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Big Sur Country Drive Tour
A Seven Day Road Trip of Historic California
Explore Monterey, Pacific Grove, and Carmel, plus Big Sur towns like San Simeon and Cambria. Check out Morro Bay and San Luis Obispo, or Atascadero, Paso Robles, and San Miguel on US 101. Don't miss sites like Lake Nacimiento and Mission San Antonio.
Day 1 & 2: Monterey / Carmel
Monterey has a colorful and interesting history as California’s earliest capitol, established in 1775 by order of Spain. This was after Gaspar de Portolá had built the first Presidio in California here and Padre Junípero Serra had built Carmel Mission, second in the chain of 21, in 1770. It soon became the principal town on the central coast and the major international port.
Many of the city’s historic buildings and adobe houses have been restored and can be enjoyed as part of self-guided walking tours. Maps of the “Historic Monterey: Path of History” and other tours are available at Monterey Visitors Center on Lake El Estero at Camino El Estero & Franklin Street, off Highway 1.
Visit Custom House Plaza adjacent to Fisherman’s Wharf on the waterfront. The Custom House is thought to be the oldest government structure in the West. Other historical buildings here are: the Pacific House (a two-story adobe built in 1847), the First Brick House, built in 1847, Old Whaling Station, 1847, the First Theatre and the restored Casa del Oro, built in the late 1840s. The Maritime Museum of Monterey at Stanton Center, (831) 373-2469, is in the Plaza.
Nearby is Cannery Row, made famous by John Steinbeck’s novel of the same name, but now a popular eating and shopping site. The famed Monterey Bay Aquarium, 886 Cannery Row, (831) 648-4888, is well worth the admission fee. They have fantastic exhibits replicating the Monterey Bay underwater landscape and habitat. On Thursdays and Fridays, they show live video broadcasts from their research submarine working in the 10,000 foot deep canyons of the Bay.
To view the sea life of Monterey Bay’s National Marine Sanctuary, take a one-hour tour aboard the semi-submersible underwater vessel, the Nautilus, with narration by marine experts. The reservation center is at Randy’s Fishing Charters, (831) 372-7440, on Fisherman’s Wharf.
Other historical buildings away from the bay area worth visiting are, the Royal Presidio Chapel, Church and Fiqueroa Street, part of the original mission complex built in 1770 before Padre Serra moved the mission to Carmel, (he did not think the soldiers were a good influence on the native converts), Cooper-Molera Complex, Pearl Street at Munras Avenue and Polk, Casa Amesti, across the street on Polk, and the Larkin House, Calle Principal and Pearl.
At 559 Pacific is the Monterey Peninsula Museum of Art featuring outstanding western, folk and tribal art. Just as Monterey is blessed with beautiful scenery, so is it endowed with incredible choices of restaurants reflecting the “melting pot of cultures” here. Cuisines range from Chinese to Greek, with American and “Californian” thrown in for good measure. Ask your Best Western host for suggestions based on your taste buds. You can’t go wrong in this town!
Take Lighthouse Avenue around to Pacific Grove, known as “Butterfly Town, U.S.A.” due to the thousands of Monarch butterflies that winter there. On the west side of town is Point Piños. Its lighthouse, built in 1855, is the oldest continuously operating facility of that type in the western U. S. The Victorian and Queen Anne houses here date back to 1880s when the community was a Methodist resort. The famed 17-mile Drive Scenic Tour through Pebble Beach is accessible through a gate at Sunset Drive (Highway 68). The self-guided drive (a map is provided at the gate, just follow the red line) is worth the per car fee as it winds past some of the most famous golf courses (Pebble Beach, Poppy Hills, Spyglass), and stunning coastal scenery (Cypress Point Lookout and The Lone Cypress) in the world.
Exit the Drive through the Carmel gate directly to Carmel-by-the-Sea. To enjoy visiting Carmel and not pay a hefty parking fine, park your vehicle and walk. Street parking downtown is limited from 30 minutes to two hours. A city lot with free, unlimited parking is at Vista Lobos public parking lot, located behind the Vista Lobos building at Junipero and 3rd Avenue. A paid parking lot open to the public can be accessed from 8th Avenue between Mission Street and San Carlos Street.
Besides the charming village, enjoy the beach areas of Carmel Beach City Park, north end and Carmel River State Beach, south end, below the namesake of the whole area – the San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission, west end of Rio Road, (831) 624-1271. The mission was moved here in 1771 from Monterey. After several years, it became prosperous and ultimately, the headquarters for the California mission building effort and is considered by many the most authentically restored mission in the state. This village, of which Clint Eastwood has been mayor, is full of excellent restaurants, fine galleries and upscale boutiques. Weekends are normally very busy, but the visit to Carmel is worth it.
Day 3: Big Sur
Depart south on Highway 1 for an incredible scenic drive through the Big Sur country. A rugged coastline, rolling fog (depending on time of year), crashing waves, and a winding highway, all contribute to making this drive an unforgettable experience. This drive is best enjoyed when you can trade off the driving. Along the way are turnouts – so faster drivers can pass – and sites where you can stop to take in the spectacular scenery.
Point Lobos State Reserve, (831) 624-4909, is only four miles from Carmel and worth entering (fee per car). Sea Lion Point, Bird Island, and Cypress Grove are landmarks in the reserve that have short trails leading to them. Places to look for and plan a stop are: Garrapata State Park (parking only at turnouts), Bixby Bridge, Point Sur State Historic Park with its historic 1889 lighthouse, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park with hundreds of huge redwoods, and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park with a trail to a bluff overlooking an 80 foot waterfall to the ocean.
