California has nearly 900 miles of coastline, but the 90 miles going through Big Sur is what postcards are made of! Hugging the Pacific Coast Highway (one of the US’s most scenic drives), Big Sur offers jaw-dropping cliffside vistas, hidden waterfalls tumbling down redwood-studded mountains, and one of the world’s most iconic bridges.
Highway 1, in particular, is an engineering marvel that clings to the edge of the Santa Lucia Mountains, offering up one Instagram-worthy scene after another! Big Sur is also home to several state parks, including Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, where you can hike all day and camp under the stars at night.
Big Sur’s swimming holes and waterfalls are legendary, too. Head to McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, where an 80-foot waterfall spills into the ocean, or spend your days marveling at the elephant seals in San Simeon or checking out the purple sand beach at Pfeiffer Beach. There are also a couple of lighthouses in the area that you can visit, such as the Point Sur Lighthouse and the Pigeon Point Lighthouse.
And don’t forget to stop by Big Sur’s many roadside attractions, like the Henry Miller Library, Nepenthe restaurant, and the Esalen Institute. Trust us, there’s plenty to keep you busy in Big Sur. The challenge is fitting it all into your itinerary!
To help you fill out your Big Sur bucket list, we’ve gathered the absolute best things to do in Big Sur for you. We threw in a bit of everything, from must-see landmarks to insider gems, so you can make the most of your time in this incredible part of California!
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15 Fun and unique things to do in Big Sur, California
1. Explore Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is one of the most scenic state parks not just in California but in the entire country. Located a few miles south of Carmel-by-the-Sea along Highway 1, this 400-acre park is bursting with natural beauty.
There are plenty of hiking trails to explore, but our favorite is the short but sweet path to China Cove. The jade-green water of this sheltered cove pops against the sandy beach and rocky cliffs. You can’t go down to the beach itself due to its fragile ecosystem, but you can take in the sights from above on Bird Island Trail.
Don’t worry because Point Lobos has plenty of trails where you can get up close and personal with the coastline. For instance, hike Sea Lion Point Trail to see barking sea lions basking in the sun.
The Cypress Grove Trail is so thick with Monterey cypress trees that it feels like you’re walking through a fairy tale forest. We also love the South Shore Trail and its tide pools filled with colorful starfish, anemones, and urchins!
2. Photograph the Bixby Creek Bridge
One of the best sights in Big Sur is the Bixby Creek Bridge. You may also hear it referred to as Bixby Bridge or Bixby Canyon Bridge, but it’s all the same!
This bridge was built in 1932 and is one of the most photographed bridges in California. It connects two ragged cliffsides via an open-spandrel arch bridge, which means there are no solid walls or a roof. You can see right through it!
To snap the perfect photo, pull over at one of the many lookout points on Highway 1. We recommend the northbound pullout, which offers a great vantage point of both the bridge and the rocky coastline.
Be extra careful when taking photos, though, especially when it’s raining. The rocks can be very slippery.
3. See Elephant Seals in San Simeon
Watching and listening to elephant seals is one of the most unique things to do in Big Sur! And there’s no better place to catch these majestic giants than at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery in San Simeon.
You’ll find this place in the southern part of Big Sur. It’s actually part of the California Coastal National Monument, which protects this stretch of coastline.
As a result, several thousand elephant seals call this area home. They’re quite chatty too. You’re going to hear them before you see them. Imagine thousands of massive seals barking and bellowing at each other, all at the same time!
The best time to see them is from late January to early May, and then again in late October when the males return to mate. If you’re lucky, you may even witness an elephant seal pup being born if you visit in the winter months! If you can’t make it during those times, don’t worry. You’ll still see the elephant seals lazing about on the shore all year round.
Tip: Just a few miles north of the rookery is the historic Piedras Blancas Light Station. You can visit this 70-foot-tall lighthouse on a guided tour, and it’s a great addition to your Big Sur sightseeing itinerary.
4. Look Into the Keyhole Arch at Pfeiffer Beach
Big Sur’s most popular beach, Pfeiffer Beach, hides a secret. Tucked away at the northern end of the beach is a rock formation known as Keyhole Arch, and for only a couple of days a year, it lights up in the most beautiful way.
To find Keyhole Arch, you’ll need to walk down a narrow dirt road until you reach a secluded beach nestled behind steep cliffs. Here, you’ll see a massive rock formation with a small hole in the center, carved by centuries of waves crashing against it. Keyhole Arch looks amazing any time of the year, but it’s especially magical around the winter solstice.
