Planning a road trip along the Central Coast of California? Save time to dig into all the best things to do in Big Sur. Located on Highway 1, with the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Santa Lucia Mountains on the other, Big Sur is all about the jaw-dropping views.
On your Big Sur sightseeing adventure, you can stop at any number of state parks, like Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park or Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, to be greeted with unforgettable views and wildlife experiences. From beaches to mountains and canyons to waterfalls, the top tourist attractions in Big Sur are jammed full of natural wonders and outdoor activities.
Can’t decide what to do in Big Sur? Plan the ultimate itinerary with this complete guide to the best places to visit in Big Sur, California.
Best places to visit Big Sur, CA
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
If you want to camp in Big Sur, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is a great place to do it. There are over 150 campsites, for tents and RVs. Many people enjoy camping here so much that there’s often a reservation waitlist lasting months.
There’s no ocean access from the state park, but there are some fantastic hiking trails. A newly opened trail, Pfeiffer Falls Trail, is a short and relatively easy out-and-back hike. It’s built into the hillside, weaving its way through the redwoods to a beautiful waterfall.
From the same trailhead, you can hike up to the Valley View Overlook Trail and take in views of Big Sur River Valley. It’s a bit more strenuous, but the hike is still only about an hour long.
Pfeiffer Beach may not have the softest sand nor offer the most activities. But there’s no denying it: This is one amazing beach!
At Pfeiffer Beach, you’ll be able to gaze in wonder at a natural rock formation seemingly carved into the sea. Photographers and visitors alike scramble for the ideal spot to watch the sunset stream through Keyhole Rock.
As you walk along Pfeiffer Beach, you might catch a twinkle in the sand. Pieces of manganese garnet can be found on the beach, creating purple sand in the right light. The garnet filters down from the hills above and adds another glint of magic to the beach.
Limekiln State Park
If you’re wondering whether there really lime kilns at Limekiln State Park, you’re in luck: There are three of them. And you can learn about their cultural history and significance right here at this beautiful California state park.
Most travelers visit Limekiln State Park for the redwood forests. A plethora of hiking trails weave in and out of the forests here. Some lead to waterfalls; others to redwood groves. And even more end with open ocean vistas.
No matter which trail you choose at Limekiln State Park, you’ll be rewarded with the beauty and glory of the towering redwood trees. Become enamored with the trees that feed from the bubbling brooks, spreading out from the 100-foot cascading Limekiln Falls.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
Camping and lodging are also available at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. It’s worth noting that the park doesn’t allow dogs outside of the parking lot, so plan accordingly. The park is mostly famous for McWay Falls, a waterfall straight into the ocean.
Another popular site among expert divers is Partington Cove. There’s no beach and the trail there leads through a long, interesting tunnel that was once part of an old tanbark shipping operation.
Across the street from the parking lot, you’ll find several other trails that lead into the redwood forests. Whether you wish to hike separately and meet at other Big Sur attractions or stick together, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park offers the best of both worlds.
McWay Falls is famous for cascading right onto the beach. A short half-mile trail from the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park parking lot leads you to the overlook for the 80-foot falls. Remember that the beach itself is closed to the public.
McWay Falls is a rare natural phenomenon. This cascade is technically a tidefall as it falls directly into the ocean.
Don’t worry, the falls flow year-round, so if it’s one of your top points of interest in Big Sur, you’re all set! If you plan your trip during December or January, then you’ll have a good chance at seeing migrating whales from the McWay Falls lookout as well.
It’s a bit hidden so getting to Partington Cove is half the fun. Park up on the shoulder parking spaces on Highway 1, then look for an old gate with a walk around so you can access the dirt road.
The road will split into two further on. If you take the right fork, you’ll find yourself down in a small cove with a beach full of large rocks; take the left fork and you’ll weave your way over footbridges and through tunnels to another small cove.
The good news is the parking along the highway is free. The bad news? No dogs are allowed along the trails as Partington Cove is still within the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park grounds.
Andrew Molera State Park
Prefer hiking in wilder parks without the wood decking trails? Head to Andrew Molera State Park. There are over 20 miles of hiking trails, taking you to some of the most beautiful beaches in Big Sur, bluffs, and forests. One of the biggest differences at the state park is the mountain bike trails.
If you’d prefer a calmer pastime, Andrew Molera State Park also permits fishing. Of course, you can make your way down to the ocean, although swimming is not recommended. Surfing is possible but beware of changing conditions and remember that there are no lifeguards on duty.
In addition to all the trails, there’s the Andrew Molera Ranch House Museum. Stop by to learn more about the early pioneers and view artifacts from the indigenous people.
It’s important to note that if you find yourself a gated property, it’s El Sur Ranch. Please refrain from hopping the fence.
Garrapata State Park
One of the top tourist attractions in Big Sur is Garrapata State Park. It includes a two-mile-long sandy beach, Garrapata Beach, that many visitors use for sunbathing—both with and without clothing.
Head over to Soberanes Point on the coastal headlands for a fantastic viewpoint of the wildlife at sea. You can watch sea otters, sea lions, harbor seals, and even whales from this vantage point.
If you visit Garrapata State Park between February and April, the Calla Lily Valley will be in full bloom along Doud Creek. It’s a sight to behold! Be sure to bring your camera to capture the moment forever.
