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Road Trip Exploring the Best of Big Sur

Traveling the road for a living has taught me a lot about really enjoying what the US has to offer. When we are on the road just to get somewhere, we often pass by great places to visit without even knowing it. We GPS our routes, or pour over a map, get in our rides, and then think about where we want to be, when we want to get there, and what we'll do when we arrive. Every once in a while, we start out on a mission to get somewhere and find ourselves on a well-traveled road surrounded by beauty that deserves its own attention

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West of the more commonly traveled I-5 between San Fransisco and Los Angeles, Route 1 through Big Sur makes its way across about 90 miles of beautiful California coastline from Carmel to San Simeon under giant redwoods and the Santa Lucia Mountains. The western side of the route gives a view to the rocky cliffs and beaches of the Pacific. There are plenty of areas that look appealing and adventurous spirits will likely find interesting places, but here are some of the places that stole my heart on a north-to-south trip down Route 1.

Bixby Creek Bridge

One of the first attractions to grab your eye heading down the coastline will be this iconic arched bridge which was built back in 1932. It is one of the most scenic bridges on the west coast, often photographed and featured on film and commercials. It was even on a postal stamp in 2010. It is a good place to stop and take a look rather than just passing over it on your road trip. The view off the bridge is great, but surrounding areas offer a good view of the bridge itself.

Architecture buffs will also appreciate the sound construction and innovative design of the bridge, which aimed for it to sit above its environment rather than disturb a largely untouched landscape. The bridge seems to prove that the modern world can live in harmony with nature.

American literary greats such as Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller, and John Steinbeck also have roots in the Big Sur area. An iconic road traveler himself, Kerouac committed the bridge to pages of the book he entitled Big Sur.

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

Heading south from Bixby Bridge, Route 1 will move inland away from the coast and you will see a sign for Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park which is right along the highway. The park will take you further inland, but it is worth a visit for nature lovers. The park has nature trails through redwood and oak groves and offers a view to Pfeiffer Falls for those who can handle ascending 400 ft. over 3/4 of a mile.

Wildlife is commonly spotted along the trails, such as black-tail deer, fishing birds, and raccoons. Lodging is available a couple miles into the park and there are campgrounds along the river. Renovations are taking place into Spring of 2013, so it may be best to wait until they are completed.

Further south, if you are itching to visit the beach, there is a turnoff on the right to get to Pfeiffer Beach. The turnoff is unmarked, so it is easy to miss, but it is just past the State Park so keep your eyes peeled from there. There are areas of purple sand on the beach which make it a unique attraction and it is only a few miles off the highway.

If you would rather see a waterfall right on the beach rather than making the hike in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, McWay is the best alternative and it is only about 10 miles further down the highway. The waterfall is located in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park right off Route 1. A short walk from parking at Julia Pfeiffer Burns will take you to this 80 foot waterfall that flows year-round. Though the water once fell straight into the ocean, years of erosion left it to pour down directly onto the sand.

Unfortunately, the area is too dangerous to access the waterfall from the beach, but that hardly limits it as an attraction. The trail around McWay Falls offers plenty of views good for photography, though you probably won't be the only one taking pictures. There are also benches for those who want to relax and take in the views.

Past the falls, the path will end at the site of a historic beach home. Though all that is left is the terrace, it is worth the little extra walking to see what must have been an amazing place to live and even learn a little history too.

Beaches and Coves

Big Sur's beaches and coves are great for impromptu exploration, but a couple of them have gained particular popularity.

The Sand Dollar Beach has a large area to explore. Parking is right off the highway and there is a short trail to a point overlooking the entire beach where you can get a good view of everything. You can even catch some whales and dolphins making their way along the coastline from the overlook, so you might want to bring some binoculars to get a closer look. If you like to look for more than sand dollars, the beach is also a decent place to find some jade. Make sure to watch out for poison oak along the trails as it tends to grow sporadically in the area.

Not far from Sand Dollar Beach, Jade Cove is another good area to explore right off the highway. It is less of a beach attraction, but it has a good trail and it is fairly rich in jade and other rocks for interested beachcombers. There will be some steep areas so expect to do a little climbing and exercise caution.

The Big Sur area covered by Route 1 is arguably one of the best for a visually inspiring road trip. These spots can all be reached in an hour or so of driving along the highway. The great thing about taking this trip is that being on the road through this area is almost as fun as exploring the attractions. These are only a few good options to get started, but just as with beachcombing for precious rocks, it is worthwhile to do some digging and uncover the hidden gems. For anyone who has the time to take the scenic route, Route 1 makes a most rewarding alternative to the interstate.

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Hank Barton is a second generation trucker-philosopher with a penchant for the written word. He enjoys blogging about life on the open road. He writes for E-Gears, an online CDL Test authority that specializes in a variety of study guides.

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Published: June 26th, 2013

Updated: August 7, 2016

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