A Travel Guide & Itinerary for Big Sur, California
Big Sur is the longest, most scenic stretch of undeveloped coastline in the contiguous United States. The coastline is roughly 90-miles long, where the Santa Lucia Mountains meet the Pacific Ocean – It is a paradise for outdoor recreation and nature lovers. After visiting this location many times, we wanted to share our ideal 3-day itinerary, which we believe encompasses the best experiences in Big Sur.
Activities to do
This stretch of coastline has a host of activities to do for all ages and skill levels. The Sightseeing is incredible, and every pullout on the highway offers a different perspective and view. Here are the best activities to do in Big Sur:
One of the best ways to fully immerse and appreciate this area is to go Camping. Each campground has its own attractiveness, but every campground has magnificent views and access to the surrounding areas. See below for the best places that we recommend to camp.
You’ll have plenty of Hiking trails for all levels and completely different views to choose from. You have the choice from hiking through the redwoods, along the coast, and even on the beach. Check AllTrails Big Sur for the places to go, and the current conditions of those trials.
Those who want to go Surfing and take on the cold water temperatures can score because Big Sur has some fantastic surf breaks. Check Big Sur Surfline for the most popular spots to surf, and where there’s the access you can Paddleboard too. Emergency services are far away, so be safe and always show respect if you plan to paddle out.
Passes & Permits
While it’s free to drive through Big Sur, you will need a pass if you plan to do some of the activities that we are suggesting. You can just pay $10 per vehicle, allowing access to all the other California State Parks until closing on the day of the purchase.
But, if you plan to visit more CA State Parks throughout the year, it may be wiser to get a California Explorer Annual Day Pass ($195) that will get you access to all the beaches and parks throughout California.
Here’s all the Big Sur State Parks –
- Point Lobos SNR
- Point Sur SHP
- Andrew Molera
- Pfeiffer Big Sur
- Julia Pfeiffer Burns
Best Times to Visit
Anytime really! Each season will bring a new type of experience and adventures that will keep you coming back. Here are what you can experience during those times.
Summer – The busiest and hottest period is obviously Summer. Because what’s better than relaxing on the beach with exceptional weather in the high 70’s? However, it is an absolute zoo so if you need to come during this time. We recommend planning 6 months in advance to acquire those spots. Blue Whales, the largest species globally, spends their summer months feeding on krill in Monterey Bay, so June and July are the best times of the year to see these giants.
Fall – The most ideal time is to visit Big Sur is from August to October. This is when the crowds thin out and temperatures are more pleasant. Even though Big Sur is still busy, it’s a much more comfortable atmosphere. If you are visiting during October 8-10th, make sure to stop by the infamous Big Sur Jade Festival – There’s nothing like it!
Winter – Although it may be cold and rainy, this period of time can be beneficial because lodging prices go down, there is more availability with campsites and the least amount of tourism. Always check road closure before traveling to Big Sur because there tend to be road closures due to new roadwork and landslides.
Spring – With Spring Break and the weather getting nicer, the coast gets busier again; nevertheless, it’s a really enjoyable period. During this season there is a super bloom of the area’s beautiful wildflowers.
This place is a photographer’s playground with an abundance of places to shoot. You have so many places to take photos, from the dramatic coastline to a few old-growth forests with gigantic Redwoods, not to mention the abundant wildlife both land and sea. Below are a few must-see spots, but here’s a photography guide for shooting Big Sur for those who are looking for more detail. Here is a list of the best places to takes photos –
- Bixby Bridge
- Keyhole Rock
- McWay Falls
- Garrapatta State Park
- China Cove – Point Lobos
Remember, if you’re going to take a photo and share it with others, please keep the place clean & pristine so we can continue to share it with others.
The beauty and isolation of Big Sur are what make it so unique. But, that remoteness means you need to plan ahead of time because there aren’t many amenities along this coastline.
Gas stations are few and far between; make sure to load up on gas before heading here. Even though you can buy gas at a few gas stations in the Big Sur area, the prices at those places will be costly.
Cell phone service is extremely limited in Big Sur. Do not expect your phone to work because it has very spotty service and is almost nonexistent – make sure to download Google Maps!
Firewood is available at the Pfeiffer Big Sur entrance kiosk for $10/bundle and includes a firestarter. Please remember to only buy and burn local wood!
There are no grocery stores in Big Sur so you need to load up on food before heading down. You can pick up a few things at the Big Sur Deli, which has a selection of snacks, beer, and wine. Fernwood General Store has a more comprehensive selection but is still very small.
Dumping waste is only available at certain campgrounds – Make sure to call ahead to make sure.
Yes, you can bring your dog to the beautiful coastline, but dogs are limited to where they can go. Dogs are not allowed on any of the state park’s designated trails, and although they can be in a campground, they must stay leashed the entire time. Sand Dollar beach is the only beach where they can get their paws sandy but still must be leashed.
