The Cabrillo Highway – Worst Kept Secret

US Highway 1

The westernmost highway in the federal system in the lower 48 states is variously known as the Pacific Coast Highway (or PCH), US Highway 1, and the Cabrillo Highway. Incorporating dramatic coastline and the beautiful redwoods of Big Sur, it is well known to be among the most scenic drives in the United States.

While there are beautiful sections in Malibu, Santa Barbara and the North Coast, the portion between San Simeon, home of the famous Hearst Castle, and the tony neighborhoods of Carmel has the attraction of being the most scenic way to get between the Los Angeles and San Francisco metroplexes.

For those who enjoy motoring as a recreational activity, that attractiveness is both a blessing and a curse. It provides the scenic backdrop for an exhilarating drive, but also can add an element of frustration, as rubber-necking tourists in rented motorhomes and Corollas clog up the road just as the curves begin to get interesting.

The California Coast North of Ragged PointThe Cabrillo Highway, somewhere North of Ragged Point. Scenic (see below) and entertaining for the enthusiast driver.

PCH 2004

Once a year for the last ten years I have driven that stretch on my way to Monterey’s annual orgy of automotive lust, held on the third weekend in August. I’ll blog separately about the events of that weekend, but to get there by the most entertaining route, I have had to adopt a rather extreme schedule.

It’s those tourists.

The greatest pleasure of driving (or riding – it’s also a biker’s favorite) the road is that section between the resort at Ragged Point and the photographer’s backdrop at Bixby Bridge. It’s the curves. Setting the car up properly, selecting the most efficient line, downshifting, brushing the brakes, feeling the G-forces build, and accelerating out and upshifting is what enthusiastic drivers live for.

You can’t do that if there’s a motorhome in front of you tootling along at 25 mph.

That is my motivation for arising at the uncivilized hour of 3:00 am. If I do that, I can usually be out the door by 4:00 am, which gets me to Ragged Point before 9:00 am, ahead of most of the sluggards. I’ve done it faster – once. In 2009 I had a red Ferrari 360 Challenge Stradale ahead, braving the mobility revenuers and setting a “European” pace.

Ferrari 360 Challenge Stradale 2009Just north of Santa Maria in 2009, this Ferrari 360 Challenge Stradale overtook me. As long as I had him in front of me I needn’t worry about attracting the  attention of traffic enforcement, and we explored speeds I’d best not reveal here. At Ragged Point, above, I thanked him for collecting the speeding ticket just past San Simeon that saved me a likely citation.

16 Of 50 Lamborghini Murcielago

This year I was not so lucky. The blue Lamborghini Murcielago with vanity plate 16 of 50 (For Trekkers, that’s a Borg designation.) that I met, got off at Pismo Beach, so we never got to share the good parts.


This year I spotted a Highway Patrol car about half way through the fun part. That slowed me up a little, but not as much as the out-of-state vacationers. He pulled off at a vista point allowing me to resume my usual pace.

With the events at Monterey, there are always a few cars worthy of a look on that road, and soon I saw a pair of black Ferraris, followed by a 300SL Mercedes, a Cobra, some Aston Martins, Jaguars and Porsches, and a smattering of other interesting cars. It was too early and too far south for the Tour d’Elegance, so I surmised it was a rally of some sort.

At a boutique/café just south of Big Sur I pulled over to take pictures. I was rewarded by a couple of DeTomaso Pantera drivers pulling up to have a snack at the café.

2 Panteras

John Buckman and Friend would have eventually caught me whether I’d stopped or not. They pulled their DeTomaso Panteras up to the café as I was shooting the cars going south.

Hispano Suiza & Ferrari 330GTC

The occasional Ferrari, like the 330 GTC just entering the picture, upper left, hardly warrants a glance when the streets are swarming with them. A thirties-era Hispaño-Suiza headed in the wrong direction – away from Pebble Beach – is another matter.

Jaguar & Alfa romeo at Coast Gallery & CafeAn Alfa Romeo Coupe with Zagato coachwork from the sixties leads a Jaguar XK-150 around the curve by Big Sur Coast Gallery & Café.

CHP Expedition on PCHAs I waited for the next participants in what looked like a rally, the CHP Ford Expedition I’d seen earlier pulled in at the Gallery/Café.

The officer in the CHP Patrol SUV proceeded to pull out a Canon camera with a lens about three feet long, and walked into the store.

Figuring I had a kindred spirit here, I followed him to the upper deck and introduced myself. Officer Ben Grasmuck turned out to be as warm and affable as you’d want, and knowledgable about the cars, the events (He works a 4:30 am to 6:00 pm shift on Event Day.), and everything that goes on along that highway.

