You know it’s there, and you know you’ve been wanting to go, yet when’s the last time you’ve taken a weekend getaway to Big Sur? That’s what I thought. So to help entice you to do the right thing for your body and soul, I’ve put together an insider’s list of my favorite (and little-known) things to see and do in Big Sur.
As a Californian you have the rare opportunity to be within driving distance of one of the prettiest places on the planet, so grab the opportunity, regardless of your busy schedule. Find a free weekend in your day-planner, book a room at one our favorite hotels near Big Sur such as the Carmel Mission Inn or Casa Munras Garden Hotel & Spa in Monterey and make this happen…
Big Sur’s Secret Cove
If you only have the time or energy for one short hike while touring Big Sur, head for the secret cove at Partington Canyon. Don’t bother looking for it on the map; it’s not there. Instead, park at the 37.85 mile marker (2 miles north of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park), walk down the canyon toward the ocean, turn right at the “Underwater Forest” display, then left across the footbridge, and suddenly it’s “Whoa! Where’d that come from?”
A wild non sequitur in this remote valley, this 100-foot, hand-carved, timber-reinforced tunnel leads to a dazzling hidden cove. The story goes that John Partington built the tunnel for his tan-oak cutting and shipping operation, where sleds filled with tan-oak bark were pulled down the mountain and loaded onto ships anchored in the placid cove.
Poking Your Head Into Post Ranch Inn
I’ve been reviewing hotels for 20 years and I still haven’t stayed anywhere that came close to the Post Ranch Inn experience. Perched on 98 acres of seaside ridges high above the Pacific Ocean, it’s one of the most beautiful hotel settings in the world. There simply aren’t words in the English language to properly describe that ocean view.
If you can afford to stay here, adopt me. If you can’t, you need to check it out anyway, and having lunch at the resort’s cliff-side Sierra Mar restaurant is a great excuse to wallow in romantic splendor of Post Ranch Inn (you don’t need to be a guest of the hotel). Try to make a dining reservation in advance, but either way you have to see this view. You have no idea how happy you can make someone simply by making a lunch reservation for two at the Post Ranch Inn.
I also highly recommend the nearby Ventana Inn, which has a sensational spa.
See Also: Two Perfect Days in Pacifica
Take A Moonlight Lighthouse Tour
About 13 miles south from Carmel on Highway 1 you’ll see the Point Sur Lighthouse off in the distance, perched 361 feet above the surf atop Point Sur, a giant volcanic rock promontory just south of Bixby Bridge. It was built in 1889, when only a horse trail provided access to this part of the world.
Tours, which take about 2 and involve a steep half-mile hike each way, are scheduled on Saturdays, Sundays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays in the summer months. Spectacular moonlight tours are offered as well—check their website for specific dates: www.pointsur.org.
A Mini-Adventure On Old Coast Road
Across from the entrance to Andrew Molera State Park is the southern access point to Old Coast Road, a well-maintained (though bumpy) dirt road that passes through 10 miles of dense redwood groves and chaparral-covered ridges—with spectacular views of the coast—before exiting back onto Highway 1 at Bixby Bridge. A four-wheel-drive vehicle isn’t necessary for the hour-long mini-adventure, but this isn’t for the lion-hearted, either.
Most people don’t know that the state parks in Big Sur are open year-round and never fill up, even in the summer. Also, your parking fee receipt is good for all the other state parks in the region as well, so you only have to pay once to visit all the parks.
Pfeiffer-Big Sur State Park’s best attraction is exactly 1-1/10 miles south of the park’s entrance on Highway 1. Look for the unmarked turnoff to Sycamore Canyon Road, a narrow 2-1/3-mile paved road (motor homes can forget this one) that leads to beautiful but blustery Pfeiffer Beach.
Even if the sun’s a no-show, it’s still worth a trip to marvel at the white-and-mauve sands, enormous sea caves, and pounding surf. And regardless of how Hollywood heartthrob Michelle Pfeiffer pronounces her last name, Big Sur’s founding Pfeiffer family keeps the f silent and the p hard. Say Pie-fur and you’re halfway to becoming a local.
