Traveling along the Pacific coast on Highway 1 between San Simeon and Carmel through Big Sur is filled with spectacular scenery, where turquoise waters crash against sheer cliffs and mountains that rise from the ocean. For more than 60 miles, the road winds along the cliff faces and offers breathtaking views around every corner. Along the way there are excerpts that provide some exceptional photographic opportunities, as well as side paths to points of interest and state parks with hiking trails.
Just north of San Simeon is the Ragged Point Lookout, showing what lies ahead and, for the brave of heart, a stepped path up the cliff face leads to the rocky shoreline. Just off the road is the Piedra Blancas Light Station, a historic park and wildlife sanctuary that is a reminder of our past in maritime navigation. Not only do the extractions provide spectacular views of the shoreline, but the sea lions call parts of this area home.
The Big Sur Highway is much more than where the mountains meet the Pacific Ocean, it portrays the beauty of the Santa Lucia Mountains, where hiking trails take one into the forest. Limekiln State Park, near the small community of Lucia, has three trails, each a half-mile one-way with only modest elevation changes. The well-kept Hare Canyon trail follows one of the streams through some of the oldest redwoods along the Big Sur shoreline. At the end of the route of the Calderas are the ovens that were built at the beginning of the century. A little more challenging is the Falls Trail where one has to cross the creek in four places and the elevations are a bit steeper, but it is worth the effort. The end of the trail shows a 100 foot fan-shaped waterfall into a small pool suitable for swimming.
One of the most iconic places along the coast is Mc Way Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. A modest half-mile trail leads below the road to a cliff-face lookout that offers a breathtaking view of the waterfall that drops 80 feet onto a sandy beach and at high tide directly into the ocean. For some shorter hikes, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is the place to be. The 64-mile loop trail leads along the Big Sur River through lush Redwoods forest with plenty of picnic spots, or the half-mile round-trip to Big Sur River Gorge, an undeveloped wilderness area .
Speaking of bridges, the Big Sur Highway has quite a few; however, the highway is home to one of the tallest single-span bridges in the world. The Bixby Creek Bridge opened in 1932 and spans the length of Rainbow Canyon and is surrounded by mountains and rises 260 feet above beautiful turquoise waters, providing a view that will not be soon forgotten.
At the northern end of the Big Spur shoreline, near Carmel, is the Point Lobos State Reserve. The preserve is like the Big Spur except in a small package, featuring coves, rolling meadows, and rocky shores where the stunning ocean views are endless. The best thing about Point Lobos is the abundance of trails, from the inland trails through the cypress forest to the outer perimeter trails. For the best experience, the little over eight miles of outdoor trails are a must, not only providing the best views of the ocean, but also meandering through parts of the forest. These trails range from flat, well-leveled trails to steep elevation changes where man-made roots, rocks, boulders, and steps help with balance. Additionally, two of the outside trails have narrow, steep trails that allow one to access small areas of sandy beach.
There aren’t many places in the country with a privately owned highway that charges a fee to drive, other than the 17-mile highway located on the Monterey Peninsula. This short but beautiful road passes Pacific Grove and Pebble Beach through Del Monte forest of wind-sculpted cypress trees before reaching the rocky shoreline. The road along the coast passes scenic spots such as China Rock, Bird Rock, Lone Cypress, and the world-renowned Pebble Beach Golf Course.
Trees play an important role in our survival and it is truly amazing how big they can get. Home to the largest continuous stretch of Coast Redwoods south of San Francisco, Big Basin Redwoods State Park offers more than 80 miles of hiking trails through thick forest of Redwoods, Sequoia’s, and smaller Tan Oaks. Some of the redwoods and redwoods here are over 300 feet tall and 50 feet in circumference and when you stand next to these trees it gives a new meaning to the word massive. For visitors with only half a day to enjoy the park, Sequoia, Skyline, and Redwood are the most popular trails. The Sequoia Trail begins at the ranger station along a dirt road with small elevation changes that makes its way through huge Sequoia trees and after 1.7 miles a short side trail leads to Sempervirens Falls. For the next 2-tenths of a mile, the trail climbs 150 feet over open slippery rock before entering a forest of redwoods and tan oaks. The next mile has a steady descent on a narrow path along the cliff face that provides close encounters with massive redwoods as well as a forested canyon view. Upon reaching the Skyline Trail, they are 1.5 miles back to the ranger station along a dirt road with small elevation changes. The Redwood Trail may be only 7-tenths of a mile on a wide, flat surface, but it is home to the park’s two largest redwoods at 70 feet in circumference.
Hidden in the interior of California is the unique landscape of Pinnacles National Park with oak forests, canyon bottoms, caves, chaparral, and towering rock spiers. Pinnacles has over 30 miles of hiking trails, allowing one to explore the beauty of this park up close, from flat grassy trails to steep trails through caves and up to rocky spiers. The 2.2 mile Moses Spring Trail with 500 foot elevation change shows rock formations and passes through Bear Gulch Cave where the trail is narrow with little headroom and dark with a stream running through it with a waterfall. The trail continues through another cave before climbing a steep cliff towards a beautiful view of Bear Gulch Reservoir. The more strenuous High Peaks Trial is 1.9 miles one way with an elevation change of 1,425 feet. The trail climbs two different cliff faces on a narrow, rocky path to the high peaks of the Pinnacles. Upon reaching the top, the views of the Pinnacles, the canyon, and the surrounding mountains are breathtaking.