The Ultimate Guide to Big Sur

Featured Photo: Mark C. Anderson

Henry Miller called Big Sur the place he first learned to say, “Amen.” Richard Brautigan called it a great destination to let, “your soul have some room to get outside its marrow.” Land policy wonks and other admirers have called it, "longest and most scenic stretch of undeveloped coastline in the contiguous United States,” a, "national treasure,” and, "one of the most beautiful coastlines anywhere in the world… mythic in reputation.”

I call it the one part of the world that can comfort me when I’ve traveled to a breathtakingly beautiful place and I can’t imagine leaving. At those moments, I tell myself I can find the strength to depart because I’ll have Big Sur to return to.

I once pitched the late Anthony Bourdain on it as a destination for his show Parts Unknown. I couldn’t resist thinking the 90-mile stretch of unincorporated — and incomparable — coastline and its unique alchemy of redwoods, marine terraces, dramatic beaches, art, literary pedigree, compelling history and atmospheric food and drink would be a fantastic find for his storytelling soul.

History

The South Coast was first inhabited by three tribes of natives, the Ohlone, Esselen and Salinan, dating as far back as 3500 BC. Spanish explorers sailed past in the 1500s, but colonization attempts didn’t happen until 200 years later and those were ultimately choked off because of the difficulty of the terrain. 

And though Mexican land grants including big swaths of Big Sur were bestowed in the 1830s, settlement didn’t really occur until decades later. The names and descendants of those hardy souls dot the landscape to this day, from Pfeiffer Ridge to Post Summit to Partington Cove.

Redwood lumbering sustained the early pioneers. The Old Coast Trail allowed wagon access and steam ships carried out weighty goods. The Point Sur Lighthouse Station started operating in 1889. 

The real game changer came in 1937, when Highway 1 was completed after 18 years of build-out. Electricity came later, in the 1950s, though it doesn’t extend to a number of Big Sur’s nooks and crannies.

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Photo: Mark C. Anderson

Places to Visit

Andrew Molera State Park

One of the parks to prioritize on the South Coast. It can feel like several parks in one, given its river section, expansive beaches, arboreal stretches, and dramatic elevation gains. Local Getaways’ favorite piece of that puzzle is the Bluffs Trail that connects with the beach and allows for a loop back if you time the tides right. parks.ca.gov

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This spot has been a heart home for locals and visitors alike for two decades for its award-winning breads, pastries and more. Smart hot sauce, fermentation and pizza programs elevate the sense of place with vibrant seasonal fare in a homey and welcoming setting. bigsurbakery.com

Big Sur Taphouse

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At times, thanks to crowds and steep price points, Big Sur can be a challenge. This place provides an antidote, which is why it is a localsgo-to. Anticipate limited or no wait time, simple and convenient counter service, a good craft beer selection and rock solid values on daily specials. bigsurtaphouse.com

Coast Big Sur

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The art and the setting are outright arresting, but dont sleep on the spectacular pizzas, preserved goods, adventurous soft-serve ice creams and more from the mind of James Beard Award-winning author and chef Nick Balla. coastbigsur.com

Esalen Institute

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The worlds leading hub for exploring human potential doesnt require giants of thought and seminars to be enjoyed — the organic food, on-the-cusp-of-the-Pacific mineral pools and massages work just right too. Getting in can be almost as complicated as the human struggle, though, so study up on their website to understand visiting rules. esalen.org

Fernwood Bar and Grill

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The simple fact that cell phone signals are strongest here is worth noting. Theres also much more to check out: the albino redwood, the timeless saloon, the hiking trails, the riverside campsites and forested cabins. Fernwood is also one of the best places to catch live music on the South Coast. fernwoodbigsur.com

Henry Miller Library

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The iconic venue does have a prodigious selection of carefully curated books and a funky-fresh art-laden setting with grassy lawns begging for a picnic. But the pro tip here is to peek into its music and art performance schedule, because its an incredible place to take in a show. henrymiller.org

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There might not be a Big Sur without Nepenthe, which sounds like hyperbole, but thats #facts: When all the fire and mudslides and mayhem hit the South Coast, its definitive restaurant with the amazing wine list and amazing-er views becomes a community support system distributing food and information. nepenthe.com

Pfeiffer Beach

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Few landscapes draw so many photographers. This one does, thanks to rock structures that rival any on earth. It also invites walks that can stretch for hours and miles south, all the way to Andrew Molera State Park. fs.usda.gov

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

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If you have time for one park, the granddaddy of them all has to be it. Some of the coolest campgrounds in the state call this home, but it also works wonders for a day trip, particularly a wander up the river to the water hole known by locals simply as The Gorge. parks.ca.gov

Pfeiffer Falls

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One of Big Surs landmark hikes was off-limits after multiple wildfires, landslides and floods — for more than a decade. Now its back in all its glory, with broad plank walkways and a trail that continues to a summit called Valley View. redwoodhikes.com

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park / McWay Falls

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The iconic photos of the falls landing on the beach of McWay Cove pretty much sums up Big Sur for many. Its popularity makes it a good site to visit at off-peak hours. mcwayfalls.com

Places to Stay

Deetjen's Big Sur Inn

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Inseparable from Big Sur and the redwoods that surround it, Deetjen’s represents a reborn legend famous for its historic and creaky cabins, unforgettable in-room journals, gorgeous gardens and, yes, the eggs Benedict. deetjens.com

Post Ranch Inn-Big Sur fireplace-Central Coast-Luxury-credit Post Ranch Inn-800x450

Perched on a cliff 1,200 feet above the sea, Post Ranch Inn can make a strong case for Big Sur’s best views as well as its most eye-catching architecture. It also occupies an unusual niche between rustic retreat and Amangiri-level indulgence. Like a summer camp for jet-setters, Post Ranch Inn offers a full menu of nature-themed and wellness activities, including yoga, meditation, nature walks and stargazing. postranchinn.com

River Inn

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One rite of passage for passersby is the chance to sip an award-winning Bloody Mary while sitting in an Adirondack chair with bare feet trailing in the Big Sur River. Summertime brings live music and al fresco barbecue specials to the backyard lawns too. bigsurriverinn.com

Ventana-Big-Sur-hammock-room

This luxury resort enjoys Japanese baths, world-class food and jaw-dropping views from atop the Pacific. It also gives guests updated lodging that rivals any in the area, whether thats the fancy rooms that brag big bathtubs and epic architecture, or the glamping and old-school camping on the lower grounds. The on-site Big Sur Smokehouse does mean BBQ too. ventanabigsur.com

Treebones Resort

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The furthest south of these recommendations deserves love for its family-run collection of yurts, sweeping views, organic gardens and food program. Wild Coast Restaurant & The Sushi Bar have gotten popular enough that a call ahead for reservations is a must. treebonesresort.com

Times to Visit

Big Sur is an intensely seasonal place, with huge surges of visitors in the summer and on weekends year-round, so any opportunity to arrive in non-peak times would be good to pounce upon. 

Big Sur Food & Wine furnishes a delicious excuse to make a pilgrimage, and happens the first weekend of November. The Big Sur International Marathon is an even bigger draw, and happens in the spring.

Lodging is limited and can be cost prohibitive, so planning to stay on the Monterey Peninsula is helpful to consider. Camping spots fill up quickly too so planning further in advance than normal is advisable. 

Checklist

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