When I moved to California back in 2014, the one place I ALWAYS wanted to visit was Big Sur, it was my ultimate West Coast, California road trip. The problem was that every-time I planned a visit, things just fell through and I never got the chance to go. The opportunity to visit Big Sur FINALLY happened right before I moved from L.A. back to South Florida at the height of COVID. Before leaving L.A., I knew there were a few quick California trips I wanted to make, with Big Sur being at the absolute top of that list. So I asked one of my best friends if she’d come along with me and explore (in my opinion) one of the prettiest coastlines and places in the United States.
When you think of Big Sur, images of beautiful and rugged stretches of coastline along California’s Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) might come to mind. These are my favorite types of road trips because I just don’t care how long the drive takes, the scenery is just too pretty for words. Driving along the coast from Southern to Northern California is unlike anywhere else, and for me I’m fine with an endless car ride.
Big Sur and Beatniks
But first and foremost, how did I first come to hear about the area? Northern California is very different from Southern California, with Northern California and the surrounding areas being a magnet for the counterculture movement. Big Sur in particular is where many of the famous Beatniks paid homage. Beat lit is probably my absolute favorite genre of literature and Big Sur definitely played a big part in the Beatnik movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The Beats were a generation of writers and artists who rejected mainstream culture and celebrated individualism and spontaneity. Some famous Beat figures were Jack Kerouac (my boo), Allen Ginsburg, and Henry Miller to name a few. Many of these writers and artists found a lot of inspiration in Big Sur's natural beauty and bohemian lifestyle and helped to establish Big Sur as a destination for artists, writers, and free spirits. In fact, Jack Kerouac even wrote his novel Big Sur based on his experiences living in a cabin owned by his friend in Bixby Canyon (which later became a popular destination for Beatniks looking to escape the pressures of city life and find creative inspiration in nature). This cabin still exists and is open for tours. I actually remember reading this book when I was in high school, thinking these guys are wild and I can't wait to see some of these sites myself one day <3
Another important figure in the Beatnik scene in Big Sur was Henry Miller, who lived there for many years. Miller's writing celebrated the natural beauty of the area and its laid-back, bohemian lifestyle. In fact, one of the most unique (and my favorite) places to visit in Big Sur is the Henry Miller Library. It's right off the highway and is an amazing outdoor small bookstore specializing in Beat lit housed right in the middle of the Red Wood Forest! I have to say, one of the many small thrills of my life was perusing this small outdoor bookshop and snagging a first edition Kerouac!!! I told my friend she could just leave me there :)
But back to planning a trip to Big Sur...
Every inch of this area is beautiful, but when planning a visit you'll want to decide which towns to visit, Carmel by the Sea, Monterey, or just stick to the Big Sur area in general. Also, think about the time of year you want to come. Big Sur has a very mild climate, but can be foggy and cool year-round, with milder temperatures (and fewer visitors) in the spring and fall as well. Big Sur can be explored in a day, but it's truly so beautiful so I would recommend at least a long weekend. In terms of accommodations, there are a lot of rustic places and campgrounds, cute bed and breakfasts, and high end luxury resorts, so whatever you need, you'll be sure to find something you love.
Where we stayed in Monterey: But on our trip, we managed to find the CUTEST bed and breakfast right on the water in Monterey. The Seven Gables Inn on Monterey Bay is nestled along the rocky shoreline of the Monterey Peninsula and is centrally located. Every room was unique and different, and had a very historic feel to it. I also have to say that every single window had amazing ocean views from every single angle. There were beautiful little gardens and sitting areas, it was also walking distance to Lovers Point, and lots of other shops and restaurants.
I also have to say a big thank you to them for their welcome plate of snacks and wine, which were included in the price of the room. A small touch, but much appreciated as we snacked and drank during our stay.
How to plan a Big Sur Itinerary: Now that we have our accommodations set, let's discuss my favorite must-dos and must-sees. Big Sur has a lot to offer including exploring the beautiful state parks, hiking, and lots of outdoor activities like camping. Also, consider the drive, Big Sur is best explored by car and like I said above, the drive is spectacular. The scenery along the way is not to be missed so make sure to either drive yourself or rent a car, but be aware, Highway 1 can be very narrow and winding on some of the stretches, so be careful. Also, check to make sure there aren't any road closures because there's pretty much one way in and out, and in the past there have been mud or land slides and other obstructions. Whatever activities you choose, I'm sure you'll have a terrific time.
But without further ado, here are my favorites from my visit to Big Sur:
Drive along Highway 1: This is a must-do, mostly because it's stunning and is the quintessential Big Sur photo op, but also because you need to drive to get here. Highway 1 is one of the most iconic and breathtaking drives in the world. The road winds along the rugged coastline of the area and offers stunning views of the cliffs and moutains that lead out to the ocean. There are a MILLION amazing stops to look at the views, but the main stop has to be after crossing the famous Bixby Bridge. You'll see plenty of visitors pulled over to the side of the road snapping their shots, and when you get there you'll definitely see why. Truly one of the most otherworldly pieces of scenery. Also, this trip was at the heigh of COVID and California required masks even outside, so forgive my hidden face in most of these pics ;)
Visit Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park: This park is home to one of Big Sur's most iconic landmarks, McWay Falls. The waterfall cascades directly onto the beach and is a must-see sight.
