KnowN internationally for its natural beauty, cultural intrigue, and recreational bounty, Big Sur is undoubtedly worthy of its global appeal. One of the best in the west, this road trip should top everyone's list.
Perhaps no other road is more iconic or visually recognizable than the Pacific Coast Highway as it winds its way from Monterey to San Luis Obispo through Big Sur. And while Big Sur's north offers visitors numerous cultural attractions from five-star dining to bohemian shops and galleries, the South Coast remains a largely undeveloped and lesser visited stretch of coastline, tempting the adventurous to discover Big Sur the way it was meant to be experienced: raw, wild, and untouched. Plan your trip down the coast with both Surs in mind for a truly unique off-the-grid getaway.
ESSELEN TO ESALEN
The Esselen Indians were perhaps the first peoples to settle in the Ventana Mountains and coastal Big Sur, their name meaning "the people from the rock." Traces of their habitation still remain along the inland river valleys, where hikers may visit petroglyph sites and find stone mortars used to process acorns in the fall and winter.
Pico Blanco, the pyramidal limestone peak that hangs over the southbound drive unmistakably, was considered their axis mundi, the point of their origin and window through which all souls pass on their transit from this life. Yet perhaps the most recognizable symbol of this culture's presence in the region is not the remaining archeology or the scattered fragments of their traditions, but the now iconic Esalen Institute, drawing on their their legacy in name and location.
Conceived amid the psychedelia and new found self-discovery of the 1960's hippy era, Esalen hosted Ansel Adams, Timothy Leary, and Joan Baez to name a few. Considered to be the birthplace of Transpersonal Psychology and a leading voice on all things integrative, Esalen now offers year-round workshops and retreats focusing on just about everything from art therapy to zen buddhism. While access is often granted only to those enrolled in the onsite programs, they do allow midnight visits to their cliff-side hot tubs, which are fed by the same natural hot springs frequented nearly 6000 years ago for ritual and healing.
NEW CAMALDOLI HERMITAGE & TASSAJARA ZEN MOUNTAIN CENTER
Surely monastic life is not for everyone, but these two monasteries might make you think twice about a life of austerity if it meant living in Big Sur. Check out the New Camaldoli Hermitage and visit their chapel which holds daily prayers and offers a rare glimpse into the life and work of the 20 Camaldolese Benedictine monks in residence.
For a slightly more adventurous outing, consider visiting the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center during their Summer's visitor season, from April to September. Tassajarra, a Japanese Buddhist monastery, the oldest in the US, boasts some of the finest home made bread and an opportunity to sit in "zazen" meditation within the Ventana Wilderness. It is very isolated and you may need four-wheel drive to get there, as this monastery sits at the end of a 16 mile, winding dirt road, with sheer drop-offs and a steep, narrow descent over the last five miles. You're trip there will be well rewarded however, as a bath in their hot springs and the sounds of the Tassajara river will quite even the busiest mind.
HENRY MILLER MEMORIAL LIBRARY
This beat-era literary hot spot is named after the late author, Henry Miller, who penned such titles as Tropic of Cancer. The library is a cultural hub for the Big Sur community, offering outdoor film screenings on the weekends, live musical acts, and a worldly bookstore filled with plenty of perfect reads while on the road. When planning your visit keep an eye on their events calendar for readings, concerts, and films.
POINT SUR LIGHTHOUSE
Guiding many a passing ship through this dangerous stretch of coastline, the Point Sur Lighthouse sits at the northern entrance to Big Sur and can be visited daily by season as well as by moonlight one time monthly. You can't miss this iconic promontory on your drive south.
At the terminus of Big Sur's South Coast, where the mountains give way to the pasture lands of San Simeon National Park lies the Hearst Castle. Built over a span of 30 years by the newspaper owner William Randolph Hearst, the estate sits overlooking the ocean and the Santa Lucia Mountains on what is perhaps the most beautiful and gaudy piece of property on California's central coast.
BIG SUR BAKERY
Almost nothing tastes better after a morning hike or surf than a pastry from the Big Sur Bakery. Owned and operated by a former Four Season chief with a degree in 'Baking and Pastry Arts,' this small bakery offers some of the finest quick bites and cups of coffee in the area.
A trip to Big Sur is never complete without stopping in at Nepenthe for dinner and drinks while watching the sun's last rays fall over the South Coast. Set amongst oaks and redwoods, with whale, woodpecker, and occasional condor sightings from the patio and deck, the restaurant at Nepenthe is truly romantic and a magical first night's meal. Quintessentially Big Sur.
Once south of Big Sur, amenities are few and far between. While there's a restaurant and grocer in Gorda to stock up on food, ice, and essentials, Treebones Resort, better know for their yurts, is a worthwhile stop if you're in the mood for freshly rolled sushi and a laid back perch to watch whales go by. Dinners aren't served late, so arrive early and consider calling ahead if you're hoping to be seated in the dinning room. Show up for live music on Monday nights and camp just minutes away.
