Sir, Yes Sur! Driving the California Coast

Big Sur, California coast

Waves crashing against the craggy coast, mist drifting up
mountains that rise abruptly from the sea, bridges impossibly
clinging to cliffs — we’d seen the iconic photos of the California shore along the Pacific Coast Highway.

The images look unbelievable,
but they are real and they are spectacular.

This is Big Sur.

name Big Sur dates back to the Spanish explorers who dubbed
this area “el sur grande” meaning “the big

Sounds a little like a college football conference
but really, this land IS big, sir.

Big Sur in California

This region
has no official borders but is loosely considered the column of
coast flanked by mountaintop and ocean meandering between Carmel and San Simeon.

Big Sur, California

Running about ninety miles, it seems custom-made
for a great day’s drive when including stops for sightseeing and

most of the trip we were within sight of the ocean and often
looking straight down on

It can make a body queasy.

Pacific Coast Highway, California State Highway 1, is a remarkable
piece of road.

Thirty-three bridges connect one wickedly winding
section of cliff clinging roadway to the next.

Don't fall off the edge of the road in Big Sur!

It’s slow
going and imperative to keep the old eyeballs glued to the blacktop
— hard to do considering the viewing opportunities.

than once Veronica gave me a gentle reminder that certain death
may be impending if I didn’t focus…

OK, some not so gentle, depending
on how many wheels were hanging over the edge of the cliff.

of the road through Big Sur was completed in 1937 after eighteen
years of work. Prior to that this was one of America’s most
inaccessible areas — even now only about a thousand people
live in the region.

Big Sur, California

surprising lack of development is due not only to the difficult
terrain, but also the incessant efforts of the inhabitants fighting
to preserve this pristine place.

Monterey County has banned billboards
along Highway 1 and has adopted some of the strictest land use policies
in America — disallowing any new construction within view of the
highway. Believe me, the unobstructed view makes a huge difference.

policies have kept Big Sur remarkably rustic.

There are no
high-rise hotels, no fast food franchises, no supermarkets
— or even towns to speak of — and only three gas stations
along the way.

Most of the few lodging and dining options available
are in Big Sur River Valley, where the road leaves the coast and
enters a redwood forest for a bit.

When we stopped
for a bite and a break we discovered that Big Sur is partially
inhabited by a species I hadn’t encountered since my days in the
Colorado Rockies back in the seventies.

Back woods, off the grid
— part Grizzly Adams, part hippy, completely fascinating. Very
friendly, very groovy and unafraid to train a wolf or half-wolf
as a pet. Back in the day we called them mountain goats, not sure
what they’re called in these parts, perhaps “Big Sirs.”

Whatever they go by, it was wonderful to make the reacquaintance.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Big Sur, California

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park,

halfway down is Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.

We parked
next to McWay Creek and took the short hike to McWay Cove
where the creek drops eighty feet over the edge into the ocean
as McWay Falls.

We quickly learned why the trail to the falls was called
Overlook Trail — the untouched little cove is wisely protected
from large, clumsy tourist feet and we had to be satisified with
looking over at it.

Nevertheless, this is a must-see spot along
the McWay.

As we wound our way south, the scenery became slightly less spectacular
and more and more surfer-dude-in-search-of-the-gnarly-wave.

did we know, we were in for a BIG surprise.

We rounded a corner and out of the blue were saw hundreds
— if not thousands — of ginormous elephant seals lazily
lounging in the afternoon

Piles upon piles of blubbered bodies basking on the beach by
Piedras Blancas.

The elephant seal rookery near Piedras Blancas, Big Sur, California

We slammed on the brakes and wheeled off the highway
into the parking area for a closer look.

The elephant seal rookery near Piedras Blancas, Big Sur, California

elephant seal had all but disappeared by the early 1900s due
to excessive hunting.

Then, all of the sudden, in November
of 1990 about twenty of the giants unexpectedly showed up
in this small cove.

We’re ba-ack!

The population dramatically grew and by 1996 this beach became
the birthing place, or rookery, for
over a thousand new pups.

