Big Sur

Big Sur coastline with glimpse of Bixby Bridge, Highway 1

Big Sur is a region on the Central Coast of California. It contains vast wildernesses and breathtaking views as it stretches 90 miles along the rugged Pacific Ocean. It is approximately 150 miles south of San Francisco and 300 miles north of Los Angeles. The area is great for outdoor recreation and contains several state parks, two national wilderness areas and is part of the Los Padres National Forest, all of which include hiking trails. The name "Big Sur" comes from the original Spanish name "el sur grande", meaning "the big south" and referring to the area's location south of the city of Monterey, former capital of Alta California under both Spain and Mexico.


Big Sur begins just south of Carmel and continues south through the small towns of Big Sur Village (between Andrew Molera State Park and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park), Lucia, and Gorda. It ends near San Simeon (where the Hearst Castle is located). When driving on Highway 1 through Big Sur be sure to stop at the many turnouts and vista points to see the beauty of the area.


Three Native American tribes - the Ohlone, Esselen, and Salinan - are believed to have lived in Big Sur as hunter-gatherers prior to the arrival of Europeans. The Spanish explorer Juan Cabrillo was the first European to view the area when he sailed along the coast in 1542. Spaniards arrived on foot in 1769, but the high cliffs and rough terrain forced them inland. Monterey was settled in 1770, at which point Big Sur was given the name el país grande del sur ("the Big Country of the South").

Mexico took control of the area when it gained independence from Spain in 1821, and in 1848 Mexico ceded California to the United States following the Mexican-American War. By 1862 several pioneers had moved into the area, although the inaccessibility of the area prevented any significant development.

The construction of the present-day Highway One began in 1919 and continued for nearly two decades until completion in 1937. The route required the construction of nearly three dozen bridges and cost $10 million to complete. Monterey County and local landowners fought development along the route, prohibiting new construction within view of the road. Today the area is home to fewer than 1,000 year-round residents.

Flora and fauna

Redwoods in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

Big Sur is the southernmost range of the world's tallest tree, the coast redwood, and thanks to the remoteness of the region many of the existing groves have never been logged. The critically-endangered California condor was reintroduced to the region in 1997, and as of 2014 nearly three dozen condors make the area their home. Mountain lions, while rarely seen, roam throughout the Big Sur region. Raptors in the area include bald eagles and peregrine falcons.

Once thought to be extinct in California, a colony of 60 sea otters was discovered near Bixby Bridge in 1938. Today sea otters are frequently seen in the area, as well as sea lions, elephant seals and harbor seals. Orcas patrol the coast year-round, while whale species are seasonal: humpback whales can be seen from April through December, blue whales from June through October, and gray whales from December through May. The abundance of seals does not go unnoticed by sharks, including the great white shark, which patrol the waters but will only be seen by very lucky visitors.


Along the coast the climate is moderate year-round, although further inland temperatures are significantly warmer in summer and cooler in winter. Thick, dense fog blankets the coast during the summer, and while it usually burns off during the day, it can occasionally linger and make travel along Highway One treacherous.

 Climate Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Daily highs (°F) 60 62 63 68 73 76 76 77 77 73 65 60
Nightly lows (°F) 43 43 43 44 46 48 50 50 50 48 45 42
Precipitation (in) 9.2 8.7 6.7 3.0 1.1 0.2 0.0 0.1 0.4 2.1 4.8 8.6

   Data from NOAA (1981-2010)

Get in

NOTE: The Pacific Coast Highway is closed 16 miles north of Hearst Castle (1 mile north of the Ragged Point Inn) Sunday-Friday from 10PM-7AM until 1-June-2016 due to construction; see the Caltrans Road Conditions page for further details.

Big Sur is a remote area accessible only via Highway 1 (also known as Pacific Coast Highway). Highway 1 winds through Big Sur flanked by the steep Santa Lucia Mountains to the east and the rocky Pacific Coast to the west. The easiest and most common way to get to Big Sur is by car, though some enthusiastic adventurers cycle along the highway. Gas stations are far between and gas is expensive, so best to have plenty of gas when you enter the Big Sur region. Rock slides, construction, or other challenges frequently cause delays or closures, so check the road conditions prior to setting out. If the route is closed there will not be a detour available as the mountains block passage to the east.

From San Francisco take US-101 south to CA-156 west which merges with Highway 1 20 miles from the beginning of the Big Sur area. Approximately 125 miles and 2-3 hour drive.

From Los Angeles take US-101 north and exit onto Highway 1 toward Morro Bay/Hearst Castle which is 45 miles south of the end of Big Sur. Approximately 250 miles and 4-5 hour drive.

Get around

Highway One through Big Sur is rarely straight, so those prone to car sickness may want to take medication prior to setting out. It is one lane in each direction for the majority of the route. Driving in the dark, in fog, or in rainy conditions can be extremely dangerous as the narrow road increases the risk of a collision or of straying off the highway. While the speed limit is 55 mph unless otherwise posted, expect speeds of 35-45 mph for most of the route, and as slow as 15-20 mph on some of the sharpest curves. There are literally hundreds of turnouts along the route, allowing slower drivers to pull over and let other cars pass, and offering drivers a safe way to enjoy the scenery.

Big Sur Village is a mile-long village containing gas stations, roadside markets, lodges and restaurants, but services elsewhere in the region are very limited, and gas can run up to $7 per gallon when available. The unincorporated communities of Posts, Lucia, Plaskett and Gorda are located south of Big Sur Village, but these settlements generally have little more than a single inn or restaurant available for travelers.

Bicycling along Highway 1 is popular, though extremely challenging given the constant elevation changes, winding roads, and the fact that the route is shared with motorists who may be distracted by the scenery, dealing with fog, or simply unaccustomed to sharing narrow highways with cyclists.


Pfeiffer Beach keyhole formation at sunset

Sights are listed from north-to-south along Highway One:


McWay Falls and McWay Cove

The most common visitors to Big Sur are those just driving through to enjoy the scenery. The next most common activity is hiking/backpacking in the open natural spaces.

Hiking/backpacking - There are over 80 day hikes, varying in length and difficulty. There are hikes to beaches and vistas along the coast, along rivers and through canyons, and through redwood forests in the Santa Lucia Mts. For longer and more remote adventures, backpacking is an option. There are hundreds of miles of trails through the region, particularly the Ventana Wilderness. Be prepared and know what you are doing before going backpacking in the Wilderness. More information can be found at the Big Sur Ranger Station located 3 miles south of Big Sur Village, +1 831-667-2315. Always check conditions before hiking or backpacking. Hiking areas in Big Sur can be closed down in winter due to mudslides. Know before you go.


Remote and pristine beaches are accessible. Andrew Molera State Park, Pfeiffer Beach, and Sand Dollar Beach are the most commonly visited.


Point Sur and Lighthouse

There are art galleries and gift shops throughout Big Sur all along Highway 1.


Most of the inns along the route have onsite restaurants that also serve non-guests.


Many local restaurants also contain bars and/or provide drinks.


Bixby Creek bridge

The two main options for sleeping in Big Sur are either camping or staying in a hotel/resort. Some locations have both options provided. Camping is popular in Big Sur and there are many small campgrounds through the region that are not listed below but can be found along Highway 1.



Monterey County, which includes nearly all of the Big Sur route, prohibits roadside camping and overnight parking along Highway One, although this restriction does not apply to tired drivers needing a brief rest.



Be aware that there are long stretches of coastline with little or no cell phone signal, and plan accordingly. Also, fill your gas tank before you drive to the area, as gas stations are few, and some charge as much as $7 a gallon! It is also highly advisable to buy bottled water or replenish your supply from good tap water (the tap water in Big Sur Village, for example, which is delicious mountain spring water) when you have the chance, and try to avoid being caught having to drive long distances after dark with the fog rolling over the highway. Big Sur is very wild country for long stretches. A sign that might exemplify this for you is one that appears on Route 1 southbound, showing curves, with the text "Next 72 miles"!

Always check traffic conditions as the highway is a single lane on each side and landslides can cause major holdups with construction reducing the roadway to a single lane, controlled by a light. Southbound waits during these periods at peak conditions can extend to several hours.

Go next

Routes through Big Sur

Monterey Carmel  N  S  San Simeon San Luis Obispo

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Sunday, November 08, 2015. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.