Big Sur refers to the 90 mile stretch of spectacular coastline that runs along Route 101 between Carmel on Sea and Hearst Castle. Over the years many rhapsodic words have been written about it by the likes of Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller and with good reason, it’s pretty breathtaking! Here are 15 outstanding sights and things to do in Big Sur…
Bixby Canyon Bridge – one of the most stunning places to explore in Big Sur
Probably the most iconic sight along Big Sur, The Bixby Canyon Bridge spans a steep ravine formed by the creek, suspended at 260ft it’s one of the world’s highest bridges of its kind. One glance at the intricate wooden framework between steep and perilous cliffs is enough to know it wasn’t easy to build, in fact, it was a remarkable feat in engineering back in 1932 and still would be today!
The framework required a massive amount of materials to be brought via the narrow and perilous coastal road and a monumental 45,000 sacks of cement to be hauled up via an intricate pulley system of platforms and cables. As you look down on the spectacular structure from one of the nearby pull-ins It’s simply astounding to contemplate how it was achieved! Nestled beneath the bridge is the wooden cabin that belonged to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, American poet and founder of the famous City Lights Bookshop in San Francisco. It was in this cabin that Jack Kerouac hid away to write his hallucinogenic prose Big Sur and his poem The Sea. He spent a lot of time recording the sounds of the Pacific Ocean from the beach to create his onomatopoeic masterpiece.
Unless you have a death wish it is nearly impossible to get down to the beach nowadays but it’s well worth stopping in a lay-by to take some aerial shots of the awe-inspiring bridge and its untamed natural surroundings.
McWay Falls and Waterfall House
McWay Falls is a beautiful 80ft tide fall that cascades gracefully over rocky bluffs directly into the Pacific Ocean at the spectacular Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Waterfall House was built in 1940 by congressman Lathrop Brown and his wife Helene. In its day it was a lavish mansion perched atop the cliff above McWay Falls, with a golden octopus over the door and unrivaled panoramic views of the Ocean and the rugged landscape around it.
After her husband’s death in 1959, Helene donated the land and property to the State of California for it to become a State Park. She had two stipulations; the first was that the park be named for her resilient pioneer friend Julia Pfeiffer Burns and the second was that the house be turned into a museum within 5 years, otherwise razed to the ground. Sadly the plans for the museum never came into fruition and the magnificent Waterfall House was destroyed except for the foundations, steps, and terraces which now provide a fantastic palm-fringed viewing platform out across the Falls to the sea.
Keyhole Arch at Pfeiffer Beach
Secluded behind majestic cliffs, down a dusty single-track lane in Big Sur you may be fortunate enough to stumble across the rather special rock formation known as Keyhole Arch. Just a stone’s throw from the wonderful Purple Sand Beach The Keyhole Arch is a natural tunnel carved through the rocks by the rolling waves of The Pacific Ocean. Each year around the winter solstice a wondrous natural phenomenon occurs here at sunset.
The low sun dips down in the very center of the arch and creates a stunning glow that seemingly emanates from within the rocky hole. If you are lucky enough to catch this beautiful coincidence you’ll not ever forget it! Even on a normal day Keyhole Arch and Purple Sand Beach are more than worth exploring as they are particularly fine examples of the unique and rugged beauty of the area.
Dine at Nepenthe – one of the best things to do in Big Sur
Since 1949, when the owners purchased the property from Orson Wells and Rita Hayworth, Nepenthe has been offering good food, music, and relaxed drinks to artists and bohemians including Jack Kerouac who includes it in his work Big Sur. Poised extravagantly above the rocky coastline with the stunning Santa Lucia Mountains behind it, Nepenthe is probably one of the most unique restaurants in the whole of the USA.
Visitors can sit outdoors and enjoy hearty food and homemade desserts as they take in the astounding views or pull up a chair at the long wooden bar to sip drinks and make human connections with the numerous travelers, vagabonds, and poets that are still drawn to this little slice of paradise.
Henry Miller Memorial Library
Despite its misleading name, The Henry Miller Memorial Library is not a library at all but rather a vibrant art hub in the middle of Big Sur. Miller’s close friend Emeil White built the house for him in the 1960s and Henry lived there until his death in 1980, after which White decided to maintain the property in memory of his good friend.
The Library is now a bookstore, and gallery for local artists as well as a space in which free discourse between writers, artists, musicians, and the Everyman is encouraged. Numerous events are held here from film and music festivals to lectures, workshops, and book signings. This is the place where Big Sur’s bohemian legacy is alive and thriving, a must for literary types or indeed anyone with a spark of curiosity about the area’s deep connection with the many artists that have passed through it over the years.
