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My Guide to Highway 1

August 9, 2016

 

When I say Highway 1, what I really mean is Highway 1 between Big Sur and San Luis Obispo in California.  This is an incredibly popular vacation spot for Californians and further away tourists alike, and for good reason too. California is lucky to have all sorts of landscapes from deserts to redwood covered mountains. But the rugged coast of Big Sur down to San Luis Obispo is great for hiking and camping or just to drive and take in the fabulous views. I haven't camped in Big Sur but I did live in a rustic cabin atop a ridge in San Simeon for six months and I think that counts.  Although I don't have camping or hiking spot recommendations, I can tell you where to eat and what to see.  

 

 

A Note On Food:

Let's get this out of the way in the beginning: food along Highway 1 is expensive. Sometimes it's good, but a lot of the time it's not.  A great alternative to restaurants is to pack a picnic. If you're driving Big Sur south, stop at the Safeway in Carmel-By-The-Sea and pick up some cheap food. There are countless beautiful pullouts along Highway 1 to stop and eat while looking out at the sea.   If restaurants are your thing, those are available, too.  I haven't been to many restaurants along Highway 1, after all I was only paid $35 a day. The following is a list of restaurants that I have eaten at and what I think of them. There are countless other restaurants in Cambria, Morro Bay and San Luis Obispo, but those can be accessed by a quick google search. There are some more restaurants in Big Sur, but those are pricey and can also be viewed on google.  Here we go...

 

Big Sur:

Coast Gallery and Cafe - no website, check trip adviser for more reviews

Good food, good views. Mainly sandwiches, wraps, and coffee drinks.  You can sit outside and view the ocean or sit inside during foggy days.  There's an art gallery attached to the cafe which is great fun to look around. Parking is a little difficult. There is a lot for a small amount of cars and others can park in limited pullouts across the highway. Be careful though! When approaching from the south, the cafe is located on a curve and can be hard to see, which doesn't give much time to slow down enough to park. It's much easier when approaching from the north. 

 

Lucia Lodge Restaurant 

Pricey, okay food. Sandwiches, salads, fish and chips can be found here. Service can be slow depending on how busy it is. You can sit inside or outside under an umbrella and take in the view. There is a parking lot and a large pullout across the highway. Attached to the restaurant is a small shop to by chips and a soda and the like.  There are restrooms, but beware of the long lines!!

 

Ragged Point

I love Ragged Point. I looked forward to Ragged Point each time myself and another intern drove from Andrew Molera to San Simeon. This is an order at the counter kind of place with plenty of tables, all located outside. You can get burgers, sandwiches, fries, etc here but the onion rings and jalapeno poppers are really where it's at. There is an ice cream counter attached, cash only and not open as often as the main counter.  There is an indoor restaurant at Ragged Point, too, but I have never eaten there. If I recall, the menu looked expensive. In the restaurant is a coffee counter where you can also grab a slice of cake. I've never indulged there either.  There are restrooms here with more stalls than at Lucia and also a store where you can buy souvenirs or small snacks and drinks. Ragged Point also has a steep hiking trail that will get you to the beach. The one time I decided to hike it, a wedding blocked off the trail heads and I never returned to hike it. Be aware that someone's happy day may get in the way of yours and have a back up plan (I hiked part of the Cruickshank Trail which is about 20 minutes north of Ragged Point and begins with some great switchbacks). 

 

Besides eating, there is lots to do in Big Sur. If you want to hike, I'm sure you'll find countless blog posts on the best trails. If you're intending just to drive and stop occasionally, Bixby Bridge and McWay Falls are nice to look at. However, everyone else agrees and you will find yourself stuck behind some slow drivers, avoiding doors randomly opened by parked cars, and people stepping out onto the highway.  There are very many pullouts all along Highway 1 and I can't recommend ones that are better than others. Just drive along and safely pull into one when you've decided you'd like to admire the coast. Just please, please pull over and admire off the highway, not while driving along.  Highway 1, despite all its beauty, is an incredibly dangerous and sometimes deadly road. Drivers: keep your eyes on the road and pull over when you'd like a look. Don't pass unless in designated areas with high visibility and allow others to pass you if you're going well below the speed limit.  Highway 1 is 55 mph unless otherwise marked. Many curves do not have a posted speed. Please take the curves as you see fit and be sure not to cross over the dividing line. Head on collisions do occur and do not end well. To sum up: be safe and remember this is still a highway. 