Hike in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park: This is another terrific nearby park that offers over 80 miles of hiking trails that wind through redwood groves, meadows, and canyons. The Pfeiffer Falls and Valley View trails are particularly popular and must-sees if you're hiking in the area.
Soak in the Esalen Hot Springs: I haven't been here yet, but it's at the top of my bucketlist. The Esalen Institute offers access to natural hot springs that overlook the Pacific Ocean. It's a great way to relax and take in the stunning views, but also offers lots of workshops, self-development activities, and retreat packages. Again, I can't wait to experience this one day.
Visit Point Sur Lighthouse: This historic lighthouse offers guided tours and stunning views of the coastline. It's located on a volcanic rock outcropping and is a popular spot for photographers to get those great shots!
Explore the Beaches: Big Sur is home to several beautiful beaches, including Pfeiffer Beach, Sand Dollar Beach, and Andrew Molera State Park. These beaches offer opportunities for hiking, surfing, and wildlife viewing. In fact, you can even book a horseback riding tour at Andrew Molera State park here.
Go Whale Watching: Big Sur is one of the best places in the world to spot migrating whales. Several companies offer whale watching tours during the peak season like The Princess tour company. But take note, sometimes the weather is variable, so sometimes these cruises get canceled, which unfortunately ours did when we visited.
Visit the Henry Miller Memorial Library: This was unofficially my favorite thing to do and see in Big Sur! I absolutely love an independent bookstore and have been an avid reader my entire life. Beat lit is my favorite, and I was just so happy to find myself walking through this area where so many greats were inspired. This unique library is dedicated to the writer and artist Henry Miller, who spent several years living in Big Sur and authored many controversial pieces as well. The space also hosts live music events and has lots of cool art installations to explore!
The library hosts events, concerts, and readings throughout the year, but what I loved was that it was entirely outside, right in the Redwoods! I couldn't tell you how long I spent just walking around finding some absolute gems. Oh, and you can't miss the defunct school bus that lives right next to the books, an absolutely unique spot.
When you're done loving on the books and have worked up an appetite, stop at Nepenth for lunch. It's absolutely delicious and right across the street from the Henry Miller Library. It also has some of the (if not the most) stunning views, a cute bar, and some little shops down below.
Further Abroad: Visiting Carmel by the Sea and Monterey Bay: Once you've had your fill of Big Sur, be sure to go a bit further afield and visit two other coastal towns- Carmel by the Sea and Monterey Bay.These are both very near to each other so you could stay just about anywhere and hop from town to town. Here are some of the top things to do in each:
Visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium: The world-renowned aquarium is home to over 35,000 animals, including sea otters, sharks, and jellyfish. It's a must-visit attraction for all ages and is the famous example aquarium that was featured in Finding Dory. Unfortunately, it was closed during COVID so I didn't get to visit, but that means I'll just have to plan another trip back :)
Explore Cannery Row: The historic street is lined with shops, restaurants, and galleries. It was once the heart of the sardine canning industry, and now it's a popular destination for tourists.
Take a Whale Watching Tour: Monterey Bay is one of the best places in the world to spot whales. Several companies offer whale watching tours that depart right from the harbor.
Visit the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary: The sanctuary covers over 6,000 square miles of ocean and is home to a diverse array of marine life. Visitors can explore the sanctuary by kayak, stand-up paddle-board, or boat tour.
Have Lunch on the Wharf: While in the area, be sure to stop on the wharf for an ice cream or an amazing seafood lunch or dinner.
Visit the Beach: Carmel Beach is a beautiful spot for swimming, sunbathing, and surfing. The beach is dog-friendly, and visitors can often see dolphins and whales in the water.
Explore the Town: Carmel-by-the-Sea is a charming town with narrow streets lined with boutiques, art galleries, and restaurants, and some of the most amazing little bakeries. The town also has several historic buildings and museums.
Visit the Carmel Mission Basilica Museum: The mission was founded in 1771 and is one of the most beautiful and historic buildings in the area. The museum features artifacts and exhibits about the mission's history.
Take a Scenic Drive: The 17-Mile Drive also winds through Carmel-by-the-Sea and Monterey and offers stunning views of the coastline, golf courses, and mansions.
I also can't forget to mention the food. Being in California, we had access to some of the best, and you know I'm a 'camera eats first girlie', so I had to capture a few of my favorites <3
These are just a few of the many things to do in the Big Sur area, exploring towns like Monterey Bay and Carmel-by-the-Sea. Whether you're looking to be in awe of the stunning outdoors, nature and scenery, or have a relaxing getaway to enjoy some strolling, food and wine, these coastal towns and this rugged stretch of coastline has something for everyone.
p.s. I can't forget to mention all of the California sea lions we passed on the way home! I can't remember the exact exit but you'll see them from the road. Enjoy and happy travels!