The northern stretches of Big Sur are marked by the rugged coves, redwood forests, and sandy beach at Garrapata State Park, four miles south of Point Lobos. Though it’s just minutes from Carmel, Garrapata could be light-years away from the crowds of shoppers and gallery-goers, but the two-mile-long beach here is pristine and easy to reach, yet generally empty. Winter wildlife-watchers sometimes see gray whales migrating close to shore. The seven-mile Rocky Ridge Trail through Soberanes Canyon includes a steep descent (25 percent grade!) and heads east from Hwy-1 into a lush world of redwood groves, springtime wildflowers, seasonal streams, and amazing views.

The highway clings to the coast for a dozen amazing but uneventful miles, passing a few languid cattle and an occasional vacation home before coming upon one of Big Sur’s many unique sights, the massive volcanic hump of Point Sur, 19 miles south of Carmel. Though it’s not exactly scenic or beautiful, it definitely helps you keep your bearings. A symmetrical 361-foot dome, Point Sur is capped by a 128-year-old lighthouse (831/625-4419, tours Wed. and Sat.-Sun., $12 adults), which has been preserved as a state historic park.

Map of Pacific Coast through California's Central Coast.
Map of Pacific Coast through California’s Central Coast.