Staff Writer Rachael Medina
Rachael Medina is the senior content writer and operations manager for California.com. She was born and raised just outside the Mojave Desert in Southern California and moved to the redwood forests o…See full bio
The winding wilderness, meandering highway, vast beaches swept with the salty spray of the open ocean, and an endless touch of adventure envelop the senses along the 90 miles of rugged coastline known as Big Sur. A peculiar air of exploration excites writers, artists, and curious travelers alike and can only be felt along this stretch of Central California’s coastline. The anticipation of going somewhere well-known yet entirely unseen provides the foundation for the wonderment that comes with arriving on the narrow, two-lane Pacific Coast Highway that acts as the precipice between the familiar and the unknown. So roll down the windows, feel the invigorating ocean air on your face, and revel in the natural splendor surrounding you as you begin your exploration of this renowned region.
The dazzling emerald waters of the Pacific Ocean sparkle under the rays of the temperate sun as visitors ride horses on the sandy beach, marveling at the many locals gracefully navigating the swells atop a kayak. Big Sur’s uninhibited beauty rivals great novels and monuments with its nearly unbelievable dose of awe. Here, untamed nature can be appreciated from every angle and elevation. Whales, otters, and dolphins swim along the rigid shores; black-tailed deer prance among the brush on hillsides; raccoons scour previously occupied campsites for traces of treats; and red-tailed hawks circle the skies above. Embrace the altitude of these wild birds with a stop in Monterey, where you can take in the jagged coastline, towering Santa Lucia Mountains, and vast forests in a helicopter high above the land before crossing the iconic Bixby Creek Bridge to get cozy in the wooded alcoves that dot the coastal landscape.
Continue down the curves and straightaways of the Pacific Coast Highway that lead from Carmel to Big Sur, taking you along the Big Sur River and past the Big Sur Historical Society. When you stumble upon the unmarked trailhead adjacent to the 55 mph sign, pull over to enjoy a quick jaunt. Merely a five-minute walk from the road lies Highbridge Falls—a hyper-rich mineral waterfall tucked into a crevice of limestone and surrounded by chartreuse mosses and a wall of foliage. The awe-inspiring sight is bound to instill you with a renewed desire to follow trails less traveled, and now that you’ve succumbed to the inexplicable bliss of Big Sur, lunch is undoubtedly in order.
Inviting wood floors complement vibrant abstract art to create a rustically modern nostalgia that greets you as soon as you walk through the doors of the Big Sur Roadhouse. The fresh scent of California cuisine tantalizes your senses while a crostini topped with colorful tomatoes, goat cheese, basil, and balsamic reduction arrives at the neighboring table, compelling you to take a second look at the menu. After making the tough decision, perfectly toasted bread—crowned with creamy organic avocados, a squeeze of tart lime juice, playful bits of local cilantro, and delicately poached eggs oozing with rich flavor—appears in front of you and dispels any ounce of doubt you had about your choice.
Once satiated (and perhaps dreaming of future excursions to this charming eatery), check in to the Glen Oaks Big Sur for a luxurious dive into sustainable living. The quaint hotel is equipped with 28 cabins, cottages, and rooms—all fully adorned with gas fireplaces; soft, organic cotton bedding; stunning recycled-stone accents; plush wool carpets; natural skincare products—and encapsulated in natural adobe walls. Walking into this sanctuary feels both like stepping back in time and waltzing into the future, resulting in an entirely dreamy stay.
Though the plush bedding may entice you to stay in, the nearby Pfeiffer Falls beckons with its promise of adventure. The eponymous two-mile trail offers expansive views of the Big Sur River Gorge as it winds through ancient redwoods and oak trees, taking you over steep hills and across bridged creeks, eventually leading up to the trickling water of the 60-foot-tall Pfeiffer Falls. The thought of camping in this great wilderness lingers for some time but becomes a fleeting quandary as the memory of your cozy retreat creeps back in. After spending a few more moments reflecting on the day and marveling at the majesty of nature, head back to Glen Oaks and clean up for dinner.
The unassuming facade of a 1930s-style ranch house sets the stage for the expectation of a humble dinner, but the Big Sur Bakery provides so much more. Scents of freshly baked bread whisper through the dining room, instantaneously causing you to salivate. Without thought, the wood-fired bread is ordered—and it does not disappoint. Crisp, golden brown edges contrast with fluffy white interiors, while the smooth butter and flavorful sea salt confirm that it’s all about the simple pleasures in life. Marinated olives shock the palate in the best of ways and prepare you for the decadence of a wood-fired pizza featuring silky fontina and ricotta cheeses, umami mushrooms, and fresh thyme. A glance at the bakery menu confirms a return trip in the morning is in order so you can savor the bacon and egg breakfast pizza and take a ginger scone for the road.