CHP Officer Ben Grasmuck at the big Sur Coast Gallery & CaféCHP Officer Ben Grasmuck and his canon-size Canon stalking exotic prey from the upper deck of at the big Sur Coast Gallery & Café.

He speculated that the cars we saw were on their way to lunch in Lucia, where there is a small resort and restaurant. The obvious question that we who enjoy the road want to know is whether the Highway Patrol hassles these people when they are driving enthusiastically, to which he replied that most of the time the road is self-regulating. It’s those motor homes and tourists.

He added that they usually are not about to put their expensive cars at risk driving foolishly. His experience was that they drive well but not dangerously.

The event that really brings out the crowd is the Tour d’Elegance on Thursday, when those who exhibit their cars on Sunday at the Concours get to drive them to Big Sur and on the roads around the Peninsula. Merchants along the route expess annoyance at the disruption of patronage on Thursday, he says, but they make up for it with the custom the events attract on the other days.

I asked for his view of lane enforcement. I’d seen a Porsche Turbo passing over the double yellow in several places one year. With the speed differential and the short exposure time in the left lane, the situation seemed no less safe to me than driving around a rock in the road.

He wasn’t about to endorse the idea, but said that he was sympathetic, especially with motorcyclists, whose exposure time in the left lane is even less. He said he often just issues warnings to them.

Motorcyclist at Big Sur Coast Gallery & CaféI’d seen this motorcyclist at Ragged Point, and he showed up again at the gallery/café on his way home to Oakland. That looks like a vintage Triumph, but it’s a 2000 model – probably a lot more reliable than my 1967 T-100R. He might have been surprised at Ben’s attitude toward lane discipline on the Cabrillo, especially toward motorcyclists. I got his name but lost it. (I’m learning, but not enough apparently. I texted myself with the Pantera driver’s name but not the biker’s)

Hints from the CHP

Ben had a couple of interesting observations. Some could be useful.

Cell phone reception is spotty at best on that part of the road. Ben’s advice is to look for contractors’ trucks at overlooks and turnouts. They very quickly get to know where they can make and receive calls.

I had noticed a heavy presence of Mustang Convertibles at Ragged Point. “Rentals,” he said. Apparently the rental car companies long ago learned about the car events, and out-of-state visitors always want something sporty. Mustang convertibles are the limit of their understanding of “sporty,” and they stock up.

Ben said to look for license plates without frames, and no “My Kid Is Student of the Month” or “I’d Rather Be Surfing” stickers on the bumpers (but little bar code stickers on the windshield). It makes sense. No dealer will sell or lease you a car without putting his license plate frame on your car. Another hint is a recent license plate. All rental are essentally new cars, and in California at least, new cars carry license plate numbers starting with the number 6 and a letter no lower in the alphabet than “T.” I started looking, and by golly he was right.

Improvements and Inconveniences

Putting a road along sheer cliffs and steep slopes constantly pounded by surf is an engineering challenge. The weather and geology are always reasserting their mastery. That means that construction delays are frequent. I took the opportunity to have a pleasant conversation with a flagger on my way home. But to avoid retracing your route, you need to keep an eye open for the signs that warn of closures.

The big job now is at Limekiln, where the DOT is building a massive (the often-misused adjective applies in this case) project to mitigate against frequent rockslides and washouts. They are bridging the part that washes out and building European-style rock shelters – basically artificial tunnels – to protect against slides.

Bobby Burns’ saying about the best laid plans was proven true in April when the next big slide happened just south of the project, causing me to have to backtrack and detour on my way north to work with a five-time repeat client. The improvements at Limekiln are scheduled to be complete next year. Stay tuned.

Note: To view images in more detail, click on the image. If the cursor is a “plus” sign in a circle, clicking again will enlarge the image further.

CARMA is a publication of The OM Dude Press
a service of Options in Mobility
Author, Editor, Publisher, Reporter, Historian, Archivist:
Dick Stewart.

All photographs are by the Author unless otherwise indicated.


About carmacarcounselor

I'm one of those people that friends call "that car guy," except I've made it into a profession. Since 1988 when a friend found my help in choosing, finding, and negotiating for a new car was worth a fee, I've helped countless people, listening to their car questions and challenges, and helping with their car purchases, insulating them from the adversarial process that is the new car retail model today. Their word of mouth is my only publicity. My newsletter CARMA won the description "The clear crystal ring of truth" from award-winning automotive journalist Denise McCluggage. Now I'm going global!
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One Response to The Cabrillo Highway – Worst Kept Secret

  1. Darwin says:

    Just saw this post! That’s my Uncle Ben! Awesome award winning photog. Just wanted to add a correction that he shoots Pentax. A fact that he is very proud of. Keep keeping us safe Uncle Ben!

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