If you’ve never seen a California condor, it’s hard to imagine a bird with a wingspan as long as your car. And, if it hadn’t been for extensive conservation efforts, such a vision would have disappeared from our state entirely. By the late 1980s, only 25 to 30 of them were left in the wild.
Thanks to an intense effort spearheaded by the Ventana Wildlife Society, the San Diego Zoo, and Los Angeles Zoo, the California Condor Recovery Plan succeeded in slowly reintroducing them into the wild and today, nearly 300 of the big birds soar across the skies above California, Arizona, Utah and Mexico. One of the best places to spy them is near Big Sur on California's Central Coast.
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.
But California condors aren’t the only quarry for bird-watchers. Big Sur’s topographical variation, its combination of sea and land environments, and its location along migration routes all make it a birding wonderland, with over 390 species, according to the Audubon Society. Peregrine falcons, western snowy plovers, brown pelicans, ashy storm-petrels, black swifts, and tufted puffins can all be spotted, depending on the season. The Ventana Wildlife Society publishes a useful small guide, The Birds of Big Sur; they have a visitor centre in Andrew Molera State Park.
But for many, the California condor is the most thrilling to spot, perhaps partly because of its brush with extinction. In Big Sur, popular condor-watching locations include: Andrew Molera State Park; Bottcher’s Gap; Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park; Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park; and Big Sur Lodge. Jacks Peak in Monterey is also an area the birds are known to frequent.
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 Big Sur.
Read on to explore your own version of the magical Big Sur.
With cliffs plunging hundreds of feet down to rocky coves churning with foamy surf, it’s no wonder that many people consider Big Sur the most dramatic stretch of coastline anywhere in the world. But along with its rugged natural beauty, Big Sur is a region with a long artistic history, as well as creative restaurants and unique resorts that let you immerse yourself in this world of fogs, redwood forests, and incomparable coastal views.
Posh meets rustic at the Post Ranch Inn
Commanding the cliffs 1,200 feet above the Pacific, Post Ranch Inn lets you escape from the outside world. Seclude yourself within modern, yet soulful rooms set in architecturally distinctive buildings that blend seamlessly into the natural setting. Marvel at the views as you soak in a stainless-steel tub on your balcony, then keep warm by the wood-burning fireplace.
Drive the world’s most awesome coastal highway
Edging the cliffs and twisting through stands of towering redwoods, California Highway 1 is Big Sur’s main drag. Take your time, both to drive safely and for stops at overlooks, where you can watch tendrils of fog drifting into the redwood canyons. There’s also good eating along the way: Stop at the Big Sur River Inn for breakfast classics such as carrot cake French toast, or Big Sur Bakery, where the dinner selection includes gourmet wood-fired pizza. Note: Recent storms resulted in landslides that closed sections of Highway 1. Check for the latest travel updates before heading out.
Catch the good vibes at Nepenthe
For lovers of Big Sur, no visit here is complete without a stop for shopping, dining, and the gorgeous setting at Nepenthe. Nepenthe founders Lolly and Bill Fassett hired Rowen Maiden, who studied with Frank Lloyd Wright, to build the landmark redwood and adobe structure you see today. Settle into a seat along the counter on the deck and behold one of Big Sur’s definitive views as you bite into Nepenthe’s iconic ambrosia burger. Then shop at The Phoenix Shop, where you’ll find distinctive clothing and gorgeous jewellery crafted by leading designers.
Hike down to a secluded cove
Bear in mind that what goes down, must come up as you set out on the trail to Partington Cove. At about two miles roundtrip, it’s a short trail but there’s a nearly 300-foot climb back to the trailhead off Highway 1. The route winds its way down slope before you enter a long tunnel carved by Big Sur pioneer John Partington. Go through it and you’ll emerge at the rocky cove, which was once used for shipping logs (and later to smuggle moonshine).
Dine along the edge of the continent
Even if you don’t stay at Post Ranch Inn, its restaurant Sierra Mar offers a taste of this amazing setting. Be sure to make reservations, then savour inventive prix fixe lunch and dinner selections (a favourite is the Wagyu short rib with stone-ground grits) while gazing out over the ocean through floor-to-ceiling windows. On some days, you’ll literally be above the clouds when the fog rolls in.
