Brian’s Travel Spot: The Grand Adventure, Part IV

Enjoying a flat white at the Big Sur bakery, looking out over the mountains of the Santa Lucia Range in January 2017.Welcome to the fourth part of The Grand Adventure, my week-long drive from Phoenix to San Francisco, which I made in January 2017. I went from Phoenix to Joshua Tree National Park, spend a day hiking there, then drove to Los Angeles. After a day in the city, I took the Pacific Coast Highway to San Simeon, where I spent another day, this time visiting Hearst Castle. I had planned to carry on up the coast, through the Big Sur, to Santa Cruz and from there to San Francisco, but winter storms had washed out the road.

This led to a sudden change of plan. Instead of driving through the Big Sur, I doubled back on myself, cutting over the Santa Lucia Mountains on SR 46, before picking up my old friend US 101 for the drive north through the Salinas Valley on the other side of the Santa Lucia range. However, I was determined to see something of the Big Sur, so rather than carry on north to Santa Cruz, I doubled back on myself at Salinas, driving south down the Big Sur as far as I could go before turning around and heading up to Santa Cruz.


As usual, I’ve split this post into several parts:

You can see how I got on, starting with my drive along SR 46, after the gallery.

  • My morning started as the previous night had ended, outside the Big Sur Restaurant.
  • However, this time I went inside, where I had Eggs Florentine (and toast) for breakfast.
  • Then it was time to hit the road. I had to get over those mountains, the Santa Lucia range.
  • My route took me south, then I headed inland, up Green Valley on SR 46 before stopping...
  • ... to admire the views. This a panorama, looking south back towards the coast.
  • This is looking back all the way to Morro Bay...
  • ... where Morro Rock stands out from the surf.
  • Looking west, back the way I've come. The road is right at the top of the picture.
  • I love the rolling, green hills.
  • This is the view to the north, overlooking the upper end of Green Valley.
  • How's that for an isolated farm house?
  • Time to hit the road again...
  • From there, I dropped down into the Salinas Valley and picked up US 101...
  • ... just south of Paso Robles.
  • From there US 101 runs along the valley bottom, heading northwest, parallel to the coast.
  • I passed through King City, on my way to Salinas where I parted company with US 101.
My morning started as the previous night had ended, outside the Big Sur Restaurant.1 However, this time I went inside, where I had Eggs Florentine (and toast) for breakfast.2 Then it was time to hit the road. I had to get over those mountains, the Santa Lucia range.3 My route took me south, then I headed inland, up Green Valley on SR 46 before stopping...4 ... to admire the views. This a panorama, looking south back towards the coast.5 This is looking back all the way to Morro Bay...6 ... where Morro Rock stands out from the surf.7 Looking west, back the way I've come. The road is right at the top of the picture.8 I love the rolling, green hills.9 This is the view to the north, overlooking the upper end of Green Valley. 10 How's that for an isolated farm house?11 Time to hit the road again...12 From there, I dropped down into the Salinas Valley and picked up US 101...13 ... just south of Paso Robles.14 From there US 101 runs along the valley bottom, heading northwest, parallel to the coast.15 I passed through King City, on my way to Salinas where I parted company with US 101.16
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After another late night spent sitting outside in the cold, uploading the following day’s Coffee Spot (Go Get Em Tiger, which I’d visited in Los Angeles that Monday), I got a decent night’s sleep. The following morning, I packed up my things and said goodbye (good riddance?) to the Day’s Inn.

Although the hotel had a free breakfast, this was no more than toast and cereal and I wanted something more substantial before my long drive. Instead, I headed over to the Big Sur restaurant, having spotted the breakfast menu when I was there for dinner on my first night in San Simeon. I went for my all-time diner favourite, Eggs Florentine, with a side order of toast, which set me up very nicely for the day ahead.

Then I was on my way again, driving a short way south along the coast before cutting inland and over the Santa Lucia Mountains on SR 46. As much as I missed driving the Big Sur, the climb up SR 46 was spectacular and, as I neared the top, I pulled over to admire the views before carrying on. The drive over the rest of the mountains was just as spectacular and, about half an hour later, I was dropping down on the other side, joining US 101 just south of Paso Robles in the Salinas Valley.