Bike the Scenic 17 mile drive by Pebble Beach
Hire an e-bike from Carmel and take off down the famous 17 Mile Drive by Pebble Beach Resorts. This incredibly scenic route follows the coast between Carmel and Monterey Bay and encompasses breathtaking landscapes and coastal overlooks as well as excellent facilities at the Pebble Beach Visitor Centre, the perfect mid-route stop for refreshments and a bit of retail therapy.
The route includes wonderful viewpoints like Shepherd’s Knoll and Huckleberry Hill, apparently a favorite spot for Robert Louis Stevenson and John Steinbeck, and Point Joe, where many a ship met its end! There are poetically named stops like ‘The Restless Sea’ and ‘Crocker Grove’ and historically relevant sights such as Spanish Bay Beach and China Rock.
The route is strewn with amazing places to spot wildlife; Fanshell Beach, Seal Rock, and Bird Rock, and with rare Cyprus Groves and the ancient and the dramatic 250 year old Lone Cyprus, perched atop a rocky balustrade at Medway Point. You can also drive this incredibly scenic route but there is a small cost which is redeemable if you spend $35 or more at shops and facilities along the way.
Point Lobos is considered by many as the jewel in the crown of California’s State Parks. Situated between Carmel and Big Sur Point Lobos State Reserve contains two significant marine conservation areas and is considered one of the best snorkeling locations on the West Coast. The unique geology of Point Lobos means it is home to an astounding amount of wildlife, both land dwelling and marine.
At last count there were more than 250 animal species found on the reserve. As you hike along one of the many well-marked trails that wind around the rugged coast, traversing gentle coves, rare Cyprus groves, and rolling seas look out for harbor seals, Californian sea lions, sea otters, and great whales or look up to see if you can spot a giant California Condor, America’s largest land bird that was brought back from the brink of extinction in the late 80’s. To find out a little more about the cultural history of the area head to the museum at the historic Whaler’s Cabin.
Old Coast Road – a must-see Big Sur attaction
Prior to the building of the Bixby Canyon Bridge in the 30’s, followed by Highway 1, the only way to access the pristine Big Sur Coastline was along the old stagecoach track which negotiated the rugged stretch of coast where the Santa Lucia Mountains meet the Pacific Ocean. If you enjoy an adventurous off-road style drive and have a decent vehicle, or indeed if you like a challenging trail run, you can still access a stretch of the Old Coast Road.
This is a dirt track that begins just after the Bixby Canyon Bridge and passes through windswept coastal meadows, an amazing rock pasture, rocky mountain precipices and parts of the ancient Los Padres National Forest, where it winds between towering Californian Redwoods. The road is around 10 miles in length and not for the faint-hearted as it includes some extremely rough terrain, but the views over the ocean and the landscape are completely worth it. This is prime Condor spotting territory so be sure to glance up at the skies whenever possible!
Watch the elephant seals at San Simeon
This is still one of my all-time favorite experiences and all the better for being completely unplanned. My friend and I were road-tripping Highway 101 and after some wonderful winding coastal driving decided to stop at a nice stretch of beach for a leg stretch. It turned out we had arrived at Piedras Blancas Rookery, an amazing viewing station for the magnificent Elephant Seals in action.
You can see them any time of year but the best time to see these amazing creatures is between October and May with the main event (birthing and breeding) occurring in January and February, fortuitously when we happened to be there! It was the strangest thing; Hundreds of females lay stretched out along the beach, some heavily pregnant and some feeding tiny pups, whilst the gigantic and bizarre-looking males presided over them and argued with one another using a sound that was something akin to bad drainage! Don’t miss the chance to visit these magnificent wild marine mammals up close on one of the most picturesque coastlines in California.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, named after the resilient pioneer, extends along the rugged Big Sur Coastline and inland to nearby 3,000 foot ridges. It is abundant in breathtaking natural beauty from the sheer granite crags to the sheltered coves and the 300 ft Redwood trees. I remember entering the park after a stop in Carmel and literally being stopped in our tracks by the splendor of it!
There are several trails to explore within the park and two excellent campsites, both of which are walk-ins only, so no RV hookups. There are two easy trails, each just over a mile in length; The Overlook Trail takes you up onto the headland above beautiful McWay Falls and offers unparalleled ocean views, great for whale spotting at the right time of year! The peaceful Partington Cove Trail packs in small waterfalls, ocean views, and ancient forest.
