The Central Coast of California is a natural wonderland. Along Highway 1, there are redwood groves, national forests, rocky cliffs, crashing surf and beaches that provide myriad opportunites for viewing birds, whales, otters and seals. There's also the great man-made monument: Hearst Castle. It is one of the most beautiful drives in the United States despite the prevalance of poison oak and dangerous surf (all easily avoidable).
The following is a brief description of the towns along this 200 mile (325 km) stretch of Highway 1 and a sample of the attractions along the way (compiled from TA regulars and DEs). Destinations are described from the south headed north, though the drive can be done in either direction. One $10 State Park fee will cover all California state parks for one day. The America the Beautiful National Park Pass covers day use fees in the federally managed Los Padres National Forest (including Pfeiffer Beach).
While driving the entire stretch and visiting every attraction could easily take an entire week; a typical drive would involve 2 stops: one in the area south of Big Sur and the other in the Monterey Peninsula.
Map of the Big Sur region
Google Map and Sur Mile Markers
Photo Blog from TA member of the sights (from North to South)
- Morro Rock ~ A 500+ foot high volcanic plug that sits in the middle of the harbor, part of a chain known as the seven / nine sisters.
- Morro Bay Natural Estuary and State Park ~ Coastal wetland for bird-watching from land or kayak. Natural history museum for younger kids (< 1 hour)
- Sub Sea Tours ~ Explore the bay in a glass bottomed boat (45 min narrated tour)
(Morro Rock from Heron Rookery in the state park)
- Cayucos Beach ~ Idyllic beach town with beautiful smooth beach
- Estero Bluffs State Park ~ Designated whale watching from the coastal bluff from Dec-March (bring binoculars).
- Lodging, dining, fishing
Harmony - a town that redefines "tiny" - population of about 18!
- Harmony Headlands State Park ~ day use, coastal grasslands with a nice relatively easy hike to the coastal bluffs through private ranches near a creek -- there are hawks and birds visable and an old "bunkhouse" with bathroom available. Several benches available for resting. Otters and dolphins can be seen from the bluffs overlooking the water.
- Harmony Cellars ~ boutique winery and tasting room
- Harmony Glassworks ~ gallery, studio, classes
- Moonstone Beach ~ Fabulous coastline views. crashing surf, and sea lions.
- Leffinwell Landing ~ Great place to spot otters (off Moonstone Beach Drive)
- Fiscalini Ranch Preserve ~ Accessible, dog-friendly coastal boardwalk trails with great ocean views
- East Village ~ Touristy antique shops and art gallaries
- Hearst Castle ~ Tour the historic opulent home of William Randoph Hearst with reservations obtained 56 days in advance (1.5 hours and up).
- Elephant Seal Rookery / Piedras Blancas ~ Elephant Seal watching year round (Dec-Feb for mating/breeding season, March to see pups) 4 miles north of the entrance to Hearst Castle, just south of the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse (allow 30 minutes)
- Piedras Blancas Light Station ~ 2-hour tours of historic light house that start from a designated site on designated days, wildlife, and coastal scenery.
- Ragged Point ~ A hotel with restaurant and gift shop at the very start of the Big Sur drive with gorgeous views and dog friendly trails that are open to the public (20 minutes).
(Elephant Seals at Piedras Blancas)
Los Padres National Forest
- Willow Creek Picnic Area ~ Drive down (no need to hike down from the bluff) from the vista parking area to a pebbly beach and day use area.
- Jade Cove ~ Stop for scenic vistas or hike down to the beach to hunt for pieces of jade (keep within the rules).
- Sand Dollar Beach ~ $5 fee (or national park pass) provides access to picnic tables with grills and access via a short trail down to a beautiful expansive beach with tidepools at low tide and surfers at high tide. A campground is located across the street, one of many others in the national forest (10 min for the overlook, 1+ hour if hanging out by the beach)
(Sand Dollar Beach from the picnic area on the bluff)
Big Sur Area
- Limekiln State Park ~ Short trail connects small picturesque beach with a creek that leads to a small redwood grove and old lime kilns (1/2 hour and up)
- Lucia Lodge ~ Good rest stop (gift shop and restaurant - try the grilled ) with awesome views from south end of the parking lot.
- McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park ~ Short hike to famous ribbon waterfall that drops on to an inaccessible beach (20 minutes for the hike). Majestic older redwood groves a short walk into the Ewoldsen Trail is often overlooked.
- Big Sur Coast Gallery and Cafe ~ One of the many art galleries located along Hwy 1; but one with a new outdoor cafe with wonderful coastal views (albeit with noise from Hwy 1 right below).
- Big Sur Village ~ Mile-long stretch with roadside shops, restaurants and gas stations.
- Henry Miller Memorial Library ~ Books and exhibits featuring the author and Big Sur resident (1/2 hour and up).
- Nepenthe/Phoenix Shop ~ Beautiful views of the Big Sur coast from this highly perched restaurant and gift shop. Similar views without the wait (for those without reservations) available in the less formal Kevah Cafe below.
- Pfeiffer Beach ~ Beach with sea stacks, gorgeous views and spectacular sunsets at the bottom of a long, narrow road. Turnoff to beach (between Big Sur ranger station and the post office) is not marked - signs just say Narrow Road No RVs/Trailers (1 hour and up)
- Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park ~ State Park with redwood groves, lodge/restaurant and uphill hike to waterfall (1 hour for the waterfall hike)
- Andrew Molera State Park ~ Hidden gem houses the Cooper Cabin (Big Sur's oldest building) and a 1 mile walk to beautiful beach where condors can sometimes be sighted (1-2 hours). Walk-in campground is an option when nearby campgrounds are full.
- Point Sur Lightstation (Lighthouse) ~ Seen from the highway; guided docent tours ($15 adult, $7 age 6-17, 5 & under free) available Sat., Sunday and some weekdays (varying during Winter/Summer times of year) beautiful views of ocean and only turn of the century lighthouse open to the public in California (3 hours for tour).
- Bixby Bridge ~ Famous arch bridge used in many car ads, Perfect pull-out along Hwy 1 for the classic photo is on the bridge's north side. If driving southbound, watch for pull-out shortly after the Rocky Creek Bridge (10 minutes).
- Garrapata State Beach ~ 2-mile long sandy beach with dangerous surf conditions accessed via a short 3 minute steep path down from scenic parking turnouts right on Highway 1.
(Coastal views from lunch tables at Nepenthe)
- Point Lobos State Reserve ~ Stunning scenery, abundant wildlife viewing and walking trails -- Sea Lion trail is wheelchair accessible (2 hours from car, 4-6 hours including hikes)
- Carmel Mission ~ Historic mission founded by the Spanish in 1771 (under 1 hour)
- Carmel River State Beach ~ Narrow mile-long beach with bird sanctuary where the river meets the ocean. Parking turnouts right on Highway 1. (30 minutes and up)
- 17 Mile Drive ~ Beautiful scenic drive on a private fee road among the Pebble Beach golf courses (2-4 hours)
- Carmel by the Sea ~ Quaint shops and eateries remniscent of English village right by sandy Carmel Beach dotted with wind-swept Cypress trees (1 hour and up).
(Rocky coast at Point Lobos)
- Monterey Bay Aquarium ~ World class aquarium known for its research and large exhibits (4 hours)
- Cannery Row ~ Historic waterfront district made famous by John Steinbeck (1 hour and up)
- Dennis the Menace Park ~ Fun playground for children of all ages -- the brain-child of Hank Ketcham (your child will not want to leave)
- El Estero Lake ~ The lake features paddle boats next to a skate park and large picnic area (1 hour)
- Coastal Rec Trail ~ Rent surrey bikes and ride the trail by the aquarium (1-2 hours)
- Monarch Grove Sanctuary ~ One of the more popular overwintering places for migrating butterflies from late October through January (1 hour)
- Asilomar State Beach ~ Narrow mile-long strip of sandy beach and rocky coves with wheelchair accessible trails.
- Lovers Point ~ Grassy park overlooks beautiful small beach with calmer waters in the area. Sun rises in the East over the water while scuba divers wade from the small cove that may have otter sightings (1/2 hour)
- Elkhorn Slough ~ Boat tours & kayak tours and rentals, marine mammals (3-4 hours)
(Sea Otter playing in the Elkhorn Slough)
- Santa Cruz Boardwalk ~ Amusement park with traditional rides (2 hours and up)
- Santa Cruz Beach ~ Locals claim Santa Cruz to be the original "Surf-City, USA". Lessons available.
- Roaring Camp Railroad ~ Kid-frienly narrow gauge steam train rides from Santa Cruz Beach to the redwoods (Bear Mtn 1.5 hours RT and Santa Cruz train RT 3+ hours).
- Henry Cowell SP ~ A less crowded alternative to Muir Woods to see tall old-growth redwood trees (1 hour).
Half Moon Bay
- Pigeon Point Light Station ~ Grounds are open to the public while the historic lighthouse is undergoing restoration.
- Ano Nuevo State Park ~ Elephant seals mating and birthing from December to March, 55 miles south of San Francisco. Equal access tours are available on the weekends (2.5 hour tour)
- Memorial Park ~ Nine mile detour takes you to short accessible redwood trail with a mix of young and old growth redwood trees.
- Fitzgerald Marine Reserve ~ Visit during negative low tide to explore tide pools teeming with starfish, sea anemones and crabs (1-2 hours)
(Iconic photo of McWay Falls)