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33 Cool and Unique Things to Do in Big Sur You’ll Love

You found it! One of the most incredibly scenic spots in the USA. This undeveloped gem along the California Coast is unbelievably beautiful and full of adventure! This is your guide to the best things to do in Big Sur.

things to do in Big Sur view of rugged coastline with wild flowers beach blue water
Stunning coastal views in Big Sur, California😍

This post may contain affiliate links. For more info, see my disclosures.

The Big Sur area on the California Coast is vastly untouched, left with naturally beautiful landscapes as far as the eye can see. Whether you’re driving Big Sur in just a day or you’re spending a week on a San Francisco to San Diego road trip, there’s plenty to see and do along this area of the coast. 

Must-see video: Big Sur, California

Things to do in Big Sur

The region is rugged and barren, yet lush and gorgeous. From hiking to waterfalls, beaches to scenic overlooks, this road trip has something for everyone! After all, Big Sur California is one of the best adventure vacations in the US!

You’ll absolutely love this area!

This guide covers A LOT! Let’s dive in!

Big Sur California map

If you’re a visual person, this map can help you plan your stops. There’s so much to see – be sure to check the details for each stop below!

Pro tip: you won’t have cell phone reception for much of the Big Sur area, so be sure to download this map with the stops or a Google offline map of the area before leaving Monterey or Carmel.

What you need to know about Big Sur California

First, let’s go over some important info – how to get there, where to stay, etc.

How to get to Big Sur, California

things to do in Big Sur view of grey beach and teal water from above
The seemingly impossibly beautiful beaches along the Big Sur Coast (see #23)😍

The Big Sur area is just south of Monterey, California. You can fly into Monterey Airport or drive to Monterey and start early the next morning on your drive through Big Sur.

Pro tip: use Google Flights for the lowest price dates!

If you’re renting a car for your Big Sur day trip, I recommend Discover Cars. I typically save 10-30% by booking through them and it’s a free service. They search the top car carriers to find the best deal. Search cheap car rates now.

Big Sur is located on Highway 1 in California, or 101, and otherwise known as the Pacific Coast Highway. It’s incredibly scenic from Washington state down through San Diego. Big Sur is definitely the shining star of this highway!

Best time to visit Big Sur

Such a picturesque coastline…when you can see it!

This part of the northern California coast can see a lot of fog. According to locals, September and October are the best months to visit Big Sur to avoid the marine fog. However, I’ve been through Big Sur several times and it’s beautiful with or without the fog!

If you’re looking for bright blue skies and vivid water, try the fall. Also consider the rainy season can sometimes create mudslides. And during fire season there could be road closures. Just something to consider when planning your trip!

Editor note: during this Big Sur California guide, you’ll see photos of bright sunny skies with blue and teal water. Then you’ll also see foggy days where the water looks gray and everything is more dull. I’ve done the Big Sur coast drive multiple times, and the weather can change dramatically along the coast, even within the same day!

things to do Big Sur view of point lobos reserve with green succulents rocky shore along cove on foggy day
The beautiful (if not foggy) Point Lobos along Big Sur, California

How long to spend in Big Sur California

If you’re wondering what to do in Big Sur and how long you’ll need, the short answer is: as much time as you can!

You could spend a week exploring the waterfalls, relaxing on the beaches, camping in the state parks or enjoying the nearby Carmel-by-the-Sea and Monterey.

Or you could see Big Sur in one day, stopping at all the highlights.

My first trip to Big Sur, I did in one day. I actually regret that decision and have since come back, spending a week exploring the area. There’s so many Big Sur activities, I highly recommend at least 2 days in Big Sur to see the highlights!

view of Big Sur bridge with cliff to ocean and arched bridge
Bixby Creek Bridge near sunset (see #8 below)

Big Sur hotels

Alright, so you may not want to hear this, but there’s not a lot of options for hotels or vacation rentals along Big Sur. And that’s because the area is so largely undeveloped – which is a good thing!

But that means you’ll need to plan your adventure accordingly. You’ll want to spend some time at lookouts, relaxing on beaches and going on hiking adventures. So break up the trip if you can by booking accommodations along the way.

Big Sur accommodations

  • Hofsas House Hotel. Located in Carmel, this is a great spot to start your Big Sur road trip! (near stop #2 below)
  • Hyatt Carmel Highlands. Upscale with excellent views of the Pacific, this is located right at the beginning of your trip (near stop #5 below)
  • Big Sur River Inn. This is one of the best Big Sur hotels, offering a bunch of amenities. Highly recommend! (stop #11 below)
  • Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park Campground. Clearly not a hotel, but with over 200 camping sites for tents and RVs, this is a great option to enjoy more time in the outdoors! (stop #13 below)
  • Alila Ventana Big Sur. Luxury along the coast, this adult-only resort offers world-class service and views. (near stop #15 below)
  • Ragged Point Inn. Located at the end of this Big Sur road trip in San Simeon, this is a great hotel for a 2-day adventure along the coast. (after the last stop on this list)

History of Big Sur

blue ocean green bushes yellow flowers cliffs of the coast
So many things to do in Big Sur!

