Every year during Spring and Summer, I look forward to a day trip or weekend getaway to Big Sur along the iconic California coast. The coastal beauty of Big Sur is truly a nature lover’s paradise and a photographer’s dream! Being able to visit this area often is definitely a perk of living in the Bay Area! In this post, I’ll share with you my picks for the most beautiful and most scenic spots and the best things to do in Big Sur, as well as the perfect day trip or weekend itinerary. This list includes the famous Bixby Bridge and the McWay Falls waterfall at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, as well as some hidden gems you may not have heard of!
The pictures in this post were taken by me and my husband Ken over the past couple of years. 😊
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Big Sur, California Coastal Paradise
Big Sur is known as one of the most scenic stretches of undeveloped coastline in the United States. It’s a rugged and mountainous 90-mile section of the Central Coast of California along Highway 1 (also known as the Pacific Coast Highway, or PCH) south of the Carmel Highlands with unparalleled coastal beauty. The name comes from the Spanish “el sur grande” or Big South, referring to its position 25 miles south of Monterey, California. The northern part of Big Sur is about a two-hour drive from San Francisco, making it a perfect Bay Area day trip!
Big Sur is a region without formal boundaries or government – it’s more emotion than cartography.Big Sur Visitor Bureau
Before you go, please be aware that Highway 1 is a two-lane mountain road full of twists and turns. If you’re prone to car sickness as I am, I recommend getting a good night’s sleep, having a good breakfast, and avoid looking at your phone if you’re a passenger. I also use a motion sickness wristband which helps me a lot!
The Most Beautiful Spots in Big Sur California
my picks for the most beautiful spots in Big Sur:
- McWay Falls Waterfall at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
- Bixby Creek Bridge
- Garrapata Trail and Beach, especially in the Spring
- Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
- Calla Lily Valley in the Spring
- [Temporarily Closed] – Rocky Point Restaurant
- Bonus – Mission Ranch Hotel and Restaurant
This map of Big Sur shows my picks for the most beautiful spots and best things to do in Big Sur. You can see everything in one full day, or you can split it up into several trips!
Visitor tip – Expect light to heavy fog and chilly weather in the mornings regardless of the season. The fog should clear up by mid-day if the sun is out. Make sure to dress warmly and in layers!
1. McWay Falls Waterfall at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
The first time I saw McWay Falls and the surrounding cove, I was stunned and so surprised that this waterfall is in California and not in Hawaii! The beautiful shade of turquoise blue waves rolling in and out of the cove is unreal and the sandy beach is flawlessly untouched. The 80 foot waterfall itself may not be large, but it seems like a scene out of paradise!
The waterfall is located within Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park next to Highway 1 and can be viewed from the ½-mile round-trip Waterfall Overlook Trail. There is no access to the cove and waterfall itself due to hazardous conditions, but the panoramic views of the cove and the Pacific Ocean from the trails are truly spectacular, especially at sunset.
McWay Falls is the farthest south of the sights on my list. It’s 35-45 minutes south of Bixby Creek Bridge. There’s a parking lot with a $10 fee that will also give you access to all other State Parks for the day.
2. Bixby Creek Bridge
The iconic Bixby Creek Bridge is an engineering marvel that’s one of the most famous landmarks of Big Sur. The bridge can be seen from multiple designated viewpoints, both north and south of the bridge itself. It’s one of the highest bridges of its kind in the world and perches 260 feet above the bottom of a steep canyon carved by Bixby Creek. Honestly, just looking at it makes my knees weak! But the views from the viewpoints are a must-see since they capture the wild and beautiful California coastline so well!
3. Garrapata Trail and Beach
One of my favorite coastal trails is the Garrapata Trail next to Garrapata Beach, especially when it’s covered with yellow wildflowers in the Spring and Summer (the picture below were taken in late June). It’s such a fantastic place to enjoy the stunning coastal scenery. The soft yellow and green tones complement the blue-grey coastal waters so beautifully. I could spend hours just enjoying the views here alone. Ken had to drag me away from here last time!
The trail is accessible from the Garrapata State Beach Parking area. It connects to the Calla Lily Valley which I’ve listed as #5 below!
4. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
At the northern tip of the Big Sur coast is Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, a beautiful hidden treasure that’s one of my favorite places for nature viewing. Just a short walk into the park is the easy and very scenic 0.8-mile Bird Island Trail. Along this trail, you’ll be able to see lots of wildlife, including sea lions, sea otters, lots of cormorants, western gulls, and many other types of birds, especially in the Spring. You may also see migrating gray whales in the area from December to May!
Bird Island is named for the large sea bird colony found there in Spring and Summer. Hundreds of Brandt’s cormorants nest close together. On the way to Bird Island, you’ll pass by the stunning deep blue-green waters of China Cove. In the Spring, this area is home to many harbor seals nursing their newborn pups. The park website has an interactive map here.
Bird Island Trail also passes by the pristine Gibson’s Beach, accessible via a steep staircase. See picture above (third from top)!
5. Calla Lily Valley
The semi-hidden Calla Lily Valley is an amazing area next to the Garrapata beach with hundreds of calla lily wildflowers that bloom every Spring! The peak bloom time is usually between mid-February and mid-March. I have an entire post on the Calla Lily Valley with all the details on how to find this magical place, along with the best times to visit and some photography tips!
Temporarily Closed: Rocky Point Restaurant – Big Sur Restaurant with a View
The former Rocky Point Restaurant was my favorite restaurant in Big Sur with the most amazing view. It was on my list of best spots in Big Sur until it was closed and sold in 2021. The article states that the new owner hopes to reopen the restaurant under a new name, but there’s no opening date at this time.
