Big Sur is arguably one of the most beautiful places in California, with it’s dramatic coastal views and steep cliffs cascading into the Pacific Ocean. Spanning over 50 miles on California’s Highway 1, simply driving through Big Sur is a popular thing to do on a road trip up or down the coast. Most visitors will take advantage of the many pull-outs along Highway 1 to take photographs or simply enjoy the view. While Big Sur is a rustic and remote location, at least in California’s standard, it is still a luxury to vacation here with very few lodging options under $200, aside from camping, of course. There are many opportunities to take in the beauty of Big Sur, including hiking, lookout points, and beaches. After analyzing the data on over 20 articles written about Big Sur, referencing online reviews, and visiting Big Sur ourselves, we determined that the following are the best places to eat, play, and stay.
Big Sur Bakery is a coffee bar, bakery, and cafe located in the heart of Big Sur, serving as a perfect pit stop for visitors and a staple for locals. While guests here can enjoy a full breakfast, the main draw of Big Sur Bakery is their coffee bar, where you are almost guaranteed to see a line each morning. There are plenty of places in Big Sur where you can order a cup of coffee, but Big Sur Bakery is one of the few that embraces the third-wave coffee scene with perfectly roasted beans and modern brewing techniques which sets them apart from the rest. Big Sur Bakery resides in a charming 1930’s house with lively landscaping and a large outdoor patio with seating options for bigger groups.
We read 17 articles about where to eat in Big Sur and compared the top mentioned locations to their existing online reviews. Big Sur Bakery was one of the highest mentioned places to eat in the articles we read and received rave reviews from visitors online. Due to its online hype, we put it on our agenda to try in person.
We visited Big Sur Bakery on a holiday weekend, so it was especially busy and the line to order coffee was out the door—though it did move pretty fast. Regardless of the long line behind us, the server at the cash register was friendly and patient in helping us decide what to order. We ordered a cappuccino accompanied by a double chocolate cookie which we enjoyed on the sunny outdoor patio. The cappuccino was velvety and balanced, and the cookie was gooey, bold, and melted in our mouths.
Be prepared—Big Sur Bakery is relatively pricey compared to typical specialty coffee prices. This is common for food and drinks in Big Sur since its remoteness makes it difficult to bring items here. While it might make you cringe to pay $6+ for your frothy yummy-tummy-wake-me-up-for-the-adventure drink, keep in mind that those ingredients had to travel a long and windy road to be served to you at Big Sur Bakery.
Since we did not find any coffee shops in Big Sur in our research—remember, Big Sur Bakery itself is not solely a coffee shop—the main coffee competition in to Big Sur Bakery are the other breakfast places in the area. However, most breakfast places serve diner-style coffee, which we just do not think is very special or worth recommending. In the years ahead, we look forward to seeing the coffee programs grow at COAST Big Sur and Big Sur Smokehouse who are embracing the third-wave coffee scene with their top of the line espresso machines and locally roasted beans. Though, it’s likely that Big Sur Bakery will keep the lead since most visitors are unlikely to visit the other locations until lunch or dinner time.
COAST Big Sur is a fairly new cafe that serves gourmet, picnic-inspired food and snack items, along with beer, wine, and coffee. They are known for their unmatched view of the Pacific Ocean from their 2nd story dining area which is a real treat for COAST Big Sur’s guests. In addition to their cafe, COAST Big Sur also has an art gallery and boutique store in adjacent buildings for guests to browse and shop after their meal.
Since people are drawn to Big Sur largely because of its coastal views, we knew that we needed to find the best restaurant where visitors could dine with an incredible view. Out of the 17 articles we read about dining in Big Sur, four restaurants were praised for their coastal views. After reading doing more research on these restaurants specifically, it was evident that COAST Big Sur has the perfect balance of high quality and unique food, coastal views, and accessible prices.
To enter COAST Big Sur, we walked through the art gallery, across the outdoor deck, and into the cafe— a rather un-intuitive experience. We ordered some of the most popular items per the recommendation of our server, which included the sourdough potato focaccia bread, the sofia salad (tomato, cucumber, scallion, olives, feta cheese, lemon balm vinaigrette), and a swirl of their Frozé and Frozen Lemonade. No doubt this meal was a mish-mash of snacks, but everything was extremely flavorful and delicious and we were stuffed by the end. We ate our snack-meal on the 2nd story of COAST Big Sur next to one of the large, round windows facing the coastline. We also had the option to dine on their outdoor patio, which would have been just as breathtaking.
Be prepared to wait for a parking spot at COAST Big Sur, as the lot is pretty small. Well worth the patience if you ask us though.
