How to: One Day in Big Sur

The California trip continues!

I’ll be the first to say that you should spend as much time in Big Sur as you can. As the name implies, it’s big. There are several state parks, plenty of places to camp or stay overnight, and so many incredible vistas that you could probably fill a week at least with to-dos. Our schedule, though, only had time for one day in Big Sur, so we did our best to make the most of it.

Tip: Print out paper directions to anything definitely want to see. Cell service is nonexistent through most of the drive, so you won’t be able to rely on a GPS.

Tuesday night, we drove from San Francisco to the Mariposa Inn & Suites in Monterey. The hotel was simple and clean, with a pool and a free breakfast in the morning. The next morning, we set out early to begin our trek.

Tip: Make sure you start out with a full tank of gas. There are loooong stretches on Highway 1 with exactly zero gas stations — the last thing you want is to get stuck with an empty tank. One full tank should get you the whole way through Big Sur, though.

First stop was Big Sur Bakery, which had been recommended to me by pretty much every person I told I was going to Big Sur. We got breakfast (eggs and greens on toast), but I’ve been told the dinner is also excellent.

Tip: This is also the last place to get good espresso before you get lost in the wilderness, so take advantage of the bustling coffee bar. I would also recommend getting a few baked goods for the road. (We opted for a pumpkin scone and a maple baon bowtie.)

After fueling up, we started our drive. There were a couple of things we wanted to see for sure (included below), but the main thing I would like to impress upon you is the importance of just stopping a lot and taking in your surroundings. This place? It is BEAUTIFUL. Like, stupid beautiful. You won’t even be able to believe it. It helped that we had the world’s most perfect weather, of course, but regardless, I truly believe California is the most gorgeous place on earth. Get OUT of the car and take it IN. Be the corny tourist on the side of the road taking deep breaths of the morning air and snapping a photo or two. It’s worth it.

LOOK AT IT.
LOOK AT IT.

Ok, now for the specifics. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park was one of my favorite stops. There are two must-see hikes here, both starting from the parking lot.

Tip: Do not park in the parking lot unless you like paying $20 for no reason. Park on the main road with everyone else who is not a tourist (for free) and walk down to the trail.

First up, McWay Falls. You’ve probably seen this shot a billion times from either movies or your West Coast friends’ Instagram feeds, but it is still 100 percent worth seeing in person. I mean, LOOK AT THAT WATER.

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The trail also barely qualifies as a hike — it’s short, totally flat, and can be done in flip flops. For something a bit more adventurous, hit up the Ewoldsen Trail on the opposite end of the parking lot. This will take you through redwood groves, over streams, and up some serious height if you feel industrious. The full trail is a little over five miles, but you can go as far as you like. If you’re in for the long haul, I’d recommend legitimate hiking boots and a backpack with water and snacks.

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One thing that we were not expecting but LOVED? An elephant seal rookery. Hundreds of these animals flock to this beach to sun themselves, sleep, and mate every year, and it was pretty incredible to see in person. And not just because they reminded us an awful lot of a certain lazy dog we adore. Definitely worth joining the crowd ooh-ing and ah-ing over the seals.

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After the seals, we started to head inland to Paso Robles where our hotel was. The downside was that we couldn’t see the water anymore. The upside is that we accidentally found ourselves in wine country! And, you guys. This country was so beautiful we almost couldn’t take it. The rolling hills and golden vineyards literally look painted on. We may have made a few more stops for photos. (And, okay, a wine tasting at Zenaida Cellars. We’re only human!)

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We ended the night with dinner in nearby San Luis Obispo at a place called Novo with a really pretty back deck.

All in all, this was our favorite day of the trip. (Not counting time spent with family, of course!) And even though it feels like we packed a lot into the day, I love knowing that we could go back again and do completely different things.

Here are a few things we could have done but didn’t have time to do:

Hearst Castle
My dad had actually mentioned this place when I was first soliciting for activity ideas, but I didn’t look into it enough at the time. Basically, William Randolph Hearst was a SUPER rich man who wanted to build an American castle that would rival the European versions. And, I’ve only seen pictures, but I think it’s safe to say he succeeded. You can tour the estate, but reservations are highly recommended. If I went again, I would book the night tour when docents dress in period clothing and you get to see the most of the castle.

Tip: Hearst also collected a pretty impressive menagerie of animals that he kept in a personal zoo and allowed to roam the grounds. Most of the animals were sent to zoos when the fortune dried up, but you can still see a small herd of zebras grazing along the highway — keep a sharp eye out!

Nepenthe Restaurant
I had actually planned to stop here for lunch, but I got my directions mixed up and it ended up being right by Big Sur Bakery. If you’ve done the bakery before, though, this place looks pretty awesome. The lunch seating is arranged stadium style next to this huge overlook so you can take in the view while you eat, and it has been run by the same family for three generations.

Have any of you been to Big Sur? Did you do something we didn’t? Give me ideas for our next trip in the comments!

2 thoughts on “How to: One Day in Big Sur

  1. Sand dollar beach! There’s a huge, gorgeous wooden staircase that takes you down to the beach, and the cliffs go straight up. Bonus points, I went sand dollar hunting and actually found a couple, which was a cool little souvenir. Here’s a random google picture of the staircase: http://everywhereonce.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/big-sur-sand-dollar-beach-stairs.jpg

    My favorite part about Highway 1 is how different every beach is. If I had no family in the midwest, I would move to California and be in Big Sur every weekend without a doubt.

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