From there, US 101 heads north, following the bottom of the valley as it broadens out, running parallel to the train tracks, a route I was to take two years later when I caught the train from Los Angeles to San Jose. This had crossed the Santa Lucia Mountains further south at San Luis Obispo, climbing up the hills via a series of dramatic switchbacks.

The drive through the valley was pleasant enough, with the Santa Lucia range to the west and the Gablian range to the east, but it was very tedious, with the road running straight and true, offering few distractions. I much preferred doing the same route on the train, when I was able to sit and watch the landscape roll by without the tedium of having to keep a car on the road!

I said goodbye to US 101 for good at Salinas, at the northern end of the valley, turning left onto SR 68, following signposts for Monterey, where I was to re-join the Pacific Coast Highway for my exploration of the northern part of the Big Sur. However, before I did that, I had a short diversion to take.

You can find out where I went after the gallery.

  • This was the cause of my detour: a parking lot in the small town of Seaside...
  • Well, not really. I was heading for Acme Coffee Roasters, as recommended by Karen...
  • ... a friend I'd made through Instagram. Inside was a lovely coffee bar and roastery...
  • ... where my Ecoffee Cup and I had a cappuccino, with a doughnut as a lunch substitute!
  • Soon I was on the road again, this time heading south. First stop, Carmel Highlands...
  • ... where I'd really come to look at the ocean. This is the view north towards Point Lobos...
  • ... while this is the view south to a small headland. That's a local road, by the way.
  • Back to the view north. That's Bird Island in the distance, but I was fascinated by the...
  • ... rock in the foreground, which, as I watched...
  • ... was submerged by a succession of waves.
  • See what I mean?
  • I could have sworn there was a rock there a second ago!
  • Oh wait, there it is.
  • Now the rock is back...
  • ... ready for the next wave! I was soon on my way again, stopping a short while later...
  • ... at a turnout by Shoal Cavern. This is the view south, looking towards...
  • ... Soberanes Point, which is in the Big Sur (technically I was just north of the boundary).
  • Here's the view north...
  • ... while here's a panorama looking west.
  • Looking inland, the Santa Lucia Mountains look lovely too!
  • Looking back to the coast and what's that?
  • Another rock being pounded by the waves!
  • It was an excellent vantage point to indulge my passion for watching the ocean.
  • This small collection of rocks just off the shore caught my eye.
  • They were taking a real pounding.
  • ... with the waves sending spray high into the air.
  • Almost completely submerged!
  • Here it comes again...
  • ... just in time for the next wave...
  • ... which is neatly framed by a small group...
  • ... of birds flying across the shot...
  • ... as the wave completely engulfs the rocks.
  • The pictures don't really do it justice...
  • ... partly because you don't get the noise of the waves.
  • It was also very, very windy.
  • Here come the rocks again...
  • ... just in time for the next wave.
  • Last one, I promise...
  • ... although I could have stood there for ages watching the waves...
  • ... pounding away. However, I was soon on my way again, with my next stop...
  • ... at Garrapata State Park, where I was actually inside the Big Sur.
  • I also got notice that the road was closed...
  • ... although not until the small settlement of Big Sur, which was still some way off.
  • I'd stopped at another small turnout. This is the view north, back the way I'd come.
  • ... although naturally, my eye was drawn to the coast
  • Look at that magnificent coastline (which I'd driven along moments before).
  • More waves crashing on the rocks!
  • Naturally, I wanted to get down there and, fortunately...
  • ... there is a path, which leads down from the turnout as you can see in this panorama.
  • Let's go!
  • In fact, there are plenty of hiking trails here. This one heads north along the top of the...
  • ... beach, past some very windswept trees!
  • Sadly, as you can see from the orange tape, my progress came to a halt at this point...
  • ... although from the top of the steps I did have a magnificent view looking north...
  • ... with the full sweep of the beach below.
  • It's a shame, as I would have loved to have got down there...
  • ... and watched the breakers rolling in.
  • Instead, with one last look to the north...
  • ... it was time to head back to the car, taking in the views of the mountains as I went.
  • And there's my little car waiting for me by the road, which is where I'll leave you.
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It was on this trip that I made friends with Karen, who had suddenly appeared on my Instagram feed, liking my posts and offering coffee shops suggestions. I found this rather puzzling since, on checking her feed, it was obvious that Karen was in my hometown of Guildford, so what was she doing recommending Californian coffee shops? The answer, I discovered, was that she had grown up in the area, but was in Guildford, studying for an MSc at the University of Surrey (sadly, long before the days of The Hideout).

