Big Sur and Monterey, California

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This past November, I took a road trip by myself north through Big Sur and into Monterey, California. For those not from this area, Monterey is about 2 hours south of San Francisco and is part of central California. I had never taken an overnight road trip alone, so it was a new experience for me. I wrote more in depth about my thoughts on traveling solo.

It’s a long drive from Orange County to Monterey (372 miles to be exact) but of course with the usual traffic, the drive felt even longer. Because of a late start, along with some unexpected traffic north of LA, by the time I made it to San Luis Obispo and turned off the freeway and onto the PCH (Highway 1), I was pretty tired of driving.

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But despite feeling tired, I was just now getting into the most beautiful part of my drive. It never ceases to amaze me how diverse California is and how driving only 3 hours north can feel like you are in an entirely new state. It’s one of my favorite parts of where I live. As I passed through Ventura, San Luis Obispo and finally Cambria (right before entering Big Sur), I was in awe of the openness and the rolling green hills (not to mention significantly less cars) that is rare in Southern California.

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After passing Hearst Castle (another trip on my bucket list), I made a quick stop to see the famous elephant seals. I knew that I was running much later than originally planned so I didn’t stay very long. But I did make another stop to see them on the way back down (more on that later).

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It was already getting cloudier and foggy as I started my drive into Big Sur. There were no more houses or any sign of civilization by now, just long windy roads and hilly pastures with the ocean not far to my left. I quickly realized that most people wanted to speed down this road and I found myself pulling over a couple times to let them pass. I knew by now that my plan to stop and see some sights in Big Sur that day would have to be moved to Sunday and I was going to try and push through the last 80 miles to Monterey. Eighty miles doesn’t seem like much, but driving on the PCH through Big Sur is a somewhat treacherous journey and therefore took much longer than expected.

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Big Sur is a long stretch of land in Central California, with mountains to the east and the ocean to the west. The sole route through Big Sur is the Pacific Coast Highway; on this stretch, the PCH is two lanes on a windy, cliffside road. There are state parks and beaches throughout the drive, and Big Sur is known for its camping and hiking, as much as for its beautiful resorts and restaurants overlooking the ocean.

Big Sur is also known for its fog. About 20 miles in, it was clear that a thick fog was beginning to roll in off the ocean. This wasn’t a big concern until it started getting dark and visibility was extremely poor. It was a bit of a “white-knuckle” drive for quite a while, at times only being able to see about 20 feet in front of me. On a normal road, this would be nerve-wracking, but on a road with turns marked 15 MPH, it was downright anxiety-inducing.

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I was able to make it through the fog and into Carmel and on to Monterey, arriving at my AirBnb much later than planned. However, Santiago and Amy were the most wonderful and welcoming hosts, with the cutest baby. It was easy to fit in to their home, while having the privacy that I needed as well.

I woke up early the next morning with a full day planned. I made a quick stop first to get coffee at Acme Coffee Roasting Company, a recommendation from Amy.

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After picking up coffee, I drove over to Asilomar State Beach in Pacific Grove with the hope of walking through the tide pools. However, I misjudged the timing of the tide. It was the peak of high tide when I arrived with very large waves rolling in.

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Despite not being able to explore the tide pools, seeing the vastly different coastline was wonderful. The beaches in this area of California are much rockier than beaches in Southern California and certainly the beaches of Cape Cod. But the mist rolling in near the shore was so beautiful. I spent almost an hour watching the waves crash on the rocks (and a few unfortunate people get stuck on said rocks) and enjoying the warm sun. It was an unexpectedly beautiful day in Monterey.

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Per Amy’s recommendation, I drove up the coast to Lover’s Point, a small, busy park in Pacific Grove. There were quite a few families having picnics and people enjoying the water on the warm day.

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This was followed by lunch at Pavel’s Backerei in downtown Pacific Grove, a small, charming bakery selling pastries and sandwiches, all made fresh daily. After strolling through downtown and checking out a couple local shops, I made my way over to Cannery Row and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

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I wrote a separate post about my visit to the aquarium.

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As I mentioned in my previous post, the aquarium is situated at the end of Cannery Row, a long (somewhat touristy) street with local and theme-based shops, hotels, restaurants, and bars. It was pretty crowded on the Saturday I was there but it was fun to walk the street and peek into a few shops. I picked up a few things for Lorelei and for Emily and Jeremy as a thank you for watching Scout.

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At this point, I was pretty hungry and stopped in at Lalla Oceanside Grill. I decided as a lone diner and it being pretty early, I would be more comfortable sitting at the bar (see my post on solo travel). The restaurant area faced the ocean so I didn’t have the best view but the bar had its own interesting, retro vibe.

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After a nice, quiet dinner, I walked around a bit more before heading back to the AirBnb for the night. I was planning on getting up early for my drive back south in the morning. My AirBnb hosts had a couple friends staying with them for the night and I spent some time chatting with them before heading to bed.

The next morning, I was up and out of the house early, being escorted out by the hosts’ two adorable and friendly cats.

I wanted to get an early start as I had a few stops planned along the way. Driving through quiet, sleepy Carmel on a Sunday morning, I almost didn’t recognize that I had officially entered Big Sur.

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My first stop was Bixby Bridge, the iconic bridge that is synonymous with Big Sur. The sun was still rising over the mountains and the mist was rolling away from the shore. It was the most beautiful time of day. (I also couldn’t believe that I had driven over that bridge in darkness the night before.) It is probably one of the most photographed scenes in Big Sur, but how could I resist?

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Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is a popular camping area in Big Sur but Pfeiffer Beach is known for its purple sand. It might have been the light of day (it was mostly shaded when I was there) but the purple wasn’t quite as vibrant as I expected. It was also much cooler than I had planned for and with no blanket to sit on, I only stayed for about 15 minutes before heading back on the road. But not before enjoying the view and the peaceful quiet.

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I had planned on stopping at Big Sur Bakery, as I had heard good things about it. However, I arrived there much quicker than I was anticipating and wasn’t hungry. I later regretted not at least picking up a pastry but it just means that I will have to return. 🙂

The last landmark that I planned on seeing was McWay Falls. Everyone knows what McWay Falls is even if they weren’t aware of the name because I’m sure someone they know has posted it on social media. I’m positive its the most Instagrammed waterfall. I can’t describe what makes it so beautiful but the vividly blue-green water might have something to do with it.

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The rest of the drive was beautiful. The sun was shining and the air was clear with a light layer of mist rolling off the ocean; it was a much different view from Friday evening. Around every corner there is a picture-perfect view, so I had to be selective about where I stopped or I never would have made it home. I slowly made my way down the windy roads, pulling over to let crazy people in their Porsches speed past me.

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Once I made it out of Big Sur, I knew that I wanted to stop and see the elephant seals again. I hadn’t spent a lot of time there on Friday and I’m so glad I made a second stop as a guide spent some time talking to me about the seals. Please indulge a few fun facts about them. The rookery in Piedras Blancas is home to about 23,000 elephant seals (although they are never all there at the same time). Elephant seals spend about 8-10 months of the year at sea and only return to the rookery for breeding, birthing, and rest. Male elephant seals can weigh up to 5,000 (!) pounds and be over 16 feet long while the females are only 1,800 pounds. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see any that big as they were only adolescents at the time. It was mostly quiet this time of year except for a few male adolescents practice-jousting. They were fascinating to watch. This is a must-see for any one driving up this way.

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If I returned, I would love to actually stay in Big Sur, maybe not to camp but a beautiful, secluded hotel would be nice. 🙂 I feel as if I only saw the tip of what Big Sur has to offer. Overall, the experience of driving the PCH through Big Sur was once in a lifetime and I am beyond happy that I had the opportunity to do so. Just seeing the beauty and diversity of the central coast is enough. The views are unbelievable and it is nearly impossible to capture the magnitude of what there is to see in a picture. I would take this drive again in a heartbeat and definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a new road trip.

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Final tip: If you are planning on driving up north of Big Sur, I would suggest taking the freeway all the way north and driving the PCH south. It is an extremely long drive and the views and ease of pulling over is much better driving south.

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