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Big Sur

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Big Sur coastline with glimpse of Bixby Bridge, Highway 1

Big Sur is a region on the Central Coast of California. It contains vast wildernesses and breathtaking views as it stretches 90 miles along the rugged Pacific Ocean. It is approximately 150 miles south of San Francisco and 300 miles north of Los Angeles. The area is great for outdoor recreation and contains several state parks, two national wilderness areas and is part of the Los Padres National Forest, all of which include hiking trails. The name "Big Sur" comes from the original Spanish name "el sur grande", meaning "the big south" and referring to the area's location south of the city of Monterey, former capital of Alta California under both Spain and Mexico.

Understand[edit]

Big Sur begins just south of Carmel and continues south through the small towns of Big Sur Village (between Andrew Molera State Park and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park), Lucia, and Gorda. It ends near San Simeon (where the Hearst Castle is located). When driving on Highway 1 through Big Sur be sure to stop at the many turnouts and vista points to see the beauty of the area.

History[edit]

Three Native American tribes - the Ohlone, Esselen, and Salinan - are believed to have lived in Big Sur as hunter-gatherers prior to the arrival of Europeans. The Spanish explorer Juan Cabrillo was the first European to view the area when he sailed along the coast in 1542. Spaniards arrived on foot in 1769, but the high cliffs and rough terrain forced them inland. Monterey was settled in 1770, at which point Big Sur was given the name el país grande del sur ("the Big Country of the South").

Mexico took control of the area when it gained independence from Spain in 1821, and in 1848 Mexico ceded California to the United States following the Mexican-American War. By 1862 several pioneers had moved into the area, although the inaccessibility of the area prevented any significant development.

The construction of the present-day Highway One began in 1919 and continued for nearly two decades until completion in 1937. The route required the construction of nearly three dozen bridges and cost $10 million to complete. Monterey County and local landowners fought development along the route, prohibiting new construction within view of the road. Today the area is home to fewer than 1,000 year-round residents.

Flora and fauna[edit]

Redwoods in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

Big Sur is the southernmost range of the world's tallest tree, the coast redwood, and thanks to the remoteness of the region many of the existing groves have never been logged. The critically-endangered California condor was reintroduced to the region in 1997, and as of 2014 nearly three dozen condors make the area their home. Mountain lions, while rarely seen, roam throughout the Big Sur region. Raptors in the area include bald eagles and peregrine falcons.

Once thought to be extinct in California, a colony of 60 sea otters was discovered near Bixby Bridge in 1938. Today sea otters are frequently seen in the area, as well as sea lions, elephant seals and harbor seals. Orcas patrol the coast year-round, while other whale species are seasonal: humpback whales can be seen from April through December, blue whales from June through October, and gray whales from December through May. The abundance of seals does not go unnoticed by sharks, including the great white shark, which patrol the waters but will only be seen by very lucky visitors.

Climate[edit]

Along the coast the climate is moderate year-round, although further inland temperatures are significantly warmer in summer and cooler in winter. Thick, dense fog blankets the coast during the summer, and while it usually burns off during the day, it can occasionally linger and make travel along Highway One treacherous.

 Climate Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
 
Daily highs (°F) 60 62 63 68 73 76 76 77 77 73 65 60
Nightly lows (°F) 43 43 43 44 46 48 50 50 50 48 45 42
Precipitation (in) 9.2 8.7 6.7 3.0 1.1 0.2 0.0 0.1 0.4 2.1 4.8 8.6

See Big Sur's 7 day forecast    Data from NOAA (1981-2010)

Get in[edit]

Big Sur is a remote area accessible only via Highway 1 (also known as Pacific Coast Highway). Highway 1 winds through Big Sur flanked by the steep Santa Lucia Mountains to the east and the rocky Pacific Coast to the west. The easiest and most common way to get to Big Sur is by car, though some enthusiastic adventurers cycle along the highway. Gas stations are far between and gas is expensive, so best to have plenty of gas when you enter the Big Sur region. Rock slides, construction, or other challenges frequently cause delays or closures, so check the road conditions prior to setting out. If the route is closed there will not be a detour available as the mountains block passage to the east. The lone exception to all of this is Nacimiento-Fergusson Road - a narrow, winding road traversing the Santa Lucia Mountains to the Salinas Valley.

