The rugged Big Sur coastline below the Esalen Institute
The rugged Big Sur coastline below the Esalen Institute (MICHAEL TROUTMAN/

TALK ABOUT YOUR dharma bums. Jack Kerouac came to Big Sur in 1962 and went slightly crazy, feeling awe and terror rather than joy in the spectacular landscape. And yet it also sparked his creative flow.

There's no doubt that Big Sur can cause strong emotions in those who visit. The endless blue of the Pacific, the eerie mists, the breathtaking sweep of the Santa Lucia Mountains - it's almost too magnificent to be real. And yet it is.

"It's a deeply moving spot," said Stan Russell, executive director of the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce. "It's a vessel upon which you can project anything you want. People have a wide variety of different reactions to it. "

Poets, painters and philosophers have made their homes here; millions more pass by every year to be inspired by it. Travelers' polls consistently pick the Highway 1 scenic route as among the most beautiful in the world.

Some 3 to 4 million people travel on California's Highway 1 through Big Sur each year. Many stop momentarily for lunch or to snap a photo. Some stay for a day or a weekend. And, for some, Big Sur calls to them and they stay forever.

So it was for the Fassetts, who founded Nepenthe, the legendary restaurant perched on the Pacific; the Posts, whose cattle ranch eventually became the site of the pricey Post Ranch Inn; and for other families with names now reflected in the Big Sur landscape: Pfeiffer, Partington, Ross, Gamboa and more.

Logging, limestone and gold mining were the original industries there in the late1800s.


Rugged and inaccessible to all but the hardiest pioneers, most people traveled to Big Sur by boat if they came at all.

The south Monterey County coast was a mystery to most people, even locals, until Highway 1 was completed in 1937. But the area that lay between Carmel and Cambria would not enter the national consciousness until after World War II, thanks to the lifting of wartime gasoline rationing and the desire of newly prosperous families to hop in their Chevrolets and go sightseeing.

Crowds attend a summer music festival held at the Henry Miller Memorial Library
Crowds attend a summer music festival held at the Henry Miller Memorial Library (HERALD ARCHIVE/David Royal)

Bill and Lolly Fassett were among those who settled in Big Sur during the post-war period, a time when Big Sur was beginning to acquire a reputation as a Bohemian hangout.

"It was a mysterious choice," said their granddaughter, artist Erin Gafill, one of the members of the Fassett clan and a lifelong resident of Big Sur. "It was an under populated place without much real commercial opportunity. But they felt that this was where they wanted to stake their claim.

In 1947, the couple bought a cabin belonging to Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth which the couple had bought but never lived in and opened Nepenthe two years later, a place where visitors could stop in for an ambrosia burger and a drink, and locals could gather for spontaneous dancing and fellowship.

A performance at the Henry Miller Memorial Library
A performance at the Henry Miller Memorial Library (HERALD ARCHIVE/David Royal)

Colorful, controversial author Henry Miller was a frequent visitor at the Nepenthe bar, as were other literati and artists. Big Sur has become associated with such notables as photographer Edward Weston, gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and author Richard Brautigan, among others.

For some, Big Sur inspires great art; for others, it's a spiritual experience. And that's why Big Sur has also become known for its religious retreats, including the New Camaldoli Hermitage, the Esalen Institute, and Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, a Buddhist monastery.

Today, the drive from Carmel to Big Sur takes a little more than half an hour, a far cry from the three-day trek by wagon that it was in the 1880s.

Meditation pool with ocean view at the Post Ranch Inn
Meditation pool with ocean view at the Post Ranch Inn (MICHAEL TROUTMAN/
Wildflowers are due to put in a spectacular appearance this year, thanks to plentiful rainfall after several drought years.

In addition to the spectacular vistas of sky and ocean, tourists will see a few impressive man-made wonders. The arc of Bixby Bridge, built in 1933, is instantly recognizable as a backdrop for car commercials and TV shows. Equally stunning is the Point Sur Light Station sitting atop a 361-foot-high volcanic rock. The light station, which has been in continuous operation since 1889, is now under the auspices of the state parks department and is open for docent-led tours.

Elegant cars parked in the shade in front of The River Inn
Elegant cars parked in the shade in front of The River Inn (MICHAEL TROUTMAN/

It's one of nine state parks on the drive from Carmel to San Simeon; most closely associated with Big Sur are Julia Pfeiffer Burns, with panoramic views and an 80-footwaterfall plunging into the ocean; Pfeiffer Big Sur, which surrounds the venerable Big Sur Lodge; and Andrew Molera, famous for its scenic hiking trails. Another natural monument to make note of is Cone Peak, south of Big Sur, the second-highest mountain in the Santa Lucia range and a popular hiking spot.

On the way to Big Sur, few human-made structures can be glimpsed; that's because a landmark court decision in the 1960s outlawed items that would mar the view, such as billboards and power lines. In addition, no new construction is allowed within sight of the highway.

Overnight accommodations range from rustic campgrounds to high-end resorts, and they fill up quickly in the summer months, so early reservations are advisable. In addition to the excellent restaurants of Big Sur, visitors will find funky art galleries and gift shops to peruse, as well as historic landmarks like the Henry Miller Library, which salutes Miller's legacy and attracts fans from around the world.

Another thriving business in Big Sur is matrimony, with wedding coordinators, photographers and florists offering their services to those wanting a unique setting for their nuptials.

"People love to come to Big Sur to get married," said Russell. "It's everyone from movie stars who want privacy, to people who want to have a big wedding, to small gatherings with family and friends. It's pretty cool. "

No matter what the reason, Big Sur and the scenic Highway 1 drive continue to be top attractions, thankfully for residents, who are almost completely dependent on tourism these days.

When the Basin Complex Fire struck in July 2008 and forced a two-week closure of Highway 1, it devastated businesses that depend on the flow of summer traffic, in addition to forcing residents from their homes and burning more than 160, 000 acres.

"The road is our lifeline to the rest of the world," said Gafill, who was among those displaced by the wildfire, and is no stranger to the occasional mudslides and other hazards that are part and parcel of living there. Yet despite all this, for the 1, 000 or so residents, there is no other home but Big Sur.

"To live here, it helps if you have a really rich inner life," said Gafill. "You have to find your own resources and your own answers. There's a self-reliance and resourcefulness among the people here. And tremendous creativity.

For information about Big Sur, see or call (831) 667-2100.

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