North America 2013: Highway 1 Revisited

With my plans for a national parks tour dashed, and the situation looking unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, I had to make other plans. On the plus side I now had the opportunity to visit a number of other places on the West Coast, places I previously thought I wouldn’t have time for.

So, rather than heading inland a bit we made a beeline back West to the coast. I dropped my Irish hiking buddy off in San Francisco, and headed south to the old capital of Monterey.


Monterey was a curious mix; a very touristy small town centre, and otherwise a very relaxed beach-town feel. One of the big attractions is its world-famous aquarium and associated research institute, on my radar from my previous life in another marine research centre. To be honest, I found the aquarium amazing and incredibly well done, but definitely aimed at children.

Big Sur

Just South of Monterey is Big Sur, a coastal area with steep mountains of redwood forest, rising straight up from the ocean. I was planning on moving there next, but having left it to the last minute (a recurring theme) and with no camping gear I decided to stay on in Monterey and just drive down to Big Sur for day trips.

The first day was actually somewhat of a let-down. I began by taking the much-hyped 17-mile drive; basically a gated-commune of golf courses and beaches just outside Monterey. You pay to drive around, and occasionally take photos through the bus-tour crowds while Kenny Rogers plays on some oblivious gentleman’s iPad. Avoid; if you drive just a little further you get much better views, for free. Then it was lunch-time, deep in Big Sur at the also over-hyped and even more over-priced Nepenthe (I was at least prepared for the cost). I did at least manage a short walk, up through redwoods to a pleasant but unremarkable view. The second day started much more promisingly at the iconic McWay Falls, the only coastal waterfall in California. After that I went on a steep hike up the mountains behind it, with a rewarding view at the summit dropping right down to the water.

As an aside1: I’ve been a fan of the author Jack Kerouac, and it seemed appropriate to read more while road-tripping. Fittingly, there’s even one called Big Sur, so that was night-time reading for this part of the journey. It is, however… rather dark, I warn you! Gone is the carefree and foot-loose innocence, and all that’s left is a descent into alcoholism and depression as he struggles with fame and worries he’s losing his mind. It put a bit more of a sombre mood on this leg than I was planning on.

Highway 1

Then it was time to leave Monterey for good, one last time through Big Sur and keep going down that amazing coastline to LA again. It is a single-lane highway but obviously very popular, and steering the enormous truck I was driving around blind corners knowing how many cycle tourers were around got quite nerve-wracking.

Yet again though I realised how charmed I’d been with the weather: a heavy fog completely blanketed the ocean all morning, making for a great change in atmosphere as I drove down, but probably less appealing for anyone on their first trip. Even the McWay Falls were completely obscured as I drove past, thanking my luck for the perfect weather I’d had the previous 2 days as I did so!

Once the views have eased off a little, your next stop is likely to be Hearst Castle. This place is hard to describe: from the reception building you are escorted up to the castle itself by coach. It’s a bizarre mix of old and new; built within the last century, but with most of the interior coming from the antiques collection of (the late) William Hearst. He even had a private zoo at the time; I saw a herd of zebras, still roaming around, as I was leaving!

I stopped for a couple of nights in San Luis Obispo. It was a small town, pleasant to wander without making undue demands, and in my case a nice communal hostel to stay in.

I made another stop in Santa Barbara. Many people talk about how great it is, and I suspect it would be a fantastic place to live. As it was, I drove in through the opulent strip, stayed in a motel on the beach which turned out to be fairly unexciting, and left the next morning rather underwhelmed. The one saving grace was Dan linking me up with a good friend of his, who was kind enough to meet up and show me a few of the watering holes, giving me some inkling of life in the area. Perhaps next time!

  1. As another aside, I’ve started to use affiliate links. Please feel free to buy any of these books; I get a few cents to spend on more books, at no cost to you. And you get some classic books, in this case. ↩︎

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