to Cambria, partly to negotiate the difficult road and partly to make use of the many convenient turnouts to take photos of the unending spectacular scenery. Most of the major parks in the Big Sur region spring right off Highway 1, making it easy to spend a couple of days meandering along the road, stopping at Julia Pfeiffer or Andrew Molera to hike for a few hours or have a picnic on the beach.
© Liz Hamill Scott from Moon California, 2nd Edition