If you’ve been wondering why it’s called Big Sur, here you go…

  • Big Sur is derived from “El Sur Grande” which was aptly named by the Spanish settlers. It referred to the vast, unexplored wilderness south of Monterey.
  • Spanish explorer Juan Rodríquez Cabrillo landed in the area in 1542 and thus started claiming the land and pushing the native people from their homes.
  • The Native Rumsien people were the original inhabitants of the Monterey peninsula, while the Esselen Tribe lived south – in the coastal area of Big Sur.
  • In 2020, a small portion of nearly 1200 acres of Big Sur was given back to the Esselen Tribe of Monterey County!

So please, when you visit this coast be respectful of these sacred lands.

Without further ado, let’s dive into the guide.

Best things to do in Big Sur

Eeeek! I’m so excited for you to explore this area. It’s one of my favorite spots in the country, and one I’ve visited multiple times because it’s so fantastic. You’re gonna love it!

1. The 17-Mile Drive

Big Sur road trip view of single tree perched on rock with ocean in distance
Lone Cypress Tree along the 17-Mile Drive near Big Sur California

Starting this list off with a bang! The 17-Mile Drive is a popular drive along the coast just north of Big Sur in Pebble Beach, California. It’s included in this guide to the best things to do in Big Sur because of its dramatic coastlines, unique forested areas and beautiful beaches.

There’s a few things on this guide that have a fee, and the 17-mile drive is one of them. It’s relatively inexpensive at just $11.25 per vehicle (at the time of publication; check current fee here). The drive is typically open sunrise to sunset to passing vehicles (except motorcycles).

There’s actually 17 marked stops to see along the 17-Mile Drive. My favorite stops are the Spanish Bay Beach, Point Joe, Cypress Point Lookout and the Lone Cypress. Probably one of the most famous trees in California, the Lone Cypress is over 250 years old and stands atop a cliff along the coast.

To drive straight through, this is a 45 minute route. However, you’ll want to make some stops for lookouts, beaching and perhaps even golfing so allow plenty of time. I’d recommend adding this to your Big Sur road trip if you’re spending a few days in the Monterey or Carmel area.

2. Carmel-by-the-Sea (one of my favorite activities in Big Sur)

This is an absolute must when on your Big Sur road trip! You could base yourself out of Carmel-by-the-Sea, or make it a stop on your way down the coast.

Carmel-by-the-Sea has the most charming town and incredible architecture. The adorable downtown is filled with beautiful flowers, unique brick streets and the most stunning historic buildings.

Ocean Avenue is the main street in town, full of shopping and dining. You won’t find chain restaurants here, either. Everything has a local feel, which is quite refreshing!

Carmel-by-the-Sea is also a very dog-friendly town, including pup menus at restaurants and one of the best dog friendly beaches in the Monterey area, Carmel Beach.

It’s a must-see on your Big Sur road trip!

3. Carmel River State Beach

Big Sur activities visit the beach with tan sand log blue water on foggy day
The Pacific Ocean at Carmel River State Beach

Nestled south of Carmel-by-the-Sea, the Carmel River State Beach is a great spot for swimming and enjoying the waves. One side of the beach is the cove open to the Pacific Ocean. On the other side is a lagoon so you actually have options for enjoying the water!😊

The sand dunes are fun to explore and if the tide is low, you likely see lots of marine life in the tide pools.

Note that the parking lot is small and neighborhood parking is limited, so be prepared by hitting the beach early or walking a ways to get there. There are bathrooms at the site, which have solar panels, which is pretty modern and unique to California.

Carmel River State Beach is dog-friendly but must be kept on a leash and cleaned up after.

If you’re doing a Big Sur road trip with kids, this is one spot you won’t want to leave!

4. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve (a must-see while driving Big Sur California)

activities Big Sur view of beach with seals and large cliffs on cloudy day
Seals on the beach at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

One of the most unique things to do in Big Sur is to visit Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. It’s a unique part of the coast where there are so many cool coves and marine life to see. Throughout the reserve you’ll see fabulous views of the Monterey Bay in the distance and the coast along Carmel Highlands.

This is one of the best spots for hiking to see some unique nature, too. The Cypress Grove Trail is just 0.8 miles, and takes you along one of only 2 naturally occurring Cypress Tree groves in the world. See the red algae growing on them – so interesting!

