3 Days Away: Hiking Big Sur

Ninety miles of diverse wilderness distilled into one long, perfect weekend of drives and hikes past raging surf, lapping tidepools, meandering creeks, and virgin forest.

By Maryann Jones Thompson


Heading for my first stay in Big Sur in years, I remembered all its fabulous blues. What I had forgotten was the greens—the coves of Point Lobos, the pools of the Big Sur River, and the redwoods, cypress, oaks, sycamores, willows, and—yes—poison oak—that define and divide California’s legendary wilderness.


The greens even impressed my ocean-obsessed teen. I’d twisted her arm into running away with me, from pandemic lockdown to Big Sur Village. In our vintage roadside motel room, the road noise would probably have been deafening even if they didn’t happen to be paving Highway 1 right outside the front door.


But to two Covid captives, it was paradise.


In the past year alone, Big Sur has survived not only its normal tourist onslaught, but a pandemic shutdown, a devastating wildfire, and a highway washout, as well.

So we’re celebrating Highway 1’s reopening by sharing our three-day itinerary of easy hikes that will show off the famed coastline’s diverse grandeur and please the littles, the grandparents, and everyone in between.

Day 1

Monterey Bay farmstands Pack a few days’ worth of breakfast and lunch fixin’s for weekend picnics, but also plan to stop at one of the roadside farm stands in Watsonville or Castroville to bulk up on fresh produce and snacks. Pezzini Farms is always in season.


Point Lobos You can’t lose on the trails here—they’re all family-friendly flat and gorgeous. The coves will glow emerald green in fog or sparkle cobalt in clear skies. Head to Weston Beach at low tide to explore the rocky pools or park in the southern corner to walk the Bird Island Trail. You don’t need to look hard to find sea lions, seals, and shorebirds lazing in the sun, but keep an eye on the kelp bobbing in the water: The biggest clumps are likely otters. (Want more Carmel time? Check out Maria’s weeklong Airbnb stay or Emily’s Parent Escape weekend.)


Garrapata State Park Ten minutes south of Point Lobos is another opportunity to stretch your legs. The Garrapata State Park Bluff Trail is an easy looping stroll on the cliffs, providing another chance to see otters and sea lions. For those wanting something tougher, a legit 5-mile hike into Soberanes Canyon starts on the east side of the road, and a longer coastal walk at Soberanes Point begins just a bit farther south.


Bixby Bridge Don’t stop here! You don’t need to fight for parking to snap a pic of the famous span—just lean out your window! It ain’t easy to get a great shot, anyway, unless you have a drone. You should, however, play the theme to “Big Little Lies” all along this part of the drive and imagine why those moms drive their kids this way to get their kids to school in Monterey. 😉

Point Sur Now here’s a spot worth stopping for. The 361-foot rock forms the southernmost outpost of Rancho El Sur, once used as a naval station tracking Soviet subs. Now it likely serves as inspiration for scary-movie screenwriters. Book a tour of the historic Point Sur Lighthouse in advance or just marvel at the outside.


Big Sur Taphouse The village of Big Sur has plenty of kid- friendly dining options. We loved the fish tacos and the outdoor patio at the Big Sur Taphouse.


Bed down Book a cottage at one of the historic roadside lodges in Big Sur proper—or bring your camping gear and set up along the river. We called just a couple days before and snagged a last-minute roadside room at Fernwood Resort and strolled through the nearby campground. (Don’t forget to download your driving and hiking routes while still in town! Not much cell reception in the area.)


Day 2

McWay Falls Grab a coffee, pack your day’s meals (not much food along the coast), and get on the road early—by 7:00 a.m., seriously!—to have any hope of getting a glimpse of the oft-Instagrammed waterfall. Park in the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park lot and walk the short Waterfall Overlook trail. If it’s crowded, skip it—it’s not a critical stop unless you’re a YouTuber.


Partington Cove With the busiest spot of the day out of the way, go back north 2 miles and park near a green gate on the ocean side of the road. The trip down the old wagon road leading to Partington Cove is easy, but the walk might feel a bit steep on the way back for some family members. At the bottom, there are two routes to choose from: south through a cool old tunnel to tidepools and the cove where logging ships used to land, and north through a redwood grove to a rocky spot where Partington Creek tumbles into the Pacific. There’s no beach or water access here, but your kids will be psyched to make a rock cairn.


Sand Dollar Beach Drive the windy highway 4 miles south, past the Lucia Lodge (the setting for Ratched), and past Lime Kiln State Park (where wildfire damage has currently closed the redwood forest trails) to the wide and wonderful Sand Dollar Beach. It’s a good 15-20 minute walk to get to the sand, but you’ll never want to leave this long, lovely cove. Bring your lunch, your swimsuits, and maybe some reef shoes for rock-scrambling. 

Pfeiffer Beach Fighting the hordes to see sunset here is worth it. Plan your visit for an unfoggy evening or at least one where the fog is low. Have your hardiest party member drive in and drop off the less mobile—or say a prayer to the parking gods. The keyholes in these massive monoliths, the surfers catching the last breaks, the drifting dunes, the backwater sparkling—it all screams “Big Sur”!


Nepenthe After a long day of nature and driving the Pacific Coast Highway, you deserve a splurge. Though touristy, Nepenthe’s views and burger are worth a bit of extra planning. Book a table an hour before sunset at the same time you book your room to be sure you’ll get into the restaurant.

Day 3

Big Sur River Gorge Set your alarm for another early start to avoid the crowds. Park in the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park at the Big Sur River Gorge trailhead. The first part of the trail is on fire roads and paths along the river, shaded by oaks, sycamores, and willows. The able-bodied will want to don water shoes and continue up the gorge, scrambling over boulders and wading through pools with tiny fish, until splashing into a large pool filled by a waterfall. Bask in the sun until the first folks with coolers, boomboxes, and pool floats arrive.


Big Sur Village Spend midday ambling around the hippy outpost, grabbing a nosh at Coast, watching “nothing happen” at the Henry Miller Library, or just admiring the cool Old California atmosphere, like these cactus gardens at the gas station.

Andrew Molera State Park Spend your final afternoon on a long walk through the meadows to the beach. Parking can be tough in the afternoon, but spots free up regularly. Head up to the Bluff Trail and Spring Trail for a longer jaunt or just cross the river to the beach for a long but pretty stroll. (Plan to wagon or carry littles much of the way.) The strand is famous for its purple patches of sand, but we preferred building with driftwood and hearing the boulders clunk together in the surf.


Maryann Jones Thompson

ROAM Founder and Editor  

After a thousand years in publishing as a business journalist, ghostwriter, content strategist and market researcher, Maryann brings her experience traveling as a backpacker, businessperson, expat and mom to writing and editing for ROAM.


June 2021

© ROAM Family Travel 2021 – All rights reserved

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