The Pacific Coast Highway & Big Sur

Scanned Image 131940001The Pacific Coast Highway is known to be one of America’s iconic drives, so we knew it was the only road to travel to San Francisco from Los Angeles during our week-long vacation in California.  Who knew driving could be so much fun?  Breathtaking scenery combined with hairpin turns and treacherous cliffs made this the most thrilling car ride of my life.  Honestly, as we rode along the two-lane carved out mountain that was 500 to 1,000 feet above the roaring Pacific Ocean, I noticed I had sweaty palms on the steering wheel, and my heart was racing.   It was at that point that I was glad we were driving north, not south.  To ease my anxiety, we stopped a few times along the way at several of the vista points, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and for a late lunch at the famous restaurant, Nepenthe.

Big Sur

Big Sur

Taking in the view.

Taking in the view.

The vista point lookouts obviously were along the cliff side, and it was challenging crossing oncoming traffic to park our car, but once we were parked and out of the car we found ourselves in awe of the stunning view of the ocean crashing on the rocks below.  We heard that we should check out the McWay Waterfall and that it was a quick hike, so we headed to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.  After heading down some wooden steps and a path that lead us through a tunnel under the highway we saw the ocean.  A few yards to the right we saw what all the fuss was about; a 40-foot waterfall was flowing directly into the sea.  The McWay Creek flows over an 80-foot cliff directly into the sand beach connecting with the Pacific ocean.

McWay Falls

McWay Falls

Since we couldn’t get enough of Big Sur’s scenery, we enjoyed more of the panoramic views nestled in the trees along the mountain 800 feet above the surf at Nepenthe.  Nepenthe lived up to all the hype, but it was a little pricey for a burger and shrimp sandwich. The outdoor patio had red, green, yellow and blue umbrellas among the two rows of single bench tables that allowed us to do a little birdwatching in addition to continuing to soak up the view.

The entrance to Nepenthe.  The remote wilderness defines Big Sur as much as it's ocean views.

The entrance to Nepenthe. The remote wilderness defines Big Sur as much as it’s ocean views.

Enjoying lunch.

Lunch with a view.

If you plan on checking out this Big Sur institution, make sure you don’t go between lunch and dinner if you are hungry because between 4 pm and 6 pm they only serve appetizers.  We were lucky and just made the lunch cut off, but customers that came after us were a little disappointed.  I would have been too after a long white knuckled drive.

As we headed out of Big Sur, the drive became even more treacherous because the state was paving and retrofitting some of the highways which reduced two lanes of opposing traffic down to one and lights regulated the flow of traffic in one direction over the other.  The upside of being stuck in traffic on a cliff was that we were able to stop on the famous Bixby Creek Bridge which allowed us to get some great photographs before working our way, Santa Cruz.

View from the famous Bixby Creek Bridge

View from the famous Bixby Creek Bridge

If you plan on taking on this iconic drive and have any fears of cliffs or heights, definitely drive from south to north to keep you in the inside lane to avoid any panic attacks induced by the cliff-hugging curves that have a 15 mph speed limit.  Parts of the road are just a few feet from the cliff.  Also, make sure you plan because I can’t imagine driving along the central coast of Route 1 in the dark without street lights.  Check on the weather too.  Of course, a pretty day guarantees the magnificent views, while fog or bad weather really could make the drive quite dangerous.

Scanned Image 131940002

Overall the drive along Highway 1 was a beautiful drive I have ever taken in my life and can understand why it is on every list of scenic drives.  The snaky drive was a destination in itself, and Big Sur has to be one of the most beautiful places I have ever laid eyes on and well worth the white knuckles.

What is your favorite scenic drive?


  1. kerry says:

    Finally someone writes a nice clear article on how to drive this scary road w/o passing out! My mom and I are planning a girls trip to California in September, and I am wanting to do the drive but was afraid that there was a drop off on both sides? Looks like the inside lane going north hugs the mountain all the way. I can handle that. Are there sharp declines that you need to ride your brakes? Or is it gradual?
    Thanks again

    • Sherri says:

      Kerry, it is a gradual ride. The speed limit is very low around some of the curves. Hope you and your mom have a great time.

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