My mom and I duck through a hole in the barbed wire fence, ignoring the gate down the road, and make a beeline through the yellow coastal grass.
A utility worker, the only other person in sight, notes the way I’m using my phone as a compass.
“Geocaching?” he surmises. “I didn’t know there was one around here!”
“Yup,” we confirm, grateful we don’t have to explain ourselves.
After we find the White Rocks cache, I take off my shoes and set off down the nearby beach, letting the waves lap at my feet. At its end, we climb onto the rocky bluff where the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse stands watch. The beach we just walked along stretches into the distance, smooth and brown and totally empty.
“I can’t believe no one’s here!” I say for what feels like the tenth time.
When we return to the car, we discover why. A sign near the gate reads “Stay on designated paths” and, in red, “Beach permanently closed for elephant seal activity”. Oops.
But it turns out breaking the rules is a nice respite from all the Big Sur cliches. The rugged, winding stretch of Highway 1 that runs between San Simeon and Monterey offers only a limited number of stops, and on this quick drive through we don’t make much effort to get off the beaten path. Fortunately, the highlights are popular for a reason.
Should you choose to walk in the same well-worn footsteps, here are our chosen stops, with more mentioned in the Resources section below.
1. Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery
Walk along the boardwalk above the beach and watch as hundreds of these massive seals scoot, snort, scratch, and spar.
2. McWay Falls
Geocache: Gem of Big Sur (Virtual Cache)
Look down onto a 50 foot waterfall spilling onto the beach and take in the sweeping view from the foundations of Julia Pfeiffer Burns’s picturesquely placed Waterfall Home. Yes, the water really is that color.
3. Nepenthe Restaurant
Geocache: None, we were just hungry.
Grab lunch at this ocean-front, bohemian restaurant or at Kevah Cafe downstairs. As we take in the view, we muse about life and dream about staying at the nearby Post Ranch Inn.
4. Pfeiffer Beach
Geocache: Pfieffer Purple Sand (Earth Cache)
Drive down narrow Sycamore Canyon Road to walk along the purple sands of this cove. We head to the end of the beach, far from the partying crowd, where we nap and read. As I clamber around the rocks, a rogue wave soaks the entire right half of my body and I drive away with seawater sloshing in my ear.
5. This Albino Redwood Behind Fernwood Resort
Geocache: Albino Sempervirens
Ok, so perhaps this isn’t a “highlight”, but it is one of only 17 documented cases of albinism in redwoods. This stunted little guy has to live off a host tree to survive, but he seems to be hanging in there.
6. Bixby Creek Bridge
Geocache: Bixby Bridge
This picturesque bridge is considered the northern gateway of the heart of Big Sur. Mom takes out her selfie stick to document the occasion. I still can’t believe my mom has a selfie stick.
7. Garrapata State Park
Geocache: Gates 8, 9, or 10: Soberanes Point
There’s a sandy beach at the southern end of the park and popular Soberanos Point further north, but we pull off at random, rushing down a steep slope to the rocky shore to stand witness as the sun sinks beneath the horizon in a soft gradient of colors, truncating this list at 7.
It’s often difficult for me to stay on trail – there’s an elitist little explorer inside who constantly wants to go astray in pursuit of “unique” experiences and tucked-away reading spots. But there’s also a little tourist who enjoys the communion of sharing spectacular sights with others.
Geocaching helps resolve this dichotomy. Caches are often placed off-trail, outside the gaze of “muggles”, but they’re also an opportunity for the hider to make a connection with the seekers, sharing a secret. They offer the illusion of adventure while staying within the lines, and when I only have a couple hours to take in a popular stretch of highway that suits me just fine.
Classic highlights of Big Sur, from South to North
- Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery
Watch elephant seals fight, breed, or just wallow depending on the time of year.
- McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
$10 for parking, or find a pullout along Highway 1 and walk.
- Henry Miller Library
A piece of Big Sur artistic history that sometimes hosts live performances.
- Nepenthe Restaurant / Kevah Cafe
Oceanview dining without breaking the bank. Can have longs waits during peak season, but we were seated immediately.
- Post Ranch Inn
You can drool over the website at least…
- Big Sur Bakery
Pick up some baked goods or pizza.
- Pfeiffer Beach
2 miles down the one-lane Sycamore Canyon Road. $10 for parking.
- Bixby Creek Bridge
Pretend you’re in a car commercial.
- Garrapata State Park
Rocky shoreline and inland hikes
- Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Popular coastal hikes