Things to do in Big Sur, California

By Kay S
Last Updated

Big Sur is the scenic coastal area in central California where the Santa Lucia Mountains meet the Pacific Ocean. The area has a look that is entirely different from the desert hills of southern California and the endless vineyards found in Carmel to the north. Big Sur has been called the “most beautiful coastline anywhere in the world” and “mythic in reputation” by the Washington Times.

Exploring the natural beauty of the area is the main draw for most visitors who come to camp, hike, and scuba dive. Big Sur has been known for generations as a place of individualism and creativity and it is that spirit that draws visitors in.

Its history in art and culture comes from its connections to creatives like Edward Weston and Henry Miller and that history continues today with countless museums and live performances found up and down the coast.

Things to do in Big Sur

From diving and surfing to concerts and historical landmarks, Big Sur offers the perfect blend of culture and natural beauty to create the perfect California destination. The only way for visitors to access Big Sur is via driving the Pacific Coast Highway 1. Here are the top things to do in Big Sur. 

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

Located just 12 miles south of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, this 3762-acre park offers multiple attractions, historic landmarks, and hiking trails for hikers of all skill types. This is undoubtedly one of the best state parks to visit in Big Sur, due to the presence of two major highlights: the hidden Partington Cove and spectacular McWay Falls. 

To see the iconic falls hike the half-mile easy Waterfall Overlook Trail or take the moderate Partington Canyon Trail towards a secret cove. More difficult trails head into the densely forested woods and mountains in the state park. 

The Tin House trail is steep and strenuous and recommended for more advanced hikers. The now-abandoned tin house was built from the metal scavenged from two local gas stations. The house was meant to be a safer, inland alternative to the coastal house the Pfeiffer Burns, after whom the park is named, lived in during the Second World War.

Another great option is the five-mile Ewoldsen Trail. This strenuous trail winds through groves of ancient redwoods and follows the curves of McWay Creek as it runs towards the falls.

Bixby Creek Bridge

Since it was first built in 1932, this bridge has become one of the most photographed bridges in California, if not the world. It’s no wonder considering its serpentine path to the single graceful arch that spans a 360-foot wide gorge. 

Thanks to its rising popularity on social media – Travel Pulse named it the “#1 Instagram worthy destination” in 2019. The bridge was also featured regularly on HBO’s hit series Big Little Lies. The style and construction of this iconic bridge make it one of the best stops along the Pacific Coast Highway. 

The general narrowness of the bridge and traffic from visitors pulling off to the side of the road can often have Highway 1 backed up for miles. The best way to beat the crowds is to get in early. It’s more than worth the effort to see the early morning sun melt away the fog, revealing the bridge. Another perfect time to see this beautiful bridge is at sunset. 

McWay Falls

McWay Falls is the gem of Big Sur. This 80-foot tall stunning tidal fall is located in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and is on the bucket list of all travelers driving the Pacific Coast Highway. However, the state park and the falls trail is currently closed due to rainfall damage and there is no opening date. 

Here’s something few tourists know: McWay Falls once emptied straight into the Pacific, but decades of erosion, mudslides, and nearby highway construction have caused a buildup of silt and sand resulting in the formation of a beach between the base of the falls and the Pacific Coast. However, this little beach makes the falls more picture-perfect than ever!

There is no direct access to the waterfall or the beach because of the area’s history of landslides, but there are multiple vantage points from across the cove. To find it, simply look for the McWay Falls Overlook Trailhead at the main parking lot. This trail is the shortest in the park, coming in at just over a half-mile. The main overlook sits beside the remnants of the SaddleRock Ranch, the grand home of the park’s namesake.

Pfeiffer Beach

Pfeiffer Beach is renowned for its purple sand and unique rock formations. The beach, while pretty famous, can be hard to find. The unmarked entrance to the famed beach is tucked between the Big Sur ranger station and the post office exactly 1.1 miles south of the Pfeiffer Big Sur Park entrance on Highway 1. 

The beach is located in the Los Padres National Forest. The $12 entrance fee covers parking and day use of the beach and facilities. From the parking lot, there is a short walk to the beach. Be warned, the beach is very busy year-round and parking spots can be hard to find. Once you reach the beach, you are treated to beautiful views of the ocean and the purplish hued sand at the northern end. The color comes from the eroded garnets present in the cliffs. 

A unique highlight of the beach is the large Keyhole Rock formation located just off the shore. This rock has a natural square-shaped arch that resembles a keyhole. The rock looks brilliant at sunset year-round but is more spectacular during December and January when the setting sun lines up perfectly with the keyhole and the last golden rays of the day are reflected in the churning surf below.

