Thursday, June 17, 2010

10 Steps to a Perfect Day in Big Sur

On purpose, I didn't title this blog post "10 Steps to the Perfect Day in Big Sur." I'm suspicious of travel writers (or Yelp! reviewers, for that matter) who claim to know what the best of anything is, whether it's fish tacos or Asian art museums. So consider this just one idea among many of how to spend a soul-nourishing summer's day in Big Sur, that remote chunk of California coast that lies south of Monterey and north of well, my house.
  • Start off with a big ol' breakfast at First Awakenings, a little cafe with a big outdoor patio and a fire pit. It's around the corner from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, but tucked away from the dazed crowds wandering Cannery Row, wondering what John Steinbeck ever saw in the place.
  • Roll down to Carmel-by-the-Sea and stop into Bruno's Market. Head directly to the deli at the back and order a tri-tip sandwich and picnic salads to go. Why? You'll thank me later. Big Sur has notoriously overpriced, often underwhelming food. Besides, eating at the beach is more fun.
  • Swing by Point Lobos State Reserve (admission $10; open from 8 a.m. until 30 minutes after sunset daily). Stretch your legs on the coastal trails, or at least say hello to the barking sea lions (they're the ones with ears) and spotted harbor seals (no ears).
  • Where everyone else stops to take a photo of Big Sur's iconic Bixby Bridge, you can head inland to explore the original coast highway, now called the Old Coast Road, 11 ocean-view miles of satisfying 4WD and mountain-biking terrain.
  • Or just keep driving south with everyone else, past Point Sur's historic lighthouse (guided tours occasionally available), down to Andrew Molera State Park (near where the Old Coast Road also dumps you back out onto Hwy 1). Give $10 to California State Parks (they need the money!) and park in the lot, near gentle trails that lead to a windy, rocky beach and a grassy campground.
  • Save your parking receipt, because it'll also get you in free to Big Sur's other state parks on the same day. Drive south to Pfeiffer-Big Sur State Park (open 30 minutes before sunrise to 30 minutes after sunset daily). Hop out of the car and hug some redwood trees, then reward yourself with some ice cream from the store at the rustic Big Sur Lodge.
  • About a half-mile south of the Big Sur ranger station, look for a small turn-off on your right, labeled as 'Narrow Road.' And that's an understatement: be prepared to wind downhill for over 2 twisting miles to reach Pfeiffer Beach (admission $5; open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily). It's famous for two things: a cinematic sea arch battered by pounding surf; and sand that's tinged with purple by manganese garnet that washes down from the hillsides.
  • If you didn't bring along a picnic lunch, then your next pit stop is Nepenthe, a restaurant hanging in the treetops by the sea. Otherwise, you can double back here later to sip wine and nibble appys as you huddle around the outdoor terrace fire pit and watch the sun get swallowed up by the sea.
  • Wondering where Big Sur's beatnik spirit has gone? Reconnect with it in the real bohemian grove (of redwoods, that is) at the Henry Miller Memorial Library. I never know what to expect when dropping by: outdoor movies, a musician's jam, or once, an impromptu wedding! Even when nothing special is happening, you can just chill, browse the books and have a cup o' community joe.
  • Still got your state parks entry receipt? Good, because you'll need it once more for Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (open 30 minutes before sunrise to 30 minutes after sunset daily). Get out of the car and walk through the tunnel underneath the highway, then hang a right. Keep looking off toward the ocean. You may literally gasp when you glimpse McWay Falls, coastal California's only waterfall that drops into the ocean (well, either that or onto the beach, depending on the tide).
There's a lot more I could tell you about Big Sur, from moonlight hot-springs soaks and beachcombing for jade to visiting the California condor bird-banding lab, but I'll have to save that for another day (and another blog post).

What are your fave spots in Big Sur? Tell us by leaving a comment below.

Photo: McWay Falls (Michael Connolly, Jr.)


  1. A perfect day, indeed. Love this post. :-)

  2. Thanks for your tips! Without your advice, I doubt I would have found Pfeiffer Beach! Check out my post about my adventure in Big Sur here: