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The California coast is breathtaking throughout its length, but the longest continuous stretch of its dramatic coastline belongs to Big Sur. Big Sur is one of the most beautiful places in the world, and there’s so much to see and do here that you’ll need more than one trip back to experience it all.
With just over 100 miles of coastline and towering mountains rising up from the ocean, Big Sur offers an array of activities for both active travelers and those who prefer to enjoy their scenic surroundings from a distance. Hikers can explore hidden coves or tackle steep trails along the coast, kayakers can paddle around Point Lobos State Reserve or surfers can paddle out from Pfeiffer Beach onto King’s Canyon Cove. Wondering what to do at Big Sur? I got you!
Where is Big Sur?
You can find Big Sur in California. It’s a national park, so you’ll have to pay a fee to enter—but it’s well worth the cost. You can also explore the Ventana Wilderness within the park, which is home to plenty of hiking trails and pristine beaches. Big Sur offers some of the most beautiful scenery in all of Northern California.
The area’s dramatic cliffs and rugged terrain provide stunning views of the Pacific Ocean, making it one of those places where you just have to pause and let the incredible surroundings seep into your eyes.
There are many ways methods of transportation that’ll help you get to Big Sur. If you prefer to drive and are coming from San Francisco, it’s about 5 hours by car or 6 hours from Los Angeles. Highway 101 runs through most of the scenic parts of California and ends at Carmel-by-the Sea in the Central Coast region. From there it’s another half-hour drive south along Highway 1 before reaching Big Sur itself!
However, If flying is more your style, Monterey Airport is about 40 minutes away from Santa Barbara Airport which has connections around the globe with major airlines such as United Airlines or American Airlines though you should note that due to high demand during summer months these flights fill up fast, so try booking well in advance.
Beaches to Explore at Big Sur
Big Sur isn’t limited to its natural beauty, with limitless destinations around the city, that’ll have you awestruck at every turn. If you’re like me and love to explore the coastline before planning anything else, then I’m sure you’ll just be itching to get to one of these incredible beaches:
- Pfeiffer beach
- Sand dollar beach
- Carmel beach
Pfeiffer Beach, more commonly referred to as purple sand beach, is a popular destination for tourists. It’s one of the best places to visit in Big Sur, and it has all the features you would expect from this gorgeous part of California. Not forgetting the magical iridescent sands, that capture most of the attention.
With amazing views, coves, forests, and hiking trails, many would choose to come to this beach for a romantic weekend getaway. Capture these stunning shots of the damp sand casting luminous colors across the seashore. Read more about Purple Sand Beach before committing to this brilliant getaway.
Sand Dollar Beach
A must-see destination in Big Sur, with another magnificent beach, located near the mouth of a river and surrounded by chunky rocks. This is yet another incredibly beautiful in all of California. While it can be accessed either by hiking or boat – though the hike might entice a few words of appreciation from your mouth – it’s an especially good place for those who want to get away from civilization and relax on their own terms.
You’ll find this hidden gem just south of Sand Dollar State Beach at the end of a designated trail leading through fields of sagebrush and coast live oak trees before descending into a lush redwood forest that opens onto an ocean view where you’ll eventually reach the beach itself.
The Carmel River State Beach is a glorious beach, with crystallized sands, that glimmer unabashedly, complete with a few rocks and a huge tremendous river. This is a great place to go for some light swimming and heavy relaxation. There are also some picnic tables and a public bathroom for you to use, check out this article for more insight on Carmel Beach – Monterey Carmel.
What to Do in Big Sur?
Big Sur, California is one of the most photographed places in the United States. It’s famous for its rugged coastal landscapes, dramatic cliffs, and oceanside camping. Big Sur isn’t just a pretty place to take pictures of, with its combination of outdoor adventure and relaxation, it’s a great destination for any kind of trip.
With incredible scenic overlooks, you’ll most certainly satisfy the innate desire of exploring nature’s palate. Perhaps you’d like to take a scenic drive along the coastline or settle for some historic architecture that whispers secrets of the past. If you want to hike and catch some amazing views of the coast, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is a great place to start.
There are more than 10 different trails with varying degrees of difficulty and length. You can even pick up a map at the visitor center so you know what’s available.
