Henry Miller once described Big Sur as “the California men dreamed of years ago. . . . It is the face of the Earth as the creator intended it to look.” Despite being written almost 60 years ago, the 90-mile stretch of California coast between San Simeon and Carmel remains wild, well-preserved and relatively unpopulated, giving the area its mystically quirky charm. The scenic six-hour drive from SoCal to Big Sur is loaded with spectacular views of the rocky Pacific and California countryside. The twists of Highway 1 sweep above thousand-foot cliffs, making it one of the most dangerous journeys in America. It’s the danger, however, that makes the trip all the more satisfying.
The best part about Big Sur is that if you want to sleep beneath the redwoods, you can. Highway 1 is dotted with many areas that offer premier camping with excellent hiking options. But if sleeping outside isn’t your thing, Big Sur also has adorable cabins, cottages and hotels. And if you’re unsure where you stand in regard to camping, Fernwood Resort (47200 CA-1, Big Sur, 831-667-2422; www.fernwoodbigsur.com) offers the best of both worlds. Camping at Fernwood is like pitching a tent in your back yard: You experience the outdoors but with bathrooms and showers, plus a small general store and tavern located about 50 feet away—you know, in case camping gets too real or you run out of firewood (or beer). There are affordable glamping options, too, although I guess if you’re into glamping, you don’t really care about affordability, right?
But don’t underestimate the camping at Fernwood. The redwoods, wildlife and Big Sur River make the 73-year-old spot one of California’s best locations to embrace nature. It also happens to be a great place to meet people, making it a solid spot if you enjoy camping solo. That said, if you’re looking for a quieter camping experience, Sunday through Thursday are the best nights to go. If you’re looking to drink, hang out and potentially eat some mushrooms—spending a weekend at Fernwood might change your life.
Alas, my most recent adventure to the campground didn’t include psilocybin. I’m not so sure the same can be said about my neighbors, who, at one point, were scream-singing, “BIG SUR IN THE SKYYYY WITH DI-A-MONDS,” while waving their arms above their heads and skipping around their campfire while wearing fuzzy hats. Although the Fernwood Tavern had a live band in the bar that night, the real entertainment was in campground spot 62.
After staying a night in Fernwood, I made my way north on Highway 1 toward Carmel. The sun had begun to set as I passed over Bixby Bridge, which lies about 10 miles north. Surprisingly, not a single tourist was stopped at the turnout. Peach-colored clouds swirled over the ocean and projected a golden hue onto the land. It was too breathtaking to not stop and admire it. I parked inches away from the cliff’s edge, sat on the hood of my car and soaked in the glory of the sunset. The arches of the bridge tower over untouched sands and forest chaparral. Aside from the crashing waves, the area around me was still. I was entranced, moved and inspired by the overwhelming beauty—I get why Jack Kerouac made Bixby his home.
Six miles north of the majestic bridge lies Palo Colorado, a narrow paved road made famous by writers, artists and hippies during the 1960s. Redwoods covered in multicolored moss lined the perimeter of the one-way path. By this time, the moon had begun its reign over the sky. The only light that kept the road from being completely black came from the cottages and hippie shacks dispersed between the trees. Driving on Highway 1 at night is terrifying, but driving through Palo Colorado at night is a death wish. The road twists straight through rugged forest terrain, and wild animals may appear from nowhere at any moment. The drive to the cottage I was staying in was eerie, especially after a moment of unintentional off-roading (in a Toyota Corolla—mind you).
But the view of Palo Colorado Canyon the next morning made the treacherous drive worth it. Located on the outer rim of the canyon, the view from the cottage’s living room looked down into the valley of redwoods, while the ocean sparkled in the distance. A thick marine layer rolled in from the coast and collected in the valley. The tops of redwoods poked through the dense fog, as the cloud layer swirled in the canyon before dissipating 15 minutes later. I watched the moving fog in the valley the way one would watch television. The mystical energy of Palo Colorado is hypnotic, making it easy to forget you’re in California.
Palo Colorado also offers world-class hiking. If hiking isn’t your jam, though, I’d probably steer clear of these trails because they take you straight through the wilderness. But staying in the northern part of Big Sur has its benefits, too. Palo Colorado is a 15-minute drive to Carmel. Unlike Napa, Sonoma, Paso Robles or other California wine countries, Carmel offers a laid-back, cheaper and far-less-pretentious vino experience. Although you won’t taste many Cabs, you will taste big, full-bodied red blends and Pinot Noirs that compete with Northern California’s. Scheid Vineyards‘ Tasting Room (San Carlos Street & Seventh Avenue, Carmel-By-the-Sea, 831-626-WINE; www.scheidvineyards.com) in downtown Carmel offers the best bang for your buck: a six-pour flight of excellent wines for $20. Beat that, Napa!
Wine tasting in Carmel, hiking Palo Colorado, experiencing the sunset on Bixby Bridge and spending an evening in Fernwood made for a great Highway 1 weekend. But on my way home, I made one last stop: at Jade Cove, one of the southernmost beaches of Big Sur.
As a geology nerd, going to a beach where jade can be found among the rocks is akin to winning the World Cup. The tide was high when I arrived, which made jade-hunting rather difficult. But after an hour of sifting through rocks and getting drenched, I found a tear-shaped piece of jade. This tiny rock made my entire trip. And while you might not be as pebble-obsessed as I am, you’ll definitely experience something profound while traveling these 90 miles of California coastal heaven.