Be sure to walk along the South Shore Trail to see if you can catch a glimpse of the cute sea otters resting on floating seaweed islands in the coves. Oh, and check out trail to Bird Island where you’ll see seals resting on the beach on your way to the island.

The entrance fee for Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is $10 per vehicle (as of the time of publication).

Pro tip: get there early! There’s extremely limited parking at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, and when the parking fills up you’ll have to park outside the park and walk the whole thing – adding several miles to your stops within the park.

Visiting Point Lobos is by far one of the best activities in Big Sur!

5. Carmel Highlands Vista Point

view of blue ocean rocky cliff with fog in the distance
Views along the Big Sur coast at Carmel Highlands

There’s about a thousand lookout points along the Big Sur drive. Okay, that may just be an exaggeration.

However, there’s a lot of overlooks. This guide will highlight the ones worth stopping at. Right as you leave town from Carmel-by-the-Sea to Big Sur, just as you’re going through the neighborhood, you’ll see this small pull-off. There’s only room for about 5 or 6 vehicles.

Stop here and check out the views of the cove. Across the water you’ll see Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. And of course, views of the Pacific on a clear day!

6. Garrapata State Park

garrapata state park rocky cliffs at sunset with blue water
Golden hour at Garrapata State Park

One of the fun stops along the Big Sur coast is a stop at Garrapata State Park. With the rugged coastline and excellent hiking trails, this is a stop worthy of your time. You could spend an hour here – or longer, if you have the time!

One of the park’s highlights is the Garrapata Beach. It’s perfect for surfing and wildlife viewing.

If you’re up for some hiking, try the Soberanes Point and Whale Peak. At just 1.8 miles and rated as easy, this trail has incredible views of the water, especially at Whale point. Keep an eye out for sea life while on this hike!

While most of the year this park is filled with succulents and wildflowers, one of the highlights is the Calla Lily Valley which peaks in January and February. It’s truly stunning!

7. Garrapata State Park Bluff Trail (one of the best Big Sur activities for coastal views)

Big Sur beaches along the drive view of succulents beach and cliffs
Hiking trails lead to the beach at Garrapata State Park

This trail is so good it’s worthy of it’s own place on this list of best things to do in Big Sur. The Garrapata State Park Bluff Trail is a very easy 0.6 mile out-and-back path that takes you along the coast above the beach. This trail hugs the Pacific Coast and the views cannot be beat!

This would also be a romantic trail to walk at sunset, with views of the sun dipping into the Pacific Ocean.

Pro tip: it can get really windy and cold here, so pack layers. A light rain jacket or medium coat might be necessary depending on the season you’re traveling. 🙂

This quick stop is worth your time, even on a Big Sur day trip!

8. Big Sur bridge: Bixby Creek Bridge

Big Sur bridge view of bridge with arch under and ocean with waves along rugged coastline
The most famous Big Sur bridge

One of the most iconic and popular stops along the highway, the Bixby Creek Bridge is a stunning masterpiece in Big Sur. It’s one of the most photographed bridges in the US, and a close second in California to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

Known as the Big Sur Bridge, and built in 1932, it’s hard to imagine how it was even created! The concrete arch is one of the highest bridges of its kind in the world.

Bixby Creek Bridge – best vantage points

  • There is room for about 10 cars on the right side of the road as you drive from north to south. It’s called Castle Rock Viewpoint. Park there and hop out of your vehicle. Be sure to stay away from the cliffs!
  • Alternatively, you can turn left just before the bridge onto Old Coast Road. There’s another 10 or so spots to park right off Highway 101. From there, you’ll get a unique view of the bridge and valley below. To see the traditional view, you’ll need to cross the highway, which can be dangerous depending on traffic.
  • To the south of the bridge is the Hurricane Point View, which is 1.1 miles down the road. From here you can stop and get views of the bridge in the distance.

Seeing the Bixby Creek Bridge is definitely one of the best things to do in Big Sur!

More unique things to do in Big Sur

Can you believe this list?! And we’re just getting started! More unique activities and stops while driving Big Sur, up next!

9. Great Sur Turnout

Big Sur drive view of coast with red bushes pond beside ocean and white clouds
Great Sur Turnout on a foggy day along the coast

Told ya there were lots of overlooks, right?

This one is cool because you’re back down lower in elevation, almost to the water level. You can see both up and down the coast from this turnout. It’s located just 2 miles south of the Bixby Creek Bride.

If you’re considering all the Big Sur activities on this list, visiting turnouts can be quick but rewarding!