Partington Cove

Partington Cove is located in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Accessible via an unmarked turnoff from Highway 1, the cove can be reached via hiking the half-mile long Partington Canyon trail. It offers a scenic walk through the woods and along a cascade before opening up to the cliff-lined pebble beach. 

The trail also goes over a bridge and through a tunnel, making it an exciting adventure. In an area known for its dramatic and dangerous tides, the cove brings it to a whole new level. At the end of the trail, you will find a small bench from where you can admire the views.

The water at Partington Cove is crystal clear but swimming and surfing are forbidden due to dangerous riptides. You can easily spot the ocean floor and seaweeds including kelp. The hike is truly rewarding and a fantastic way to experience the hidden treasures of Big Sur. The best part? Partington Cove has its own pullout and doesn’t require the $10 day-use fee.

Here’s something you probably didn’t know: Scuba diving in Partington Cove is excellent! Experienced divers love the area for its clear waters and rich underwater habitat as well as the remains of Partington Landing, a relic from the area’s logging history. Divers need to acquire special permits and it is highly recommended to take a guide. 

Point Sur Lighthouse

This sandstone lighthouse stands 270 feet above sea level and is the only turn-of-the-century lighthouse still in operation in California. The lighthouse sits on the head of Point Sur, a massive volcanic rock that appears to jut out of an otherwise flat stretch of coastline. 

The lighthouse and area around it are protected as part of Point Sur Historic Park. Hiking trails criss-cross the historic park and offer uninterrupted views of the Pacific Ocean, the coast, and the handful of historic buildings like the old blacksmith/carpenter shop. 

Daily tours take guests through the grounds and the lighthouse for only $15. As Point Sur tends to get windy and can be chillier than the surrounding area, it is best to visit in the summer for standard tours. Bring along a warm jacket to enjoy your visit. 

The off-season offers different kinds of tours like the whale viewing tours from December to March when the gray whales are going by or the Halloween themed ghost tours which talk about the history of the 14 shipwrecks that have happened within a few miles of the lighthouse.

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

Though the park is 9,907 acres, only 550 of them are on land which makes the reserve seem smaller than many others of the area, but it more than makes up for it in beauty. 

The park is like Big Sur in miniature. It offers archeological sites from the native Esselen tribes as well as a small museum of California’s whaling history. Free guided walks bring visitors along any of the 15 hiking trails that connect the beaches, bluffs, meadows, and forested glens. 

Most other activities within the reserve do cost money. Diving through the 40-foot tall kelp forest of one of California’s richest underwater habitats requires a $20-30 permit. Kayaking and paddleboarding also require a $10 pass per vessel. 

While these prices can seem steep on top of the $10 day-use fee to get into the park, it is worth it as most of the money goes right back into the land, protecting the reserve both on land and in the water.

Read our post on Best Things to do in Point Lobos State Natural Reserve to plan a trip.

Henry Miller Memorial Library

The library’s tagline “where nothing happens” couldn’t be further from the truth. Built-in the 1960s, the site manages to capture the bohemian, free-love of that era while also keeping its finger on the cultural pulse of the Big Sur of today. Located in a redwood grove south of Nepenthe Restaurant, the memorial is a treat for literary lovers. 

Founded by Miller’s close friend, Email White, the library is nothing like you have visited before. Part library, part art gallery, & part bookstore, it is dedicated to promoting works of Henry Miller. The library is also available for private events like gorgeous outdoor weddings – so if you are looking to elope, this is a perfect place – but is better-known for its robust events calendar in the summer months. 

Between May and October, the library hosts lectures, book signings, and film screenings as well as a popular outdoor concert series. These shows offer a lot more than local singer-songwriters. Well known bands like The Flaming Lips, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Arcade Fire have all played at this intimate and whimsical venue.

Sand Dollar Beach

Sand Dollar Beach has the largest unbroken stretch of sand in Big Sur. Located halfway between Big Sur Station and Cambria, this beach is a favorite with tourists and locals alike. The beach is located inside the Los Padres National Forest and is perfect for swimmers and sunbathers. The surf here is also one of the best in Big Sur and you can often spot wave riders at the beach. 

While you won’t actually find sand dollars at the beach, visitors often find natural jade, sea glass, and other sea stones that’ve been tumbled smooth by the ocean. The Sand Dollar Day Use Picnic Area is located adjacent to the beach and has BBQ pits for groups that want to spend the whole day. 

From the parking lot, take the wooden staircase down to the beach. At the south end, you will find large rocks but keep walking north and you will come to the sandy stretch. The $10 entry fee is more than worth it for dog parents, as this is one of the only Fido-friendly beaches on this list. 

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, located around the Big Sur River, is a beautiful place. The 1,006-acre park is popularly referred to as ‘Mini Yosemite’ thanks to its picturesque redwood groves, the towering Santa Lucia Mountains, and the multi-stranded Pfeiffer Falls. 

