Photo: Bruce Warrington on Unsplash
To take full advantage of all this unique, artsy region has to offer, we’ve put together a list of our favorite spots along the historic Pacific Coast Highway to make the most of any weekend getaway. This guide is catered to those driving south along Highway 1 from the Monterey area (while you’re there, be sure to have a quick lunch on Cannery Row and walk along the coastal corridor). The following are a few of our favorite stopovers reflecting a variety of price points, for both the rustic budget-friendly traveler and those opting to relax in a bit more luxury.
Depending on your budget, we’ve listed out accommodations for both the thrifty traveler and those hoping to splurge a little more for their long excursion. Lodging is scarce and often booked in advance in the Big Sur area if you’re looking for a solid room and running water, but there are plenty of campsites along the way. These also tend to book out far in advance, but a number of camping locations do have spots open on a first come, first serve basis.
A quick travel tip: Big Sur’s rugged coastal location makes it subject to high rains and landslides. Be sure to check local conditions before your trip.
Things to Do in Big Sur
Stop for a world-class vista at the famous Bixby Bridge.
The first stop on any Big Sur traveler’s list should be the famous Bixby Bridge. This picturesque California icon has been hailed as Big Sur’s version of the Golden Gate – and it’s easy to see why. Easily one of the most Instagrammed locations in all of Big Sur, just before the bridge are a handful of turnouts complete with one of the most epic backdrops. Sweeping 260 feet above the bottom of a canyon carved by Bixby Creek, the concrete bridge was completed in 1932 and was one of the highest bridges at the time, according to Visit California.
Stop for a poetry reading at the Henry Miller Memorial Library.
Named for mid-century author Henry Miller, this roadside library is a must-see for any Big Sur visitor. Miller disapproved of memorials, saying they “defeated the purpose of a man’s life. Only by living your own life to the full can you honor the memory of someone.” Regardless, the bookstore features a variety of classic Big Sur literature and guides useful to any visitor. Likewise, the nonprofit organization hosts a variety of events that celebrate artistic and cultural contributions to the Big Sur community.
Wine and dine at the iconic Nepenthe restaurant.
Nepenthe translates to “no sorrow” and even a moment spent inside this craft-style restaurant will surely send any blues far on the Pacific winds. The restaurant sits high on the edge of seaside cliffs and has sweeping views of the ocean. It’s outdoor-style bar and restaurant allows for sun-soaking at any corner. Inside, whimsical wooden furniture surrounds artistically crafted wood-burning fireplaces. No reservation is needed.
Hike through majestic redwood groves at Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park.
Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park encompasses nearly 4,000 acres home to redwood, tan oak, madrone, and chaparral trees. Though the park does not offer beach access, there are plenty of hiking trails to keep the whole family entertained, from beginners to advanced.
Recently renovated in 2017, the Big Sur Lodge is situated inside the park and boasts the rustic authenticity that made this coastal community famous. This is a great location to call home base while staying in the Big Sur region if you would like to avoid commuting from Monterey.
Price point: from $299/night
Visit McWay Waterfall.
Also located within the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, McWay Falls is one of the region’s most visited hiking trails. It’s short, but panoramic northern and southern views make the hike worthwhile. From the trail, McWay Creek is visible cascading 80 feet down from a rock crevice onto a white sand cove.
Soak at Esalen Hot Springs.
If a more structured vacation is your style, head to the famous Esalen Institute for mindfulness, yoga, and all things restorative to the soul. As a guest, you will also enjoy one of the most pristine hot springs experiences along the California coast. Here, a rock-line tub is built into the cliffside. If you’re not staying here, be sure to check out the institute’s public night bathing available to the public between 1 and 3 a.m.
Price point: pricing varies depending on workshop or retreat offered.
Talk to locals for the most authentic experience.
Those local to the region know how special it is and are quick to share favorite stories of the best places to visit. There is limited cell service in the area, so reaching out to residents is the best way to explore off-the-beaten areas and those less frequented by tourists. Be sure to map your trip in advance and print out any directions or maps you might need. Remember: tuning out is part of the experience in Big Sur.