With Big Sur views only matched if you’re a gull, this cliff-topping restaurant rightfully makes it onto everyone’s bucket list. Even locals flock here, drawn by the ultra-relaxed vibe created by the original owners in 1949 (and still owned and run by the same family today). And of course they come for that view. Take it in from a seat on the patio, or step inside the main building, designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright and hinting at the master architect’s style of making a structure be one with its environment.
Big Sur’s Beat Generation and hippie era live on at Nepenthe too—hang around the handsome bar or outside by the fire pit and listen and keep your ears peeled for names like Kerouac and stories that start with “I remember when…” You can even take home a bit of Big Sur style: The Phoenix at Nepenthe gift shop features handmade jewelry, ceramics, and even instruments for that perfect drum circle.
Welcome to one of the world’s most unforgettable stretches of coastline. This roughly 90-mile-long stretch of redwood- and fog-trimmed waterfront between Carmel-by-the-Sea and Hearst Castle has no specific boundaries, no urban core, drawing you (and writers like Henry Miller and Beat Generation darling Jack Kerouac) in with a magic allure that is almost palpable. This is, quite simply, a place you want to be—bluffs, sea, and sky.
Drive Big Sur’s length via twisting Highway One, with plenty of pullovers at places like seen-it-in-a-million-car-commercials Bixby Bridge. Another favorite photo op: McWay Falls, a silvery cascade that falls some 70 feet from the sea cliffs to a remote beach below. Look up to see endangered California condors, North America’s largest birds, or look down to scan the swells for migrating whales or sea otters floating among dense beds of kelp, California’s signature seaweed. Try the famous Ambrosia burger on the deck of Nepenthe, then nurse your beer to watch the sunset. Campgrounds abound, as do rustic cabins at Deetjen’s and other (sometimes funky) resorts. The region’s beauty also makes it a magnet for exclusive, splurge-worthy hotels like the cliff-hugging Post Ranch Inn, or luxurious Ventana Inn and Spa.
Wild and incomparably beautiful, Big Sur is fabled for mountains that plunge to the surf and majestic redwood forests cloaked in ocean fogs. The Central Coast region inspires the many artists who live here as well as visitors who venture to the region via Highway 1, perhaps the world’s most scenic drive.
The storms of winter 2017 wreaked havoc on the area’s natural beauty, causing mudslides and fallen boulders that led to closures of the iconic thoroughfare. While Big Sur is famous for such iconic spans as the graceful, 85-year-old Bixby Bridge, it was an anonymous crossing above a gorge that made headlines: Eroded hillsides had undermined the support columns for the 320-foot-long Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge. Before long, cracks developed and the bridge buckled.
So Big Sur is currently cut in two. That’s the bad news.
The good news? Crews have worked diligently to restore access, and visitors can now reach many areas of Big Sur, even though you can’t drive the full stretch of Highway 1 until a replacement bridge is built. Plus, the detour—which takes about 30 minutes more than the original route—is filled with scenic views, incredible wine, and historic attractions worthy of exploring. Much of Big Sur is open for business and here’s where to experience it.
From the North
The long stretch of Highway 1 in Monterey County between Carmel and the heart of Big Sur is open again—and right now offers the most opportunities to experience this classic road trip.
Drive this roughly 30-mile section to the current turnaround point at the Big Sur Ranger Station and you’ll experience many of Big Sur’s highlights. Just south of Carmel at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, trails edge granite coves, where you can spy harbor seals and sea otters in the waters below. About 10 minutes past Point Lobos, there are two miles of pristine oceanfront in Garrapata State Park, followed by the famed (and quite passable from the north) Bixby Bridge. Next, you’ll reach Point Sur Lighthouse, which has guided mariners along this coast since 1889, and is still conducting its historic tours.
Closer to the ranger station, many businesses north of the damaged bridge have reopened, including such restaurants as the Big Sur Roadhouse, Rocky Point Restaurant, and Fernwood Resort Bar & Grill. You’ll also have plenty of overnight-stay choices: cabins at Glen Oaks Big Sur and Ripplewood Resort, the riverside suites at the Big Sur River Inn & Restaurant, and tent and RV camping at Big Sur Campground & Cabins.
