If there’s one stretch of the California coastline that conjures the imagination like no other, it’s Big Sur, where land and ocean play out an endless drama of thundering surf, sheer cliffs and tiny coves protected by jagged rocks.

Here, California’s iconic Highway 1, also known as the Pacific Coast Highway, twists and winds along the continent’s westernmost edge, so close to the clifftop that some sections routinely tumble into the ocean during winter storms.

What that means for beach-goers is that beaches here aren’t the flat wide expanses of sand found to the south in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles and on the north coast above San Francisco. Instead, Big Sur’s beaches are pockets and coves tucked between rock crags or narrow strips of sand in the shadow of towering cliffs, each hiding its own treasures 

From north to south, here are the best beaches in Big Sur.

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Blooming flowers, Garrapata State Park
Garrapata State Park has miles of coastline hikes to enjoy @ Ingmar Wesemann / Getty Images

Garrapata State Park

Easiest road access from the north

Some might argue whether Garrapata State Park can truly be called part of Big Sur, but regardless of its qualifications, this wide, flat beach 10 miles south of Carmel-By-The-Sea is one of the prettiest and most walkable stretches of sand on the central coast.

The park boasts four miles of coastline and numerous hiking trails, with the sandy beach starting two miles south of Soberanes Point. Watch for the three pullouts on Highway 1 that mark Garrapata Beach, with trails leading down from the central and southern parking lots. (A trail from the northernmost pullout leads to a lookout). Sea lions, otters and even dolphins frequent this stretch of coast, so carry binoculars if you have them. 

Tip: Dogs are allowed only at the south end of the beach, accessed by Gate 19.

Horse riders on beach
The beach at Andrew Molera State Park is a prime spot for wildlife © Amit Basu Photography / Getty Images

Andrew Molera State Park 

Best beach for the crowd-phobic

The long, driftwood-strewn stretch of sand at the mouth of the Big Sur River is so picture-perfect, you’d expect to see Andrew Molera State Park on the itinerary of every Big Sur visitor. However, the mile-long hike required to get there (two miles round-trip) keeps it largely secret. That and the fact that you have to cross the Big Sur River on the way. The park service puts a seasonal footbridge in place during the dry season, typically between June and October, but the rest of the time hikers must take off their shoes and wade across. The reward, though, is well worth the effort, with the beach extending south almost three miles at the lowest tide. 

Tip: Surfers frequent Andrew Molera Beach when conditions are right, but the rough surf makes swimming unsafe for those less familiar.

Tunnel to Partington Cove in Julia Pfeiffer State Park
This tunnel was used to transport oak bark from the forest to Partington Cove to be loaded on ships to market © LifeImagesbyGloria / Getty Images

Partington Cove

Best rock climbing and a historic tunnel

There's no more brilliant aqua water than at Partington Cove, a rugged cleft in the rocks within which the water churns and gyrates, turned almost iridescent by the kelp beds below. The number two attraction in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Partington Cove requires a short hike down an old coach route following the creek canyon, once traversed by wagons carrying lumber to a loading pier. The trail splits at the bottom of the creek, with the right-hand spur dropping to a rocky cove.

The left-hand trail passes through a very old lumber-lined tunnel with the eerie ambiance of a mining shaft before reaching the rock outcropping at the trail’s end. It’s hard to believe ships once pulled up to these treacherous rocks, but old concrete footings and metal spikes attest to the pier’s existence, and to the hubris of the cove’s namesake, John Partington, who operated the improbable landing. Tidepools dot the rocks, revealing sea anemones, hermit crabs and other shore life at low tide.

Tip: There is serious wave action here and even wading is not advised.

McWay falls, a waterfall on the beach, in Big Sur
You may not be able to go down there, but McWay Falls makes the perfect photograph © Morgan Arnold / Getty Images

McWay Cove

Best photo op

While horseshoe-shaped McWay Cove boasts a lovely crescent of sand, it’s best known as the site of  McWay Falls, which plunges 80ft from a crevice in the cliff face onto the sand below. The short walk on Overlook Trail to view the falls, located in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, is one of the most popular in Big Sur. 

Unfortunately, the final stretch of the trail has been closed due to erosion, with no reopening in sight. However, the half-mile walk still goes far enough for a good view of the falls, though it’s not the dramatic angle you’ll see in photos taken before the closure.

The temptation to climb down into horseshoe-shaped McWay Cove is undeniably strong, but the descent is strictly forbidden, with a stiff fine levied on anyone who tries. The upside to this rule is that the beach remains absolutely pristine in its primordial beauty.

