Planning to explore California’s famed Big Sur coast? There are many iconic Big Sur attractions you absolutely cannot miss on this bucket-list drive, from hikes to historical sites and waterfalls to wonderful views.
Running from Carmel in the north to San Simeon in the south, the Big Sur coastline is 90 miles of unsurpassed natural beauty. California Highway One hugs the land’s edge as it winds its way through the coast, offering beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean on one side and the rugged coastline on the other.
We’ve driven the Big Sur coast numerous times and in every season. We’ve driven it in the sun and in the fog, at sunrise and at sunset, and everything in between. It is our go-to when we need an escape to somewhere beautiful.
We know we have more Big Sur activities to explore: every inch of Big Sur is so gorgeous that we’ll never cease to discover new things to cherish! But we’ve described here the Big Sur attractions that are, in our opinion, definitely worth a stop on any trip to the region.
Things to Do in Big Sur
Unending views of the mighty Pacific Ocean. Scalloped bays edged with untouched strips of sand. Bucolic countryside dotted with grazing cattle. Scenic hiking trails winding their way past redwood groves and fern-lined creeks. Wildflowers and marine life. There’s a lot to see and enjoy in Big Sur!
Big Sur is one of the best weekend getaways from San Francisco, if you love escaping into nature. It also makes for one of California’s best road trips on its own, or a great stop on a longer California road trip itinerary.
Plus, there’s a lot to see and do both north and south of Big Sur. In the north, explore the attractions in Carmel-by-the-Sea, or go whale watching in Monterey. In the south, discover the picturesque Central California coastal towns: Cambria, Morro Bay, or San Luis Obispo.
Excited? Let’s get started on discovering the most exciting things to do in Big Sur, California!
Admire McWay Falls
Arguably the most photographed Big Sur attraction, McWay Falls does make for the perfect picture postcard. The 80-foot cascade, created by McWay Creek, tumbles down the cliff onto a sandy beach below. The turquoise cove and greenery-clad cliffs make a stunning frame for the waterfall.
Fun fact! Before a gigantic mudslide in the area in 1983, McWay Falls cascaded straight into the ocean. After the mudslide, the sandy beach you see today was formed by waves working on the debris deposited in the area. McWay Falls still tumbles straight into the ocean, but only at high tide.
McWay Falls comes up on Highway One, and you can view it from the viewpoint by the side of the road if you are able to find a safe parking spot. Otherwise, pay the fee to park inside Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, and walk the short 0.6-mile round trip Overlook Trail to viewpoints from where you can see McWay Falls.
At the time of writing, part of the Waterfall Overlook Trail is closed, and you can only walk to the first viewpoint. You can also park on the side of the road and walk into the park for free to walk the trail. While walking the trail, make sure to look up: you may see California condors roosting in the eucalyptus trees.
Going down to the beach is prohibited on account of the fragility of the cliffs.
Snap a photo of Bixby Creek Bridge
Another top Big Sur attraction, Bixby Creek Bridge will take your breath away when you first lay eyes on its stunning location. Bixby Creek Bridge was completed in 1932. The engineering marvel is the highest single-span arch bridge on the planet. Clinging to the walls of the canyon on either side, it makes for a truly dramatic sight.
Bixby Creek Bridge is a super popular stop on the Big Sur Drive, and you may find it difficult to find a parking spot during the day if the weather is nice. Note that you can park on both sides of the road at the north end of the bridge.
No matter which side you choose to park, make sure to view the bridge from both sides of the road for different angles. There is no pedestrian path on the bridge itself, which is quite narrow.
Look for Purple Sand at Pfeiffer Beach
Famous for its picturesque sea arch, Pfeiffer Beach, also known as “the purple sand beach at Big Sur,” is a great spot to spend some time. Walk on the beach to look for the purple sand, which are actually particles of manganese garnet, washed down from the hills by the creek. Admire the waves pounding against the rocks offshore, picnic, or enjoy tidepooling at low tide. Swimming is not advised.
Photographers love Pfeiffer Beach, especially at sunset. During the few weeks of the year (in winter) when sunlight streams through the hole in Keyhole Rock just right, you will see tons of photographers here, hoping to get that perfect photo.