Not that I knew any of this at the time, but I was keen to try the first of Karen’s recommendations, the Acme Coffee Roasting Company in the wonderfully-named town of Seaside, just along the coast from Monterey. It took some finding though, tucked away just off the highway, and, I must confess, I did a double-take when I pulled into a parking lot, finding Acme at the back, occupying in a low-slung building, looking for all the world like a garage.

However, Karen hadn’t let me down, and I enjoyed my first speciality coffee (in a coffee shop) since leaving Los Angeles two days before. I’d have loved to have stayed longer, but the Big Sur was calling, so I was off again, re-joining the Pacific Coast Highway which sped me past Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea before hitting the coast at Carmel Highlands, where I made my first (brief) stop to watch the waves pounding on the rocks below.

Then I was off again, heading south along the amazing road, which hugged the mountainside high above the Pacific Ocean. I crossed Malpaso Creek, widely considered to be the northern boundary of the Big Sur, before stopping at a small turnout at Shoal Cavern to admire some more stunning scenery.

My plan was to drive as far south as the road would allow me before turning around and coming back north, ideally leaving the Big Sur at around sunset. I’d reached Carmel Highlands not long after two o’clock, so that, I figured, gave me about two hours to drive south, with roughly the same time to drive back. Give that it takes about two hours (without traffic), to drive from Carmel Highlands to the southern end of the Big Sur at Ragged Point (where I’d been the day before), I decided I had time for one or two stops, so pulled in at another small turnout at Garrapata State Park , where the Bluff Trail took me down to the beach (well, it would have done if the steps down to the beach itself weren’t taped off!).

Had I had longer, I could have explored further, since there were plenty of trails, either heading along the coast or up into the hills, but as I was, I was soon on my way again.

You can find out how far south along the Big Sur I got after the gallery.

  • Next stop, the famous Bixby Creek Bridge.
  • Built in 1932, the iconic bridge is an amazing piece of engineering.
  • The view south, along the coast, where I'll be going next.
  • Before the bridge was built, this was the main road, which went inland along Bixby Creek...
  • ... crossing further upstream before coming down the other side.
  • The bridge is just as spectacular from this side.
  • Time to get back on the road.
  • I couldn't help myself. It was so beautiful, I had to keep pulling over to admire the views.
  • This is just south of the Little Sur River, looking back the way I've come.
  • Another stop, another bay.
  • And this is the view south, with Point Sur and its lighthouse in the distance.
  • I stopped again as I got closer to Point Sur. The lighthouse is right on top of the rock.
  • What's that I can see down by the shore?
  • Cattle grazing on the grass, while it's still lush and green.
  • Another panoramic view from south (left) to north (right).
  • After Point Sur, the road cuts inland for over 10 miles. I stopped to admire the views...
  • ...  just south of Castro Canyon, not long after the road had emerged high over the coast.
  • This is the view north, back the way I'd come.
  • You can just make out the road winding through the trees in the distance.
  • And the view south, where I'm heading next.
  • I'm not sure what that distant headland is, and I didn't get that far, because...
  • ... at the next turnout, I saw this sign.
  • If you look closely enough...
  • ... there, up ahead, you can see the road block. This one has a police car too!
  • The next house down the coast. Imagine living there, wanting to visit your neighbours...
  • ... who happen to live here, on the other side of the road closure!
  • Neat hexagonal house, by the way.
  • A final look south, the lmit of my drive that day.
  • And a view of the bay below.
  • It really is a long way down...
  • ... although this shot gives an even better impression of the height.
  • One last look west, out across the Pacific Ocean...
  • ... then my eyes turn north, first to the end of the bay...
  • ... and then beyond, back the way I've come. Soon I'll be retracing my steps...
  • ... as I drive back along the Big Sur.
  • Time to hit the road. I really want to get as far as Carmel-by-Sea before it gets dark.
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After Garrapata State Park, my next stop was Bixby Creek Bridge, about four miles to the south. This iconic structure made a huge difference to the area when it opened in 1932, vaulting over the mouth of Bixby Creek in a wonderful feat of engineering. Before the bridge (and the accompanying section of the new coast road) was built, travelling north to south involved a 10-mile detour inland through the mountains along the Old Coast Road (these days no more than a track), which emerged near what is now the Andrew Molera State Park.