Rock at Pfeiffer Beach, California
The rock formations at Pfeiffer beach add to the dramatic scenery © haveseen / Getty Images

Pfeiffer Beach

Most Instagrammable beach

Managed through an unusual partnership between the Los Padres National Forest and the California Coastal Conservancy, Pfeiffer Beach has limited facilities and isn’t easy to find - in fact, there’s no sign marking the turnoff from Highway One.

That doesn’t stop visitors from making their way down the narrow and pothole-plagued road, drawn by the promise of seeing Keyhole Rock, a natural sandstone arch just offshore that perfectly frames the waves washing through. Other rock formations offshore also feature blowholes and showcase surf spouts.

One of the coolest things about Pfeiffer Beach, known only to rock hounds and the particularly observant, is the purple sand that collects along the edge of the bluff. Most vivid after winter and spring rains, the streaks of fushia, rose and violet occur as a result of manganese and garnet washing down from the cliffs above.  

A man walking barefoot along a beach
Long walks on the beach are perfect for Sand Dollar Beach © Tracy Packer Photography / Getty Images

Sand Dollar Beach

Best beach for dog-walking

Horseshoe-shaped Sand Dollar Beach is Big Sur’s best bet for a long beach stroll, extending half a mile at high tide and longer when it’s possible to access the full northern and southern ends of the beach. It’s also dog-friendly, and its isolation means you’ll see some off-leash though this is technically against regulations.

This is one of Big Sur’s few surfing beaches, so expect some wave-riding entertainment in the early mornings and late afternoons. Getting to Sand Dollar Beach requires a descent on a 40-ft wooden stairway; to the right, the trail branches to a fenced overlook that offers stunning views of Plaskett Rock Point and its sea stacks to the south and the sandy crescent of Sand Dollar to the north.

Campers from Plaskett Creek Campground across Highway 1 use this beach as well, with sunset-watching a popular pastime for those overnighting there. Just to the south of Willow Creek, Jade Cove is a well-guarded secret among gem-hunters for the semiprecious stone it’s named for. However, erosion has made the unmarked trail to the cove quite treacherous and best suited only to those comfortable with rough climbing.

Take a magical road trip on California's Highway 1

Willow Creek Beach

Best beach for solitude-seekers

One of the most overlooked beaches in Big Sur, Willow Creek is for those who want to contemplate the crashing surf in solitude. Here, Willow Creek empties into the ocean amid a rough jumble of large boulders. Treasure awaits persistent rockhounds, with agates, shells and even the rare piece of jade mixed in among the rocks.

The gently curving sand beach at the north end of Big Sur is accessible only at low tide, when it’s possible to walk around the rocky promontory to the right.

Part of the Los Padres National Forest, Willow Creek is relatively undeveloped, with a small parking area and pit toilets. Those traveling with their pups often pull over here as Willow Creek is one of the few Big Sur beaches open to dogs.

Mill Creek Picnic Area and Beach

Prime picnic spot for wave watching

At first glance, Mill Creek appears to be merely a rocky inlet where the so-named creek empties into the ocean. Low tide, however, reveals a slender stretch of sand below the bluffs at the northern end. A relatively primitive site, Mill Creek is managed by the Los Padres National Forest with faculties limited to toilets and a handful of picnic tables, but what a picnic spot it is, with the pounding surf so close it’s likely to send spray over your sandwich. 

San Carpoforo Creek Beach on the Big Sur Highway
San Carpoforo Creek is our pick for best-hidden beach © RandyAndy 101 / Getty Images

San Carpoforo Creek Beach

Best beach for birdwatching

Just 1.5  miles south of Ragged Point and the official entrance to Big Sur, San Carpoforo Creek Beach is so hidden, most people drive right by it. Located on land managed by the Los Padres National Forest that meets the northern end of Hearst San Simeon State Park, you'll find a nondescript pullout on Highway 1 about 8 miles north of the Piedras Blancas Light Station and across the highway from a house with the address 18550 Cabrillo Hwy, San Simeon, CA. 

Once you've parked, you access the beach via a flat, easy trail that passes by a peaceful lagoon which is often a refuge for herons, egrets and other birds. Unlike most Big Sur beaches, the swath of sand at the foot of San Carpoforo Creek is flat and wide, with plenty of room to walk. At the north end, the beach turns rocky and sea caves open out from the looming cliffs.

Tip: A portion of San Carpoforo Beach is protected as a snowy plover nesting site; obey signs to stay away from any restricted areas.

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