Returning to Glen Oaks and tucking in for your first night in Big Sur will leave you dreaming of staying forever.
The hikes, crisp coastal air, and incredible cuisine from the day before elicit a pure sense of joy. While the idea of staying in this incredible oasis of a lodge sounds more tempting than one may like to admit, a new day calls for new adventures. After loading up the car and stopping in the lobby for a quick cup of coffee, the trails and scenery of Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground and Pfeiffer Beach call for attention. The sweeping seascapes, dark sands, and endless hiking paths will transport you to faraway places and encourage a deeper exploration down Highway 1.
As you drive south, Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge presents a grand surprise in the light of day, and open vistas of the vast Pacific provide endless opportunities to commemorate the trip. Between the photo ops and outdoor adventures, a delectable pastry from Big Sur Bakery has become a necessity (as well as a craving); luckily, this eatery is less than half a mile away.
With your hunger at bay, the artistic essence of Big Sur begs to be explored. After taking a quick detour to see the famed Post Ranch Inn—precariously perched atop a 1,200-foot cliff overlooking both the mountains and the Pacific—continue making the leisurely drive south to the Henry Miller Memorial Library, an art hub and bookstore where you’ll discover a treasure trove of titles and trinkets. Spend an hour or two browsing the aisles and determining how many books to take with you (and which to read first). With your books in tow, head over to the neighboring Hawthorne Gallery. Designed by architect Mickey Meunnig, the gallery is filled with pieces from nearly 20 artists across mediums as diverse as wood, steel, and painted canvas.
With a better understanding of the local arts scene, it is time for a closer look at the regional cuisine. There is no better place for such an exploration than the renowned Nepenthe, which offers sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean and just so happens to be directly across the street from Hawthorne Gallery.
Savor the California artisanal cheese plate featuring unique cheeses alongside seasonal fruits, quince jam, apple chutney, and flatbread crisps. (While you’re at it, put in an order of the herb- and olive oil–marinated goat cheese with slow-roasted Gilroy garlic, too.) Continue on with the beet salad—starring sliced beets, blue cheese, pickled fennel, and citrus vinaigrette—for a refreshing dose of local produce, or opt for the famous Ambrosiaburger, which will echo your love for Big Sur and give you plenty of energy to enjoy the rest of the day.
With another day nearly coming to a close, the night’s lodging is sure to surprise and delight. There is no greater way to get a true feel for Big Sur than by spending a night at the Ventana Campground’s exquisitely luxurious campsites. The safari-style canvas tents, comfortable mattress, wood-burning fireplace (complete with all the fixings for s’mores), and heated bathhouse floors will forever change the way you camp. Meet some of the other guests at the daily cheese hour, or join a yoga class to stretch out your sore muscles before retreating into your roomy, private tent for the night.
After an incredible night’s sleep, head over to The Sur House for a breakfast of farm eggs, heirloom potatoes, freshly pressed juices, and cappuccinos before moving on to Partington Cove. This beloved landmark lies inside a hairpin turn on the western edge of Highway 1, about two miles north of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, where you’ll catch a glimpse of an unmarked gate just off the road. Pull off the highway and park, then embark on the half-mile trail leading to the hidden cove. On your steep trek down to the ocean, you’ll cross over a bridge and go through a tunnel, which eventually opens up to a gorgeous sight of tantalizing turquoise waters, dancing kelp forests, and rugged rocks that greet the salty waters with a misty vengeance. Take in the unobstructed views and enjoy the solace before heading back up from whence you came.
Continue south to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Beach, where you can reach the popular McWay Falls trail. Short but well worthwhile, the pathway runs for less than one mile round-trip and results in a breathtaking view of the iconic McWay Falls cascading from the wooded cliffs onto the sandy beach below. The white sea foam beautifully complements the azure waters; the smooth, tan ribbon of sand contrasts against the rugged coastal bluffs; and the serene waterfall stands in opposition to it all.
Though it may be tempting to stay forever, the majestic McWay Falls provides the perfect curtain with which to close an unforgettable trip to Big Sur. Without question, there will be many more to come.
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