Perched on the dramatic cliffs of the rugged central coast of California, Big Sur is a paradise for hikers, cyclists, artists, photographers, and nature lovers. Plus, nearby Carmel adds to the charm with its quaint cottages and stunning gardens. There are also no shortage of restaurants with views and adorable cabins tucked into the redwood forest here for cozy weekends. It’s one of my favorite Southern California getaways. It also makes a great road trip from the Bay Area. Here are the very best of Big Sur activities and things to do in both Big Sur and Carmel…
- Things to Do in Big Sur
- 1. Hike Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
- 2. Stop for a Drink (or Meal) at Nepenthe
- 3. Marvel at Bixby Creek Bridge
- 4. Drive Old Coast Road
- 5. Take a Break at Ragged Point
- 6. See McWay Falls
- 7. Do the World-Famous 17 mile drive by Pebble Beach. (Or Bike It!)
- 8. Enjoy the Viewpoints at Garrapata State Park
- 9. Camp at Pfieffer Big Sur State Park
- 10. Breathe in the Redwoods
- 11. Walk Pfeiffer Beach
- 12. See the Carmel Mission
- 13. Splurge at Post Ranch Inn
- 14. Hike Andrew Molera State Park
- 15. Walk or Bicycle Carmel’s Scenic Drive.
- 16. Visit the Henry Miller Library
Things to Do in Big Sur
1. Hike Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is a real Big Sur highlight and one of my favorite spots for a beautiful day hike. Located just south of Carmel, it’s easy to bicycle to Point Lobos if you’re staying in Carmel, as we did on our most recent visit.
As the “crown jewel” of California’s 280 parks statewide, Point Lobos is a nature reserve with unique and unparalleled beauty…and lots of wildlife! As one of the richest marine habitats in the world, you’ll spot sea lions, otters, and elephant seals. Even Orca whales make it a point to stop here when they’re migrating south between December to April.
Popular day hikes here include the Point Lobos Loop Trail (easy 6.7 miles), the South Plateau Trail to Bird Island (moderate, 1.6 miles), and the Point Lobos South Shore Trail (easy, 1.6 miles).
Head to Point Lobos early to avoid crowds and find parking ($10). Or ride your bike on the paved trail as we did and then lock it when you head out on a hike. While you can park on the side of Highway 1 if the lot is full, you’ll have a long walk to arrive at a trailhead near the scenic coast.
2. Stop for a Drink (or Meal) at Nepenthe
Nepenthe—which translates from Greek as “House of No Sorrow”—is everybody’s favorite Big Sur restaurant. It’s a definite Big Sur to do. Be sure to add it to your Pacific Coast Highway itinerary.
Perched high on the coast with gorgeous views, Nepenthe offers plenty of outdoor seating and a long wooden bar for sipping drinks or enjoying a meal.
Nepenthe first opened for business in 1949! In fact, the owners purchased it from Orson Wells and Rita Hayworth who’d planned to use it as a vacation home. Back in its heyday, it was the hub of artists and bohemians looking for good food, music, and dancing.
I’ve been entranced sine the early eighties when I first visited as teenager. it’s always my first stop in Big Sur. Embracing the misty magic that is Big Sur here at Nepenthe is my favorite way to let all my worldly cares slip away.
Where to Stay in Big Sur and Carmel
1. Luxury Option:
Looking for minimalist luxury? Stay at The Getaway, located conveniently in the best part of cute Carmel. Check price and availability at the Getaway Hotel here.
If money is no object, head to Ventana Big Sur.
2. Cozy Craftsman Cabin:
Gaze at the stars from your outdoor clawfoot bathtub (or the woodfired sauna) in this quaint cabin deep in the redwoods. It’s perfect for a solo retreat or romantic weekend.
Check price and availability on the craftsman cabin here.
3. Marvel at Bixby Creek Bridge
One of the most photographed bridges in California, Bixby Bridge offers expansive views of the dramatic coastline. Taking a photo here is one of the best things to do in Big Sur. With fragrant canyons on one side and the turquoise Pacific on the other, Bixby Creek Bridge delights visitors from around the world.