If you time your visit just right, you’ll be able to see the sun dip into the heart of the keyhole. Catch it during low tide on a clear evening, and the mid-winter sun will cast a stunning natural glow inside and around the arch. It’s an unforgettable experience!
5. See McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
The 80-foot McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park should be part of any Big Sur sightseeing itinerary. It’s surrounded by a sandy cove, granite cliffs, and the rushing water flows right into the ocean. It’s absolutely stunning!
You can experience this waterfall in two ways. One, via a half-mile hike along an overlook trail that’s easy enough for kids to do. Alternately, you can view this iconic waterfall from the comfort of your car. There’s a pull-out on Highway 1 with an unobstructed view of McWay Falls so you can take it all in without breaking a sweat.
After getting your fill of the falls, explore Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park a little more. The Partington Cove Trail is a great option. It’s a short one-mile hike that takes you to a hidden cove with tide pools, wildflowers, and an incredible view of the coast.
6. Drop by Carmel-by-the-Sea
Carmel-by-the-Sea is a charming small town located just north of Big Sur. It’s tiny, only one square mile, but it’s packed with cute boutique shops, over 100 art galleries, and a range of farm-to-table restaurants. You could easily spend a few hours here browsing the shops and enjoying a leisurely lunch.
Don’t miss the historic Carmel Mission while you’re in town. It’s the second-oldest mission in California, and it’s set in a beautiful location overlooking Monterey Bay. You can explore the grounds and learn about the mission’s history on a self-guided tour.
After that you can hunt down all of Carmel-by-the-Sea’s famous fairytale cottages, go for a hike in nearby Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, soak up the sun at Carmel Beach, or embark on the seriously scenic 17-Mile Drive!
7. Camp at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
Big Sur is a camping hotspot, and there’s no better place to pitch your tent or park your RV than at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Go to sleep looking up at a blanket of stars, then wake up to stunning views of Big Sur River Gorge and the Santa Lucia Mountains!
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is also a great place for wildlife watching. It’s common to see black-tailed deer tiptoeing around, along with raccoons, turkeys, skunks, and all sorts of birds.
There are miles of hiking trails winding through the 1,000-acre park, so you’ll have no problem finding a route to suit your fitness level and interests. The Pfeiffer Falls Trail is the most popular, and it takes you to, you guessed it, a gorgeous waterfall. If you’re looking for some peace and quiet on your trip, this is one of the best things to do in Big Sur!
8. Walk Among the Redwoods at Limekiln State Park
Limekiln State Park is home to some of the tallest redwoods in Big Sur. It’s a peaceful place where you can hike among the giants and listen to the soothing sound of Limekiln Creek flowing nearby.
There are three different canyon trails to explore in the park, each with its own unique scenery. Be sure to check out the remains of four large limekilns while you’re here. These furnaces were used in the 1800s to purify lime for cement.
Don’t miss Limekiln Falls as well! It’s a 100-foot cascade located up Limekiln Creek. You’ll find the trailhead at the end of the camping area. Just follow the signs and reserve some energy for the uphill walk.
9. Visit the Henry Miller Library
One of the most unique Big Sur attractions, the Henry Miller Library celebrates the life and work of author and artist Henry Miller. This was previously his land and cabin, but now houses the second-largest collection of his work.
Aside from being a good place to learn about Henry Miller, the library is also a performance venue, bookstore, and gathering place for the community. You can catch a live show or browse the shelves for a new read while you’re here.
If you’re coming by on a Saturday and you’ve got a little extra time, make the 20-minute drive north and drop by the Molera Ranch House Museum within the library park grounds. You’ll get to peek inside the 100-year-old ranch house and learn about life in Big Sur during that time.
10. See Purple Sand at Pfeiffer Beach
One of the must-do things in Big Sur is to walk on shimmering purple sand! Pfeiffer Beach is one of the few places in North America where you’ll find this naturally occurring phenomenon.
The sand at “Purple Sand Beach” gets its color from being made up of tiny pieces of manganese garnet. These minerals are present in the nearby mountains, and they get washed down to the beach after it rains. When the light hits the sand at just the right angle, it creates a lovely purple hue.
You can only find this purple sand in patches at Pfeiffer Beach. The best place to look for it is on the north side of the beach near the tide pools.
If you’ve never been to Pfeiffer Beach before, you’ll find the entrance just as elusive as the patches of purple sand! There are no signs going to the beach, and the entrance is hidden behind some trees.