10. Point Sur State Historic Park and Lightstation

aerial view of lighthouse with blue water cliff and road through peninsula
Aerial view of Point Sur Lighthouse Photo credit: Wikimedia

One of the most unique activities in Big Sur California, visiting the Point Sur State Historic Park requires a bit of planning. With limited hours and even more limited tours, this park has a lot going for it but visiting depends on when you’ll be in the area.

Point Sur Lightstation Tours cost $15 and are done just a few days a week at specified times. Check official website for hours and fee. The tour is 3 hours and is outdoors, so bring layers and prepare for wind!

11. Big Sur River Inn & General store

river inn Big Sur hotels view of building roof with flowers out front trees behind
River Inn Big Sur

A historic property built over 80 years ago, the Big Sur River Inn is the area’s first hotel and restaurant. To be honest, it’s a much-needed stop for essential supplies, too as you’re driving Big Sur.

If you’re planning to spend multiple days exploring the coast, the Big Sur River Inn is a great spot to stay overnight. There’s a full-service restaurant and a burrito bar, serving excellent burritos and lighter fare.

In addition, you can grab food, snacks ice and even souvenirs in the general store. There’s an on-site gas station, if you’ve forgotten to fill up in Carmel or Monterey.

12. Andrew Molera State Park (one of the best spots for hiking)

sign of Andrew molera state park with tall grass and clouds
Great for hiking: Andrew Molera State Park

Located 20 miles south of Carmel is the incredible Andrew Molera State Park. Perfect for hiking, surfing, birding and walking on near empty beaches, this park has a lot to offer on your Big Sur drive!

Considering it’s a state park, there’s a fee to enter – $10.

Andrew Molera State Park is the largest state park along the Big Sur coast. One of the park’s highlights is the beach. It’s a 2.1 mile hike to get there, but oh-so worth it! Please note most of the beach is only accessible during low tide, so use caution if the tide starts to rise back up!

There are 20 miles of hiking trails throughout the park, which showcase the park’s hills, meadows, bluffs and the Big Sur River. While hiking within view of the ocean, be sure to watch for sea lions, sea otters and migrating gray whales! This is definitely one of the best ‘hidden’ things to do at Big Sur!

13. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

tall trees with walkway through forest at Pfeiffer state park
Boardwalk views at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

The Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is full of adventure! The Big Sur River Gorge and Pfeiffer Falls are two of the main attractions of this park. Come and enjoy the day hiking in the Redwood Trees!

Pfeiffer Falls Trail is an easy 1.3 miles out-and-back, with an elevation gain of 400 feet. It’s worth taking an hour of your day to enjoy this scenic hike. This is easily one of the best things to do in Big Sur, and one of the least visited activities on this list.

Enjoy dinner or a sweet treat at the Homestead Restaurant at the Big Sur Lodge. Oh, and try a cinnamon roll – delicious!

Reservations for the Big Sur Lodge and the campground fill up quickly, so book your stay 6+ months in advance.

Note: Pfeiffer Beach is NOT part of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. They’re run by separate entities and paying the entrance fee to the park does not include beach access. Further confusing, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is a completely separate park down the road (see #20 below).

14. Purple sand beach Big Sur – Pfeiffer Beach (one of the most popular things to do Big Sur)

large rock on beach with waves and puffy clouds
Keyhole Arch on Pfeiffer Beach Big Sur

One of the most iconic beaches in California, Pfeiffer Beach in the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is one of the coolest spots to visit along the coast.

With it’s well-recognized keyhole arch and purple sand, this beach is a fun one to explore! The waves are much too strong for swimming, so it’s great for watching the waves crash along the shore and listening to the ocean roar.

The sand can appear purple in some areas due to the manganese garnet that washed down from the mountains after rainfall. So it’s not a full purple sand beach, rather some parts of it may have purple sand.

It’s a fun spot for a picnic or just to watch the ocean do crazy things – like crash through the keyhole in the rock! Enjoy the tide pools or sit on a log and enjoy the direct view of the Pacific Ocean.

To get to Pfeiffer Beach Big Sur, you’ll need to turn towards the coast one mile south of the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park entrance. It’s a narrow, one-lane road so RV’s and large vehicles aren’t allowed to drive. There’s a $12 entrance fee to access the beach, which you’ll pay at the end of the long drive.

Note: during my last trip to Big Sur, while driving the road cautiously with my family, I encountered a few cars that belonged to locals that lived on the road. Both were incredibly rude and I’m shocked neither of them crashed into me while driving recklessly. So just a reminder to watch out for that – and also that kindness always wins.

15. Big Sur Station

This could be one of the most important stops in your journey down the coast! The Big Sur station has a plethora of information, and anything you want know about the area. It includes maps for hiking or backpacking, souvenirs and so much info!

The park rangers know a lot about the are and can give more recommendations on how long it will take to get to a certain spot, or what closures are in effect based on weather or construction. 

