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16 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Big Sur, CA

Written by Brad Lane
Updated May 26, 2022

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The Big Sur region is a roughly 90-mile rugged coastline in central California, where the Santa Lucia Mountains meet the Pacific Ocean in dramatic fashion. This coastline spans from San Simeon in the south to Carmel-by-the-Sea up north. Numerous state parks and public access points line this mountainous coastal region, offering a wealth of things to do.

Big Sur
Big Sur | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Big Sur is more of an experience than a place to visit. It's where headlights beam across breathtaking ocean sunsets as the state-spanning Highway 1 slows with hairpin turns. And an early morning fog often wraps the region, typically burning off by the afternoon to reveal an intricate environment of redwood canyons and 300-foot ocean cliffs.

Roadside attractions like Keyhole Rock formations and 80-foot waterfalls plummeting into the ocean lure travelers to pull over their cars. Plan the whole day or an entire week driving the Big Sur coast, with places to visit like Pfeiffer Big Sur and Limekiln State Parks offering hours to explore and some of the best campgrounds in Big Sur.

Heading either north or south, each stop seems more amazing than the last on the Big Sur coast. Areas like Pfeiffer Beach and the Bixby Bridge provide one iconic landscape after another. Also expect a plethora of wildlife to come into view, including elephant seals, California condors, and the wild tourist pulled over to take pictures.

Plan your travels along this scenic coast with our list of the top things to see and do in Big Sur.

1. Pfeiffer Beach

Pfeiffer Beach
Pfeiffer Beach | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

The narrow and twisting two-mile road to reach Pfeiffer Beach is just over a mile south of the entrance of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. This slightly off-the-beaten-path location is inaccessible for RVs and trailers. Make the twisting drive, however, and a short trail leads from the parking lot to a breathtaking ocean view unrivaled anywhere else on the coast.

The enormous sea stacks at Pfeiffer Beach cause immediate awe and wonder, backdropped by the steep Santa Lucia Mountains, with rough waves adding a hypnotic and steady force. The main attraction of Pfeiffer Beach is Keyhole Rock. This enormous rock formation is often admired and often photographed, and has a magnificent natural arch that pulses with seawater and sunlight.

Keyhole Rock, Pfeiffer Beach
Keyhole Rock, Pfeiffer Beach | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Pfeiffer Beach is a popular place to see the sunset in Big Sur. But bringing a beach chair and watching the waves at Pfeiffer Beach is fun any time of the day. There's a fee for parking, which is also limited and apt to fill to capacity. Arriving early in the day is the best way to claim a spot.

Address: Sycamore Canyon Road, Big Sur, California

Official site: https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/lpnf/recarea/?recid=10918

2. Bixby Bridge

Bixby Canyon Bridge
Bixby Canyon Bridge | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

The Bixby Bridge is an iconic symbol of the Big Sur coastline and photographed by tourists from across the world. Also known as the Bixby Canyon Bridge, this modern marvel of engineering was completed in 1932 and remarkably stands 260 feet above Bixby Creek.

Driving across the scenic span of the bridge is nothing short of checking a quintessential California experience off the bucket list. Many visitors will recognize the bridge and ocean scene from several TV and movie appearances. And it truly is a breathtaking sight, unrivaled anywhere else along the coast.

Parking is tight to check out the bridge and pose for a picture, but numerous pull-offs and parking areas line the north side of the bridge. Multiple viewpoints of the bridge are accessible, providing plenty of angles for the thousands of cameras pointed at the bridge every weekend. Visitors need to exercise caution when stepping out of their vehicle along this busy portion of the Big Sur coastline.

3. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

McWay Falls overlook at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
McWay Falls overlook at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park takes its name from an influential pioneer in Big Sur country. The state park provides elevated landscapes to explore next to the ocean. The park's most famous feature is the stunning McWay Falls, seen plummeting over 80 feet into the ocean from a high vantage point.

Other hiking paths at Julia Pfeiffer Burns, like the Ewoldsen Trail, navigate coastal redwoods and Pacific madrone within a flourishing canyon environment. The state park is primarily a day-use park with only two primitive campsites available. Much more camping is available 10 miles north of Julia Pfeiffer Burns at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.

Natural occurrences like mudslides and wildfires can alter trail conditions within the park. Pay attention to any signed closures when visiting.

Address: 52801 California State Route 1, Big Sur, California

Official site: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=578

4. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

Redwoods at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
Redwoods at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Along the banks of the Big Sur River and surrounded by the steep Santa Lucia Mountains, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is one of the most popular state parks on the coast. Dramatic scenery surrounds every acre of this state park, especially on the trails that follow the Big Sur River and navigate through gigantic redwood groves.

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is home to one of the best campgrounds in Big Sur. It has over 150 campsites that accommodate tents and RVs along the river. No electric hookups are available, but each site is in proximity to flushing restrooms and coin-operated showers. And true to its popularity, almost every site is booked months in advance.

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

The Big Sur Lodge within the park offers indoor accommodations within a rustic setting. The lodge also has a dining room open to the public and light grocery items and unique souvenirs for sale. Several hiking opportunities branch out from the lodge, including the trail leading to Pfeiffer Falls.

Wildlife is abundant at Pfeiffer Big Sur, with common sightings including deer, turkeys, a variety of birds, and the occasional bobcat. The park also provides long-distance views of the ocean, but the beach is inaccessible. Those looking to dip some toes into the ocean should head to the nearby Pfeiffer Beach.

Address: 47231 CA-1, Big Sur, California

Official site: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=570

5. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

China Cove, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
China Cove, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

On the north end of the Big Sur coast, Point Lobos is popular with photographers, SCUBA divers, and an abundance of wildlife. Numerous hiking trails navigate the perimeter and interior of this incredibly scenic ocean point, allowing visitors to take in the lush meadows and dramatic coastline of the natural reserve.

Other common wildlife at the park includes seabirds, many of which can be seen hanging out at the aptly named Bird Island. Point Lobos was once the site of an 1800s whaling and abalone business, remnants of which can be seen and learned about at Whalers Cove. And the vast amount of habitat that easily disperses the weekend crowds.

The protected waters surrounding Point Lobos are a habitat for hundreds of sea creatures. This also makes it a hot spot for underwater explorers. To retain the natural environment and limit the number of disturbances, reservations may be required to dive.

Address: 62 CA-1, Carmel-By-The-Sea, California

Official site: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=571

6. Limekiln State Park

Beach at Limekiln State Park
Beach at Limekiln State Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Limekiln State Park highlights much of what makes Big Sur so special. It encompasses over 700 acres connected to the Ventana Wilderness within Los Padres National Forest. This sprawling landscape includes redwood forests and the dramatic nature of the Santa Lucia Range crashing into the ocean.

Limekiln State Park has plenty of things to do, with hiking trails, picnic areas, and campsites, as well as three historic lime kilns for which the park is named. Other hiking trails in Limekiln State Park lead to waterfalls and awe-inspiring redwood groves. And the shoreline at Limekiln, accessible under the Lime Creek Bridge, displays stunning and rough ocean waves pounding into a rocky coast.

Campground at Limekiln State Park
Campground at Limekiln State Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Camping is also available in Limekiln within three different camp areas. Redwood campsites, creek campsites, and campsites right next to the beach are available, best suited for cars and small camper vans. All overnight guests have access to flushing restrooms and coin-operated showers.

Address: 63025 CA-1, Big Sur, California

Official site: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=577

7. Ragged Point

Ragged Point
Ragged Point

For tourists heading north, Ragged Point is often one of the first stops when traveling through Big Sur. And a great way to experience the area is by pulling over at the Ragged Point Inn and Resort, perched atop a 300-foot cliff. Here, visitors use the facilities and enjoy the view.

Ragged Point Inn has a gourmet restaurant, coffee bar, and beautiful places to stay the night. It also offers great seascapes and a steep trail that descends to a black-sand beach. No cell service is typically available, but a few pay phones stand like useful relics on-site. Gasoline is also available for those running low, although usually at a premium.

Address: 19019 CA-1, Ragged Point, California

8. Big Sur Station

Big Sur Station is an excellent starting point upon arriving for a Big Sur vacation. It's located at the heart of this rugged coastline, just south of the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park entrance. The station is a visitor center for the surrounding Los Padres National Forest and has tons of details about spots to camp, hike, and catch a sunset.

Big Sur Station also has basic supplies like maps, postcards, and other souvenirs. The neighboring Big Sur Lodge has a broader selection of similar goods, including perishable and non-perishable food items.

Big Sur Station is open seven days a week, approximately between 9am and 4pm. There's no cell service anywhere along this coast, and if you're using GPS to navigate, be sure to download maps before visiting.

