Carolina: Cruising Past 70: Driving Down the West Coast: Big Sur and San Simeon

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Driving Down the West Coast: Big Sur and San Simeon

Big Sur is the sparsely populated region through which Highway 1 runs on California’s coastline that has the Sta. Lucia Mountains rising sharply out of the Pacific Ocean! As we left Monterrey Bay, Carmel, and Pebble Beach, one stunning scene after another held our breath. It was even more incredible that we found a campground (we had no reservation) of the National Forest Service right there between the mountains and the deep blue sea! The section of Highway 1 running through Big Sur is widely considered as one of the most scenic driving routes in the United States, if not the world.

Big Sur's Cone Peak is the highest coastal mountain in the contiguous 48 states, ascending nearly a mile above sea level, only three miles from the ocean. The northern end of Big Sur is about 120 miles south of San Francisco and the southern end is approximately 245 miles northwest of Los Angeles. Only about 1000 inhabitants, descendants of the original settler and rancher families, artists and other creative types, along with wealthy home-owners from the worlds of entertainment and commerce live there.

There are small clusters of gas stations, restaurants, and motels which are called "towns": Big Sur, in the Big Sur River valley, Lucia, near Limekiln State park, and Gorda, on the southern coast. The economy is almost completely based on tourism. Much of the land along the coast is privately owned or has been donated to the state park system. The mountainous terrain, environmentally conscious residents, and lack of property for development have kept Big Sur unspoiled, retaining an isolated frontier mystique.

The land use restrictions that preserve Big Sur's natural beauty also mean that tourist accommodations are limited, often expensive, and fill up quickly during the busy summer season. There are fewer than 300 hotel rooms on the entire 90 mile stretch between San Simeon and Carmel, only three gas stations, and no chain hotels, supermarkets, or fast-food outlets. The lodging options are rustic cabins, motels, and campgrounds, or costly, exclusive five-star resorts, with little in between. We found the Kirk Creek Campground of the National Forest Service for only $10 a night (Bill holds a Golden Passport)!

It was the perfect place! We hiked to a small beach below through some trails along the ridge. The beaches of Big Sur are unsuitable for swimming, however, because of unpredictable currents and frigid temperatures. Other notable points are The Bixby Creek Bridge and nine state parks, one of which has one of the few waterfalls on the Pacific Coast that plunges directly into the ocean (although visitors are not allowed on the beach itself to preserve the natural habitat). And a photo of Bill on a chair carved out of a tree perched on a ridge is a priceless treasure!

Most of the 3 million tourists each year never leave Highway 1, because the mountain range is one of the largest roadless areas near a coast in the contiguous United States. The highway winds along the western flank of the mountains mostly within sight of the Pacific Ocean, varying from near sea level up to a thousand-foot sheer drop to the water and as such, gazing at the views while driving is inadvisable. During a looooong stretch, I nervously held on to my seat as the RV (Star) is much higher than a car. Every five minutes or so I pleaded with Bill to slow down as he drove at 10 mph!

When we reached the end I heaved a big sigh of relief!!!!! But I never expected the big reward waiting for us at the town of San Simeon…thousands of mostly immovable huge animals lying on the beach! It is the largest elephant seal rookery on the West Coast, located just south of the 105-foot 10½-inch Piedras Blancas Lighthouse. Elephant seals are large oceangoing seals. Its two species were both hunted to the brink of extinction by the end of the nineteenth century, but numbers have since recovered and the northern species have chosen the Pacific coast of the US, Canada, and Mexico for mating.

Elephant seals take their name from the large proboscis of the adult males which resembles an elephant’s trunk. They produce extraordinarily loud roaring noises during the mating season. They also act as ‘rebreathers’ since they are filled with cavities designed to reabsorb moisture from the animals' exhalations. This is necessary when the male seals rarely leave the beach to feed and therefore must conserve body moisture during mating season. Bulls reach a length of 16 ft. and a weight of 6,000 lb.

What a reward! Next: Santa Barbara and Los Angeles!


  1. great information! Love the pic of the big chair along big sur and the great golf course picture.

  2. Thanks for the compliment! Hope you continue to enjoy stories of our travels.

  3. "Generation Z: Cruising in an RV" has been included in this weeks Sites To See. I hope you like the image I featured, and I hope this helps to attract many new visitors here.

  4. Thank you so much! I was so thrilled to be at the Billy Graham Center. I literally ran to this building from the parking lot! I love your site, too!


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