When Spanish settlers first laid eyes on this 90-mile stretch of rugged coastline between Carmel and San Simeon, they deemed it El País Grande del Sur, or “the big country to the south” (that is, south of their colony at Monterey). Proving that there’s nothing the English language can’t butcher for the sake of brevity, El Sur Grande eventually mutated into Big Sur, an appellation that still does little to convey the unbelievable beauty bestowed on the land by Madre Nature. ↓
Mist-shrouded forests, plunging cliffs, cobalt seas, and nary a Starbucks or Taco Bell account for one of the most beautiful coastal drives in the country, if not the world. In fact, the region is so captivating that some folks favor giving it national park status; others, however, recoil in horror at the thought of involving the federal government in the preservation of this untamed land and have coined the expression “Don’t Yosemitecate Big Sur.”
The handful of families who own most of the land south of Carmel have endeavored to keep this rugged region as indigenous and unpopulated as possible (in fact, Big Sur sustained a larger population at the turn of the century than it does today).
Despite Big Sur’s popularity—summer weekends are unkind to the two-lane highway—the area has remained sparsely populated. Most visitors are day trippers vacationing in the Monterey area, who come to see what all the fuss is about. The rest, aka those in the know, journey here for a few days of camping, backpacking, or luxuriating in the elegant (and exorbitantly priced) resorts.
If you’re only visiting for the day, here’s a few words of advice: start early, fill your tank, take a camera and binoculars, bring a jacket, wear comfortable shoes, drive slow, take a hike, then turn around at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and do it all over again.
So much to see and do
Whether you’re in Big Sur for a day or for a week, spend some time in the gorgeous 1,276-acre Point Lobos State Reserve (on Highway 1, 3 miles south of Carmel; 831/624-4909831/624-4909). 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. Wherever you trek through Big Sur, however, beware of poison oak (remember: leaves of three, let it be).
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).
South of Bixby Bridge is the Point Sur Lighthouse, built in 1889 and towering 361 feet above the surf atop Point Sur, a giant volcanic-rock island easily visible from Highway 1. Inexpensive (though physically taxing), 21/2-hour guided lighthouse tours are offered on weekends year-round and on Wednesdays in summer. Don’t forget your jacket and $5 for admission. Call for schedule information. Off Highway 1, 19 miles south of Carmel in Big Sur; (831)625-4419(831)625-4419.
A popular retreat for hikers and bicyclists is the 4,800-acre Andrew Molera State Park, the largest state park on the Big Sur coast. More than 15 miles of trails zigzag through grasslands, redwood forests, and along Big Sur River. A mile-long walk through a meadow laced with wildflowers leads to a 2-mile-long beach harboring the area’s best tide pools. On Highway 1, 21 miles south of Carmel; (831)667-2315(831)667-2315.
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 hourlong mini-adventure, but this isn’t for the lion-hearted, either.
One thing Big Sur isn’t short of is hiking trails. Pfeiffer–Big Sur State Park has dozens of trails—many with panoramic views of the sea—that crisscross the park’s 810 acres of madrone and oak woodlands and misty redwood canyons. The Big Sur River meanders through the park, too, attracting anglers and swimmers hardy enough to brave the chilly waters. For overnighters, Pfeiffer–Big Sur offers 218 ultracivilized camping facilities that include showers, a laundry, a store, an amphitheater for ranger-led campfire talks, and (bless ‘em) flush toilets. Park information: (800)444-7275(800)444-7275 or (831)667-2315(831)667-2315.
Though entrance to Pfeiffer–Big Sur State Park costs a hefty $5, the park’s best attraction is free. Exactly 11/10 miles south of the park’s entrance on Highway 1 is the unmarked turnoff to Sycamore Canyon Road, a narrow 21/3-mile paved road (motor homes can forget this one) that leads to beautiful but blustery Pfeiffer Beach, the only beach in Big Sur accessible by car. 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.
Three miles south of Nepenthe Restaurant is the Coast Gallery, a showplace for local artists and craftspeople featuring pottery, jewelry, and paintings, including watercolors by author Henry Miller, who lived nearby for more than 15 years. The gallery’s casual Coast Cafe has a great view of the ocean and offers simple serve-yourself lunches of soup, sandwiches, baked goods, wine, and espresso drinks; Highway 1, Big Sur; (831)667-2301(831)667-2301. The author’s fans will also want to seek out the Henry Miller Library. In addition to a great collection of Miller’s books and art, the library serves as one of Big Sur’s cultural centers and features the art, poetry, prose, and music of locals; it’s open Tuesday through Sunday, and is located just beyond Nepenthe restaurant on the east side of Highway 1, (831)667-2574(831)667-2574.
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, look for a long horseshoe-shaped turn around a small canyon leading to the ocean, exactly 2 miles north of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park turnoff (you’ll see several dirt pull-offs where you can 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 raging non sequitur in this remote valley is this 100-foot, hand-carved, timber-reinforced tunnel that leads to a dazzling hidden cove. Story goes 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.
At the southern end of the Big Sur area is Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. With 3,580 acres to roam—and a less-crowded feel to it than the region’s other parks—you’ll find some excellent day hikes here. If you just want to get out of the car and stretch your legs, take the 1/4-mile Waterfall Trail to the 80-foot-high McWay Waterfall, one of the few falls in California that plunges directly into the sea. Keep an eye open the for sea otters that play in McWay Cove; (831)667-2315(831)667-2315.