Reviews of bucket-list-worthy things to do all over the world

Up PCH: from Morro Bay to Monterey

Part Three: Big Sur

I had seen photos of Big Sur and was really looking forward to that portion of our drive up Pacific Coast Highway. Not long after leaving San Simeon, I began to see the beautiful views that I’d seen in photos as we traveled the winding roads that hugged the cliffs along the coast.
There were viewpoints with small parking lots marked by signs indicating, “Vista Point,” but some of the most interesting views required inside knowledge. Fortunately, I’d done my research.

The trailhead to our first “secret” viewpoint was across from the entrance to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. We parked on the shoulder of PCH near a few other cars and walked to unmarked McWay Waterfall Trail. The trail was flat, except for the first few downhill, obstacle-filled steps. Soon we were taking in views of McWay Waterfall spilling onto a sandy beach. (Unfortunately, actually visiting that beach is considered unsafe.)
At the end of the approximately 0.32-mile McWay Waterfall Trail were interpretative plaques. From them, I learned that McWay Falls used to empty directly into the ocean, but, after a landside just north of the falls spilled tons of sand into the ocean, a brand new beach formed below the falls. We returned to our car the same way that we had come, as there was no other option.

We were very hungry by the time we arrived at Nepenthe, a popular cliffside Big Sur restaurant, west of PCH. Fortunately, the wait for a table was only about twenty minutes. That wait was well worth it when we were given two of the best seats in the house, along a long skinny table where every seat faces the ocean. We immediately fell in love with the misty views of pine trees and mountains and the distant sheer cliffs diving toward the ocean. A few blue Steller’s Jays provided the entertainment, occasionally landing nearby to steal a fallen French fry or a beakful of butter.
After dinner, we set out in search of another “secret” Big Sur spot: Pfeiffer Beach. In order to get there, we had to find unmarked Sycamore Canyon Road using the following directions: “Sycamore Canyon Road is the only paved, ungated road west of Highway One (PCH) between Big Sur Post Office and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.” There is one certain thing about Pfeiffer Beach, almost no one stumbles upon this beach by accident.

We found what we hoped was Sycamore Canyon Road, a narrow road off PCH heading in the direction of the ocean. After a few minutes, a tile sign told us that Pfeiffer Beach was two miles ahead. It turned out to be a long two miles. Whenever a car came from the opposite direction, one car would have to pull over to let the other one pass. By the time we finally arrived at the parking area, after paying the parking fee of $5, cash only, I was wondering whether our efforts would be rewarded. My doubts disappeared when the short walking trail opened up to a movie-location-worthy beach scene with its towering carved rocks with waves crashing through the openings. A few adventurous teens climbed the rocks. Families strolled quietly or rested on the beach.
I spent most of my time at Pfeiffer Beach watching the waves blast through the rocks with so much force that they created momentary waterfalls inside the carved-out tunnels.
In some areas, where the ocean lapped at the beach, there were streaks of purple sand, a result of manganese garnet deposits in the surrounding rocks.
It was hard to tear ourselves away from Pfeiffer Beach, but we wanted to make it to Monterey before dark, and so we left the beach and, made the slow, two-mile drive back up Sycamore Canyon Road to PCH and then headed north to Monterey, the final stretch of our "Drive of a Lifetime."

I did this in July 2012 in California, USA.

Jen (California, USA)

Other posts from this trip:

Part One: Los Angeles to Morro Bay
Part Two: Cambria and San Simeon
Part Four: Monterey