When it comes to exploring California, Big Sur may be the ultimate coastal destination. It is an iconic stop along Highway 1 and home to incredible restaurants, outdoor adventures, and bucket list hotels. Having only really passed through Big Sur, I was really excited to stay overnight to explore more in-depth.
I’m sharing this complete travel guide to Big Sur in hopes that you’ll be inspired to do the same. To travel a bit slower, to travel deeper, and soak in all that this coastal community has to offer. The community here has a deep connection with its natural surroundings. Home to coastal redwoods and expansive views of the Pacific Ocean, Big Sur may be just the ultimate place to get outdoors. It’s the best of both worlds.
Along the way, you’ll find those “hidden gems”. It is the local restaurants that are sourcing ingredients from nearby farms and taking inspiration from what is around them. Hotels that have a deep sense of connection and preservation for the natural beauty that they call home. All of this makes Big Sur, well, Big Sur.
It’s enchanting and the best way to experience it is by staying a bit longer, traveling slower, and soaking it all in.
(This blog post is in collaboration with Monterey County Convention & Visitors Bureau. As always, all opinions are my own.)
The Complete Extended Travel Guide to Big Sur, California
Before You Visit Big Sur
Responsible and Safe Travel
If this year has revealed anything to me as a traveler, it’s that collectively we must be more conscious in our decisions. Conscious of our impact on a local community, conscious of our footprint left in nature, and conscious of how we can be more responsible travelers. Here are a few things to consider:
- Bathrooms are limited. The side of the road is not a toilet or a place to dump any trash. You’ll find open bathrooms at the restaurants you visit and in State Parks (paid entrance).
- Leave no trace. Pack it in, pack it out.
- Camping etiquette is important to note here. Be sure note to camp illegally, always extinguish fire pits after use, and dispose of cigarettes in ashtrays. Fire safety is crucial for Big Sur.
- Stick to the designated hiking trails.
- Always have a mask on you and wear it when it is needed. Monterey County ordinance requires a mask when you cannot socially distance. So even on hikes, you must carry a mask with you.
- For more responsible and safe travel trips in California, read this blog post here.
How Much Time is Needed in Big Sur?
For an extended stay in Big Sur, I would highly recommend a minimum of two nights. You’ll find that the coastal area of Big Sur is extensive. If you plan on going as far south as Limekiln State Park, you may want to consider extra time.
Big Sur has a lot of outdoor activities, and my one takeaway is that you could spend a week here and not see it all. Spending the day by the pool is also a wonderful option if you’re staying at the hotels. Not everything has to be adventure-based in Big Sur.
Other Important Travel Tips Before Visiting Big Sur
Some other travel tips for those visiting Big Sur for the first time:
- Cell service: Cell service is incredibly limited here. My recommendation is to save offline Google Maps for the area and star any locations you plan on visiting.
- Driving: The coastal Highway 1 is windy. Please drive responsibly and use turnouts that are large enough to stop at when you decide to pull over.
- Best Time of Year to Visit Big Sur: I personally would consider Big Sur a year-round destination. The winter months are mild, you may have colder nights, but it is still pleasant enough to be outside. Shoulder season (early spring/late fall) has fewer crowds.
- Photography Tip: Sunset is the best time of day for light across the coastline.
Where to Stay in Big Sur
Ventana Big Sur
Big Sur is home to some of the top-rated hotels in all of California. On this trip, I stayed at Ventana Big Sur that is perched up above Highway 1, nestled in the redwoods. It’s an idyllic stay in Big Sur. The hotel is now part of Alila Hotels and Resorts and this year turned into an all-inclusive hotel. As part of being an all-inclusive hotel, all meals and certain activities are included during the stay.
Ventana Big Sur embodies all that this part of California is known for. The rooms are incredibly cozy, set with spa tubs and views of either the redwoods or coast. They come set with their own fireplace and a bundle of woods ready to go. Mornings start with sunrise peeking over the towering mountains and illuminates the hillside. I’d highly recommend starting the day down at the restaurant for breakfast, though you can order in-room dining.