Those who are looking to get outside an enjoy nature benefit the most from a visit to Big Sur. With countless opportunities for nature viewing, hiking, trail running, surfing, diving, kayaking, and spear-fishing, this part of California is paradise found.
Steps off of Highway 1 is the iconic beach waterfall, McWay Falls. Look for signs for Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and find parking off the highway or within the park. Trails heading up the gorge lead to mountaintop views and traverse numerous ecosystems as the they wind their way to the ridge above.
The famous key-hole rock featured in so many photographs can be found at Pfeiffer Beach, which lies just south of the tow of Big Sur. Show up before sunset from December to January to catch this natural light-show in full effect. The beach itself is strikingly beautiful with red, white, and black sands mixing in the tide line and amazing scenery year-round.
SAND DOLLAR BEACH
If you're looking to spend the day(s) at the beach, taking in the sun, tide pooling, surfing, or "jading," then Sand Dollar is the place to be. With surfable waves at all tides and all sizes, bring your single-fin or step-up depending on conditions. This beach is great for families and offers an opportunity to find the highly coveted jade stones as the tide recedes or after storms.
Rising out of the sea to nearly 6,000 feet, the Santa Lucia Range dominates the topography of the South Coast, offset only by the vastness of the Pacific Ocean below. From coast to crest, the complexion of the area's numerous and varied ecosystems is shaped by Big Sur's unique interplay of land and sea.
The coastal marine layer brings with it fog, which often hangs in the morning air, and allows this area to support the state's southern most redwood trees. Yucca and sage chaparral cling to the steeps, as oak dotted grasslands blanket the ridges. Incredible displays of seasonal wildflowers spring from grassy marine terraces and higher elevation hillsides after wet winters.
Where land meets sea, numerous coves open to kelp covered reefs and seaweed strewn beaches. The intertidal is dazzled by a display of bright green anemone, ruddy orange starfish, and eclectically camouflaged sculpin, and the marine grasses lining the shallow tide pools shine with an iridescence rivaled only by Hubble's images of deep space.
The commonly spotted Humpback Whale, Sea Otter, Mule Dear, and Coyote frequent the area. While seldom seen, rare, but endemic species include the Horned Lizard, Bobcat, Mountain Lion, Black Bear, Peregrine Falcon, Bald Eagle, Condor, and Killer Whale.
Camping & Driving
Seaside campsites offer some of the State's most coveted overnight options and 'dispersed' camping can be found throughout the National Forest lands, where numerous trailheads offer the opportunity to access wild areas on foot and countless coastal adventures abound.
Kirk Creek, Limekiln, and Plaskett Creek Campgrounds all offer coastal camping options just steps off Highway 1. Expect to find well maintained facilities and other campers enjoying some of the best campsite in California, if not the US. All sites accommodate at least one vehicle and Plaskett Creek offers large group camping. While most campsites fill months ahead of time, some offer first-come first-serve sites for the last minute traveller.
If reservations fail you and all the campsites are full, as can often be the case, don't stress: the best know-secret is the South Coast's dispersed campsites within the Los Padres National Forest. With unsurpassed views of California's dramatic coastline and miles of scenic backroads, these infrequently visited tracks are not to be missed if you are prepared for off-the-grid camping and sometimes rugged byways.
For suggested routes and campsites within the Los Padres, please refer to our map of the area:
The Pacific Coast Highway, or Highway 1, is an often narrow, winding, one lane road that skirts the edge of the Coastal Range. This stretch is best driven slowly, leaving plenty of time to take in the ocean views and stopping to enjoy the unparalleled beauty that attracts so many to the area.
While not always a concern, seasonal forest fires in the summer and landslides during wet winters do occur and have the potential to close off much of Big Sur to through-traffic. Although Highway 1 offers a visually stunning route to explore, there are numerous other less-travelled roads within the Los Padres National Forest to tempt the adventurous. You'll need a four-wheel drive vehicle and plenty of provisions if you wish to travel these backcountry roads, so plan accordingly. There are no facilities along these tracks, nor at most campsites, so please obey all BLM/Forest Service guidelines and Tread Lightly principles and "leave no trace." Please also consider reading our Orientation page for more information on driving and camping within the National Forest.
Big Sur & the South Coast offer the adventurous traveller a unique opportunity to see California the way it might have been before much of the coast was developed. It still remains a wild and in many way untamed landscape, where natural cycles often dictate the live's of those who call Big Sur home. With countless cultural and outdoor attractions, as well as some of the most spectacular camping and off-highway driving in the country, Big Sur earns our highest recommendation as an overland travel destination. An ideal stop on any road trip, it is a place we return to again and again to escape the grind of city life and to appreciate all that this beautiful region has to offer.