15 Best things to do in the Big Sur Region

February 4, 2021
Lone Cypress Tree along 17 mile drive.

From Morro Bay to Monterey, the California Coast is at its finest around Big Sur.  Here, the Cabrillo Highway meanders along the mountainsides, turning in and out of rocky inlets, encouraging all who wander to take their time.  

Not that Californians ever take their time – they run right up your backside in these parts.  Regardless, there are many pull-outs along the way to let them pass and take in some spectacular views.  

While someone could drive this stretch of Highway in a half-day or less, we would encourage you to take as much time as you can.  We spent three days in the area, which on paper seemed enough.  In retrospect, we should have moved slower, and plan to do so without the kids in a few years.

The following are the fifteen best things we saw and did in Big Sur, as well as a few that we couldn’t do because of the recent fires.

1. 17-Mile Drive

Sailboat wreckage on 17-mile-drive.

A ritzy neighborhood nestled in a gorgeous setting charges $10 to drive along a circular route between Carmel and Monterey.  The district is home to the world-famous Pebble Beach Resort.  The homes are beautiful, some beyond compare.  The primary attractions are numbered on a map and easy to find along the way.  There’s an assortment of restaurants, all expensive, amongst the sensational beaches and vistas.  After you pay at one of several gates, you are invited to linger long as you’d like.

To us, the only way to beat a day at the beach is to drive a filthy motorhome around paradise like we own the place.  This is the sweet freedom for which our forefathers fought.  We would encourage anyone to (pack a lunch and) invest every minute of the day in this celestial land of privilege and beauty.

2. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

China Cove view in Point Lobos State park.  Emerald green waters surrounded by white cliffs and pine trees.

Located immediately south of Carmel, Point Lobos is outstanding for hiking and jogging, photography and painting, nature study, and SCUBA diving. Many aspects of the natural playground are of interest, including miles of well-managed trails, geological formations, flora and fauna of land and sea, and bird habitats. Wildlife includes seals, sea lions, otters, pelicans, and migrating gray whales.  

At Point Lobos, an afternoon is easily spent strolling the cliffside trails and admiring the stunning vitality of a pristine habitat.  Be sure to catch the southernmost attractions, Bird Rock and China Cove.

3. Hearst Castle

Hearst Castle is one of the most interesting things to do on the California coast.

William Randolph Hearst made his money the old-fashioned way – he owned newspapers and used them to drive his political ideations.  We can all give Mr. Hearst a little appreciation for our current sensational and smut driven media environment. Thanks, dude!

William Randolph achieved legendary status as a wealthy man.  His likeness was the inspiration for Charles Foster Kane in the film Citizen Kane (1941).  He left behind an estate overlooking the Pacific Ocean in San Simeon, ninety miles south of Carmel.  Known as Hearst Castle, the estate covers 127 acres, and includes luxurious buildings, gardens, and a zoo.  

La Casa Grande, the main house, sprawls 68,500 ft.  Mr. Hearst amassed a vast parcel of historical merchandise few could ever assemble, and he adorned his mansions with the garb of kings from faraway times.  In some ways it is impressive, in others perhaps depressing.  He was a curious character indeed, and his family compound makes for a highlight on your trip to the coast.

4. Carmel-by-the-Sea

Carmel-by-the-sea is a hub in Big Sur.

Are you feeling pretentious?  We sure are.  Well, let’s get our pinkies up and strut the gilded streets of Cali’s most fabulous beachside village.  Don’t forget to leave your motorhome at home…. They don’t allow those here.  The branches hang low by design.

Carmel reminds us of Aspen, which reminds us of a museum.  You break, you buy.  The artist is not amused.  The Milford School mentality where children are neither seen nor heard.  

All that aside, Carmel-by-the-Sea is an alluring seaside hangout which we would love to visit on a child-free excursion.  The stores are exquisite.  The architecture is charming.  The restaurants, we imagine, are divine.  The beach is gorgeous, of course!  And the sunsets are simply magic. 

5. Morro Bay

Morro Bay is gorgeous and has lots to do.  Morro Rock is a massive rock and makes a brilliant backdrop for sunsets.

A couple hours south of Carmel/Monterey is the beach town of Morro Bay.  The town is a visually stunning harbor backdropped by a massive, dome-shaped monolith called Morro Rock.  The rock is sometimes referred to as “The Gibraltar of the Pacific”.  Morro Rock makes an excellent place to watch the sun sink into the ocean.

