Celebrate the Reopening of California's Highway 1 With a Drive Down Its Most Scenic Stretch
In May 2017, arguably the most iconic section of the famed highway, around Big Sur, was shut down after a mudslide buried nearly half a mile of roadway under 40 feet of rock and mud. It took local authorities more than 14 months to finally get the roadway in drivable condition — and, counting the work to replace the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge that began in March 2017, made it the first time in 18 months the entire highway is open. Now, towns, shops, restaurants, attractions, and the people living along the central coast want everyone to know that they are officially ready for visitors.
To help celebrate that fact, Visit California invited more than 100 members of the media for a drive down the coast. However, this wasn’t just any drive, as it included a car manufactured every year since 1934, when the highway first opened.
For our journey, we chose to hop into a white 1969 Mercury Cougar Convertible borrowed from Monterey Touring Vehicles (you can rent it too for $600 a day). Along the way, we stopped in at a few places that will make your next Highway 1 road trip a dream drive come true.
California’s Highway 1 stretches down the state for 655.8 miles, but we'll focus on the most scenic part of all: the 139 miles along the coast between Monterey and Morro Bay.
Monterey and Carmel
What to See:
Monterey is filled to the brim with things to see and experience, but luckily for visitors, it’s a fairly small town, meaning you can check a ton of things off your sight-seeing list in one day.
Start your day with a stroll down Fisherman’s Wharf — you won't be the only tourist, but it's a popular spot for a reason. From the neon signs to the food stalls calling your name, to the whale watching excursions waiting on the end, it’s something all visitors should embrace. You are, after all, a tourist in an adorable seaside community. On the Wharf, stop into the Crab House for some of the best calamari of your life.
Next, build in some time to visit the Monterey Aquarium and visit its sea otter exhibit. There, you can wave hello to Rosa, the aquarium’s 19-year-old otter who was rescued when she was just a few weeks old.
Highway 1 Map: Monterey to Carmel-by-the-Sea
Where to Eat:
After grabbing the aforementioned calamari at the Crab House, head to one of the area’s more upscale dining establishments. Monterey has a well-established French cuisine scene, and the best place to experience that is La Bicyclette. The scent of wood-fired pizza draws crowds to the cozy little bistro, so make a reservation.
If you can’t get into La Bicyclette, head over to the equally delicious Alvarado Street Brewery & Grill. There, you can dine on gourmet flatbreads, burgers, and more, all perfectly paired with a local pint or two. And best of all, the place is dog-friendly, so you can bring along your best friend for a bite too. (They even offer a hamburger made specifically for dogs.)
After dinner, stop in for a scoop at Revival Ice Cream, made famous for its locally-sourced honey ice cream.
Where to Stay:
There are plenty of stunning hotels in the area, but you won't regret driving a little out of your way for Carmel Valley Ranch.
Leave Highway 1 and drive about 7 miles east on Carmel Valley Road, and you'll find the enormous ranch, where visitors can hike, golf, dine, visit the hotel’s personal apiary to learn about honey production, ride horses, partake in morning yoga, and more. Just make sure to hike up the hillside to watch the sunset over the mountains and valley below. Opt to upgrade your stay to a Vineyard Oak Studio Suite, which overlooks the hotel’s vineyard and comes with an outdoor soaking tub, beckoning you to pour a glass of wine and relax all your cares away.
If the popular ranch is fully booked, stay at the nearby Quail Lodge & Golf Club. A prime spot for golfers, the inn is home to its own 18-hole course. Both accommodations are also dog- and kid-friendly, making them ideal family getaway destinations.
If you’re looking to stay right on the coast, choose the Monterey Tides, a boutique hotel that comes with dramatic ocean views and hosts some of the best waterfront meals in town.
What to See:
After you’ve had your fill of Monterey, it’s time to drive down the coast a few hours to the town of Big Sur. But, on the way, make sure to stop and check out the view from Bixby Bridge, one of the largest single-span concrete bridges in the world, and one of the most photographed bridges in California. At the bridge, visitors can pull over to either side, though we recommend the non-ocean side as there are small trails leading down the hill a bit where you can get a better view.
In Big Sur, the only real thing you should do is check out all the parks, including Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, McWay Falls, Point Sur State Historic Park, and Big Sur State Historic Park. Each place is unique, but all provide breathtaking views, so make sure to pack a pair of comfortable shoes and a camera.
Highway 1 Map: Carmel-by-the-Sea to Big Sur
Where to Eat:
Though it’s an expansive place, Big Sur doesn’t dot its gorgeous coastline with too many bars or restaurants, but visitors won't go hungry. Leave time to dine at Nepenthe, a restaurant with a rooftop terrace overlooking the ocean below, or stop at the Big Sur Roadhouse for locally sourced ingredients on a California-centric menu.
Where to Stay:
If you’re up for camping, there are a number of excellent sites in the parks listed above, but to improve upon that experience, try your hand at glamping at Treebones Resort.
Nestled in the hills, Treebones offers solitude in nature with the amenities of a five-star resort. Guests can choose from autonomous tents, yurts, or even a birds' nest to spend the night in. The resort also offers fresh garden-to-table dining.
If you’re more interested in accommodations that come with four solid walls, book an overnight at the Post Ranch Inn, which is made up of 10 gorgeous buildings, housing 39 rooms. Each space offers a unique view as it’s perched high above the stunning California coast.
What to See:
After hiking in Big Sur, hop back in your car for a drive to Morro Bay. Along the way, make sure to stop in at the Hearst Castle for a tour, and pop your head in across the street at the Hearst Ranch to try one of their wine varietals.
Keep driving until you see the Morro Rock jutting out of the water.
Like Monterey, Morro Bay is an incredibly quaint coastal town, though it comes with a much slower pace. There, the best thing to do is sit at the beach and stare into the water, which is filled to the brim with local seals and otters who will swim by and wave hello. Visitors who are feeling a bit more motivated could even hop on one of the many seal and whale watching tour boats waiting at the docks.
Highway 1 Map: Big Sur to Morro Bay
Where to Eat:
While visiting the fishing port of Morro Bay there’s only one thing you should eat: seafood. And there is perhaps nothing more authentic than dining at Dockside. The closest restaurant to Morro Rock, its offerings include locally sourced fish and vegetables. The space itself is unpretentious, but the dining is world-class.
For more locally sourced dining, try Windows on the Water, located just up the road. There, diners can dig into seafood, vegetables, and fresh oysters, all paired with one of the restaurant’s more than 300 varieties of wine.
Where to Stay:
Because this stretch is so famous for its marine life and giant rocks, it’s key to stay as close to the shore as possible. And you can’t get any closer than the Anderson Inn.
At the inn, guests can book a suite with overwater access (yes, even coastal California is in on the overwater bungalow craze). Inside, guests will be able to hear the seals chattering away all night long, and will be happy to look out their window to spot the serene view of an otter or two lounging on their backs as they float on by.
If you’re after more amenities, book your stay at the Inn at Morro Bay, which comes with a pool, spa, and restaurant, making it a bit more of a family-friendly destination.
If you enjoy this famed stretch of Highway 1 (and you will), the coastline still has more to offer. Keep your drive going to visit coastal communities like Santa Barbara, Malibu, and Huntington Beach, all the way down to Dana Point. You might just find yourself tempted to turn around and do it all again.
Note: Visit California provided support for the reporting of this story.
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