An inauspicious start as the sky is clouded over when I get up at 8 am. The weather forecast predicts it clearing late morning so over breakfast I decide not to leave until 10 am to give it a chance to clear. The sights for today apparently start early on the road south soon after Carmel and if it’s cloudy it’ll be a disappointment.
The hotel has been fine. The room was large, clean, average to good decor, breakfast OK and the location good. You can stay closer to Fisherman’s Wharf and Cannery Row but the room rates increase dramatically. I got a good deal through booking.com for the Downtown Monterey Days Inn, about $135 a night. It is California, after all.
This is a major departure from the Highway 61 trip. For that I almost exclusively used Hotwire and Priceline’s “blind booking” systems, which had its pitfalls as I described here. In planning this particular trip I concluded – certainly for the first week – that there were places I definitely wanted to stay: for instance, ‘on the beach’ with a sea view, or in the centre of – or very near to – downtown. Using Hotwire et al “blind”, I could not guarantee that. So I decided that I would book specific hotels in certain stop-overs that guaranteed me what I wanted. After returning home I am convinced that for a trip like the PCH this was the best policy. I’m not sure if I paid more than a “blind” booking but looking out over the ocean when I got up in the morning was more important than saving a few dollars. As it also turned out, booking.com was cheaper than both Hotwire and Priceline (and Expedia etc.) when those two specified a hotel and I used the former for almost all the hotel bookings on the trip. I did book a couple of rooms direct, again because they were cheapest. The Sea Breeze in Pacifica for example was not on any online system, you could only book by calling them direct.
Back To Seaside
I check out later in the morning and head onto Hwy 1. However the tyre pressure monitoring system on the car is still not reporting the repaired tyre’s pressure and has now started to say ‘service me’. This is bugging me. I’m driving into an area where’s there’s not much cell phone service – or much else apparently – and if the tyre’s still not right I’ll be screwed. The Midas manager, Vince, said the reading would come back and as it hasn’t I decide I need it checking, so I turn off Hwy 1 whilst still in the vicinity of Monterey and head back to Midas, which should only be about 15 minutes away.
I arrive at Midas and Vince is on the phone so another manager checks the pressure, which should be 38 psi as set yesterday, but it’s only 34! Vince comes free and sprays some stuff on the tyre and it bubbles, indicating a leak. To his credit, he immediately knows it’s his problem and pulls a mechanic off another car to look at mine. They check it out again – but now say it’s not leaking. I ask – “So why is the pressure down at 34 when you told me yesterday it was set at 38?”. They put the wheel in the ‘bird bath’ – a tub of water – where I can see it as well, and it’s definitely not leaking. So the repair was good, and then they confirm with a diagnostic tool that the pressure sensor in the fixed tyre has failed, hence the lack of a reading and the service message on the dashboard. “So what’s happened?”, I enquire. Vince thinks for a while then concludes that the mechanic yesterday only put 34 psi into the tyre because most Dodges are set at 34 psi all round – but, Vince now remembers, the Dart I’m driving needs 38 psi all round, something the young mechanic never checked and Vince also never verified.
So I was driving around yesterday on an under-inflated (but fixed) tyre and because the tyre’s sensor is broken I would never have known over the next 1000-plus miles. Not a good situation so it was a good decision to return and get it checked. I got reassurance there’s no tyre leak plus I now know that the monitoring system is broken – and that I’ve got the correct pressure in all tyres. I thank Vince profusely for helping me out, he really has been a star as far as I’m concerned. “Just doing my job” he says, “Have a good trip.” Legend! But this morning ‘detour’ has cost me time, and it’s now 11.30 am as I leave Monterey but at least the skies have cleared and it’s another hot, sunny day.