And remember, there aren't many toilets along Highway 1. Places near Andrew Molera have toilets, as do the restaurants you may come across on your drive, but there are no public restrooms until Lucia, about an hour south from Andrew Molera. The next restrooms are about half an hour from Lucia at Gorda, and then 20 minutes south at Ragged Point. The next public restroom is in Cambria.  However, if you are just absolutely bursting, what's stopping you from just finding a nice secluded area? I found this (pictured right) great spot behind a patch of trees next to a large pullout directly across from the Cruickshank Trail.

 

 

 

San Simeon:

The town of San Simeon is basically a line of strip malls on either side of the highway. There are some restaurants here, but I have never eaten at them. The Motel 6 offers live music on Saturday nights.  San Simeon is also home to Hearst Castle (more on that later...) which does have two dining areas. Both are ridiculously over priced and I urge you to eat elsewhere or pack your own food instead (I mean, $7 for a single slice of pizza? Come on!). Sebastian's is a historic place right near the San Simeon pier. I ventured in once because it is also attached to a post office.  If I recall correctly, it was a french fries, burger, sandwich type of place with picnic tables outside and limited seating inside. I believe Sebastian's also has a wine tasting counter. Because, you know, what could be safer than drinking some wine before driving the curving roads of Highway 1? Sebastian's is also a historic building (built some time in the 1800's) but I can't recall the specific reason why it is historic other than it's sort of old. Maybe you can tell me if you ever visit.

 

 

Piedras Blancas Light Station

This place is really cool. It is not open to the public despite being on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land.  However, you can book a tour through the website. I highly recommend this over visiting Hearst Castle because of the legitimate history, the sounds of the seals, and you're rather close to the ocean. But please, oh please, do not block the gate, try to follow drivers through the gate, or randomly press buttons on the key pad at the gate. Only authorized vehicles can drive through the gate. 

 

 

Elephant Seals

Visit the elephant seals. It's great and it's free. Watch for drivers as you drive past, pull into, or pull out of the main vista parking lot. It can get hectic in the summer and I've had some close calls with bad drivers who do not pay attention. Here's my insider's tip to visiting the elephant seals: park in the other lot! The lot is just north of the main lot and is paved and usually entirely empty while the main lot is gravel and just a mess of cars and people. There is a walkway that connects both lots, which you'll want to walk regardless of where you park.

 

 

Hearst Castle

Hearst Castle is...interesting. It's a castle full of historical knickknacks that some rich guy put together. The castle itself is not historical, just what's in and around it is. Tours generally last an hour and the views from the top are quite cool if there isn't any fog or smoke from a nearby wildfire. After your tour, you can check out a short film that only sort of explains who William Randolph Hearst was and why he decided to build a castle in San Simeon. I don't really understand the appeal, to be quite honest. There are far more things, many of them free, to check out when visiting this area of Highway 1. The best part of the experience is the massive, surprisingly inexpensive gift shop and the sheer number of women's restrooms. If you do decide to visit the castle, here are some tips: go early in the morning during the week to avoid crowds, book in advance, use the restroom prior to boarding the bus as there are no restrooms at the castle, eat before or after as you are not allowed to eat at the castle and the food in the visitor's center is overpriced to the extreme, and wear plenty of sunblock and bring a hat. The state park has now allowed visitors to explore the outside gardens after their tour has concluded for as long as they desire until closing. This gives you plenty of time to visit each and every statue. And remember - don't buy the photo they take of you in front of the green screen prior to you boarding the bus. You can view the image online for free and just take a screen grab of the image instead of spending $15 or $20.  And yes, the castle is superimposed behind you, so remember to strike a fabulous pose. 

 

Zebras - no website because zebras don't usually have websites

Not only was Hearst Castle a strange museum-like hangout for actors such as Charlie Chaplin, it was also somewhat of a zoo. Almost all the animals were taken to legitimate zoos at some point except for one species. The zebras are still managed by Hearst Ranch and can be seen occasionally near the San Simeon motel strip on the east side of the highway by the large pullout.  They appear almost everyday during the summer months, especially in July. 

 

Cambria:

 

I love Cambria. It's a small town but really great. Cambria's main street is split into two sections - north and south. Both sides have great window shopping and places to buy silly t-shirts and knickknacks. I have eaten at only four places in Cambria, but there are many more eateries in this town that I'm sure are decent. Nitwit Ridge is supposedly the historic landmark in the town and you'll see a few signs around town directing you to it. Don't bother. I got quite lost when trying to find it, and when I did, it was just some creepy, rundown house that some guy built essentially out of trash he found on the beach. You can sign up to take a tour of the place, but by the look of the construction, I really wouldn't recommend setting one foot in that place.

