Big Sur is in fact incredible, but if you are not prepared it becomes just another pretty drive. Hikes, waterfalls, and purple beaches are nowhere to be found if you are not prepared.
Our first visit to Big Sur was a let down. I quickly discovered that with all my research and planning I had not realized that I was relying on my phone way too much. Cell service does not work in Big Sur! Meaning all my directions to the wonders, hikes, beaches, and waterfalls of Big Sur were gone. That day we drove across the Bixby Bridge, found the parking lot for Mcway Falls, drove all day, and then had to go home. Yes the tidal fall was beautiful, but that was all we saw. We left disappointed and sad.
Our second trip to Big Sur turned out 100% different. This time I drew my own rough map of the coast (I am no artist) and plotted my stops along the way. adding the details of the mileage between the stops so we could find them using our car odometer. This trip was incredible! I could now see why so many people rave about Big Sur. Below are my favorite stops along the Big Sur coast going from North to South and the mileage in between to help you on your next trip.
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A bit about Big Sur
It’s true that the word big is representative of this 90-mile stretch of coastline- from its big peaks, rivers and gorges, to big trees and far-spreading wildfires, visitors have the opportunity to experience a truly epic landscape in coastal California! The State Park encompasses several transition zones, moving from thick interior forests, open oak-dominated woodlands, into scrub-shrub habitat. These 800 acres are home to coastal redwoods, chaparral, coyotes, mountain lions, foxes, deer, and many more animals. A rare plant, the Santa Lucia fir, is found only within the Santa Lucia Mountain range. The clear waters of the 15.7-mile-long Big Sur River influence the ecosystems throughout the park. The river’s headwaters begin in the Santa Lucia Mountains and the river flows to the Pacific Ocean.
There are many things to do and see within the area of Big Sur,, and one popular destination is McWay Falls. These cascades are one of just two tidal falls in all of California. During high tide, this 80-foot-tall waterfall empties directly into the Pacific Ocean. While visiting this area, don’t miss the amazing purple sand at Pfeiffer Beach! The sand washes down over the cliffs above, transporting eroding manganese garnet that is particularly prominent after a rainfall. This water-laden landscape makes it possible for unique plants to grow here, and one big example is the California Redwood. They grow well in coastal habitats, where daily fog provides sufficient moisture in the summer months and frequent rains allow hydration in the winter months. The near-coast environment influences the critical cycle of creating clouds, fog, and precipitation. With enough water, redwoods grow into huge, beautiful adult trees that are able to transpire their own moisture back into the environment, becoming an integral part of the water cycle they so heavily depend upon.
What you can see and do at Big Sur
Soberanes Canyon Trail
GPS coordinates 36.456429 -121.924016
Make this your first stop in Big Sur, put it into your GPS. Your cell phone directions will still help you get here.
This is a great trail in Garrapata SP, Big Sur to see redwoods. This is a 2.5 miles round trip hike. If you hike this in the spring you will see wildflowers along the way, ferns growing along the cliff walls and redwoods at its end.
Across the street of this trail you can walk the bluff access trail to see coastal views and a the small Soberanes Creek Waterfall. (Take this trail to the right to reach the falls.)
(Soberanes Canyon Trail to Bixby Bridge 6.4 miles.)
Bixby Bridge is the most photographed spot in Big Sur. There is a small pull off area just before the bridge so you can stop to get your own pictures.
The Bixby Creek Bridge is the tallest single span arch bridge in the world and is considered the gateway to Big Sur. There are lookout spots located on the bridge, but the bridge is only 24 feet wide so it is not safe to walk on it.
GPS coordinates 36.240215, -121.777226
(Bixby Bridge to Pfeiffer Beach 26.5 miles, take a sharp right on Sycamore Canyon Road, mile marker 45.64, (if you cross a bridge on the main road you have passed it) Follow Sycamore Canyon Road for 2 miles to beach parking.) (This is a narrow road, exiting cars have the right of way)
Pfeiffer Beach is a short .9 mile round trip walk to the beach and back. Make sure to check out the purple sand as you arrive at the beach. It is a manganese garnet that has eroded from the hillsides. Continue down the beach to find and take pictures at Keyhole Rock.
Partington Cove Trail
GPS coordinates 36.1770, -121.6937
(Pfeiffer Beach to Partington Cove: 7.9 miles south starting where sycamore canyon road meets the 1 freeway. This trail head is not obvious, there is no signage or parking lot. You will park on the side of the road. The trailhead is on a big right curve in the road and has a cattle guard at its beginning.)
