Big Sur is a spectacularly beautiful, rugged, and scenic stretch of the Pacific Coast in central California, located between San Simeon and Carmel and between the ocean and the Santa Lucia Mountains. The main road through Big Sur is the scenic two-lane State Route 1, winding along steep cliffs and offering breathtaking views of the coast. Big Sur is sparsely populated but very rich in parks, hot springs, nature reserves, and sanctuaries with a diversity of plants, trees, and animals that is rarely seeing anywhere else. Big Sur is best explored on foot as it is covered in a network of hiking and biking trails that pass through spectacular redwood forests and descend down flower-filled valleys before reaching lovely, small secluded beaches.
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Gently winding from Pebble Beach to Pacific Grove, 17-Mile Drive will take you through magnificent cypress forests along a dramatic rocky coastline, passing some absolutely spectacular homes and some of world-class golf courses in Pebble Beach. Stop by Fanshell Overlook to take in the view of the ocean and watch the harbor seals and, if you pass from April to June, their babies too. As you come by a lovely little beach in Spanish Bay, take a break and have a picnic. If you are in the mood to celebrate, treat yourself to a gourmet meal at the Lodge. 17-mile Drive is privately managed, but passing through is free whether you drive, walk, or bike.
2.Andrew Molera State Park
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Located about 21 miles from Carmel, Andrew Molera State Park is one of the less developed parks in the Big Sur area. There are miles of hiking trails that cross the verdant meadows, dramatic bluffs, sandy beaches, and gentle hilltops. There is a simple, rustic trail camp that is very popular with hikers about a third of a mile from the park’s parking area. The park borders the private El Sur Ranch and the visitors are requested to respect the boundary and not enter the ranch’s cattle grazing fields when looking for the beach access. Fires are allowed in the park only in the designated metal fire rings. The beach is great for strolling and beach combing.
45500 CA-1, Big Sur, CA 93920, Phone: 831-667-2315
3.California Sea Otter Game Refuge
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The California Sea Otter Game Refuge is a marine park in Monterey, a part of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The refuge covers the area from the Carmel River to the Santa Rosa Creek in San Luis Obispo County. While you can see these charming sea animals floating in the sea of kelp all over Big Sur, there was a time when they were believed to be extinct as they were hunted for their pelts. In 1938 a small group of California sea otters was discovered near the Bixby Creek on Big Sur Coast. Thanks to efforts of people like Margaret W. Owings and the Friends of the Sea Otter society, which she founded, their numbers increased significantly.
Highway 1 Gate, 17 Mile Dr, Carmel-By-The-Sea, CA 93923, Phone: 831-647-4201
4.Calla Lily Valley
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If you are driving along Highway 2 in early spring, stop at lovely Garrapata Park for a very special treat. At the small narrow ravine where Doud Creek passes through on the way to Garrapata Beach, there is a valley filled with elegant, wild calla lilies. To protect the beautiful but fragile flowers, there are stairs and trails through the valley. Take your time and enjoy the scene of rare but very fleeting beauty – the lilies do not last long. After enjoying the scene, keep going through the park to the 2-mile-long beach surrounded by coarse coastal vegetation. The park’s spectacular headlands at Soberanes Point are a perfect spot for watching harbor seals, point sea lions, and passing gray whales.
5.Carmel Heritage Society
© Carmel Heritage Society
Located in Carmel at the corner of 6th Avenue and Lincoln Street is the First Murphy House, maintained by the Carmel Heritage Society and owned by the City of Carmel-by-the-Sea. The house is a home to the Carmel Heritage Society, a non-profit organization that has a goal of protecting, promoting, and preserving the cultural heritage of Carmel. Visitors to the First Murphy House can enjoy a range of historical exhibits as well as a research library with books, video, and audio tapes and periodicals about the history of Carmel. The First Murphy House is also a place for friends and residents of Carmel to get together. More Things to Do in Carmel
Lincoln St, Carmel-By-The-Sea, CA 93921, Phone: 831-624-4447
6.Carmel River State Beach
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Carmel River State Beach is a mile-long state park in Carmel Bay, a protected beach where the Carmel River creates a lovely lagoon. The beach is very popular with bird watchers as the lagoon is a natural habitat that attracts a huge number of migratory birds. The area has been declared a bird sanctuary for its diversity of waterfowl, song birds, and many other species of birds. Monastery Beach, also known as San Jose Creek Beach, is also part of the park and is very popular with scuba divers, Other activities, such as swimming or even walking near the edge of the water, are considered dangerous due to the very strong currents.
Carmelo St, Carmel-By-The-Sea, CA 93923
7.Garrapata State Park
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Garrapata State Park is a 2,939-acre park established in 1979, located less than 7 miles from Rio Road in Carmel. The park has a lovely 2-mile-long beach, fantastic hiking trails, and a 50-foot climb in order to enjoy the most spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean and nearby Santa Lucia. The beach is at times used for nude swimming and sunbathing. The trails through the park are surrounded by thick coastal vegetation and run through dense groves of magnificent redwoods. The coastal headlands at Soberanes Point are a great spot to watch sea lions, sea otters, and harbor seals as well as gray whales during their yearly migration.
Highway 1, Carmel-By-The-Sea, CA 93923, Phone: 831-624-4909
8.Henry Miller Memorial Library
© Henry Miller Memorial Library
Located in a redwood grove on the mountain side of Highway 1 about a quarter mile from the famous Nepenthe restaurant in Big Sur, the Henry Miller Memorial Library is not a normal kind of library: It is an unofficial Big Sur art hub as well as a book store with a focus on promoting the artistic and literary works of Henry Miller. Known as a fiction writer, Miller also wrote some very good travel books, mostly about Greece. The library’s founder was Miller’s friend Emil White, who founded the library on his property in memory of a friend. The library soon became a gallery and a gathering place for local artists.
48603 CA-1, Big Sur, CA 93920, Phone: 831-667-2574
9.Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
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Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is located 37 miles from Carmel, stretching from the coast of Big Sur to the 3,000-foot-high mountain ridges. The park’s lush vegetation consists of ancient redwood, madrone, tan oak and chaparral. The park’s most outstanding feature is an 80-foot-high waterfall that drops from the massive granite cliffs at the Overlook Trail straight into the ocean below. The trails through the park offer fantastic views of the rugged coastline and the endless ocean. There is no beach access from the park. Fenced cliff areas, the beach, Saddle Rock, and McWay Falls are off limits from the park and accessing them from the park is considered very dangerous.
52801 California State Route 1, Big Sur, CA 93920, Phone: 831-667-2315
10.Limekiln State Park
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Limekiln State Park is a 711-acre park established in 1994 and located about 56 miles from Carmel. The park is best known for spectacular views of the Big Sur Coast, magnificent redwood forest, the rugged, dramatic terrain, and four limekilns that operated from 1887 to 1890. The park has a network of hiking trails leading to the limekilns or to the Hare Creek Canyon. One trail leads to the 100-foot Limekiln Falls on the fork of Limekiln Creek. The park has a small campground with 31 campsites in the redwood forest and 11 on the coast, with a view of the ocean.
63025 CA-1, Big Sur, CA 93920, Phone: 805-434-1996
11.Los Padres National Forest
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Los Padres National Forest is a 1,950,000-acre area that includes an 8,847-foot-high mountain, rivers, streams, beaches, and magnificent forests. Most of the forest is on public land. Los Padres is divided into two separate areas. The northern division includes the Big Sur Coast and scenic interior and is located in Monterey and San Luis Obispo County. The "main division" of the Los Padres Forest includes areas within San Luis Obispo, Ventura, Santa Barbara, and Kern Counties. Los Padres is very popular with hikers, with 323 miles of hiking trails and a range of campgrounds.
