Located on the Pacific Coast of Central California, Big Sur is a beautiful destination stretching 90 miles along California Highway 1. It may be s short road trip, but it packs a huge punch. It’s no wonder Big Sur is often rated as one of the best road trips in the world. With sea stacks and waterfalls, hiking trails, and ocean cliffs, this is one of the most beautiful destinations we’ve been to in the United States. It’s worth spending more than just a day driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco along this route. Take your time to see the sights and be sure to stay the night.
Best Things to do in Big Sur, California
Table of Contents
California has taken things slowly to reopen after COVID-19 and rightfully so, but as things begin to welcome visitors again, we are getting excited to start dreaming about travel. One of our last trips to California was exploring Big Sur. And while we’ve written about it a little bit in our guide to Monterey and our California Road Trip Itinerary, we really haven’t delved into all the amazing things to do in Big Sur. It’s time to change that. Because Big Sur rocks!
- Note: Road conditions constantly change in Big Sur because of mudslides and wildfires. As of April 2021 Big Sur Highway 1 is open follow the Website for updates. Some attractions, parks and establishments may be affected by COVID-19 check with the California government for restrictions here. And check the websites of accommodation and restaurants before you go.
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Getting to Big Sur and The Details
The two closest airports to Big Sur are San Francisco and San Jose. We recommend renting a car and driving directly from the Airport. On one of our trips, we spent some time in San Francisco before making our way down the coast and that is a great option. Check out all the Things to do in San Francisco here.
Compare rental car prices at RentalCars.com for quotes on cars in Los Angeles or San Francisco.
The main cities of Big Sur are Monterey and Carmel by the Sea. You can make a base in these places to explore California Highway 1 or there is camping and accommodation along the route. You can skip directly to Big Sur Accommodations below. Our recommended hotel in Big Sur is Ventana Resort, it is expensive but they also offer camping and glamping.
More Big Sur and the Surrounding Communities
- Big Sur Photography Stops: Photography Guide to Big Sur Coastal Drive, California
- 17 Mile Drive: 17 Mile Drive – What to See on the Scenic Drive of Pebble Beach
- Glamping in Big Sur: Glamping in Big Sur – Luxury in the Redwood Forest
- Carmel by the Sea: The Best of Carmel by the Sea, California
- Monterey: 20 Great Things to do in Monterey, California
- Northern California: 7 Epic Places to Visit in Northern California
- California Road Trip Itinerary: The Ultimate California Road Trip Itinerary
- Lake Tahoe: Things to do in Lake Tahoe
Best Viewpoints in Big Sur
These are the famous viewpoints in Big Sur with a few lesser-known lookouts but make sure you take your time to stop anywhere you please. There are plenty of pull offs along Highway 1 that offer different views and hiking, so enjoy the ride, pullover when you can or follow a backroad to wherever it goes. Enjoy!
The Bixby Creek Bridge is the most famous of attractions along the highway in Big Sur. It’s been featured in countless films and most recently it was front and center in the series Big Little Lies. If you haven’t checked it out, do! It stars Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Zoe Kravitz, and Alexander Skarsguard. It gives a glimpse into the trés rich (and naughty) lives of the people who live here.
Garrapata State Park
This was one of our favorite stops in Big Sur and it is the one of the best free things to do in Big Sur. With hiking trails leading out to sea cliffs, Garrapata State Park offers beautiful vies of rock formations off the coast in the Pacific Ocean. Located in Northern Big Sur, you’ll find the pull off between mile marker 17 and 18. When we were there hardly anyone else was walking the hiking trails. We felt like we had the extraordinary views all to ourselves.
Located in the south of Big Sur at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, McWay Falls is one of the most popular things to do in Big Sur. Not to be confused with Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park (We’ll get to that in a minute) Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park was named after Julia Pfeiffer, an early pioneer in Big Sur. Take a short half a mile hike (800 meters) to the most beautiful waterfall tumbling into the ocean. McWay Falls is one of the most photographed sites in Big Sur and with good reason. This perfect little cove plunges 80 feet/24 meters from a granite cliff. It’s a beautiful place for sunrise or sunset. How do we know? We went for both!