This 1 mile round trip hike is my favorite in Big Sur. Here you will hike through green trees, travel through a tunnel, and then arrive at a beautiful blue green cove. The water here is clear and breathtaking. My family and I lounged on the rocks here for at least 40 min. without seeing anyone else. It was so peaceful.
(Partington Cove to McWay Falls 2.1 miles)
Walk the McWay Falls trail to see one of only two tidal falls in California,
This is a short .5 mile round trip hike in Big Sur. Its a popular spot so the small parking lot might be crowded.
There is no beach access to the falls so be safe and stay on the trail. The trail will lead you to a cliffside viewing of the falls. Bring binoculars if you want a better view. The falls are a bit away from the viewing area.
See the Sunset
Stop at any pull off in Big Sur to see the sunset as you drive back. While I did not take this image, this is the type of sunset I saw. The sun setting as the clouds rolled in along the water. From our pull off we could see above the clouds.
Whether or not there are clouds rolling in on your visit, sunsets into the ocean are breathtaking.
Big Sur Pro Planning Tips
Season: April- June when the waterfalls are the biggest (but the park is the busiest) Sept.-Oct. when temperature is at its best and before the winter rainy season.
Difficulty: Easy hiking and lots of scenic driving
Time Needed: 1-2 Days
Cost: $10 day use fee or Free with CA State Parks Pass
There is NO cell service in Big Sur
There are also NO street signs that tell you where the hiking trails and beaches are in Big Sur.
Get or print a paper map of Big Sur and mark where you want to go before you go to Big Sur. Print out all your directions to each location. Include the miles of how far each stop is from each other. (ex: Partington Cove Trailhead is 6 miles south of Nepenthe Restaurant.)
The purple sand at Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur are deposits of manganese garnet that have washed down from the surrounding hills.
The trail down to Partington Cove is easy to miss. Type in the GPS coordinates above and mark it on a map. Park on the side of the road next to the trail. The trail is on a curve on the road and looks like a cattle gate.
Soberanes Trail in Big Sur goes inland and will take you to redwoods and lush landscapes that are different from the coastal areas. It's a great area to picnic and relax.
There is a bluff access trail across the street from the Soberanes Canyon Trail parking with a small waterfall,
Stay in Big Sur until sunset and watch the clouds roll in beneath you from any pull off on the side of the road.
Bring binoculars and a good camera for a better view of McWay Falls. You can only see it from the overlook. No beach access.
Pack enough food for the whole day. There are only restaurants in the northern park of the park. and north of the park. (NO fast food)
More Big Sur Favorites, Can you Spot it?
Big Sur bonus! If you keep your eyes alert you will see some of the unique and incredible things that make Big Sur so incredible.
In 1982, the worldwide California condor population was at 23 total condors! We now have over 400 wild birds in the wild. These massive birds have a wingspan over 9 feet! They are scavengers and love to eat large animal carcasses called carrion.
Keep your eyes to the sky when you hike through Big Sur. You just might see one!
The purple sand at Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur is made by the erosion of manganese garnet that washes down from the hills when it rains. The best time to see lots of the purple garnet sand is after a rainy day, near the creek. The brownish sand on the beach is mostly broken down quartz.
Turkey vultures are the only scavenger birds that can’t kill their own prey. They use their powerful beak to help force their heads into the body of dead animals. With the ability to identify scents over a mile away, these animals possess the strongest sense of smell of all birds.
Look closely at the white markings on the bottom side of the wings. They are at the bottom half of its wings while the CA Condor has white at the top half. Remember this you view these birds flying in Big Sur.
The coastal redwood is the tallest tree on earth and can grow around 300 ft. They can grow over 100 feet in 50 years! They capture more CO2 from our vehicles and power plants than any other tree on Earth. If a redwood is cut down it will release stored CO2 back into the air.
Big Sur is the most southern location in California for viewing Coastal Redwoods.
Redwood sorrel love shade and have large, edible, clover-shaped leaves. In Big Sur is can be found in lush areas near coastal redwoods. The leaves of redwood sorrel have a tangy, lemony flavor but are mildly toxic, so they should only be eaten in small quantities. Native American tribes still use this plant as a garnish for dried fish and as a type of medicine.
Big Sur is truly a unique destination. From its waterfalls, coastal views, to its tall redwoods and its unique beaches, there is something there for everyone to enjoy. Plan ahead with your directions and pack plenty of food for the whole day, Big Sur is waiting for you to come and explore.