Pfeiffer State Beach

©Jithesh Krishnanunny/Getty Images

Pfeiffer Beach

Top choice in Big Sur

Pfeiffer Beach is at the heart of what Big Sur is all about – splendid, unusual scenery that's inspired generations of artists, writers, and travelers. With its pretty crescent shape, memorable rock formations, and purple sand – yes, purple – there's a lot to appeal to locals and visitors alike. It's easy to see what author Richard Brautigan meant when he wrote, "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.”

While the Pacific surf is too rough for swimming, this is an ideal place for walking, beach combing, and snapping photos – except when the wind kicks up.  The purple sand of Pfeiffer Beach comes from manganese garnet that washes down from the craggy headlands above. Its other most notable feature is Keyhole Rock, formed thanks to the relentless pounding of the surf against the beach. In the winter months, there are a handful of days when the sun lines up just right at dusk that the sunset can be viewed directly through Keyhole Rock – a fun moment for photographers.

Feet standing on colorful sand © Bailey Freeman / Lonely Planet

The turnoff is about a half mile south of Big Sur Station on the ocean side of Hwy 1. From here it's 2.3 narrow, twisting miles down to the beach (no RVs or trailers). It costs $12 for a day use permit, and it's best to arrive early before the limited number of parking spots fills up. No camping or campfires are permitted (though there are other places to camp nearby). Indeed, the beach is open only from 9am to sunset. Vault toilets are available, and the nearest place to pick up supplies for one of the four picnic sites at Pfeiffer Beach is in Big Sur Valley.

Two bits of California hedonism worth noting – Pfeiffer Beach is technically part of Los Padres National Forest, making it federal land. That means you shouldn't bring cannabis to Pfeiffer Beach, although it's legal in the state of California. The north end of the beach is also known as a gathering place for nude sunbathers (when the tide is low enough to allow access). If you don't want to catch a glimpse of a bare bum, stick to the middle and southern portions of Pfeiffer.

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