For a full list of open lodging, restaurants, and shopping, read this helpful blog post by the Monterey County Convention & Visitors Bureau, which also offers up-to-date information on businesses and road conditions.
From the South
Beyond the turnoff for Hearst Castle and the Piedras Blancas elephant seals in San Luis Obispo County, Highway 1 begins its twisting climb up Big Sur’s cliffs. Major road blockages at Paul’s Slide, near the town of Lucia, and at Mud Creek have led to the closure of the highway beyond Ragged Point Inn and Resort, a major hub for southern Big Sur about 16 miles north of Hearst Castle.
But if you have to stop anywhere near Big Sur’s southern end, Ragged Point is a perfect destination. It gives you a taste of Big Sur, with spectacular views looking north up the coast from atop the 350-foot cliffs. You can hike down the steep 0.6-mile Ragged Point Cliffside Trail to reach a remote cove or stroll through the resort’s lush blufftop gardens.
With everything from seasonal California cuisine (and spectacular sunsets) at Ragged Point Restaurant to burgers and hot dogs at the sandwich stand, you won’t go hungry, either. And for the full Ragged Point experience, stay overnight in an oceanview room, complete with balcony and gas fireplace.
For more detailed information on travel conditions in the southern part of Big Sur, check updates provided by Visit SLO CAL, the San Luis Obispo County Visitors Bureau.
It's one of Big Sur’s most luxurious places to stay, and Post Ranch Inn's jaw-dropping architecture—which blends seamlessly with its bluff-top setting—makes this a sublime way to experience this stretch of the Central Coast. The resort has recently re-opened amid the ongoing road closures along Highway 1, and in doing so it has taken a stay at the hotel to new heights—literally.
The winter rains of early 2017 had forced the closure of parts of the iconic coastal highway—including access to the hotel. In late April, however, Post Ranch Inn launched a helicopter shuttle out of Monterey (with possible upcoming expansions to Paso Robles and San Francisco). Not only is the helicopter the only way into the property until this part of Highway 1 re-opens, it also offers new, sweeping views of the idyllic spot.
Once you’re arrived, you’ll see why Post Ranch Inn regularly makes magazines’ best-of lists, from Most Romantic to World’s Coolest Hotel Bathrooms. First opened in 1992 on a former homestead and cattle ranch, the resort is comprised of 40 accommodations, including ocean-view suites, treehouses on stilts, and the freestanding Cliff House, which features a deck that appears to suspend over the 1,200-foot-high ocean bluff. All of the sleek (and sustainably built) accommodations have a certain glow thanks to details like reclaimed redwood, glass walls, fireplaces, and stainless-steel soaking tubs. Adding to the Zen ambience are the absence of televisions or alarm clocks, and the relaxed calm that comes with an 18-and-up age policy.
The splurge-worthy room rate includes a variety of included perks, from a breakfast buffet to daily yoga classes, guided hikes, and stargazing outings. Keep your eyes peeled while hiking the resort’s trails for the unique creatures who live here, such as the endangered Smith’s Blue Butterfly, the California Red-Legged Frog, and California Condors.
The hotel is also known for its award-winning restaurant, Sierra Mar, which offers local delights like Morro Bay oysters and Monterey Red Abalone. And while you’re here be sure to bliss out at the onsite spa, and order the Big Sur Jade Stone Therapy, a treatment that utilizes warmed pieces of local jade collected from nearby beaches, as well as basalt river rocks and cooled marble.
The Escape Through the Skies package lasts through May 2017, and includes dinner at Sierra Mar, as well as complimentary rides in the hotel’s Lexus Hybrid to some longtime local favorites, like the restaurant Nepenthe, Phoenix Shop, and Hawthorne Gallery.