The biggest competition for COAST Big Sur is Nepenthe, a highly mentioned restaurant in several articles we read about Big Sur. However, in our research we concluded that Nepenthe’s spectacular views did not make up for it’s average reviews. We also think that COAST Big Sur stood out with its variety and culinary innovation.
Big Sur Smokehouse is a casual BBQ joint located in a restored homestead that was originally built in 1867. Beautifully paired with their classic BBQ options, Big Sur Smokehouse serves local beers and sides made from farm fresh ingredients. Big Sur Smokehouse has plenty of indoor and outdoor seating and is equipped for the larger crowds that Big Sur can attract during certain times of the year.
We reviewed several articles about the best dining options in Big Sur and cross-examined them with available reviews and ratings. There were only a few restaurants with as high of reviews as Big Sur Smokehouse, but out of these restaurants, Big Sur Smokehouse had the best looking food and environment. Big Sur Smokehouse did not have many mentions in articles written about Big Sur, but since it is a fairly new restaurant, this outlier made sense to us.
We had an early lunch at Big Sur Smokehouse, so it was fairly empty when we arrived. Regardless, our anticipation for our meal grew as we saw the employees taking the meat out of the smoker outside. We ordered the smoked chicken platter which came with chicken, two sides (we got the baked mac and cheese and chili coleslaw), house made pickles and sweet Hawaiian rolls. Our meal was fresh and packed with smoky flavor—we enjoyed every bite! Everyone we interacted with at Big Sur Smokehouse was very friendly and the space was clean, tastefully decorated, and lively.
Be mindful of your appetite here. While some people can easily finish a platter at Big Sur Smokehouse, some might find that sharing is plenty of food, especially if they add on an additional side. We shared our platter and still had leftovers, though we were not extremely hungry when we had our lunch. At around $20* per platter, sharing a meal at Big Sur Smokehouse will save you a good chunk of change.
There are many great restaurants in Big Sur, which presents a special challenge in identifying the top pick . As we researched the restaurants that were highly mentioned in articles written about Big Sur in more detail, we found that most had a specific reason that inhibited us from choosing it as best overall restaurant. For example, Sierra Mar has very high reviews and an impressive pre-fixe menu, but it’s high prices and limited reservations make it inaccessible to many people visiting Big Sur. Big Sur Roadhouse is also great but is only open for breakfast and lunch. Similar to COAST Big Sur, we had to consider the fact that Big Sur Smokehouse is relatively new to the area and would not be included in many articles that were already written about Big Sur.
*Price at time of publication.
McWay Falls is located in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and can be admired from a short trail overlooking the beach. The viewpoint for McWay Falls can be accessed from a short, quarter mile trail (each way) that starts right after the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park entrance, which takes you through a tunnel under Highway 1 to the highly anticipated viewpoint. McWay Falls is visible from the trail shortly after emerging from the tunnel after a short walk of only a few hundred feet. While the waterfall is small from this distance, you also get a great view of the ocean and beach from this viewpoint.
McWay Falls was the top mentioned activity in the 16 articles we reviewed about things to do in Big Sur and also had exceptional reviews online. Our research made it clear that McWay Falls is one of Big Sur’s top attractions and we verified it’s worthiness of this ranking with our visit.
We visited this already popular attraction on a holiday weekend, so it was especially busy. However, the popularity of the McWay Falls Viewpoint did not take away from the experience since the falls can be viewed from various parts of the short trail. McWay Falls was visible shortly after we emerged from the tunnel under Highway 1, yet the trail still continued. This allowed visitors to admire McWay Falls throughout parts of the trail instead of at one small viewpoint at the end of the trail. The McWay Falls Viewpoint is a quick and easy, must-see destination in Big Sur and you most likely won’t spend more than 30 minutes here, even with the short hike.
If you have a parking pass from another California State Park from the same day, you can use that same pass to park in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. You may notice visitors parking off of Highway 1 and then crossing the highway into Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park to avoid the entrance fee, but it is easier and much safer to park inside the park.
The main competition for best lookout point in Big Sur is the Bixby Bridge, also known as the Bixby Creek Bridge or Bixby Canyon Bridge, which is one of the most iconic views in Big Sur. While McWay Falls was mentioned more in articles written about Big Sur, we still recommend stopping at the Bixby Bridge as well if you have time. The Bixby Bridge is in the northern part of Big Sur and can be best seen by driving south and parking the lot right before the bridge.
Parrington Cove Trail is a 1 mile out and back hike that takes you to a beautiful cove with bright blue water. The hike starts off with steep dirt trail with an ocean view, and then takes you across a bridge into a tree covered area. Then, the trail goes through a long cave that opens up into Parrington Cove. Once down at the cove, visitors can sit on the rocks and relax while taking in the beautiful view. This hike is moderate which is mostly due to its steep incline on the first part of the hike.