Whether you need a pick-me-up or are looking for a place to rest, Ragged Point can meet your needs. The Ragged Point Inn and Resort is a one-of-a-kind coastal view retreat.
Sometimes called the “million-dollar view,” Ragged Point provides just that. Make your way down the rugged switchback trail to the beach and bear witness to the power of the 300-foot Black Swift Falls and striking black sand beach.
It’s definitely worth a visit and a bite to eat. The food is either fresh from the ocean or grown in their own gardens. It’s a great way to fuel your Big Sur sightseeing!
Sand Dollar Beach
Whether you wish to walk above or below, you’ll enjoy a beautiful walk at Sand Dollar Beach. The beach itself is a half-mile crescent-shaped sandy beach within the Los Padres National Forest.
Up above the cliffs, you’ll find walking trails with ocean views. You’ll probably also spot dolphins or seals from atop the bluffs.
Don’t forget to bring along the family pet. Your dog can run on its leash on the trails and off-leash on Sand Dollar Beach!
Don’t plan on swimming: Sand Dollar Beach is better for fishing, picnicking, beach-combing, and hunting for sand dollars. Hope you’re feeling lucky!
Bixby Creek Bridge
One of the top tourist attractions in Big Sur, Bixby Creek Bridge is a breathtaking piece of architecture and it’s still the highest single-span, or open-spandrel, arch bridge in the world today.
From either the east or west, the views from Bixby Creek Bridge are impressive, with backdrops of the Pacific Ocean, dramatic coastline, and expansive canyons. There are parking lots on either end, but no pedestrian crossing on the narrow bridge.
The Bixby Bridge is the ‘bridgeway’ to Big Sur. Cross its expansive structure heading north in order to reach Carmel-By-The-Sea, Monterey, and Pebble Beach.
Do you love jade? Yes, the gemstone. If you do, then Jade Cove is a place you’ll want to visit—maybe even more than once.
Jade Cove is aptly named for the jade stones that can be found either by diving into the ocean or by combing the beach. There’s no better place on earth to search for quality nephrite jade under the water than in Jade Cove.
Locals divulge that the best time to find jade stones is after a storm when the sand and sea have been churned and new gems are uncovered. And what you find, you may keep!
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is known as the “crown jewel” of the California state park system. With over 140 state parks in California, the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve should definitely be on your list of what to see in Big Sur!
The reserve is not just above the ground. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is also the largest underwater reserve in the United States. There are many trails to explore and opportunities to see the wildlife, both on land and at sea.
Aptly named, Bird Island is home to hundreds, if not thousands, of birds. The Bird Island Trail doesn’t actually cross over to Bird Island itself, but you can still marvel at the wildlife marvel from the trail.
Since this is a reserve no pets are allowed. It’s worth remembering that no bikes, fires, camping, rock climbing, or camping are permitted either. The Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is a grand piece of land designed to love, nurture and protect, so please leave it as you’ve found it.
Henry Miller Memorial Library
Have you fallen in love with Big Sur? Are you an avid reader? If you answered yes to those two questions, then your next stop needs to be the Henry Miller Memorial Library.
The library gets its name from the travel writer, Henry Miller. He mostly wrote about traveling to Greece, so you might question why a library in Big Sur is named after him. His close friend, Emil White—known for his Big Sur painting—founded the library in Miller’s honor.
Take a break and enjoy this wonderful spot to escape the hustle and bustle. The Henry Miller Memorial Library is also a gallery for local artists, a venue for musical performances, and of course an escape for reading lots of books. Plus, there’s free coffee!
Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary
You’ve heard of the Serengeti by land, but have you heard of the “Serengeti of the Sea”? This is the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. It’s a myriad of underwater habitats and kelp forests and is home to one of the largest underwater canyons in North America.
The 300-mile marine stretch has been nationally protected since 1992. The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary hosts a vast array of mammals, birds, fish, turtles, and plants that can be seen from the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail.
Scuba diving is also permitted, and you can visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium in nearby Monterey to learn more about the conservation efforts in place around Big Sur at the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
Carmel River State Beach
A quiet state beach popular with the local bird watchers, Carmel River State Beach, is a paradise waiting to be uncovered. There’s a lagoon that’s formed from the Carmel River flowing into the ocean, making the water relatively calm, and a favorite spot for kayakers.
Many birds call Carmel River State Beach home and it’s been declared a bird sanctuary due to the diversity of fowl species.
Also included in the Carmel River State Beach is Monastery Beach or San Jose Creek Beach. This coarse, sandy beach is located at the southern end and is a popular high-level scuba spot.
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Please note that swimming is not recommended at these beaches as the currents are very strong.
Built up an appetite on your sightseeing adventure? One of the best things to do in Big Sur is to pull up a chair and enjoy a delicious meal at Nepenthe. Perched on the cliffside just off Highway 1, this famous Big Sur restaurant pairs upscale California cuisine with breathtaking views over the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Lucia Mountains.
Let the sea breeze blow in your hair on the lovely outdoor terrace as you sip a glass of wine from popular Central California vineyards. Don’t miss the chance to gobble down Nepenthe’s signature entree: the Ambrosia Burger. Served on a fresh French roll and doused in their famous Ambrosia Sauce, the ground-steak sandwich offers the perfect complement to the beautiful coastline vistas.
Nepenthe is open daily from 11:30 am to 10:00 pm.