Best Time of Year to Visit Big Sur California
The best time of year to visit Big Sur California might be a tad debatable, because of the distinct beauty you’d unearth upon visiting during all of the seasons. But since many prefer to take their time to choose the best season, you may prefer to visit during the less crowded times.
In that case, the best time to visit Big Sur is between December to March, during the winter months, when the weather is cool and dry, but can also be foggy. Winter is a great season for hiking and photography because you’ll have fewer other tourists around, but be sure to carry extra layers of clothing just in case.
The climate in winter can be windy too, so if you’re planning on spending time outdoors make sure you bring a warm jacket or sweater with you as well as waterproof shoes that offer good traction on slippery surfaces like mud or ice. If you’re lucky, you might get stuck in the midst of some snow might fall.
Similarly autumn is the perfect time of year to visit Big Sur, California. The weather is mild and pleasant, the colors are forever transforming, and the crowds are much thinner. The waterfalls are flowing, the air is crisp, sometimes thick with fog! And if you’re lucky, you might even get to glimpse the rays of sunshine piercing through the plump clouds or crystal clear skies during this time.
Alternatively, you might find that spring is the best time of year to visit Big Sur, as it’s a little warm but not too warm like the summer, and a little breezy but not too breezy like the autumn. Temperatures in this season range between 40 to 65F, making it perfect for hiking, swimming, and simply enjoying these incredible views!
Understandably, Summer is the busiest time of year for Big Sur, with thousands of visitors flocking to the area. The weather is warm and dry, so it’s perfect for hiking, swimming, kayaking, and other outdoor activities, although the heat can become a tad unbearable. During this season you have an excellent chance of seeing whales when they migrate north from Mexico to Alaska. It’s also a great time to go star gazing because there are fewer clouds obscuring the tiny stars compared to other times of the year.
Best Things to do in Big Sur California
The California coast is one of the most stunning destinations in the world and Big Sur is no exception. The winding roads and breathtaking views keep its loyal visitors coming back year after year. Whether you’re looking for peaceful hikes or relaxing beaches, this gorgeous stretch of the California coast is just 90 minutes south of San Francisco and a world away from the hustle of Silicon Valley.
The region is known for its towering sea cliffs, dramatic shorelines, and peaceful state parks, but don’t forget to make time to explore Big Sur’s charming towns and luxury retreats as well. If you’re a fan of historical architecture, shopping at small boutiques, or dining in elegant restaurants with incredible views of the ocean – Big Sur has plenty to offer.
So whether you’re here for an extended getaway or just passing through on your way from San Francisco to Los Angeles, check out our picks for the best things to do and places to visit while in Big Sur California:
- 17-Mile drive
- Andrew Molera State Park
- California Sea Otter Game Refuge
- Calla Lily Valley
- Carmel Heritage Society
- Garrapata State Park
- Henry Miller Memorial Library
- Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
- Limekiln State Park
- Los Padres National Forest
- McWay Falls and Waterfall House Ruins
- Mission San Carlos Borromeo Del Rio Carmelo
- Tor House and Hank Tower
- Monterey Bay National Marine National Sanctuary
- New Camaldoli Hermitage
- Old Coast Road
- Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History
- Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
- Point Lobos National Reserve
- Point Lobos Ranch
- Point Sur State Historic Park
- Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary
This scenic route is a 17-mile stretch of highway that runs through the Big Sur region of California. The drive itself was built during the early 1930s and has since become one of California’s most popular tourist attractions, with over one million visitors each year.
This phenomenal route offers spectacular views at every junction, with many stopping points along the way to take pictures or enjoy various activities such as hiking or biking. It passes through ruby redwood forests and along cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean before reaching its end point at Hearst Castle.
Andrew Molera State Park
Andrew Molera State Park is located along Highway 1 in Big Sur, California. The park is known for its stunning redwoods and hiking trails, that offer dramatic views of rocky cliffs and pristine beaches below, followed by gentle hilltops that make up this stretch of coastline.
Andrew Molera State Park was named after Andrew Molera, a Spanish Californian who was one of the first settlers in this area back in 18th century America which was still part of Mexico at the time. He lived there with his family until he passed away in 1855 at age 89; today there is still a statue of him at his gravesite within this state park.
California Sea Otter Game Refuge
The California sea otter game refuge is a great place to hike and explore. Located in the Big Sur area, it definitely makes for a perfect day trip from Los Angeles or San Francisco. This wildlife refuge is open to the public and has charming sights for visitors who wish to become one with nature.