The town is charming and casual, full of beach shops and waterside restaurants.  The climate is mild.  The inlet between the pacific and the harbor is home to playful otters and seals.  The state beach is perfect for strolling any time of day, and the State Park is central to the town.  We have made it a point to return here for an extended stay. 

6. Monterey

Monterey, California marks the northern end of the Big Sur region.

Next door to Carmel, with billions in real estate between them, is the family friendly town of Monterey.  Larger in size, Monterey offers lots to do and is an excellent place to anchor your vacation.

The town has a splendid coastline to the south of the Old Fisherman’s Wharf, with a coastal trail on the water’s edge connecting one scenic park to another.  The trail is perfect for walking, jogging, and bike riding, or for simply taking photos of the boats and wildlife you spy along the harbor.  To the north of the harbor is the long and pleasing Del Monte Beach.

Old Fisherman’s Wharf is the kitschy tourist center of town.  Places like this appeal to our children (and Monica).  If you don’t want to pay tourist prices, the town of Monterey offers plenty of other options for food and shopping.  An amazing place to get breakfast is the Paris Bakery Café, a ten-minute walk from the Wharf.  The selection is fantastic, and the prices are reasonable.   

7. Pinnacles National Park

Apollo and Parker take in the view at Bear Gulch Reservoir at Pinnacles national Park.

An hour’s drive from Carmel/Monterey is Pinnacles National Park.  One of the nation’s smallest national parks, the pinnacles are the remains of an ancient volcanic flow.  The black and gold rock outcroppings stand upright in the earth, making it an excellent place for rock climbers.

The park can be entered from either side, and each entrance gives access to different parts of the park.  Much of the hiking in the park is moderate.  In the Southwest corner of the park is the Bear Gulch Reservoir, one of the most picturesque points of interest.  

Another interesting feature of the park are the boulder caves.  Formed when large rocks fell into the valleys of the mountains, many of the boulders wedged against each other (or the sides of the valley at its most narrow point), creating Indiana Jones cave-like tunnels.  Walking through these tunnels is quite spectacular, looking upward as light breaks between the giant rocks above your head.  It can also be dark and wet, so, adventure!

8. Elephant Seal Vista Point

A great place for kids to enjoy the elephant seals.  Near Hearst Castle.

North of Hearst Castle in San Simeon is the inimitable Elephant Seal Vista Point.  The beach is exclusively reserved for these giant beasts, and there are too many to count.  It is the indolent seal equivalent of Shibuya Crossing.

Seriously, who doesn’t want to watch hordes of lazy animals pick fights with each other for no apparent reason?  As quickly as a skirmish breaks out, it hilariously ends due to exhaustion.  Spend thirty minutes here, especially if you’ve brought your children, and soak up the strange behavior of these fat, barking fuzzballs.  It was one of our more memorable stops.

9. McWay Falls

McWay Falls is perhaps the most beautiful view in Big Sur.

What could be more beautiful than an 80’ high waterfall plunging from the trees onto the beach, all beside a turquoise ocean cove?  Answer:  Not much.  Unfortunately for us, the area was closed off due to the 2020 fires.  We managed to snap off a few photos from the road, which was better than nothing.  

Under normal circumstances, the McWay Waterfall Trailhead descends from the McWay Waterfall Parking Lot.  An elevated walkway takes you north of the beach and lends an incredible vantage.  The beach is closed to the public.

10. Bixby Creek Bridge

Bixby Creek Bridge is an iconic image along the highway in California.

Along the Big Sur Coastline are several can’t-miss viewpoints.  Perhaps the most popular is the Bixby Creek Bridge.  The bridge has an appealing symmetry and spans a dramatic valley as it opens to the sea.

Completed in 1932, the Bixby Bridge is 714’ long and 218’ above surface below.    The concrete arch spans a total of 320’.  It cost about $200,000 to build.

On the north side of the bridge is a good-sized turnout for viewers to pull aside, have lunch, and take photographs.  Walk across the street and up the dirt road to get a photo of the bridge from the backside — it is just as magnificent.

11. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

Pfeiffer Big Sur State park is the central hub along the coast.

Centrally located on the Big Sur Coastline, Big Sur State Park is a great place to call home for a few days.  While they have some RV sites, the utilities are rustic, so be prepared.  If you prefer to sleep further from the dirt, there is a 62-cottage lodge, along with a conference center, café, and grocery store.

