Big Sur’s Best-Kept Secrets

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.

Whether you live in California, or are in town for a visit, you are within driving distance of one of the prettiest places on the planet, so grab the opportunity. Find a free weekend, book a room at one our favorite hotels near Big Sur such as the Getaway or the Hideaway in Carmel, or Casa Munras Garden Hotel & Spa in Monterey and make this happen.

Featured Photo: Joel Protasio

Point Lobos State Reserve

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Photo: Courtesy of Daniel Bianchetta

Whether you’re in the Big Sur area for a day or for a week, set aside time to spend in Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, home to one of the only two naturally growing stands of Monterey cypress trees remaining on earth. More than a dozen trails offer the chance to spy sea otters, harbor seals, California sea lions, large colonies of seabirds, and between December and May, migrating California gray whales. 

Bixby Bridge Photo Scoop

Bixby Bridge,Monterey Peninsula
Photo: Courtesy of Visit California

Spanning 714 feet in length the Bixby Bridge is one of the world’s tallest 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 Old Coast Road, the dirt road at the north end of the bridge.  

A Mini-Adventure on Old Coast Road

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Photo: Old Coast Road courtesy of Thomson200

If you are feeling adventurous, you can keep going on Old Coast Road. The well-maintained (though bumpy) dirt road passes through 10 miles of dense redwood groves and chaparral-covered ridges — with spectacular views of the coast — before exiting back onto Highway 1 near Andrew Molera State Park. A four-wheel drive vehicle isn’t necessary for the hour-long mini-adventure, but this isn’t for the faint hearted, either. 

Take a Lighthouse Tour

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Photo: Point Sur Lighthouse

As you make your way along Highway 1, about 15 minutes south of the Bixby Bridge, you’ll see the Point Sur Lighthouse perched 360 feet above the surf on a giant volcanic rock promontory. It was built in 1889, when only a horse trail provided access to this part of the world. Tours, which last about three hours and involve a steep half-mile hike each way, are scheduled on Saturdays at 10am and Wednesdays at 1pm. Tours are first come, first served and limited to 40 people.

Pfeiffer Beach

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Most folks drive right by the unmarked turn-off to this beach, not realizing what they are missing. Sycamore Canyon Road is located along Highway 1, about a mile south of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park’s entrance. (Pfeiffer Beach is not a California State Park and charges a separate $12 entrance fee.) 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. Leashed dogs are welcome.

Poking Your Head Into Post Ranch Inn

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I’ve been reviewing hotels for 20 years and I still haven’t stayed anywhere that’s come close to the Post Ranch Inn experience. Perched on 100 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. Reservations are strongly recommended for lunch and required for dinner.

Cafe Kevah and Big Sur Bakery

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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 Nepenthe Restaurant. The food wonderful (think Eggs Benedict, Cobb Salad and sandwiches including a Caprese baguette) and a bit less expensive than its always popular neighbor. 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 fare the likes of yogurt parfaits, wood-fired pizzas and chicory Caesar salad. The pastries and breads are baked on the premises.

Big Sur’s Secret Cove

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Photo: Courtesy of Mistyty via Wikimedia Commons

If you only have the time or energy for one short hike while touring Big Sur, head for the secret cove at Partington Canyon. It’s tricky to find on a map. Park at the 37.85 mile marker on the ocean side of Highway 1, (Two miles north of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.) and walk down the canyon toward the Pacific where a tunnel leads to a dazzling hidden cove. The story goes that John Partington built the tunnel in the late 1800s for his tanoak logging and shipping operation. 

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park / McWay Falls

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At the southern end of the Big Sur area is Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, home to one of my favorite hikes, McWay Falls. Take the trail from the parking area under the highway to a bluff overlooking the 80-foot-high McWay Falls, one of the few falls in California that plunges directly into the sea (it’s an easy trek). Keep an eye open for sea otters playing in McWay Cove.  

Treebones Resort

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If you want to stay in Big Sur but can’t afford it, consider glamping in a yurt at Treebones Resort. Half-tent, half-cabin, the resort’s yurts are spacious and furnished with polished pine wood floors, king beds, electric lighting, sink with running hot and cold water and gas-burning fireplaces, and decks with coastal views. The yurts don’t have bathrooms, but shower and restroom facilities are within a short stroll. Along with a pool and hot tub, in-yurt massage treatments are also available. All stays include free self-serve buffet breakfast.

Ventana Campground

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Of the numerous campgrounds in Big Sur, this one’s my favorite. Located 30 miles south of Carmel in a 40-acre redwood canyon, Ventana Campground offers tent camping sites with a picnic table and fire ring. There are two bath houses for campers. (No RVs, motor homes, travel trailers, pop-up tent trailers or any camper vans are permitted.) Be sure to reserve a campsite as far in advance as possible.

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