2. The Pacific Coast Highway
Descending the Pacific Coast Highway (Hwy. 1) following the central California coast from Monterey to Morro Bay is one of the most dramatic drives on the continent and the quintessential road trip. The road is winding and wonderful. It takes you past coastal redwood forests, ocean cliffs where waves pummel rocky shores, secluded coves, and fantastic fauna. Where desert meets forest, the mountains here are covered with cascading wildflowers and the sturdy trees are surrounded by succulents.

Not for the fainthearted, the highway has limited visibility at times and sharp drop-offs. For out-of-towners, the scenery isn’t the only thing that will take your breath away as 18-wheelers and oversized RVs whiz past you on hairpin curves with narrow shoulders. So take in the view but stay alert. It is best not to be in a hurry as you make your way down this twisting 123-mile route that takes about 5 hours to complete at a leisurely pace.

Colonial Monterey and the Colorful Cottages of Carmel

Royal Presidio Chapel (Photo: FLickr)
Start your journey in Monterey, a city as rich in history as its marine life. Monterey was the capital of Alta California from 1777 to 1846 under both the Spanish and Mexican flag, and held California’s first theatre, public library and public school. The colonial architecture is still found around town, most notably in the Royal Presidio Chapel and the adobe Custom House. Present-day attractions include Cannery Row, Fisherman’s Wharf and the world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium, a must-see.

For a unique hotel experience, stay at the Martine Inn, a Mediterranean-style villa boasting antiques ranging from the silverware used at breakfast service to the pool table in the game room, from claw foot tubs—to a classic car collection! Six vintage MG cars are on display in a sort of mini-museum on the grounds, complete with automobilia including historic photos, signage, and gas pumps. Wine and hor d’oeuvres are served daily from 5:30 to 7:00 in the dining room overlooking the ocean, where whales can sometimes be spotted and otters and dolphins often frolic.

Have dinner at Montrio Bistro. Once a firehouse built in 1910, it is now a rustic restaurant with an award-winning menu featuring Italian, French and California cuisines. The bustling bistro serves strong drinks and dishes that don’t disappoint.

Travel down Route 1 a few miles south to charming Carmel-by-the-Sea. If its name sounds poetic, perhaps that’s because of its natural scenery and rich artistic history. The village became a haven for artists in the early 1900s and by 1910 it was reported that 60% of Carmel’s houses were built by visual artists, poets and writers.

A great way to explore the upscale town’s colorful cottages, art galleries, hidden gardens and famous churches is to take a 2-hour walking tour. Gael Gallagher’s Carmel Walks cover the original fairytale cottages, homes and haunts of bohemian artists and writers, and the oldest art gallery in Carmel. With 30 years experience guiding tours, Gael’s goal is to show you secret places that you would never find on your own. The walk provides a nice overview of the magical town, all of 1-square-mile wide, and she will leave you with plenty of ideas on what to do after the tour ends.

For a little R & R, check into Cypress Inn, a sprawling white-washed Mediterranean boutique hotel and a historic landmark. The inn is both eco-friendly and extremely pet-friendly. Animals may join their human family throughout the hotel, whether in the cozy living room or in the charming courtyard for breakfast or evening appetizers. Pet perks include animal blankets and dog dishes left in rooms. Not to worry, people are pampered too—the staff are known for their warm hospitality.

Two restaurants that must be mentioned fall on opposite ends of the culinary spectrum. Aubergine will delight foodies with its 8-course spontaneous chef’s tasting menu offered every evening. Ingredients are listed on their website with intriguing names like abalone, preserved sorrel, hijiki, lamb and whey to drop a hint of what the chef (Justin Cagley, named Food & Wine’s Best New Chef 2013) will be creating. Opt for a sommelier’s wine pairing or even a premium wine pairing if money is no object.

Hog’s Breath Inn, on the other hand, is down home with an Old West ambiance. Once owned by Clint Eastwood, paintings of the actor decorate the space along with mounted hogs’ heads. An indoor fireplace and outdoor fire pit are surrounded by weathered wooden tables and it’s the best place in town to enjoy a burger and a beer.

When Nature Calls: The Heart of Big Sur

Bixby Bridge (Photo: Flickr)
Getting back on the highway and back to nature, continue down Route 1 to Point Lobos State Reserve, the nation’s first undersea ecological reserve. The park contains both rolling meadows full of giant cypresses and tide pools full of tiny creatures, with hiking trails that follow the shoreline and lead to hidden coves. It’s a photographer’s dream and a nice place to have a picnic. Seals, sea lions, sea otters and migrating gray whales along with thousands of seabirds make the reserve their home. Scuba diving is popular and the only way to see the other half of the park: the underwater world with 70-foot-high kelp forests and otherworldly sea life.