In addition to its outstanding online reviews, Parrington Cove Trail was the most recommended hike in the articles we reviewed about activities in Big Sur. Our research indicated that Parrington Cove Trail had great payoff at the end with a view of the cove, and while moderate, did not seem too difficult for inexperienced hikers. The perception we had of Parrington Cove Trail as a well rounded hike, along with it high praise online, made it a strong contender for this category.
Even though we visited Big Sur on a busy weekend, we easily found parking at the trailhead of Parrington Cove Trail. While the first part of the hike was steep and made us work, we were rewarded the entire time with a beautiful view of the ocean. The next part of the hike was especially beautiful as we were immersed in the trees and crossed over a wooden bridge over a creek. The tunnel to the cove built the anticipation as we finally made our way to the cove. We took our shoes off, sat on the rocks, and enjoyed the view of the cove. The hike back up was more difficult than coming down, but luckily it was fairly short at a half mile each way.
If you are not in a rush, take your time on this hike. Each section of this short hike is so different with something beautiful to take in.
Edwolson Trail in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park was also mentioned several times in articles written about Big Sur, but not as much as Parrington Cove. Still, we went to check it out but were informed by a park ranger that this trail was closed indefinitely. Apparently, the trail suffered some damage in the rain and there was not yet a plan in place to get it fixed and open to the public. We hope to check it out in the future when it’s reopened.
Pfeiffer Beach is one of the few places in Big Sur that has direct beach access and is a very popular stop for visitors of the area. With its rigid and detailed rock formations, Pfeiffer Beach is stunning and allows visitors to see up close what they usually see above from Highway 1. The turnout for Pfeiffer Beach is directly off of Highway 1 and can be easily missed if you aren’t paying attention. Parking at Pfeiffer Beach costs $10* per car.
Even though Big Sur spans across more than 50 miles of the California Coast, there is not beach access in all areas of the coast. In fact, beach access is fairly difficult to find in some areas of Big Sur. Since Pfeiffer Beach was one of the top activities mentioned in articles about Big Sur and provides a unique opportunity to enjoy the ocean up close, it quickly became one of our top contenders.
We visited Pfeiffer Beach in the late morning, so we had to wait in a long line to get in to the parking lot (see Tips & Recommendations section). Once we made it inside Pfeiffer Beach, it was very beautiful and peaceful. There are large rocks in the water, creating stunning sights and unique little coves.
We only recommend visiting Pfeiffer Beach if you get there early, around sunrise or not long after. This beach is very popular but has limited parking. The limited parking is great in some ways because Pfeiffer Beach will never be overcrowded, but it also results in a long line of cars trying to get into the parking lot. Sometimes they even stop cars at the top of the hill and do not allow them to wait in line until someone drives up. Once the parking lot reaches capacity, the next car will not be allowed in until someone leaves. If it’s a busy time of year, visitors arriving in the late morning or afternoon can wait hours in line to get into the parking lot. If you want to visit Pfeiffer Beach, get there early!
Jade Cove has beach access and was mentioned a few times in articles written about Big Sur. However, this beach does not have sand like Pfeiffer Beach, so it does not provide the same opportunity for visitors to lay out and relax by the water. However, Jade Cove is rumored to have pieces of jade wash up on shore, so some people come here to look for it. If you are up for the hunt and want to avoid the crowds at Pfeiffer Beach, Jade Cove may be a better choice for you.
*Price at time of publication.
Glen Oaks Big Sur is a lodging facility that has mid-century modern rooms and a variety of different cabins. Built in the 1950s, Glen Oaks has recently refreshed their rooms, making them more moderns but keeping the charm and style from when they were created. Glen Oaks Big Sur has their own restaurant called Big Sur Roadhouse which is open for breakfast and lunch and has free coffee and donuts for guests. In the rooms, called the Adobe Motor Lodge, guests have additional amenities like a complimentary half-bottle of wine, firewood, and s’mores ingredients for outdoor fire pit. Glen Oaks is pet free and smoke free, but there is a designated smoking area near the Big Sur Roadhouse. Rooms start at $300*, but go up with size and weekend bookings.
We read online articles about lodging in Big Sur and also analyzed existing reviews from various online review websites. We used the existing data online, along with the value of the room and amenities compared to the cost, to narrow down our choices for best overall lodging.