The park is one of the southernmost habitats of the coastal redwoods and the best place to take a stroll underneath the majestic redwood trees in Big Sur. Hikers can expect to come across native wildlife from peregrines and condors to bobcats and white-tailed deer.

The park is also a great place to stop in Big Sur. Camp at the Big Sur campground or stay at the on-site hotel, Big Sur Lodge. The park has no ocean access but visitors can go swimming and fishing in the Big Sur River.

Andrew Molera State Park

Andrew Molera State Park is located on a gentle curve in the wild coastline and is easily accessible compared to most beaches in Big Sur. It is home to the oldest structure in Big Sur – a cabin built between 1861 and 1862 – as well as a discovery center with exhibits on local flora and fauna. Within the park, you will also find the Big Sur Ornithology Lab, a bird banding lab that focuses on the endangered California condor. 

The park has over 20 miles of hiking trails spread out across its 4,766 acres. The most popular trail is the mile-long Beach Trail which runs parallel to the Big River and takes visitors to the beach. You might also spot deer, coyotes, and birds along the trail. The mile-long Headlands Trail is another popular trail.

The state park is also known for its reliable surf. Big Sur has dangerous and dramatic tides that can make the water treacherous but make for good surfing. While the swells can’t compete with some of the better-known locations further south, the area has consistent two- to four-foot swells that draw in surfers from all around. 

Lime Kiln State Park

Lime Kiln State Park is located in the Ventana Wilderness Area and is one of the underrated attractions along Highway 1. Despite being only 700 acres, Limekiln packs quite a punch. Due to its location in the hills close to the coast, the park has many diverse microclimates and ecosystems. 

You can take a hike through the giant redwoods basking in the early morning fog or stroll through the bare, drought-resistant yucca and chaparral trees just a mile or two away. Walk along a tranquil stream and spot wildlife including a deer or two. Multiple hiking trails lead to either the Pacific Ocean or uphill into the woods. 

The most popular trail is the Limekiln trail which gives the park its name. The trail is only a half-mile long and takes visitors to the four massive 140-year-old lime kilns. The kilns purified thousands of barrels of lime in the three years that they were operational.

You can also hike to the Limekiln Creek Falls. The 1.4 mile round trip trail is beautiful and adventurous. It has multiple stream crossings over wooden logs, passes under the redwoods, and the reward is the waterfall at the end. The beach at the state park while small is charming and also worth a visit. 

Ragged Point

Tucked right along Highway 1 it would be easy to miss Ragged Point as it sits 400 feet below the road. Driving to Ragged Point is fun: the road gets really curvy here and views along the Pacific are just gorgeous. Once you reach your destination, you can stay the night at the beautiful Ragged Point Inn. The historical property has many outlooks over the coast.

While those visiting by cars would see panoramic coastal views, hikers are in for a different kind of treat. You can hike down the Ragged Point Cliffside Trail to a black sandy beach. The strenuous hike is 0.8 miles long and winds its way down the cliff to the coast. 

The trail tends to be slick from ocean spray and fog and is recommended only for experienced hikers with good hiking shoes. But the rewards are plenty as you can visit the secluded beach as well as spot the seasonal 300-foot high Black Swift Falls which empties onto the beach from November to April.

Garrapata State Park

Just under seven miles south of Carmel, this 2,939-acre park is surprisingly easy to miss as it has only one sign on the west side of California’s Highway 1. The area is so beautiful that it features in most of Edward Weston’s – a friend and contemporary of Ansel Adams – most famous landscape photographs. 

The park has two miles of beachfront with trails leading up cliff faces and following the edges of the bluffs before moving inland to wind through groves of giant redwoods. All of the trails on the west side of the highway are open, but only one on the east side is available after the devastating Soberanes fires of 2016. 

Los Padres National Forest

Los Padres National Forest in central California extends almost from Monterey to Ventura. It is divided up into two noncontiguous areas. The southernmost area is the larger and better-known of the two, but the northern area has the benefit of residing along the Big Sur coast. 

The northern section of the park offers over 323 miles of hiking trails. Trails extend from the ocean to the cliffs at the base of the Santa Lucia mountains. In the spring, hikers tend to flock to Figueroa Mountain Recreation Area for its dense and vibrant display of wildflowers.

Other useful posts to plan your Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip

Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Planner
Pacific Coast Highway 4 day Itinerary
Pacific Coast Highway 5 day itinerary
Pacific Coast Highway 7 day itinerary
Pacific Coast Highway 10 Day itinerary
All PCH Itineraries
Best Places to Stay along the Pacific Coast Highway
Best Pacific Coast Highway Stops

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