The hours are 9:00am – 4:00pm and if it’s open when you’re driving through, it’s a great stop that’s really helpful.

16. Seal Beach Overlook

view of Big Sur california vibrant blue water with rocky cliffs
More stunning views along the coast

Another fabulous overlook on this list of what to do in Big Sur California! Named Seal Beach Overlook, you’ll often see seals resting along the shore here. However, you’re pretty high up at this point in time and if you want to get a good look at them, grab your binoculars.

So while this stop is worthy of your time, I’d say it’s just as great catching another breathtaking glimpse of the Big Sur coast. 😊

17. COAST Big Sur (a tasty stop on the Big Sur drive)

coast cafe and gallery building front wood circular restaurant with dinner on top trees in distance
COAST Big Sur

This could be one of the sweetest spots on your Big Sur day trip! This is a sweets café and art gallery, and is the perfect time to stop and stretch your legs!

COAST Big Sur is 7 miles south of Pfeiffer Beach Big Sur and 5 miles north of McWay Falls, so it’s a great stop on the Big Sur day drive or for a sweet treat!

The cafe has a small selection of food, but it’s excellent, including gluten free and vegan options. The rooftop seating is second to none in terms of views! Sitting on the outdoor terrace, you’ll see the Pacific Ocean in all it’s glory.

If you’re traveling to Big Sur with kids, this is a great stop for ice cream too!

Things to do Big Sur – hiking, beaches & sightseeing continues

Well this list is over 1/2 way done! Are you so ready to start your adventure? One of my favorite, hidden hikes is up next!

18. Partington Cove (Big Sur day trip favorite)

things to do in Big Sur view of the rocky coast and bright blue water
The sightseeing never ends along the Big Sur coast!

This is a fun, unique spot along the coast, and definitely one of the best things to do in Big Sur! Partington Cove is a small cove and hiking trail where you can see the water and coast from below the road.

The Partington Cove hike is considered a moderate hike, because you’ll descend almost 350 feet, which means the way back up is a bit of a climb. Leave your flip flops in the car and grab your water shoes or hiking shoes for this trail!

And bonus – this hike is free! It’s technically located inside the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, but considering it’s coastal location, there is no fee to hike this trail.

Once on the trail, go right and you’re going to the rocky beach. Go left and you’ll see the views after walking through a tunnel to get to a higher vantage point.

The parking spot will sneak up on you, as it’s not really marked and the parking is along the road so it’s limited. Keep your downloaded Big Sur California map handy, but if you pass it as you’re driving Big Sur, it’s worth turning around and finding a parking spot along the road.

This is one of the lesser-known but amazing things to do at Big Sur!

19. McWay Falls (one of the top things to do in Big Sur!)

things to do in Big Sur visit McWay Falls with view of teal ocean rocks waterfall in distance
The incredibly beautiful McWay Falls, Big Sur

One of the most popular spots and best things to do in Big Sur, the McWay Falls is a large 80-foot waterfall located in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. The beach below the falls is not accessible.

There’s a fee to hike the trail to the overlook, $10 since it’s located in a state park. It’s a self-pay system and you’ll need cash to park and walk to the falls.

Pro tip: if you’re watching closely, you can actually stop along the road just before the falls. Most of it is blocked off with cones, but further up the road is available to stop.

The hike is super easy compared to the Grand Teton Inspiration Point hike, for instance. It’s mostly flat on level dirt. At just 0.5 miles, it’s a quick park and walk to the overlook.

Note: as of the time of publication, part of the waterfall overlook trail was closed due to flood damage. You can still walk out and see the falls, it’s just more from the side versus straight on.

This is a fun waterfall hike, and one stop along the Big Sur drive you’ll love!

20. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is home to the famous McWay Falls, of course. Unfortunately one of the coolest things to do in the park has been closed since 2020 with the Dolan Fire, which burned a large part of Big Sur. But it’s worth your time and needs to be included because it will likely open back up at some point!

The Ewoldsen Trail is a challenging trail at 3.9 miles, with an elevation gain of 1341 feet. It takes you through a Redwood forest, grasslands and provides epic ocean views.

Because the trail was burned, the vegetation surrounding the trail needs years of growth in order to prevent mudslides, rockfalls and floods that could impact the safety of the trail for years to come.

So currently the park’s biggest attractions are the 2 items listed above – Partington Cove and McWay Waterfall Overlook Trail. Check trail updates.

21. Big Creek Bridge Vista Point (more stunning Big Sur bridge views)

yellow flowers green water with road and cliff in distance
Big Sur coast views with Big Creek Bridge in the distance

Alright so as a good rule of thumb, when you see a blue sign along the Big Sur drive that says “Vista Point” you should totally stop! After all, it’s one of the best things to do Big Sur. 😊

This stop provides picturesque views of the Big Creek Bridge. Similar arches as the Bixby Creek Bridge, this bridge is just simply cool looking.

