Big Sur: What to See and Do in a Day

You could spend weeks in Big Sur and still not have explored all the trails and beaches. But for adventurous souls passing through Big Sur on a road trip ( yay Highway 1 is scheduled to be reopened at the end of July 2018!)it is possible to have a satisfying sample of the best Big Sur when you don’t have time for the full buffet of  activities.

To make your own perfect Big Sur day pick a waterfall, hike, and beach stop from the list below. If you’re heading from North to South an example of a great day would be: lunch at Nepenthe, McWay falls, hike the Ewoldsen Trail, then finish up the day at Sand Dollar Beach for the sunset. And of course all the stops for classic Highway 1 photo ops along the way..

Waterfalls:

  • McWay Falls. About 15-20 minutes past Nepenthe is McWay falls. You can pay $10 to park in the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park parking lot or there’s parking along Highway 1. Follow the signs for the trail to the waterfall. It’s a very easy five-minute walk to the falls. Beware you might need to elbow some people out of your way to get that perfect shot of the water cascading down onto the sand.

    McWay Falls in Big Sur
    McWay Falls is a popular Big Sur photo stop
  • Canyon Falls. Also in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park this is an often overlooked waterfall that’s a short hike away from the parking lot.

    canyon falls in big sur
    Small but pretty, Canyon Falls is another easily accessible waterfall in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
  • Limekiln Falls. This  100 foot waterfall is reached by hiking along the fairly easy Limekiln Trail to the Fall Trail in Limekiln State Park.

Hikes:

  • Ewoldsen Trail. If you’ve got 3-4 hours and are looking for a hike that gives you a trip to a waterfall, views, and idyllic redwood forest scenery this is the hike for you. If you’re stopping at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park to check out McWay Falls, which of course you are, walk to the end of the parking lot and follow the signs to the picnic area. The trail starts right after the picnic area. Bring plenty of water, a hat, and shoes with good traction because much of this 4.5 mile hike is uphill. *Trail was “closed” as of June 2018 but hopefully will be reopening soon!

    view from Ewoldsen Trail
    Endless views from the top of the Ewoldsen Trail
  • Mill Creek Trail. A great trail for hikers looking to wander amongst the redwoods and not climb up a huge mountain. The trailhead is about a mile up Nacimiento-Ferguesson Road (The road across from Kirk Creek Campground) and the tinytrail head is easy to miss. The 3.2 mile out and back  trail goes along a creek with occasional creek crossings and rock scrambling.

    Mill Creek Trail Big Sur
    Walk along a creek under towering redwoods on the Mill Creek Trail

Beach:

  • Sand Dollar Beach. A massive half moon shaped beach that’s popular with families and surfers. There’s a large parking lot and a wide trail that makes it easily accessible.

    Sand Dollar Beach Big Sur
    A sunset or some beach time to end the day at Sand Dollar Beach
  • Willow Creek Beach. Limited parking and rocky but can have some decent swell if you’re an experienced surfer looking to catch a few waves. If you’re not surfing but want some solitude, climb over the rocks and head to the right and there is a large black sand beach that is frequently devoid of people.

    Willow Creek Beach Big Sur
    walk around the point and you’ll find an often empty black sand beach

Eat:

 Nepenthe: The view here is unreal and the food is pretty good too. It’s a popular stopping spot for everyone from weary backpackers to designer clad day trippers, so expect to wait 30+ minutes for a table, which really isn’t an issue since you can grab a glass of wine from the bar and enjoy the scenery.  Plan on spending upwards of $50 for lunch for two, not including drinks..

nepenthe big sur
Eat a burger perched high up on the cliff at Nepenthe

Picnic with a view: If you want the budget Nepenthe experience there are plenty of places with incredible views where you can bring your own picnic and nourish your body and soul. One of my favorite recent discoveries was driving up Nacimiento Road and setting up our camp chairs at one of the turn outs. A couple of sandwiches from home, a bag of chips, some La Croix, and a killer view made for an amazing post-hike impromptu picnic.

hiking in Big Sur
Find your own cliff side picnic stop in Big Sur

Tips/Advice:

  • The Big Sur coast is frequently foggy in the morning so you won’t get those stunning aqua blue ocean pics until a little later in the day. Plan on reaching Big Sur around 11 or 12 when the fog starts burning off.
  • Fill up on gas and purchase any snacks before entering Big Sur. Everything is significantly more expensive along this section of coast.
  • Bring layers. Afternoons can get warm and sunny but it’s also typical for it to be windy or foggy at any point throughout the day.
  • Poison oak and ticks are common annoyances in Big Sur so definitely do a tick check after hiking and wash yourself with cold water to try to prevent itchy poison oak rashes.
  • Pay $10 for parking at a State Park and you can park at any of the State Parks for the day.

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