For photos arriving from the south, cross the bridge and park at the view point on either side of Highway 1. On the west side, you’ll capture more cliff and ocean views. On the east side of the highway, you’ll capture more of the bridge’s impressive architecture (See “Old Coast Road” below).
4. Drive Old Coast Road
If you’ve got a mountain bike, e-bike, or 4W, be sure to check out Old Coast Road. This was the road locals used to get around Big Sur before Bixby Creek Bridge was built. To find the road today, if you’re heading north, turn off to the left by the tiny parking lot just after the bridge.
You’ll bounce along on an unpaved road here as you take in views galore. It’s about 14 miles up and down grades through redwoods and past meadows here. Just be aware it’s not that easy to turn around!
5. Take a Break at Ragged Point
Ragged Point is at the south end of Big Sur and makes a great stop for coffee, an inexpensive meal or a hike. It’s also home to the Ragged Point Inn and Resort, a great spot to stay for gorgeous coastal views.
Ragged Point also makes a nice base for visiting Hearst Castle (15 miles south), Cambria, and the many wineries on the beautiful central coast a bit south of Big Sur. You’ll also find the elephant seal rookery nine miles south on Highway 1. While you can’t disturb the elephant seals, you can get great photos of them!
6. See McWay Falls
Picture postcard perfect McWay Falls—which drops 80 feet onto the beach— is located in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park right on California Highway 1 (not to be confused with Pfieffer Big Sur State Park). The park, which stretches along the coastline here, was named after a pioneer woman from Big Sur.
Best of all, t’s an easy, short, flat and super scenic “hike” to see the falls, making it easy for both children and elderly visitors to enjoy. Perhaps nowhere else in this area is there such a big pay-off for so little work!
7. Do the World-Famous 17 mile drive by Pebble Beach. (Or Bike It!)
Conveniently sandwiched between beautiful Carmel and John Steinbeck country in nearby Monterey is the one of the world’s bucket list drives: famous 17 mile drive along Pebble Beach, golf capital of the world. Don’t miss this on your visit! It’s a great thing to do near Big Sur.
You can drive it for an entrance fee of $10.50 but it also makes a phenomenal bike ride. (Expect hills though so unless you’re comfortable climbing on your bike, rent an e-bike in Carmel.)
Allow a few hours to really soak up the sites here. There are 17 recommended stops on your self-guided tour. From Bird Rock to The Lone Cypress, you’ll want to make time for all of them.
8. Enjoy the Viewpoints at Garrapata State Park
Garrapata State Park—an incredible place to visit in Big Sur—spans both sides of California Highway 1 here, including 2.1 miles of the California coast. Take the beautiful Garrapata State Park Bluff Trail for an easy walk out to viewpoints over the ocean. Or head into the redwood forest on the opposite side of the road.
Unlike some of the other parks I’ve listed here, Garrapata State Park has no main entrance. You’ll just park on Highway 1 at marked pull-offs (starting about 5.1 miles south of Carmel’s Rio Road). Much of the park remains closed since the Soberanes Fire in 2016. However, you can still access the first 1.25 miles of the Soberanes Canyon trail.
Note: “Garrapatas” means “tick” in Spanish and there are many here! Wear long pants and socks so you don’t bring home any unintended souvenirs with you.
9. Camp at Pfieffer Big Sur State Park
Pfieffer Big Sur, located 26 miles south of Carmel, is a great place to camp! It’s also extremely popular so plan ahead or prepare to be disappointed. All campsites are reserved six months ahead of time. There are also cabins available to rent. As a last resort, you can check for same day availability due to cancellations (known as “walk up campsites). You’ll need to show up in person at 8 am the day you want to reserve, however.
If you’re not camping, Pfieffer Big Sur is still a great place for hiking, biking, and swimming in the Big Sur River. (It’s also a great place for hiking as a beginner.) Look for skunks, black-tailed deer, wild turkeys, and bobcats here.
Note: Watch out for poison oak here! It’s all over Big Sur but can be particularly prevalent here.
