Tips on visiting Big Sur

Big Sur, the words evoke an image of a wild California coast and it is exactly that…

Big Sur is not really a specific town or park, but rather a region along California’s central coast between Monterey and San Simeon. The Pacific Coast Highway hugs this famous 90 mile stretch of coast and its curves and ocean vistas are an experience, not just another way to get from Point A to Point B. I count doing this drive as one of the top must-see things to do while in California.

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Highway 1 “Hugging” the coast

There are numerous state parks and a few “towns” scattered throughout Big Sur. The lodging options run the full spectrum between camping and luxury resort (I’m not going to cover lodging options here as that depends entirely on how you are traveling. With my family (parents and sister), we rented a cabin at Ripplewood and were very pleased with it). Most lodging, restaurants, and parks are concentrated in the area along Highway 1 between Andrew Molera State Park and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Further south are a few more state parks before reaching San Simeon.

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I’ve visited this awe-inspiring coast four times now, each under very different circumstances. My most recent visit, about a month ago with my family, is providing most of the inspiration for these tips:

For the beach: 

Hands down: Andrew Molera State Park beach; it’s an easy flat one mile walk through meadows and wildflowers to the beach where you will likely share the beach with just a handful of people (maybe except for on a summer weekend…). Bring a blanket, a picnic, and some clothing layers. Be prepared: To get to the beach, you may need to cross a creek with knee-high water. To get to the park: Go south from Carmel on Highway 1 for about 20 miles. It’ll be on your right-hand side. They have a walk-in campground as well. 

Beach at Andrew Molera state park

Beach at Andrew Molera state park

For the coastal views: 

This is what Big Sur is all about! All along Highway 1, there are numerous pull-outs where you can pull over and snap a few shots of the amazing and most surreal coastline.

A few must-see views:

At the signed vista point just before Julia Pfeiffer Burns state park (heading south-bound)

At the signed vista point just before Julia Pfeiffer Burns state park (heading south-bound)

And one of the most picturesque vistas of them all:

McWay Falls

McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns state park

Don’t skip seeing McWay Falls crash onto the shore of the wild Pacific below. Yes, it’s iconic Big Sur and not exactly off the beaten path, but it’s worth it. You will need to enter Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (not to be confused with Pfeiffer Big Sur state park, just up the road) to access the McWay trail. Then it’s a hop, skip, and a jump to the viewing area where you’ll likely see other snap-happy travelers admiring the view. Not only is the view of the falls itself amazing, but the view from the far northern end of the trail is spectacular as well:

View from north end

View from north end

Take note: there is no beach access here. And people have died trying… we were told that a girl fell from the bluff right into the ocean just the day before we were there… we saw the search and rescue crew looking for her body. No joke!  

For the food: 

Truth: The food in the Big Sur area is overpriced. I’m talking serious sticker-shock ya’ll. This region attracts visitors from all over the world and with its isolation and limited development (which is a good thing!), there’s not a whole lot of places to grab a bite to eat. So it’s not hard to drive up the prices. Plus, think of that delivery premium for the windy commute up and down Highway 1. So my best advice here is to stock up in the last major town (like Monterey) and plan to prepare a few meals yourself, especially breakfast and lunch. That will save you a ton of money right there. Trust me. Plus, it’s easier to plan hikes that way, knowing you have your lunch with you. What’s better than a picnic surrounded by majestic redwoods and a babbling creek??

Our picnic spot in Julia Pfeiffer Burns state park

Our picnic spot in Julia Pfeiffer Burns state park

If you do decide to treat yourselves to a dinner or two out, then I highly recommend the Big Sur Bakery and Restaurant. It’s so much more than a bakery, and their freshly made oven-fired pizza is a tasty delight. The carrot soup is a bit underwhelming however. Tip: if you’re there for dinner, there’s a chance they’ll have some leftover pastries from the morning up for grabs and on the house. Take the chocolate croissant and you’ll thank me in the morning. 

For hikes in the redwoods: 

Big Sur is actually in the very southern reaches of the mighty redwood tree. They just don’t grow any further south. The trees here are not quite as big as further north (between San Francisco and Eureka), but still provide majestic beauty of their own. Combined with flowing creeks, lush green ferns, and a redwood sorrel that carpets the ground, a redwood forest is best described as magical. Yeah, I said “magical”, you better believe it.

The two hikes that we did that showcased the redwoods the most were both in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, which is the biggest park in the area with the most amenities. The first hike was a pretty easy jaunt to the Pfeiffer Falls, and while the Falls itself weren’t particularly impressive to me, the walk amongst the towering giants was. The second hike is the Buzzard’s Roost trail on the other side of Highway 1, easily accessed by the trail near the visitor center that crosses the Big Sur river over a bridge and then goes underneath the highway. It’s a quad-busting work out on switchbacks that climb from the shady redwoods to the short coyote bushes on top with a view of the Pacific as your reward.

Rays in sunlight in the redwoods. On the Buzzard's Roost trail.

Rays in sunlight in the redwoods. On the Buzzard’s Roost trail (before the switchbacks).

For Happy Hour: 

After wandering around all day, treat yourself to a tasty beverage at Nepenthe. There are many outdoor seating options. Just remember that everything here is overpriced. But seriously, taking in that view of the vast expanse of the Pacific down below while sipping my beer in the company of my awesome family was a pretty wonderful moment on this trip. I let go of any anxiety that I had and was completely mesmerized by the time and space that I was in right there.

Plentiful outdoor seating at Nepenthe. With my parents and sister.

Plentiful outdoor seating at Nepenthe. With my parents and sister.

Have you been to Big Sur? Have any tips to add to this list?

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3 comments

  1. Joke Groen · · Reply

    Love your review!! I was there!!30 some years ago…..Thanks for sharing and what lovely pictures,Sam!

  2. Marilyn (Oma) Less · · Reply

    Sam: As usual I loved reading about your adventures. Your descriptions and photos had me being there with you and your family. Thanks for including me in your listing. Love, Oma

  3. Hermien · · Reply

    I would like to add a stop in Monterey, not only to shop, but visit the historic Cannery Row. John Steinbeck wrote his book Cannery Row about the people who lived there.

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