That Epic Road Trip
You know that one family vacation. The first one where you realized that your parents are people too. The memories flicker like a candle in a mason jar. Sometimes they are more shadows than light reflecting on the walls of the cave. That catacomb where your memories are buried waiting to be revisited. It wasn’t until I had dropped my youngest daughter off for her first day of college that I could see clearly back to my childhood and that one trip down the Big Sur coast so long ago.
Driving the Big Sur Coast
Driving the Pacific Coast Highway wasn’t just a trip down memory lane. It was a voyage down the most majestic and remote coastline in America. The narrow, two-lane highway crawls between the mountains and the seas for roughly 85 miles connecting Carmel in the north to San Simeon in the south. This isn’t Sunday driving and it’s not the Monaco Grand Prix. It’s a crawl packed with tight curves and rubbernecking tourists. Don’t be angry, everybody is here to see the most majestic views in America. Plan for traffic, bad parking, congested pull-outs and a general lack of facilities. If you are in a hurry, take the freeway or 101. If you have the time and patience you will be rewarded with indelible views that just might stay with you forever.
Related Post: How to Prepare for Your Roadtrip
Setting off at Santa Cruz
Our trip started at the recreation center at the University of Santa Cruz. Even with the haze from Big Sur fire, the views took our breath away. Across the green soccer fields, the bluff receded into a view of Monterey Bay that stretched beyond your wide open arms. My kiddo was escaping the lunacy and monotony of Ohio to the green forests of the Pacific Coast much like I had done exactly twenty years prior. I was sending her off on a dream ten day backpacking trip in the high Sierras and then she officially starts life as a banana slug. Little did I know that I would soon recreate the journey that sparked my dreams.
Rounding Moss Landing
Soon, Santa Cruz was in the rear view mirror and Highway One stretched out ahead of us. Artichoke and Brussel sprouts fields dotted the roadside along with the occasional seafood shack popped up around Moss Landing. My mom has a certain method for picking places like this. The fish has to be fresh. The ideal shack would have its own dock so the fishing boats could disgorge their catch right into the restaurant. It should be somewhat run down too, speaking to its proximity to the ocean and the owner’s focus on food over pomp and circumstance. I might have just found mom’s perfect seafood shack, but I didn’t have time to stop. I did enough planning to know that it took some time to traverse the PCH. I didn’t get fresh fish from that shack but it began to unlock long dormant memories.
The last towns of Monterey and Carmel
The farm fields gave way to Carmel and Monterey (home the amazing Monterey Bay Aquarium) and then that rugged road built only to be driven. Hwy 101 would have been a more logical choice of road. It bypasses the jagged cliffs and rolls across relatively tame ranchland. The only reason the coastal route exists was a job creation program during the Great Depression. Much of our nation’s scenic infrastructure came from CCC projects, and this is perhaps the crown jewel. A series of arched bridges passed by with completion dates in the early 1930s until to the granddaddy of them all- Bixby Creek Bridge.
Bixby Creek Bridge
You don’t need latent childhood memories to feel deja vu here. You have seen this bridge in car commercials and road trips stories your entire life. The roadside parking was open but the side road up the canyon for the infamous looking through the bridge shot was closed for fire restrictions. We stopped and paid our photographic homage to this magnificent structure and then we were into the heart of the drive.
75 Miles of photo ops
For the next 75 miles the road snakes between sheer cliffs and an angry ocean. The foaming seas were less than inviting. The waves crashed into small outcroppings in a perpetual, violent dance. Official and unofficial vista stop and photo ops were everywhere but McWay falls stands out above all the rest.
The famously photographed McWay Falls
I couldn’t tell if the memories of the falls were real or planted. I have seen these falls so much in media that I had no authentic recollection. I did know that they were beautiful. The water was flowing off of the rocky cliffs and onto a pristine and peaceful beach. In any setting, this would be Shangri-la but here its placid tranquility elevated it even higher amidst the harsh indifference of the surrounding coastline.
Our shot at glory
We parked on a pullout at the side of the road, which was good enough for the photo op, but the park itself was closed for fires. (you can see the smoke from the fire in most of our pictures) Even when the park is open, you could not hike to the beach anymore. We took our shots amidst a swarm of other photographers and headed down the road.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park has redwoods too
McWay falls are part of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, which also shelters the southernmost stand of redwoods along the California coast. They aren’t as large as their brethren further north, but they still are incredibly majestic. The forest is somehow comforting. It envelops and shelters you for a brief respite before you are careening around the cliffs again.
Golden Hour at Big Sur
Time is a funny thing. We were having a good time but not making good time. The only thing that would have made it better was if we packed a cooler of snacks and drinks for along the way. The sun glowed a fabulous shade of orange in preparation for setting. All of a sudden, I was transported back to my first time on this road.
Full on flashback
I was probably eight years old and the entire family had come out for two weeks in California. (That was a big deal because dad rarely traveled with us.) We had driven hard up and down the northern California coast seeing everything we could see. That evening, we slowed things down and let the beauty sink in. We pulled off onto a nearly deserted beach and mom broke out the tripod. She could tell the sun would set between two rocks in less than an hour. The beach was kind of icky really. There were seaweed and sand flies everywhere. The water was too cold to swim in and the sand was too packed to play with. My eight-year-old-self didn’t really enjoy that day at the beach. That picture, however… Mom had it enlarged and it is still hanging her living room. I spent countless days mesmerized by its beauty, making promises to myself.
Sunsets and Seals
Back in the present, we were waiting for sunset. We were racing it down the coast. As we approached San Simeon, the coast relented just a bit. Our cell phone chattered with missed notifications that announced our return to civilization. Pastures and cows now separated us from the sheer drops to the ocean. No longer was it vista after vista of sheer cliffs and angry water. All of this would have been welcome if we could find at least one more vista to capture this sunset from. The sky was still blazing when we pulled into the elephant seal viewing area just south of Piedras Blancas Lighthouse.
My Sunset Soliloquy
These guys were so cute. And loud. And playful. And simply enormous. I thought back to my childhood with mom taking her prized shot. I learned just a little bit of patience that day and that your photography could be art, worthy of hanging on your wall. I remembered my promise to my childhood self that I would live a life amazing enough to not only take a picture of but to frame and hang in the living room. My shots for that night were pretty good. Maybe not ready to enshrine, but I am nowhere close to being ready to stop trying.
If you are looking to extend your PCH roadtrip, check out the Ultimate West Coast Road Trip for a journey you won’t forget.