From San Francisco take US-101 south to CA-156 west which merges with Highway 1 20 miles from the beginning of the Big Sur area. Approximately 125 miles and 2-3 hour drive.

From Los Angeles take US-101 north and exit onto Highway 1 toward Morro Bay/Hearst Castle which is 45 miles south of the end of Big Sur. Approximately 250 miles and 4-5 hour drive.

  • Monterey-Salinas Transit route 22 bus, toll-free: +1 888-678-2871. Runs from downtown Monterey to Nepenthe in Big Sur. It runs several times a day, seven days a week from Memorial Day to Labor Day (last week of May through first week of September), and weekends only the rest of the year. It stops at several state parks, the Big Sur River Inn, and Nepenthe. During winter and spring, the bus is sometimes canceled due to bad weather, so call ahead to ensure that it is operating.

Get around[edit]

Highway One through Big Sur is rarely straight, so those prone to car sickness may want to take medication prior to setting out. It is one lane in each direction for the majority of the route. Driving in the dark, in fog, or in rainy conditions can be extremely dangerous as the narrow road increases the risk of a collision or of straying off the highway. While the speed limit is 55 mph unless otherwise posted, expect speeds of 35-45 mph for most of the route, and as slow as 15-20 mph on some of the sharpest curves. There are literally hundreds of turnouts along the route, allowing slower drivers to pull over and let other cars pass, and offering drivers a safe way to enjoy the scenery.

Big Sur Village is a mile-long village containing gas stations, roadside markets, lodges and restaurants, but services elsewhere in the region are very limited, and gas can run up to $7 per gallon when available. The unincorporated communities of Posts, Lucia, Plaskett and Gorda are located south of Big Sur Village, but these settlements generally have little more than a single inn or restaurant available for travelers.

Bicycling along Highway 1 is popular, though extremely challenging given the constant elevation changes, winding roads, and the fact that the route is shared with motorists who may be distracted by the scenery, dealing with fog, or simply unaccustomed to sharing narrow highways with cyclists.

See[edit]

Pfeiffer Beach keyhole formation at sunset

Sights are listed from north-to-south along Highway One:

  • 1 Garrapata State Park (18 miles north of Big Sur Village). The 2,939-acre park was established in 1979 and offers two miles of beachfront, with coastal hiking and a 50-foot climb to a beautiful view of the Pacific. Trails lead from the ocean into dense redwood groves. Sea lions, harbor seals and sea otters are frequently seen in the waters. Garrapata State Park on Wikipedia
  • 2 Bixby Bridge (11 miles north of Big Sur Village). Iconic bridge built in 1933. One of the most photographed in the world because of its location within such beautiful scenery. The concrete arch spans 320 feet (98 m), and its 280 foot (85 m) height makes it one of the tallest single-span concrete bridges in the world. Bixby Creek Bridge on Wikipedia
  • 3 Point Sur Lighthouse (5 miles north of Big Sur Village). Point Sur is a dominant feature along Highway 1. It is a National Historic Landmark and is one of the only complete turn-of-the-century light stations open to the public in California. Allegedly one of the most haunted places in America. Spectacular views can be had from atop Point Sur. Tours (3 hours) are offered - meet west side of highway at farm gate a quarter mile north of Pt Sur Naval Facility. Winter times Sa, Su 10AM, W 1PM. $10 adult, $5 children. Point Sur Lighthouse on Wikipedia Point Sur Lighthouse (Q7208173) on Wikidata
  • 4 Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park (2 miles south of Big Sur Village), +1 831-667-2315. There are hiking trails through redwood groves. It is a 1.4 mile round trip to 60-foot Pfeiffer Falls that runs from Dec to May. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park on Wikipedia
  • 5 Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (12 miles south of Big Sur Village). The 3,762-acre park was established in 1962 and is home to McWay Falls, one of the most spectacular places anywhere in Big Sur. The falls drop 80 feet onto the beach or tide. There is a hike out to a view point but it can also be seen from the road just before Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. The park is also home to ancient coast redwoods that stand 300 feet tall and are over 2,500 years old. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park on Wikipedia
  • 6 New Camaldoli Hermitage (located in Lucia off Highway 1 (25 miles south of Big Sur village)), +1 831-667-2456. Monastery offering guided retreats; also sells gifts and food items. New Camaldoli Hermitage on Wikipedia

Do[edit]

McWay Falls and McWay Cove

The most common visitors to Big Sur are those just driving through to enjoy the scenery. The next most common activity is hiking/backpacking in the open natural spaces.