At the southern end of the Big Sur area is Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, home to one of my favorite hikes: McWay Waterfall. Take the trail from the parking area at McWay Canyon, which leads under the highway to a bluff overlooking the 80-foot-high McWay Waterfall, one of the few falls in California that plunges directly into the sea (it’s an easy trek). Keep an eye open the for sea otters that play in McWay Cove.
Free Parking At Point Lobos State Reserve
Whether you’re in Big Sur for a day or for a week, spend some time in the gorgeous 1,304-acre Point Lobos State Reserve, home to one of the only two naturally growing stands of Monterey cypress trees remaining on earth. More than a dozen trails lead to ocean coves, where you might spy sea otters, harbor seals, California sea lions, large colonies of seabirds, and between December and May, migrating California gray whales.
But only the locals know that you can skip the entrance fee at Point Lobos State Reserve by parking alongside Highway 1 and walking (or biking) in. It’s not only legal, the rangers I met recommend it. Wherever you trek through Big Sur, however, beware of poison oak (remember: Leaves of three, let it be).
Bixby Bridge Photo Scoop
That magnificent arched span crossing over Bixby Creek Canyon is the Bixby Bridge, a.k.a. the Rainbow Bridge. At 268 feet high, 739 feet long, with a 320-foot arch, it’s one of the world’s highest single-span concrete bridges and a favorite stop for camera-wielding tourists. Photo tip: For the best shooting angle, drive a few hundred yards up the dirt road at the north end of the bridge (Old Coast Road).
Cafe Kevah & Big Sur Bakery
If your idea of communing with nature is a comfy chair in the shade, a leafy salad, and a view of the rugged coast, then grab a seat on the deck of the Cafe Kevah, located one flight of stairs below the fabled–and absurdly overpriced–Nepenthe Restaurant.
Not only is the food wonderful (e.g., Australian lamb skewers with couscous, green mint pesto, and garlic toast; grilled salmon over tossed greens with a papaya vinaigrette; buttermilk waffles and fresh vegetable omelets), it’s relatively inexpensive, too.
The clincher, though, is the location: perched 800 feet above the glimmering Pacific, the cafe’s deck has a phenomenal view of the Big Sur coastline.
I also highly recommend the Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant on Highway 1, just past the post office and a mile south of Pfeiffer–Big Sur State Park. It offers friendly service and healthy fare, including wood-fired pizzas and portobello-mushroom burgers at lunch, and salmon, tuna, and chicken selections at dinner. All the pastries are freshly baked on the premises, along with hearth-baked breads.
If you want to stay in Big Sur but can’t afford it, consider Treebones Resort.
This miniresort, on a secluded bluff, shelters guests in ocean-side yurts—circular fabric structures on a wooden frame. Half-tent, half-cabin, Treebones’s yurts are spacious and tastefully furnished with polished pine wood floors, queen-size beds with cozy comforters, electric lighting, gas-burning fireplaces, and French doors that open to a redwood deck with Adirondack chairs and spectacular coastal views.
The yurts don’t have bathrooms, but shower and restroom facilities are within a short stroll. The main lodge has a heated, oceanview pool and hot tub, and a restaurant that serves nightly dinner by a crackling fire in a casual, community setting. Private, in-yurt massage treatments are also available. Rates start at $145 for two guests, with a 2-night minimum April to October, including a self-service waffle breakfast with coffee and orange juice.
Of the numerous campgrounds in Big Sur, this one’s my favorite. Ventana Campground is adjacent to the Ventana Resort entrance, but the comparison stops there. Ensconced within a box canyon at about 900 feet in elevation within a second-growth redwood forest, this place is pure rusticity.
The 80 campsites, on 40 acres of a redwood canyon, are spaced well apart on a hillside and shaded by towering trees. Each has a picnic table and fire ring, but no electricity, RV hookups, or river access. Three conveniently located bathhouses have hot showers. Rates are $35 for a site for two with one vehicle. An additional person is $5 extra, and it’ll cost you $5 to bring Fido. Be sure to reserve a campsite as far in advance as possible.
If you have your own tips and recommendations on great outdoor getaways throughout California that you’d like to share, feel free to add your own comments below. We’d love to hear from you.