Famous for the winding cliffside drive with amazing views of the ocean along California Highway One, Big Sur is the place of dreams. Endless sea vistas, dramatic rocky shorelines, crashing surf, forested canyons and grassy hills and valleys make this one of the most beautiful places in the world.
The remote beauty of Big Sur has inspired many musicians, artists, filmmakers, dreamers and writers. Starting in the early 1900s writers and artists like Henry Miller, Richard Brautigan, Jack Kerouac, Hunter S Thompson and Robinson Jeffers came to the area. Spiritual seekers have also sought out peace and enlightenment in the forests and beaches. Nature lovers will find amazing hikes and wildlife in the state parks and wilderness areas.
10 THINGS TO DO IN BIG SUR
Road trippers take quick selfies on cliff sides and snap photos out the car window. But there is much more to do in beautiful Big Sur than just pass through on your way north or south along the Central California coast. Here are a few of our favorite places to pull over or stop for a day, weekend or maybe forever! We’ve also tied in a bit of history, literary and film connections to our favorite places. Let’s go explore!
1. WATERFALL OVERLOOK AT JULIA PFEIFFER BURNS STATE PARK
Probably the most photographed spot in Big Sur, a small waterfall cascades 80 feet into the Pacific Ocean at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. The ocean is an incredible turquoise color and the white foam of the crashing waves contrasts with the dark forested cliffs above. It is absolutely breathtaking and everyone should see this view.
I remember the first time we stopped here on a drive through Big Sur. As a youngster in the days before Instagram I had no idea what was in store for my eyes. When I saw the amazing color of the ocean and the small waterfall I was blown away by the beauty. I took a photo with my Vivitar pocket camera and kept that favorite faded snapshot on my wall for many years.
This waterfall is a popular place and you’ve likely already heard of it or even been there before. But the views never get old. The McWay Cove is gorgeous but be sure to look to the north also, the views of the cliffs are incredible. It is also an excellent whale watching spot. Take the Waterfall Overlook Trail from the parking lot, the trail is a total of 0.64 miles in length roundtrip and is wheelchair accessible.
2. ESALEN INSTITUTE
The Esalen Institute, often just called Esalen, is a retreat center originally founded in 1962. You’ll find workshops, conferences and programs about meditation, massage, yoga, dance, self-help, psychology and many other “New Age” topics. The cliffside clothing-optional hot tubs at Esalen have long been famous among the alternative crowd.
The Institute is named after the Esselen, the native people of the Big Sur area. The 120 acre property has an organic garden, restaurant, and accommodations for workshop participants ranging from bunk beds to cabins. Come for a day or weekend workshop or just book a massage. You can also make reservations for a midnight soak in the hot springs baths. If you are looking for a spiritual retreat you might want to also check out Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, the oldest Japanese Buddhist Sōtō Zen monastery in the USA.
Before the property was Esalen, in the 1950s the Murphy family ran a restaurant and gathering place for the local community here. Icons of the day including Henry Miller, Steve McQueen, Joan Baez and Hunter S. Thompson were guests or residents on the property. Often referenced in pop culture, an Esalen-like retreat was shown in the final episodes of Mad Men and the second season of True Detective.
Bixby Creek Bridge © King of Hearts
3. BIXBY CREEK BRIDGE
Bixby Creek Bridge has a beautiful design and a stunning backdrop making it one of the most photographed spots in Big Sur along with the aforementioned McWay Cove. The bridge is one of the tallest single-span concrete bridges in the world. Most visitors pull over on the north side of the bridge to take a snapshot.
The bridge was commemorated on an USPS Express Mail stamp in 2010. It has also been seen in countless TV shows and films including the creepy Play Misty for Me with Clint Eastwood. It’s an awesome vintage film and the opening scenes of the Pacific Coast Highway are fantastic.
4. POINT SUR LIGHTHOUSE
Before the lighthouse (technically “lightstation”) was constructed, the rocky outcropping at Point Sur was hazardous and many ships were wrecked there including the Ventura in 1875. Some say the Point Sur Lighthouse is haunted and the site has been featured on the TV show Ghost Adventures.
In the early 1900s access to this remote area of California was very difficult. The lighthouse keepers lived on the site with their families and all their supplies were either grown there or brought in every four months by boat. The closest town, Monterey, was a full day journey over land. The Big Sur stretch of Highway One was not completed until 1937.
The lighthouse was automated in 1972. It is possible to visit the lighthouse on a three hour guided tour by reserving in advance.
5. WALK ON THE BEACH
While driving along the Big Sur coastline we recommend taking a break for a walk on the beach. Most of the Big Sur beaches are not close to the road so be prepared for at least a short hike.
Note that it is not advisable to swim at most Big Sur beaches due to strong unpredictable currents. A few of our favorite beaches include: Sand Dollar, Jade Cove, Pfeiffer Beach and Andrew Molera. Check out this website for detailed information about the beaches of Big Sur.
