From LA to San Francisco: What it’s like driving one of America’s best road trips

May 13, 2021

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When an enormous chunk of California’s famed Highway 1 crumbled into the Pacific Ocean in January, it looked like it would be summer before it was possible to take the iconic road trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco through the cliff-hugging stretch of coastline known as Big Sur. But thanks to a seemingly superhuman effort by the state’s Caltrans highway crews, the roadway reopened months ahead of schedule, and it’s now once again possible to take one of America’s most celebrated road trips.

So we couldn’t have been more excited as we hit the road one late April morning, headed north just days after the barriers were lifted.

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Day One: Highway 1

We started our trip in San Luis Obispo — SLO to locals — once best known for its historic mission and Spanish colonial architecture (think bougainvillea-draped stucco and red-tiled roofs) but now known for a happening farm-to-fork food scene and up-and-coming wine country.

Our guide on this stretch of the coast is the Highway 1 Discovery Route, which offers maps, tips and suggestions for exploring the rich heritage of this lesser-known stretch of the coast. Our first stop after hitting the water is the rustic harbor of Morro Bay, where Tognazzini’s Dockside Cafe serves up omelets and buttermilk pancakes in a waterfront setting, the day’s catch coming in before our eyes. The biggest draw, however, is the sea otters who have made Morro Bay’s harbor their annual nursery; for an hour we watch entranced as mothers clutch tiny babies to their chests or roll them playfully in the water by their sides.

Farther north, we stop to stroll the white sand of Moonstone Beach in the serene seaside village of Cambria, where ocean views are easy to come by thanks to a wealth of comfortable beachfront stays. Lodging options on Moonstone Beach include the Fireside Inn and Sea Otter Inn, while the elegant new White Water Lodge occupies a prime blufftop setting. Another Cambria claim to fame is Linn’s, which serves up the best olallieberry and blackberry pie on the coast and steaks locally sourced from Hearst Ranch beef.

While Hearst Castle remains closed, San Simeon has another popular offering — Piedras Blancas, a sheltered stretch of beach next to the historic Piedras Blancas Light Station that’s become a rookery for northern elephant seals. Wildlife enthusiasts flock to watch the enormous and ungainly seals crowding the beach fall through spring with docents from Friends of the Elephant Seal often on hand to offer insights and information. It’s an endlessly entertaining show as the males posture and jockey for territory while the new mamas nurse their pups and train them for life on their own.

Our stop for the night is Ragged Point, a dramatic promontory of land unofficially known as the gateway to Big Sur. If the view from the Adirondack chairs outside our room at the Ragged Point Inn weren’t enough, the property includes a gazebo framing stunning sunset views and a private cove accessed by a steep zigzagging path. Dinner took place on the restaurant’s ocean-facing patio, where fresh salmon and a perfectly cooked sirloin tasted even better next to the warmth of a flickering fire pit and set to the tune of crashing surf.

The southern end of Big Sur offers picnic-perfect coves and hiking trails. (Photo by Melanie Haiken)

Day Two: Big Sur

From here it’s one dizzying view after another as Highway 1 winds its sinuous way up California’s most stunning stretch of coastline, clinging to clifftops high above crashing waves, dipping into deep canyons and requiring drivers to pull over every five minutes for another perfect shot. Choosing which beach to picnic at along Big Sur’s southern end is almost impossible, but Willow Creek and Sand Dollar Beach are dog-friendly options and Limekiln State Park offers a driftwood-strewn cove and a developed picnic area and campground, although the rest of the park remains closed due to fire damage.

Speaking of which, it’s unfortunately impossible to visit Big Sur without gaining an understanding of the immensity of California’s wildfire situation, with damage still visible from the 2020 Dolan fire, which raged through the Ventana wilderness and tore over the bluffs above the sea. Many trails on the east side of Highway 1 remain closed due to fire and mudslide damage, with recovery efforts expected to take years in many cases. Reopening is taking place in stages, so check with ranger stations and read signage before setting out.

See McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park from the Overlook Trail. (Photo by Melanie Haiken)

That said, the typical Big Sur itinerary will be unaffected. Historic Bixby Bridge still soars 260 feet above its famed canyon, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park offers the shelter of its deep forests, the trail to Partington Cove still goes through a century-old train tunnel, and the trail to McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park still boast’s Big Sur’s top photo op as it plunges into the cove below. The Henry Miller Memorial Library is open with its quirky literary displays and outdoor picnic area; it’s an excellent introduction to the general rebelliousness that first brought the literary and artistic set to Big Sur.

But what really makes the Big Sur experience so special are its stays. A retreat from the world in the fullest sense of the word, Big Sur has drawn those in search of solitude and serenity since visitors first came to hide away in its riverside cabins and seek spiritual fulfillment at Esalen and Tassajara.

Visitors feel high above the world at Ventana Big Sur, a Hyatt resort. (Photo by Melanie Haiken)

Nowhere is this more evident than at Ventana Big Sur, now a Hyatt property and eligible for points, where visitors spend their days wandering between two clifftop pools, enjoying numerous spa and hot springs options, and taking advantage of yoga and nature walks, all set in 160 acres of high mountain meadows and deep redwood forests crisscrossed by hiking paths. At Spa Alila, outdoor tents offer couples the option of private treatments just steps from the pool, while the upper mountain pool features a traditional Japanese-style bathhouse.

Dinner and breakfast are served at The Sur House, where tables line an expansive patio seemingly suspended over the Pacific, while lunch and an evening cocktail hour take place poolside where a wide lawn showcases the sunset. Ventana is also among the most dog-friendly resorts imaginable, with pups allowed everywhere their owners are and special pet menus featuring arctic char and grass-fed beef patties.

Seafood and other locally sourced bounty are another part of the Big Sur story, one in which Nepenthe plays a starring role, and not just for its unparalleled views (though those are mind-blowing, too). Since its founding in 1949 by the Fassett family, Nepenthe has fed and feted a roster of celebrities in a storied history of bohemian culture and food.

Sunset at Nepenthe, known for its clifftop perch and trend-setting cuisine. (Photo by Melanie Haiken)

The central section of Big Sur offers so much to do that you’ll need at least two days to hit all the highlights. Photographers and Instagrammers search out Pfeiffer Beach in Los Padres National Forest for its rock “windows” and arches, but to get away from the crowds choose the beach or Creamery Meadow trails in Andrew Molera State Park, which offer excellent wildflower viewing and an introduction to the region’s farming history.

Day Three: Monterey

We continued our journey with a stay at Glen Oaks, a modernized retro roadside motel with a woodsy Asian-inspired vibe, where baskets awaited us filled with wine and the makings of s’mores, which we toasted around our private fire pit to the gurgle of the river. (The lounge chairs scattered along the river’s edge were a nice touch, too.)

The property includes the Big Sur Roadhouse, one of the area’s best-loved eateries, known for its creative takes on road-trip classics like burgers, salads and a to-die-for pulled pork sandwich. More mealtime tips: Don’t bypass the tacos at the Big Sur River Inn or the muffins at Big Sur Bakery, where an art-filled garden area makes a welcome break from the road.

For those seeking points-friendly accommodations less luxurious than Ventana, it’s necessary to go outside the Big Sur area, but I was happy to earn miles on my Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card and support the Big Sur local establishments making a comeback after the past year’s travails. The town of Monterey at the northernmost end of Big Sur offers excellent loyalty program options such as the Monterey Marriott and the Hilton Garden Inn Monterey.

Speaking of Monterey, this bustling waterfront village makes the perfect place to end your trip. After a visit to the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium, take a walk down Cannery Row, where the fishing industry — and the John Steinbeck book that documented its history — first planted this region in America’s imagination.

Featured photo by Melanie Haiken for The Points Guy. 

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