Grab your selfie stick or tripod and take some pics of those traveling with you. It’s that good!

22. Gamboa Point (must-see along the Big Sur coast)

what to see Big Sur itinerary teal water on rocky coastline at Gamboa point
Beautiful views at Gamboa Point😍

Just down the road from the Big Creek Bridge Vista Point is the Gamboa Point. It provides views of the bridge in the distance. However, it’s on the list of the best things to do in Big Sur because of the fun beach and rocky coastline leading up to the bridge.

Aren’t these phenomenal? If you have some time, stand at the edge of the viewing area and watch the water dance as it hits the rocky shoreline. It’s pure bliss and will remind you how incredible nature is, especially along Big Sur California!

23. Limekiln tunnel bridge (one of the best things to do at Big Sur for views)

Big Sur california view of grey beach teal water scenic road through mountain
Incredible views at this unofficial stop😍

Ok, so there’s no official name for this stop so I totally made it up because it’s so good!! 🤣

This is one of the best things to do in Big Sur, and one of my daughter’s favorite stops on a recent trip to the area.

As you’re driving down the coast from north to south you’ll pass the Lucia Lodge on the right side of the road. It’s actually a super cute lodge nestled on the cliff. Anyways, just past that you’ll see a concrete tunnel as you drive towards Limekiln State Park.

Just before the tunnel is a gravel pull-out. This is a fantastic spot to view the coast to the south. And once you stop and hop out of your car, you can look down to see the most beautiful black sand beach with teal water!

The teal water reminded me of my time on the beaches of Turks and Caicos – so stunning! This is by far one of the best Big Sur activities on this list.💛

24. Limekiln State Park 

limekiln state park sign with road behind
Another state park for exploring: Limekiln

The reason this has to be on the list when driving Big Sur is for hiking. The trails are really cool, and lead you to the historic lime kilns that were responsible for rebuilding San Francisco after the historic fire in 1906.

Unfortunately, when the limekilns were built, the land owners cut down tons of Redwood trees to make room to store the lime. However, now that the land is owned by California it’s flora and fauna are preserved.

The park’s top attraction are hiking trails. This is a unique part of the Big Sur coast in that Limekiln Canyon is one of the steepest canyons along the drive. The mountains rise from sea level to over 5,000 feet in elevation in less than 4 miles, meaning the views are spectacular. Oh, and the waterfall trail is the one not to miss!

Unfortunately, the 2020 Dolan Fire has ruined hiking for everyone for a matter of years to come. Check for trail updates.

Meanwhile, the beach and campgrounds are still open if you’re looking for a more peaceful beach or camping experience.

25. Mill Creek Picnic Area

things to do in Big Sur have a picnic overlooking the coast with rocky cliffs Pacific Ocean on foggy day
Perfect backdrop for a picnic, right?

Ok let’s be honest for a second: there’s not a lot of places to use the restroom along the Big Sur coast. However, at the Mill Creek Picnic Area, there’s bathrooms and views! 😆

Located inside the Los Padres National Forest, this is such a scenic area. There’s a few picnic tables if you brought lunch or dinner with you on the road. If you’re wondering what to do in Big Sur – you should definitely have a picnic overlooking the ocean!

And if you’re traveling with kids, there’s a small, hidden pool from the creek that’s just off the ocean. With the rocky bottom, you’ll want to pack your water shoes. But it’s a fun spot for kids to enjoy the water without the crashing waves of the ocean.

26. Pacific Valley Bluff Trail (one of the more unique things to do Big Sur California)

Big Sur california view of pacific valley bluff trail with ocean in distance
HIking the Pacific Valley Bluff Trail

You’re going to love this hike! At 1.6 miles, this easy trail will take you toe the bluff along the coast with stunning views of the water. Watch for wildflowers on this gorgeous coastal trail!

Unlike the Waihee Ridge Trail in Maui, this hiking trail hardly ever has anyone there! You’ll feel like you’re experiencing the Big Sur coast by yourself.😍

To get to the trailhead, park across the street from the Pacific Valley Fire Station. It’s roadside parking so be sure to hide or take any valuables with you. But for the most part this area doesn’t get a lot of foot traffic so you should be ok.

Things to do at Big Sur – continued

We’re in the final stretch of this huge guide! This next adventure is an absolute must-stop, even on a shorter Big Sur itinerary.