10. Breathe in the Redwoods
The coastal redwoods here in Big Sur are the very same old-growth redwoods you can see in Northern California in, for example, Muir Woods. You’ll find a stand of them at Pfieffer Big Sur near the entrance to the park and the lodge stretching to Pfieffer Falls.
Limekiln State Park (2 miles south of Lucia on Highway 1) is a particularly great spot for walking in the redwoods. There are three canyons in the park, each with a short trail. The most scenic redwoods are at the Limekiln Falls trail junction, where the three trails come together. Or, for a scenic redwood drive, wander one of the turn-offs off Highway 1.
11. Walk Pfeiffer Beach
Pfeiffer Beach has purple sand! It’s a special beach—and a beautiful place to see in Big Sur—but it can be a little hard to find as it’s off the beaten path. About 1.5 miles south of Pfieffer State Park, you’ll see an unmarked paved road that heads to the beach. It’s not a long drive after that but it’s a narrow road so don’t try to access it in an RV!
The best way to see the purple sand here is to visit after a rain. The other thing you’ll want to check out while you’re here is the Keyhole Arch, a beautiful large rock formation with a small hole in it carved by waves. If you time your visit right (around sunset in winter), the sun shines directly through the keyhole.
12. See the Carmel Mission
How many of California’s fabled missions have you seen? There are 21 of them built between San Diego and Sonoma, each about a day’s journey apart by horseback for the Franciscan missionaries sent by Spain, beginning in 1769.
The Carmel Mission Basilica is the second of the Alta California missions, originally in Monterey, but later moved by Father Junipero Serra to its current site in Carmel. Since then, the mission has hosted kings and world leaders from around the world.
13. Splurge at Post Ranch Inn
If you’re visiting Big Sur for the views, be sure to plan a memorable meal at at Post Ranch Inn. The floor to ceiling windows make you feel like a bird soaring over the pacific. This resort also makes a spectacular place to stay.
This incredible cliffside resort offers absolutely breathtaking views along the Big Sur coastline But only when it’s not foggy! June through August is frequently socked in so no use paying to enjoy a wall of fog.
Post Ranch Inn’s restaurant, Sierra Mar, is a Wine Spectator award winner. With locally foraged ingredients and its impressive wine cellar (more than 15,000 bottles), a meal is memorable here.
Note: In 2020, reservations at Sierra Mar are only available to overnight guests at Post Ranch Inn.
14. Hike Andrew Molera State Park
Just north of Pfeiffer Beach on the coast at the mouth of the Big Sur River is the lovely Andrew Molera State Park, yet another hiker’s paradise, with access to a less-trafficked hidden beach. Choose from easy trails like the Creamery Meadows or try the Panorama and Ridge trails for a longer hike. This is where to surf in Big Sur!
15. Walk or Bicycle Carmel’s Scenic Drive.
If you’re staying in Carmel, head down towards the beach for a beautiful tour along Carmel’s Scenic Drive (which is completely different than the more famous 17 mile drive up the road). You can park at Carmel River State Beach. This route is just a mile or so long but is best enjoyed at a slower pace by bicyle or on a walk.
You can pick up the scenic drive at the end of Ocean Avenue, turning south for dramatic views of Point Lobos. Turn onto 15th to see Clint Eastwood’s Mission Ranch hotel and restaurant. There are no end of picturesque coastal views and fairtyale cottages here!
16. Visit the Henry Miller Library
The Henry Miller Library is a non-profit arts center built to document the life of writer and artist Henry Miller in the 1960’s. Today, it’s also a place for the community to gather for performances and a bookstore for the public. Local artists share their work here.
In 2,000, the Henry Miller Library also acquired two major collections by the author. If you’re a Henry Miller fan, head here immediately as the library houses the second biggest collection of his manuscripts and letters in the world today. (UCLA has the most.)
Big Sur Weather
Big Sur is magical any time of the year but! You should know that if you visit in summer, say, June through August, there is a high probability of fog due to the marine layer that moves in. I’ve visited twice in summer and it makes for atmospheric photos, but it can also obstruct views so just be prepared.
Most popular times to visit our April to October as temps are warmer (70s) and that marine layer burns off. Expect mid-50s and 60’s in winter and mid-60s in summer.
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