It seems like I’ve been ticking off a lot of bucket list items on this trip – and our drive down the Californian coast along the infamous Highway 1 was no exception.
We hit really lucky with our road trip in California – we missed the recent fires by a couple of weeks, escaped the smoky skies from the previous ones, and caught Highway 1 just a couple of months after it reopened following a landslide 18 months prior.
I can’t remember when I first heard of Big Sur, but it’s one of those names that keeps cropping up as somewhere you need to visit some time in your life, so it was a big part of our itinerary on this trip.
We had made some headway the night before, driving from Yosemite along back roads and ending up in Los Banos, a very Spanish town an hour and a half from Monterey.
Monterey is the biggest town on this part of Highway 1, as well as the start of the famous route – and we skipped right past it.
Instead, we made a beeline for the next town along, Carmel-by-the-Sea, as I’d heard it was a nice town and we could probably grab some breakfast there before we set off on the highway.
As much as I was sure every place along Highway 1 would be lovely, we did not expect to completely fall in love with Carmel-by-the-Sea the second we turned down Ocean Avenue (yes, I had Yellowcard in my head the entire time).
Even though the clouds had rolled in and the beach wasn’t postcard-perfect, the town itself was absolutely adorable and had us hanging around not only for breakfast (at a fantastic little coffee shop and bakery, I might add) but also an hour-long leg stretch along its pretty streets.
There were so many cute shops and I pretty much wanted to buy everything – including this incredible pirate merman!
But we had a whole day ahead of us (and very limited suitcase/backpack space) so, feeling sad that we hadn’t had the foresight to spend the night in Carmel, we set off down Highway 1 on our epic coastal journey.
The problem with an amazing coastal road trip is I’ve been rather spoiled for coasts. From the endless coastal walks on my home island to some absolutely fantastic views around Australia, there was something about our first stop at the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve that made me worry that this was going to be underwhelming.
My reaction: I mean, it’s nice. But for a big name like that, it’s not much different to back home.
It was also hella windy… so really, not much different to back home at all.
But as the road went on and the epic views became consistent, I started to appreciate that this drive is fucking awesome.
Suddenly we hit Bixby Bridge with no warning at all, and I pulled over for the obligatory photos. To be honest, I don’t quite get why Bixby Bridge is so famous. Like, it’s just a bridge. If it wasn’t apparently so “iconic” (I don’t think it is in the UK, or maybe I’m showing my ignorance), I wouldn’t even have given it a second thought, yet it’s one of the most photographed objects on the west coast USA.
But maybe that’s just me.
The views along the coast were worthy of a stop regardless, and Bixby Bridge provides a perfect opportunity for that.
We did make a couple more pit stops for photos along the way, but the day was mostly spent just driving, enjoying the road and taking in the epic views.
One of the highlights, of course, was McWay Falls. We actually almost missed it altogether, because it didn’t appear to be signposted at all. The only reason we even knew where to stop was because I knew roughly where we were, and there were a lot of cars parked around it. But the trail to the viewpoint and any indication of its whereabouts are off the road.
That, and after our experience with waterfalls in Yosemite, I wasn’t actually expecting to see a waterfall here because it’s already just a thin stream of water.
Luckily, it was still flowing. Despite all the cars, the viewing platform didn’t feel too crowded, but it was under construction which sort of took away the magical nature of the place.
The waterfall was mesmerising – even though it’s actually pretty small, the way it hits the sand is really cool. I don’t know if the tide ever comes in so it falls straight into the sea?
But then we spotted something moving in the water, and suddenly the waterfall wasn’t the highlight any more. No one else had really seemed to spot it either, apart from a couple next to us (and it was Ash who saw it first anyway, so I can’t take credit for that!).
It was a sea otter! Bet you can’t see it though, because my zoom level is lacking. Anyway, we spent more time watching that blob in the ocean than we did taking in the view of the cove, and the otter disappearing was our cue to finally leave.
Our final stop on Highway 1 was back down at sea level – Point Piedras Blancas, which offered a whole new attraction of its own.
Hundreds of elephant seals!
Elephant seals were only spotted here in 1990, the first pup was born in 1992, and by 1996 over 1,000 had been born on this beach! Now, 22 years later, the colony population is booming at 15,000.
What I particularly loved about this spot was not only are the boardwalks an excellent set-up for viewing the seals without disturbing them, but there were also rangers out telling us all about them and answering any questions people had.
I saw no reckless tourists; no one endangering the seals. It was fantastic. It gave me hope.
We spent some time watching their social set-up as they threw sand over themselves, but would accidentally throw too much so it would cover the seal next to them, resulting in a disgruntled fight. But they were ultimately too focused on relaxing to bother doing any damage, and all would settle down again until the next one did it.
I had been a little worried that our day was going to be too rushed, but not so at all. A day is perfect for doing this famous piece of coast, unless of course you want to do a load of hiking. But for the road trip and all the essential stops, a day is fine.
We did make one more quick stop in Cambria, mostly for petrol (I highly recommend getting petrol BEFORE you start this trip, and definitely don’t fill up in Big Sur) but we did also spot this crazy scarecrow festival.
Anyway, the day wasn’t over yet – I had one more thing on my list, a little further down in San Luis Obispo.
An Instagrammer’s dream, the Madonna Inn has been attracting eccentric road trippers since 1958. I only heard of it in the past couple of years, and it went STRAIGHT on my list.
As you can expect, a night at this crazy motel will set you back a fair amount, but one day I would LOVE to stay in their Gypsy Rock room, or any of their rock rooms!! Ash, of course, wouldn’t be seen dead there.
Instead, I settled for a wander around the restaurant, bar and wine cellar, all of which have their own distinctive characteristics. I was really planning to eat here (which would have been our most expensive meal on the trip, if ever) but the restaurant was closed for another hour or so, and naturally Ash wasn’t even keen on that.
I guess it is a bit too pink for him.
Come on Ash, we could have at least eaten in the café. And he should have at least come in to use the rock waterfall urinal. Only in a place like this could a URINAL be famous!!
Despite Ash’s grievances, it was a fun stop (for me anyway) and would be a perfect place to end the day. Instead, we were upgrading slightly from a Walmart car park to sleep in an actual motel just outside of LA. No fun rock wall rooms for us.
But it really had been a perfect day, for views and weather. It didn’t feel rushed, nor did we feel like we missed anything. It hadn’t even been that busy, considering it was a weekend. I found it pretty easy to see why this is a bucket list road trip!!
Have you driven along Highway 1? What were some of your highlights?
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