As you continue winding down Hwy 1, you officially enter Big Sur, which spans 90 miles south to San Simeon. On this rugged coastline redwood groves stretch skyward, the Santa Lucia Mountain Range plunges into the sea, and pounding waves crash into the jagged rocks. Experience the transformative power of nature at its purest.

You will soon be crossing Bixby Bridge, one of the most beloved bridges due to its aesthetic architecture and perfect placement connecting two cliffy mountains with a spectacular single-span concrete arch. At 260 feet high and 700 feet long, gently curved to follow the coast, the bridge can be best viewed from turnouts at either end.

Pass through the settlement of Big Sur and turn off on Sycamore Canyon Road to the white sands of Pfeiffer Beach, where the foamy surf pours in through arched rocks. Back on the Highway, a couple of miles down you come to Nepenthe, an indoor/outdoor restaurant perfect for lunch or a glass of wine. Perched 800 feet above the sea and famous for its views, communal tables line the edges of the patio with dramatic drop offs below.

The nearby Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn is a great place to settle in for the night. Built by Norwegian immigrants in the 1930s, it is now listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. Rooms look out into lush redwood forests and the inn’s well-tended gardens. Wisteria spills over the outdoor patio while the Castro Canyon waterfall splashes into the creek running through the property. Reserve a table at the restaurant in one of the four candle-lit rooms. With no televisions, internet access or phones in the rooms, enjoy the old-world ambiance of another era.

The Julia Pfeiffer Burns Sate Park is about 8 miles south and definitely worth a visit. Take the short walk along the seaside bluff to view McWay Falls, one of the few waterfalls that empties directly into the ocean, dropping 100 feet into a picturesque cove.

To add to the adventure, go glamping in a yurt. Let me translate: enjoy a glamorous camping experience in a Mongolian tent. Treebones Resort is located toward the southern end of Big Sur, and offers traditional camping, yurts—and even a “human nest” designed and built by local artist Jayson Fann—where you can sleep under the stars in your comfy cocoon. A heated ocean view pool, hot tub and outdoor sushi bars are some of the more luxurious offerings, but the resort appeals to all walks of life, from highbrow to hipsters to tree huggers.

Castles, Ceramics and California Jade

Hearst Castle (Photo: Flickr)
Continuing south you’ll pass through several small towns, as delightful as they are diverse. San Simeon is home to Hearst Castle, a 127-acre, 115-room hilltop mansion founded by newspaperman William Randolph Hearst, featuring European architectural elements, antiques, and Hearst’s personal artwork collection. Next, collect moonstones and California jade at Moonside Beach in Cambria. In the colony of Harmony, population 18, you can watch local artist creating the ceramics, hand blown glass and pottery that is sold in town. Cayucos dates from the coastal schooner era of the 1860’s and is still a good place to fish for perch and watch the pelicans. Morro Bay is the end of the route and is easily identifiable by its landmarked Morro Rock, an extinct volcanic cone about 23 million years old. To learn more about local wildlife visit the Morro Bay State Park Museum.

This is a fantastic trip for friends, family or couples. The views throughout this route are a feast for the eyes, and will invigorate the body and stimulate the soul; the memories and mental images will most likely linger long after the physical journey comes to an end.

by Christie Grotheim
Route Details
Monterey, CA
Morro Bay, CA
123 miles
About 5 hours
Recommended Stopovers
  • 1. Downtown Monterey
  • 2. Monterey Bay Aquarium
  • 3. Martine Inn
  • 4. Montrio Bistro
  • 5. Carmel-by-the-Sea
  • 6. Gael Gallagher’s Carmel Walks
  • 7. Cypress Inn
  • 8. Aubergine
  • 9. Hog’s Breath Inn
  • 10. Point Lobos State Reserve
  • 11. Big Sur
  • 12. Bixby Bridge
  • 13. Pfeiffer Beach
  • 14. Nepenthe Restaurant
  • 15. Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn
  • 16. McWay Falls
  • 17. Treebones Resort
  • 18. Hearst Castle
  • 19. Moonside Beach
  • 20. Harmony Colony
  • 21. Morro Bay