Big Sur's tranquillity and natural beauty are ideal for hiking, picnicking, camping, fishing, and beachcombing. The first settlers arrived only a century ago, and the present highway, built in 1937, first made the area accessible by car. (Electricity followed in the 1950s, but it's still not available in the remote inland mountains.) Big Sur's mysterious, misty beauty has inspired several modern spiritual movements (the Esalen Institute was the birthplace of the human potential movement). Even the tourist bureau bills the area as a place in which "to catch up with your soul."
The region affords bountiful wilderness adventure opportunities. The inland Ventana Wilderness, run by the U.S. Forest Service, has 167,323 acres straddling the Santa Lucia Mountains. Steep ridges separated by V-shaped valleys characterize it. The streams throughout the area have waterfalls, deep pools, and thermal springs. The wilderness offers 237 miles of hiking trails that lead to 55 designated trail camps -- a backpacker's paradise. One of the easiest trails to access is the Pine Ridge Trail at Big Sur station (tel. 831/667-2315).
From Carmel, the first stop along Hwy. 1 is Point Lobos State Reserve (tel. 831/624-4909; www.pointlobos.org), 3 miles south of Carmel. Sea lions, harbor seals, sea otters, and thousands of seabirds reside in this 1,276-acre reserve. Between December and May, you can also spot migrating California gray whales offshore, and in late April I've spotted numerous mama seals with their newly born pups. Trails follow the shoreline and lead to hidden coves. Note that parking is limited; on weekends especially, you need to arrive early to secure a place.
From here, cross the Soberanes Creek, passing Garrapata State Park (tel. 831/624-4909), a 2,879-acre preserve with 4 miles of coastline. It's unmarked and undeveloped, but the trails are maintained. To explore them, park at one of the turnouts on Hwy. 1 near Soberanes Point and hike in.
Ten miles south of Carmel, you'll find North Abalone Cove. From here, Palo Colorado Road leads back into the wilderness to the first of the Forest Service camping areas at Bottchers Gap ($12 to camp, $5 to park overnight; tel. 805/434-1996; www.campone.com).
Continuing south, about 13 miles from Carmel, you'll cross the Bixby Bridge and see the Point Sur Lighthouse off in the distance. The Bixby Bridge, one of the world's highest single-span concrete bridges, towers nearly 270 feet above Bixby Creek Canyon, with canyon and ocean views from observation alcoves at intervals along the bridge. The lighthouse, which sits 361 feet above the surf on a volcanic rock promontory, was built in 1889, when only a horse trail provided access to this part of the world. Tours, which take 2 to 3 hours and involve a steep half-mile hike each way, are scheduled on weekends year-round and Wednesday and Thursday during the summer. For information, call tel. 831/625-4419 or visit www.pointsur.org. Moonlight tours are offered as well, for $5 more than the normal price; check the website for specific dates. Admission is $10 for adults, $5 for youths ages 6 to 17, and free for kids 5 and under.
About 3 miles south of the lighthouse is Andrew Molera State Park (tel. 831/667-2315; www.parks.ca.gov), the largest state park on the Big Sur coast, at 4,800 acres. It's much less crowded than Pfeiffer-Big Sur . Miles of trails meander through meadows and along beaches and bluffs. Hikers and cyclists use the primitive trail camp about a third of a mile from the parking area. The 2 1/2-mile-long beach, sheltered from the wind by a bluff, is accessible via a mile-long path flanked in spring by wildflowers, and offers excellent tide pooling. You can walk the length of the beach at low tide; otherwise, take the bluff trail above the beach. Trails run through the park for horseback riders of all levels. Molera Big Sur Trail Rides (tel. 800/942-5486 or 831/625-5486; www.molerahorsebacktours.com) offers coastal trail rides daily from April to December, or until the rains come. The cost varies but starts at about $40 for a 1-hour ride along the beach. The park also has campgrounds.
Back on Hwy. 1, you'll reach the village of Big Sur, with commercial services. At Big Sur Station (tel. 831/667-2315), you can pick up maps and information about the region. It's located a quarter-mile past the entrance to Pfeiffer-Big Sur State Park (tel. 831/667-2315; www.parks.ca.gov), an 810-acre park with 218 camping sites along the Big Sur River (call tel. 800/444-7275 for camping reservations), as well as picnicking, fishing, and hiking. It's a scenic park of redwoods, conifers, oaks, and meadows, and it gets very crowded. The Big Sur Lodge in the park has cabins with fireplaces and other facilities. Admission is $5 per car, and it's open daily from dawn to dusk.
Just over a mile south of the entrance to Pfeiffer-Big Sur State Park is the turnoff to Sycamore Canyon Road (unmarked), which will take you 2 winding miles down to beautiful Pfeiffer Beach, a great place to soak in the sun on the wide expanse of golden sand. It's open for day use only, there's no fee, and it's the only beach accessible by car (but not motor homes).
Back on Hwy. 1, the road travels 11 miles past Sea Lion Cove to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. High above the ocean is the famous Nepenthe restaurant, the retreat bought by Orson Welles for Rita Hayworth in 1944. A few miles farther south is the Coast Gallery (tel. 800/797-6869; www.coastgalleries.com), the premier local art gallery which displays lithographs of works by the late writer and, yes, artist Henry Miller; it's open daily from 9am to 5pm. The gallery also has a small cafe that offers simple self-serve lunches of soup, sandwiches, baked goods, and coffee. Miller fans will also want to stop at the Henry Miller Memorial Library (tel. 831/667-2574; www.henrymiller.org), on Hwy. 1, 30 miles south of Carmel and a quarter-mile south of Nepenthe restaurant. The library displays and sells books and artwork by Miller and houses a permanent collection of first editions. It also serves as a community art center, hosting concerts, readings, and art exhibitions (check for upcoming events on the website). The rear gallery room is a video-viewing space where films about Henry Miller can be seen. There's a sculpture garden, plus tables on the adjacent lawn where visitors can rest and enjoy the surroundings. Admission is free; hours are from 11am to 6pm daily in the summer and 11am to 6pm Thursday through Sunday winter.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (tel. 831/667-2315; www.parks.ca.gov) encompasses some of Big Sur's most spectacular coastline. To get a closer look, take the trail from the parking area at McWay Canyon, which leads under the highway to a bluff overlooking the 80-foot-high McWay Waterfall dropping directly into the ocean. It's less crowded here than at Pfeiffer-Big Sur, and there are miles of trails to explore in the 3,580-acre park. Scuba divers can apply for permits to explore the 1,680-acre underwater reserve.
From here, the road skirts the Ventana Wilderness, passing Anderson and Marble Peaks and the Esalen Institute before crossing the Big Creek Bridge to Lucia and several campgrounds farther south. Kirk Creek Campground, about 3 miles north of Pacific Valley, offers camping with ocean views and beach access. Beyond Pacific Valley, the Sand Dollar Beach picnic area is a good place to stop and enjoy the coastal view and take a stroll. A half-mile trail leads down to the sheltered beach, with a fine view of Cone Peak, one of the coast's highest mountains. Two miles south of Sand Dollar is Jade Cove, a popular spot for rock hounds. From here, it's about another 27 miles past the Piedras Blancas Light Station to San Simeon.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.