The Best Things to Do in Big Sur

Now that the  woodsy California coastline with peerless views is again open for business, you can hike, bike, dine, and more
Twentieth-century novelists Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller came to Big Sur for recovery and renewal. Now, it’s Big Sur’s turn to heal. Massive mudslides covered State Highway 1 in 2017, cutting off access from the north and the south. So complete was the area’s isolation, in fact, that some residents ferried groceries up and down a steep foot trail, guests of the exclusive Post Ranch Inn had to chopper in, and Deetjen’s and the Esalen Institute shut down for months. But with the highway’s reopening last summer, Big Sur is back in business. The area looks mostly unscarred, and Miller’s “paradise” is as woodsy, rustic, and welcoming as ever.

Day 1

Get a sweet start: Arrive early for breakfast at the Big Sur Bakery and Restaurant, housed in a cozy ranch-style building with a peaceful patio. By noon, many of its pastries—from freshly baked croissants to the worth-a-detour blueberry strudel—are sold out. Dinnertime guests rave about the pizza. Open 8 a.m.-8:30 p.m. (Dinner service closed Monday and Tuesday.) 47540 Highway 1. (831) 667-0520; bigsurbakery.com. 

See the big birds: Sign up for a two-hour weekend condor tour with the Ventana Wildlife Society in Andrew Molera State Park, 23 miles south of Carmel. North America’s largest flying bird had disappeared from Big Sur for more than 100 years before it was reintroduced in 1997. Today, about 90 condors live in the area. Guides use radio telemetry to track the birds, so tour-goers have a 95 percent chance of spotting one, says the society’s Kristy Markowitz. $75 per person. (831) 455-9514; ventanaws.org. Option B: Head to mile marker 41, roughly 3 miles south of Nepenthe, in the late morning—“the birds are not particularly early risers,” Markowitz says—and look for condors in the trees around the can’t-miss A-frame house on the prominent point. 

Beach yourself: Pfeiffer Beach attracts crowds, so if you’re pining for your own patch of sand, consider hitting less-visited Garrapata Beach in Garrapata State Park, Molera Beach in Andrew Molera State Park, or the half-crescent Sand Dollar Beach, about 4 miles north of Gorda.

The Beat goes on: Dine at Nepenthe, the popular cliff-side restaurant with jaw-dropping Pacific views where Miller, Kerouac, and other artists famously hung out. Order the Famous Ambrosiaburger, which Kerouac once praised as “marvelous hamburgers (huge with all the side works).” If the restaurant is full for brunch or lunch, you can hit the lower-level outdoor Kevah Café. The attached Phoenix boutique stocks hippie-meets-hipster clothing, jewelry, and other items. Don’t leave without admiring the wood-framed building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright protégé Rowan Maiden. (831) 667-2345; nepenthe.com.

Sleep here: Options abound, but consider staying at quirky, historic Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn, which has rustic cabin-style rooms. Singles start at $115. (831) 667-2377; deetjens.com.

Day 2

Take a hike: Trails are plentiful in Big Sur’s six state parks. Start with a 2- to 3-mile trek on the Limekiln Trail in Limekiln State Park, advises Jon Iverson, who researches hikes for his website, hikinginbigsur.com. “It’s lush and leads you right into the redwood forest, with streams,” he says. For a more challenging outing, take a 4- to 10-mile hike on the Vicente Flat Trail, which starts south of the state park at Kirk Creek Campground. For a trailside picnic, pick up made-to-order sandwiches at Big Sur Deli. 47520 Highway 1. (831) 667-2225; bigsurdeli.com.

Must-see sculptures: Walk through the sculpture garden at the family-owned Hawthorne Gallery (across the highway from Nepenthe) to admire the work of local artists, including painter and sculptor Gregory Hawthorne and the late wood sculptor Barbara Spring. (831) 667-3200; hawthornegallery.com.

Go high: Splurge on a meal at the ultra-luxe Post Ranch Inn. From a window-side table inside its Sierra Mar restaurant, you’ll feel as though you’re floating above the Pacific. Chef Elizabeth Murray’s four-course, $125 prix fixe menu changes daily and is complemented by a 14,000-bottle-strong wine cellar. (831) 667-2800; postranchinn.com/dining.

In hot water: For a quintessential Big Sur hippie experience, go for a late-night soak in the communal, clothing-optional mineral hot springs at Esalen Institute. The warm indoor-outdoor baths are open to the public from 1 to 3 a.m. Easing into the sulfuric-smelling waters under a starry sky as sea lions bark is a surreal, sensual experience. Sign up online at 9 a.m. on the day you plan to go; spots are limited to 30 and go fast. $35 per person. Esalen offers lodging and self-improvement workshops, too. (831) 667-3000; esalen.org.

Day 3

By the book: Stop by the cabin-like Henry Miller Memorial Library to browse its eclectic collection of books and funky yard decor. In his 1957 book Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, Miller called Big Sur “the first real home” he had known. He never lived in this house; it belonged to his close friend, painter and writer Emil White. 11 a.m.-6 p.m. daily, closed Tuesdays. (831) 667-2574; henrymiller.org.

Lunch on tap: Grab a microbrew, along with tacos or barbecue pork sliders, at the Big Sur Taphouse, which opened in 2011. Given Big Sur’s spotty cell service, you might take advantage of the free Wi-Fi, too. 47520 Highway 1. (831) 667-2197; bigsurtaphouse.com.

Holy granola: Near the community of Lucia, turn inland onto a steep, 2-mile twisting one-lane road leading to the New Camaldoli Hermitage high above the coast. The white-robed Benedictine brothers who live here run a small shop and library, but the big draw for visitors is “holy granola” and fruitcake that’s so moist and rich, even many avowed fruitcake haters can’t resist it. (831) 667-2456; contemplation.com.

Top photo by Reginald Regalado