For decades travelers have journeyed to Big Sur seeking communion with the wild. Artists and writers, adventure-seekers and soul-searchers have looked to the rocky cliffs, crashing ocean and towering redwoods for inspiration.
Those who settled here did not seek to tamper the extreme environment but instead sought to live in harmony with nature’s temperaments. The resulting mix of trails, architecture and cuisine draws travelers into a breathtakingly beautiful slice of the American West.
Head down the Big Sur coastline for miles of awe-inspiring scenery @ Gabriel Rovick / Lonely Planet
Blooms of wildflowers blanket the bluffs while gray whales migrate up and down the coast. Daytime hikes along the coast or deep into the redwood forest are finished with lingering sunsets. A weekend getaway to Big Sur is a sojourn for body, mind and spirit.
The thrill of driving Highway 1 through Big Sur is the highlight of any trip to the region. Around every bend is another gasp-eliciting view of Central California’s dramatic coastline. Drive slowly and stop at the pull-offs to sit for a while on a boulder looking out to sea. Sea otters have their pups under the protection of the towering cliffs, so look for mothers and babies together in the kelp. Watch for the tell-tale mist of a whale spout as mother grey whales bring their calves close to shore. California Condors soar overhead displaying for their mates.
For the most instagrammable shot of the iconic Bixby Bridge, don’t settle for the pull off. Just north of the bridge is a turnoff for a well-maintained dirt road, The Old Coast Road. Drive about a mile down the road and turn around for an angle to wow your social media fans.
There are a number of trails on the inland side of Highway 1 that meander through towering redwood forests © Gabe Rovick / Lonely Planet
Spend the afternoon seeing the sights. First, hike the short, but steep Partington Cove Trail. Behind a metal gate, through a tree-lined canyon and a 60-foot tunnel, the well-maintained path leads to a rocky beach. Here you can watch the crashing surf and feel the spray salt your skin. Back at the top, on the other side of the highway, the Tanbark Trail follows the Partington Creek up into the towering redwood groves. If you’re still eager for more natural wonders, head just 2 miles farther south to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and check out McWay Falls where the water tumbles from the cliffside into the ocean below.
Saturday evenings often bring entertainment to the Henry Miller Memorial Library. This small, wooden structure nestled in the redwoods has a bookstore filled with progressive and thoughtful writings from the beat generation through modern intellectuals. The library plays host to artists of all kinds who perform and give talks on the lush lawn. Check out the events calendar before you go for a list.
Miles of trails lace through Andrew Molera state park, the perfect spot to get down to the beach or trek along the bluffs © Alvis Upitis / Getty Images
If you’re ready to stretch your legs for the day, head to Andrew Molera State Park. While the park is laced with trails to suit a variety of needs, the 8-mile loop boasts views of the coastal bluffs and access to several remote beaches. It's passable most of the year, except when the footbridge over the Big Sur River has been removed for the steelhead trout migration, so check before you go. Molera Horseback Tours has both private and group trips that take riders onto the white sand beaches or into the redwoods. Andrew Molera State Park also houses the California Condor Discovery Center where visitors can learn about the bird’s reintroduction program by the Ventana Wildlife Society. Knowledgeable staff lead two-hour condor tours in which they use radio telemetry to track the birds and find the best viewing spots.
Spend an idle afternoon at the iconic Nepenthe restaurant. Meaning “no sorrow”, Nepenthe was built to be in harmony with the surrounding environment and to provide a sanctuary for the artists, poets, vagabonds and lovers who found themselves in Big Sur. It remains one of the busiest gathering places in the region. Sip a glass of wine while enjoying a round of ping pong or ask for the binoculars kept behind the bar and see if you can spot some whales far out at sea.
Book your table at Sierra Mar for sunset. The transcendent backdrop won't disappoint © Jessica Keener / Lonely Planet
Indulge in one of Big Sur’s delectable dining options. For a cozy taste of history head to Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn. This collection of rustic buildings was completed in 1937 and has been welcoming guests ever since. The romantic, fire-lit dining room is the perfect place to sip wine and savor the kitchen’s comforting fare. For a glimpse into Big Sur’s past, ask to look at the books about Helmuth and Helen Deetjen’s history in the area.
If jaw-dropping views and post-modern architecture are more to your taste, make a reservation at Sierra Mar. The hefty price-tag is well earned at this sublime retreat. The California rustic chic Post Ranch Inn resort designed by G.K. Mickey Muennig pays constant tribute to the natural world and the glass-enclosed Sierra Mar dining room makes you feel as if you’re eating in the clouds. Watching the sunset from atop the Big Sur cliffs while enjoying selections from the ever-changing menu is truly a bucket list experience.
Soaking in a stone bath on the edge of a cliff is the antidote to any ailment, physical or mental, at least for a moment. Esalen Indians used the cliff-side hot springs for ritual and healing purposes and now the clothing-optional Esalen Hot Springs offers public night bathing for communion with the stars and sea. Same day booking applies and reservations are required, cost is $30 per person.
Link your trip with a few days in Monterey
Sarah Stocking traveled to Big Sur with support from Monterey County Convention and Visitor's Bureau. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.