Looking for things to do in Big Sur, California? Here’s how to find the best Big Sur sunset, beaches, restaurants, and more.
In between our book tour stops in San Francisco and LA, we had a few days of vacation. After two days in Sonoma, Alex, Larson and I decided to head to Big Sur California for 1 day on our way to LA. Honestly, we weren’t quite sure what we were getting into. Most of what we knew about the area was iconic Instagram photos showing insane cliffs and magical Big Sur sunsets. But when we got there, finding the best Big Sur sunset was a bit more difficult than planned. Here’s what to do in Big Sur, focused on capturing the best Big Sur photos imaginable (and if you’re hardcore, our Big Sur photography guide).
What is Big Sur?
If you don’t live in California, you might be asking, what is Big Sur? Big Sur, California is a region of coastline known for its massive cliffs and rugged beauty. It’s not a town, or even a state park. But it’s full of gorgeous natural beauty, so when traveling between San Francisco and LA, many travelers opt for the Pacific Coast Highway route instead of the shorter US 101. Without stopping, the 90-mile stretch of Big Sur takes about 2 1/2 hours to drive, which means you can experience it in just one day. For our trip to Big Sur, we had only one day to experience it. Next time, we’d spend more time and stay in the region because it’s just that beautiful.
How to find the best views and Big Sur sunsets?
Here’s the kicker about Big Sur, California. There aren’t signs that say, “This way to the amazing view”. It’s a long highway with what seems to be hundreds of little pull-offs to take in views of various quality. Also, the views absolutely depend on the weather. When we arrived in Big Sur, it was very cloudy, so it was hard to tell what were the “good” views. However, we persevered and because of it, we got a huge treat at the end: an iconic Big Sur sunset: and plenty of photos to prove it!
When you drive into Big Sur California, you’ll see what seems like an endless stretch of beautiful bright blue water. Even with the cloudy weather early in the day, we were still able to get some good views. We decided to do an initial “drive by” where we drove the entire Big Sur stretch and got out at every opportunity that we were inspired. And, we started scouting for a good spot to come back at sunset. That’s when the real magic happens (keep reading).
Fun fact: at the very beginning of Big Sur is the bridge from Big Little Lies, called Bixby Bridge! If you’ve seen the show, you’ll know the opening sequence driving across the bridge set to the song Cold Little Heart by Michael Kiwanuka. Unfortunately we didn’t get any great pics to share here, but it’s another fun Big Sur landmark. Just make sure you download the song before crossing (cell service is iffy)!
At the far south end of Big Sur California, you can take a short path out to a cove with a waterfall called McWay Falls. Even with clouds, it’s very beautiful, and it’s totally worth the drive and walk out to it. Part of the trail was closed, so we weren’t able to get as close as we were hoping. Even so, McWay Falls was on our short list of places to come back to at sunset. But we had no idea what the sunset view would look like, and whether it would be the classic Big Sur photo that we wanted.
A little after mid-day, the sun started to poke through the clouds and we couldn’t be more excited! Larson had gotten in a little car nap, so we headed to Pfeiffer Beach to poke around. It was incredibly beautiful, as you’ll see from the pics below. We’d absolutely recommend spending time on this Big Sur Beach! Larson got to dip his toes in the ocean for the first time. At first he was surprised and scared by the cold water, but after giving it a chance he loved it. If you’re wondering how to get to Pfeiffer Beach, it’s a turnoff just north of the Big Sur Bakery, and it’s a 15-minute narrow bumpy drive before you get to the parking lot outside of the beach. (Here’s a map.)
Rocky Creek Bridge — Big Sur Sunset
The biggest decision of the day was, Where can we view the best Big Sur sunset? We knew golden hour would be the best chance we’d have at those iconic Big Sur photos. Golden hour is that brief time period of the day where the sun is low enough to cast an indirect golden light over everything it touches. It makes for the best photos because instead of harsh overhead light and lots of shadows, the entire scene is bathed in a warm glow. Since we’d only seen all the vistas under a veil of gray clouds earlier that day, it was difficult to choose where to set up for sunset. Alex and I spent at least an hour discussing the merits of McWay Falls and the Rocky Creek Bridge viewpoint we’d seen earlier in the day. I knew it was a little silly, but I felt a lot of pressure riding on this decision. We’re in Big Sur for ONE DAY, so we have to choose wisely. What if we blow our only chance at the iconic Big Sur photo?
Even though Rocky Creek Bridge looked like this earlier in the day (below), we decided to give it a shot. And man, are we glad we did! Here’s the before photo:
BEFORE (Rocky Creek Bridge Photos)
At golden hour, around 7:10 pm in late April, Rocky Creek Bridge was an entirely different story. From the road, I couldn’t see much, but Alex had climbed down into the lookout area. Hey, you HAVE to see this! he shouted to me. And when I climbed down and turned north, my eyes teared up involuntarily because it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life. It truly looked otherworldly. And it was the most special moment, because what once looked gray and lonely was suddenly golden and breathtakingly beautiful. Here are a few of those classic Big Sur sunset photos we captured at golden hour.
And this, THIS, is why you come to Big Sur California.
AFTER (Rocky Creek Bridge Photos)
What should I do to prepare for a trip to Big Sur?
There’s no town center of Big Sur California, and minimal gas stations to refuel. Also, the cell service is spotty. So our best tips are:
- Start out with a full tank of gas and plenty of water and snacks
- Download maps to your phone, since you’ll need to access them offline
What if it’s cloudy?
It was cloudy for much of the time we were in Big Sur. When we shared about the clouds on Instagram, we had a lot of people chime in to agree that it’s often cloudy in the morning and early afternoon in Big Sur. If this happens to you, never fear! Stick it out until sunset, and it’s likely the clouds will burn off and you’ll get the Big Sur sunset you’ve been dreaming of.
What about Big Sur restaurants?
Big Sur doesn’t have a town center, making it hard to find good eats. However, a local turned us on to Big Sur Bakery. It’s open all day, in the morning serving great pastries and the evening serving incredibly high-quality, delicious food. We got a fantastic, beautifully constructed salad and this tasty mushroom pizza with fontina. We requested to sit outside, since we had our toddler Larson in tow. He was able to wander a bit and we enjoyed a killer view with killer food. Big Sur Bakery is not to be missed!
So that’s it! All we know about things to do in Big Sur California. Have you been, or are you looking to go? In the comments below, let us know your thoughts and other favorite photo spots!
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About the Authors
Sonja Overhiser is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best healthy cookbooks of 2018. She’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the food blog A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Sonja seeks to inspire adventurous eating to make the world a better place one bite at a time.
Alex Overhiser is an acclaimed food photographer and author based in Indianapolis. He’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the recipe website A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Alex is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best vegetarian cookbooks by Epicurious.