Best Things To Do in Big Sur
With more than 90 miles of jagged Pacific coastline to the west and the St. Lucia Mountain range to the east, Big Sur is truly nirvana for nature lovers. While you're here, hike the 3,379-foot-tall Manuel Peak at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, excavate jade at Sand Dollar Beach, wander through some of Monterey County's oldest redwood groves at Limekiln State Park, or watch McWay Falls gracefully cascade directly into the ocean at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Andrew Molera State Park and Garrapata State Park offer treks that take visitors to the edge of the coastline, while the Keyhole Arch Rock at Pfeiffer Beach is considered to be one of the most photogenic sunset spots on the central coast. With so many awe-inspiring attractions to choose from, there is no such thing as boredom in Big Sur.
Updated September 13, 2017
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Named after one of Big Sur's most beloved pioneers, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is a favorite among both locals and tourists. A feast for the eyes, the park features seven marked trails that take travelers to tucked away coves, up to waterfalls, along miles-long creeks, through redwood-clad forests and more. Not to mention, it is one of the few areas in Big Sur where scuba diving is allowed.
The shortest and most traveled path is Waterfall Overlook Trail. Less than a mile long, the trail takes visitors to one of the most popular attractions in Big Sur: McWay Falls. The site is lauded for its beauty, and is a culmination of all geological features typical to Big Sur: The secluded beach is flanked by jagged bluffs covered in shrubs, wildflowers and cypress trees. The falls, flowing from atop one of the cove's granite cliffs, tumble 80 feet down into the cove and get swept up by the ocean. The cove is also a prime place to spot migrating gray whales that pass through Big Sur from December to February, as well as March to May. In the past, some have even come into the mouth of the cove.
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This 4,800-acre park is the largest state park on the Big Sur coast and offers multiple activities and attractions, not to mention several hiking trails. Named after the man who brought the artichoke to California, Andrew Molera Park's natural wonders include secluded beaches, redwood groves, meadows and the Big Sur River along its 20 miles of hiking trails. Because of the park's flatter geography, visitors are allowed to bike and can take horseback rides throughout the park. The beach is also safe to surf, and is considered to be one of the best surfing spots in Big Sur.
There are nine trails that comprise Andrew Molera State Park, five of which are main trails and three that are considered alternative trails. The Bluffs Trail, Panorama Trail and Ridge Trail are all main trails that connect to make the Andrew Molera Loop. The Loop takes travelers along the coast via the Bluffs Trail then around into an equally beautiful wooded area via the Panorama Trail and Ridge Trail. There are also various pathways on the Bluffs Trail that go directly down to the shore.
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If you're on a tight itinerary and don't have time to traverse any state park trails, head to Pfeiffer Beach. Located about 7 miles south of Andrew Molera State Park next to Los Padres National Forest, Pfeiffer Beach is secluded in feel, offering expansive shorelines covered by towering, vegetation-heavy bluffs and striking rock formations. The beach's most famous rock formation, however, is located a few feet out into the ocean. The Pfeiffer Keyhole Rock is hard to miss thanks to its distinguishable arch. It's also considered the most-photographed attraction in Big Sur after Bixby Bridge. At low tide, visitors are able to wade through the water and take a Pfeiffer Keyhole Rock look at the surrounding tide pools. But the best time to see the rock is at sunset when the sun shines brightly through the keyhole, creating a spectacular photo op.
Although it's secluded, Pfeiffer Beach can get crowded; some recent visitors reported having to wait in line just to secure a parking spot. But despite the inconvenience, travelers said a visit to the beach to see the unique keyhole rock was worth the hassle. Many strongly suggested bringing a jacket, as the area can get windy and also said that even if you're not a photographer, you should bring a camera or make sure your phone is charged to capture the impressive scenery.
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Not to be confused with Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park or Pfeiffer Beach, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is adjacent to the Los Padres National Forest and covers 1,600 acres on the western slope of the St. Lucia Mountains. Like most state parks in this region, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park features redwood groves, open meadows and waterfalls, but what sets this park apart is its location. Unlike Andrew Molera State Park, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and Garrapata, which all offer treks along the edge of the coast, this park is further inland and doesn't offer many ocean views. Instead, the main water source is the Big Sur River, which runs through the entire park and is a feature hikers will see while traversing some of the park's trails.
There are 8 miles worth of trails to explore within Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. The most popular is the 1.4-mile hike to Pfeiffer Falls. This trail is considered to have some of the best redwood groves in the entire park, on top of its beautiful 60-foot waterfall. If you're planning to hike the Pfeiffer Falls Trail, consider adding the half-mile-long Valley View Trail to your itinerary, as it extends left of the Pfeiffer Falls pathway. The Valley View Trail takes visitors to a lookout point with a bench situated in the middle of the Big Sur Valley, affording views as far as the historic Point Sur Lighthouse.
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Situated between the base of the St. Lucia Mountains and the rugged Pacific coastline, this 3,000-acre state park is overflowing with trails highlighting the park's diverse landscape. From coastal headlands to redwood canyons and a valley lined with calla lilies, there is terrain to appease every type of traveler. Garrapata has five main marked trails, four of which are grouped together in a loop going up into the St. Lucia mountain range.
The Rocky Ridge Trail takes travelers through shrub-lined canyons, leading up to two towering lookout points. The more coastal (and flatter) 2-mile-long Soberanes Point Trail snakes around Whale Peak and makes a pit stop at the scenic Soberanes Point. If the beach is all that you're looking for, there are various coastal trails that take you around and down to Garrapata Beach.
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A great option for those who don't want to work up a sweat on the trails but want to experience Big Sur's beauty from outside the car is Sand Dollar Beach. Located about 7 miles south of Limekiln State Park, Sand Dollar Beach is the largest unbroken stretch of sand in Big Sur. Along with the beach at Andrew Molera State Park, this crescent-shaped shoreline is considered to be one of the best surfing spots in Big Sur, and is also a hot spot for fishing. The most popular activity, however, is beachcombing. This shoreline gets its name for a reason, as its often graced with washed-up sand dollars. There are also a plethora of rocks located at the southern end of the beach, which are known to contain minerals like serpentine and jade.
Visitors said Sand Dollar Beach is a beautiful and relaxing spot to lay out or have a picnic, adding they appreciated its captivating geological features. It is seldom crowded, but even when there are lots of people, the beach is so big that it doesn't feel jam-packed. Some travelers also mention being able to spot migrating whales from the shore, while others suggest taking the short trail to the lookout point over the beach bluffs.
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Located about 7 miles north of Sand Dollar Beach, Limekiln State Park is one of the smallest state parks in Big Sur, but it packs some serious history. The 716-acre park is named after the limestone business that once thrived here. In the late 17th century, the Rockland Lime and Lumber Company would quarry limestone then smelt it in a series of wood-fired kilns located in the park. This process produced powdered lime, which is an important ingredient in making cement. The beach at the park acted as a harbor to ship out the powdered lime to other regions. Today, many buildings in both Monterey and San Francisco contain lime that was created in Limekiln State Park.
Along with some unique history, Limekiln State Park is located on the steepest coastal canyon in the continental United States. It is also one of the only parks in Big Sur that offers direct beach access. With many others, including Andrew Molera State Park, Pfeiffer Beach and Sand Dollar Beach, you must take a trail to reach the sand. At Limekiln, all you have to do is park your car and the beach is steps away.
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