By Dylan Campbell
Published: Friday, September 29, 2023
Described as the Great Ocean Road on steroids, California’s Big Sur is one of the world’s great road trips – and for good reason.
An American vacation is incomplete without a road trip, and the sun-kissed, cliff-hugging Highway One (also known as Big Sur) is a must-see for visitors to California.
Before the trip, a friend told me Big Sur was the Great Ocean Road on steroids.
Situated on the Californian coast, between Los Angeles and San Francisco, Big Sur is 198km of winding coastal roads, with ocean vistas making it one of the world’s greatest road trips.
We pick up the hire car of choice for this trip, a four-cylinder Mustang convertible, and head about three hours north of Los Angeles where Big Sur begins.
We make a first stop at one of the many diners that dot the roadside and order soft, fluffy pancakes the size of a dinner plate, and wash it down with bottomless coffee. We don’t care a bit that it’s not a patch on Aussie coffee – it’s part of the fun.
When planning your Big Sur trip, watch out for the fog, or the “June Gloom” as locals call it.
In the summer months, a seasonal mist permanently dwells off the coast and invades land each evening, before being burned off by the morning sun. Good to keep in mind when you’ve come all the way from Australia to drive one of the world’s most picturesque roads and want to see the stunning coastal views.
En-route to Big Sur, we stop at Solvang, a quirky tourist town built by Danish settlers in the early 1900s. It feels like we’re in Denmark, as we eat Danish pastries the size of baseball mitts. On the main street, there are even a few old Danish-style windmills.
A castle with a view
Before the ocean road begins, stop in at the intriguing Hearst Castle. At the southern end of Big Sur, Hearst Castle is a sprawling hilltop mansion built by the eccentric 1920s billionaire William Hearst.
As you ride a bus up a winding road to the top, look out for wild zebras – the escaped descendants of Heart’s original 1920s private zoo.
Tour the enormous, medieval-inspired castle and enjoy uninterrupted, 360-degree views of the stunning Californian coast while imagining you were rubbing shoulders with Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo.
Winding road with ocean views
From Hearst Castle, the Big Sur begins. We drive 15 minutes to the Elephant Seal Vista Point where there’s an incumbent colony of the world’s largest seal. If you’re lucky, you might catch two five-tonne elephant seals fighting viciously over a potential mate.
If you’re travelling on to Big Sur from here, you’ll need to turn around and drive inland to the northern part of Big Sur. The massive Californian storms in early 2023 caused landslides that cut the road in two and the repairs could take years to complete.
Having taken a three-hour inland detour, we arrive at the northern end of Big Sur. This is where the really good bits start. On a sunny day the ocean shimmers like a mirror ball, with mountains dramatically ascending from the sea, a little road ribboning through the landscape. With so many stunning views, prepare for a sore neck the next day.
A bridge over pristine waters
Bixby Creek Bridge is one of the most photographed bridges in the world, and it’s no surprise people get a bit snap-happy at the landmark. Built in 1932, the great concrete structure rises 79m above a gorge as eager waves lap at the rocks far below. Its unique architecture draws tourists in their hundreds, and while parking is tricky, stopping is a must.
With its distinctive yellow line-markings, the Big Sur Road then snakes between towering California pines and along bare cliffs with far-reaching views of the Pacific – or fog, depending on the time of year.
After 45 minutes of unforgettable panoramas, we hike the short way down to the McWay Falls. A small strip of pristine white sand and sapphire water nestles in a steep, rocky cove, and a waterfall gently spills on to the sand from high above – it’s like standing in a postcard.
You can swim, although even in summer the water is a bit chilly, and the swell can be intense at times.
Charmed by Carmel-by-the-Sea
At the northern end of Big Sur is a cluster of charismatic seaside towns, including Carmel-By-The-Sea and Monterey – widely known as a playground for the rich and famous.
Dine at the Mission Ranch Restaurant in Carmel and you might spot Clint Eastwood sitting in the back room having a drink – it’s his restaurant, after all.
Visit during August and you might arrive during the famous Monterey Car Week. As we enter the area, classic Ferraris, Porsches and Lamborghinis motor up and down the quaint streets of Carmel-By-The-Sea.
Further up the coast, a walk along Monterey’s Cannery Row (the historic street that inspired John Steinbeck’s well-known novel Cannery Row) will make you want to never leave. Smiling comes easy for the locals you meet along the way, and it’s not hard to understand why. The smile gets even bigger when they find out you’re Australian – Americans tend to love Aussies, especially Californians.
From here you can head two hours north to San Francisco or turn around and simply drive Highway One south again. You’ll need little convincing.