California Coast: Carmel-by-the-Sea to Big Sur Driving Tour
If you are interested in this driving tour as an audio tour, you may find our companion audio tour on VoiceMap. Tours are listed under Monterey Peninsula. To use VoiceMap, you will need to download the VoiceMap app from the Apple Store or Google Play. The app is free, the audio driving tour will be $9.99. Happy Adventures and enjoy the tour!
On this 43 mile driving tour along the rugged coastline between Carmel and Big Sur and beyond, you will hear stories about Big Sur, its people, history, plant communities and animals. You will also have the opportunity to visit four state parks, a few beaches, and wild rocky coves, as well as hike headland meadows and redwood forested canyons.
We have four spectacular hikes planned for Point Lobos, though you don't need to take the hikes to enjoy the beauty of this park. So if the parking lot is still open turn right into Point Lobos and stop at the Ranger Booth to pay your entrance fee to this park. You may also purchase a map if you like. Keep your parking receipt as it is valid for parking at other State Parks you visit today.
Point Lobos was one of the major shore whaling stations along the coast of California from 1862 to 1879. The Whalers Cabin Museum, which opens at 9 am when staffing is available, is worth a visit.
Whalers Cove is the entrance for the Point Lobos Underwater Reserve and is a popular scuba diving location. In the area around the parking lot you will find a number of informational plaques about exploring this underwater reserve.
marked North Shore Trail.
further up the hill to Whalers Knoll.
feasting on a sanddab in Whalers Cove.
This loop may be explored starting from the right or the left.
Today we chose to start our loop from the right.
This airborne algae produces its own food and is not parasitic or harmful to the trees. It requires extremely pure moist air, which it finds in abundance here at Point Lobos. You will find it growing largely on the trunks of older Monterey cypress but it is also known to grow on rocks as well.
Continue straight, this road will dead end in the Bird Rock parking lot, which is our next stop.
hike back to the parking area.
While you drive we will tell you about the trees and plants of Point Lobos, most of which remain green all year long. The one major exception is poison oak which drops its red fall leaves and becomes a bare stem in the winter.
The Monterey pines found on the reserve are one of only three native stands of this tree species in the world. The Monterey cypress as we mentioned before is native to only two areas. Though the pine and cypress thrive in the cool climate and frequent fog, they both require the heat of fire to release seeds from their cones.
Between the trees of the forest and the ocean, evergreen shrubs create a variety of textures, colors and fragrances here in Point Lobos. For much of the year the slender stems of silvery light gray California sagebrush and bushes of Carmel creeper with tiny blue flowers add color to the ground cover. Then, during the spring wildflower season, the meadows here come alive, bursting forth with a rainbow of colors: golden yarrow, orange seaside painted cup, deep blue sky lupine and purple lavender just to name a few.
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is considered the crown jewel of California’s State Park system and attracts over 600,000 visitors a year. Believe it or not, you have just visited a small portion of this natural wonderland.
On top of the hill overlooking this viewpoint is the Hyatt Carmel Highlands, which Frank Devendorf opened in 1917 as the Highlands Inn.
Bird Rock Point Lobos
the path can be very narrow.
The beach is accessed by a tiny footbridge.
Back to our tour, as you drive, look off to your right. In the distance off the coast is Point Sur. This large rock has been a mariner’s landmark since the days of the Spanish explorers.
Continue driving straight. Up ahead the highway curves to your left away from the ocean, then it makes a big U, crosses the Little Sur Bridge and comes back out to the ocean at the Great Sur and Little Sur River Beach Overlook.
Pull into the paved parking area on your right. This is the Great Sur and Little Sur River Beach Overlook. From this vantage point looking north, you will have a view of the mouth of the Little Sur River.
Now look several hundred feet ahead of you. You will see another stand of cypress trees. This marks the entrance to the Navel Facility at Point Sur.
From January 1958 to October 1984, this was an active naval facility. It has a fascinating history. At the time of its operation, the general public was told that the station was engaged in oceanographic research, but actually it was built to detect Soviet submarines during the Cold War.
