Welcome to one of the world’s most unforgettable stretches of coastline. This roughly 90-mile-long/ 144 kilometre-long stretch of redwood- and fog-trimmed waterfront between Carmel-by-the-Sea and Hearst Castle has no specific boundaries, no urban core, drawing 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.
Drive Big Sur’s length via twisting Highway One, with plenty of pullovers at places like seen-it-in-a-million-car-commercials Bixby Bridge. Another favourite photo op: McWay Falls, a silvery cascade that falls some 70 feet from the sea cliffs to a remote beach below. 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. Try the famous Ambrosia burger on the deck of Nepenthe, then nurse your beer to watch the sunset. Campgrounds abound, as do rustic cabins at Deetjen’s and other (sometimes funky) resorts. 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.
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 accommodations, 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 nonstop views of sea and sky. (If you like to whale-watch from your bed, you’ve found your dream destination.) 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 Shangri-La 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. 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 even 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 favourite 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 metres 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-metre 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.
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 metres 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 metres 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 jewellery, ceramics, and even instruments for that perfect drum circle.
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.
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. Valley View Trail, a 3-mile/5-km round-trip walk, dips into forest and across meadows, and leads to views of Pfeiffer Falls (heads up that it may be only a trickle in dry years). 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 honour 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.
To fuel your excursions in and around Big Sur, you’d be wise to begin at least one morning with strong coffee, local eggs, and house-made sourdough toast at Big Sur Bakery and Restaurant. The quirky restaurant—located behind the gas station in a rustic, funky building—also serves dinner, including superlative wood-fired pizza.
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. Also aim to visit Big Sur Roadhouse, 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.
Start in one of California’s sunniest destinations, not just in terms of the weather, but also in attitude. In the heart of the city, shop in Horton Plaza, or catch a baseball game at Petco Park. See the giant pandas at the San Diego Zoo. Next, explore one of the city’s diverse neighbourhoods,...
Finish your trip in one of the world’s great cities. For a novel way to visit “the City by the Bay” park your car and explore by foot, bike, and unique public transportation. Pedal bikes across the Golden Gate Bridge and back, then explore the lush Presidio, a former military base that’s now a...
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 metres 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 organisations 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.