Hiking/backpacking - There are over 80 day hikes, varying in length and difficulty. There are hikes to beaches and vistas along the coast, along rivers and through canyons, and through redwood forests in the Santa Lucia Mts. For longer and more remote adventures, backpacking is an option. There are hundreds of miles of trails through the region, particularly the Ventana Wilderness. Be prepared and know what you are doing before going backpacking in the Wilderness. More information can be found at the Big Sur Ranger Station located 3 miles south of Big Sur Village, +1 831-667-2315. Always check conditions before hiking or backpacking. Hiking areas in Big Sur can be closed down in winter due to mudslides. Know before you go.

  • Hunt for jade, beaches south of Big Sur Village. Jade is a common semi-precious stone found on the beaches in the Big Sur region.
  • 1 Ventana Wilderness, +1 831-667-2315 (Big Sur ranger station). The Big Sur ranger station is located 3 miles south of Big Sur Village. The wilderness covers 167,323 square acres. Within the wilderness area alone there are 237 miles of trails and 55 designated camping areas. Ventana Wilderness on Wikipedia

Beaches[edit]

Remote and pristine beaches are accessible. Andrew Molera State Park, Pfeiffer Beach, and Sand Dollar Beach are the most commonly visited.

  • 2 Andrew Molera State Park (Less than 1 mile north of Big Sur Village), +1 831-667-2315. Miles of trails, beaches, and meadows. Also has 24 primitive camp sites (first come, first serve). Andrew Molera State Park on Wikipedia
  • 3 Pfeiffer Beach (2.5 miles south of Big Sur Village turn west on Sycamore Canyon Rd (unmarked road, only paved and non-gated road to the west in the area)). Great sunsets and a fun beach, with sand that has a purple hue due to manganese garnet (dig down a bit to find it) and a rock formation famous with photographers due to a natural keyhole through which the sunset shines. Swimming is possible although there is a strong undertow. The road to the beach is hard to find and a bit treacherous - it will be the only non-gated, paved road on this portion of the highway. If you are heading south on Route 1, the key to finding this beach is to look for the yellow sign - "NARROW ROAD No RVs - Trailers". During busy times the parking lot can fill up, in which case you may be forced to wait in your car for someone to leave. $10 parking fee.
  • 4 Point Lobos State Reserve (24 miles north of Big Sur Village (just south of Carmel)), +1 831-624-4909. Well managed and developed recreation area offering many hikes, beaches, coves and points. Also offers SCUBA by permit only. Often referred to as the crown jewel of the State Park System. $10 per car. Point Lobos on Wikipedia
  • 5 Sand Dollar Beach (35 miles south of Big Sur Village (across Highway 1 from Plaskett Creek Campground). Stairs lead to the beach. Largest expanse of sand in Big Sur and also well protected from wind. $10 per car.

Buy[edit]

Point Sur and Lighthouse

There are art galleries and gift shops throughout Big Sur all along Highway 1.

  • 1 Big Sur Arts Center, 47540 Highway One (at Loma Vista), +1 831-667-1530. Home to Big Sur Arts Initiative non-profit organization. Features a Hidden Garden Tour.
  • 2 Big Sur Garden Gallery, 47540 Highway One (at Loma Vista), +1 831-667-2000. Local and exotic gifts and jewelry.
  • 3 Big Sur Spirit Garden, 47540 Highway One (at Loma Vista), +1 831 238-1056. Botanical garden featuring exotic succulents and plants. Also provides cultural, musical, artistic, and educational programs and classes.
  • 4 Hawthorne Gallery, 48485 Highway One (across from Nepenthe), +1 831-667-3200, e-mail: . daily 10AM–6PM. Representing works of the Hawthorne family and other internationally known artists.
  • 5 Heartbeat Gift Gallery (Next to Big Sur River Inn), +1 831-667-2557. Daily 9AM-7PM (summer hours). Shopping featuring jewelry, clothing, and collectibles.
  • 6 Local Color, 46840 Highway One (in Big Sur Village Shops), +1 831-667-0481. Local artists and craftsmen featuring Big Sur jade, redwood bowls, and tie-dyed cloths.
  • 7 Post Ranch Mercantile, 47900 Highway One, +1 831-667-2347. daily 10:30AM–7PM. Natural products featuring tableware, clothing, bedding, and body care products.

