The first thing to know when planning a trip to Big Sur is that this is no typical beach destination. Despite having a few bucket list beaches to its credit, this 90-mile stretch of uber-photogenic California coastline is about far more than sun and sand. Many of Big Sur’s most beautiful beaches are little more than rocky coves, and sun may be scarcer than expected at certain times of the year, thanks to Northern California’s notorious coastal fog.
Big Sur’s biggest gifts, like sunsets to sigh over and views that seem to take in the entire Pacific, vary so profoundly with the changing light that artists and photographers like Ansel Adams have been drawn to making their homes here to experience it year-round. It’s no wonder, then, that visitors tend to return again and again to explore this rugged outpost in all its seasonal glories.
Here’s a guide to getting the most out of one of California’s most addictive destinations at all times of the year.
Splendid Color: Fall in Big Sur
Lack of rainfall turns California’s hills gold in the summertime. So Big Sur’s color palette is already burnished as fall begins, with the wine red of madrones, glowing yellow of sycamores, and rust of poison oaks layered over a wash of ochre. Contrast these with the gray-green of cypress and the emerald of pine, and you have a study in contrasts that may be less showy than the aspens in the Sierras, but no less eye-catching.
The bigger reason to visit Big Sur in the fall, however, is that in many ways it’s a continuation of summer - without the crowds. Northern California gets some of its best weather in September and October, when sunny days continue into the evening, uninterrupted by the arrival of the coastal fog, which tends to vanish soon after Labor Day. With campgrounds less crowded, it’s possible to enjoy the still-long days and brilliant sunsets without having to wrap yourself in a sleeping bag as the gray mist rolls in.
Storm Season: Winter in Big Sur
Tides take center stage in the drama of Big Sur at all times of the year, pulling out to reveal the underwater worlds of intertidal pools and thundering back in to crash, spout and foam against the rocks. Every winter, king tides raise the drama to new levels, reaching highs of at least seven feet, realigning beaches and strewing the sand with massive logs and other detritus. The phenomenon, which occurs near the winter and summer solstices when the sun and moon are aligned to create the strongest gravitational pull, also creates extremely low tides known as minus tides, which lure beachcombers out to explore rocks and reefs filled with sea life that’s normally well underwater.
Some of the best beaches for tidepooling include Pfeiffer and Garrapata State Park, while there’s nowhere better for high surf-watching than Partington Cove.
King tides aren’t the only act in town, though; storm-watching has also become a popular winter draw. After all, what could be cozier than curling up with a mug of hot chocolate in front of a plate-glass window at Ventana Big Sur, Post Ranch Inn, Treebones, or another Big Sur hideaway to watch the storm clouds roll in over the Pacific? The Point Sur Lighthouse offers a particularly spectacular storm-watching vantage point with the sea on three sides.
Wildflowers and Waterfalls: Spring in Big Sur
Wildflower season in Big Sur is a little like the California gold rush: people pour in from afar to seek their treasure, and everyone has a carefully guarded secret spot. No need for claim jumping, though; all of Big Sur’s best hikes feature fields and forests filled with blooms. Check with park rangers to find out peak bloom times in different locales.
Streams and rivers replenished with winter rainfall make for bigger waterfalls. Check out McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and Pfeiffer Falls in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.
Whale watching is all part of a day’s leisure in Big Sur. Spring is peak season for spout spotting, as the California gray whales that have wintered in Baja California’s whale nurseries head north again, babies in tow. As author Richard Brautigan put it in his 1965 novel “A Confederate General From Big Sur”:
“This morning, I saw a coyote walking through the sagebrush right at the very edge of the ocean – next stop China. The coyote was acting like he was in New Mexico or Wyoming, except that there were whales passing below. That’s what this country does for you. Come down to Big Sur and let your soul have some room to get outside its marrow.”
High Season: Summer in Big Sur
The summer road trip is a tradition in the United States, and Hwy 1 through Big Sur is one of the country’s most scenic routes, so it’s no wonder that summer is high season along California’s central coast. That means you’ll elbow fellow photographers aside at key photo ops and struggle to find parking at popular beaches and parks, but it also means that all of Big Sur’s restaurants, bakeries, shops and galleries will be open and well-stocked and you’ll find a festive vibe along the way.
Summer is also when things get lively up and down the coast, and you’re likely to spot crowds gathered around a band, a ranger giving a talk, or a naturalist pointing out a nesting bird.
The event schedule at the Henry Miller Memorial Library fills up fast on weekends with concerts, readings, and artsy happenings.
January - February
Between December and February, California gray whales make their southward migration to Baja, where the mothers will give birth. While they’re easier to see headed north because they hug the coast when traveling with their young, look for the telltale spouts off Point Sur and other vantage points.
Visit the elephant seal rookery at Piedras Blancas to see the mothers give birth and nurse their young.
Mycologists, otherwise known as mushroom foragers, descend on Big Sur in the wettest months to hunt for candy caps, slippery jacks and other colorfully named local fungi at the Big Sur Foragers Festival. This three-day event takes place at various venues and includes the “Fungus Face-Off,” in which local chefs vie to cook up rarefied delicacies, all in the name of charity to benefit the Big Sur Health Center.
And on late January and February weekends, rangers with binoculars await at Mile Marker 37, one mile north of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, to guide visitors in identifying migrating California gray whales and soaring condors at Vista Point.
March - April
Early spring is the height of whale watching season, with the migrating California gray whales coming in close to shore as mothers teach their newborns how to forage and swim.
Sea otter pups are also born in February and March; look for playful family units in the harbor at Morro Bay.
The Point Sur Light Station opens for the season in March, with guided tours provided by volunteers on weekends.
May - June
The start of the high season is marked by the launch of the ranger-led campfire program at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Family-oriented talks and movie nights take place on weekend evenings in the campground amphitheater.
From Memorial Day to Labor Day, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park hosts a Junior Ranger program of guided nature walks and talks tailored to various ages on Saturdays.
The Henry Miller Memorial Library hosts concerts and other programs on weekends throughout the summer and early fall. The organization’s website does not always list all musical programming; check Eventbrite for current concert listings.
Live music every Sunday at Big Sur River Inn starts in May.
In spring, Big Sur whale watching gets even more exciting, with endangered humpback whales - known for their antics - arriving to take the place of the more sedate California gray whales. Majestic great blue whales can also sometimes be seen off the Big Sur coast or outside Monterey Bay.
The Point Sur Light Station is open for guided tours provided by volunteers on weekends.
July - August
On summer weekends, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park features a campfire program of talks and movie nights hosted by rangers, ecologists and wildlife experts. All events take place in the campground amphitheater.
The Junior Ranger Program at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park features guided nature walks and talks. Events are tailored to different ages and take place on Saturdays and Sundays.
The Point Sur Light Station continues weekend guided tours.
Henry Miller Memorial Library hosts concerts and other programs on weekends throughout the summer and early fall. The organization’s website does not always list all musical programming; check Eventbrite for current concert listings at the library.
Big Sur River Inn continues its live music Sundays, and Fernwood Big Sur also hosts live bands on weekends.
September - October
Live music Sundays continue through October at the Big Sur River Inn. Fernwood Big Sur also hosts live music on weekends.
November - December
Music shows continue through the winter at Henry Miller Memorial Library, with most being shuttle events hosted by FolkYEAH.
Elephant seal watching begins in earnest with the arrival of male seals at the Piedras Blancas rookery in November.