To get to Pfeiffer Beach, take Sycamore Canyon Road off Highway One. If you are driving south, it is a hard right turn. The road is not signposted, so note its location (second right turn after Big Sur Station heading south) and keep a sharp eye out for a yellow sign saying “Narrow Road.”
Sycamore Canyon Road is one lane (with turnouts to allow for passing) and generally not in the best of shape. Be prepared for a bumpy 2-mile ride down to the parking lot. RVs and trailers are not permitted on this road. After rain, the road may be impassable on account of flooding.
There is a parking fee for Pfeiffer Beach. Parking is limited, and you will be turned away if the lot is full, so arrive early for the best chance of a spot.
View Jade-Green China Cove in Point Lobos
Located along Highway One a few miles south of Carmel-by-the-Sea, Point Lobos State Reserve is one of the most scenic state parks in all of California. Among the top sights in Point Lobos is China Cove, a gorgeous sheltered cove with jade-green waters and a sandy beach.
You can’t go down to the beach at China Cove because of the fragility of the area, but you can view and photograph the beautiful sight from Bird Island Trail above. If you visit in spring, you may see harbor seal moms nursing their newborn pups on the beach!
On this trail, you can also view Gibson Beach, a longer sandy beach that you can access via a steep set of stairs, and Bird Island, home to hundreds of nesting seabirds in the spring and summer. Make sure to bring your binoculars or camera with zoom lens!
There is a fee to park inside Point Lobos State Reserve. You can park at the Bird Island parking lot, at the southern end of the park, and then take the ramp or the steps to get on to Bird Island Trail. Bird Island Trail is scenic but under a mile, so it’s easy to do even if you have limited time to spend in the park.
Enjoy Sand Dollar Beach
About 30 miles south of Big Sur Station, near the southern end of the Big Sur Coast, you will find beautiful crescent shaped Sand Dollar Beach. The long sandy beach is fringed with rocks and the cliffs of Big Sur, making for a lovely setting. Access to the beach is via steep stairs.
You can take a walk along the long sandy beach, or walk the bluff trail above if you don’t want to negotiate the stairs. Picnic, fish, look for birds, watch the surfers (or ride the waves!), browse tidepools at low tide, look for jade or other minerals in the rocks, and just enjoy the scenic surroundings. Beachcombing is popular here, but it’s not guaranteed you’ll find the namesake sand dollars!
Sand Dollar Beach is managed by the Forest Service as part of Los Padres National Forest and is the longest Big Sur beach. There is a fee to park in the parking lot, but you can park along the side of the road for free. Sand Dollar Beach is dog friendly. It is open all year, but busiest in the summer.
Drive Old Coast Road
The Old Coast Road from Bixby Creek Bridge to Andrew Molera State Park is a scenic off-roading experience. The route is about 10 miles long, and was used by stagecoaches in days past, before the current road was built. It was impassable in bad weather, making it difficult for residents to get supplies.
Old Coast Road hugs the Santa Lucia Mountains and runs through diverse landscapes: hills, valleys, redwood groves, and forests, with beautiful water views and unending photo ops. While most visitors drive Old Coast Road, you can also hike or mountain bike the route. Keep an eye out for wildlife and birds: you may see wild turkeys, deer, or bobcats.
A dirt road with ruts and potholes and some steep sections, Old Coast Road is best driven during daylight hours and in a 4WD high-clearance vehicle. Driving north to south is considered easier. It’s not advised when it is raining or has recently rained. Sadly, there aren’t too many turnouts to park in order to take photos, but drive slowly and enjoy the scenery.
Note: Google Maps has the road as Coast Road, not Old Coast Road, but you will see it running between Bixby Creek Bridge and Andrew Molera State Park.
Tour Point Sur Light Station
A popular Big Sur attraction, Point Sur Lighthouse has a dramatic location, on a volcanic rock high above the ocean in Big Sur. The lighthouse and associated buildings form the Point Sur Lightstation State Historic Park, one of California’s most visit-worthy state parks.
Point Sur Lightstation began operating in August 1889, and a staff of four lighthouse keepers operated it 24 hours a day. Before California Highway One was completed, the staff led an isolated life, with supplies delivered by ship every few months. Today the US Coastguard manages the lighthouse. It is still active, but uses a modern aero beacon in place of the original Fresnel lens.