We had a pleasant experience at Glen Oaks Big Sur. The mid-century modern room was tastefully decorated, and each detail of the room appeared to be well thought out and intentional. Room 4 (pictured) had a private outdoor patio with a fireplace and a table with chairs. The cabins are directly across the street and are walking distance from Big Sur River. Each cabin is very different, yet has the mid-century elements of Glen Oaks incorporated into its rustic feel.
Visitors can book a room or cabin at Glen Oaks Big Sur up to a year in advance, so it is recommended to book as soon as possible—at least several months in advance for Summer months.
Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn was one of the highest mentioned lodging options in Big Sur and also has cheaper rooms* than Glen Oaks Big Sur. While Deetjen’s has a charming, bed and breakfast feel to it, we determined that the extra amenities and quality of the rooms at Glen Oaks made it stand out above Deetjen’s. Treebones Resort’s luxury glamping tents were also highly mentioned like Deetjen’s and Glen Oaks. While Treebones Resort has an incredible views, glamping— especially at more that $300* per night—is a niche, and we imagine that most people would prefer to spend the same amount on a similarly priced hotel room at Glen Oaks Big Sur.
*Prices at time of publication.
Ragged Point Inn and Resort is a hotel located near the southern end of Big Sur and is our choice for best value lodging. They have a variety of rooms available to guests, including their garden rooms, cliffside rooms, and deluxe rooms. Since Ragged Point Inn is located right on the water, most of the higher rated rooms have an ocean view. A few of the rooms at Ragged Point Inn are pet friendly and all rooms are non-smoking. Ragged Point Inn had their own trail down to the water that is only accessible through their grounds; this trail is steep and rigorous, so make sure you are prepared if you attempt it. Rooms at Ragged Point Inn start at $189* but go up on weekends, in the summer, and with larger quality rooms.
After analyzing articles and reviews on hotels in Big Sur, Ragged Point Inn and Resort became a contender due to its competitive prices relative to Big Sur’s standards. Even though it did not have as many article mentions as it’s competitors, Ragged Point Inn has some of the best reviews for lodging options in a similar price range.
The rooms at Ragged Point Inn and Resort were great and did not lack in quality despite being some of the least expensive rooms in Big Sur. One of the best parts of Ragged Point Inn is it’s view. There is a lookout point and deck where you can view the ocean, which is also where the trailhead for the hike is. The staff were very friendly and our experience here has made us confident in choosing Ragged Point Inn as our best value lodging.
Even if you don’t stay at Ragged Point Inn and Resort, we recommend visiting and watching the sunset here. They have a beautiful view of the ocean and during our visit, many guests were gathered watching the sun disappear over the horizon line.
In the price point of Ragged Point Inn and Resort, the biggest competition was Big Sur River Inn, Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn, and Fernwood Resort. Both Big Sur River Inn and Fernwood Resort did not have great reviews like Ragged Point Inn, so decided not to consider them for this category. While Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn has similar prices to Ragged Point Inn, we found that the quality of the rooms and unmatched ocean view made Ragged Point Inn the best choice. However, it is important to note that Ragged Point Inn is located all the way on the southern border of Big Sur and may be far from a lot of the popular activities and restaurants. If location is a strong determining factor for you, Deetjen’s Big Sur may be a better choice.
*Price at time of publication.
Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground is a large campground located in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Nestled in the comfort of large redwood trees, the sites at Pfeiffer Big Sur are cozy and inviting. There are paid showers sprinkled throughout the campground and a free dump station available for all campers. Fires are permitted in the metal fire rings, and firewood can be purchased at the kiosk or from the campground host. Campsites at Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground start at $35*.
When researching the campgrounds in Big Sur, we looked at reviews, availability, and value for price. Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground had great reviews and availability, and had similar quality and amenities as other campground that charge more than double.
Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground was larger than we expected, but we were able to navigate and find our spot easily with the posted signage. Even though this campground has 188 sites, they are all fairly spaced out and we did not feel like we were too close to our neighbor. The campsite was beautiful and we enjoyed sleeping under the cover of the giant redwood trees.
Since it is so expensive to stay in a hotel in Big Sur, camping is especially popular here. Luckily, Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground has 188 sites so it is easier to reserve a spot here than other places. Regardless, sites still book up here pretty quickly, especially in the summer and on holidays. Reservations open 6 months in advance and can be made online.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is another popular place to camp in Big Sur, but with only 2 campsites, they are almost impossible to book. Even if you plan to book one of the sites exactly 6 months in advance when it opens, there will most likely be others trying to book at the same time so it is very tough to score a spot here. While these coveted campsites have a gorgeous ocean view unlike Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground, the near-impossibly of booking a site here makes it not the best option for most people trying to camp in Big Sur.
*Price at time of publication.
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