Classic California Drive

A dream itinerary from Monterey to Morro Bay that can be covered in a weekend.

By Richard Alleman

Some of the country’s most ravishing scenery can be found as you drive down California Highway 1. Edging the Pacific for most of its 655 miles—from Mendocino County, in the north, to Orange County, in the south—this classic roadway packs in dramatic vistas and a few surprises along the 145-mile stretch from Monterey to Morro Bay.

Monterey to Carmel-by-the-Sea

John Steinbeck fans may recognize the historic town of Monterey as the setting of colorful novels, like Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row. You can take a quick walk around the latter’s namesake, where today former fish-canning factories have been restored as shops, cafés and restaurants. The star attraction here is the Monterey Bay Aquarium; the jellyfish display alone—tank after tank of these exotic creatures, which look like Tiffany lamps come to life—is worth the visit.

When you’re ready to hit the road, follow the signs to the Pacific Grove Gate of the legendary 17-Mile Drive (entry fee, $10 a car), which winds around coves and cypress-studded sands. Pick up sandwiches at Pavel’s for a picnic lunch at Seal Rock before exiting the drive at Carmel-by-the-Sea. The town enchants with its fairy-tale-like cottages and white-sand beach. Don’t miss the beautifully restored Mission San Carlos Borroméo del Río Carmelo, which dates from 1771. If you have time for a gallery or two—there are more than 80—William A. Karges Fine Art specializes in early California painters, whereas the Winfield Gallery represents some of the area’s best contemporary artists.

Big Sur

From Carmel you can catch Highway 1 south to Point Lobos State Reserve, which offers hiking trails through a surreal landscape of craggy cliffs and tangled trees. In a hurry? You can leave the car at the Sea Lion Parking Area to hike the Cypress Grove Trail; it’s less than a mile long. Then continue south to Big Sur, where steep cliffs drop down to breathtakingly beautiful beaches. There are numerous spots in which to pull over and photograph the dizzying vistas.

Just beyond the funky village of Big Sur, past the luxe Ventana and Post Ranch Inn resorts, is the fabled Nepenthe restaurant, on the right side of the road. Used extensively in the Richard Burton–Elizabeth Taylor film The Sandpiper, it’s a good place for an alfresco snack with yet another knockout view of the Pacific. The Esalen Institute, a few miles farther south, is known for its spiritual retreats and holistic workshops. Even if you’re not in residence, you can schedule an outdoor massage (for either 11 a.m. or 4 p.m.) and bookend it with soaks in the property’s hot springs. But beware: You could be so blissed out after your visit that you might not feel like driving. So consider staying overnight in a rustic cottage room at nearby Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn, which also has a cozy restaurant.

San Simeon to Morro Bay

When you’re back on the road the next morning, the mountains eventually jut eastward, and Highway 1 descends to sea level by the time you reach San Simeon. If you’re up for a hike, Hearst San Simeon State Park has a 3.3-mile trail through forests, wetlands and beaches. But the area’s crown jewel may just be media mogul William Randolph Hearst’s spectacular estate. You can tour Hearst Castle’s 165 rooms, their opulent Renaissance- and Baroque-style interiors and antiques imported from Europe in the 1920s. Reservations are a must, and the Grand Rooms tour is recommended for first-time visitors.

Hearst Castle is a hard act to follow, but Morro Bay, some 30 miles to the south, stuns with its 581-foot-high Morro Rock, known as the Gibraltar of the Pacific. You can explore the Rock and harbor by kayak, or discover hidden beaches on foot in Morro Dunes Natural Preserve. You may want to spend the night in the charming village of San Luis Obispo, some 13 miles south. The secluded Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort, just out of town, has hillside hot tubs. Once a favorite hideaway for old-time Hollywood stars, it’s also a great place to unwind and toast the end of your great American drive.

Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn
48865 Calif. Hwy. 1, Big Sur; 831-667-2377;; doubles from $115 a night
Esalen Institute
55000  Calif. Hwy. 1, Big Sur; 888-837-2536;
Hearst Castle
750 Hearst Castle Rd., San Simeon; 800-444-4445;; tours, from $25
Hearst San Simeon State Park
San Simeon–Monterey Creek Rd., Cambria; 805-927-2020;
Mission San Carlos Borroméo del Río Carmelo
3080 Rio Rd., Carmel-by-the-Sea; 831-624-1271;
Monterey Bay Aquarium
886 Cannery Row, Monterey; 831-648-4800;; tickets, from $40
Morro Dunes Natural Preserve
225 Morro Bay Blvd., Morro Bay; 800-231-0592;
48510 Calif. Hwy. 1, Big Sur; 831-667-2345;; lunch for two, from $20*
Pavel’s Bakerie
219 Forest Ave., Pacific Grove; 831-643-2636; no website; lunch for two, from $40
Point Lobos State Reserve
62 Calif. Hwy. 1, Carmel-by-the-Sea; 831-624-4909;
Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort
1215 Avila Beach Dr., San Luis Obispo; 805-595-7302;; doubles from $150 a night
William A. Karges Fine Art
Sixth and Dolores Sts., Carmel-by-the-Sea; 831-625-4266;
Winfield Gallery
Dolores St., Carmel-by-the-Sea; 831-624-3369;
  • *Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax, or tip.
  • NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
  • Published: July 2015