 

Shell Gas Station - no website because it's a gas station

You may be wondering why I am listing a gas station as somewhere to eat. Well I'll tell you why: after driving for several hours, both you and your vehicle running on E, you will want to stop at this Shell. Yes, the gas is a little expensive - the price isn't even listed until you're at the pump. But the next gas is in Morro Bay if heading south or Carmel-By-The-Sea if heading north. Yes, Ragged Point and Gorda both have gas stations, as do some areas in Big Sur near Andrew Molera and Pfeiffer. But this gas is far more expensive than the gas in Cambria, let alone in Morro Bay. You really don't want to be caught out and have to spend roughly $6 for a gallon of gas in Gorda.  NPR even wrote an article about it... Besides the first reasonably priced gas, this Shell has pretty great bathrooms, they even advertise this with a sandwich board out front! These are the type of restrooms that have no stalls, and only one person is allowed in at a time.  This can make wait times long if you're there at peak hours, but they really are the cleanest restrooms around.  Now on to the food... This gas station is like any other, always stocked with plenty of chips, sodas, etc. But this gas station also has that delicious, hot, fried food that you don't know how long has been sitting there, but you'll eat it anyway. Besides that, they have incredibly cheap hot dogs. I don't eat those, but I'm told they're good for how cheap they are. They also have nachos, pastries, and plenty of ice cream. If you're staying somewhere with a microwave, they also have burritos in the refrigerated section and they're surprisingly delicious.  The service is good and fast with always friendly people.  They're open from 6am until midnight - longer than any other place in Cambria. This is really the place to go if you need to fill up, take a bathroom break, and eat a cheap, quick snack. But beware! This place can get crazy busy during the summer and you may find yourself waiting in line with a bunch of confusing, terrible drivers. If that's the case and you just need some gas, head down the road to the other end of Cambria to the Chevron which doesn't have restrooms or good food, but does have an empty gas station where you won't have to wait in line.

 

Main Street Grill

This is an excellent place that I only discovered towards the end of my internship, even though it's directly next to the Shell gas station. First things first: cash only. This is the type of place where you order at the counter, wait to collect your food, and then sit at one of the many tables inside or outside. This place is cheap, especially considering it's nestled in a touristy town. They also have some of the most ridiculous fries around. This is a good place for vegetarians and meat eaters alike as they have both a loaded veggie sandwich and a veggie burger as well as plenty of other burger and chicken options. It's probably not the best place if you're gluten free, but at least you could have some piping hot delicious french fries. Oh and did I mention? The portions are huge.

 

Medusa's  

If you're craving Mexican while driving Highway 1, this is a pretty great place to go. They're burritos are huge, every order comes with tortilla chips, and they have a bunch of different salsas. And yes, the hottest one really is quite hot. This is an excellent place for vegetarians because besides having several types of beans, including lard-free refried, they also have tofu! You can eat in this place, but seating is incredibly limited. I have always gotten my food to go, driven to a pullout just north of San Simeon, and eaten my burrito and almost too spicy salsa while watching the sunset. The only downside to this place is the waiting. The people are great - always friendly and helpful - but I once waited half an hour for a burrito. If planning on taking away your food, call ahead. The prices are also pretty good and about average for a burrito. Not in the mood for Mexican? Don't worry, they also have pancakes.

 

Mojo's Village Bean

I spent far too much time at Mojo's over the course of my internship. This place is the greatest. Where to even begin... First of all, they have free wifi and several tables to sit at. Considering I had no internet access up at the cabin and libraries are closed on Sundays, this became the go-to spot to check email, browse Facebook, and check up on job postings on Sundays. Mojo's has the best ice cream around. I'm not exaggerating. There is another ice cream place in Cambria, close to the Shell, but it's pretty lame compared to this. Motor Oil is the most incredible ice cream flavor I've ever had the privileged of trying. It's chocolaty, fudgey, and has a hint of Kuala.   Besides the ice cream, this place has great coffee drinks. The greatest thing about Mojo's is their alternative milk choices, all at no extra cost! Think soy is your only option? Think again and try almond or coconut with your latte instead. On Fridays through Sundays, you can add boba to your drinks. Mojo's also has sandwiches, bagels, and pastries. I've only ever had a bagel with cream cheese, but I always eyed their pastries and cookies.  Each time I went in there, which was a lot, they had a gluten free and a vegan pastry.  The sandwiches, although they sound pretty great, were rather expensive, so I usually just stuck to the bagels. Mojo's also has a loyalty program where you get a discount each time you spend $10. The people are nice, the music is great, and this is a place to check out when in Cambria. The only downside? No bathrooms.

 

Harmony

Harmony has a population of 18. It also has two stores and a post office. The first store has some beautiful glass blown art and the other has some lovely pottery.  The glass blowing store has some really great t-shirts so you can advertise this charming town wherever you go. Although tiny with no food, Harmony is definitely worth the visit. 

 

 

Cayucos

This is an incredibly small, yet charming, seaside town between Cambria and Morro Bay. I have only explored the town a couple of times, but I did notice that they have plenty of restaurants. I have only ever ventured into one food establishment: Brown Butter Cookie Co. They're expensive, but they are good. You could even just go in for free samples and leave without buying anything if you're the kind of person who doesn't feel guilty about that kind of thing. They do have two gluten free options but I don't believe they had any vegan options last time I was there. Besides the cookies, Cayucos is home to several bars, breakfast places, and cafes. I do recommend taking some time to walk around this quaint town if you're in the area.

 

Morro Bay

Morro Bay is one of my all time favorite towns. It's larger than any of the other towns I've mentioned thus far, but it's quite a bit smaller than San Luis Obispo. There are a few areas to check out in Morro Bay: the Rock, the Embarcadero, and the downtown area.  The Rock is just really cool. You'll be able to see it as you approach from the north and you can now drive right up to it and park just below it. The Rock is used as a nesting area for Peregrine Falcons, so keep your eyes peeled towards the sky. Sea otters are often seen in the bay right next to the Rock and are incredibly fun to watch. On the other side of the Rock is a lovely beach where you can watch surfers and wading birds. It stretches quite a while and is a great place for a stroll. You can also walk almost all the way around the Rock and you'll be able to do some nice bird watching there. The Embarcadero is a bunch of shops and restaurants along the water front. There are some really great touristy shops with excellent t-shirts and other gifts, but there are a few shops with actually nice things in them.  One such store is rather small, but full of lovely bowls and other gifts made of wood. Another store is a garden and knickknack store which is pretty overpriced but has some really nice things in. It's a great place to walk around, even if you intend not to buy anything.  When walking around, be sure to check out the top floor of the multistory shopping building to visit the Morro Bay Audubon Society. The other downtown area is walking distance from the Embarcadero and also have many eateries and other nice stores including a record store and several thrift stores. I'm sure there are plenty of nice places to eat throughout Morro Bay, but the one I will recommend is the Libertine. This is a bar that has not been crowded with tourists the two times I have been there. They're about an average price for upscale bar food with a fantastic grilled cheese with tomato and avocado or mac and cheese. But their french fries are really the thing that attracts me. For around $7, you can get a mountain of thinly cut, perfectly crunchy french fries smothered in garlic and parmesan. Absolutely delicious and enough for probably three or four people. Although I didn't drink while I was there, they do have some delicious sounding beers, ales, and mixed drinks. The other great thing about the Libertine is the classic rock music played on vinyl. Definitely stop here if you want a meal away from the tourist crowds at lunch time.

 

San Luis Obispo

I rather enjoy San Luis Obispo. This is a small inland city with a popular college, making the downtown a really nice area. Besides the famous Madonna Inn, which is always worth a visit, there are several downtown streets that are lovely to walk up and down and browse the shops, including a nice record shop and a great place named Fanny Wrappers. When parking in the downtown area, avoid parking meters. There are three garages that you can park in which do not charge for the first hour. Every hour after is only $1. The alternative is to park slightly farther away and walk. Right in the downtown is also an old mission that you can visit. San Luis Obispo is also home to a Trader Joe's, Target, Whole Foods, and several other department and drug stores. The downtown is full of nice eateries, such as a California Pizza Kitchen as well as independent restaurants, but there are only two places I will mention, one in the downtown area and one right close to where Highway 1 meets San Luis Obispo.

 

The Palm Theater

This is a great movie theater. It's located across from a parking structure and plays independent movies. They play three movies at a time, about three times a day. Tickets are cheap but the popcorn is even cheaper - a small is only $1! It's a great little movie theater and should be supported. 

 

SLODOCO

This is what happens when hipsters get a hold of a donut shop.  Here you will find all sorts of donuts, from Thai iced tea, to breakfast cereal, to regular chocolate. The great thing about this place is the free internet, many outlets, and a great number of places to sit. Unlike many donut shops, they also have a restroom.  This place also holds events, so check their website because you might be there for a movie night. They also have vegan donuts on occasion. The best part, however, is they are open 24 hours!  

 

 

To sum up: This area of Highway 1 is a fantastic place to visit. Be sure to drive carefully, enjoy the views, visit some elephant seals, and stroll through some lovely towns. 

 

 

 

 

 

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