While Big Sur is all about nature, that doesn’t mean you have to rough it when you visit. In fact, the region boasts some of the state’s most celebrated accommodation, with ultra-luxurious rooms, top-notch spas and facilities, and unforgettable dining experiences. At Post Ranch Inn, suites and private houses are miraculously sculpted into the cliffs, and enormous picture windows provide unparalleled views of sea and sky. (If you like to whale-watch from your bed, you’ve found your dream destination.) There’s even a luxury car available for guests who need local wheels, and a shuttle that cruises you around the Big Sur coast.
"At Post Ranch Inn, suites and private houses are miraculously sculpted into the cliffs"
On the opposite (inland) side of Highway 1, there’s Ventana Inn & Spa, a redwood-shaded paradise where outdoor Japanese-style soaking tubs and big decks give suites a breezy, natural feel; or book a room with a fireplace for extra cosy comfort on foggy nights. Dining here is also excellent, with a focus on local, seasonal ingredients provided by local farms. Here, and at Post Ranch, you can dine or book a spa treatment even if you’re not a guest—a nice way to spoil yourself without breaking the bank.
Want a short hike with a huge reward? The ½-mile/1-km round-trip Waterfall Overlook Trail at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park could be the biggest-bang-for-not-much-work hike on the planet. The almost flat stroll ends an oceanfront overlook with flawless views of McWay Falls, a favorite spot of Big Sur pioneer woman Julia Pfeiffer Burns, for whom the park is named. Let’s just say Julia had good taste. The plume of water drops some 80 feet/24 meters from the top of a granite cliff to a sandy cove below (not even footprints on the sand mar the perfection, as this beach is closed to the public).
If you’re up for more of a leg stretch, also hike the nearby Ewoldsen Trail, a 2-mile/3-km loop that dips and climbs through old-growth redwood and coastal chaparral, with the payoff of your 1,600-foot/488-meter elevation gain being nonstop oh-my-gosh views.
Welcome to Big Sur’s version of the Golden Gate—and probably the most Instagrammed feature along the Big Sur coastline. And rightly so. Pull over at numerous turnouts to get amazing views, particularly from the bridge’s south end at sunset.
Completed in 1932 for just over $200,000, the concrete span, one of the highest bridges of its kind in the world, soars 260 feet/79 meters above the bottom of a steep canyon carved by Bixby Creek. One look at the canyon’s steep and crumbling cliffs, and it’s obvious that building the bridge wasn’t exactly a cakewalk. First, a massive wooden framework had to be built, with materials brought by truck on what was then a narrow, one-way road riddled with hairpin turns. A staggering 45,000 individual sacks of cement had to be hauled up the framework—and this is before heavy machinery could help do the lifting. Each bag was transported via a system of platforms and slings suspended by cables 300 feet/91 meters above the creek. Ironically, the span was completed before the road, and it would be five more years before the route linking Carmel to San Luis Obispo would even be opened.
If you’re looking for evidence of Big Sur’s boho free spirit, look no further then Esalen Institute. Over 400 workshops are held annually at this center for personal and social transformation in topics as varied as songwriting, couples’ communication, and shamanic cosmology.
A little too “out there” for you? Guests are welcome to stay as a personal retreat without booking a workshop—free to wander the property’s beautiful 27 acres/11 hectares, book a massage, lounge in the site’s cliff-hugging soaking tubs heated by natural hot springs, and enjoy meals featuring ingredients from the onsite garden. If you’re staying elsewhere, you can still book a soak in the hot-tub (advance reservations are required)—just know that bathing suits are optional and you’ll need to be a bit of a night owl: they are only open to nonguests from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m.
As the name suggests, Limekiln State Park was once the site of a thriving limekiln operation, and short walks let you explore the ruins of four limekilns. Cultural history explains how, in the late 1880s, naturally occurring limestone was harvested from a nearby slope, then fed into the hulking iron and stone kilns. Intense heat—with kiln fires fueled by felled redwoods—extracted pure lime, a key ingredient in construction cement, which was used in buildings to the north in Monterey.
