Natural Instinct: A Slow Travel Guide to Big Sur, California

McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is an unmissable stop along the Big Sur coastline
McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is an unmissable stop along the Big Sur coastline | © ALLTRAVEL / Alamy Stock Photo
Doug ONeill

Over the last century, stars from Alfred Hitchcock to Elizabeth Taylor have sought sanctuary along this scenic stretch of California coast for its snaking views, towering cliffs and secluded feel.

The landscape of Big Sur, a rugged stretch of the California coast between Carmel-by-the-Sea and San Simeon with the Santa Lucia Mountains on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other, often strikes visitors as cinematic – which shouldn’t be surprising. Big Sur’s winding highways, seaside cliffs and frequently misty coastline are why we remember Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 Vertigo, as well as the Bruce Willis-Billy Bob Thornton flick, Bandits. Today, in this prime patch of Pacific Coast Highway, you too can blend into the area’s scenery like an under-the-radar celeb, and no one, not even the resident elephant seals, will bat an eyelid.

1. Big Sur Lodge


A suite with lounge and dining area and neatly made bed at Big Sur Lodge
Courtesy of Big Sur Lodge / Expedia

No phone, no televisions, no radios. Such house rules apply to all 62 cottage-style rooms at this rustic high-end resort in the middle of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. After all, why would you need electronic devices when you have a private terrace with incredible views and your own fireplace at night? Guests at Big Sur Lodge spend their days hiking in the redwoods, whale-watching, snapping pics of wildlife, tasting local wines and exploring the switchback Pacific coastline.

2. Cambria Beach Lodge

Hotel, Lodge

Courtesy of Cambria Beach Lodge / Expedia

Some resorts are all about the food, others impress with their amenities. While Cambria Beach Lodge has everything you’d want in a retro roadside inn, the biggest draw is the location. The former motel turned beach lodge is close to the shores of San Simeon, where hundreds of elephant seals congregate at the Piedras Blancas rookery. The hippy hamlet of Harmony (population 18), with its historic links to California’s creative community, is just a short drive. The kicker: the lodge is directly across from sandy-bottomed Moonstone Beach (popular with long-boarders).

4. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park


Families hiking through the woods on Pfeiffer Falls trail iin Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park Monterey County California
© Gary Crabbe / Enlightened Images / Alamy Stock Photo
The opportunity to see spotted black-tail deer, gray squirrels and birds (dippers and belted kingfishers) entices nature-lovers to this state park on the western slope of the Santa Lucia Mountains, high above the Big Sur River Gorge. Tree-lovers will be impressed with the stands of redwoods, sycamores, cottonwoods, maples, conifers, oaks, alders and willows. Bathe in the sights and sounds of the sylvan setting and soak up a moment of calm.

5. Nepenthe

Restaurant, American

Overlooking Pacific Ocean, Los Padres National Forest and Cafe Kevah from verandah of Nepenthe Restaurant, Big Sur, California.
© Don Douglas / Alamy Stock Photo
Dip into diver scallops and California beet salad at this cliff-edge restaurant, where you can pause to take in Pacific views. The best spot is the sunny terrace, stocked with Crayola-bright parasols and raised at 800ft (244m) above sea level. That said, the age-old Log House, built in 1925, whispers of Big Sur legend, having ushered in the likes of Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and literary figures like Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac over the years. Order from the wine list – stocked by small, family-owned vineyards – and reap the rewards of this nature-rich region.

6. Andrew Molera State Park

Natural Feature, Park

Coastline view of Andrew Molera State Park Bridge on Highway 1, California, USA
© Emiliano Rodriguez / Alamy Stock Photo

Andrew Molera State Park is not as developed as other US parks, but that’s part of the appeal. It’s known for high ridges, open meadows, rows of sycamore and redwood trees, the Big Sur River, plenty of easy-to-navigate hiking trails – and an incredibly long, mostly sandy beach, offering a crowd-free shoreline to go beachcombing on, or simply enjoy the sound of the waves.

7. Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary


Located offshore from Big Sur and the Central Coast, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is the largest of its kind in the United States with 276mi (444km) of shoreline. It’s a protected habitat for 30-plus species of marine mammals and more than 90 species of seabirds, which you can observe on guided kayak tours. This is a slow-paced kayaking outing for nature lovers who want to gently explore a marine habitat, spying bobbing sea otters bathing in the kelp forest, summiting sea lions and passing pods of dolphins.

8. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

Natural Feature, Park

McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is an 80 foot tidefall waterfall that flows year-round.
© Rick Pisio\RWP Photography / Alamy Stock Photo

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, named after a much-respected 19th-century rancher, contains vast stretches of the Big Sur coastline, 2,950ft (900m) ridges, granite cliffs, an 82ft (25m) waterfall and vast redwoods. One of the biggest draws for birders is the chance to see the California condor, the largest flying bird in North America. The condor can soar as high as 15,000ft (4,600m) and is considered a sacred animal by Native Americans.

9. Esalen Institute

Resort, Hotel

Lodge at the Esalen Institute.
© Tom Beil / Arkin Tilt Architects
The Esalen Institute is a highly respected retreat center in Big Sur, where guests engage in personal growth and meditative practices – from forest bathing and art to yoga and mindfulness meditation. The 100-acre (40ha) swathe includes natural hot springs, an organic farm and garden, and rustic rooms set against the backdrop of the Big Sur coast. Activities include guided wilderness excursions to Julia Pfeiffer State Park.
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