One of our favourite places to visit in Big Sur was Pfeiffer Beach. Located just south of Big Sur Station, it was a bit difficult to find, but luckily, Viktor Elizarof wrote a great Big Sur Photography Guide for us to help us find it! Take the cut off at Sycamore Canyon Road and drive the rugged two mile track down to the beach. Here you’ll find the gorgeous and Dollar Beach and Keyhole Arch rock formation. This is a beautiful walk at sunset with amazing views. It’s a wide beach with high sandy dunes and where Sycamore Canyon Creek empties into the Pacific Ocean.
Be sure to take a walk all the way along the beach where you’ll find purple sand that is created from the manganese garnet rocks found in the sea cliffs
Redwood Forests of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
I have to say, the Pheiffer’s got around! (not in the way you are thinking). The Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park takes you to the southernmost place of the California Redwoods. In actual fact, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park spans a huge chunk of land of Monterey County and Big Sur. Get off the coast and hike through the redwoods to Big Sur River. If you take the George Trail, you’ll be able to see a recreation of early homesteader John Pfeiffer’s 1884 cabin. Explore this part to witness the Santa Lucia Mountains rising from the Big Sur River Gorge and get lost in this 1,000-acre preserve.
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Another great state park is the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve located just outside Carmel by the Sea. This is one of the most picturesque stops on a Big Sur road trip located in the north end of the drive. There are hiking trails leading out to scenic views, and it is a scuba diving mecca for people wanting to explore the underwater sea kelp forests. But Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is also a bird lovers paradise. Make sure to check out Whalers Cove to learn about the 1800s whaling and abalone business. It’s dark yes, but important to learn about all history. This small cabin was once home to Chinese Fishermen and has now been converted into a museum
Stop in at Nepenthe
The Big Sur coast has drawn artisans for decades and no place shows that more than Nepenthe. Sitting high atop a sea cliff looking over the Pacific Ocean and Santa Lucia Mountains, this has been the go-to spot for poets, travelers and artists. There is nothing better than sitting on its outdoor terrace to watch the sunset and imagine who else has enjoyed these views. It was once owned by Rita Hayworth and Orsen Wells. Be sure to peruse the Phoenix Shop featuring local artists.
Limekiln State Park
Can’t get enough of Redwoods? If you want to do some camping, Limekiln State Park has campgrounds at Limekiln Creek and at a beach. Learn about the history of Big Sur here as you discover the 1880s industry of lime harvesting. Back then lime was taken from the sea cliffs and processed in lime kilns fuelled by the massive redwoods. Boy am I glad they stopped this industry. Although they didn’t have much of a choice, the lime and the redwoods were exhausted and left in ruins. But nature has grown back around the iron-and-stone kilns connects.
Points of Interest in Big Sur
Big Sur River Inn & Restaurant
One of our favourite stops in Big Sur was teh Big Sur River Inn and Restaurant. Located on the Big Sur River, guests can relax on the Adirondak Chairs (or as residents of Ontario, Canada like to call them – Muskoka Chairs) and enjoy the peace and solitude. This inn was the first restaurant and hotel in Big Sur and is a must stop. Dating back to 1888, the property was originally owned by early homesteader Jay Pheneger and then sold to Michael and Barbara Pfeiffer. (I told you the Pheiffer’s got around). Make sure to peruse the memorabilia hanging on the walls of the restaurant. It’s also a good place to fill up at the gas station, pick some food at the general store and grab and ice cream at the ice cream truck.
Henry Miller Memorial Library
As we stated above, Big Sur attracted many an artist and the late great playwright Henry Miller was a long time resident. The Henry Miller Memorial Library honours the writer, but also featured resident artist with live performances, books for sale by local writers and it showcases local artists with rotating shows.
If you are looking for a break, stop in at the Ragged Point Inn and Resort that sits high on a sea cliff. Located north of north of San Simeon, Ragged Point was once part of the Hearst Ranch. The Ramey family set up shop here in the 1950s and it has been passed down to generations as today the great grandchildren run the resort and restaurant. Even if you are not staying at Ragged Point, make sure to enjoy a meal and take in the views of the California Coast. Make sure to stop at Piedras Blancas State Marine Reserve to see the resident elephants seals.
Andrew Molera State Park
If you are looking for a long sandy beach in Big Sur, this is a good stop. It is also the largest of the many State Parks in Big Sur so be prepared to walk. For a fun adventure, take the beach trail walking along a 1 mile long route (1.6km) to the beach where you’ll have to wade through the waters of the Big Sur River. When the water is high, the parks puts up seasonal footbridges. Big Sur River Inn & Restaurant is just 2 miles away and makes for a good base to enjoy this State Park.