6. HENRY MILLER LIBRARY
Henry Miller was one of the most famous residents of Big Sur. If you want to get inspired before your visit to Big Sur, read Miller’s Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch and perhaps watch the film Big Sur about Jack Kerouac. In the 1960’s Henry Miller’s best friend Emil White lived in the house that is now the Henry Miller Library. White ofﬁcially named it the Henry Miller Memorial Library when Henry died in 1980. When Emil passed away in 1989, he donated the property to become a non-proﬁt organization and the house can now be visited as the Henry Miller Memorial Library. The Henry Miller Library often hosts intimate concerts, poetry readings, writing workshops and other events. Be sure to stop by on your journey to get inspired and maybe pick up a book or two for the road.
7. CAMPING, HIKING & BACKPACKING
Big Sur may be known for literary icons, films and songs but to me the star of Big Sur is the amazing rugged nature to be found there. The area is filled with state parks and wilderness areas where you can go camping, hiking and backpacking. If you are looking for a campsite, be sure to check these websites for terrific tips, photos and reviews.
Here are a few favorite spots:
Andrew Molera is one of my favorite places to camp in Big Sur. The park boasts 20 miles of trails, a long sandy beach and some of the best surfing in Big Sur. The walk in campground is often a peaceful place but can get busy in the high season. The park is named in commemoration of Andrew Molera, who popularized the artichoke in California in 1922. Yum!
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is the location of the famous McWay Cove waterfall. It is also a great place to camp and hike. If you are a scuba diver the Julia Pfeiffer Burns Underwater Area is accessible with special-use permits.
But who is Julia Pfeiffer Burns? Property owner Helen Hooper Brown specified that the park be named after her friend Julia Pfeiffer Burns when she donated the land to the state. Julia was the daughter of Big Sur pioneers and lived on and around the property her entire life.
One of the largest campgrounds in the area is at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. The campside is along the wild and scenic Big Sur River and is a cool and shady place to camp when the summer weather is hot. There also a lodge in this park, see below for more information.
Limekiln State Park is one of the newer state parks in the Big Sur area, established in 1994. It contains four old lime kilns from a 19th century lime-smelting operation, plus a beach, redwood forest, and 100 foot Limekiln Falls. Limekiln State Park has a small campground as well.
If you really want to escape society and the crowds head to the Ventana Wilderness. Named after a unique notch in the ridge line, Ventana is an amazing place to experience. There are well-marked trails and some areas where you will need to bushwhack and find your own path. I’ve been hiking and backpacking in the Ventana Wilderness several times and it is an incredibly special, beautiful and remote area to explore. However if you are not an experienced hiker be sure to plan ahead and know the rules. Leave no trace.
First time campers, check out our 7 tips for car camping before you go!
8. BIG SUR LODGE
Not up for pitching a tent? Reserve a room at the Big Sur Lodge. Located in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, the lodge has cozy rooms without TV, radio or alarm clocks. The history of the property is part of the charm. Originally homesteaded by John and Florence Pfeiffer in the early 1900s, the couple opened their home to travelers, providing accommodation and hospitality in a rugged area. The Pfeiffers sold the land to the state of California in 1933 and opened the Big Sur Lodge in the same location as their original homestead.
Some of the rooms are equipped with kitchenette and others with fireplaces. The Lodge has a swimming pool, restaurant and small grocery. It is a wonderful homey place to enjoy the ambiance of Big Sur. A stay at the Lodge also includes entry passes to four area state parks and reserves.
Be sure to check Hipcamp for rustic lodging in the area too! Use this link to register and save $20 off your first reservation.
9. NEPENTHE RESTAURANT
Another celebrity connection can be found at the Nepenthe Restaurant. Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth owned a cabin in Big Sur in the 1940s. They never used it and the property is now the location of Nepenthe, a lovely restaurant with an outdoor terrace that serves lunch and dinner. The views are outstanding. Cafe Kevah and an adjacent shop can be found at the same location. The restaurant is popular with travelers and offers something for nearly every taste. It can get very busy here and difficult to find parking during the high season and weekends. But with a little patience you’ll get your spot on the terrace.
10. SEE (AND SMELL) THE ELEPHANT SEALS
Have you seen a male elephant seal before? These creatures are certainly a sight you should behold at least once. Just at the southern border of Big Sur you come across Piedras Blancas Light Station. Pull over after this landmark and you’ll be able to see the elephant seals at their breeding grounds from about December to February. The elephant seals spend up to 10 months of the year in the open ocean near Alaska and migrate thousands of miles, twice a year, to Big Sur for birthing, breeding, molting and rest. Male Northern Elephant Seals (Mirounga angustirostris) weigh up to 5400 lbs. The pregnant females arrive around December and begin giving birth to pups. In January you’ll likely see the males battle it out over the females, bellowing and biting and banging together. It can be quite a scene on the beach and you wonder how all the babies don’t get squashed by the adults thrashing about. Actually sometimes they do.
The oceans offshore the Big Sur coastline are marine protected areas. Like underwater parks, these marine protected areas help conserve ocean wildlife and marine ecosystems.
We hope you enjoyed our guide to Big Sur! See you there soon!
Here are some books you might like for your trip to Big Sur: