It’s hard to imagine a bird with a wingspan as long as your car (or, if you’ve got a Mini, even longer). And, if it hadn’t been for extensive conservation efforts, such a vision would have disappeared from our state entirely. Fortunately, the magnificent California condor, which carves great circles in the sky on wings reaching more than 9 feet/3 meters from tip to tip, has been brought back from the brink of extinction. In the late 1980s, only 25 to 30 condors were left in the wild.
An intense effort to captive breed the critically endangered birds, with the Ventana Wildlife Society, San Diego and Los Angeles Zoos, and other organizations stepping in to help, condors were slowly reintroduced into the wild. Today, nearly 300 big birds soar the skies above California, Arizona, and Mexico. And one of the best places to spy them is at Big Sur. If you see a knot of cars pulled over, passengers craning their heads out the windows and pointing up, or possibly even using binoculars or setting up spotting scopes, there’s probably a condor or two in the area. Pull over—it might just be a once-in-a-lifetime sighting. But we hope not.
Welcome to one of the world’s most unforgettable stretches of coastline. This roughly 90-mile-long stretch of redwood- and fog-trimmed waterfront between Carmel-by-the-Sea and Hearst Castle draws you (and writers like Henry Miller and Beat Generation darling Jack Kerouac) in with a magic allure that is almost palpable. This is, quite simply, a place you want to be—bluffs, sea, and sky.
The classic drive through Big Sur, along twisting Highway 1, offers plenty of pullovers at places like seen-it-in-a-million-car-commercials Bixby Bridge. Stop at parks along the coastline and look up to see endangered California condors, North America’s largest birds, or look down to scan the swells for migrating whales or sea otters floating among dense beds of kelp, California’s signature seaweed. Campgrounds abound, like Big Sur Campground, Fernwood Resort, Riverside Campground, and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. The region’s beauty also makes it a magnet for exclusive, splurge-worthy hotels like the cliff-hugging Post Ranch Inn, or luxurious Ventana Inn and Spa.
These days, however, portions of Big Sur’s iconic coastline have been temporarily interrupted due to the effects of 2017’s winter storms—heavy rainfall wreaked havoc on the area’s natural beauty and led to mudslides, fallen boulders, and a bridge outage. Thankfully, the majority of local businesses are still open. The Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge is expected to reopen in late September 2017, while the area around the mudslide is slated to take at least a year to repair.
In the meantime, though, you can still experience much of this special area of California’s Central Coast from both the north and the south—check out our tips on how to navigate Highway 1’s closures. The detours happily offer their own delights—like the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas and the rolling, vineyard-covered hills of Paso Robles. Read on to explore your own version of the magical Big Sur.
Wild and incomparably beautiful, Big Sur is fabled for mountains that plunge to the surf and majestic redwood forests cloaked in ocean fogs. The Central Coast region inspires the many artists who live here as well as visitors who venture to the region via Highway 1, perhaps the world’s most scenic drive.
The storms of winter 2017 wreaked havoc on the area’s natural beauty, causing mudslides and fallen boulders that led to closures of the iconic thoroughfare. While Big Sur is famous for such iconic spans as the graceful, 85-year-old Bixby Bridge, it was an anonymous crossing above a gorge that made headlines: Eroded hillsides had undermined the support columns for the 320-foot-long Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge. Before long, cracks developed and the bridge buckled. Then, in May, a mudslide buried much of Highway 1, and there is not yet a definitive reopening date.
So Highway 1 is currently cut into thirds. That’s the bad news.
The good news? Crews have worked diligently to restore access, and visitors can now reach many areas of Big Sur, even though you can’t drive the full stretch of Highway 1 until a replacement bridge is built and the landslide damage is repaired. Plus, the detour—which takes about 30 minutes more than the original route—is filled with scenic views, incredible wine, and historic attractions worthy of exploring. Much of Big Sur is open for business and here’s where to experience it.
From the North
The long stretch of Highway 1 in Monterey County between Carmel and the heart of Big Sur is open again—and right now offers the most opportunities to experience this classic road trip.
Drive this roughly 30-mile section to the current turnaround point at the Big Sur Ranger Station and you’ll experience many of Big Sur’s highlights. Just south of Carmel at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, trails edge granite coves, where you can spy harbor seals and sea otters in the waters below. About 10 minutes past Point Lobos, there are two miles of pristine oceanfront in Garrapata State Park, followed by the famed (and quite passable from the north) Bixby Bridge. Next, you’ll reach Point Sur Lighthouse, which has guided mariners along this coast since 1889, and is still conducting its historic tours.
Closer to the ranger station, many businesses north of the damaged bridge have reopened, including such restaurants as the Big Sur Roadhouse, Rocky Point Restaurant, and Fernwood Resort Bar & Grill. You’ll also have plenty of overnight-stay choices: cabins at Glen Oaks Big Sur and Ripplewood Resort, the riverside suites at the Big Sur River Inn & Restaurant, and tent and RV camping at Big Sur Campground & Cabins.
For a full list of open lodging, restaurants, and shopping, read this helpful blog post by the Monterey County Convention & Visitors Bureau, which also offers up-to-date information on businesses and road conditions.
To connect to the southern area of Big Sur during the road closures, a detour is required, starting from Highway 68 near Monterey, which connects to Highway 101 heading south. Along the way, interesting stops include the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas and wine tasting in Salinas Valley, and on the southern end, the rolling, vineyard-covered hills of Paso Robles.
From the South
Beyond the turnoff for Hearst Castle and the Piedras Blancas elephant seals in San Luis Obispo County, Highway 1 begins its twisting climb up Big Sur’s cliffs. Major road blockages at Mud Creek have led to the closure of the highway after Salmon Creek, which is just beyond Ragged Point Inn and Resort, a major hub for southern Big Sur about 16 miles north of Hearst Castle.
But if you have to stop anywhere near Big Sur’s southern end, Ragged Point is a perfect destination. It gives you a taste of Big Sur, with spectacular views looking north up the coast from atop the 350-foot cliffs. You can hike down the steep 0.6-mile Ragged Point Cliffside Trail to reach a remote cove or stroll through the resort’s lush blufftop gardens.
With everything from seasonal California cuisine (and spectacular sunsets) at Ragged Point Restaurant to burgers and hot dogs at the sandwich stand, you won’t go hungry, either. And for the full Ragged Point experience, stay overnight in an oceanview room, complete with balcony and gas fireplace.
If you want to see as much Big Sur as possible, this Highway One Classic road trip will take you as far north and as far south as you can travel, with worthy detour stops along the way.
For more detailed information on travel conditions in the southern part of Big Sur, check updates provided by Visit SLO CAL, the San Luis Obispo County Visitors Bureau.
It's one of Big Sur’s most luxurious places to stay, and Post Ranch Inn's jaw-dropping architecture—which blends seamlessly with its bluff-top setting—makes this a sublime way to experience this stretch of the Central Coast. The resort has recently re-opened amid the ongoing road closures along Highway 1, and in doing so it has taken a stay at the hotel to new heights—literally.
The winter rains of early 2017 had forced the closure of parts of the iconic coastal highway—including access to the hotel. In late April, however, Post Ranch Inn launched a helicopter shuttle out of Monterey (with possible upcoming expansions to Paso Robles and San Francisco). Not only is the helicopter the only way into the property until this part of Highway 1 re-opens, it also offers new, sweeping views of the idyllic spot.
Once you’re arrived, you’ll see why Post Ranch Inn regularly makes magazines’ best-of lists, from Most Romantic to World’s Coolest Hotel Bathrooms. First opened in 1992 on a former homestead and cattle ranch, the resort is comprised of 40 accommodations, including ocean-view suites, treehouses on stilts, and the freestanding Cliff House, which features a deck that appears to suspend over the 1,200-foot-high ocean bluff. All of the sleek (and sustainably built) accommodations have a certain glow thanks to details like reclaimed redwood, glass walls, fireplaces, and stainless-steel soaking tubs. Adding to the Zen ambience are the absence of televisions or alarm clocks, and the relaxed calm that comes with an 18-and-up age policy.
The splurge-worthy room rate includes a variety of included perks, from a breakfast buffet to daily yoga classes, guided hikes, and stargazing outings. Keep your eyes peeled while hiking the resort’s trails for the unique creatures who live here, such as the endangered Smith’s Blue Butterfly, the California Red-Legged Frog, and California Condors.
The hotel is also known for its award-winning restaurant, Sierra Mar, which offers local delights like Morro Bay oysters and Monterey Red Abalone. And while you’re here be sure to bliss out at the onsite spa, and order the Big Sur Jade Stone Therapy, a treatment that utilizes warmed pieces of local jade collected from nearby beaches, as well as basalt river rocks and cooled marble.