The park accommodates hikers, bikers, and nature lovers.  There are many scenic trails, including our favorite, the River Walk.  Even if you aren’t looking to stay here, for $10 you can spend an afternoon hiking around in the park, checking out the Redwoods.

12. Monastery Beach

Monica Hoffmann poses against a wild and dangerous sea backdrop.

A wild and beautiful shoreline between Carmel and Point Lobos, Monastery Beach is a perfect place to spend the afternoon soaking up sunshine.  Swimmers may want to rethink entering the water. This is the most dangerous in California for swimming due to the undertow.

No one says you have to get in the water, although SCUBA divers often do.  Simply bring a blanket and enjoy some picnic views on the pebble-like sand.  

13. Garrapata Beach

Monica and Franklin enjoy an empty beach at Garrapata State Park.

Located just south of Garrapata State Park, this beach is a vast, powerful setting that also compels you to lay down a blanket and soak up the majesty of mother nature.  Between the beach and the road are steep, reddish cliffs that form a shelter from the oft-present wind.  Rocks in the surf take massive abuse from the towering waves, so swimming can be dangerous here.  

14. Calla Lily Valley

The calla lilies weren't out in November, except for a few stragglers.

According to Greek Mythology, Hercules was born of Zeus and a mortal woman.  Zeus brought Hercules to his sleeping wife, Hera, to be breastfed.  Rudely awoken, she pushed Hercules away, spraying milk into the sky, which became the Milky Way.  Some drops of milk fell to the ground and became the beautiful calla lily. The Goddess of Beauty and Desire, Venus, was jealous of the flower’s beauty. She thrust a large yellow pistil in the middle of it (to make it less attractive).

Calla Lily Valley is contiguous with Garrapata Beach.  When you walk down the stairs to the beach from the parking turnout, turn right and walk northward up the beach.  After a few hundred yards a valley will open up toward the road.  You may have to wade through a shallow pool of water to enter the valley.

Just a short distance up the valley is where the lilies live.  They bloom best between February and April, but we found a few hanging around in early November.  Be careful!  We also found some wicked nettles.  Long pants and sleeves would be advised.

15. Nepenthe

Nepenthe is an expensive restaurant near Pfeiffer Big Sur State park.  Killer views of the coastline.

According to Ancient Greek, the word Nepenthe is a fictional medicine used to create pleasing forgetfulness.  The word appears in the fourth book of Homer’s Odyssey.  Figuratively it means “that which chases away sorrow.”

Enter Nepenthe! A restaurant on the cliffs of Big Sur with knockout views.  While the tasty creations of the Nepenthe chefs may chase away the hunger sorrows, they may simultaneously invite the empty wallet kind.  

Whether you stop in for a meal, a cocktail, or to peek at the view, the very popular Nepenthe is recommended on your Big Sur vacation.

Five for the future:

The 2020 fires wreaked havoc on our Big Sur adventure.  Our reservations at the Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground were cancelled to “inspect the trees”. 

From Big Sur State Park southward, all attractions were closed until further notice. Because of this, we have much to look forward to when we return.  

Limekiln State Park

Fifty miles south of Carmel, around what could officially be called the south end of “Big Sur”, is an old lime calcining operation within the redwood forest.  Four lime kilns remain amongst the trees.  The park was established in 1984.

Pfeiffer Beach

This is surely one of the most popular stops.  A large rock with a hole in it sits just offshore, and the sun majestically sets behind it to create one of the all-time great sunset beaches.  Also, the purple sand from Andrew Molera State Park washes over to Pfeiffer beach. 

If you drive a motorhome, you cannot drive it to the beach.  You also cannot walk to the beach unless you want to risk a $5,000 fine.  Car parking is available.

Henry Miller Memorial Library

In honor of the famed author, the Henry Miller Memorial Library is the second most extensive repository of Miller books, manuscripts, letters, and ephemera in the world, after only UCLA.  It operates as a nonprofit, bookstore, and performance venue.  Popular musicians like Arcade Fire have performed here.

Andrew Molera State Park

Five miles north of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is Molera State Park.  There are three tiers of hikes in the park:  along the beach, along the bluffs, and along the ridge.  At the south end of the beach is where the purple sand originates.

Soberanes Point and Canyon

A two-mile, well-trafficked trail along the shore that features beautiful wildflowers and breathtaking views of Big Sur coastline.  Located just north of Garrapata State Park, about eight miles south of Carmel.  We saw lots of cars parked in the turnout.

Map of Big Sur and California Coast.

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