Destination Guides

Everything you need to know about California's spectacular Big Sur

You’ve probably heard of it… but what exactly is Big Sur? Read on to discover the magical place that is Big Sur in California, including the best time to go and all the most incredible Big Sur experiences along the way.

What is Big Sur?

It’s not a city or town… so what is Big Sur? It’s one of the most spectacular regions on the California coast, stretching around 90 miles between Carmel and San Simeon. On one side you’ve got golden sandy beaches, rugged cliffs and the turquoise Pacific Ocean. On the other, you’ll find the stunning Santa Lucia Mountains filled with coastal redwood trees, hiking trails and waterfalls. 

Big Sur was named by the Spanish settlers living on the Monterey Peninsula. They referred to the beautiful wilderness area as “El Sur Grande” (“The Big South”). In the 1950s and 60s, the area became a popular retreat for artists, poets and writers like Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Henry Miller. 

Since then, the region has inspired countless books, movies and artworks, including Kerouac’s 1962 novel ‘Big Sur’ and the 2013 film adaptation of the same name. Big Sur is still wild and remote, dotted only with local restaurants, hotels and coastal communities… And it’s the perfect place to slow down and escape into enchanting nature.

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What is the best way to see Big Sur?

If you want to see the best of Big Sur, take a drive up Highway 1, famed for its winding turns, state parks, and misty seaside views. You can also get there with Trafalgar on our Big Sur tours. We’ll take you on an unforgettable journey on our luxury coaches through Coastal California and Big Sur.

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When to visit Big Sur

Big Sur is an incredible destination all year round. The most popular time is between April and October when the weather is at its best, with long, warm days – although watch out for the famous fog that can hang around all morning. The shoulder seasons of early spring and late fall see fewer crowds and great weather, plus they’re gorgeous with spring blooms or golden fall foliage. The winter season still has pleasant weather and is the quietest time, but many businesses have shorter opening hours during this off-peak season. 

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The best Big Sur experiences

Check out Carmel and Monterey

Kickstart your Big Sur adventure with a day in the gorgeous seaside cities of Carmel and Monterey. Soak up the sun at Carmel Beach, wander down Cannery Row, marvel at the marine life in Monterey Bay Aquarium, or tick off 17-Mile Drive famed for sights like Pebble Beach, the Lone Cypress, and the lavish mansions and golf courses.

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Visit the grand Hearst Castle

If you’re starting your Big Sur tour in San Simeon, don’t miss Hearst Castle. We’ll take you there for a walking tour with a local expert who will show you around the magnificent castle featuring 121 rooms over 90,000 square feet. It was the vision of publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst and today it’s a National Historic Landmark.

Stop at the iconic Bixby Bridge

Bixby Bridge Big Sur California

Once you hit the road on Highway 1, you’ll want to stop and admire the incredible coastal views. One of the best places to do it is the iconic Bixby Bridge. It’s one of the most photographed places in Big Sur – and for good reason. It’s a spectacular spot, where the famous bridge stretches through the lush green mountains over the bright blue ocean. And it gets extra mesmerising at sunset!

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Marvel at the McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

McWay Falls Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park Big Sur California

On par with Bixby Bridge, the McWay Falls are the most iconic sight in Big Sur. Located just a 10-minute walk from the parking lot, these beautiful 80-foot falls are unmissable. You’ll be mesmerised as the falls crash into the sparkling ocean below and is best seen in the early morning or the afternoon when the sun is shining onto the waterfall. If you go in spring, you might even see stunning wildflowers and orchids.

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Explore the State Parks and Natural Reserves of Big Sur

You can’t miss exploring at least a few of the spectacular state parks in Big Sur – and there’s plenty to choose from. 

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. Point Lobos is a paradise for photographers and nature lovers, with towering forests, blue ocean and plenty of trails. You can go walking, scuba diving, or even wildlife viewing with sea lions, harbour seals, whales and dolphins making appearances around the reserve.

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Famed as a mini Yosemite, this park is home to mystical giant redwood forests, waterfalls and hiking trails. 

Point Sur State Park and Lighthouse. Point Sur is great for nature lovers and history buffs as you can explore the historic lighthouse and also go hiking or spot sea lions at the tide pools.

Garrapata State Park. One of the hidden gems of Big Sur, Garrapata has stunning walks along the coastal cliffs, inland hikes through the forest and even a waterfall to explore.

Andrew Molera State Park. This park is one of the quieter ones and you’ll really get to reconnect with nature on the walking trails that pass by meadows, forests, oceans and the Big Sur River.

Limekiln State Park. If you’re looking for a break on a hot day, head to the cool shady redwood forests of Limekiln. You’ll also find waterfalls, golden beaches and a few short hiking trails. 

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Keep your eyes peeled for whales

You can spot whales almost all year round off the California coast… So bring your binoculars and a dose of patience! From June to October, you can spot Blue whales, while from late April to early December you can see Humpback whales. Gray whales can also be seen from December to February (when they migrate south to Mexico) and February to April (when they return north and are closer to the shore). 

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Visit the Henry Miller Memorial Library

If you love books and nature, we’ve got the perfect place for you. The Henry Miller Memorial Library is filled with interesting books and surrounded by giant redwoods. You can spend hours soaking up the atmosphere while indulging in a book. It’s almost always cosy and peaceful… But you might also catch one of the concerts, film nights or cultural events that are sometimes hosted here.

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Relax at the beaches of Big Sur

It wouldn’t be a Big Sur adventure without a trip to at least one beach. We love Pfeiffer Beach, famed for its purple sand and fascinating rock formations. There’s also Sand Dollar Beach, where you can spot carbs, anemone and kelp beds in the rock pools at low tide… Or simply throw down a towel and relax in the gorgeous scenery.

What is your favourite Big Sur experiences? Let us know in the comments below… 

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