My mind at rest, I get back on the PCH. Just before Carmel the road reduces from the 2 x 2 lanes by Monterey and becomes one lane in each direction. I drive past the Point Lobos Reserve from yesterday – the weather now is a bit different from then – and suddenly the scenery starts to get breathtaking. But that’s because I’m now in Big Sur…
Into Big Sur
It seems there is no definitive border to where Big Sur starts and ends. Wikipedia states that “Big Sur is not an incorporated town, but an area without formal boundaries on the Central Coast of California. The boundaries of the area, or region, have gradually expanded north and south over time…” Many current descriptions of the area refer to the northern border as being the Carmel River in Carmel with the southern border somewhere past Lucia and maybe as even as far south as Ragged Point.
Whatever, I’m just south of the Carmel Highlands by now and so consider myself in Big Sur. The scenery so far is similar to, but probably even better than, the first morning from Pacifica to Santa Cruz. Garropatta State Park is first up, with numerous trail start points offering great views of the coast. Driving on, I’m stopping at almost every turnout to take photos and marvel at the views, it just seems to get better and better around every bend in the road. It’s just stunning, it really is.
Across The Bixby Bridge And Through The Forest
Onwards for another few miles and I arrive at Bixby Bridge. Wow. It’s an awesome feat of engineering and I take a bit of time to see it from various angles. Make sure you stop here, there are turnouts on both sides of the road on the north end of the bridge.
Point Sur and its lighthouse is the next major landmark but road up to the lighthouse is closed, it must only be open on certain days. The drive is incredible, because all along the PCH there are points with stunning views that almost make me stop and get out to take a photo. I wonder if I’ll ever to my destination tonight… 🙂
The PCH has taken me away from the coast now and up into the hills. I’m now surrounded by forest yet it’s just as brilliant as being by the sea. The roads climbs and twists through the forest, the sun streaming through the tree canopy in places. After a while amongst the trees I’m getting hungry but there’s nowhere to stop and buy a sandwich. Then I finally come across Ripplewood Resort, a shop next to a gas station – yep, but turkey and jack this time. I drive on a short distance until I find a turnout where I can eat with some thankful shade from the huge trees in the forest. It’s blisteringly hot, 84º F, and very humid with it.
Setting off again, the road keeps climbing up through the trees. I stop a little bit further on at Fernwood Resort as I saw a sign that said ‘Groceries’. It struck me whilst eating lunch that there’s not many shops – or much else – in Big Sur (which of course is part of the point…) and for future reference I thought I’d see what’s available here. Nothing wrong with what I got at Ripplewood Resort but it’s always useful to know. It looks very good inside, the shop is larger than Ripplewood’s with more choice and has a deli-like counter where they will make up a sandwich for you plus there was fresh coffee and other stuff like salads.
Back on the road again, there’s little traffic and Hwy 1 here is narrow, still just two lanes. There’s lots of sweeping bends and it’s a great drive with beautiful scenery.
Back To The Coast and McWay Falls
Further up the road I pull into the car park of the well-known Nepenthe restaurant just to see if I can have a look around. I’d read that it’s expensive to eat there and usually has long queues to get a table, but some of the tables apparently have great views across the ocean. The car park however is completely full so its reputation appears well founded. Consequently there’s nowhere I can park to get out and have a look around. Well… I double-park and keep my eyes well open in case said car owner comes back, and walk quickly up to the restaurant but I can’t see anything or an easy way inside. I do see a menu and it is quite expensive but decide to abort and return to the car.
