Ultimate Guide to Big Sur

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, "[the] 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.

A picturesque coastal road winds along a rugged cliffside, bordered by dense greenery and bushes. Below, the blue ocean stretches out to the horizon. For those seeking the ultimate guide to Big Sur, this serene, partly cloudy sky casts a perfect light over an unforgettable landscape.
Photo: Mark C. Anderson

Places to Visit

Andrew Molera State Park

A person stands on a rocky beach with scattered driftwood, facing the ocean. The coastline, reminiscent of the ultimate guide to Big Sur, is lined with rugged, golden-brown cliffs as waves gently crash onto the shore. A clear sky with a few clouds stretches over the hilly landscape in the background.

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

Exterior view of a quaint bakery and restaurant named "Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant". This gem of Big Sur Secrets is surrounded by lush greenery, with a rustic wooden pergola at the entrance, outdoor seating area, and a large tree in the background.

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

A group of six people wearing masks sit at a picnic table in an outdoor setting with wooden signage that reads "Big Sur Taphouse." The background features a wooden fence, greenery, and stone walls, creating a rustic atmosphere—an ideal spot featured in the ultimate guide to Big Sur.

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

Outdoor terrace with several people dining at tables under large umbrellas. The terrace features a railing overlooking an ocean view on a sunny day, with string lights hanging above. This picturesque spot could easily be featured in the ultimate guide to Big Sur. Some patrons are seated, while one person stands near the edge of the terrace.

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

Aerial view of a coastal area with rugged cliffs and rocky shoreline. The landscape includes dense trees, scattered houses, and buildings nestled among the greenery. Waves crash against the rocks, and a winding road cuts through the mountainous terrain, offering an ultimate guide to Big Sur’s natural beauty.

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

A rustic entrance to Fernwood motel and camp supply area is surrounded by lush greenery and flowers. Signs indicate amenities such as Bar & Grill, Gift Shop, and Camp Supply. Cars are parked in front of the motel nestled among tall trees, making it the perfect stop in the ultimate guide to Big Sur.

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

A cozy bookstore features various banknotes hanging from the ceiling, creating unique decor. Books, including "The Ultimate Guide to Big Sur," are displayed on wooden shelves, and framed pictures adorn the walls. Two people are browsing the books. The warm lighting adds to the inviting atmosphere.

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

An outdoor restaurant with red and yellow chairs and wooden tables overlooks a scenic view of the ocean and mountains, reminiscent of vistas found in the ultimate guide to Big Sur. People are seated, enjoying the view. A wooden sculpture of an eagle is in the foreground, and the sky is filled with clouds and soft light.

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

A large, rugged boulder sits on a rocky shoreline, its dark, craggy surface featuring a narrow vertical fissure. The overcast sky and distant ocean provide a muted, serene backdrop, contrasting with the boulder's rough texture—a hidden gem among Big Sur secrets.

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

A serene canyon with steep, rocky walls and a calm green river flowing through it. Sunlight illuminates the tops of the rocks, creating a stark contrast between the shaded and sunlit areas. Logs are scattered near the water's edge, adding rustic charm to what could be mistaken for the ultimate guide to Big Sur.

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

A person in red pants and a hat stands near the base of a majestic waterfall on the Monterey Peninsula, with water cascading down a tall, steep rock face surrounded by greenery. The scene is set in a forested area with sunlight filtering through the trees.

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

A scenic view of McWay Falls in Big Sur, part of the Central Coast California. The waterfall cascades from a cliff onto a sandy beach, with rugged rocks and turquoise waves in the ocean. Tall trees and lush greenery frame the coastline under a clear blue sky.

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

A cozy, dimly lit cabin interior with wooden furniture, featuring two people sitting at a table by a window. The room is decorated with various pottery items and vintage lamps; a brick fireplace is in the background. The walls have large windows and wooden beams, giving it the feel of the ultimate guide to Big Sur escape.

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

A luxurious bedroom, reminiscent of the ultimate guide to Big Sur, overlooks a coastal sunset through expansive floor-to-ceiling windows. The room features a contemporary design with a curved wall and a lit fireplace. A modern wooden chair, a cozy bed, and a textured rug create a warm and inviting ambiance.

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

Three people are sitting on wooden chairs placed in the middle of a shallow river surrounded by lush trees, reminiscent of scenes from Big Sur hotels. The chairs face forward with small tables in front. The person on the left appears to be eating or drinking, while others are conversing and enjoying the scenic view.

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

A cozy outdoor scene features a hammock with a soft blanket and an open book, "The Ultimate Guide to Big Sur," set on a wooden deck. In the background, tall trees and rolling hills rest under a clear blue sky. Additionally, two chairs and a small table sit next to the hammock.

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

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

Click to open PDF with links:

Want more travel inspiration and tips from locals?
 Follow us on Instagram @localgetaways!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top