9. Henry Miller Memorial Library

Henry Miller Memorial Library
Henry Miller Memorial Library | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

The stark beauty and changing landscape of Big Sur has influenced countless artists over the last century, including writers, poets, musicians, and the scholarly vagabond or two. The non-profit Henry Miller Library centers around the works and persona of the late Big Sur resident and writer, Henry Miller. It showcases the artistic side of Big Sur with rotating artworks, live performances, and shelves of books for sale from local and regional authors.

Not a library in the rent-a-book sense, this unique and self-proclaimed "weird" institution is a place to engage with the culture and creativity of Big Sur. Alongside works of fiction and memoirs, as well as natural guides and regional history publications, the Henry Miller Memorial Library hosts regular live music and community events.

Address: 48603 CA-1, Big Sur, California

Official site: https://henrymiller.org/

10. Garrapata State Park

Garrapata State Park coastline
Garrapata State Park coastline | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Garrapata State Park offers beach access, coastal canyon hiking trails, and outstanding headland views on the north end of the Big Sur coast. The state park is accessible via different pullouts on Highway 1. Garrapata Beach is on the south end of the park near mile marker 17 and 18. Farther north, inland hiking trails explore up and down Soberanes Canyon.

The hiking trail that extends onto Soberanes Point is much less crowded relative to other state parks in the area. It also provides some of the biggest waves and best views of the Big Sur coast.

Address: 34500 CA-1, Carmel-By-The-Sea, California

Official site: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=579

11. Partington Cove

Partington Cove trail
Partington Cove trail | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Two miles north of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Partington Cove offers a coastal canyon route to the ocean. Visitors to this trailhead park on a large sweeping curve of Highway 1 and cross the road to a large metal gate. From there, it's nothing but a downhill hike following a forest road to Partington Cove. After a steep mile heading downhill, a historic 60-foot tunnel reveals some of the tanbark history of the cove, with calm waters appearing shortly after exiting the tunnel.

Address: 51700 CA-1, Big Sur, California

12. Andrew Molera State Park

The beach at Andrew Molera State Park
The beach at Andrew Molera State Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Andrew Molera is the largest state park on the Big Sur coast and the best for adventuring. Miles of hiking trails navigate through a varied terrain of coastal redwoods, high bluffs, and sandy beaches at the state park. And there's so much to explore it's easy to ditch the crowds, even on summer weekends.

The trail to the secluded beach at Andrew Molera is just under a mile, including a Big Sur River crossing, and visitors who make the trek quickly find plenty of beach space to themselves. Keep your eyes out for any signed closures, as the park is susceptible to flooding.

Address: 45500 CA-1, Big Sur, California

Official site: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=582

13. Point Sur State Historic Park

Point Sur Lighthouse
Point Sur Lighthouse

North along the coast from Andrew Molera State Park, and just over 20 miles south of Monterey, Point Sur State Historic Park is centered around the turn-of-the-century Point Sur Lighthouse. In operation since 1889, this historic lighthouse has guided many different types of visitors to the state of California. The only way to see this historic lighthouse up close is through guided tours that take place on weekends throughout the year.

Address: CA-1, Monterey, California

Official site: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=565

14. Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery

Elephant Seal Vista Point
Elephant Seal Vista Point | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Just north of San Simeon, tourists have the chance to glimpse a unique elephant seal rookery. This unique wildlife habitat within the Piedras Blancas State Marine Reserve provides access and spots to view hundreds of very large, and very loud, elephant seals in their natural habitat. Interpretive information about these brooding animals is also readily available.

Elephant seals appear on the beach throughout the year, although some months are much more crowded than others. The best time to see the most seals at Piedras Blancas is between December and March.

Official site: https://elephantseal.org/

15. Hearst Castle

Hearst Castle
Hearst Castle

Hearst Castle is a stunning attraction on the Central California coast, approximately 65 miles south of Big Sur on Highway 1. Julia Morgan designed and constructed this opulent estate on behalf of publishing magnate, William Randolph Hearst, in the first half of the 1900s. It includes more than 160 lavishly decorated rooms and dozens of gardens abloom across the 120-plus acre property.

Hearst Castle re-opened to the public in May of 2022 after two years of road construction and closures. It's operated by California State Parks, with several different tours available throughout the day. A few common docent-led adventures include a Grand Rooms Tour and an Upstairs Suites Tour. Reservations are required for all guided tours.