Eat[edit]

Most of the inns along the route have onsite restaurants that also serve non-guests.

  • 1 Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant, 47540 Highway One, +1 831-667-0520. Wedding cakes, desserts, pastries.
  • 2 The Maiden Publick House (next to Big Sur River Inn in the Village Center Shops), +1 831-667-2355. Classic affordable pub with food and drinks.
  • 3 Nepenthe, 48510 Highway One (Nepenthe), +1 831-667-2345. Picturesque dining location overlooking 40 miles of coastline. Cafe Kevah is located on a terrace just below Nepenthe (open March - December, 9AM-4PM) and serves brunch and light lunch.

Drink[edit]

Many local restaurants also contain bars and/or provide drinks.

Sleep[edit]

Bixby Creek bridge

The two main options for sleeping in Big Sur are either camping or staying in a hotel/resort. Some locations have both options provided. Camping is popular in Big Sur and there are many small campgrounds through the region that are not listed below but can be found along Highway 1.

Hotels[edit]

  • 1 Big Sur Lodge, 47225 Highway 1 (just south of Big Sur Village), +1 831-667-3100, toll-free: +1-800-424-4787. Lies within Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Contains 61 cottage style units and all resort amenities. On the banks of the Big Sur River, views of redwoods. The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
  • 2 Big Sur River Inn, 46800 Highway One (at Pheneger Creek), +1 831-667-2700, toll-free: +1-800-548-3610. Heated swimming pool. Full service restaurant and bar. 20 guest rooms. The rooms are in cabins made from fragrant wood, the beds are comfortable, and there are excellent products for the shower, so you do get value for your money. The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner on a deck overlooking Big Sur River, with live entertainment on Sundays. Rooms with one queen bed $125–170; Rooms with two queen sized beds $150–215; Two-room Riverside Suite with one king size bed and two single day beds $225–270. The higher rates are in effect during high season.
  • 3 Deetjens Big Sur Inn, 48865 Highway One, +1 831-667-2377. Norwegian-style setting nestled in the redwoods of Castro Canyon. (Advanced reservations recommended). The restaurant serves breakfast from 8AM-noon, dinner from 6PM-close.
  • 4 Fernwood Resort, 47200 Highway One (Just north of Big Sur Village), +1 831-667-2422. Cabins, tents, RV's, all allowed but with limited availability. Also has a bar and grill that serves buffalo burgers, salmon burgers, hamburgers, veggie burgers, sandwiches, salads and more from 11AM-10PM.
  • 5 Glen Oaks Motel, 47080 Highway One, +1 831-667-2105. 17 clean and comfortable units available year-round. The Big Sur Roadhouse restaurant is open for dinner from 1PM-9PM (closed Tuesdays) and serves Californian-Latin American cuisine; reservations recommended.
  • 6 Lucia Lodge, 62400 Highway 1, +1 831-667-2456. Coastal cabins with great views of the coastline ranging in price and privacy. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner from 11AM-9PM. Excellent Fish & Chips (judged as one of the Top 10 in the US by Coastal Living Magazine).
  • 7 Post Ranch Inn, 47900 Highway One (2 miles south of Big Sur Village), +1 831-667-2200, toll-free: +1 888-524-4787. High end resort style accommodations, three pools, spas, and private decks. Sits 1200 feet above the Pacific and offers great views of the coastline. The Sierra Mar restaurant servers light lunch from noon-3:30PM, drinks from 3:30PM-close, and dinner nightly.
  • 8 Ragged Point Inn & Resort, 19019 Highway One (15 miles north of Hearst Castle), +1 805-927-4502. 30 rooms and a gourmet restaurant. Nearby stores, snacks and espresso.
  • 9 Ripplewood Resort, 47047 Highway One, +1 831-667-2242. The restaurant serves American cuisine with a Spanish flair between 8AM and 2PM, with entrees $5-12.
  • 10 Treebones Resort, 71895 Highway One, toll-free: +1-877-424-4787. Features 16 yurts and 5 campsites. Amenities include pool, hot tub, restaurant, gift shop, and lodge. The Grill at Treebones Resort offers casual dinners nightly starting at 7PM.
  • 11 Ventana Inn & Spa, 48123 Highway One (28 miles south of Carmel), +1 831-667-2331, toll-free: +1-800-628-6500. Ultra-luxurious resort with all possible amentias including pools, hot tubs, sauna, restaurant, bar, and of course great views. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner seven days a week. Offering 50-mile vistas of the Pacific from the outdoor terrace.

