Travel in Big Sur California

Travel in Big Sur California (Greta Guest/McClatchy-Tribune)

"It is here at Big Sur that I first learned how to say Amen!" — Henry Miller

Moody fog rolls over the mountains to kiss the ocean on California's Big Sur coast.

The feeling of enormity hits you in waves as you drive along California Highway 1, soaking in the views of plunging wildflower-covered cliffs, rock formations jutting out of the cold, blue sea and silky sand beaches.

Driving through Big Sur along the curvy two-lane coastal road feels like a ride on a slow-motion roller coaster where the scenery isn't whizzing by in a blur but instead looming larger and more breathtaking around every turn. Between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Lucia Mountains, nature's grandeur will compel you to stop and climb out of the car at each lookout — and there are many — to take photos with the rest of the tourists drawn to the area.

Big Sur — or el sur grande, the big south as the Spanish defined it — can be a daunting trip when you think of the rugged, mountainous 90 miles to explore from Carmel in the north to San Simeon to the south.

But the central 24 miles from the Bixby Bridge to McWay Falls can easily be seen over a day or two, and this stretch tends to draw the largest number of tourists.

Whale-watchers come during the winter, and families and travelers from other countries migrate to Big Sur in the summer. Fall is offseason, and many hotels fill the slow times with live musical performances and bargain lodging rates to boost business.

"The peninsula has always drawn a lot of Europeans — French, Italian, you name it," said Henry Guzman, 38, a bartender at the Big Sur River Inn's restaurant, who commutes from Monterey each day.

"The drive from Carmel to Big Sur, the beauty is amazing. You never experience a drive like that anywhere in the world."

The area also is known as the muse of many artists and authors, including Hunter S. Thompson, Edward Weston, Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller. Miller wrote "Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch" about his 15 years living in the area. The Henry Miller Memorial Library along Highway 1 features Miller's writings, drawings and paintings.

Much of the area's beauty, such as the Bixby Bridge area at the north, can be seen from your car. But then there are some amazing sights that are worth the hike to see — among them, Pfeiffer Beach, Partington Cove and McWay Falls.

We decided to find the beach at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park after dinner one night at the Nepenthe restaurant, famous for being on the site where Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles bought a cabin in the 1940s. The turnoff for the beach was hard to find as there is no sign on the main road and it was getting dark. Sycamore Canyon Road is a half-mile south on Highway 1 from the Big Sur Ranger Station. Look for mile marker 45.64.

Then it's a sharp right and two miles down a one-lane road that has a couple of turnouts to avoid most head-on collisions.

At the end of the road, you find a car park and bathrooms. And you might run into some area residents with a hippie vibe, out checking on their gardens. There are also some interesting dwellings and a horse ranch.

Next you enter a path to the beach — about a mile round trip, mostly through sand. Feast your eyes on massive rock formations and arches not far from the beach. The surf foams over smaller rocks, and when the sun sets, the palette changes from blue and yellow to magenta and orange, and finally to lavender and black.

Partington Cove is another unmarked wonder, not to be missed. It's in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and also a one-mile walk from Highway 1. There are two large turnout areas where you can leave your car before making the steep descent down a dirt road to the tunnel John Partington made through the granite cliff to use as a timber shipping dock in the 1880s.

As the trail splits, you'll pass over a small creek, then go through the tunnel. On the other side are beautiful views of the cove and ocean. We had the place to ourselves, seeing just one couple as we were entering and they were leaving.

Walking back through the tunnel to the trail split, go left for amazing views of a boulder-and-rock beach with pounding surf. Take your shoes off and soak your toes in the cool water. Go ahead and add to the rock sculptures visitors have left.

The falls draw enough tourists to fill the parking lot at Pfeiffer Burns State Park. You can park here for a suggested donation of $10, and there are restrooms. Then it's a short walk to the falls trail.

And when we say falls, think more a trickle from a garden hose than Niagara. The scenery around the 70-foot-high falls draws more oohs and aahs than the outflow from McWay Creek to the beach. From the observation deck, you can see both stunning sides of the coast.

If you go

Getting there: Fly into the San Francisco or San Jose airport. Rent a car and drive the famed California Highway 1. Big Sur is about 128 miles south of the San Francisco airport and 103 miles from the San Jose airport. Nice stops along the drive include the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Carmel.

Where to stay: For budget lodgings, try the various campgrounds in the area such as Big Sur Campground & Cabins, bigsurcamp.com, or the Fernwood Resort. Midpriced accommodations can be found at the Big Sur River Inn, Deetjen's Big Sur Inn, deetjens.com, or Glen Oaks Motel, glenoaksbigsur.com. For top-of-the-line lodgings, try the Post Ranch Inn, postranchinn.com, or Ventana Inn & Spa, ventanainn.com.

Information: bigsurcalifornia.org