Goleta, CA 93117, Phone: 805-968-6640
12.McWay Falls and Waterfall House Ruins
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Located in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, just off Highway 1 between Monterey and Cambria, McWay Falls drops 80 feet straight down into the Pacific Ocean. The views from the top of the falls are among the most breathtaking on the California coast. On the hillside just north of the falls are the ruins of the long-abandoned Waterfall House, surrounded by exotic palm trees, crumbling foundations, terraces, and steps. The views from the house are so spectacular, it is difficult to believe that anyone would abandon such a house. The last owner, the wife of late Lathrop Brown, donated the house and the land to the state of California.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, 52801 California State Route 1, Big Sur, CA 93920, Phone: 831-667-2315
13.Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo
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Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Río Carmelo is a Roman Catholic mission in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a U.S. National Historic Landmark. The mission consists of five museums and is known for its exceptional beauty. The main edifice is the basilica, with a magnificent catenary ceiling, 5-foot-thick walls, 30-foot-tall reredos, and a collection of significant Spanish artifacts and colonial liturgical art. In the forecourt of the Basilica is the Harry Downie Museum with artifacts and displays about the restoration of the mission. Behind the basilica is the Munrás Family Heritage Museum. The Jo Mora Chapel Gallery houses the Serra Memorial Cenotaph, sculpted by Jo Mora in 1924. The Convento Museum houses the cell in which Saint Junipero Serra died in 1784.
3080 Rio Rd, Carmel-By-The-Sea, CA 93923, Phone: 831-624-1271
14.Molera Horseback Tours
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Seeing magnificent Big Sur from horseback is certainly a unique way to enjoy the scenic coastal landscape, inhale the scents of the trees and bushes, and feel the breeze in your hair. Molera Horseback Tours takes visitors through historical Andrew Molera State Park, the 4,800-acre coastal heaven with flower-covered meadows, ancient redwood groves, clear streams, and sandy beaches. The tours are guided by certified guides, who will share with their guests the stories about Big Sur while pointing out edible and useful native plants as well as indigenous animals going about their lives in their natural habitat.
Andrew Molera, Big Sur, CA 93920, Phone: 831-625-5486
15.Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary
© Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary
The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is a federally protected marine area located off the coast of California. It is the biggest American marine sanctuary, with 276 miles of shoreline stretching between the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and Cambria in San Luis Obispo County. Supporting one of the most diverse marine ecosystems in the world, the sanctuary offers a home to a large number of fish, mammals, invertebrates, seabirds, and plants. It also includes beautiful beaches, tidepools, kelp forests, underwater seamounts, cliffs, and canyons, all teeming with life. The National Marine Sanctuary has the goal of promoting environmental protection and ocean research and stewardship.
Monterey Bay, CA 93940, Phone: 831-647-4201
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High on top of a peak in the Santa Lucia Mountains, just off the scenic coast-hugging Cabrillo Highway, is Nepenthe, a restaurant where spectacular views of the ocean and rocky beaches compete with equally spectacular California edible delights. Nepenthe has a history more than half a century long that involves stars such as Elizabeth Taylor, Orson Welles, and Henry Miller. Opened in 1949 and designed by Rowan Maiden, protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright, the restaurant was always meant to combine breathtaking landscape views with the cultural and artistic landscape characteristic of Big Sur. From the very beginning it attracted musicians, artists, writers, and other interesting types. Surrounded by ancient redwood and oak forest, with the rail seating overlooking the ocean and Graves Canyon, eating at Nepenthe is a unique experience.
48510 Highway One, Big Sur, CA 93920, Phone: 831-667-2345
17.New Camaldoli Hermitage
© New Camaldoli Hermitage
New Camaldoli Hermitage is a secluded community of Roman Catholic monks who are spending their lives in prayer and contemplation. This rural hermitage is located in the Santa Lucia Mountains of Big Sur. The Camaldolese branch of the Benedictine family was established in the late 10th century by St. Romuald. The New Camaldoli Hermitage was established in 1958 and its site was chosen because it combines rare natural beauty and solitude. Its location, at 1,300 feet, can be accessed by a narrow 2-mile-long road that offers spectacular views of the surrounding landscape. About 20 monks now live at the hermitage, each in a private small cottage, seeking solitude and privacy. The hermitage sells fruitcake and date-nut cake made using the monks’ own recipe. About 150,000 people have so far undertaken retreats at the hermitage since its foundation.