Where to stay
There are plenty of places to stay with 7 state campgrounds, 5 privately owned campgrounds, and 8 hotels available. There are no Airbnb’s available as well as dispersed campsites are a rarity to find. One area in the Los Padres National Forest called Prewitt Ridge has a few dispersed spots, and you will need 4WD to get there. One thing you NEED TO REMEMBER is to plan at least 6 months in advance if you are planning to camp!
List of the best hotels –
- Post Ranch Inn $$$
- Ventana $$$
- Big Sur River Inn $$
- Big Sur Lodge $$
- Fernwood Resort $
List of the best campgrounds –
- Kirk Creek
- Plaskett Creek
You can come from two main directions: the Southside near San Simeon (just north of San Luis Obispo) and the Northside through Carmel-by-the-sea.
Day #1 Itinerary
Our 3-day getaway itinerary starts in San Simeon and goes North, but the same trip can be replicated from North to South.
Morning: Ragged Point is a great place to grab a cup of coffee, take in the view and fill up on gas if need be. The Ragged Point Inn is on a clifftop overlooking the rugged coast with one of the most picturesque views. It is a great stop because it has lodging, food, a gift shop, and a gas station if need be. Only 10 minutes down the road from the Inn is a trail called Salmon Creek Falls, which used to have a 120-foot waterfall. The waterfall is now much smaller but definitely worth the short quarter-mile walk from where you park. Grab a photo, jump in the water or simply take in the beauty.
Afternoon: Sand Dollar Beach is the largest accessible beach in Big Sur; it is a short quarter-mile walk down to the beach, which allows dogs (on leash). If you’re a beach person, you can spend an entire day here having a picnic, exploring the endless tide pools, and even go surfing with tons of surf breaks.
Evening: If you stay at San Dollar Beach all day, we recommend you camp at Plasket Creek Campground it is only a 5-minute walk from the beach. We recommend watching the sunset on the beach! If you aren’t cooking at the campsite and need some hot food, The Whalers Cafe is 10 minutes South – It closes at 7:30 pm so go early.
Day #2 Itinerary
As you make your way up the coast, you’ll be enthralled with all the fascinating views and natural beauty.
Morning: Start the day off by visiting McWay Falls in the morning before the crowd gets there. McWay Falls is an 80-foot waterfall that drops right onto the beach or straight into the ocean, depending on the high tide level. It looks like pure paradise and is the flagship of Julia Pfeiffer State Park.
Afternoon: Pfeiffer State Park has tons of stuff to check out. The Keyhole Arch is a beautiful rock formation with a hole going all the way through. This is the biggest attraction since it casts a heavenly glow from the sunset during Winter Solstice. There are tons of trails through this state park that range from half of a mile to twenty-two miles. Some are paved trails that go through redwood groves, while others are longer exposed trails with sunny panoramic views on a ridge.
Evening: A staple of Big Sur is the Nepenthe restaurant, a restaurant looking down at the meandering coastline. It’s an excellent spot for lunch or dinner; you can enjoy your food & drink, looking down at some of the best views of all Big Sur. Make sure to try their famous Ambrosia Burger.
Day #3 Itinerary
It’s your last day, but you still have some fantastic places to visit. We have two moderate hikes that we suggest, the most popular photo-op spot and a place where you can eat & drink in the river.
The Morning: Start with a hike at Andrew Molera State Park that ends with a secluded beach. This hike is a 2.3 mile out & back trail that is all flat. You will need to cross a small river at the beginning, where you will have to remove your shoes, but the hike is relatively easy. It finishes at a beautiful lagoon where the river empties into the ocean; multiple driftwood forts are scattered throughout the sandy beach, making for a great photo-opt. Andrew Molera is a spot where you could just go for the hike or spend the entire afternoon there. Make sure to bring water, a swimsuit, and a towel if you want to take a dip at the end. There is also a section where you can see purple sand!
The Afternoon: The River Inn is one of the coolest places to visit in Big Sur. In addition to the hotel, they also have a fabulous restaurant and bar where you can sit and enjoy the beautiful river. We love to get the extra spicy Bloody Mary, grab a wooden Adirondack chair, and enjoy our beverage with our toes in the cold water.
The Evening: We suggest finishing up the trip at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, which has been called “the crown jewel” of California’s 280 state parks. Enjoy multiple small hiking trails that border the coast, where you can see tons of animals. Make sure to visit China Cove as it is just amazing!
Since this is the last day we know some people may need to head back down South. Our final suggested destination is Point Lobos which is almost an equal driving time back South contingent on the current traffic. That being said, you can either head back on Highway 1 or go through Monterey to access the 101.
Other Important Information
Remember always to be respectful to the people and area. Also, make sure to practice the 7 Principles of Leave No Trace to better the area and protect its integrity for future visits. Please don’t forget to travel safely.
Campfires are allowed only in the provided metal fire rings within the State Parks’ campgrounds.
Big Sur is a no-drone zone and they will ticket you if caught flying. Code of Regulations 4319
Camping alongside Highway 1 is illegal – Do not do it!
Lost and found: 831-667-1112