Let’s keep going…

27. Sand Dollar Beach (one of my favorites on this list of best things to do in Big Sur)

blue beach ocean waves along cliffs on a Big Sur road trip
Fun at the Sand Dollar Beach

This is such a fantastic beach! Sand Dollar Beach is one of my very favorite spots on this epic coastal drive. If you plan to spend any time on the beach, it should definitely be here!

Sand Dollar Beach is part of the Los Padres National Forest, so there’s an entrance fee to get in, but it’s totally worth it! Bring cash as it’s $10 for parking and cash-only. (fee accurate as of the time of publication)

Note: this is not a very accessible beach. The walk down to Sand Dollar Beach includes quite a few steps and a hill, so it will be extremely difficult or impossible strollers or wheelchairs to reach the beach.

The steps down to the beach include a viewing platform where you can see the coast from end to end of the crescent-shaped beach – so pretty. Even if you can’t make time for walking or lounging on the beach, visiting this overlook is definitely one of the top things to do at Big Sur!

Once you’re down on the beach, watch the waves crash along the shore. Enjoy the surfers as they ride the waves inland. Or during whale season (June through October), it’s a great spot to see whales from the shore, too!

Bring a picnic or snack and enjoy the beach. Just remember to leave no trace and pack out what you bring in. 

Oh, and be sure to apply earth-friendly mineral sunblock for this beach. This is the sunscreen my family has everywhere – from hiking the Queens Garden Trail in Bryce Canyon National Park to visiting Maui with kids.

28. Big Sur Lookout

Big Sur california black sand beach teal water with road above
Yet another beautiful overlook

Warning: it’s really hard not to stop at every overlook. They’re all so different yet so stunning!

This lookout has a small parking area right along the road and water. Hop out of your vehicle for this beautiful beach view. It’s a shame you can’t go down and enjoy the water. Yet at the same time, it wouldn’t be as naturally beautiful if there were people there!

So don’t miss the chance to stop at these beautiful overlooks, even if you’re short on time during a Big Sur day trip. It’s sooo worth it!

29. Cruickshank Trail

hiking trail through tall yellow grasses
Cruickshank Trailhead

Located in Silver Peak Wilderness, the Cruickshank trail is great for backpackers or those looking for a longer day hike.

Coming in at 5.2 miles with an elevation increase of 1,368 feet, this moderate trail climbs inward. With views of the ocean turning Redwood forests, this trail is a fun one! The switchbacks within the first mile are challenging, but your’e rewarded with stunning views!

The trail is narrow so long pants are advised so you don’t scrape your legs on the overgrown brush and Poison Oak. Ticks are in this area, so be sure to treat clothing with preventative spray and check yourself throughout the hike and after.

Note: there are notices of bears in this area. Be prepared with bear spray and keep food in bear-safe containers.

30. Soda Springs Trail

hiking trail through grasses and trees
Hiking through the trees at Soda Springs

The Soda Springs hike is so similar to the Cruickshank Trail. Pick one or do them both if you love to hike!

Coming in at 5.8 miles with 1,676 feet in elevation gain and rated as moderate, this trail will take you 3-4 hours, depending on how many stops you do. You’ll start off all uphill with plenty of switchbacks and incredible views of the coastline. Then a nice relatively flat forest section will ease your legs for awhile before heading downhill to the creek.

Because this trail is steep, you’ll want trekking poles on the way up and especially on the way back down to save your knees. These are the hiking poles I love and take with me on all hiking adventures – even in Big Sur.

Note: wear long pants for this one and be sure to watch for poison oak, especially in the first mile of the trial. Treat your clothes with permethrin before you go!

31. Salmon Creek Falls (unique and hidden waterfall)

double waterfall along rocky cliff with trees surrounding it
The underrated Salmon CreekFalls

The last 2 hikes had some challenging terrain and coastal views, but this inland hike features a beautiful waterfall! Exploring Big Sur and hiking to waterfalls is another reason this road trip is one of the most romantic vacations in the United States.

At just 0.3 miles, this is a short and sweet hike, and one of the most unique things to do in Big Sur based on its hidden location. It’s best to do during winter or spring, after recent rains as it can dry up in the summer or during a drought.

The hike is labeled as easy, although there is some scrambling and bouldering, so hiking shoes with good traction are essential! You’ll even need to use a short rope to get to the waterfall. Make sure to have a good hiking backpack and keep your hands free for this one.

The Salmon Creek Falls hike reminds me of the Calico Tanks trail along the Red Rock Canyon scenic drive outside Las Vegas. With fun terrain and some climbing, you’ll reach great views!

Anyway, watch for poison oak, and bring swimwear and water shoes for taking a dip in the refreshing pool at the base of the falls. What a fun adventure and one of the best activities in Big Sur!