There's plenty more to explore on this part of the coast surrounding San Simeon and Cambria. San Simeon State Park oversees several beaches along the shoreline, including the popular William Randolph Hearst State Memorial Beach across the PCH from the Hearst Castle driveway. And just a few miles north, Elephant Seal Vista Point offers very audible wildlife sightings.

16. 17-Mile Drive

Lone Cypress, 17- Mile Drive
Lone Cypress, 17- Mile Drive

If you're heading north from Big Sur, consider taking a detour on the world-renowned 17-Mile Drive in the Pebble Beach neighborhood on the Monterey Peninsula. It's a short drive north of Point Lobos and well worth the small fee required at any one of the gated entrances. The Northwest Carmel Gate is closest to Big Sur, accessible from Big Sur Station with a 45-minute drive.

Several stops line 17-Mile Drive, including beachscapes, bird rocks, and the famous Lone Cypress perched atop a rock outcropping. This 250-plus-year-old tree is the logo for the adjacent Pebble Beach Golf Links, one of many top-tier golf courses in the area. Other pullovers along 17-Mile Drive include destinations like The Restless Sea and Bird Rock.

Where to Stay in Big Sur, California for Sightseeing

Luxury Hotels:

  • To soak in the beauty of Big Sur, consider booking a few nights at the elegant Post Ranch Inn. The property features rooms, suites, and house rentals that blend seamlessly into the coastal environment. It's a popular place for couples to rekindle some romance near the ocean. And alongside a great location, three miles south of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, this boutique hotel offers several amenities like fine dining and spa services to enjoy without leaving the property.
  • The Ventana Big Sur, An Alila Resort, is a luxe wilderness resort that caters to every aspect of a relaxing vacation. Several of the resort's decadent rooms, suites, and private homes have unique amenities like outdoor showers or hot tubs. And Ventana is much more than just a place to stay. Regularly occurring "Signature Experiences" offered by the resort include yoga classes, meditation workshops, and daily Sunset Hours on the public patio.

Mid-Range Hotels:

  • The Big Sur River Inn is one of the area's oldest hotels, celebrating over 80 years in the region. Today, it's a central tourist spot along the Big Sur River and an iconic stopover for many road trip vacations. Big Sur River Inn offers quaint guest rooms and riverside suites. And all overnight accommodations have a cozy feel surrounded by woodlands. In the immediate vicinity are an adjacent restaurant, general store, and gas station.
  • At the heart of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, the Big Sur Lodge is the place to stay for nature lovers. The lodge offers over 60 moderately priced cottage-style guest rooms away from the daily traffic of the park. But when it comes time to explore, brilliant nature is right out the front door. And for dining nearby, the lodge's Homestead Restaurant offers entrees for all three meals of the day.

Budget Hotels:

  • Budget hotels aren't easy to come by in Big Sur, but the Fernwood Resort does offer one of the best values. The resort provides a range of overnight accommodations, including motel rooms, forest cabins, and adventure tents. Standard campsites are also available. A grocery store on the property is a central place for snacks and supplies while visiting, and an on-site grill offers heartier meals. Fernwood is a hopping spot in the summer, with live music events dotting the calendar.

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imageMonterrey to the North: The stunning coast doesn't stop at Big Sur, and immediately to the north cities like Carmel-by-the-Sea have even more postcard attraction and sightseeing opportunities. The neighboring city of Monterey attracts international tourists with world-famous attractions like the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Cannery Row. For a great guide on overnight visits to this luxurious and popular part of the coast, our Where to Stay in Monterey article can help find the right hotel for your type of travels.

imageSan Luis Obispo County to the South: To the south of Big Sur, the stunning San Luis Obispo County encourages a "SLO" pace of life. The chief city of the county, San Luis Obispo is filled with historic missions, street festivals, and plenty of sunshine. The neighboring city of Morro Bay presents stunning natural features next to the ocean, as does Pismo Beach to the south, where a great hometown charm is served up alongside locally sourced seafood specialities.

imageMore to Explore in California: While Big Sur might be a crown-jewel of California, there's many more gems to explore. Some of the best West Coast road trips link together stunning natural attractions, including the rugged coast, wild rivers, high-alpine mountains, and a few active volcanoes. If it's more sand and surf you're searching for, the best beaches of California deliver on additional postcard scenes.

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