Op Image: Enchanting Big Sur delivers dazzling views, lasting impressions

A view north along the coast on the McWay Waterfall Trail at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in Big Sur.
A view north along the coast on the McWay Waterfall Trail at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in Big Sur. TNS

The splendor of Big Sur never ceases to mesmerize those who carefully navigate the craggy coastline high above the continental shelf framed by the majestic Santa Lucia Mountains. It’s akin to being suspended in time with an unspoiled beauty that defies description.

That was the indelible impression for my wife and I three decades ago when we first set out from San Diego northward to explore the storied Pacific Coast Highway. And numerous journeys to Big Sur since then have not diminished our fascination with this scenic wonder that draws thousands of visitors from around the world each year.

Christened by Spanish settlers on the Monterrey Peninsula to the north, Big Sur became a magnet for artists, writers and others seeking a serene solitude from the static of everyday life.

Geographically the region begins at San Simeon and ends at Carmel. Aesthetically it encompasses the serpentine roadway hard against the mountainside. And getting there was made possible by state and federal funds that financed the arduous road construction.

In 1921 convict laborers from San Quentin Prison were recruited to build the road. Housed in three temporary prison camps, prisoners were paid 35 cents per day and their sentences reduced in return for their hard work. They along with locals completed the roadway in 1937. Beset with severe coastal weather, landslides and other obstacles, this engineering marvel was incorporated into the state highway system in 1939.

Big Sur is stereotyped as a haven for hippies, mystics and New Agers who commune at Esalen Institute to find themselves by becoming one with nature. Not surprisingly the final episode of “Mad Men” had a psychologically damaged and disoriented Don Draper regaining his creative mojo during a meditative session at an Esalen-like venue.

While residing at the very exclusive coastal retreat founded in 1962 is well above most people’s price line, travelers can stop at various locales to sample Big Sur’s ambiance.

There’s the popular Nepenthe Restaurant perched high atop the Pacific Ocean. The breathtaking view alone, enhanced by the birds swooping among the tree-lined patio, is worth the tab.

For the artistically inclined there are several galleries, including the Henry Miller Memorial Museum that features artists, musicians and, of course, the legendary author’s books as well as those by Jack Kerouac and Richard Brautigan.

Picnickers can pause at the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park for a bite. Ranging from the coastline into nearby 3,000-foot ridges, the park features an 80-foot waterfall that drops from granite cliffs into the ocean from the Overlook Trail. Hikers can reach higher elevations along the trails east of the highway.

Camera buffs can scan the sweeping vistas for shots, none of which can capture the unsurpassing beauty of Big Sur. Whether it’s the crashing ocean waves, glimpses of elusive whales or the spacious Pacific shrouded by early morning mist, there is nothing quite like this natural wonder.

Each time I travel that transcendent stretch of Pacific Coast Highway, Big Sur strengthens my belief in a supreme being.

Alan Miller is a former editorial writer and columnist for The Detroit News and the San Diego Union-Tribune. He currently teaches at American River College. Contact him at