Camping[edit]

Monterey County, which includes nearly all of the Big Sur route, prohibits roadside camping and overnight parking along Highway One, although this restriction does not apply to tired drivers needing a brief rest.

  • 12 Big Sur Campground and Cabins, 47000 Highway 1 (just south of River Inn), +1 831-667-2322. Accommodations include campsites, tent-cabins and rustic cabins, all beneath giant redwoods and beside the Big Sur river. There is great swimming in the river and hiking is close by. Kids can ride inner-tubes or rubber boats down the river and a short 3 mile drive either north or south will get you to beautiful beaches (Pfieffer to the south and Molera to the north.)
  • 13 Kirk creek campground, Highway One (Just south of Lucia and Limekiln SP). Located in the Los Padres National Forest and operated by the BLM, this tent & RV (no hook-ups) campground has 32 sites, all of which are located on a bluff overlooking the Pacific. There are few trees (much warmer than under the redwoods!) and the sites are on well kept grass. Amazing sunsets and decent bathrooms. There are a few nice short trails leading down to the beach. Reservations should be made in advance online. $25.
  • 14 Limekiln State Park, Highway 1, +1 831-667-2403. Gorgeous campsites along a creek that runs into the ocean. Sites on the beach and under the redwoods. There are a few small hikes to the historic limekilns and a significant waterfall (be prepared to cross the creek a few times to get to the waterfall, but it's so worth it in the spring).
  • 15 Riverside Campground & Cabins, 47020 Highway One, +1 831-667-2414, e-mail: . 40 sites for tents and RVs, as well as 12 cabins.

Connect[edit]

Cope[edit]

Be aware that there are long stretches of coastline with little or no cell phone signal, and plan accordingly. Also, fill your gas tank before you drive to the area, as gas stations are few, and some charge as much as $7 a gallon! It is also highly advisable to buy bottled water or replenish your supply from good tap water (the tap water in Big Sur Village, for example, which is delicious mountain spring water). Try to avoid driving long distances after dark as fog can severely restrict your visibility.

Highway 1 dangers[edit]

Highway 1 is a narrow, windy two-lane road and in many places carved out of steep cliff faces. A sign on the highway south of Carmel depicts a curvy road with the text "Next 72 miles"!

Always check traffic conditions before you go. Landslides can cause major holdups and construction can reduce the roadway to a single lane, controlled by a light. In May 2017, a major landslide south of Gorda closed the road to through traffic for at least a year. You can still reach the coast north of the closure via the Ferguson-Naciemento Road to the east and from Monterey to the north.

Go next[edit]

  • Carmel - The northern boundary of Big Sur is the town of Carmel, located 20 miles from Big Sur Village. Carmel is a beautiful oceanside town that is home to the historic Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, several large beaches, excellent restaurants and an abundance of upscale lodging. It borders the iconic Pebble Beach golf course and is the entry point to the 17-mile drive and its dramatic ocean views.
  • San Simeon - Marking the southern end of the Big Sur region and lying 80 miles south of Big Sur Village, San Simeon is home to Hearst Castle, the impressive residence of the former media tycoon William Randolph Hearst, now managed as a state park with tours available daily. A massive colony of 20,000+ elephant seals can be viewed onshore just north of town every winter.

As of May, 2017, Highway 1 is blocked south of Gorda due to a landslide. Alternatively, use the Ferguson-Naciemento Road.

Routes through Big Sur
MontereyCarmel  N California 1.svg S  San SimeonSan Luis Obispo


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