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
Photo of Doug ONeill
8 September 2021

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.

Big Sur Lodge

Lodge
4.1/5 (496 Reviews)
Big Sur Lodge
Courtesy of Big Sur Lodge / Expedia
Price Drop
Now from $277 per night

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.

More info

Cambria Beach Lodge

Hotel, Lodge
Map View
8f5fbb57
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).

Post Ranch Inn

Boutique Hotel, Inn
5/5 (8 Reviews)
Post Ranch Inn Big Sur California
© Richard Broadwell / Alamy Stock Photo
Perched on a clifftop in Big Sur, 1,200ft (365m) above the Pacific Ocean, Post Ranch Inn offers guests the choice of panoramic ocean or mountain views, an array of spa treatments and yoga classes, an award-winning dining room, advanced sustainability systems throughout the property – and the chance to sleep in one of nine beautiful (and sustainable) treehouses, built on stilts to protect the roots of nearby redwood and oak trees.
More info

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

Park
Map View
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.

Why Book With Culture Trip?

  • Free cancellation

    In these uncertain times, cancel or change for free on select properties.

  • Price-match guarantee

    Find a better price on your booking and we’ll match it. Simple.

  • Unbiased & trustworthy

    Book from recommendations handpicked by travel experts.

  • Nepenthe

    Restaurant, American, $$$
    Map View
    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.

    Andrew Molera State Park

    Natural Feature, Park
    Map View
    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.

    Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary

    Park
    Map View

    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.

    Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

    Natural Feature, Park
    Map View
    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.

    Esalen Institute

    Resort, Hotel
    Map View
    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.
    These recommendations were updated on September 8, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

    Cookies Policy

    We and our partners use cookies to better understand your needs, improve performance and provide you with personalised content and advertisements. To allow us to provide a better and more tailored experience please click "OK"