There are many iconic Big Sur attractions you absolutely cannot miss on this bucket-list drive, from hikes to historical sites and waterfalls to wonderful views. Running from Carmel in the north to San Simeon in the south, the Big Sur coastline is 90 miles of unsurpassed natural beauty. ), pristine coves and beaches, epic hiking trails, bubbling creeks and rivers, and picturesque waterfalls, Big Sur is well worth visiting on any trip to the California coast.
California Highway 1 hugs the land’s edge as it winds its way along the Big Sur coast, offering beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean on one side and the rugged cliffs and coastline on the other. We’ve driven the Big Sur coast numerous times and in every season. But we’ve described here the Big Sur attractions that are, in our opinion, definitely worth a stop on any trip to the region.
Scenic hiking trails winding their way past redwood groves and fern-lined creeks. Big Sur is one of the best weekend getaways from San Francisco, if you love escaping into nature. In the south, discover the picturesque Central California coastal towns: Cambria, Morro Bay, or San Luis Obispo.
Arguably the most photographed Big Sur attraction, McWay Falls does make for the perfect picture postcard.
The turquoise cove and greenery-clad cliffs make a stunning frame for the waterfall. After the mudslide, the sandy beach you see today was formed by waves working on the debris deposited in the area.
McWay Falls comes up on Highway One, and you can view it from the viewpoint by the side of the road if you are able to find a safe parking spot. At the time of writing, part of the Waterfall Overlook Trail is closed, and you can only walk to the first viewpoint. McWay Falls is one of California’s most beautiful waterfalls, and an unmissable Big Sur attraction. Another top Big Sur attraction, Bixby Creek Bridge will take your breath away when you first lay eyes on its stunning location.
Admire the waves pounding against the rocks offshore, picnic, or enjoy tidepooling at low tide. The purple sand beach in Big Sur at sunset PC: Joshua
During the few weeks of the year (in winter) when sunlight streams through the hole in Keyhole Rock just right, you will see tons of photographers here, hoping to get that perfect photo. Parking is limited, and you will be turned away if the lot is full, so arrive early for the best chance of a spot. You can’t go down to the beach at China Cove because of the fragility of the area, but you can view and photograph the beautiful sight from Bird Island Trail above.
If you visit in spring, you may see harbor seal moms nursing their newborn pups on the beach!
Good to know: Bird Island Trail is scenic but under a mile, so it’s easy to do even if you have limited time to spend in the park. The long sandy beach is fringed with rocks and the cliffs of Big Sur, making for a lovely setting.
), browse tidepools at low tide, look for jade or other minerals in the rocks, and just enjoy the scenic surroundings. The Old Coast Road from Bixby Creek Bridge to Andrew Molera State Park is a scenic off-roading experience. The route is about 10 miles long, and was used by stagecoaches in days past, before the current road was built. Old Coast Road hugs the Santa Lucia Mountains and runs through diverse landscapes: hills, valleys, redwood groves, and forests, with beautiful water views and unending photo ops.
Sadly, there aren’t too many turnouts to park in order to take photos, but drive slowly and enjoy the scenery. Before California Highway One was completed, the staff led an isolated life, with supplies delivered by ship every few months.
It is still active, but uses a modern aero beacon in place of the original Fresnel lens. In San Simeon, at the southern edge of the Big Sur coast, the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery is a must-stop spot. Part of the California Coastal National Monument, the refuge hosts several thousand northern elephant seals each year, and seeing them piled up on the shore and hearing their bellows is a unique experience.
A few miles away is the historic Piedras Blancas Light Station, which you can visit on a guided tour.
Along with its supporting buildings, Piedras Blancas Light Station is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The lighthouse keeper’s Victorian-style cottage was moved to nearby Cambria and restored, and today you can actually stay in it!
It is a pleasant shaded walk through redwood groves as the trail follows Limekiln Creek. You’ll cross over the creek several times as you walk, possibly getting your feet wet in the process.
In a good year, the single mass of water is powerful, but even in a drier time, you’ll likely see a split waterfall that’s a fine photo op. The Limekiln trail takes you to four large lime kilns that were built many decades ago and used to smelt limestone from the canyon to be used in making cement for construction.
The kilns are in pretty good shape, and the site is a great hike if you like learning about local history. Stroll the beautiful strip of sand, sunbathe, and watch the waves crash on to the rocks.
When you go back up the stairs, walk the bluff trail at the top to the end for spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean. A couple of years ago, we visited Garrapata State Beach during a winter storm, to take in the majesty of the waves from a safe distance.
The publishing tycoon, and his architect, the famed Julia Morgan, built the estate over many years, starting in 1919 and ending in 1947. It is now the Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument, a popular tourist attraction along the Central California Coast. The collection includes a first draft of Miller’s famous work, Tropic of Cancer. Aside from the collections, you will find a bookstore here: it’s a nice place to browse and chill indoors.
A short walk from the library, the Hawthorne Gallery is a great place to visit if you enjoy art. You will find several very accessible and scenic hiking trails at Point Lobos along the Big Sur coast. Ocean view trails extend on both sides of this starting point, but for the more scenic loop, go south. Nepenthe Restaurant, and Café Kevah, are famous for their spectacular location and water views.