Through the efforts of The Friends of
the Seals Central Coast, parking and viewing areas were constructed
for the safety of both the seals and the spectators.

Members of
The Friends man the viewing area to answer questions and make sure
that nobody does anything profoundly stupid like go in for a close
up look at a five thousand pound bull.

The elephant seal warning sign near Piedras Blancas, Big Sur, California

seasons bring different activities for the seals.

In the winter
the females birth the pups, wean them and prepare themselves
for breeding.

Meanwhile, the males stake out territory for
their harems, defending
or invading with extraordinary jousting battles.

It’s quite a spectacle,
with a dose of gross.

Proboscises and slobber fly as the giant bulls
bash their calloused necks against each other in an effort to drive
away their rivals.

These bad boys really know how to throw their
weight around. The winner gets the babes, the loser tries another
foe or gives up and has to watch the procreation from afar.

strong motivation to win.

The elephant seal rookery near Piedras Blancas, Big Sur, California

When springtime
arrives, the adults skedaddle and the pups are left to fend for
themselves. No boomerang pups in elephant seal land. The pups
seem quite adept at learning to swim on their own when the time
comes to go off into the big wide world.

Watch: A one day-old baby seal hangs with his mommy, while the big boys fight for territory!

Over the summer, everybody returns to molt before heading back
out to sea to stuff their faces and make more blubber. The fall
brings the juveniles, too young to breed, in for a rest before
they have to clear the beach for the next round of birthing, battling
and baby-making.

were lucky enough on our visit to see the first pup of the season — just a few hours

Veronica’s mommy instinct kicked into high gear and proclaimed
him “tiny and cute.” I suppose he was
tiny compared to his blubbery beach mates, but he already weighed
in at about seventy pounds. Cute, I’ll give him — all babies are
cute. It’s a survival mechanism, this way you love them even when
they keep you up all night.

Have to say, it works like a charm.

Sunset in Big Sur, California

As daylight
waned, we completed our journey through Big Sur by making our
way to Morro Bay, the nearest town of any size, in search of a place to sleep for the night.

The city is dominated by a 581-foot ginormous volcanic plug perched
out in the bay… ladies and gentlemen, let’s hear it for the
Gibraltar of the Pacific… Morro Rock!

Named and charted by the
Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542, stories vary
on whether he meant morro, a crown shaped rock or moro, a Moor’s
head when he dubbed the protrusion.

or knob, it still made a bodacious backdrop for the sunset
of an exhilarating day through Big Sur.

David & Veronica,

See all of our adventures in California!

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15 thoughts on “Sir, Yes Sur! Driving the California Coast”

  1. My husband and I made the trip to Big Sur up the Pacific Coast Highway a few years ago in our convertible – the top down all the way! Lucked out with gorgeous weather. Your great photos brought back many good memories.

  2. We just made the drive from Capitola to San Diego along the coast. It is indeed beautiful. in addition to Pfeiffer State Park, there is a place called Pfeiffer Beach, that when traveling south, about a mile past the park, is off to a sharp right with a road marked only by a sign that says “no RVs” or something like that. Two miles down a windy, very skinny road is the beach. There, you find crashing waves and some amazing rock formations, including one that the sun shines through at just the right angle to view the sunset on the solstice. Highly recommend it.

  3. big sur via Nacimiento-Furgeson rd. is a great drive through Los Padres National forest. Best on a motorcycle. great camping too

  4. Time to haul my blubber down to Big Sur again for a look-see! Was there during the "Summer of Love" in '68, so memory's a little fuzzy (age related, not chemical!) I've heard great things about the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park–so close to my home town, shame we haven't gone there yet.

  5. I enjoyed your video very much about the day old baby elephant seal, but could not help but also feel very sad at the garbage laying around in the background.

  6. Wondering about the mating habits of these elephant seals. "Is that a proboscis on the end of your face or are you just happy to see me?"

    Does size matter?

  7. Great article! I've bookmarked your post for reference. My husband and I are going to be traveling this way in mid-April on a coastal California sports car road trip. I knew about the elephant seals at Ano Nuevo, but wasn't aware that we could also see them in Big Sur. Cool.

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