Here you’ll discover plenty of cute sea otters hanging about, beckoning to the keen eye. Sea otters were discovered in 1938 by scientists who were studying marine life at Monterey Bay on California’s coast. They spied several sea otters floating by themselves on their backs with their paws above their heads, which led them to call them “sleeping” sea otters!
Calla Lily Valley
Calla Lily Valley is one of the many ravishing places to visit in Big Sur. It’s a great place to hike, explore and trundle past an array of wildflowers, followed by interesting wildlife and the silver coastline. Doud Creek passes through Garrapata Beach which is 2 miles long.
The valley is located at the base of a gushing waterfall and has multiple natural rippling pools that you can swim in. The best time to go is between March and April when you’ll be able to see all types of flowers blooming as well as deer grazing along with other wildlife such as fiery furred foxes and coyotes!
Carmel Heritage Society
When you’re not hiking or snorkeling, you might want to take some time out to visit one of the many museums in Big Sur. Of the many museums to discover, the best is the Carmel Heritage Society, which features exhibits on Native American art and history. The museum also houses a Native American library with more than 2,500 books and videos on California’s native peoples.
Garrapata State Park
Garrapata State Park has some of the best hiking trails in Big Sur. There are more than ten miles of trails, including a 2 mile-long beach trail that’s ideal for walking or jogging and is lined with beautiful sprouting vegetation coupled with striking views. Garrapata State Park also has an abundance of RV hook-ups, tent sites with water and electricity, cabins, showers, and bathrooms available at its two campgrounds.
The beach at Garrapata State Park offers crystal clear, rippling waters that are perfect for swimming in or just enjoying some light sunbathing while absorbing the impeccable sights. You can also head out onto their many beautiful beaches nearby where you have access to ocean activities like surfing, fishing, and boating.
Henry Miller Memorial Library
The Henry Miller Memorial Library is a tribute to the famous author and artist, who lived in Big Sur for most of his adult life. The library is open to the public and has a collection of books by Miller as well as those about him. It also has an art gallery where you can buy local art or learn how to paint yourself during one of their workshops. This library is just a few miles off the main highway but feels like it’s worlds away from civilization.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
This park is great for hiking and wildlife viewing, but it’s also a popular spot for people who want to escape the hustle and bustle of the city. The park is located 37 miles south of Carmel and has some incredible views of the Big Sur coastline. It’s a great place to visit during winter or spring because you’ll have lesser crowds, though you’ll find that even during peak season there will be plenty of room for everyone on the trails.
The park’s magnificent granite cliffs offer incredible views of the rugged coast while the oak woodlands offer plenty of wildlife like deer, foxes, and – if you’re lucky – the occasional mountain lion. The park’s trails are perfect for hikers looking for an adventure. The most popular trails are Fern Creek Trail and Pine Ridge Trail but you can also choose from several other options depending on how much time you want to spend hiking or what type of trail experience you’re seeking.
Limekiln State Park
Limekiln State Park, in Big Sur California, is a 56-mile drive from Carmel. This park is known for its spectacular views of the Big Sur coast. It’s part of the Ventana Wilderness and has a delightful creek winding through the midst of it, which hikers can explore via an easy trail that runs along its banks.
You’ll also see Limekiln Falls, one of the most photographed waterfalls in all of Big Sur. There are several picnic areas and campgrounds at this park as well as hiking trails, a beach, and a nature center where you can learn about local flora and fauna.
Los Padres National Forest
Los Padres National Forest is one of the largest national forests in the United States. It covers over 2 million acres and includes mountains, rivers, streams, forests, and beaches. Los Padres National Forest is located in the southern portion of the Central Coast region of California and is divided into two separate areas: Los Padres Wilderness and Montecito Ranger District Los Padres Wilderness.
Los Padres Wilderness contains some of California’s famous peaks and includes vast tracts of redwood forests that were once part of a much larger stand.
Montecito Ranger District provides breathtaking views from its many overlooks along Highway 101 north towards Santa Barbara County where visitors can see miles upon miles of land covered by vineyards making up a world-famous wine country just waiting to be explored.