Just before the park, the Nepenthe Restaurant, (831) 667-2345, is a good place to eat with a fantastic view. After miles of winding and twisting, you round a curve and enter a broad coastal meadow leading into San Simeon. To the east, sitting high atop a ridge of the Santa Lucia mountains, is the elaborate Hearst Castle.
Day 4 & 5: San Simeon / Cambria / Morro Bay / San Luis Obispo
Hearst Castle and the Hearst San Simeon State Historic Monument, (805) 927-2093, is adjacent to Highway 1, follow signs east to entrance. The monument is the state’s second most popular tourist attraction behind Disneyland. The 127-acre estate of William Randolph Hearst, a turn-of-the century media icon, was built as a place of retreat and entertainment for Hearst and his famous friends. Four guided tours begin at the Visitors Center, admission fee. Tours involve walking and stairs. The IWERKS film in the National Geographic Theater at the center shows “Building the Dream,” the story behind the castle, on a five-story screen.
Return to Highway 1 and visit Sebastian’s General Store in old San Simeon. The store is a state historic monument reflective of life in 1852. Only four miles north of Old Simeon on Highway 1 is the rookery for the Northern Elephant seals. Volunteer docents help understand the behavior of these huge mammals. Most activity is in winter with births and mating. South on Highway 1 is the quaint seaside village of Cambria, a growing artist center with galleries and shops. Harmony, population 18, has the only central coast winery, Harmony Cellars, 3225 Harmony Road, (805) 927-1625.
Continue to Morro Bay and take Main Street exit for a drive through this charming oceanside community to Morro Bay State Park & Museum, (805) 772-2694, overlooking the bay. The area’s natural history is explained here. Morro Rock is one of nine volcanic peaks that form a straight line between Morro Bay and San Luis Obispo (referred to as Nine Sisters). Take Main Street to South Bay Blvd and turn right to Los Osos Valley Road, then right on it through Los Osos (Valley of the Bear) to the magnificent seascapes and spectacular hiking trails of Montaña de Oro State Park, (805) 528-0513. The historical Spooner Ranch House is the Visitors Center. Take Los Osos Valley Road to San Luis Obispo.
Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, 782 Monterey Street, (805) 543-6850, built in 1772 by Padre Serra as the fifth in the chain, is the core of the city that bears its name. Around the mission is an enjoyable “Path of History” self-guided walking tour of buildings and shops reflecting the cultures of the city’s past and present. Maps and a Visitors Guide are available at the Chamber, 1039 Chorro Street, (805) 781-2777, a block south of the mission and starting point of the tour.
Additional sites to visit downtown are the Art Center on Mission Plaza, the historic Victorian Jack House, 536 Main Street, (805) 781-7308, and the restored Railroad Depot, on south end of Santa Rosa Street. The Apple Farm Mill House, 2015 Monterey Street, is a chance to see an authentic working grist mill in a beautiful scenic garden setting, producing ground wheat, apple cider and ice cream.
Day 6: Atascadero / Paso Robles
Head north on US 101 and take the Santa Margarita exit for a fun drive (on the El Camino Real) through this “step-back-in-time cowboy town where the bars look older than the antique stores.” Continue north on El Camino Real to Atascadero and 41, Morro Road. Turn left to Atascadero Lake Park and the Charles Paddock Zoo for a fun stop.
Return to 101, head north and exit on Vineyard Drive in Templeton for a trip through the beautiful Paso Robles wine country. Peachy Canyon Road or Adelaida Road brings you back to 101 and Paso Robles. Helen Moe’s Antique Doll Museum is on 101 at Wellsona Road. Pick up a self-guided historical tour booklet from the Paso Robles Main Street Association, 835 D 12th Street, (805) 238-4103.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, check out the farmers markets in town. There are over 30 area wineries making up the Paso Robles Vintners & Growers Association, P. O. Box 324, Paso Robles, 93447, (800) 549-WINE (8463) or (805) 239-8463. Get their Wine Tasting Tour Guide and drive the scenic back roads to the vineyards.
Day 7: King City / Soledad
Take US 101 north for Wellsona and Mission San Miguel, then take scenic county road G14, San Marcos Road, past Lake Nacimiento and Lake San Antonio to Mission San Antonio de Padua and into King City. Highway 101 roughly follows the 650-mile historical El Camino Réal from San Diego to San Francisco.
In King City, take a side trip (26 miles) to Mission San Antonio de Padua, (831) 385-4478. Founded in 1771 as the third California mission, it is tucked away in a valley of the Santa Lucia Range. Take G14 southwest to Mission Road, following it north to the mission. Look for signs identifying remnants of its tannery, aqueduct and gristmill as you approach. Return to US 101 via G 14 to 18 through Lockwood, passing on the east side of Lake San Antonio Recreation Area or take G 14 down the west side of the lake. This brings you to G19 and the beautiful, heavily wooded, Lake Nacimiento, (800) 323-3839 or (805) 238-3256. Both of these lakes are favorite spots for fishing and water sports.
Follow scenic G14, Nacimiento Lake Drive and San Marcos Road into San Miguel and visit the San Miguel Arcángel Mission, (805) 467-3256. Founded in 1797 as the 16th of the mission chain, it linked the missions of San Luis Obispo and San Antonio.
Continuing on Highway 101 takes you to Soledad, the oldest town in the Salinas Valley, and a visit the Mission Nuestra Señora de La Soledad on Ft. Romie Road, (831) 678-2586. This 13th mission, built in 1791, has survived floods from the Salinas River. The original bell was made in 1799 and hangs in the courtyard East of Soledad on 146 are the volcanic rock ravines of Pinnacles National Monument, (831) 389-4485. Follow US 101 north, then take 68 to Monterey.