To reach Pfeiffer Beach, drive down the coastal side and look for an unmarked turnoff. Once you’re on the dirt road, follow it until it dead-ends at the beach parking lot.
11. Watch Whales at Garrapata State Park
Garrapata State Park is a great place to enjoy Big Sur’s dramatic coastline. There are two miles of sandy beaches here, along with hiking trails that will take you up to some incredible vantage points overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
What makes Garrapata State Park even more special is that it sits on a whale migration route! You’ll need to hike a pretty steep trail to Whale Peak, where you can see almost the entire rugged coastline of Big Sur running from north to south. It’s also a fantastic vantage point to catch California gray whales passing by on their journey up and down the coast.
Finally, April fills the entire place with wildflowers, so this is a great time to come if you want to see the park at its most beautiful!
12. Drive Down Old Coast Road
This 10-mile dirt road used to be a stagecoach route, but today, it’s a terrific place to go off-roading. Old Coast Road winds along the Santa Lucia Mountains and is full of potholes, ruts, and some steep sections that make for a challenging but fun drive.
Aside from 4WD vehicles, you’ll also see a lot of mountain bikers and hikers braving the road. This is definitely not a route for beginners, but if you’re up for an adventure, it’s a great way to see some of Big Sur’s most beautiful scenery.
Old Coast Road will take you through diverse terrain, from towering redwoods to valleys, hills, and meadows. You’ll also cross over several creeks, so be prepared to get your feet wet. There are also tons of photo ops along the road so snap away!
Tip: You won’t find “Old Coast Road” on Google Maps. The app has it down as “Coast Road,” but you’ll see “Old Coast Road” signposted once you’re on it.
13. Admire Point Sur Lighthouse
The Point Sur Lighthouse has been guiding ships since the 1800s, making it an indelible part of Big Sur’s history. The best way to experience the lighthouse is on a guided walking tour, which includes a visit to the fog signal building and the lens exhibit.
The lighthouse itself proudly sits on ancient volcanic rock, and it’s cool to know you’re walking on the same ground that has been here for millions of years! The views from the top are also incredible, with nothing but vast ocean in every direction.
Point Sur Lighthouse is located just north of Andrew Molera State Park, so when you’re done with the tour, hop back in the car and drive to Andrew Molera Beach.
Andrew Molera Beach is one of the top things to see in Big Sur. It doesn’t get a lot of visitors, so you’ll often have the whole beach to yourself!
14. Grab a Bite at Historic Nepenthe Restaurant
Nepenthe is as iconic as it gets in Big Sur. You’ll find this unique eatery just south of Pfeiffer Beach. As you approach, you’ll see the restaurant’s impressive architecture perched on the top of a peak on the Santa Lucia Mountains.
Over the years, this place has attracted the likes of Henry Miller, Elizabeth Taylor, and Orson Welles. Nepenthe opened its doors as a restaurant in 1949, and is still one of the coolest things to do in Big Sur. The food is delicious and you can’t leave without trying their famous Ambrosia Burger!
If you can, snag a spot on the outdoor rail seating that overlooks a 50-mile stretch of coastline and the Graves Canyon. The view is incredibly romantic, especially during sunset with a glass of wine in hand! There’s also a gift shop on site where you can buy souvenirs and local art from Big Sur artists.
15. Soak in the Healing Waters of Esalen Hot Springs
Esalen Institute is a world-renowned educational institute, retreat center, and hot springs. Visiting the hot springs is one of the best things to do in Big Sur, especially if you want to rejuvenate away from the hustle and bustle of city life.
Perched above the Pacific Ocean, Esalen’s hot springs or “baths” reach temperatures of 119 degrees and flow at a rate of 80 gallons a minute. The heat and the minerals in the water are said to have healing properties, so even if you don’t have any ailments, a soak here will do wonders for your mind and body.
There are two main bath areas at Esalen. The lower level baths have two sides – a “silent” side and a “quiet” side. Either way you go, it’s such a mesmerizing experience soaking while gazing at the vastness of the Pacific!
If you like, you can enjoy one of the private claw-foot tubs for an even more intimate experience. While non-guests were once able to experience these magical baths during coveted midnight visits, the baths are now only open to guests of the Esalen Institute. But if you’re looking for a serious splurge, this should be at the top of your Big Sur bucket list!
There you have it! The 15 best things to do in Big Sur, California. What’s your favorite thing to do in Big Sur?
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