McWay Falls and Waterfall House Ruins
McWay Falls is a waterfall in Big Sur located in Julia Pfeiffer Burns state park. The waterfall is part of the McWay Falls State Park and it’s an extremely popular tourist attraction as well. McWay Falls is a waterfall surrounded by exotic palm trees, crumbling fountains, terraces, and steps that lead to the edge of the waterfall where you can sit down and enjoy the peaceful sounds of water hitting rock, splashing drops onto your body, as you hone into the incredible vicinity.
Mission San Carlos Borromeo Del Rio Carmelo
Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo is a Spanish mission located in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. The mission was founded in 1770 and named for Saint Charles Borromeo, an Italian cardinal and bishop of Milan who died in 1584. In the late 1850s, the mission was used as military headquarters during the Indian Wars.
The once-thriving mission currently lies in ruins; however, the collection of significant Spanish artifacts and colonial liturgical art still stands amongst the dusty rubble. Visitors can view these pieces at the museum located onsite and learn about this important place of history while enjoying an hour or two beneath the beaming sun.
Tor House and Hank Tower
If you’re a fan of architecture and historic buildings, visiting Tor House and Hank Tower is an absolute must. The home was built by the famous California poet Robinson Jeffers in the early 1900s. He designed the house himself, with help from architect Julia Morgan who later went on to design Hearst Castle in San Simeon.
It’s located in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, and is open to the public for tours. Hank Tower is another architectural gem that shouldn’t be missed on your trip to Big Sur! This National Historic Landmark was constructed by Jeffers as well for his wife and two sons as a refuge from their busy lives in San Francisco during World War II.
Monterey Bay National Marine National Sanctuary
The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is a federally protected marine area located off the coast of California. It is the biggest American marine sanctuary, spanning 276 miles of shoreline stretching between the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and Cambria in San Luis Obispo County.
Supporting one of the most diverse marine ecosystems in the world, this sanctuary offers a home to a large number of fish, mammals, invertebrates, seabirds, and plants. It also includes beautiful beaches, tidepools, kelp forests – which is a type of underwater forest, underwater seamounts – mountain peaks rising from the depths of the water, followed by cliffs and canyons teeming with life.
Neptune, a small beach town located on Highway 1, is a great place to stop for lunch or dinner. The food is fresh and delicious, and the atmosphere is relaxed. It has a small beach with views of the ocean, making it an ideal spot for sunbathing or stargazing.
You’ll get some great views of the Pacific Ocean as you walk along Neptune Trail—which connects to Coast Trail—and if you’re lucky enough to arrive before sunset, you can catch the sun bleeding across the sky, as it begins to descend for the night.
New Camaldoli Hermitage
New Camaldoli Hermitage is a Benedictine monastery located in Big Sur, California. The monastery was founded by monks who belonged to the Order of Saint Benedict. It was established in 1953 and has been continuously occupied since then. The site itself consists of 6 acres of land that was donated by an anonymous family member of Dom Bruno Dobbs.
Dom Bruno Dobbs served as abbot at New Camaldoli Hermitage from 1953-56, before moving on to become co-founder and first abbot of St. Edward’s Abbey in Kenmore, Washington State.
Old Coast Road
Old Coast Road is a narrow, winding two-lane road between Carmel and San Simeon. The road begins in Carmel and winds its way along the coast of the Pacific Ocean. It has many curves, so be prepared to slow down and enjoy the view as you drive. Old Coast Road is closed to cars in winter, however, it is open year-round to bicyclists and pedestrians.
Old Coast Road is a scenic drive between Carmel and San Simeon, with many curves and steep drops. The road is narrow and winding, so only one car can drive at a time. There are no pavements on Old Coast Road; however, bikes are allowed year-round – except during the winter season. For those cyclists who don’t mind a few bumps in their journey through Big Sur, this road offers an excellent opportunity to explore some of the most beautiful landscapes California has to offer.
Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History
This museum is located in Pacific Grove, close to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It’s a great place to visit if you’re interested in learning more about the geology and natural history of this area. The museum features exhibits on local wildlife, including birds, mammals, reptiles, and insects. There’s also a program for children that teaches them about animals through games and crafts at certain times during the week, free of charge!
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is located just outside of Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA in the southernmost part of the Big Sur region. There are several hiking trails ranging from 2 to 5 miles and they offer spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean, redwoods, and oak trees. A popular hike with locals and tourists alike is Ponderosa Pine Trail which takes you through an old-growth forest that was once inhabited by Native Americans.