Once the kiln owners ran out of limestone and redwood, they closed the kilns. Slowly the forest recovered, and the second-growth redwood stands found in this park today make for a pleasant and shady escape (not to mention one with an interesting past). Enjoy a hike to Limekiln Falls, or take the easy jaunt to the park’s sandy beach. There are also 28 campsites.
California’s coast redwoods meet their southernmost habitat along the Big Sur coast, and this gem of a park is a great way to sample their deep shade, and cathedral-like beauty. The park’s roots are in homesteading: John Pfeiffer settled on some 160 acres/65 hectares here (his 1884 cabin, originally perched high above the Big Sur River Gorge, has been reconstructed along the park’s Gorge Trail). In the 1930s, Pfeiffer’s land became the first nugget of this beautiful park.
A small but appealing network of trails wends through the 1,000-acre/405-hectare preserve. Valley View Trail, a 3-mile/5-km round-trip walk, dips into forest and across meadows, and leads to views of Pfeiffer Falls (heads up that it may be only a trickle in dry years). Extend your stay with a stay at the park’s unpretentious Big Sur Lodge, or reserve a campsite on the banks of the river (sites book up well in advance, particularly in peak summer months, so plan ahead).
The cultural heart and soul of Big Sur, the Henry Miller Memorial Library, named for and created in honor of the famed American writer who called Big Sur home between 1944 and 1962, describes itself as a place “where nothing happens.” During the winter, it’s a sleepy spot where you can browse books (including Miller’s influential works like Tropic of Cancer) and enjoy a cup of coffee. But May through October, there’s a calendar-full of happenings, including live performances and special events, like the annual Big Sur International Short Film Screening Series, taking place in and around the snug coastal cabin. And for 300 lucky listeners, there are intimate live music performances, featuring big name artists such as Band of Horses and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, presented in a lush redwood grove adjacent to the library.
To fuel your excursions in and around Big Sur, you’d be wise to begin at least one morning with strong coffee, local eggs, and house-made sourdough toast at Big Sur Bakery and Restaurant. The quirky restaurant—located behind the gas station in a rustic, funky building—also serves dinner, including superlative wood-fired pizza.
For a signature “ambrosia burger” served with a world-class view, head to Nepenthe, where a huge deck overlooks the Pacific—nurse your fries and beer and stay until sunset. For a dress-up night out (and at Big Sur that generally means look presentable and don’t wear flip-flops), book a table at Post Ranch Inn’s restaurant, Sierra Mar (consider splurging on the nine-course Taste of Big Sur tasting menu), or settle into the rustic lodge-like restaurant at Ventana Inn & Spa, focusing on American cuisine made with local ingredients. Also aim to visit Big Sur Roadhouse, where Cajun-style seasonings mix it up with ultra-local ingredients (think gumbo made with just-caught seafood and you'll get the picture). The roadhouse's design is as intriguing as its food, with an airy interior accented with recycled and salvaged wood details, edgy modern art, and inviting outdoor seating surrounded by redwoods.
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It’s hard to imagine a bird with a wingspan as long as your car (or, if you’ve got a Mini, even longer). And, if it hadn’t been for extensive conservation efforts, such a vision would have disappeared from our state entirely. Fortunately, the magnificent California condor, which carves great circles in the sky on wings reaching more than 9 feet/3 meters from tip to tip, has been brought back from the brink of extinction. In the late 1980s, only 25 to 30 condors were left in the wild.
An intense effort to captive breed the critically endangered birds, with the Ventana Wildlife Society, San Diego and Los Angeles Zoos, and other organizations stepping in to help, condors were slowly reintroduced into the wild. Today, nearly 300 big birds soar the skies above California, Arizona, and Mexico. And one of the best places to spy them is at Big Sur. If you see a knot of cars pulled over, passengers craning their heads out the windows and pointing up, or possibly even using binoculars or setting up spotting scopes, there’s probably a condor or two in the area. Pull over—it might just be a once-in-a-lifetime sighting. But we hope not.