The Secrets of California’s Highway 1

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California is an immense state, and it’s got something for almost every state of mind. Two of the biggest draws are the Hollywood glamour of LA and the earthy, hippie glory of San Francisco.

Feel like falling somewhere in the middle? You can!

To indulge your San Francisco hippie chick and your Los Angeles starlet, all you have to do is take a road trip along Highway 1, the coastal road that connects these two urban hot-spots.

Here’s how I rolled back-country camping and a luxurious spa trip into one quick visit to this beautiful stretch of the Golden State!

Departure Point

I started my three-day exploration of Highway 1 from San Francisco.

My goal was camping in Big Sur, a massive swath of rugged wilderness with access points all along the highway. I was aiming to reach a section about three hours south of the city.

Starting from Los Angeles is an option, too. You’ll drive about five hours north, instead of three hours south, to reach some of the best Big Sur camping. But as soon as you hit the Highway, you’ll discover why extra drive time isn’t a down side here.

The Scenic Route

Highway 1 has been ranked among the most spectacularly scenic drives in the United States, if not the world. An endless twisting ribbon of green hills plunging into the Pacific will definitely give you something to gawk at.

A safety tip: Don’t let that view get too engrossing while you drive. Highway 1 has loads of designated spots to pull over and get lost in the scenery while securely at a standstill.

Back To The Land

Big Sur is a massive area, and within this wilderness you’ll find State parks, private campgrounds, and back-country camping galore. The Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and the Ventana Wilderness are two popular places to explore.

For travelers who are geared up for hike-in camping, I recommend the Buckeye Trail in the Silver Peak Wilderness. With access just off of Highway 1, you can leave your car in a designated turn out, step across the road and feel a million miles away from the asphalt as soon as the path turns a corner.

Parts of the trail climb up above the tree line and follow the same soaring ridges you’ve admired from the highway, giving a new perspective on those great ocean views.

My first night’s camp was at the side of the trail near a wide, rushing stream. I settled in for night two at a higher elevation, in a meadow between two peaks that offered the best West Coast sunset I’ve ever seen.

Remember: Back-country camping usually requires a permit for campfires and a registration so rangers know you’re out there. Whatever section of Big Sur you choose, be sure to stay safe by filing the right form with the appropriate ranger station.

Soak Up the Stars

Two nights in the wilderness, three days of sunshine and sweaty trekking, cooking over an open fire and reveling in California’s wilder side make for one dirty Go! Girl.

camp night stars

The best Highway 1 secret of all is how to clean back up to the glitz and glam standard.

Enter the Esalen Institute – a luxurious spa and retreat center famed for its system of outdoor hot tubs all fed by the area’s natural hot springs. The star-studded guest list and isolated A-list real estate on the Pacific coast give it an air of ultra-exclusivity.

But the real trick to making the A-list is being in the know. For savvy travelers, the Esalen Insitute offers public hours under the heading of “The Night Bathing Program” – access to the outdoor, ocean-view showers and chic, swim-able hot tubs for a mere $20!

The catch? Public hours are 1 o’clock to 3 o’clock… in the morning.

So the key to playing celebrity for a day is sticking to your down to earth nature for one last evening.

I spent my third and final night on Highway 1 at Ventana Wilderness Campground, a drive-in camp right on the coast, and only a short drive from Esalen (but you’ll find plenty of camps to choose from all along the highway). I crashed in my tent listening to the sound of the waves and the other campers toasting marshmallows, setting an alarm for 12:30am.

The quick drive to Esalen was a little more harrowing in the middle of the night – Highway 1 is curvy and cliff-side, so drive slowly and give yourself plenty of time to arrive!

When you do see the sign for the Esalen Institute, leave your car alongside it and carefully head down the driveway in the dark. A flashlight will help here, but a sense of adventure will do in a pinch.

An overnight attendant at the check-in booth will greet you, just give your name. Reservations are required for public visits, make sure you call ahead!

For two glorious hours, I scrubbed myself clean in a massive stone-hewn shower and relaxed in the hot tubs carved directly into the cliff face. I looked out across the moonlit Pacific Ocean up into the hills where only a night ago I’d been sleeping in a tiny tent.

Yes, sometimes you can have it all. Feeling fit to be a film star, I imagined the few fellow bathers lounging in the hot tubs were all Hollywood celebrities. At 3 o’clock in the morning, it’s just a little too dark to tell.

Whether your California dreamin’ involves trekking out West or just walking the red carpet, a Highway 1 journey will get you where you want to go. Give it a try and affirm for yourself that yes, for any occasion, California does know how to party.

What are your favorite West Coast destinations? Any tips about how to experience some true California culture? We want to hear from you!

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About Author

When Julie was a little kid, she conspiratorially whispered to her dad, "You know what? I have powers." It took the world, and Julie, about 20 years to figure out what the heck she meant by that. But in 2010, when a chance backpacking adventure turned into a year of transformational travel, she cracked it: her super power is Wonder Wandering. Her mission? Using her powers of volunteering for globe-trotting good, not evil. Her kryptonite? Stayin' put.

8 Comments

  1. Ooo California Highway 1.

    I cherished hiking and camping in Big Sur, being stuck in wine country and stumbling upon an Ashram, illegal camping on the wheat hills of Morro Bay, Pigeon Point Hostel’s ocean-view hot tub, and finding a cove at the point to swim naked in the ocean…

    Hitch hiking is a great way to explore the highway up and down.

    • Randomly happening upon on ashram? That must have been incredible! It’s such a rich, mysterious, beautiful area – glad to hear people are getting out there to explore!

  2. There’s so much more to California than L.A. or San Francisco, nice to see other parts of the state getting some attention and looks like a really fun road trip.

  3. Wow, the experience at Esalen sounds like such a trip. I can’t believe their public hours are from 1-3 in the morning, and you have to make reservations to get in! Soaking in hot-tubs carved into the cliff sounds pretty appealing, though…. 🙂

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