I have an irrevocable near-obsession with Big Sur.
This beautiful central-California region is located on a rugged stretch of coast spanning from Carmel to San Simeon. It is bordered to the east by the Santa Lucia Mountains and to the west by the expansive Pacific Ocean.
The State Route 1 highway winds its way around the coast in Big Sur, allowing you to drive this area with an almost-constant view of seaside cliffs, secret coves and often-misty coastline.
Artists flock here to hole up in seclusion, using Big Sur’s natural beauty as a muse.
It is stunning, remote, and offers so many hidden views to explore.
Upon beginning your road trip, the first thing that will surprise you is the height of the cliffs. Yes, you are driving along a highway that hugs sheer drop-offs on rocky cliff edges. The views are so indescribably spectacular that words cannot truly do justice to paint a picture of the magic you will be treated to as you (carefully) navigate this exquisite terrain.
The drive is speckled with bridges of graceful aesthetics that seem to appear out of nowhere, no doubt inspiring you to locate a pull-out and exit your vehicle so that you can truly drink in the view.
If the drive itself wasn’t incredible enough, Big Sur offers multiple spots for you to park your car and go for a hike in the lush forests or rock-hop among wild beaches. Check out some of my must-see spots:
Must-See Views in Big Sur:
1). McWay Falls
There is no view in all of Big Sur that is more popular and more photographed than McWay Falls – and with very good reason. An 80-foot waterfall created by McWay Creek crashes onto the sandy shores of the beach below. The entire cove itself is entirely picturesque, and an easily-accessible trail has been built by the park to make it easy for visitors to take in the view from multiple raised vantage points.
Once you see a big sign stating that you have entered Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, you will be greeted with a large parking lot. Pay a small fee to enter and park in here, or park along the highway if you are only staying a short while. After parking, walk west back towards Highway 1 and look for the sign to the Overlook/Waterfall Trail straight ahead. Head down some wooden steps, continue along a wide path and through a tunnel under the highway. Turn right once you see the ocean and follow the path. There are several beautiful vantage points along the path. It will likely be very busy in late morning, late afternoon and at sunset, so try hitting this spot for sunrise if you’d prefer a bit of solitude.
2). Bixby Bridge
Bixby Bridge has appeared in numerous luxury car commercials due to its graceful aesthetic perched among epic natural landscapes. Finished in 1932 and costing more than $200,000 (the equivalent of about $3.4 million today), the concrete span soars 260 feet / 79 meters above a steep canyon that has been carved out over time by the Bixby Creek.
You can stop at numerous pull-overs to take in different perspectives of Big Sur’s version of the Golden Gate Bridge. There are particularly stunning views at sunset from the bridge’s south end as the landscape is bathed in golden light and the waves crash at the beach below the bridge.
Simply punch this one into your GPS – it is just a quick 2 miles (4 minutes) past Notley’s Landing. There is a bridge just before it called Rocky Creek Bridge when driving North to South that trips many people up (it’s also stunning and worth a snap or two). However, you’ll know the true Bixby Bridge when you see it, and there will be a number of vehicles pulled over (especially at sunset).
3). Pfeiffer Beach
Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur is indeed “off the beaten path”, but entirely well worth the visit. Like most beaches in Big Sur, it is rugged and wildly beautiful. A rock formation called Keyhole Arch rises up through the ocean. The arch is a fantastic spot to photograph sunset at, especially during the Winter Solstice, when the sunset casts an golden ethereal glow through the Keyhole. (While this natural phenomenon doesn’t exactly have fixed dates, the prime time for the best light is usually from late December until January 20th or so – we unfortunately weren’t visiting during that time to experience it)
Pfeiffer Beach has lovely sand to go for a stroll in (sometimes appearing purple in color, especially after a rainstorm) and is very dog-friendly. There are rocky outcroppings to explore and more of Big Sur’s famous rugged beauty stretches out all around you.
There is a per-car entry fee of a few dollars I believe – again, well worth it.
Pfeiffer Beach is located near mile marker 47.2 on Highway 1, 26 miles south of Carmel. It can be hard to find the sharp turnoff to the beach, but if you are heading south, it is the second road on the right after Pfeiffer State Park. The location does show up in most GPS’s, just be prepared to make a hairpin right turn if you’re heading South.
