Big Sur is not something a lot of people do car-free. It takes an adventurer to respond to the challenge of taking a carless trip down the infamously winding two-lane road called the Pacific Coast Highway. But, if you do have that wild free spirit in you, it’s much more doable than you might ever expect.
Our two favorite options are by bike or bus. Biking is a spectacular choice if you’re experienced in the sport. The terrain is tough and the road is narrow (and situated next to plunging cliffs). But if you consider yourself an avid cyclist and know you can handle it, you’re going to have an unforgettable ride.
For first-time Big Sur bikers, we recommend joining a guided bike tour like California Bicycle Tour, who provide all kinds of customizable options for making your way down the coast.
For the less experienced riders out there, the key to car-free Big Sur is the Monterey-Salinas Transit System—the 22 bus to be more specific. It’s a seasonal ride starting in Monterey, winding down through Carmel all the way to Big Sur, and then back up again. It only makes eight official stops over about 30 miles, but each of those stops offers a different milestone of an outdoorsy weekend trip.
The first couple of bus stops are in Monterey and Carmel—they’re the best places to board the bus. This also means that if you’ve got a little time, doing Monterey/Carmel and Big Sur in the same trip is an awesome double-whammy.
Where the Land Meets the Sea
There’s a reason Big Sur is coined “the greatest meeting of land and sea in the world,” and you can see it for yourself by diving right into the coastline with the ragged beauty of Point Lobos State Park’s headlands. Take advantage of this curious coastland by hiking, picnicking, or animal-watching from above the shore or below the waterline, where you can catch the underwater jungles of Northern California’s seaweed habitats. (Visit pointlobos.org for information about diving.)
“Descend a Dusty Gravel Ridge Beneath the Bixby Canyon Bridge”
Take a hint from Death Cab for Cutie and make a stop at what’s properly called the Bixby Creek Bridge—a famous and historic overpass that was the very first of its kind in Big Sur—connecting the area to the cities up North. If you’re doing the trip by bus, the driver will make an unofficial stop here, as long as you ask nicely.
Cool Your Jets
Big Sur River Inn is a hotel and restaurant famed for letting its patrons plop their wooden chairs down directly in the river’s shallows. If you want to do Big Sur but you’re not really in the mood for the do-it-yourself experience of camping, then this is your spot: Eat, drink, lounge in the river, and relax.
If you’re up for a camping adventure, Andrew Molara State Park is accessible by the 22 bus and has 24 hot spots for tents along the main trailhead. Plus, you have your entertainment right where you sleep, as you can take off right into the wilderness—one of Big Sur’s less well-groomed parks, Molara offers more than 20 miles of hiking, biking, and horseback riding trails, with options to surf and fish as well. The camp grounds are first come, first served, so we recommend getting an early start and calling the park before bringing all your gear.
Deck With a View
Nepenthe Restaurant is one of the best places to stop for a bite along the PCH. Offering slightly overpriced but hearty fare (try the Ambrosiaburger for $14.50) the place is more known for the vision of Big Sur’s coastline, which always seems to be breathtaking from the mistiest mornings to the clearest nights.
Catch some Culture
Big Sur has long been home to famous writers and artists looking to get away from it all, including novelist Henry Miller, whose namesake memorial library provides one of the most engaging cultural outlets that Big Sur has to offer. A library and non-profit arts organization, the Henry Miller Memorial Library is a wonderful place to enjoy art shows, theater, lectures, and book signings.
Just up the road from the library is the Big Sur Spirit Garden. Consider it the library’s more eclectic relative. Although the location also offers live shows in world music, performance, and other arts, we say go here to check out the “Spirit Nests.” These large sculptural nests are created by the center’s founder Jason Fenn to provide comfort and shelter for passersby. And the interactive sculptures are one of a kind—something you don’t want to miss. These spots are located further south then the 22 Bus will go, so consider it a bike-only option.
Take Caltrain to the San Jose Caltrain Station. From there, walk to Cahill/Diridon Station and take the MST 55 Bus to the Monterey Transit Plaza – from there you can either catch the 22 Bus or hop on your bike.
Photos: California Bicycle Tour Company, Jordi Fumadó, Big Sur, Karen Smith, Tom Birmingham