The trail is about 4 miles long with phenomenal scenery along the way such as wildflowers and wildlife like deer, bobcats, and mountain lions! There’s also a small waterfall near this trail that many people enjoy swimming under during the summer months, but it can be dangerous during winter with the heavy rainfall that causes flash floods here.
You should always check weather reports before going there in case there are closed roads or other issues like landslides blocking access points into certain areas, especially after heavy rain.
Point Lobos National Reserve
Point Lobos National Reserve is a beautiful place to walk, hike, and swim. It’s also home to many endangered species of wildlife. You may find whales, seals, otters, or even sea lions here! In addition to being a great place for wildlife viewing, Point Lobos offers spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean from its bluffs.
The reserve was established in 1972 as a protected area by the U.S. Congress after years of lobbying by local residents against plans for development in the area (including an oil refinery). Today its natural, and historical beauty is greatly appreciated.
Point Lobos Ranch
If you’re looking for a unique way to experience Big Sur, consider Point Lobos Ranch. The ranch is located in the heart of Big Sur and has been a working cattle ranch since it was established in 1875. The ranch also benefits from its membership with the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and is home to a variety of wildlife species including deer, foxes, coyotes, raccoons, and skunks.
Point Lobos Ranch offers visitors an opportunity to get up close and personal with nature, as well as relish in the breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean from the many vantage points on their 1,600-acre property. Hiking trails, meander through oak woodland trees, while others explore coastal scrub areas or rocky tide pools filled with marine life, such as sea stars and crabs.
Visitors can also go horseback riding along miles of open trails or explore by foot via self-guided tours where they can learn about all aspects of ranch life while enjoying spectacular scenery at every turn.
Point Sur State Historic Park
Point Sur State Historic Park is a California state park located on the Big Sur coast of Monterey County. The phrase Point Sur derives from the Spanish word for sour and refers to its location as the farthest south of all Californian coastal points. Point Sur was an important lookout site in early California because it marked a natural entrance to Monterey Bay from which hostile ships could be seen long before they arrived at Monterey.
Point Sur Lighthouse was first constructed in 1874 but completely rebuilt in 1907-1909 by James A. Harvey, who also built the Point Arena Lighthouse, using lenses originally manufactured for the East Brother Light Station. The lighthouse has been declared excess property by the General Services Administration and plans are underway to transfer it to non-profit groups or local government agencies that will preserve this historic landmark.
Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary
The Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary is a great place for families to hike, and it’s located in the heart of Big Sur. The trail is easy to follow, and the views from up there are amazing! The sanctuary opens in March and closes in October unless the weather conditions grant otherwise. There are plenty of picnic tables along the way, so you can have lunch as you take in all that nature has to offer.
It’s also home to many different birds such as bluebirds, finches, and hummingbirds. You may even see an occasional hawk flying overhead or an owl sitting on a branch above your head!
Big Sur California
Big Sur is most certainly a place of dreams, with certain ones coming true in a heartbeat. From the moment your gaze meets with the magnificent cliffs, mountains, and beaches you’re bound to fall in love. Big Sur is one of those places where your soul feels alive. Where you can escape the chaos and noise of everyday life and just be present with yourself and the world around you.
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FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
What Should I Not Miss in Big Sur?
There are many unmissable attractions in Big Sur, that are both worth mentioning and visiting: McWay Falls, Bixby Creek Bridge, Pfeiffer Beach, Sand Dollar Beach, Limekiln Falls, Garrapata State Beach, Henry Miller Memorial Library, and so much more!
What is there to do Around Big Sur?
There are many things to do around Big Sur, such as going for a 17-mile drive along the coastline, exploring the many beaches that surround the city, hiking the trails that lead to breathtaking views, and exploring the impeccable historical architecture, that’ll have you soul bound in no time.
How Long Should You Spend in Big Sur?
If you’re planning to stay in the area, you might want to remain there for 2 to 3 days, so that you can have enough time to explore and hike the many beaches and nearby towns.
Why is Big Sur so Popular?
Big Sur is a popular destination thanks to its stunning views, redwood forests, hiking beaches, and other recreational opportunities for its visitors.