You can visit the lightstation on a 3-hour guided tour. Guided tours are generally offered on Wednesdays and weekend days. On a few days during the year, the park offers moonlight tours. The walking tour involves walking about one mile, with an elevation gain of about 350 feet. There are some stairs to negotiate.
If you enjoy learning about the history of places you visit, or you are fascinated by lighthouses (like we are!), Point Sur Lightstation is definitely worth touring when you visit Big Sur.
Marvel at the Seals at Piedras Blancas Rookery
In San Simeon, at the southern edge of the Big Sur coast, the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery is a must-stop spot. Part of the California Coastal National Monument, the refuge hosts several thousand northern elephant seals each year, and seeing them piled up on the shore and hearing their bellows is a unique experience.
The pinnipeds come to the refuge to rest, and to mate and breed. Moms nurse their newborns until the little ones are ready to be on their own. You’ll find the greatest concentration of seals here in late January, early May, and late October, but you’ll see some any time of year. It’s a fascinating place to visit if you enjoy wildlife encounters on your travels.
A few miles away is the historic Piedras Blancas Light Station, which you can visit on a guided tour. The lighthouse is 70 feet tall and began operating in 1874. Along with its supporting buildings, Piedras Blancas Light Station is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The lighthouse keeper’s Victorian-style cottage was moved to nearby Cambria and restored, and today you can actually stay in it!
The Elephant Seal Boardwalk at the Piedras Blancas Rookery is free to walk. There is a parking lot close to the boardwalk trail.
Hike to Limekiln Falls
Limekiln State Park is the southernmost state park in Big Sur. The park features three relatively easy to easy-moderate trails that are a joy to hike. One trail has an impressive waterfall as the payoff!
The Limekiln Falls trail is an out-and-back trail. The first part of the trail is shared by the Limekilns Trail, and when it forks, follow the Falls Trail. It is a pleasant shaded walk through redwood groves as the trail follows Limekiln Creek. You’ll cross over the creek several times as you walk, possibly getting your feet wet in the process.
Limekiln Falls is an impressive 100-foot waterfall that tumbles down a limestone canyon wall. In a good year, the single mass of water is powerful, but even in a drier time, you’ll likely see a split waterfall that’s a fine photo op. You may have to scramble over fallen trees to get to the base of the falls. The trail ends here, so retrace your steps to the fork and walk the Limekiln Trail next.
The Limekiln trail takes you to four large lime kilns that were built many decades ago and used to smelt limestone from the canyon to be used in making cement for construction. The limestone in the canyon was depleted in just three years! The kilns are in pretty good shape, and the site is a great hike if you like learning about local history.
Hare Creek Trail doesn’t have a big payoff at the end, but it is a wonderfully pleasant stroll along the bank of the creek and under the redwoods. Observe the local flora and keep an eye out for birds and wildlife as you walk. At the end of the trail, retrace your steps.
Stroll Garrapata State Beach
Located at the south end of Garrapata State Park, Garrapata State Beach is a sandy, dog-friendly beach. Garrapata State Park is not well sign-posted, and you have to watch for mile markers to know where to stop. The beach can be accessed from mile marker 19. Park on the side of the road and walk down the stairs to the beach.
Stroll the beautiful strip of sand, sunbathe, and watch the waves crash on to the rocks. Look for Doud Creek, which tumbles down the cliff onto the beach somewhere in the center. At the south end, Garrapata Creek furrows through the sand on its way to the ocean. The scenery, with the cliffs and rocks, and wildflowers in season, is gorgeous. The surf here is too dangerous for wading or swimming, so stay clear of the water.
When you go back up the stairs, walk the bluff trail at the top to the end for spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean. A couple of years ago, we visited Garrapata State Beach during a winter storm, to take in the majesty of the waves from a safe distance. A great place and time to feel the enormous power of the ocean!
Tour Hearst Castle
In San Simeon, set high on a hillside, you will find historic Hearst Castle, the former estate of William Randolph Hearst. The publishing tycoon, and his architect, the famed Julia Morgan, built the estate over many years, starting in 1919 and ending in 1947. Hearst filled the estate with treasures and even had a private zoo on the property.
