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Senic Highway

Road trip!

Cruising California's Highway 1

In this story:

Finding harmony

Big Sur? Yes, sir.

Sea lions & butterflies

If you go...


July 13, 1999
Web posted at: 11:41 a.m. EDT (1541 GMT)

By Jennifer Merin

(Los Angeles Times Syndicate) -- It's summer, and the perfect time for a leisurely scenic road trip. California's Highway 1, skirting central California's glorious wind-swept, sea-sculpted coast, is a top-notch choice.

Take your time when you drive from quaint San Luis Obispo to historic Monterey. You can make the trip in about four hours, but you're better off taking four days.

The twisting two-lane highway, flanked by dense pine forests on its inland side, clings tenaciously to steep rock cliffs on the shoreline side. Once you get on the road, there's really no place to turn off. But there are lots of lookouts and small towns where you can stop for rest and refreshment, and the magnificent vistas make the challenging drive worthwhile.

Before starting out, visit Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, built in 1772 and now used as a parish church. Located at Chorro and Monterey streets, the mission houses Chumash Indian artifacts and memorabilia from California's early settlers.

Nearby, a working apple farm/mill house on San Luis Creek uses a 14-foot (4.3-meter) water wheel to power a gristmill, ice-cream maker and cider press. Every Thursday evening, there's a farmers market with fresh local produce and street entertainment. California Polytechnic State University, in San Luis Obispo, often presents special cultural programs.

Finding harmony

From San Luis Obispo, follow Highway 1 about 13 miles (21 km) to Morro Bay, named for a huge conical rock jutting 578 feet (176 meters) out of the Pacific Ocean. Morro Bay, boasting well-preserved Victorian seaside cottages decorated with shells and driftwood, is still an active fishing port. Harbor cruises are available, and a ferry carries passengers across the bay to Spooner's Cove, with sea caves, tide pools and a four-mile (1.2-kilometer) stretch of sand dunes. A fine Museum of Natural History is in nearby Morro Bay State Park, where hundreds of bird species attract bird-watchers from around the world.

About six miles (9.7 km) north, the town of Cayucos, with its Old West look and antique shops, is surrounded by wild, wind-swept beaches -- ideal for long, contemplative strolls. Up the road about eight miles (13 km), the town of Harmony, population 18, consists of a cluster of cottages around the old barnlike "Challenge Creamery" building in which local handcraft shops are now located. Six miles (9.7 km) further is Cambria, an artsy enclave famous for fine art and crafts galleries in pseudo-Tudor buildings. Cambria's Moonstone Beach features bluffs with walking trails, play areas and picnic tables -- and spectacular sunsets.

About eight miles (13 km) north of Cambria, San Simeon's attractions include Hearst Castle, William Randolph Hearst's magnificent 115-room mansion atop a 1,600-foot (488-meter) mountain, La Cuesta Encantada ("The Enchanted Hill"), overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Four distinct tours through the property cover Hearst's art and antiques collection, private quarters and gorgeous gardens set around reflecting pools, fountains and statuary.

The coast area to the north and south of San Simeon has been designated as a California Sea Otter Game Refuge. It's possible to observe these delightful creatures playing in the surf; so be sure to carry a pair of binoculars.

Big Sur? Yes, sir.

The next 93 miles (150 km) to the north are filled with the uninterrupted splendid scenery of rugged, untamed Big Sur. This area, named El Sur Grande ("The Big South") by Spaniards of Monterey, was remote and unapproachable until 1932, when construction of Bixby Creek ridge gave public access to beaches, mountains and redwood forested canyons. Along this section of Highway 1, your vehicle's windows frame an endless series of exquisite landscapes, but to really appreciate the area, stop and get out of the car.

Hike through the redwoods at Limekiln Creek Canyon, stand on rocky Big Sur Point, and watch the sea surge against the mighty Santa Lucia Mountains; or beach-comb Jade Cove for pieces of jade.

Big Sur's romantic inns -- Big Sur Inn, Ventana Inn and Post Ranch Inn -- provide ideal headquarters for exploring the area. In town, abandoned redwood water tanks have been converted into craft shops and galleries, including one that displays the serigraphs of author Henry Miller, a long-time Big Sur resident.

The drive up Naciemiento-Fergusson Road -- a steep paved road hat parallels a pine canyon, then breaks into a clearing and runs in and out of redwood groves as it climbs to a 2,064-foot (629-meter) apex with panoramic views of the coast -- is not to be missed. Nor is Waterfall Cove Trail, a hiking trail that leads through Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park to an overview of McWay Falls, a 50-foot (15-meter) waterfall that plummets into the Pacific.

Sea lions & butterflies

At the northern end of Big Sur, Point Lobos is a rugged dark-rock promontory thrusting into the sea and culminating at Sea Lion Point, where sea lions bark into the wind and dive playfully through the waters.

North of Point Lobos, the scene is dominated by the Monterey Peninsula's subdued beauty of fertile rolling hills and pastures. The charming town of Carmel-by-the-Sea, established in 1904 as an artists retreat, has luxurious inns and shopping, and the nearby resort of Pebble Beach features world-class golf.

Carmel is the start of a 17-mile (27-meter) scenic drive to Pacific Grove, home of Point Pinos Lighthouse (in continual operation since 1855) and the famous Butterfly Trees, a grove of pines in which orange-and-black monarch butterflies nest from November through March.

Monterey, capital of Alta California under Spanish and Mexican rule, is now a popular year-round tourist playground. The Monterey Chamber of Commerce provides excellent free maps for self-guided walking tours covering historic buildings and homes, as well as the maritime and art museums and Monterey Bay Aquarium.

If you go...

The obvious benefit in driving Highway 1 from south to north is that you're on the side of the road furthest from the cliffs. Some people will take comfort in that. Others will want the thrill of being on the edge and having an unimpeded view of ocean scenery.

Either way, service to and from San Luis Obispo's airport is somewhat limited. Flight schedules are more extensive to Santa Barbara, about 100 miles (161 km) to the south and served by American, United, America West, Alaska and other airlines -- which also serve Monterey Airport.

The drive between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo on Highway 101 is scenic -- and quick.

Call car-rental companies to compare rates, asking for weekend promotions and other discounted prices.

Area accommodations range from about $65 to $450 per night, double occupancy. For accommodations, information about attractions and maps, contact the California Division of Tourism at 800-862-2543.

Additional information is available from:

  • Santa Barbara Visitors Bureau: 805-966-9222
  • San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce: 800-634-1414
  • San Luis Obispo Visitors and Conference Bureau: 805-781-2777
  • Morro Bay Chamber of Commerce: 800-231-0592 or 805-772-4467
  • Big Sur Chamber of Commerce: 831-667-2100
  • Monterey Peninsula Visitors and Convention Bureau: 831-649-1770

    Copyright © 1999, Jennifer Merin
    Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate


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