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Big Sur’s beauty and seclusion has long drawn a talented assortment of writers, artists, and musicians. Up and down Highway 1, you’ll find galleries showcasing both leading regional and international painters and craftspeople. Honouring the legendary writer who settled in Big Sur, the Henry Miller Memorial Library hosts an eclectic concert series at its outdoor stage in a clearing surrounded by redwoods, while on Sunday afternoons, you can catch jazz, folk, and zydeco performances at the Big Sur River Inn.
High above the coast within a redwood forest, Ventana Big Sur connects you to the very best of this incomparable region. Soak in a Japanese-style bath and dine at The Sur House, which specializes in locally sourced coastal cuisine and boasts a thoughtfully curated selection of 10,000 Central Coast wines. For a full detox, head to the Esalen Institute, where you can soak in hot springs, relax with a massage, and take up to 600 courses—ranging from Brazilian dance to yoga to mindfulness—all with a backdrop of 27 acres of California coastline.
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.
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, tree-houses 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 that 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.
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). 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 Big Sur, 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 Redwood Canyon Glampsites where you can glamp in a furnished tent under a canopy of redwoods. 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 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 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 1-mile roundtrip Partington Cove Trail. The steep but short hike leads over a wooden bridge down to a 60-foot tunnel. Walk through and emerge onto the rocky beach. A few of trails at this picturesque state park are closed due to erosion—check the trails section of the park’s website for the latest information before travelling.
Welcome to Big Sur’s version of the Golden Gate—a must-see road trip spot for many and probably the most Instagrammed feature along the Highway 1 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 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 piece of cake. 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 advanced heavy machinery could help do the lifting. Each bag was transported via a system of platforms and slings suspended by cables 300 feet above the creek. Curiously, the span was completed before the road, and it would be five more years before the route linking Carmel (about 15 miles to the north) to San Luis Obispo would even be opened.
Today (as always) the bridge is a favourite attraction for photographers, from professionals to those in search of the ultimate depth-of-field selfie. But whether you are snapping away or not, be sure to take advantage of the multiple viewpoints; they are key for revelling in 360-degree views instead of just the direction you are going.
More a retreat centre than a decadent spa, the storied Esalen Institute—perched above the rugged oceanside bluffs of Big Sur—has been calling to visitors looking for an escape from the everyday world for more than 50 years. The list of those who have spent time here reads like a who’s who—Bob Dylan, Ansel Adams, Deepak Chopra—and speaks to the healing powers of the centre’s varied seminars.
Esalen’s spiritual and creative offerings include workshops, more than 500 of them annually, for personal and social transformation. Sign up to learn about topics ranging from yoga and meditation (the institute was instrumental in the eventual broad acceptance of both in the U.S.) to 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. Opt for this, and you’re free to wander throughout the property’s beautiful 27 acres, 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. The hot springs have been an attraction since the 1880s and enjoyed by the native Esselen for many millennia before that.
If you’re staying elsewhere, you can still book a soak (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 non-guests from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. But pulling a partial all-nighter is worth it. Coming down the hill, you will see an outdoor massage deck and living roof planted in native coastal grasses. There are several indoor and outdoor baths, plus private clawfoot tubs, all set to a soundscape of crashing waves.
Esalen sits on a remote stretch of land about 12 miles south of Big Sur and driving the gorgeous Highway 1 to get there is an added bonus of the whole experience. If you’re not driving, however, the institute does offer shuttle service from airports in Monterey, San Jose and San Francisco on Fridays and Saturdays.
With Big Sur views that can only be beaten if you’re a seagull, this cliff-topping restaurant rightfully makes it onto everyone’s bucket list. At Nepenthe, located on Highway 1 between Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge and Castro Canyon, the views stretch down the coast and the Santa Lucia Mountains plunge in fog-cloaked majesty to the deep blue Pacific. Locals and visitors to the area alike flock here, drawn to the ultra-relaxed vibe first created by Lolly and Bill Fassett in 1949 (perhaps not coincidentally, the restaurant is still owned and run by the same family today).
At dinner, try the famous Ambrosia Burger, or the roast chicken with sage stuffing—Lolly’s signature dish—or a variety of vegetarian entrees. And, of course, there’s that sweeping view. Take it in from a seat on the patio—a wide-open space that is the epitome of unfussiness—or step inside the main building, which was designed by a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright’s and hints at the master architect’s style of creating structures that are striking, yet at one with their environment.