62475 CA-1, Big Sur, CA 93920, Phone: 831-667-2456
18.Old Coast Road
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The road from Big Sur to Carmel runs through what is probably one of the most beautiful stretches of the California landscape. The back road, which runs from the scenic Bixby Bridge to Big Sur, is not as well known to tourists, although it was the main road before the Bixby Bridge was completed in 1932. It is 10 miles of spectacular beauty, going up and down a narrow dirt road over the Santa Lucia Mountains, through tunnels and the deep shade of fragrant pines and massive coastal redwoods, then out into the bright sun with views of Andrew Molera State Park and the Big Sur River as it empties into the Pacific Ocean.
19.Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History
© Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History
The Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History, which opened in 1883, is one of the first natural history museums in the country. The museum is located in Pacific Grove, close to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and showcases the natural treasures of California’s central coast as well as its plants, birds, wildlife, geology, and cultural diversity. Since its establishment, the museum has spearheaded the national tradition of nature preservation and hands-on science education. The museum's collection of birds native to Monterey County has a display with more than 400 specimens, and it includes the California condor and the now extinct passenger pigeon. The museum is also the largest public site for monarch butterflies, which stop in Pacific Grove on their annual migration south.
165 Forest Ave, Pacific Grove, CA 93950, Phone: 831-648-5716
20.Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
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Located about 26 miles from Carmel, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park covers the western slope of the Santa Lucia Mountains, high above the Big Sur River Gorge, through which the Big Sur River flows into the park. The park has a network of scenic trails that wind along the river banks and through the dense, verdant groves of redwoods, oaks, conifers, sycamores, maples, alders, cottonwoods, and willows. Many campsites in the large campground are stretched along the Big Sur River. The park is rich in wildlife, and it is not rare to spot elusive bobcats, gray squirrels, black-tailed deer, raccoons, skunks, and many species of birds.
47555 CA-1, Big Sur, CA 93920, Phone: 831-667-2315
21.Point Lobos National Reserve
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Point Lobos State Reserve is located 3 miles from Carmel on Highway 1, at the northern end of Big Sur. This unique spot on the coast combines on the one side rocky cliffs, patches of dense forest, deep canyons, and valleys covered in wild flowers. On the other side is the Pacific, with endless waves crashing at the coastal cliffs. The reserve is very popular for hiking, scuba diving, visiting important geological sites, and observing native plants and animals such as harbor seals, seabirds, sea lions, sea otters, and gray whales. There is a small cabin in Whalers Cove, built a long time ago by Chinese fishermen, that is now a cultural history museum.
62 California 1, Carmel-By-The-Sea, CA 93923, Phone: 831-624-4909
22.Point Lobos Ranch
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Point Lobos Ranch is an area in Monterey County that is owned by the California State Park System and is currently being evaluated as a possible state park. The ranch is located east of the Point Lobos State Reserve and just south of Carmel. Its importance lies in the fact that it has one of the largest stands of endemic native Monterey pines in the world, the endangered rare Gowen cypress, and a plant community of rare maritime chaparral. The area also offers spectacular views of the coastline and Carmel Bay. The ranch lands and surrounding public lands are a habitat for mountain lions, and San Jose Creek is an important spawning ground for steelhead trout. In addition, there are some significant archeological Native American sites.
562 State Hwy 1, Carmel-By-The-Sea, CA 93923, Phone: 831-649-2836
23.Point Sur State Historic Park
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Located about 19 miles from Carmel, the Point Sur State Historic Park is home to an historic lighthouse that stands on a massive volcanic rock 361 feet above the sea. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Point Sur is currently the only functioning turn-of-the century lighthouse in California open to the public. It was first lit in 1889 and has continued to operate ever since. From 1889 to 1974, before the lighthouse was automated, it was home to the lighthouse keepers and their families. The lighthouse and its surrounding buildings are being restored by the park staff and volunteers, and there are docents who lead guided tours of the lighthouse.