Nepenthe turns out to be the high point of the hills because after this Hwy 1 starts to descend slowly and the coast soon comes back into view, more awesome than ever. Every bend I drive around brings a silent gasp to myself of “Wow, that’s gorgeous”. It’s just staggering scenery, non-stop. There’s a bit more traffic now as I head towards Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park to see the McWay Falls but not too much that I’d call it ‘busy’, which is good. The car park at the Park is busy however and it takes a while to find a space. A note on State Park car parks: most seem to charge a fee to park in them which why I noticed quite a few cars parked on the roadside here at Julia Pfeiffer. None however – apart from Año Nuevo State Park – has been manned but they operate a voluntary payment scheme wherein you’re supposed to put your $10 in a postbox-like structure. Needless to say I didn’t see anyone doing this at any Park. 😉
The waterfall itself is a little disappointing from a distance to be honest, but I think you can walk down to the beach – just not on a day like today in this heat: it’s got even hotter and even walking to the Falls at a slow pace means I’m sweating buckets. I shouldn’t complain but it really is too hot. The little cove where the Falls fall into is lovely though. Back on the road my next landmark to stop at was Sand Dollar Beach, which I assumed would be easily visible from the road and I would then stop. Mistake. Looking later I discover you can’t see the beach from the road. I did see a state parks sign for Sand Dollar and thought the beach would then come into view, but it didn’t. Silly boy. Ah well, it was only a(nother) beach.
And I Thought It Had Been Great So Far
And then… the section of the PCH from around Plaskett to just before Ragged Point has to be the most amazing, mind-blowing section of road I have ever, ever driven in my life. It’s very narrow, constantly going up and down, with twisty, sharp bends one after another, a real-life roller-coaster of a road, complete with absolutely stunning scenery… In many places there is no safety barrier on the right of the road, just a sheet vertical drop of 100s ft into the Pacific Ocean. Make a mistake and you’ll be swimming with the fishes. Really.
It’s an incredibly dangerous, thrilling, amazing drive requiring total concentration. In places you can’t go any faster than 15 – 20 mph. And just when I think it’s over, I’m climbing another hill, go over the crest and down the other side. Adrenaline is coursing through my veins. There is, unfortunately, nowhere to stop to take pictures because the road is cut right into the cliffs and there’s no spare room for turnouts, the road being right on the cliff edge in places. The road does eventually start to flatten and straighten out and soon I’m right by the coast at sea level.
I drive past the Piedras Blancas Light Station located at Point Piedras Blancas (they only do tours in the morning so I’d missed the opportunity) and the next stop is just ahead. It’s the Elephant Seal Rookery at Piedras Blancas to see the elephant seals. There are hundreds of them, just lazing on the beach. A few move around, some snort and some also smell a bit… You can’t go onto the beach as most of the mammals are huge but it’s a nice little diversion to stop and see them.
Sunset At Moonstone Beach
Back on the PCH again for the last leg to my hotel. A few miles down the road I pass the entrance to Hearst Castle, tomorrow morning’s adventure, and soon reach the start of Moonstone Beach Drive, just outside Cambria, which of course is not the PCH but does run right along Moonstone Beach. The bay is – what else – stunning, and the hotel (the Little Sur Inn) is right on the Drive by the beach and sea.
My hotel room is quite large and when I first opened the door to go inside the place was like a sauna as the sun was streaming directly into the room, and had been all day. But there’s no air con, only a couple of fans, so I open the patio doors and try to cool the place down. The hotel room rate is very expensive, even without the sea view I paid extra for, but later on sitting outside on the balcony with a cold beer watching a glorious sunset, I decide it’s worth it.
Darkness falls and I wander up the road to the Moonstone Beach Bar & Grill for dinner. It’s a bit expensive, unsurprisingly given its location, but one blowout meal on the PCH is OK I guess, so I splash the cash. I have a good seafood pasta dish and an excellent J. Lohr Chardonnay to wash it down with. It’s a proper restaurant so I’m seated at my own table and there’s no chit-chat with anyone other than the waiter, but I’m OK as I dine and reflect back on the day.
Back at the hotel, it’s pitch black and I sit on the balcony again just listening to the Pacific crashing into the rocks on the beach – and it really is very loud, I’m a bit taken aback. I almost need earplugs outside and decide that I can’t sleep with the windows open because it’s too loud. I retire for the night.
Apart from the early stress at the outset of the day with the car tyre, now finally sorted out, I conclude whilst lying in bed that I’ve just experienced one of the best, most amazing, mind-blowing days of my life.