The facility used a long-range acoustic listening system called the Sound Surveillance System. It was basically hydrophones placed on the ocean floor, connected by underwater cables. These cables were connected to a network of 30 defense listening stations around the world that tracked the movement of Soviet submarines.
After the operation closed, the building was donated to the California State Park System in 2000 and it is currently open to the public on a limited basis for guided tours most Saturdays and Sundays.
Alright, carefully pull back on to the highway and continue south. On your right ahead will be the sign and driveway for the Naval Facility.
Monterey sea captain John Rogers Cooper acquired this land from his nephew Juan Bautista Alvarado in 1840.
Cooper had a number of structures built on the property, but this cabin which remains largely intact was built in 1861 by George Austin.
This park is named after Andrew Molera, a dairy farmer and rancher who controlled the land from 1915 to 1931. His sister Francis bequeathed the ranch to the state of California for a park in 1968.
But just a word of caution here, take your time when making this right turn back onto the highway. This is a very tight turn and if not done properly you could find yourself heading into on coming traffic.
Although there are a number of trails available to explore, we'd like to point out two hikes that we enjoy at Pfeiffer Big Sur. The easiest is the Self-Guided Nature Trail behind the Big Sur Lodge. This 1/4 mile loop through a coast redwood forest is wheel chair accessible and features a number of stops with interpretive signs.
The other, is the Valley View Trail. This moderate to challenging hike is about 2 miles round trip through the redwoods. It is really quite special.
The entrance (shown above) for Pfeiffer Big Sur and Big Sur Lodge will be on your left. If you want to visit this park, turn left and follow the signs that point to the Park Entrance, Camp Grounds, and Day Use Parking.
Locate the River Trail at the southwest edge of this parking area. Use this trail to get back to the Big Sur Lodge.
you will have a wonderful view of the coast redwood.
then turning around and heading back to the parking lot.
with views of forested hillsides.
see the Big Sur Station sign.
Closing this bridge posed a large problem for residents and businesses to the south, cutting them off from necessities such as propane and food.
William Post arrived in Monterey in 1848 and spent the next few years hunting grizzly bear in the Santa Lucia Mountains. In 1850, he and his wife became one of the first homesteaders in the Big Sur region, claiming 160 acres right here for a cattle ranch. With the help of their children, the Post’s built their cabin in 1867. That was the red house you passed just a moment ago. The picture below shows the house in 1920.
Four generations of Post’s worked this ranch. When traditional ranching fell into decline the Post’s were approached with the opportunity of turning their property into an inn. Their homestead evolved from a working ranch to a luxury resort now known as The Post Ranch Inn.
Now, directly up the hill from where you are currently parked is another luxury Big Sur hotel, the Ventana Inn and Spa. Unless you have a reservation you may not visit this swanky hotel either.
When you get to the intersection with Highway 1 stop and look directly across the street. There you will see the entrance to the Post Ranch Inn.
Umbrellas at Nepenthe (by Erin Lee Gafill)
Sam Trotter homesteaded this area in 1925 and built a cabin. In 1944 author Henry Miller arrived in Big Sur and would live in this cabin for a short while. Trotter sold the home to actors Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth in 1944. Three years later as part of the Welles Hayworth divorce settlement, Bill and Lolly Fassett purchased the property for $12,000.
Look for the Nepenthe sign ahead and turn right into the parking lot for Nepenthe Restaurant. This is one of our two favorite places to stop for lunch when we drive this section of Highway 1. The other is the River Ranch Inn and Restaurant we passed earlier.
The original 1925 wooden cabin (shown earlier in a black and white photo with the Fassett Family), which is now faced with tan brick, is still owned by decedents of Bill and Lolly Fassett. The restaurant is built off the cabin.
Nepenthe terrace (from My Nepenthe by Romney Steele)
Coming up next on your left, will be the Henry Miller Library, named in honor of American author Henry Miller who called Big Sur home from 1944 to 1962. The library houses two major Miller collections, making it the second most extensive repository for his books, manuscripts and letters in the world.
