Driving the Pacific Coast Highway, Big Sur and Pismo Beach

Our next leg of the trip was a few hours on the road, which might have been a crappy task had that drive not been one on the prettiest, most scenic drives in the world — California State Route 1, or the Pacific Coast Highway as its known, through Big Sur on California’s Central Coast.

Also one of the scariest drives. I didn’t realize we would basically be driving along huge drop offs with no guardrail. We left from Monterey in the morning and headed south. The road was inland, with trees and houses along both sides, until suddenly it opened up, with green mountains rising above us on the left and the pretty blue Pacific below us on the right. Wow. It was one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. In fact, I couldn’t stop saying “It’s so beautiful!” because it was just mind-blowing how gorgeous it is out there.

Pacific Coast Highway, Big Sur, California


Pacific Coast Highway, Big Sur, California

Our first stop was only about 20 minutes from Monterey. It was supposed to be the Bixby Bridge, but I got excited when I thought I saw it and yelled “Pull over!!” only to find out it was actually another, less exciting bridge (the Rocky Creek Bridge).

Pacific Coast Highway, Big Sur, California

We took a selfie and moved on, to the real Bixby Creek Bridge a few miles down the road. It is a beautiful curved arch bridge, built in 1932 to connect the Big Sur region with the rest of civilization when winters made an inland road impassable. It’s pretty amazing to think it was built so long ago (and under budget at $199,000 and change, according to Wikipedia!). It was done in concrete to mimic the colors of the landscape and does a good job. It’s a gorgeous bridge!

Bixby Bridge, Pacific Coast Highway, Big Sur, California

Bixby Bridge, Pacific Coast Highway, Big Sur, California

We savored the view before heading on to our next stop: Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, home of McWay Falls and named for a pioneer woman who made Big Sur home.

A lot of people parked on the road across from the park entrance, but we paid our $10 to the state and parked in the lot. It was a short five-minute walk down to the main attraction of the park, McWay Falls, a beautiful 80-foot waterfall that descends from the cliffs down onto the white sands of the inaccessible beach below. The water in the cove is the prettiest of blues — a stunning light aqua.

McWay Falls, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Pacific Coast Highway, Big Sur, California

McWay Falls, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Pacific Coast Highway, Big Sur, California

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Pacific Coast Highway, Big Sur, California

Also along the trail is the Waterfall House, or whats left of it (spoiler: not much). It belonged to Helen Hooper Brown, who befriended Julia Pfeiffer Burns. The house was demolished after the land became a state park in the 1960s, but in its heyday, it must have had the most magnificent views. Just imagine sitting outside each morning with a cup of coffee and taking in the view of the waterfall, the mighty Pacific and the fabulous coastline. I mean, really.

Waterfall House, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Pacific Coast Highway, Big Sur, California

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Pacific Coast Highway, Big Sur, California

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Pacific Coast Highway, Big Sur, California
I took the wheel when we got back on the road — and gripped it for dear life for the next hour as we wove through the scariest of hairpin turns and around the sides of the mountains. I was finally able to breathe when the terrain flattened! We stopped briefly at one more turnoff before heading to Pismo Beach.

Pacific Coast Highway, Big Sur, California

Pacific Coast Highway, Big Sur, California

IMG_1917
^Kissing squirrels. This picture is cute but don’t be fooled — they were obnoxious. I leaned over to clean something off and looked up to see one only a FOOT from my head, just staring at me.

We got into Pismo Beach just in time for our 4pm reservation for… riding ATVs on the amazing sand dunes! We rented two semi-automatic ATVs from BJ’s ATV Rentals. We headed down to the beach where we were picked up by staff and taken to the start of the Oceano State Vehicular Recreation Area.

Admittedly, I chose this activity because I knew Joel would love it, but wasn’t so keen on it myself. I’m not exactly a risk-taker and have never driven an ATV, let alone anything I had to change gears in. It took me a couple of hundred feet to stop jerking the ATV by accelerating too hard and followed by letting go of the gas. Luckily it took a few minutes to get to the dunes, and we could only go 15 mph on the way there, so I had time to adjust.

ATVs on Oceano Dunes, Pismo Beach, California

When we got to the dunes themselves… WOW. I mean, these ain’t no east cast sand dunes. I’m talking like 80-foot drops. We were like little ants in these dunes! They were massive — on a scale I’ve never ever seen before. It was amazing to ride up high and see the mountains in the distance and Pacific Ocean at the same time. Apparently the strong winds shape the dunes into the massive slopes. Its hard to portray in these pictures just how huge the dunes are!

ATVs on Oceano Dunes, Pismo Beach, California
^Enjoying the view of the mountains and ocean… and check out that sand dune bowl!
ATVs on Oceano Dunes, Pismo Beach, California

After about 30 minutes of riding around at 5 mph for fear of death, maiming, breaking the ATV or all of the above, Joel told me to follow him up the side of a large dune. I started to go, then stopped, got off, and asked him to ride it up for me. Well, he said no. And told me I needed to learn how to shift out of first gear and do it my own damn self.

Apparently its actually easy to shift gears and I finally got it together and got over my fears of going too fast (although I still rode down the hills at about 10 mph because I was afraid of flipping over. Baby steps). The feeling was exhilarating — now I get why people love to ride “off-road” vehicles!!

We were there on a Tuesday afternoon and practically had the dunes to ourselves. There was just a handful of other people there.

ATVs on Oceano Dunes, Pismo Beach, California
^Joel doing donuts
ATVs on Oceano Dunes, Pismo Beach, California

We had an absolute blast on the dunes. After our two hours were up, we headed back in and returned the ATVs and gear. Our next stop was our hotel. I booked a Best Western Plus on the water and splurged for a full ocean-view room. Best $20 of my life! We checked in around 6:30 and went up to our room only to see the most magnificent sunset ever. We quickly poured ourselves glasses of wine and rushed out to the balcony to enjoy the view.

Sunset over the Pacific Ocean in Pismo Beach, California

Sunset over the Pacific Ocean in Pismo Beach, California

Sunset over the Pacific Ocean in Pismo Beach, California

The colors were gorgeous, and kept changing as the sun set.

Sunset over the Pacific Ocean in Pismo Beach, California
^This one is my favorite. A 20×30 print is now hanging in our foyer.

Sunset over the Pacific Ocean in Pismo Beach, California

The sunrise was a fitting end to the day — one of my favorite ever!

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