The Escape Through the Skies package lasts through the end of August 2017 (must book by July 20), and includes dinner at Sierra Mar, as well as complimentary rides in the hotel’s Lexus Hybrid to some longtime local favorites, like the restaurant Nepenthe, Phoenix Shop, and Hawthorne Gallery. Additional summer packages may be available—check the Post Ranch Inn website for more information.
While Big Sur is all about nature, that doesn’t mean you have to rough it when you visit. In fact, the region boasts some of the state’s most celebrated accommodation, with ultra-luxurious rooms, top-notch spas and facilities, and unforgettable dining experiences. At Post Ranch Inn, suites and private houses are miraculously sculpted into the cliffs, and enormous picture windows provide unparalleled views of sea and sky. (If you like to whale-watch from your bed, you’ve found your dream destination.) Due to the current road closures turning the area around Post Ranch Inn into a temporary island, the resort is offering an exclusive new way to arrive—via helicopter from Monterey. There’s even a luxury car available for guests who need local wheels, and a shuttle that cruises you around the Big Sur coast.
"At Post Ranch Inn, suites and private houses are miraculously sculpted into the cliffs"
On the opposite (inland) side of Highway 1, there’s Ventana Inn & Spa, a redwood-shaded paradise where outdoor Japanese-style soaking tubs and big decks give suites a breezy, natural feel; or book a room with a fireplace for extra cosy comfort on foggy nights. The resort’s most recent addition is the Campground at Ventana, where you can glamp in a furnished tent under a canopy of redwoods (check website for opening dates). Dining here is also excellent, with a focus on local, seasonal ingredients provided by local farms. Here, and at Post Ranch, you can dine or book a spa treatment even if you’re not a guest—a nice way to spoil yourself without breaking the bank.
Want a short hike with a huge reward? The ½-mile/1-km round-trip Waterfall Overlook Trail at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park could be the biggest-bang-for-not-much-work hike on the planet. The almost flat stroll ends an oceanfront overlook with flawless views of McWay Falls, a favorite spot of Big Sur pioneer woman Julia Pfeiffer Burns, for whom the park is named. Let’s just say Julia had good taste. The plume of water drops some 80 feet/24 meters from the top of a granite cliff to a sandy cove below (not even footprints on the sand mar the perfection, as this beach is closed to the public).
If you’re up for more of a leg stretch, also hike the nearby Ewoldsen Trail, a 2-mile/3-km loop that dips and climbs through old-growth redwood and coastal chaparral, with the payoff of your 1,600-foot/488-meter elevation gain being nonstop oh-my-gosh views.
Welcome to Big Sur’s version of the Golden Gate—and probably the most Instagrammed feature along the Big Sur coastline. And rightly so. Pull over at numerous turnouts to get amazing views, particularly from the bridge’s south end at sunset. Note: Due to recent road closures, you can currently only reach Bixby from the north.
Completed in 1932 for just over $200,000, the concrete span, one of the highest bridges of its kind in the world, soars 260 feet/79 meters above the bottom of a steep canyon carved by Bixby Creek. One look at the canyon’s steep and crumbling cliffs, and it’s obvious that building the bridge wasn’t exactly a cakewalk. First, a massive wooden framework had to be built, with materials brought by truck on what was then a narrow, one-way road riddled with hairpin turns. A staggering 45,000 individual sacks of cement had to be hauled up the framework—and this is before heavy machinery could help do the lifting. Each bag was transported via a system of platforms and slings suspended by cables 300 feet/91 meters above the creek. Ironically, the span was completed before the road, and it would be five more years before the route linking Carmel to San Luis Obispo would even be opened.
If you’re looking for evidence of Big Sur’s boho free spirit, look no further then Esalen Institute. Over 400 workshops are held annually at this center for personal and social transformation in topics as varied as songwriting, couples’ communication, and shamanic cosmology.
A little too “out there” for you? Guests are welcome to stay as a personal retreat without booking a workshop—free to wander the property’s beautiful 27 acres/11 hectares, book a massage, lounge in the site’s cliff-hugging soaking tubs heated by natural hot springs, and enjoy meals featuring ingredients from the onsite garden. If you’re staying elsewhere, you can still book a soak in the hot-tub (advance reservations are required)—just know that bathing suits are optional and you’ll need to be a bit of a night owl: they are only open to nonguests from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m.
With Big Sur views only matched if you’re a gull, this cliff-topping restaurant rightfully makes it onto everyone’s bucket list. Even locals flock here, drawn by the ultra-relaxed vibe created by the original owners in 1949 (and still owned and run by the same family today). And of course they come for that view. Take it in from a seat on the patio, or step inside the main building, designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright and hinting at the master architect’s style of making a structure be one with its environment.
