The Best of Big Sur: Hiking, Camping, Beaches, and Waterfalls

Big Sur is one of the country's most iconic road trips.

Some folks wing it, driving the 90-mile stretch of California coastline between San Simeon and Carmel and taking in the views through the car window and stopping at popular spots. But some of Big Sur's best hikes and waterfalls are easily missed when you don't veer from Highway 1. Check out these hidden attractions next time you're in the area.

Sand Dollar Beach

(Photo by Aron Bosworth)

Sand Dollar Beach is Big Sur's longest and widest continuous strand of beach, running nearly three-quarters of a mile. This is an ideal spot for beachcombing, lounging, tide pooling, and surfing. Pitch a tent in one of the 40 sites at Plaskett Creek Campground right across the highway from Sand Dollar Beach and be the first to hit the waves with the sunrise.

Kirk Creek Campground

(Photo by Aron Bosworth)

Just a few miles north from Plaskett Creek Campground you'll find Kirk Creek Campground. This is probably one of coastal California's most scenic campgrounds, making it difficult to get reservations. All the sites here and at Plaskett Creek are available for reservation six months in advance, and there are no sites held for first-come, first-served visitors.

​Limekiln State Park + Campground

(Photo by Denis LeBlanc)

Limekiln State Park + Campground provides access to a quieter, less visited side of Big Sur. Compared to Pfeiffer Big Sur and Julia Pfeiffer Burns to the north, Limekiln's ambiance is more local and low-key. Take a walk down Limekiln Trail to escape from the heat and discover the historic limekilns tucked in the redwood forest.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

(Photo by Patrick Mueller)

When you picture the Big Sur iconic coastline, it's often images of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park that come to mind. Here the Santa Lucia mountains run into the Pacific Ocean, forested canyons fill gaps between exposed dry ridges, and near-shore kelp forests buffer the coves and shoreline. The park is best known for it's main attraction, 80-foot McWay Falls, but there are plenty of other gems within Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park that most folks miss. A short walk up McWay Creek from the main parking area accesses a network of trails that include the Ewoldsen, Canyon Falls, and Tan Bark Trails. These trails explore redwood-lined canyons and traverse the Santa Lucia mountainsides, offering an elevated perspective on this magnificent landscape.

Partington Cove


Partington Cove
is an inconspicuous cove is situated at the north corner of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park two miles north of McWay Falls in one of the most dramatic sections of the Big Sur coastline. This trail is often overlooked when driving Highway 1, but it's certainly worth a stop. Follow a 1-mile trail along a creek and through a 60-foot tunnel to a small cove with a big view.

​Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

(Photo by Aron Bosworth)

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park + Campground is the most centrally located camping area for exploring the area, and it's also the largest of Big Sur's campgrounds with nearly 200 sites. The park is home to diverse hiking trails, the rustic yet comfortable Big Sur Lodge, and over 3 miles of Big Sur River access, including the swimming holes of the Big Sur River Gorge. Popular trails include Valley View and Pfeiffer Falls, Buzzards Roost, and the trails at Pine Ridge, all of which feature the geography of the mountains and ridges. The Gorge Trail leads to crystal swimming holes in a narrow gorge roughly a half mile up the Big Sur River, a perfect respite for warm summer days.

Sykes Hot Springs

(Photo by Brandon Katcher)

Sykes Hot Springs is one of the most famous and popular hot springs in California. The 10-mile trail leading to the springs and seven official campsites is a great intro backpacking trip. A soak in the springs is a welcome reward after the trip. Unfortunately, overuse on the weekends and garbage have become an issue here, so remember to be respectful and always leave a place better than you found it. Try to plan your trip mid-week for smaller crowds, and, if you're lucky, a chance to have the area to yourself.

​Pfeiffer Beach

Pfeiffer Beach is one of the region's most popular beaches, drawing tourists, locals, photographers, and many a Highway 1 road-tripper to its scenic coves and famed sea arch rocks. During December and January, when the sun sets at the furthest south, sunsets can be captured through the Keyhole Rock. Arrive early if you are attempting to take shots of the keyhole, as the prime photographic real estate can go quickly.

(Photo by Aron Bosworth)

Andrew Molera State Park is the largest of the state parks within the Big Sur area. With over 20 miles of hiking trails, a scenic and accessible beach, an abundance of wildlife, and the Big Sur River, the park offers something for just about everyone. The main attractions here include Andrew Molera State Beach, the Beach Trail, the 24 walk-in sites at Trail Camp, the Headlands Trail, and the Headlands Trail to Creamery Meadow Loop.

Fall is an amazing time to visit Big Sur in general, but especially Andrew Molera State Park for improved surfing conditions and the monarch butterfly migration. The Headland Trail is a popular stopover for the butterflies.

​Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

(Photo by Aron Bosworth)

On the outskirts of Big Sur, but just before Carmel, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is often-overlooked, but certainly worth exploring. There is an abundance of wildlife, a diversity of marine life, and scenic coves along the trails that make hiking here more of a treasure hunt than anything. Check out the Cypress Grove Trail across Headland Cove, which explores one of only two naturally occurring Monterey Cypress forests found in the wild. Other recommended trails include North Shore Trail, Bird Island Trail and the South Shore Trail.