Rugged seaside road along California cliffs offers scenic splendor

September 27, 1992|By Caroline Spencer | Caroline Spencer,Contributing Writer

This is the California that men dreamed of years ago, this is the Pacific that Balboa looked out on from the Peak of Darien, this is the face of the earth as the Creator intended it to look.

Henry Miller

"Big Sur and the Orange of Hieronymous Bosch" Arugged, raw wilderness perched on rocky cliffs ringing an untamed Pacific Ocean, California's Central Coast for years has served as a haven for artists, writers and scientists. It has inspired accomplished Americans such as newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, author Henry Miller and two-time Nobel Peace Prize recipient Dr. Linus Pauling.

Running like a thread from Big Sur south to San Louis Obispo is California's scenic Route 1, which many consider the world's most beautiful highway. More than a road, it is a journey that joins together an eclectic group of villages that offers travelers a respite from the forced theatricalism of many vacation sites. And despite the feeling of romantic remoteness that these villages exude, there is something to interest almost everyone.

Highway 1 runs throughout the entirety of the state. But it is this portion of the Central Coast region that is especially unspoiled, a secret as yet undiscovered by hordes of well-meaning tourists.

Construction on the portion of this road that connects Monterey County with San Luis Obispo County was begun in 1919. Like the road itself, the official opening of Highway 1 in 1938 was some what unconventional. The ceremonies began with a toast to President Roosevelt, a pigeon release, a barbecue and the appearance of a Pony Express rider.

This roughly 150-mile journey encompasses dramatic views of nature, ranging from sea cliffs to rolling farmland and majestic mountains. It includes green winding hills of grapevines, used by the region's wineries to make award-winning wines that are sold all over the world. Hearst Castle perches atop a mountain and seemingly overlooks the universe, just the way its owner, famed publisher William Randolph Hearst, would have liked it. Quaint villages and inlets, featuring art galleries, one-of-a-kind restaurants and craft shops, add to the region's appeal.

The range of options provided by the varied scenery and communities attracts outdoor enthusiasts -- biking, hiking, camping and swimming are all popular activities nearly year-round. Indeed, Big Sur, as well as the Central Coast region to its south, is a natural habitat for migrating gray whales, sea otters and harbor seals and is the winter home of the monarch butterfly. Above all, the climate is consistently mild and sunny.

A winding road

And it all begins on Highway 1, south of Monterey. The road quickly becomes narrow and winding, as much of this part of the two-lane highway was blasted out of the western slopes of the Santa Lucia Mountains. At times, as drivers timidly negotiate constant twists and turns, hills and valleys, one can appreciate a sheer 1,000-foot drop into the sea that is not more than three feet from the road's edge. Few houses are apparent in this wilderness, but occasionally one spots dirt driveways that appear to rise into air.

At times, the drive can be terrifying, but it's also invigorating. Few cars pass. Frequent "vista turn-outs," small dirt areas where one can park, walk and enjoy the scenery, provide numerous opportunities for picnics and photographs. Small towns, such as Anderson Creek and Lucia, are tucked into hillsides and offer occasional post offices proclaiming their existence. A scattering of unconventional art galleries and restaurants boasts scenic views.

It is nature here that is magical, and travelers can enjoy enchanting views of towering redwoods, spruce trees, wildflowers and rugged beaches at their own pace by visiting several campgrounds. Most notably, the Peiffer-Big Sur State Park is an idyllic state campground running along a lovely river in a luxuriant forest.

There are, of course, other places to discover in Big Sur. The Ventana Inn, a romantic country inn sitting high above the highway, offers privileged privacy. For those who want to enjoy the view, its restaurant, featuring a huge patio deck towering over the countryside, is flanked by lowering redwood trees, grassy meadows and deep canyons, and offers breathtaking glimpses of the Pacific's wide expanse. Nearby, the Henry Miller Library, tucked in among redwood trees, provides an intimate glimpse into the controversial author, whose tantalizing works were banned from the United States for many years.

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