There is also a gift shop featuring local art and souvenirs that makes for pleasant browsing. Located on the ocean side of Highway One, Nepenthe comes up about 30 miles south of Carmel.
The cafe has terrace seating overlooking the ocean and the Santa Lucia mountains, and serves casual fare and desserts. Surrounded by forests and gardens, the cafe is a lovely place to stop even just for a snack and a drink. Scenes from The Sandpiper were filmed here, and Henry Miller lived here when he first came to Big Sur. For visitors today, it’s a laid-back place to relax, enjoy a good meal, and take in the superb views. For that iconic photo of the scalloped bays of Big Sur, with Highway One winding its way along the land’s edge, punctuated by Bixby Creek Bridge, you must make a stop at the Hurricane Point Overlook. While this view is stunning in any season, it is particularly gorgeous in the spring, when you’ll have pretty wildflowers in the foreground and the hills are emerald green.
And a few miles further south of this viewpoint is another stunning overlook, from where you can see Little Sur River flow into the Pacific Ocean. The trail itself is beautiful, passing through groves of towering redwoods, along streams and creeks lined with ferns, before you start climbing up the canyon. At the fork, take the oak-lined Valley View Trail, to continue climbing to the viewpoint. Back at the junction, take the Pfeiffer Falls Trail, which goes down into the canyon to the waterfall, framed by redwoods.
The Pfeiffer Falls and Valley View Overlook Trail is 2 miles round trip, with about 450 feet of elevation gain, and is rated moderate to strenuous. Garrapata State Park, in the northern part of Big Sur, has about four miles of oceanfront, and much of the coastal side is covered with a network of trails.
It’s a short out and back walk, just 0.6 mile, but offers beautiful views and wildflowers in season. At the south end of the park, from gate 18, you can hike one of many trails that provide beach access.
From late January until April, the valley is lush with stunning white calla lilies.
Set high on the cliffs, the restaurant offers breathtaking views of the ocean and coastline. With comfortable beds and seating, redwood decks, and full or partial ocean views, the Treebone Resort yurts look amazing! Big Sur has several regular campgrounds, some inside the state parks and others that are privately owned.
It’s a relatively lesser visited Big Sur park, so you will also enjoy greater solitude on your adventures. The many trails in Andrew Molera State Park encompass bluffs, hills, beach, and meadows.
The easy Creamery Meadow Trail, 2 miles round trip, leads to the beach, and is open to both hikers and bicyclists.
Big Sur is the southernmost part of the California coast where you can walk among towering coastal redwoods. As a bonus, the trail follows the scenic Big Sur River as it bubbles and cascades over rocks. At the southern end of Big Sur, Ragged Point offers a stunning ocean view from the cliffs high above the water.
Ragged Point Restaurant is a great place for a break, with outdoor seating where you can have a bite to eat or a drink. The short but very steep (and sometimes treacherously slippery) climb down to Young’s Creek Beach rewards experienced hikers not just with its black sand, but also the fabulous view looking up at the cliffs from the bottom. The trailhead is at a pullout about 3.6 miles north of Ragged Point, and you can park on the side of the road. The trail is flat, about one mile long, and leads to a beach where the creek runs into the ocean.
Soberanes Point comes up about half-way into Garrapata State Park, in the northern part of the Big Sur Coast. The spot is a favorite of photographers, who come here to capture the rugged beauty of the cliffs against the water.
Different parts of Garrapata State Park are accessed at numbered mile markers: there are no signs. This coast has been called “the greatest meeting of land and water,” and, once they see it in person, most visitors would agree wholeheartedly.
This cute secluded cabin with craftsman details is just the place for a couples getaway or a small family stay. Located between Carmel and Big Sur, the south-facing cabin offers stunning canyon and mountain views.
The redwood garden room has a clawfoot soaking tub, and there is also a (shared) wood-fired sauna. This beautiful home is located in the southern portion of Big Sur, in Gorda.
The 2-bedroom, 2-bath home has spacious, well-appointed interiors and a deck with outdoor seating and a barbecue grill. Check out this amazing Big Sur home with outdoor heated swimming pool and spa! Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur is a dream stay if you are looking for a special occasion (or a “just because”) splurge. The adult-only property offers rooms with either mountain or ocean views, and no TVs or alarm clocks.
The grounds are vast, and rooms feature views of the ocean, canyon, forest, or meadow. We’ve stayed here when we visited Big Sur from out of state several years ago and found it comfortable and quiet.
Tradewinds Carmel is located in Carmel-by-the-Sea, within a couple of blocks of lots of shopping and dining. The boutique hotel offers serene rooms with Asian-fusion decor, luxurious beds, and lovely bathrooms. The Hofsas House Hotel in Carmel is a historic building, and you’ll think you’ve landed in Alsace when you see the charming facade.
The boutique family-owned inn offers spacious, elegantly furnished rooms. This gorgeous home makes the perfect base from which to explore Big Sur and the Central Coast. There is a fireplace in the living room, a Tempurpedic mattress in the master bedroom, a jacuzzi, and a full kitchen.