Point Sur lighthouse
Continuing north, make your way to Point Sur Lighthouse, part of the California State Park system. What was once an important beacon of navigation for ships traveling through the treacherous waters of the Central California Coast, can today be viewed on a guided walking tour. Dating back to 1889, it offers beautiful views from its coveted perch.
Where to Eat in Big Sur
Incredible Prix Fix meals and fine dining overlooking the Pacific Ocean from high atop sea cliffs. We even saw whales in the distance during our breakfast here. (make sure to bring your binoculars). This place is busy for dinner so reservations are recommended.
Nepenthe is one of the most popular places to eat in Big Sur because of its awesome view. With views fo the Santa Lucia Mountains to the Pacific, it is one of the premiere spots on the Big Sur highway. We loved our meal and the atmospher of Nepenthe and highly recommend having dinner here.
The Big Sur Roadhouse
The Big Sur Roadhouse was a great stop for lunch with meals made from local ingredients and a farm-to-table menu. The food was fantastic, but we also loved the relaxed atmosphere. Sure, the rich and famous frequent this spot, but it doesn’t feel snooty or unwelcoming. In fact, it still has that hippie vibe that made it so special in the first place.
Big Sur River Inn & Restaurant
This is a staple in Big Sur and a good place for lunch or to pick up some snacks for the road at the General Store. Don’t forget to grab an ice cream there as well. It is to die for.
Where to Stay in Big Sur
Ventana Resort – We camped in the luxury tented camp among the redwoods of Ventana resort and then spent the night in one of its luxury suites. If you want to feel what it’s like to live like movie stars, splurge for a night on this place. It makes for a great base to explore all the top things to do in Big Sur as well. Read: Glamping in Big Sur – Luxury in the Redwood Forest
Big Sur Hotels and Places to Stay
Ventana Big Sur An Alila Resort is a luxurious stay in Big Sur with decadent suites that have outdoor showers, hot tubs and hammocks. If you are looking to splurge just once in your life, stay here. Taylor Swift and Mark Zuckerberg have stayed at this resort.
Post Ranch Inn
Post Ranch Inn is another beyond incredible resort with private suites, infinity pools and ridiculous luxury. (albeit a little less expensive than Ventana) But if you are going to splurge anywhere in your life, it might as well be Big Sur. Enjoy the life of a movie star for a night or to as you celebrate an anniversary or special occasion.
A more affordable to enjoy Ventana is to camp with your own RV among its redwoods or book a night in the Glamping Tents. We stayed in one of the tents and they supplied everything from hot water bottles to cooking utensils and everything we needed to make SMores. You can also us the facilities when camping at the campground and enjoy the restaurants.
Are there Budget Hotels in Big Sur?
Not really, Big Sur caters to the luxury market unless you are camping. The historic Big Sur River Inn is the closest to affordable yet it is still pricey. However, ti doesn’t reach the thousands of dollars per night of the Post Ranch in or Ventana.
Fernwood Resort is also a good option with a variety of camping, cabins and a motel.
Camping in Big Sur
Don’t worry, if you don’t want to spend a fortune on a room for a night, there is plenty of camping in Big Sur. Some poplular campgrounds are Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground, Big Sur Campground and Cabins, and Riverside Campground and Cabins.
And these are the top things to do in Big Sur along with the most beautiful places to visit. If you are planning a trip to California, be sure to check out this gorgeous stretch of highway along the Pacific Coast.
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Frequently Asked questions about Big Sur
There is no bad time to visit Big Sur. Being California it can be explored year round. The peak season is from April to November with crowds being heaviest in July and August. September to November is still beautiful and less crowded and winter is a good time to find deals on accommodation. We went in May and June and had few crowds and the weather was lovely with sunny days and chilly evenings.
You can see all the viewpoints and attractions in Big Sur in one day, but we recommend three days and two nights to really explore it to do the hikes, enjoy the restaurants and hotels.
You can drive to Big Sur from Los Angeles or San Francisco. It is popular to make a base in Carmel by the Sea or Monterey. It is a five hour drive from Los Angeles to Big Sur and Big Sur is 2 hours and 30 minutes from San Francisco.
There is no specific starting point for Big Sur, but the drive is typically considered to begin in Carmel by the Sea if you are coming from San Francisco and ends near the San Carpóforo Creek in north of San Simeon .
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