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, fallen boulders, and a bridge outage that led to closures of the iconic thoroughfare. A new Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge opened in October 2017, reconnecting 62 miles from Carmel in the north, but a chunk of the iconic road is still buried due to a May 2017 mudslide. A reopening date is slated for late summer 2018.
So Highway 1 is currently cut in half. 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 the landslide damage is repaired. 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 60-mile section to the current turnaround point near Gorda 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 harbour 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.
Continuing south, there are multiple restaurant options, from the Big Sur Roadhouse, Rocky Point Restaurant, and Fernwood Resort Bar & Grill to the cliff-topping Nepenthe Restaurant. 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. Not to mention the luxurious Post Ranch Inn and elegant resort-plus-glamping destination Ventana Big Sur.
For a full list of open lodging, restaurants, and shopping, read this helpful blog post by the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce and this post from See Monterey, which both offer up-to-date information on businesses and road conditions.
To connect to the southern area of Big Sur during the road closures, a detour is required, starting from Highway 68 near Monterey, which connects to Highway 101 heading south. Along the way, interesting stops include the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas and wine tasting in Salinas Valley, and on the southern end, the rolling, vineyard-covered hills of Paso Robles.
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 Mud Creek have led to the closure of the highway after Salmon Creek, which is just 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 ocean view room, complete with balcony and gas fireplace.
For a dream California road trip that incorporates sections of Big Sur, check out the Highway One Classic road trip for a coast-hugging drive with worthy detour stops along.
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.
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 draws 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.
The classic drive through Big Sur, along twisting Highway 1, offers plenty of pullovers at places like seen-it-in-a-million-car-commercials Bixby Bridge. Stop at parks along the coastline and 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. Campgrounds abound, like Big Sur Campground, Fernwood Resort, Riverside Campground, and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. The region’s beauty also makes it a magnet for exclusive, splurge-worthy hotels like the cliff-hugging Post Ranch Inn, or luxurious Ventana Big Sur.
Read on to explore your own version of the magical Big Sur.
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.
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, tree-houses 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 that 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.
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 Big Sur, 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. The resort’s most recent addition is the Redwood Canyon Glampsites where you can glamp in a furnished tent under a canopy of redwoods. 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 favourite 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 1-mile roundtrip Partington Cove Trail. The steep but short hike leads over a wooden bridge down to a 60-foot tunnel. Walk through and emerge onto the rocky beach. A few of trails at this picturesque state park are closed due to erosion—check the trails section of the park’s website for the latest information before travelling.
Welcome to Big Sur’s version of the Golden Gate—a must-see road trip spot for many and probably the most Instagrammed feature along the Highway 1 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 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 piece of cake. 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 advanced heavy machinery could help do the lifting. Each bag was transported via a system of platforms and slings suspended by cables 300 feet above the creek. Curiously, the span was completed before the road, and it would be five more years before the route linking Carmel (about 15 miles to the north) to San Luis Obispo would even be opened.
Today (as always) the bridge is a favourite attraction for photographers, from professionals to those in search of the ultimate depth-of-field selfie. But whether you are snapping away or not, be sure to take advantage of the multiple viewpoints; they are key for revelling in 360-degree views instead of just the direction you are going.
If you’re looking for evidence of Big Sur’s bohemian, free spirit, look no further than Esalen Institute. Over 400 workshops are held annually at this centre for personal and social transformation in topics as varied as song-writing, 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, book a massage, lounge in the site’s cliff-hugging soaking tubs heated by natural hot springs and enjoy meals featuring ingredients from the on-site garden. If you’re staying elsewhere, you can still book a soak in the hot tub (advance bookings are required)—just know that swimming costumes are optional and you’ll need to be a bit of a night owl: they are only open to non-guests from 1am to 3am.
With Big Sur views that can only be beaten if you’re a seagull, this cliff-topping restaurant rightfully makes it onto everyone’s bucket list. At Nepenthe, located on Highway 1 between Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge and Castro Canyon, the views stretch down the coast and the Santa Lucia Mountains plunge in fog-cloaked majesty to the deep blue Pacific. Locals and visitors to the area alike flock here, drawn to the ultra-relaxed vibe first created by Lolly and Bill Fassett in 1949 (perhaps not coincidentally, the restaurant is still owned and run by the same family today).
At dinner, try the famous Ambrosia Burger, or the roast chicken with sage stuffing—Lolly’s signature dish—or a variety of vegetarian entrees. And, of course, there’s that sweeping view. Take it in from a seat on the patio—a wide-open space that is the epitome of unfussiness—or step inside the main building, which was designed by a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright’s and hints at the master architect’s style of creating structures that are striking, yet at one with their environment.
The legacy of Big Sur’s Beat Generation and the hippie era live on at Nepenthe too—hang around the handsome bar or outside by the fire pit and keep your ears peeled for names like Kerouac and Miller 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, located just below Nepenthe and atop another establishment well worth a visit, Café Kevah, features handmade jewellery, ceramics and even instruments for that perfect drum circle.
Note: Limekiln State Park was affected by the Big Sur road closures—check the park’s website for the latest information on accessibility.
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 fuelled 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.
Note: Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is open for limited use, with campsites available on a first-come, first-served basis. Check the park’s website for more information.
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 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 wind through the 1,000-acre preserve. Many trails in the area have been closed due to fire and flood damages; check Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park’s website or Facebook page for the latest trail openings. 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 honour of the famed (and famously banned at one time) American writer who called the area home between 1944 and 1962, describes itself as a place “where nothing happens”. Which is true—half the time. During the winter, it’s a sleepy spot where you can hole up, make yourself a cup of coffee, and browse the library’s extensive collection of books by the author, including such influential works as Tropic of Cancer, Sexus, and (of course), Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, Miller’s love letter to the region. One can also check out prints of some of his visual art—he painted watercolours—as well as works of local artists that are on display.
Come May through October, though, the calendar is chock-full of happenings. The annual Big Sur International Short Film Screening Series is an outdoor film festival that takes place on Thursday nights over the course of 13 weeks from June through August, just outside the snug coastal cabin. And if music is more your thing, you’re also in luck. The Live at the Henry Miller Libraryseries showcases a wide variety of artists, from intimate acoustic acts that perform inside the library, to larger-name draws—the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Pixies, to name a few, have both made appearances—who play for 300 lucky capacity-filling listeners in a lush redwood grove adjacent to the library.
Some of Big Sur’s most beloved restaurants are currently inaccessible due to the road closures, but there are still local favourites open to fuel your excursions around the area.
On the southern end, the last accessible point on Highway 1 is Salmon Creek just beyond Ragged Point, known as the “Gateway to Big Sur.” Due to current road closures, you can’t travel farther north from here, but for your journey back down the coast, grab a snack to go at the Ragged Point Inn’s Sandwich Stand—or stay for a romantic sunset dinner at their gourmet restaurant, where you’ll choose seasonal entrées from the daily-changing chalkboard menu.
On the north side, be sure to visit Big Sur Roadhouse at Glen Oak Big Sur, 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.
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 Big Sur, focusing on American cuisine made with local ingredients.
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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 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 organisations 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 group of cars pulled over, passengers craning their heads out of 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.