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Why the Big Sur coast is a quintessential California drive

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Why the Big Sur coast is a quintessential California drive
With dramatic golden cliffs cascading down to the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean, cruising the Big Sur coastline is like driving on the edge of the world
Stretching for 90 miles (145km) between Carmel and Cambria is the slice of California coast known as Big Sur. Even the name sounds magical, a polyglot of Spanish and English meaning "big south".
Gazing south from Carmel, it is easy to see how settlers arrived at that name: colossal mountains rise straight up from the Pacific Ocean, some of them weathered into 400m high (1,300ft) cliffs, often besieged by monstrous waves.
This coast is a ship-killer, too, a place that skippers avoided lest they fall into its rocky claws.
No wonder pioneers took so long to trickle down this stretch of coast. Even today it is largely uninhabited.
"Even today it is largely uninhabited"
Formed at the same time as the Sierra Nevada to the east, the Santa Lucia Mountains give the coast its geological backbone and scenic backdrop.
A mild Mediterranean climate is complemented by coastal fog, endowing Big Sur with a variety of microhabitats from lush redwood forest to arid chaparral.
The wildlife is also diverse: migrating grey whales and monarch butterflies, endangered California condors and sea otters, coyotes and cougars.
The Spanish arrived in 1770 and created a mission in Carmel and in the provincial capital, Monterey, but they shunned the rugged coast further south.
A century later, enterprising Yankees thought Big Sur would yield the same gold and timber bounty as the rest of California. But the region proved too inaccessible and by the early 20th century the miners and lumberjacks had left.
big sur coastline cliffs and blue Pacific Ocean washing up on sandy beach below

A new dawn

Locals had long called for a road along the coast to aid shipwreck victims and improve access to isolated communities.
Construction started in 1919, and 18 years, 32 tonnes of dynamite and 33 bridges later, the Big Sur stretch of California Highway One was complete.
The implausible route, with its myriad twists and turns and dramatic drop-offs, became an instant classic.
"Joni Mitchell performed on the cliff tops"
The author and painter Henry Miller fled to Big Sur in 1944 and stayed for nearly two decades. Photographer Edward Weston and Beat Generation bard Jack Kerouac fell under its spell. By the late 1960s, San Francisco’s counterculture revolution had swept down to Big Sur, and the likes of Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell performed on the cliff tops.
Much of Big Sur is now protected within the confines of the Ventana Wilderness, Los Padres National Forest, Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and half a dozen state parks.
Cruising down Highway One is a quintessential California experience. And Big Sur itself remains much as it always was: awesome, astonishing and surprisingly pristine.

Where on Earth?

Big Sur lies about 150 miles (240km) south of San Francisco and 300 miles (480km) north of Los Angeles.
It is not served by public transport: visitors must drive themselves or join a private group tour.
Accommodation is limited, but several of the state parks have campsites
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