From the bridge, I carried on, crossing the Little Sur River and stopping on another turnout to admire the views. From there, I could see Point Sur, a large, rocky headland, attached to the rest of the coast by a low, narrow causeway and topped by a lighthouse which is open to the public at the weekends.

As it approaches Point Sur, the road cuts inland, passing through the Andrew Molera State Park, before following the Big Sur River upstream through a heavily wooded valley. After about 10 miles, the road emerges from the top of the valley, crossing a ridge before coming out high above the Pacific Ocean, where I stopped shortly after crossing Castro Canyon. This vantage point afforded some spectacular views along the coast to the south, although I could do little more than look, since at that point I was approaching the road closure.

Sure enough, five minutes later I passed a turnout with a sign reading “Road Closed 1000 Feet Ahead”. Rather than make a nuisance of myself, I pulled in at that point, turning the car around ready for the drive back up the Big Sur. From the turnout, I could see the roadblock up ahead, which, unlike the one I had encountered at the southern end of the Big Sur the day before, was backed up by a police car to deter over-enthusiastic tourists.

From Carmel Highlands to the turnout was a distance of just under 30 miles, but with all my stops, it had taken me an hour and a half to drive down there. And, of course, I had to drive all the way back (with, inevitably, more stops), something which I wanted to do in daylight. Since it was already four o’clock, and sunset was around half past five, I took a last look around before setting off back along the coast.

You can see what I got up to on my drive back up the Big Sur after the gallery.

  • My first stop on the way back was somewhere I'd spotted on the drive down.
  • This is the view from the parking lot. Pretty neat, huh?
  • There's a petrol (gas) station, although I'd filled up in Seaside before I drove down...
  • ... and besides, this is what I'd really come for: the Big Sur Bakery (& Restaurant).
  • This was the restaurant bit...
  • ... but this was my destination: coffee!
  • And cakes. But mostly, I confess, the coffee (which was from Acme Coffee Roasting Co.)
  • I decided to sit outside on the patio, which overlooked the parking lot...
  • ... where my coffee and I admired the distant mountains.
  • Before I left, I looked around the garden, which was at the south end of the property...
  • ... where I had more views of the Santa Lucia Mountains. Then it was back on the road.
  • Not that I got very far. I wanted to experience something of the non-coastal part...
  • ... of the Big Sur, so I pulled off where the road crosses the Big Sur River. The hiking trail...
  • ... was closed, but I was able to get down to the river bank (this is under the road).
  • ...and go for a short walk. This is the view upstream...
  • ... while this is the view back towards the bridge carrying the coastal highway.
  • The river, with all the winter storms, was fast flowing and close to bursting. There's a...
  • ... second bridge (leading to a house) a little way upstream which gave me this view.
  • From there, it was back to the car through the woods.
  • My next stop came as I left the woods, coming out southeast of Point Sur.
  • The view south, back the way I'd come, looking into...
  • ... the valley of the Big Sur River.
  • Then it was on the road again, although, as before, I didn't get far, stopping just north...
  • ... of Point Sur, close where to where I'd stopped on the drive down.
  • I was fascinated by that rock and its lighthouse. I will have to visit one day...
  • ... which will mean going across that low, narrow causeway.
  • By now, the sun was dipping close to the horizon, so I pressed on.
  • However, I didn't get very far. Around the next headland, it was so beautiful, I had to...
  • ... pull over again to admire the views. What you don't get from those two shots...
  • ... of the sweep of the coast is that this little notch in the hills hides the Little Sur River.
  • Beyond that, the road carries on north, cuttting its way along the mountainside.
  • You can see it more clearly in this shot as it climbs steadily away from the river.
  • Although it was quiet that day, there was some other traffic on the road!
  • Right, time to press on.
  • Crossing the Little Sur River, I made it as far as the Big Sur turnout, where I stopped...
  • ... for another look back along the coast to the south, looking golden in the setting sun.
  • You can clearly see Point Sur in the far distance, while the notch on the left is Little Sur.
  • The sun was very low on the horizon at this point...
  • ... and I loved the way that the light played across the water.
  • Time to go, if I want to make it back to Carmel-by-Sea while it's still light.
  • My final stop was at Sea Otter Refuge View, which is near the top...
  • ...of the ridge I'd seen from the other side of the Little Sur River, way off in the distance.
  • Here's my car, parked in a turnout on the other side of the road...
  • ... which you can just see on the left as it cuts its way along the mountainside.
  • This distinctive stone marks Sea Otter Refuge View, which is where I decided to stay...
  • ... and watch the sunset, my fourth in a row where I had a clear view of the sun...
  • ... disappearing into the Pacific Ocean.
  • Because of the lack of clouds, this one was the clearest yet...
  • ... and, in many ways, the least impressive!
  • Almost gone now.
  • Finally, just at it nears the distant horizon, it disappears into some clouds...
  • ... just leaving an orange glow behind.
  • With a final look back at the coast...
  • ... it was time to hit the road again for the last leg of my drive out of the Big Sur.
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My first stop on the way back was less to do with admiring the views and more to do with life’s essentials, namely coffee. On my way down, as I’d passed through the valley of the Big Sur River, I’d passed the Big Sur Bakery. The folks at the Acme Coffee Roasting Company had told me about it and since I had a little time to spare on my way back, I called in for a quick coffee.