I’m leaving these photos here in hopes that it will reopen soon and we can enjoy meals at this amazing setting again. To me, the waters here seem exceptionally beautiful, and the views are truly stunning. It’s just 2 minutes south of the Garrapata Trail and Beach which I listed above!
Bonus: Mission Ranch Hotel and Restaurant
The Mission Ranch Hotel and Restaurant is technically located in the Monterey Peninsula just north of Big Sur, but I had to include this as a bonus place to visit because it’s so special!
For dinner in a lovely, idyllic and truly unique setting, or for just a quick stop, the Mission Ranch Hotel and Restaurant should be a part of your trip, if only to see the beautiful grounds and large field of grazing sheep that they maintain. The vast grounds here with views of the distinctive California coast tree line feel like a private, peaceful hideaway. This 1800s ranch was one of the first dairies of California and was restored by former Carmel Mayor Clint Eastwood. Perhaps you’ve heard of him?
Big Sur Day Trip Itinerary
If you’re coming from the San Francisco Bay Area and looking for a leisurely day trip (my preferred type of trip!), I recommend the following itinerary:
- Start at Point Lobos in the morning for some peaceful nature-viewing.
- Go for a walk along the scenic beach-side Garrapata Trail, just 10 minutes south of Point Lobos.
- *Temporarily Closed* – Stop at the former Rocky Point Restaurant to enjoy the spectacular coastline views.
- Head to Bixby Bridge nearby and check out a few of the viewpoints and stop for some obligatory photos!
- Have lunch at the wonderful Big Sur Bakery, about 20 minutes south of Bixby Bridge. They have delicious fresh bread, savory pastries, and wood-fired pizza! I literally had all my meals here one time when I was camping nearby and loved it soooo much! They’re currently open for lunch Wednesday to Sunday, from noon to 3 pm, and for dinner Thursday to Saturday from 5-8 pm.
- McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is about 20 mins south of the Big Sur Bakery.
If time permits:
- Nepenthe restaurant for dinner. They’re famous for their terrace views, but there may be a wait to be seated unless you have reservations (TripAdvisor reviews here). They’re currently open from 11:30 am to 10 pm. Make sure to bring warm clothing for the evening!
- Mission Ranch Hotel & Restaurant
Big Sur Weekend Getaway Itinerary
For a weekend getaway, I suggest spending more time at the spots listed for the day trip itinerary, and also including the very charming town of Carmel-by-the-Sea in your itinerary! And if you’re visiting in the Spring, make sure to not miss the spectacular magic purple carpet of flowers at Pacific Grove!
Big Sur Hotel Recommendations
Ken and I have stayed at the Intercontinental The Clement Monterey (TripAdvisor reviews here) several times for our weekend trips to Big Sur and the Monterey Peninsula. It’s in a very convenient location just across from the world famous Monterey Bay Aquarium, and I just love the sophisticated coastal decor so much. If you plan on visiting the aquarium, plan on spending half a day there, it’s an amazing place!
For a special weekend, consider a stay at the secluded Hyatt Carmel Highlands (TripAdvisor reviews here), perched on a hillside in the Carmel Highlands with breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean from their ocean view rooms and restaurants. You may not want to leave such a stunning place!
Big Sur Road Trip Tips
Most of the Big Sur coastline has few facilities such as restaurants, supermarkets, stores, or gas stations. This helps to maintain it’s unspoiled rugged nature, but it also means you need to be really prepared for your visit! Here are a few tips for your trip:
Download area maps onto your phone before you leave, since you’ll likely have very limited cell phone reception along the coast!
Gas up in Monterey before you go any further south (assuming you’re coming from the Bay Area).
Highway 1 is a two-lane mountain road full of twists and turns. If you’re prone to car sickness as I am, I recommend getting a good night’s sleep, having a good breakfast, and bringing a motion sickness wristband with you. I’ve been using it for years and it does help me.
Pack food and snacks from home even if you have lunch plans, because you never know if your plans will change and you can’t make it! Plus, running around in this coastal paradise takes a lot of energy! We use a plug-in electric cooler for the car for all our summer road trips and love it. (No ice is needed but we usually put a sealed ice pack in anyway.)
Or, pick up some sandwiches and other picnic items at the Whole Foods Market in Monterey. Make sure to pack your own utensils from home!
The weather is very unpredictable, typically starting out cold and foggy in the mornings and warming up in the afternoon. Make sure to dress in layers, bring your sunscreen, sunglasses and also a wool hat and warmcoat!
The California coast is beautiful – don’t forget to bring your camera! I use my iPhone a lot, but I also love having my full-frame Nikon D750 (newer model Nikon D850 here) with me. I love having the ability to better edit my pictures with a full-frame DSLR, especially for non-ideal lighting conditions.
California Spring Travel
For more California Spring travel ideas, check out my posts on the Magic Purple Carpet of the Monterey Peninsula, the spectacular Carlsbad Flower Fields, the Poppy Fields of Mt Diablo State Park, and the beautiful Spring Peach Blossoms in the East Bay!
All of my California travel posts are here!
My Camera & Video Gear
My husband and I both love photography – here are our current camera and video gear!
My favorite lens ever. This Nikon 105mm lens is amazing for portrait & flower photography. An 85mm lens would be great also.
I love this lightweight & durable Kanken backpack (in the big size) for both day trips & for travel!
I’ve been taking more videos lately with my iPhone & this lightweight gimbal makes the videos so much smoother!
We’ve used a Nikon D750 DSLR for several years now (newer model D780 shown above), but we may upgrade to a mirrorless Sony camera soon!
Hi, I’m Pansy!
Hello, thanks for stopping by! I’m Pansy, California-based travel + lifestyle blogger, photographer and lover of ALL the pretty flowers! If you browse through my blog, you may notice that most of my travels, DIY and photography center around flowers and nature! 🌸🌼🌿