CA-1, Monterey, CA 93940, Phone: 831-625-4419
24.Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary
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Every year in October in a large eucalyptus grove in California’s Pacific Grove, thousands of monarch butterflies take a break from their long journey south to warmer places. They hang in thick clusters from each eucalyptus branch to keep warm, creating a stunning effect and attracting thousands of visitors. To protect butterflies and their preferred eucalyptus habitat, the city of Pacific Grove established the grove as a butterfly sanctuary. Visiting the sanctuary is free, and visitors can watch and admire monarch butterflies as long as they do not touch them. The sanctuary is maintained by Pacific Grove volunteers. The monarchs stay in their protected grove until February, when they continue their journey south.
250 Ridge Rd, Pacific Grove, CA 93950, Phone: 831-648-5716
25.Big Sur Tours and More
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Big Sur Tours and More is a one-person tour agency run since 1969 by Dave Engerberg, a Monterey native with an in-depth knowledge of all important spots a visitor to Big Sur should not miss. The tours are totally customized and are perfect for small groups of two or three people. Nothing is scripted, the story evolves as you pass Big Sur’s most exciting spots and most beautiful landscapes. Depending on your likes and interests, Dave will take you to Bixby Bridge, Ventana, McWay Falls, Big Sur Spirit Garden, Hawthorne Gallery, and the River Inn and Bakery. Dave picks up his guests at their door and brings them back after a day of experiencing the Big Sur adventure.
48485 California 1, Big Sur, CA 93920, Phone: 831-241-2526
25 Best Things to Do in Big Sur
- 17-Mile Drive, Photo: Courtesy of Miles - Fotolia.com
- Andrew Molera State Park, Photo: Courtesy of rolf_52 - Fotolia.com
- California Sea Otter Game Refuge, Photo: Courtesy of Betty Sederquist - Fotolia.com
- Calla Lily Valley, Photo: Courtesy of srongkrod - Fotolia.com
- Carmel Heritage Society, Photo: Carmel Heritage Society
- Carmel River State Beach, Photo: Courtesy of jerdad - Fotolia.com
- Garrapata State Park, Photo: Courtesy of Frank Fennema - Fotolia.com
- Henry Miller Memorial Library, Photo: Henry Miller Memorial Library
- Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Photo: Courtesy of Ctram - Fotolia.com
- Limekiln State Park, Photo: Courtesy of RbbrDckyBK - Fotolia.com
- Los Padres National Forest, Photo: Courtesy of spiritofamerica - Fotolia.com
- McWay Falls and Waterfall House Ruins, Photo: Courtesy of tschumacher04 - Fotolia.com
- Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo, Photo: Courtesy of spiritofamerica - Fotolia.com
- Molera Horseback Tours, Photo: Courtesy of anakondasp - Fotolia.com
- Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, Photo: Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary
- Nepenthe, Photo: Courtesy of Naeblys - Fotolia.com
- New Camaldoli Hermitage, Photo: New Camaldoli Hermitage
- Old Coast Road, Photo: Courtesy of Andy - Fotolia.com
- Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History, Photo: Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History
- Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, Photo: Courtesy of lucky-photo - Fotolia.com
- Point Lobos National Reserve, Photo: Courtesy of Lynn Yeh - Fotolia.com
- Point Lobos Ranch, Photo: Courtesy of Lynn Yeh - Fotolia.com
- Point Sur State Historic Park, Photo: Courtesy of Lynn Yeh - Fotolia.com
- Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary, Photo: Courtesy of jesuschurion57 - Fotolia.com
- Big Sur Tours and More, Photo: Courtesy of maranso - Fotolia.com
- Cover Photo: Courtesy of Maks_ershov - Fotolia.com