The parking lot can fill up quickly here and there will be traffic control turning people away. The parking lot is surprising small, so even if it appears full, the beach still has plenty of room for you to find a place of solitude. Come early on weekends (by 10 am latest) to avoid being turned away due to the lot reaching capacity.
4). Partington Cove
This is a rocky, very scenic spot where crashing surf salts your skin as turquoise water laps against the rocks below you. A fun little hike will take you down to this spot on the rocks that is perfect to set up a picnic at as you soak in the stunning views all around you. There’s no real beach access, but visitors play on the rocks and hunt for tidal pools as waves crash ominously around you.
On the 1/2-mile dirt hike down to this cove, you will cross a bridge and go through a tunnel. Look for the unmarked trailhead turnoff inside a hairpin turn on the water’s side of Hwy 1, about 2 miles north of Julia Burns State Park. The trail begins just beyond the locked vehicle gate.
Where to Stay:
Though there are a few inns in Big Sur itself, they are expensive for what you receive. I highly recommend staying in Carmel-By-The-Sea. Carmel is only about an hour from Big Sur (the drive is really part of the experience), and this little town is CUTE with a capital “C”!
Carmel is a destination in itself, offering some of the world’s finest scenery, restaurants, art galleries and boutique shops. There are no chain names in this town, just locally-owned small ma and pa shops. Carmel even offers a Wine Walk passport, where you can walk right from your hotel to local wineries and try a glass or two before dawdling onwards to the next! Carmel also touts itself as a dog-friendly destination (I fawned over dogs on many patios during our time walking Carmel’s beautiful streets). If that’s not heaven, I don’t know what is!
Learn more about Carmel, here.
For a few of my favorite restaurants in this area, check out: The Grill on Ocean Ave, Flaherty’s Oyster Bar, Monterey’s Beach House, Jacks Monterey and Brophy’s Tavern. We dined at all of these places and each meal was truly fantastic, with incredible ambience!
La Playa Carmel:
For a luxurious stay, La Playa Carmel is a stellar choice!
Once a luxurious mansion built in 1905 by an artist as a gift to his wife, La Playa Carmel resort has been known as the “Grande Dame of Carmel.” Newly restored, this 75-room historic hotel is located just steps from Carmel Beach and the renowned shops, galleries and restaurants of charming Carmel-by-the-Sea. I loved its meticulous gardens, sunny patios, lush courtyards and a tranquil terrace swimming pool. The breakfast buffet was to die for, with the best mimosas and custom-made waffles!
For a boutique but affordable stay, Hofsas’s House is a great option.
This family-owned inn features 38 uniquely decorated and spacious rooms, many with ocean views. Some rooms and most suites have fireplaces, private balconies, wet bars or kitchens.
Hofsas House is located three blocks from bustling Ocean Avenue and eight blocks from Carmel beach. There is plenty of off-street parking. Enjoy a continental breakfast in the morning with French Roast coffee, tea, fresh pastries delivered from a local bakery, juice and fruit. There is also a heated swimming pool and dry saunsas. Some rooms are dog-friendly! And the entire complex is a pretty shade of pink which I, of course, adored.
For relaxation & spa:
Check out Refuge Spa, America’s 1st co-ed outdoor relaxation spa. We relaxed in the hot & cold pools and steam saunas after our long weekend spent running around and hiking through Big Sur and came out feeling incredibly refreshed and rejuvenated. Another reason to stay in Carmel!
Big Sur is a road trip MUST, at least once in your life – though, if you’re like me, you’ll become obsessed and end up revisiting again and again to continue to explore its ruggedly gorgeous and wild coastline.
Please note: The area of Big Sur often experiences mudslides. Please check highway conditions here for open/closed road statuses before your trip.
Disclaimer: This trip was supported by Visit Carmel Tourism and various local partners. As always, the opinions expressed are completely my own, honest and unbiased, based on my own experience. I will continue to only recommend and endorse establishments with my readers that I truly enjoyed and believe others should experience as well.
Have questions for me about Big Sur, Carmel and area? Have feedback on this blog post? Please feel free to shoot me a comment below! I would love to hear from you!