Big Sur is probably one of the most famous and celebrated California destinations in terms of natural beauty, but for various reasons it’s never been high on my to-go list. Partly because the pandemic has limited my travel options, and partly because I finally put in the time to research the area, I was finally curious enough and took a 3-night trip there in early May, 2021. Well, now I’m a believer!
6 Big Sur Attractions You Must Not Miss!
1. Garrapata State Park Bluff Trail
This is a stretch of mostly flat trails on the bluff along the coast. On the trail there is a cute little bridge that crosses the Soberanes Creek, and you can enjoy awesome views of large waves crashing against the sea stacks and cliffs.
2. The Calla Lily Valley
Did you know calla lilies grow naturally in the wild in swampy areas? I’ve seen calla lily patches in the past on other hikes but never made the connection. Look for “Garrapata State Beach Parking” on Google Maps (and some cars parked on the dirt patch on either side of Highway 1). After you park, look for the “Garrapata State Park” sign and you’ll see a narrow trail that goes down towards the beach. Head north to get to the little valley full of wild calla lilies! I think peak bloom season may be earlier in March or April, because many of the lilies we saw were already wilting/dried up. At the valley of the lilies there are some steps that go up to a trail that takes you back onto the highway, at a point a bit north of where you parked. Here you can get a full view of the valley of the lilies from the top and walk back along Highway 1 to your car (or you can go back down and back-track on the trail, and go further south where the trail leads to a stretch of beaches).
3. Bixby Creek Bridge
This is probably one of the most iconic sights associated with Big Sur. The bridge was built in the 1930s and is quite impressive. There are some areas both north and south of the bridge where you can pull over to get a view. This is a view north of the bridge at “Castle Rock Viewpoint”.
4. Buzzard’s Roost Trail (in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park – entrance fee required)
There are a lot of trails (and camping) in this huge state park, but this was the only hike we did here. This trail starts at Big Sur Lodge near a small creek, and is about 4 mile roundtrip (took us a little over 2 hours). You slowly zig-zag uphill towards Buzzard’s Roost view point, and there are many pretty wildflowers along the way. You can then make a loop from the top to get back down, though we ended up going up and coming down the same way. It was still quite foggy when we made it to the peak on our morning hike, so we did not get the famed view of the coast from the top.
5. Pfeiffer Beach (entrance fee required)
The Keyhole Arch at this beach may be the second most famous sight associated with Big Sur – it’s a popular sunset photography spot, as the sunlight streams directly though the keyhole at sunset, especially during the winter months around the winter solstice. My picture of the Keyhole Arch here is from 2016 (when we made a detour on a drive from SF to LA). On this most recent May 2021 trip, it was so windy on the beach the wind-whipped sand bit into our exposed skin like a million little needles. We quickly snapped a few pictures and ran back to the car, and didn’t even get a proper view of the Keyhole Arch (which really was just a few more steps north along the beach). There are a few other arches and cool rock formations here, but the Keyhole Arch gets all the glory because of the sunset phenomenon. Pfeiffer beach is also known as the Purple Beach, as the sand is purple from the manganese garnet deposits that wash down onto the beach from the surrounding hills. To get to this beach, take Sycamore Canyon Road (which requires a sharp right turn if you’re coming southbound) off Highway 1. It’s a 2-mile, very narrow, not really paved, road with turnouts that leads to two parking areas for the beach. Both parking areas are a very short walk to the beach.
6. McWay Falls (Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park – entrance fee required)
A short ¼ -mile walk from the parking lot leads to a deck overlooking the beautiful McWay Cove and the McWay Falls. It is a small waterfall and we didn’t see it at first. There are a few other (longer) trails in this park, but they were all closed during our visit, though may be due to recent fires/rains rather than the pandemic? We also noticed a lot of people parked off Highway 1 just before the park entrance, so you can get a view of the cove and waterfall on the highway without actually entering the park.
Where to Eat?
There aren’t a lot of dining options at Big Sur, but enough that if you wanted to eat at a different place for lunch and dinner each day over a 3-4 day trip, it is still possible. Here are two of my favorites on this trip.
Coast Big Sur (49901 CA-1, Big Sur, CA 93920)
Art gallery and café, you can get a nice lunch here and enjoy a beautiful view of the Pacific Coast with your meal. Don’t forget to try one of the soft-serve options for dessert!
Big Sur Bakery (47540 CA-1, Big Sur, CA 93920)
This a good breakfast/lunch spot nestled amongst pretty fruit trees and gardens, flanked by a couple small art galleries. They have also recently started (restarted?) serving dinner starting at 5pm. This fried chicken was very juicy and flavorful, and the purple sauce was a horseradish crème fraiche, and it was really, really good!
Where to Stay?
Big Sur Lodge (Family friendly)
This is where we stayed on this trip. Situated right in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, staying here also gives you complimentary day passes to all 3 state parks in Big Sur (Pfeiffer Big Sur, Andrew Molera, and Julia Pfeiffer Burns). All the units are cottages of different sizes. We chose the Kitchenette Cottage that had a bedroom with a queen bed, a living room with a pull-out couch, and a kitchen that included a refrigerator, stove, microwave, a small coffee maker, a toaster, and basic kitchen supplies (pot, pan, dishes, utensils — bring your own cooking oil, salt/pepper). There is a café at the main lodge, but the main restaurant was still closed due to the pandemic. The accommodations here are basic but clean and comfortable; there is no Wi-Fi, and cellphone reception was spotty at best, but the location was great and allowed easy exploration of the area.
Glen Oaks Big Sur (Adults preferred)
I would’ve liked to stay here during this trip, but by the time I found this place there weren’t good options for the dates I wanted, since most units are double-occupancies only. The lodging options range from hotel rooms of various sizes to cabins and cottages with kitchenettes. All the rooms and cabins/cottages have views of or decks that look into the woods, the décor seems rustic but modern, and overall these accommodations are probably luxurious compared to Big Sur Lodge. And all rooms have Wi-Fi! Haha.
Other Practical Tips
- Download offline Google map of the area. As alluded to above, cellphone reception is overall pretty minimal in Big Sur, and most of the restaurants we went to didn’t offer Wi-Fi either. Download an offline map before your trip and you’ll still be able to search for various sights and navigate between sites during your stay.
- Fill up your gas tank before you get to Big Sur. There are gas stations in Big Sur but they are understandably pricey, as it can’t be easy to truck gasoline into Big Sur.
- Carmel is only about 25 miles north of Big Sur (about a 40-min drive), so one of the nights we drove up there for dinner. It makes a nice side-trip if you have a longer Big Sur stay (or want different dining options), also a good option if you want to restock groceries for a longer stay. Just remember this stretch of Highway 1 does not have street lights! So definitely drive carefully if you’re getting back to Big Sur after dark.