Sir, Yes Sur! Driving the California Coast

We drove the coast highway through Big Sur again a few weeks ago and it is truly spectacular! I must say, doing it this time in our little SUV was much easier (and no doubt safer) than when we did it in our RV. Anyway, let’s take a look back at one of the world’s most beautiful drives.

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.

The name Big Sur dates back to the Spanish explorers who dubbed this area El Sur Grande” meaning The Big South.

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

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

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

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

It can make a body queasy.

The Pacific Coast Highway, California State Highway 1, is a remarkable piece of road, and  it is a good idea to keep your vehicle in top condition.

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

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

More 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.

Construction 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.

The 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.

These 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.

About 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 satisfied with looking down upon 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.

Little 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 sun.

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

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

The 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.

Different 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.

Pretty strong motivation to win.

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.

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

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.

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.

Noggin 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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27 thoughts on “Sir, Yes Sur! Driving the California Coast”

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  3. 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.

  4. 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.

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

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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?

  9. 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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