My wife and I recently revisited Big Sur to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary. We were married in Pacific Grove, about two hours south of San Francisco, but spent most of our honeymoon driving down the Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1). Big Sur stuck with us as one of the most beautiful places to visit in California and we’ve been longing to go back ever since.
Our trip this time was much different than 10 years ago. For starters, we had limited time due to the fact we were leaving the kids at home with my in-laws in the middle of a school week. While this was a nice break from reality, the thought of something happening to them while we were away ate at us. California is also a very expensive state, and with a weak Canadian dollar our budget played a huge factor into how long we could go. Lastly, we both had work responsibilities to get back to (sidenote – life was much easier 10 years ago).
We gave ourselves six days for the entire trip, which also included stops in San Francisco, Santa Cruz and Pacific Grove. We knew we wanted to spend most of our time in Big Sur, but instead of pre-booking and planning everything we decided to set out to find unique things to do while we were there. This allowed us to be more free with our time and we ended up discovering so many wonderful things we might not have thought of beforehand.
Below are the five things we highly recommend doing in Big Sur.
Bixby Creek Bridge
Located near the northern part of Big Sur, the Bixby Creek Bridge is one of those places you instantly recognize even if you’ve never been there. Besides being “one of the most-photographed man-made features on the West Coast,” it’s been used in many car commercials, is featured on a U.S. stamp and was the model for a bridge in Grand Theft Auto V. Oh, and if you’re a Death Cab for Cutie fan you’ve probably heard their song about it from their Narrow Stairs album.
Pulling off to the side of the road and standing next to the bridge not only offers great views of the Pacific Ocean, but also makes you aware of how grand the bridge is. It’s a truly awe-inspiring feeling.
Camp or stay in a cottage
You’re not going to find many hotels in Big Sur, if any. But there are lots of options for camping and cottaging.
Lucia Lodge offers 10 cottages, most of which are situated right on the edge of the cliff with great views of the Pacific Ocean (a few of the less expensive units face the mountains). We stayed here during both of our Big Sur visits and were equally impressed both times. Prices range from US$180 – US$295 depending on which cottage you book and when you plan to visit. There are no TVs in the rooms and the Wi-Fi they offer is spotty, but if you’re trying to find peace and quiet look no further (they also have a decent restaurant a short walk down the road).
Treebones Resort offers campsites, yurts and human nests right on the edge of the cliff looking out over the Pacific Ocean. We checked this place out as a possibility for when we return with the kids (children must be over six to stay here) and it’s hands down one of the most unique places around. Campsites can be booked for around US$95 (US$130 if you want a tent included) while yurts start at US$263 a night.
Whether you stay in a cottage, a tent, a yurt or a human nest, waking up on the edge of a cliff looking out over the ocean is something that needs to be experienced.
Visit a monastery
You will have new respect for life after driving the winding, narrow road that leads you up the mountain to New Camaldoli Hermitage (the scary parts of driving PCH don’t even come close to this trek).
Offering what I thought were the best views in all of Big Sur, New Camaldoli Hermitage is also one of the most calming places you will visit along the coast (I am not a religious person but found lots of beauty and serenity here).
Those looking to spend a night up here can book a single occupancy room for as little as US$125. Day visitors are welcome and can quietly enjoy the grounds, take photos (make sure you have space on your camera and your battery is charged) and shop in the bookstore (which closes between 11:15 a.m. and 1:15 p.m. daily for the Eucharist, which visitors can attend).
Take a hike
There are lots of great hiking spots throughout Big Sur, but one of the most accessible and popular destinations is Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, which allows you to view the famous McWay Falls (see photo below). Parking inside the park will cost you US$10 or you can opt to leave your vehicle on the side of the highway and get a head start on your hike.
Look for jade
Looking for jade — a pretty greenish gemstone used mainly for making jewellery — is a popular pastime for tourists in Big Sur. Known spots along the highway to find it, such as Sand Dollar Beach and Jade Cove, tend to get busy during peak season. A better option that was recommended to us by a local is the Willow Creek Picnic Ground.
The secret to this spot is that while there is parking up top with a great view (surprise, surprise) most people miss the little road to the right that leads you down to the beach (again, this is a bit of winding, white-knuckle steep drive but it’s short). Once down on the shore you can spend hours treasure-hunting for jade. Besides being very relaxing, it’s exciting when you do find some.
Notes on driving through Big Sur
Driving through Big Sur can be challenging ( and downright frightening) at times and if you’re not comfortable keeping up with the pace of the other drivers on the road you should pull off and let them pass.
When pulling off make sure you signal with enough time so that other drivers are aware you are about to pull off (and be careful when pulling back onto to the highway).
If you have a fear of heights you may want to consider not driving through Big Sur. Some spots are so close to the edge of the cliff that even the most seasoned drivers will be sweating.
It’s okay to let someone else drive if you are not comfortable.
Ensure you have enough gas before venturing too far down the highways into Big Sur. You can fill up at the Big Sur Bakery near the north entrance or at Ragged Point Inn (which is also a nice place to stop for photos and food) towards the south end. There is 74 kilometres (46 miles) between the two locations and…
There is no cellphone service in Big Sur. If you have an emergency you are stuck until someone can get to a landline to call for help.
You’ll also find there are no radio stations that come through. Pack some CDs for the drive you want some music to help ease your nerves.
Food options are very limited. Big Sur Bakery, Lucia Lodge and Ragged Point Inn are all good choices to have a reasonable meal as well as stock up on provisions.
The highway in known to close in some spots at night through Big Sur and during certain parts of the year it can be closed for weeks. You should always check ahead, especially if you are planning to visit during the winter.
Driving through at night can be very scary (comparable to being in a horror movie) but the amount of stars you can see from the side of the road is quite a sight to be seen.
Have tips on what to do in Big Sur or how to handle the drive through Big Sur? Share them in the comments below.