During the 1920s and 30s, numerous luminaries visited Hearst Castle, where Hearst held court with his partner Marion Davies. After Hearst’s death in 1947, the estate was given to the State of California by the Hearst family. It is now the Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument, a popular tourist attraction along the Central California Coast.
The castle can only be visited via guided tours. Several types of daytime guided tours are offered, as well as evening tours. You can tour the main rooms of Casa Grande (the main house), or the upstairs rooms, or tour the guest cottages and kitchen. Other themed tours, focusing on art or architecture, can also be taken. The gorgeous gardens are worth wandering, and the two pools are fabulous photo spots.
Visit the Henry Miller Memorial Library
Established by writer and painter Emil White, the Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur holds the second largest collection of Henry Miller memorabilia in the world. The collection includes a first draft of Miller’s famous work, Tropic of Cancer.
Aside from the collections, you will find a bookstore here: it’s a nice place to browse and chill indoors. It is also a venue for lectures, musical shows, and other events, so if you are interested in the literary or performing arts, check to see if any events are scheduled for when you plan to visit.
A short walk from the library, the Hawthorne Gallery is a great place to visit if you enjoy art. The architecture is stunning, and you can browse (and buy!) paintings, ceramics, sculptures. jewelry, and furnishings.
Hike the Point Lobos Loop Trail
You will find several very accessible and scenic hiking trails at Point Lobos along the Big Sur coast. If you have the time, you can hike a large loop that incorporates many of these trails, capitalizing on the spectacular sea views, and presenting opportunities for viewing birds, wildlife, and marine life.
Start the loop at the parking lot at Whaler’s Cove, or, if you decide to park on the side of the road outside and walk into the park, follow Carmelo Meadow Trail to Granite Point Trail at Whaler’s Cove. Ocean view trails extend on both sides of this starting point, but for the more scenic loop, go south.
Just follow the trail at the water’s edge all the way to the end of the park. You will pass scenic coves on the North Shore Trail, walk among ancient cypresses on the Cypress Grove Trail, see sea lions and beautiful coastal scrub along the Sea Lion Point Trail, take in beautiful ocean views and tidepools on the South Shore Trail, and view enchanting China Cove, beautiful Gibson Beach, and rocky Bird Island on Bird Island Trail.
To complete the loop and return to the park entrance, take the South Plateau Trail, an inland trail. The loop should take about 4 hours with stops to view wildlife and take photos. If you have more time, you can also walk the trails to the north of Whaler’s Cove.
Take in the views at Nepenthe Restaurant
Nepenthe Restaurant, and Café Kevah, are famous for their spectacular location and water views. There is also a gift shop featuring local art and souvenirs that makes for pleasant browsing. Located on the ocean side of Highway One, Nepenthe comes up about 30 miles south of Carmel.
The cafe has terrace seating overlooking the ocean and the Santa Lucia mountains, and serves casual fare and desserts. Surrounded by forests and gardens, the cafe is a lovely place to stop even just for a snack and a drink.
Nepenthe is a part of Big Sur history. Scenes from The Sandpiper were filmed here, and Henry Miller lived here when he first came to Big Sur. For visitors today, it’s a laid-back place to relax, enjoy a good meal, and take in the superb views.
Enjoy the View from Hurricane Point
For that iconic photo of the scalloped bays of Big Sur, with Highway One winding its way along the land’s edge, punctuated by Bixby Creek Bridge, you must make a stop at the Hurricane Point Overlook.
To get to the viewpoint, if you are driving north to south, drive over Bixby Creek Bridge and continue a little ways until the road starts climbing. At the crest of the climb, you’ll see a pullout, right at the bend. Park off the road (hopefully you will find a spot!) and look back in the direction you came for a spectacular view.
While this view is stunning in any season, it is particularly gorgeous in the spring, when you’ll have pretty wildflowers in the foreground and the hills are emerald green.
A little bit south is another famous viewpoint called Sea Otter Refuge Viewpoint. And a few miles further south of this viewpoint is another stunning overlook, from where you can see Little Sur River flow into the Pacific Ocean. The beach, called Little Sur River Beach, is privately owned and cannot be accessed. But it’s worth stopping to take some photos!