Big Sur’s Beat Generation and hippie era live on at Nepenthe too—hang around the handsome bar or outside by the fire pit and listen and keep your ears peeled for names like Kerouac and stories that start with “I remember when…” You can even take home a bit of Big Sur style: The Phoenix at Nepenthe gift shop features handmade jewelry, ceramics, and even instruments for that perfect drum circle.
Note: Limekiln State Park was affected by the Big Sur road closures—check the park’s website for the latest information on accessibility.
As the name suggests, Limekiln State Park was once the site of a thriving limekiln operation, and short walks let you explore the ruins of four limekilns. Cultural history explains how, in the late 1880s, naturally occurring limestone was harvested from a nearby slope, then fed into the hulking iron and stone kilns. Intense heat—with kiln fires fueled by felled redwoods—extracted pure lime, a key ingredient in construction cement, which was used in buildings to the north in Monterey.
Once the kiln owners ran out of limestone and redwood, they closed the kilns. Slowly the forest recovered, and the second-growth redwood stands found in this park today make for a pleasant and shady escape (not to mention one with an interesting past). Enjoy a hike to Limekiln Falls, or take the easy jaunt to the park’s sandy beach. There are also 28 campsites.
Note: Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is open for limited use, with campsites available on a first-come, first-served basis. Check the park’s website for more information.
California’s coast redwoods meet their southernmost habitat along the Big Sur coast, and this gem of a park is a great way to sample their deep shade, and cathedral-like beauty. The park’s roots are in homesteading: John Pfeiffer settled on some 160 acres/65 hectares here (his 1884 cabin, originally perched high above the Big Sur River Gorge, has been reconstructed along the park’s Gorge Trail). In the 1930s, Pfeiffer’s land became the first nugget of this beautiful park.
A small but appealing network of trails wends through the 1,000-acre/405-hectare preserve. Many trails in the area have been closed due to fire and flood damages; check Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park’s website or Facebook page for the latest trail openings. Extend your stay with a stay at the park’s unpretentious Big Sur Lodge, or reserve a campsite on the banks of the river (sites book up well in advance, particularly in peak summer months, so plan ahead).
The cultural heart and soul of Big Sur, the Henry Miller Memorial Library, named for and created in honor of the famed American writer who called Big Sur home between 1944 and 1962, describes itself as a place “where nothing happens.” During the winter, it’s a sleepy spot where you can browse books (including Miller’s influential works like Tropic of Cancer) and enjoy a cup of coffee. But May through October, there’s a calendar-full of happenings, including live performances and special events, like the annual Big Sur International Short Film Screening Series, taking place in and around the snug coastal cabin. And for 300 lucky listeners, there are intimate live music performances, featuring big name artists such as Band of Horses and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, presented in a lush redwood grove adjacent to the library.
Some of Big Sur’s most beloved restaurants are currently inaccessible due to the road closures, but there are still local favorites open to fuel your excursions around the area.
On the southern end, the last accessible point on Highway 1 is Salmon Creek just beyond Ragged Point, known as the “Gateway to Big Sur.” Due to current road closures, you can’t travel farther north from here, but for your journey back down the coast, grab a snack to go at the Ragged Point Inn’s Sandwich Stand—or stay for a romantic sunset dinner at their gourmet restaurant, where you’ll choose seasonal entrées from the daily-changing chalkboard menu.
On the north side, be sure to visit Big Sur Roadhouse at Glen Oak Big Sur, where Cajun-style seasonings mix it up with ultra-local ingredients (think gumbo made with just-caught seafood and you'll get the picture). The roadhouse's design is as intriguing as its food, with an airy interior accented with recycled and salvaged wood details, edgy modern art, and inviting outdoor seating surrounded by redwoods.
Note: Some of the below restaurants have been affected by recent road closures. Check each restaurant's website or See Monterey for the latest updates.
For a signature “ambrosia burger” served with a world-class view, head to Nepenthe, where a huge deck overlooks the Pacific—nurse your fries and beer and stay until sunset. For a dress-up night out (and at Big Sur that generally means look presentable and don’t wear flip-flops), book a table at Post Ranch Inn’s restaurant, Sierra Mar (consider splurging on the nine-course Taste of Big Sur tasting menu), or settle into the rustic lodge-like restaurant at Ventana Inn & Spa, focusing on American cuisine made with local ingredients.
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