The afternoons at Ventana can be spent in a variety of ways. You’ll find guests poolside and out hiking amidst the redwoods on the expansive 160 acres. Everything is socially-distanced at the property, so there is ample space to be outdoors and separate. Part of opening as an all-inclusive was to help limit outside guests, so it is just hotel guests on property.
One unique experience you can request is the picnic lunch, where you can order lunch to be enjoyed down in the redwoods or out by the coast. By night, a happy hour kicks off as the epic sunsets grace Big Sur. Make your way down to the Sur House (main restaurant) for an incredible three-course dinner with ocean views. Their outdoor patio is set with heaters, so you’ll stay warm as the night comes.
Other Hotel Options in Big Sur
Big Sur is home to other amazing hotel options, some of them include:
Where to Dine in Big Sur
COAST Big Sur: When the former Bar Tartine Chef Nick Balla came to COAST, he reimagined the menu. Alongside Bar Tartine Alumni, Andrea, and Tyler Rue, they created the COAST Big Sur you see today. It’s a delightful meal — whether you opt for the picnic takeaway or sit at their rooftop with ocean views. The food is Big Sur inspired with a flare of Japanese flavors, everything ethically sourced. Their sourdough pizza slices are a delight, and the miso cod soup hit the spot on a cooler day. Be sure to check out their art gallery and shop, there are some great finds in this store.
Nepenthe: An icon to Big Sur’s dining scene will always be Nepenthe. Whether you pop in for lunch or dinner or even sunset drinks, you’ll want to snag a seat with a view. Their herb-crusted goat cheese with garlic is a hit, and you can never go wrong with their famous Ambrosiaburger.
Big Sur River Inn & Restaurant: Those traveling from the north will recognize this spot along the way, but did you know you can stop in for a unique dining experience? The Big Sur River Inn & Restaurant offers their menu now as a takeaway packed up in a cooler. The great part is you can enjoy it on the back patio, or even take it down to the river to enjoy in the Adirondack chairs that are set up.
Big Sur Bakery: It’s classic, I’ve been here countless times and always grab a pastry to go. Everything is just delicious and a great afternoon or late morning stop.
Big Sur Roadhouse: Come here for classic all-American food, right now it is open for takeaway.
Things to Do in Big Sur
Explore Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park: This is one of my favorite State Parks to explore in Big Sur, and has often been called a “mini Yosemite.” There are redwoods and creeks to explore and plenty of places to park. Try out the Nature Trail and River Path which is a short self-guided trail to learn about the area. For those looking for a more adventurous trail, the Valley View Trail and Buzzard’s Roost are great.
Hike through Andrew Molera State Park: This State Park is more “undeveloped” in the sense that there are only a few trails to do here. I really love the easy Bluffs Trail that follows the bluffs with ocean views from my previous trips here. The Creamery Meadow Trail is a nice 2 miles roundtrip and crosses over the Big Sur River.
Spend an Afternoon at Pfeiffer Beach: Off the beaten path, Pfeiffer Beach is a decent drive off the highway. You will want to use your maps as the signs are hard to spot. Down the road will take you to a paid entrance to park. The beach area is a decent size and is home to its famous purple sand beach.
Choose Your Adventure at Garrapata State Park: This has always been one of my favorites state parks in the Big Sur area that often doesn’t get a ton of love. There are two sides to the park including the inland and the coastal. Hike out to Soberanes Viewpoint along the ocean or do the 1.25 mile Soberanes Canyon Trail which goes inland.
Stop For the Coastal Views: You’ll find as you drive along Highway 1, there are multiple places to stop for views and photos. It’s part of the Big Sur experience. If you stop at iconic locations like Bixby Creek Bridge or pullover for the dozens of pullouts, you will want to be extra careful to be parked legally. Safety and responsible visitation is critical for visitors to Big Sur. Some of my favorite coastal views are between Nepenthe and COAST Big Sur.