And finally take a look left to view the rustic wooden Deetjen's Inn, part of which was built in the 1930s from reclaimed redwood from Monterey's Cannery Row. Deetjen's closed in early 2020 due to COVID-19 but they plan on reopening in early 2021.
Our next stop, Partington Cove is in about 5 miles. As you continue your drive, the highway curves along the shoreline where the waters are home to sea lions, harbor seals, sea otters, blue whales and gray whales.
But Big Sur is also something of a birdwatcher’s paradise. Here you will find everything from the common seagull, brown pelican and Brandt’s cormorant to the very rare bald eagle.
The next stretch of coastline is also home to the California condor, the largest North American land bird and currently protected as an endangered species. The condor is a master of the air, riding the winds effortlessly for hundreds of miles at a stretch.
Before the California Condor Recovery Program began in 1987, the last wild condor seen in Monterey County was in December of 1980, and with only 27 counted in the wild at that time, the condor was on the brink of extinction.
In 1987, in an effort lead by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the entire population of 27 California condors were rounded up so that they could be bred in captivity.
By 1992, Ventura County Condor Sanctuary had raised 80 condors in captivity and began releasing them back into the wild. The first condors from this project appeared in Monterey County eight years later and since then the condor population continues to grow in the county as pairs form new nest sites, breed and hatch their young in the wild. Sadly, an unknown number condors were lost in the recent 2020 Dolan fire.
We will be arriving at the trailhead for Partington Cove in a few minutes. Before we get there, here is some background on the area.
In the late 1800's, John Partington and his wife homesteaded the land here and began a logging operation, clear cutting redwood for lumber and tan oaks for bark.
During Prohibition, Partington Cove was known as a favorite landing site for smugglers.
We will arrive at the trailhead for the 1 and one-half mile hike of Partington Cove shortly. Parking for this trailhead is a bit tricky. There are a number of pull-outs but we want to get you as close as possible to the trailhead. The parking pull-outs will start after Mile Marker 38 (shown above) and a short stone wall. Park in the second pull-out after the second stone wall (shown below).
Once you have explored the viewpoint and taken in some iconic Big Sur coast views continue south to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.
The entrance to Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park will be on your left. Turn into the park, pay your parking fee, or show a current parking receipt from a state park you visited earlier in the day.
The trailhead is near the ranger booth. Look for a set of stairs and a trail marked McWay Falls.
through a tunnel to the overlook.
to view McWay Falls.
There is so much more to discover and we have a number of other VoiceMap tours in Carmel-by-the-Sea and Monterey that we encourage you to check out. Just tap the explore tab and search MontereyPeninsula.
Until next time, Happy Adventures.
Label Point Lobos Canning Company in 1905 (public domain)
Carmelito plot map 1890 (public domain)
Brandt's cormorant (Wikipedia - public domain)
Sea otter (Wikipedia - public domain)
Weston and Ansel Adams in front of the 1948 addition to Wildcat Hill (Photo by Pirkle Jones wikimapia)
Photo of Wildcat Hill by Beaumont Newhall
Highlands Inn (photo by Slevin - postcard public domain)
Basic Instinct House from real-estate listing
Steve Fossett (Smithsonian Air and Space Washington D. C. 2002 - Wikipedia -public domain)
Calla Lily Valley Garrapata in bloom (Little Grunts Blog)
Notley's Landing (Wikipedia - public domain)
Umbrellas at Nepenthe by Erin Gafill (Erin is the daughter of Holly Fossett and granddaughter of Bill and Lolly)
The Fassett Family in front of their cabin in the 1950's (Steele, Romney. My Nepenthe Bohemian Tales of Food, Family, and Big Sur (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2009), 76-77.
Rehearsing The Sandpiper fold dance scene on Nepenthe terrace (Steele, Romney. My Nepenthe Bohemian Tales of Food, Family, and Big Sur (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2009), 118-119.
Sign for Henry Miller Memorial Library (Wikipedia - public domain)
Tule Boat (by Linda Yamane Rumsien Native American)