Do the Pfeiffer Falls Hike
A forked trail that offers two rewards, the Pfeiffer Falls and Valley View Overlook Trail is a must-do in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. One fork of the trail leads to the 60-foot Pfeiffer Falls, and the other to a magnificent panoramic overlook from where you can see Big Sur Valley, Point Sur, and Andrew Molera State Park.
The trail itself is beautiful, passing through groves of towering redwoods, along streams and creeks lined with ferns, before you start climbing up the canyon. In the spring, you’ll see lots of wildflowers along the trail, from lupines to wild irises. At the fork, take the oak-lined Valley View Trail, to continue climbing to the viewpoint. There are a few benches along the way if you need a break.
Back at the junction, take the Pfeiffer Falls Trail, which goes down into the canyon to the waterfall, framed by redwoods. The waterfall is most impressive in the winter and early spring. Return to the starting point the way you came.
The Pfeiffer Falls and Valley View Overlook Trail is 2 miles round trip, with about 450 feet of elevation gain, and is rated moderate to strenuous. There is a fee to park inside Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.
Hike the bluff trail in Garrapata State Park
Garrapata State Park, in the northern part of Big Sur, has about four miles of oceanfront, and much of the coastal side is covered with a network of trails. The park isn’t well signposted, so unless you know about this beautiful park, you may drive right past it!
We talk about the trails around Soberanes Point (the middle portion of the park) later in this article, but here we want to tell you about the beautiful Garrapata bluff and beach trails.
The Garrapata Bluff Trail is at the north end of the park, before Soberanes Point. It’s a short out and back walk, just 0.6 mile, but offers beautiful views and wildflowers in season. It’s a great Garrapata hike if you are crunched for time or you are visiting with young kids.
At the south end of the park, from gate 18, you can hike one of many trails that provide beach access. Featuring beautiful coastal scrub and wildflowers, the Doud Creek Trail eventually takes you to stairs that lead down to the namesake creek. From late January until April, the valley is lush with stunning white calla lilies. It is a sight to behold! If you walk the trail through the valley, you will eventually come to the beach.
Enjoy camping (or glamping!) in Big Sur
If you want your Big Sur stay to be ruggedly adventurous, just like your surroundings, but with a touch of glam and some creature comforts, then consider Big Sur glamping! Tent cabins at Ventana Big Sur Resort are located in a redwood canyon and offer luxury mattresses and fine linens in a canvas tent.
Treebones Resort in another glamping option in Big Sur. Their yurts look so cool! With comfortable beds and seating, redwood decks, and full ir partial ocean views, the Treebone Resort yurts look amazing!
Big Sur has several regular campgrounds, some inside the state parks and others that are privately owned. RV hookups and tent or cabin sites are available. Reserve your site well in advance.
Hike or bike Andrew Molera State Park
Andrew Molera State Park is a unique Big Sur state park in that it not only offers great hiking, but you can also go mountain biking on designated trails! It’s a relatively lesser visited Big Sur park, so you will also enjoy greater solitude on your adventures.
The many trails in Andrew Molera State Park encompass bluffs, hills, beach, and meadows. The Bluffs Trail, which runs above the beach, is super scenic. It is 3.5 miles round trip. The easy Creamery Meadow Trail, 2 miles round trip, leads to the beach, and is open to both hikers and bicyclists. A seasonal footbridge takes you over the Big Sur River.
More strenuous trails lead to ridges from where you can get spectacular panoramic views. Hikers and bikers can try the Ridge Trail, about 6.5 miles round trip. The Panorama Trail, about 2.6 miles round trip, is only open to hikers. It is very steep and strenuous!
Explore scenic Ragged Point
At the southern end of Big Sur, Ragged Point offers a stunning ocean view from the cliffs high above the water. Ragged Point Restaurant is a great place for a break, with outdoor seating where you can have a bite to eat or a drink. There’s a fish pond that kids will enjoy, and we love strolling the beautiful gardens.
Ragged Point offers hiking trails, ranging from easy to challenging. The short but steep (and sometimes treacherously slippery) climb down to Young’s Creek Beach rewards experienced hikers not just with its black sand, but also the fabulous view looking up at the cliffs from the bottom. The beach also offers views of the 300-foot seasonal Black Swift Falls.