32. Willow Creek Viewpoint

Big Sur california view of coast with grasses blue water and road
Big Sur California coastline never gives up😍

We’re nearly at the end of this list and that means the noteworthy overlooks are almost through. But you’ll want to stop at Willow Creek Viewpoint! Once you pull off the highway, the road is elevated, and the viewpoint appears as you approach large rock off the coast. That’s the San Martin Rock.

Just past here is a San Martin Rock Scenic Spot, where you’ll get views of this rock off the coast as well. You’ll get scenic views of the coast either direction.

Also, as hard as I tried, I couldn’t find info or history about why it’s called the San Martin Rock. If you find out, please please leave it in the comments section below!

33. Ragged point Big Sur (must-stop on your Big Sur road trip)

Ragged point big sur view of ocean with green
Views at Ragged Point Big Sur

This marks the official end of the Big Sur area! Ragged Point does not disappoint. The viewpoint itself is one of the best things to do in Big Sur – probably in part because it’s one of the last!

A cool beach to explore is only available for those who venture down the challenging trail to the beach.

You’ll descend nearly 400 feet, which means the way back up is killer on those thighs! The trail isn’t very well graded and is quite steep and slippery in spots. So if you’re up for the challenge, be sure to wear your good hiking shoes for this one!

As previously mentioned, Ragged Point Big Sur is also home to the Ragged Point Inn. It’s a great spot to stay overnight to break up your Big Sur road trip.

Or, if you’ve made it this far and are heading back north for the night (or continuing on south, for that matter), this is a great spot for food. With a full service restaurant and sandwich stand, you can get quick food to go or sit and enjoy a meal after a long day.

Best things to do in Big Sur

large beach tan sand white waves blue water rocks and blue sky
One more view of the beaches along the coast😍

Well that’s a wrap! Big Sur is full of adventures for every type of traveler. Whether you’re spending a day or a week along this gorgeous coast, you’ll easily fill your time with incredible sights and activities.

Let’s take a look at that list one more time….

What to do in Big Sur

  1. The 17-Mile Drive
  2. Carmel-by-the-Sea
  3. Carmel River State Beach
  4. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
  5. Carmel Highlands Vista Point
  6. Garrapata State Park
  7. Bluff Trail at Garrapata State Park
  8. Bixby Creek Bridge
  9. Great Sur Turnout
  10. Point Sur State Historic Park and Lightstation
  11. Big Sur River Inn & General store
  12. Andrew Molera State Park
  13. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
  14. Pfeiffer Beach
  15. Big Sur station
  16. Seal Beach Overlook
  17. COAST Big Sur
  18. Partington Cove
  19. McWay Falls
  20. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
  21. Big Creek Bridge Vista Point
  22. Gamboa Point
  23. Limekiln tunnel bridge
  24. Limekiln State Park
  25. Mill Creek Picnic Area
  26. Pacific Valley Bluff Trail
  27. Sand Dollar Beach
  28. Big Sur Lookout
  29. Cruickshank Trail
  30. Soda Springs Trail
  31. Salmon Creek Falls
  32. Willow Creek Viewpoint
  33. Ragged point

Related content you might like:
32 Amazing Stops on a San Francisco to San Diego Road Trip (You’ll Love)

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33 amazing stops Big Sur California

Jennifer Record

Friday 12th of August 2022

Love these recommendations.. the nature reserves sound beautiful~

Nikki

Saturday 13th of August 2022

They truly are, Jennifer. I hope you get to see them in person someday :)

Chantelle

Wednesday 10th of August 2022

LOVE THIS! Big Sur is one of my favorite areas in California. Growing up in Northern California, we spent a lot of time in this area. Your post makes me SO HOMESICK! I need to get back there and show all of these spots to my hubby, whos never been!

Nikki

Wednesday 10th of August 2022

Aw Chantelle it sounds like a trip to Big Sur is in your future! What a wonderful place to grow up, too.❤️

Anja

Wednesday 10th of August 2022

Wonderful post with stunning pictures that bring back great memories of visiting many years ago. It was certainly one of the highlights of my West Coast and Southwest trip, highly would recommend it to anyone visting the US

Nikki

Wednesday 10th of August 2022

Yes Anja! It's an incredible adventure. I'm so glad this guide could bring back fond memories for you!

Marian Fink

Wednesday 10th of August 2022

Adding this to my travel bucket list.

Nikki

Wednesday 10th of August 2022

Cool Marian! Thanks for visiting the blog today💛

Marisa

Wednesday 10th of August 2022

I hope to do a Big Sur roadtrip in the Fall! Saving this for when I do! So many good tidbits of info

Nikki

Wednesday 10th of August 2022

Ah Marisa you'd absolutely love Big Sur! I hope your plans work out and you enjoy your trip.