It think most of the time, the best way to truly get to know a place and see what it has to offer is to quite literally get outside, explore, and wander about on foot. This is especially true for iconic beauties like Big Sur. Many of the most beautiful scenic spots can only be reached on foot, and you will actually need to walk or hike a bit to see the really breathtaking gems. That's right… it isn't enough to simply pull off at a viewpoint and get a glimpse of the ocean as it meats the coast. No, you will have to work for it and punch the clock a bit in the exercise department, but I promise it will be more than worth it. As it turns out, many of the best spots have extremely easy and short paths, are relatively suitable for children, and some even have a path that is suitable for those in wheelchairs or who have trouble traversing uneven terrain.
While the entire coast of California, from Oregon to Mexico, has amazing beauty and stunning vistas, it is frequently the stretch from Point Lobos to just south of Big Sur that is considered some of the most picturesque in all the land. You will see what I mean as we meander through my photos. Let me just say that my experience here left me thinking it's entirely possible this is one of the most beautiful places on earth – our very own little slice of tropical heaven – without being anywhere near the tropics. There is something to be said for that. The colors are mind blowing and the beauty is breathtaking and honestly this hardly does any justice to the reality. There are no words… but I will do my best to find a few that come close.
What I can do, however, is tell you that on my recent trip out there, I put in the time to find what I consider the most beautiful and iconic spots, in and around Big Sur – so that you don't have to and can rest assured you will get the most out of your time while you are visiting!
MCWAY FALLS // Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
Probably the most iconic Big Sur moment around. This beauty is the one you see in all the pictures showing Big Sur and is an absolute must on your jaunt through the area. Something to note is that the beach below McWay Falls is not accessible so while this spot is labeled as a must, you can leave your bathing suit and towels at home.
Trails // There are 3 trails that vary in distance and difficulty and all begin from one main trail head… or technically from the main parking lot for the park.
- McWay Falls to Saddle Rock – This is the trail that leads to the famous McWay Falls and is the single most notorious vista in all of Big Sur. Round trip this trail is only about 3/4 of a mile, out and back, and is an easy hike that can be done in about 30 minutes. Whether you prefer to simply see the sights or actually hike and work up a sweat, this short trek is a must and can easily be tacked onto either of the other 2 trails.
- McWay Canyon to Canyon Falls – This trail is inland through shaded forest and is also 3/4 of a mile and very easy with little elavation change. It would be great to combine this with the McWay Falls for a slightly longer hike with more varied scenery.
- Ewoldsen Trail to Canyon Falls – This trail is for the more serious and experienced hiker with a total of 4.5 miles of moderate to strenious ground to cover and 1600 feet of elevation change. What a great way to work up a sweat and experience a grotto, double waterfall and of course can and should be combined with McWay Falls to round out your experience with views of the most pristine beach you will ever see.
Info // Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is 37.4 miles south of Carmel, along Highway 1. It's relatively easy to get to and while Highway 1 has some curvy sections that will have you hanging on for dear life, the drive is otherwise simple and can easily be made in around an hour from Monterey or Carmel if you aren't staying in Big Sur itself.
Tip // Go early, it gets crowded. While there is an actual parking lot to park in, the spaces are rather limited so they have a simple 'one out, one in' process that will have you waiting 5-15 minutes to participate in. We were there on a Saturday, mid-afternoon and following a holiday and even so, the wait was virtually painless – which is good considering that parking along Highway 1 would probably put me over the edge, so I consider this a worthwhile investment for $5 and 15 minutes of my time.
I noticed a small campground near the picnic area of Saddle Rock. I am not entirely sure how to reserve those spots, but if you are the camping type… This is certainly a spot with views to die for.
BIRD ROCK // Point Lobos State Reserve
This area is home to the other most photographed spot in the region and with good reason – as you will see. It also happens to have the one of the most gorgeous beaches – ever – and not only is it accessible, it's relatively quiet and will absolutely take your breath away. If tide pools and scuba diving are more your speed, this is a great spot to find exactly that.
Trails // As with our first stop along the tour of this area, this spot has 3 trails that vary in length and difficulty and the type of scenery you will encounter.
- Bird Island Trail – This is the showstopper and you will want to add this short trek onto your overall hike if you choose to take another of the trails. Taking you past China Cove and down to Gibson Beach, this trail is one you should plan to spend a fair amount of time on, even though the actual walk itself takes only 30 minutes. Coming in at around .8 miles and having very easy terrain, the only thing you need to take into account is the moderately steep stairway leading down to Gibson Beach. Even this is well maintained and has an actual stairway with handrails so aside from having a great many steps, there isn't much to worry about.
- South Plateau / Mound Meadow Loop – A 1.6 mile loop with easy terrain, this trail builds on the Bird Island Trail, so if you want a mix of showstopping scenery and a bit more of a hike than you get from the Bird Island Trail on it's own, this is a fabulous option. Just be sure to veer off the route for a short trek to hit up Gibson Beach before you continue on… it's entirely worth it!
- South Island Trail – This path takes you in the opposite direction as the previous 2 trails, so it's worth tacking the Bird Island Trail onto this. Luckily you can do this coming or going since this trail is an easy 2 miles round trip that goes out and back rather than making a loop. This trail weaves past tide pools and Hidden Beach before making your turnabout at Sand Hill Cove to head back.
Info // The Point Lobos State Reserve is a mere 2.5 miles south of Carmel along Highway 1 and has a rather decent parking area at the far end of the Park. There is also a fair amount of roadside parking that won't put the fear of death into your mind if the park is full.
Tip // Go early, this park gets crowded by hikers and beach goers alike, not to mention it's proximity to Monterey and Carmel makes this a natural draw for locals and vacationers alike with it's easy access.
I hope you have a chance to experience this place. It might be the most beautiful place I have had the pleasure of visiting and should definitely be on your bucket list if it isn't already!