Salmon Creek Falls is close to Highway 1. The trailhead is at a pullout about 3.6 miles north of Ragged Point, and you can park on the side of the road. The 0.25-mile round-trip is signposted, and leads to a 120-foot waterfall. The trail requires some climbing and scrambling.
The San Carpoforo Creek Trail, about 1.5 miles south of Ragged Point, is an easy trail suitable for most visitors. The trail is flat, about one mile long, and leads to a beach where the creek runs into the ocean. In season, there are lots of wildflowers along the trail. Keep an eye out for birds!
Snap a photo at Soberanes Point
Soberanes Point comes up about half-way into Garrapata State Park, in the northern part of the Big Sur Coast. The spot is a favorite of photographers, who come here to capture the rugged beauty of the cliffs against the water. Stop to admire the beauty and take your own photos at this magical viewpoint! Sunset is an especially beautiful time for photos.
There are multiple hiking trails in the area if you want to explore. Here’s a map! Admire the stunning Pacific Ocean, and look down into the secret sandy coves below the cliffs. The trails are especially scenic in the spring, with lots of wildflowers. Beware of ticks and poison oak though! On the opposite side of Highway One, Soberanes Canyon Trail takes you to the back of Soberanes Canyon.
Different parts of Garrapata State Park are accessed at numbered mile markers: there are no signs. The Soberanes Point coastal trails can be accessed at gates 8, 9, or 10, and the Soberanes Canyon Trail at gate 8. Parking is by the side of the road.
The Big Sur Drive
The Big Sur drive is so beautiful that if all you do is just drive it end to end, without stopping to take in a single Big Sur point of interest, you will still have a breathtaking experience. This coast has been called “the greatest meeting of land and water,” and, once they see it in person, most visitors would agree wholeheartedly.
So if you only have a few hours to spend, put on that music, and drive Big Sur!
Where to stay in Big Sur
The hotels in Big Sur will, for the most part, dent your pocketbook quite a bit. If you want to spend several days exploring the region, but don’t want to camp, one alternative is to base yourself in Carmel while you explore the northern part of Big Sur, and in San Simeon or Cambria while you explore the southern part. While this means some extra driving, you will have lots more choices for lodging and dining.
That said, there are some breathtaking properties in Big Sur!
Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur is a dream stay if you are looking for a special occasion (or a “just because”) splurge. The adult-only property offers rooms with either mountain or ocean views, and no TVs or alarm clocks. Complimentary activities are offered, and you have access to a stunning infinity pool and regular swimming pool. The onsite restaurant, Sierra Mar, is fabulous.
Read reviews on Tripadvisor
Ventana Big Sur is an adult-only resort located on a hillside in Big Sur, overlooking the Pacific. The grounds are vast, and rooms feature views of the ocean, canyon, forest, or meadow. There are two heated pools, plus a Japanese hot bath. Complimentary classes and activities are offered. There is an onsite restaurant and a terrace bar.
Book a stay here!
Big Sur Lodge is located within Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, among the redwoods. We’ve stayed here when we visited Big Sur from out of state several years ago and found it comfortable and quiet. The lodge continues to be well reviewed, and features spacious comfortable rooms with decks. Onsite dining is available.
Book a stay here!
Tradewinds Carmel is located in Carmel-by-the-Sea, within a couple of blocks of lots of shopping and dining. The boutique hotel offers serene rooms with Asian-fusion decor, luxurious beds, and lovely bathrooms. You will love the gardens and the fire pit!
Book a stay here!
The Hofsas House Hotel in Carmel is a historic building, and you’ll think you’ve landed in Alsace when you see the charming facade. The boutique family-owned inn offers spacious, elegantly furnished rooms. Many rooms feature ocean views.
Book a stay here
South of Big Sur, check out this gorgeous AirBnB property in Cambria if you are traveling as a family. The well-reviewed 3-bedroom, 2.5-bath home is just two blocks from the ocean. Beautifully furnished, the home has a fully stocked kitchen. You may also see wildlife and birds!
Book this home now!
Map of Big Sur Attractions and Points of Interest
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