California coastal touring in fall, winter; Big Sur to Morro Bay!

Bixby Bridge, circa 1932, is a fixture on the scenic Big Sur Coast.

McWay Cove in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is highly photographed.
Ragged Point Resort in Big Sur offers beautiful gardens.
Hearst Castle’s Casa Grande mansion is quite the place.
Sunsets are often spectacular at Morro Bay!
Horseback riders enjoy a sunny afternoon with Morro Rock and Bay in background.

Take a California coastal tour this fall, winter; Big Sur to Morro Bay!

With fall upon us and winter quickly approaching, too many people shelve their road trip, camping and resort travels until warmer weather arrives. My suggestion – think the California coast during these cooler days. The combination of warmer air off the ocean, frequent sunny days, reduced crowds and stunning scenery is enough to keep your travel juices flowing.

Start with Big Sur, lying along the rugged California coast just south of Monterey, a favorite destination for both families and romantics. Warmed by the Pacific, Big Sur offers rocky coastline, lovely resorts, secluded getaways, frequent sunny days, classic campgrounds and marvelous restaurants. Stunning photo ops lie around almost every turn on the iconic CA Hwy. 1.

The Spanish called it “El Sur Grande”, the Big South, for the miles of difficult to reach, unexplored and treacherous California coastline. Today, 90 miles of Big Sur extends from Monterey to San Simeon, home to Hearst Castle.  Though Mexico awarded several land grants in the early 1800s, it wasn’t soon settled. Eventually, a lively logging economy began to thrive, with timber shipped to San Francisco and south to Los Angeles. Highway 1 was completed in 1937, after 18 arduous years building this rugged and scenic highway, leading to today’s thriving tourist-driven economy.

Pretty and secluded campgrounds track south down the coast, from Andrew Molera State Park, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Lime Kiln State Park and Kirk Creek Campground, a Forest Service gem perched on the bluff overlooking the Pacific. Julia Pfeiffer Burns is a favorite, for seclusion, the stream that runs through the campground and nearby access to the Pacific coast.

For motels/resorts, many choices abound, from expensive to very pricey. Ragged Point Inn, high on a bluff above the ocean, is a favorite, offering both lodging and a fine restaurant. Seasonally, Elephant seals can be seen at Ano Neuvo State Park (reservations required) and at the six-mile long Piedras Blancas rookery.

Don’t overlook Pinnacles National Park, which can be visited on the way to the coast. Pinnacles leaps up from the Gabilan Mountains 30 miles south of Hollister, CA, the rugged remains of an ancient volcano – a volcano located 160 miles south, near Los Angeles!  Pinnacles sits on the San Andreas Fault and is moving a few inches north each year, distancing itself from the mother volcano!

Visitors will find a stunning landscape of rugged spines, deep canyons, eerie talus caves, verdant foliage, streams and wildlife from deer, wild turkeys and bobcats, to the majestic California Condor with wingspans up to seven feet.   Take flashlights or headlamps, for the park’s talus caves are perfect for family exploration.  Pinnacles has a sunny campground; motels are found in Hollister to the north, and King City, south.

Just south of Big Sur lies San Simeon and Hearst Castle, rising regally in the hills overlooking the ocean and Santa Lucia Mountains.  This huge estate owes its origin to the dramatic profits of the Hearst newspaper and publishing business in the 1800s and early 1900s.  George Hearst initially acquired  40,000 acres in 1865, while son William Randolph Hearst enlarged the estate to 250,000 acres and constructed a huge and palatial home of 165 rooms, spectacular grounds and world-class art.

The main house, Casa Grande, offers 60,000 square feet of grandeur.  With 56 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms, a theatre, indoor and outdoor pools and a 127 acre estate with tennis courts, airfield and private zoo complete with zebras, it was one of the largest and most extreme private homes in the United States.

Hearst’s art collection rivals many of the world’s top museums; it, and the surrounding gardens make the visit well worth the trip to see it.  Now a state park, fees do apply and reservations are a must, so see the Hearst Castle web site before planning your trip to this memorable destination.

The lovely coastal towns of San Simeon, Cambria, Cayucos and Morro Bay lie just south of Hearst Castle.  Morro Rock stands as a huge sentinel (many describing it as the Gibraltar of the Pacific coast), anchoring the central California coast to ancient mariners.

Morro Bay is a pretty town with just over 10,000 residents and is named after Morro Rock, the huge granite volcanic dome off shore. Featuring an active harbor and fishing industry, oysters, halibut and salmon remain mainstays on local plates.  Surrounding vineyards and harbor-view restaurants and beautiful beaches make this quaint city one to remember.

Morro Rock was once surrounded by water; during World War II, a US Navy base was constructed on its north side so that sailors could practice landing craft skills.  While Morro Rock can be reached on foot, today it is off-limits to visitors, as a home to protected peregrine falcons.

Nearby are some of California’s nicest state parks including Montana de Oro State Park and Morro Bay State Park to the south, Morro Strand Park to the north – offering camping and nearby beach access.
All these seaside parks can get crowded on weekends, so reserve a campsite well in advance; the city offers an assortment of motels and B&Bs.

For more information: Big Sur coast, bigsurcalifornia.org; Camping can be booked through recreation.gov;  Friends of the Elephant Seal, elephantseal.org, Hearst Castle, hearstcastle.org; Morro Bay, morrobay.org; Pinnacles National Park: nps.gov/pinn.

Reach Tim at tviall@msn.com, or follow at blogs.esanjoaquin.com/valley travel. Happy travels in the west.

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  • Blog Author

    Tim Viall

    Viall is a local travel writer who retired in 2012 after 10 years as executive director of Stockton, CA's, Emergency Food Bank and six years with the Downtown Stockton Alliance. Previously, a 21-year career in daily newspapers helped shape his ... Read Full
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