The legacy of Big Sur’s Beat Generation and the hippie era live on at Nepenthe too—hang around the handsome bar or outside by the fire pit and keep your ears peeled for names like Kerouac and Miller 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, located just below Nepenthe and atop another establishment well worth a visit, Café Kevah, features handmade jewellery, ceramics and even instruments for that perfect drum circle.
Make a stop along Highway 1 to visit Limekiln State Park, where you’ll discover a piece of 19th-century history while hiking trails through towering coastal redwoods. At this Big Sur park two miles south of Lucia, camping, swimming (in Limekiln Creek and at a beach), and spotting marine life carries huge appeal, but it’s undoubtedly the historic kilns that are the park’s signature attraction.
As the name suggests, Limekiln State Park was once the site of a booming limekiln operation (more on that below, if you’re scratching your head), and short walks let you not only explore the limekiln ruins but also visit the aforementioned beach and Limekiln Falls.
History explains how, in the late 1880s, limestone was harvested from a nearby slope, then fed into the hulking kilns. Intense heat—with kiln fires fuelled by felled redwoods—extracted pure lime, a key ingredient in construction cement, which was used in buildings in San Francisco and Monterey.
Once all the nearby reserves of limestone and redwoods were used up, the kilns were abandoned. Slowly, the forest recovered, and the second-growth redwood stands in this park today make for a pleasant and shady escape (not to mention one with an interesting past). In the midst of this intensely naturalistic setting, the four iron-and-stone kilns rise, scarred and imposing, like monuments to some bygone civilization. It’s a dramatic contrast that’s likely to spark even the most seasoned sightseer’s imagination.
Pitch a tent—car and RV camping is not accommodated for—in one of the 29 campsites located creekside, on the beachfront, and in the forest. You can reserve a site up to six months in advance.
California’s coast redwoods meet their southernmost habitat along the Big Sur coast, and this gem of a park, located 26 miles south of Carmel, is a great way to sample their deep shade and cathedral-like beauty. Hiking, biking, and riding RVs along the trails and roads, swimming in the Big Sur River, camping—the number of outdoor activities one can enjoy here in the midst of stunning surroundings make it one of the most popular parks along Highway 1.
The park’s roots are in homesteading: John Pfeiffer settled on some 160 acres 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 after he spurned offers from developers and instead sold it to the state of California, a decision that prompted the State Park Commission to name its newest addition after him.
The peaks of the Santa Lucia Mountains rise up dramatically from the Big Sur River Gorge; keep an eye out while walking along the banks for black-tailed deer, raccoons, skunks, birds such as dippers, belted kingfishers, and wild turkeys, and even the occasional bobcat. A small but appealing network of well-marked trails wends through the 1,000-acre preserve; spectacular views of the Big Sur Valley, the Big Sur River Gorge, Pacific Ocean and shoreline abound, but be aware that there is no beach or ocean access.
The large campground located in the park can accommodate hikers, bikers, car campers, and RVers. Reservations tend to fill up six months in advance, even in winter, so be sure to plan ahead. Another option is to stay in one of the 62 rustic cottages at the park’s unpretentious Big Sur Lodge.
The cultural heart and soul of Big Sur, the Henry Miller Memorial Library, named for and created in honour of the famed (and famously banned at one time) American writer who called the area home between 1944 and 1962, describes itself as a place “where nothing happens”. Which is true—half the time. During the winter, it’s a sleepy spot where you can hole up, make yourself a cup of coffee, and browse the library’s extensive collection of books by the author, including such influential works as Tropic of Cancer, Sexus, and (of course), Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, Miller’s love letter to the region. One can also check out prints of some of his visual art—he painted watercolours—as well as works of local artists that are on display.
Come May through October, though, the calendar is chock-full of happenings. The annual Big Sur International Short Film Screening Series is an outdoor film festival that takes place on Thursday nights over the course of 13 weeks from June through August, just outside the snug coastal cabin. And if music is more your thing, you’re also in luck. The Live at the Henry Miller Libraryseries showcases a wide variety of artists, from intimate acoustic acts that perform inside the library, to larger-name draws—the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Pixies, to name a few, have both made appearances—who play for 300 lucky capacity-filling listeners 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.
If you're driving from the south, 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.
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 (for dinner, consider the four-course prixe-fixe option), or settle into the rustic lodge-like restaurant at Ventana Big Sur, focusing on American cuisine made with local ingredients.
Just a few miles north of Ventana, be sure to visit Big Sur Roadhouse at Glen Oaks 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.