The most challenging trail is the Tanbark/ Tin House Trail which takes you through Redwoods and Oaks before climbing up to the Tin House and panoramic views of the Canyon and shoreline below. A visit to this magnificent park is unmissable, you’ll find its pure beauty very hard to follow!
Ragged Point Inn
I just love a good story and the story of Ragged Point Inn is a heartwarming one: Back in the ‘50s Wiley and Mildred Ramey enjoyed long impromptu drives through rural locations and occasionally if the mood took them they would buy a patch of cheap land here and there and do something with it.
When they spotted this rustic outpost that had previously been part of Hearst Ranch they just couldn’t resist. They started with a small snack shack and over generations managed to purchase surrounding land and brick by brick build the fabulous complex that is there today. The inn has 39 rooms, there is a gourmet restaurant, gift shop, coffee bar, artisan jewelry shop, and mini-mart as well as the original Snack Shack.
It’s the perfect little spot to stop for a coffee and a sandwich or splash out on a romantic meal in the gourmet restaurant which serves up seasonal fare and fresh local seafood to hungry diners. All of this with a splendid view out over the headlands to the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean. Book in advance as it’s understandably a very popular place!
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
The stunning scenery of Pfeiffer Big Sur is centred around the Big Sur River and encompasses beautiful Redwood Groves and some lovely canyons and waterfalls. The popular Pfeiffer Falls Trail leads hikers through the ancient trees, including The Colonial Tree, believed to be 1200 years old.
Wooden footbridges traverse the lush forest and eventually lead to a good size fall but not before offering some really spectacular views of The Big Sur Valley. Natural disasters such as mudslides and forest fires are continually affecting the trail so just check that it is open before you go. There is a campground in the park and also a lodge that you can stay at, both are incredibly popular and will need to be booked at least 6 months in advance, so bear this in mind when you make your plans!
Point Sur Lighthouse
Point Sur Historic Park encompasses the impressive 40ft lighthouse which stands 270 ft above sea level and steers ships away from the perilous rocks below. Built in 1889 it is the oldest complete lighthouse in California that is open to the public. Also part of the Park is the eerie ghost town of Point Sur where families lived and worked up until 1974 and the Point Sur Naval Facility, the only surviving SOSUS facility on the west coast.
Point Sur Naval Facility is currently being restored but walking tours of the site are available and well worth it for Naval/ Maritime enthusiasts. With Pico Blanco and the St Lucia Mountains behind it and the broiling ocean beneath it is a really unique place to visit.
Garrapata State Park
The wonderful Garrapata Park is often overlooked but shouldn’t be. Its 2 miles of beachfront and 50 ft climb offer amazing views of the Pacific and harbor seals, grey whales, and sea lions can frequently be spotted from up on the headlands at Soberanes Point. The really special part of the park though is a Valley bursting with wild calla lilies.
The blooms fill the ravine created by Doud Creek as it passes through towards Garrapata beach to create a carpet of color. Stairs, wooden footbridges, and trails wind through the valley to protect the blooms whilst also offering amazing views. A real gem, don’t miss it!
Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Río Carmelo
The historic Mission San Carlos Borromeo in Carmel-by-the-Sea consists of five museums and some exceptionally beautiful architecture. The basilica is a wonderful Moorish design with a splendid curved ceiling and 30 ft alter, 5ft thick walls and an impressive collection of Spanish artifacts and colonial art.
The Harry Downie Museum illustrates the complex restoration of the mission whilst the Jo Mora Chapel Gallery houses the wonderful memorial sculpted by the artist in 1924. The Convento Museum displays the cell of self-flagellating monk Saint Junipero Serra who died in 1784.
Limekiln State Park
The 711-acre Limekiln State Park is best known for the rather spectacular 100ft Limekiln Falls as well as redwood forest, rugged coastal terrain, and the four historic Lime Kilns that were used to extract lime for cement between 1887 and 1890 when they ceased to operate. There is a great network of trails through the park that take in the Limekiln and Falls and also the Hare Creek Canyon where the cold clear creek babbles through the trees and splashes over rocks until it reaches the sea. In addition to the falls the park also offers breathtaking views of the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary.
As you can see, Big Sur is all about celebrating nature and the outdoors with some great historical points of interest interspersed in the spectacular landscape. An absolute must for any literary fan or Kerouac Groupie. It’s a truly stunning stretch and rightfully appears on many bucket lists! Just be mindful that due to its popularity it can get pretty crowded and accommodation needs to be booked well in advance, even off-season!