Highway 1 is one of the best-maintained roads in the world,
but its sharp curves and steep hills preclude high-speed driving.
The stretch of coast between the southernmost part of the
Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is a protected area
that extends north to Marin. People strolling along the beach
or bluffs generally can count on seeing furry-faced otters
cracking shells for dinner, plump harbor seals lolling on
the rocks, and giant egrets waiting patiently for unsuspecting
fish to swim into range of their beaks.
To the south of Cambria in a town east of Buelton off Highway
1, is the middle mission of a chain of California missions
that reach up the coast from San Diego to Sonoma, north of
San Francisco Bay. Misión La Purísima Concepción De María
Santísima (Mission of the Immaculate Conception of Most Holy
Mary) occupies 1,928 acres, a mere fraction of its original
size. La Purisima was founded by Father Presidente Fermin
de Lasuén Dec. 8, 1787, and was the 11th of 21 Franciscan
Missions built in California. Today, the mission buildings
are actually four miles away from the original site. However,
the historical park occupies 300,000 acres of the original
In the early days of the mission, the Catholic Church baptized
thousands of Chumash Indians. Then on Dec. 21, 1812, an earthquake
destroyed several of the mission buildings and the aftershocks
left the mission complex beyond repair. Father Mariano Payeras,
then in charge of the mission, rebuilt it four miles northwest
in “La Cañada de los Berros,” the Canyon of the Watercress.
The new location allowed a safer access to one of California’s
main north-south travel routes, El Camino Real. Visitors to
the mission can experience mission life first hand. From grinding
corn with a mano on a metate to tending to the gardens, or
even weaving wool into cloth, visitors can learn to appreciate
how tough life was for the early missionaries.
If living like the Chumash Indian’s isn’t your cup of tea,
there is a picnic area and 25 miles of hiking trails surrounding
the mission grounds.
North on Highway 1 is the town of Big Sur, flanked on one
side by the majestic Santa Lucia Mountains and on the other
by the rocky Pacific Coast. Historically, the name Big Sur
was derived from that unexplored and unmapped wilderness area
that lies along the coast south of Monterey. It was simply
called El Sur Grande, The Big South. Today, Big Sur refers
to that 90-mile stretch of rugged and awesomely beautiful
coastline between Carmel to the north and San Simeon (Hearst
Castle) to the south.
Two Mexican land grants awarded in the 1830s included most
of the area north of the Big Sur Valley. However, neither
grantee settled on the land. It wasn’t until the last decades
of the 19th century that the first permanent settlers arrived
in Big Sur, hardy pioneers who staked out homesteads along
the rugged coast. At the turn of the 20th century, Big Sur
actually sustained a larger population than it does today.
A vigorous redwood lumber industry provided livelihoods for
many. The Old Coast Trail, which had been the only link between
homesteads, was still little more than a wagon trail. Steamers
transported heavy goods and supplies and harbored at Notley’s
Landing, Partington Cove, and the mouth of the Little Sur
River. Electricity did not arrive on this part of the central
California coast until the early 1950s, and it still does
not extend the length of the coast or into the more remote
Things to do
The climate along the central coast is mild and the summers
are long. In addition to simply experiencing the breathtaking
coastline, wine tasting is a popular activity: award winning
wineries are abundant and wine tasting is generally free and
often includes a guided tour of the facilities. Even with
lunch and snacks, a winetasting trip is generally inexpensive,
unless the tastors get carried away and start to stock a personal
wine cellar. Popular vineyards include the Sanford Winery
(950 McMurray Rd.) in Buelton, Monterey Wine Co. ( Alvarado
St.) in Monterey, and Chateau Julien Winery (8940 Carmel Valley
Rd.) in Carmel.
Another inexpensive treat ($15-30) is soaking in mineral
springs at Sycamore Mineral Spas located in Avila Valley,
southwest of San Luis Obispo. For years, people have traveled
to the spa to take its “curative” waters for ailments like
asthma and arthritis.
If that sounds a little too quiet, the more adventurous
might try some aerial acrobatics--hang gliding off the dunes
overlooking spectacular Monterey Bay. For a view—and a ride—of
your life, gliding lessons and information are available from
Western Hang Gliders.
Hitting the surf is another way to get your adrenaline rush.
There are popular surfing spots in Santa Cruz and Carmel.
Wind surf in San Simeon by the Hearst Castle, and you might
catch a glimpse of the elephant seals. Rentals are available
at O’Neill’s in Santa Cruz and On the Beach Surf Shop in Monterey.
Many beaches also offer bike paths and bicycles. You can
rent bikes from Adventures by the Sea and other shops along
the coastal recreation trail in Monterey and Pacific Grove.
One of the most scenic bike paths begins at the Pacific Grove
Gate of the Pebble Beach 17-Mile Drive, which follows the
shoreline to Bird Rock.
Lovers Point Beach in Pacific Grove is a popular spot for
picnicking, swimming, and diving. Just north, Asilomar Beach
is great for surfing, strolling, tidepooling, and watching
gorgeous sunsets. Carmel Beach, at the end of Ocean Avenue
in Carmel, is known for its cypress trees, fine white sand
and spectacular views, and the graceful arc of Carmel River
Beach to the south, less crowded, is often the repository
of fascinating shapes in driftwood. Both Garrapata State Beach
and Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur are great for hiking and retreating.
The array of activities along the central coast are a feast
to the senses. Whether you’re looking for a little rest and
relaxation or an adrenaline rush adventure, the central coast
of California has got it all.