The bakery serves a standard espresso-based menu using Acme’s coffee although, unusually, the menu included a flat white, so I had to order one. You can sit inside if you like (there’s also a restaurant area), but I went out to the patio where my coffee and I admired the late afternoon sunshine on the tops of the Santa Lucia Mountains on the far side of the valley.

On another day, I might have stopped for longer or had something to eat, but I pressed on, driving down the valley, following the Big Sur River, where I made my second stop. Up until now, I’d concentrated on the stunning coastline, but I also love forests and mountains, so decided to get out for a short walk in the valley, just where the road crossed the Big Sur River.

There are a number of trails in the area, although they were closed due to the recent rain (and, alarmingly, there was a notice about aggressive mountain lion activity in the area). However, it didn’t really affect me since wasn’t staying for long, just rambling up the river (which was really swollen from the rain) and back down the trail. One day I hope to be back for an extended stay.

After that, I drove out of the valley, through Andrew Molera State Park, where I stopped yet again, this time to look back at the mountains (which I’d seen, but not photographed, on my way down). This pattern of driving for a few minutes then having to pull over to admire the views continued, with brief stops just north of Point Sur (close to where I pulled over on the way down), south of the Little Sur River and at the Big Sur turnout just beyond that.

My final stop came a few minutes later, a couple of miles south of Bixby Creek Bridge, at the delightfully named Sea Otter Refuge Point, where I pulled over to watch the sunset. It was the fourth consecutive day I’d seen the sun sink into the Pacific Ocean and, with little cloud around, it was the clearest (and least spectacular) of them all!

From there, I drove nonstop until I reached Monterey, although I was constantly admiring the views in the twilight. I had originally planned to carry on driving until I reached Santa Cruz, but that was another 45 minutes away and, since I’d be doing it in the dark anyway, I decided to stop in Monterey for dinner before carrying on with my journey.


So that concludes Part IV of The Grand Adventure. You can see how the adventure ended in the last instalment of The Grand Adventure, which recounts my final day, driving into downtown San Francisco on a Friday afternoon (which, with hindsight, wasn’t a very good idea!).


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3 thoughts on “Brian’s Travel Spot: The Grand Adventure, Part IV

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