“Stop! Stop!” said my husband.
We were driving south on Highway 1 when Onur spotted a 50-foot wooden bridge over Soberanes Creek, framed by the ocean. Hearts pounding with the adrenaline of a new adventure, we jumped in, breathing in the ocean air and the sight of the ocean cliffs and Santa Lucia Mountains in Garrapata State Park.
Since then, the Big Sur Coast—that 90-mile stretch of Highway 1 between Carmel and San Simeon—has become one of our favorite roads and the perfect place to bring out-of-town guests. As summer fog gives way to autumn skies and the low tourist season, now is the perfect time to plan a visit.
Here are four leg-stretching hikes with options for a bite to eat nearby. (Find more helpful tips in the Big Sur Visitor’s Guide.)
Point Lobos Loop, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Barking sea lions, Monterey cypress trees, 50-million-year-old rocks and graceful pelicans are just a few of the stunning sights at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. Follow these highlights on an 8km loop along the reserve’s coastline, a few miles south of Carmel.
A nice place to start is on the southwest side of the reserve, overlooking sandy Gibson Beach. Heading northwest, the South Shore Trail hugs the shoreline, providing family-friendly access points to small beaches, tidal pools, and uplifted sedimentary rocks. Skirting the northwest tip of the preserve, the Cypress Grove Trail is a must-see for a rare Monterey cypress forest, granodiorite cliffs, and views of Cypress Cove.
After visiting the Old Veteran, follow the North Shore Trail to Whalers Cove, where you can see huge whale bones outside Whalers Cabin and harbor seals basking on rocks. Return to the Carmelo Meadow Trail to the park entrance under lacy lichen-draped pines.
Parallel displacement: A 1.1 mile round trip on the Granite Point Trail visits the coves and vistas of Carmel Beach.
Trail map: https://tinyurl.com/pointlobosloop
Details: Point Lobos State Nature Reserve, which is currently open 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, is located 2.2 miles south of Rio Road in Carmel. The vehicle registration fee is $10. Arrive well before 9:30 a.m. (or after 3 p.m.) to secure one of the coveted 75 parking spaces. Roadside parking is available on the ocean side of Highway 1. There is no entrance fee, however, donations are appreciated. Learn more at www.pointlobos.org.
Take a bite: Dametra Cafe serves lunch gyros ($16), seafood, and pasta at the corner of Ocean Avenue and Lincoln Street in Carmel-by-the-Sea. The restaurant opens daily at 11 a.m. and you can order online at http://dametracafe.com.
Soberanes Point Loop, Garrapata State Park
Seven miles south of Carmel, Garrapata is the first state park to offer the “Wow!” impact of Big Sur. The Santa Lucia Mountains, covered in green coastal scrub, slope dramatically towards the ocean. Wide trails wind along coastal cliffs, overlooking sea stacks and hidden coves.
A 2.1-mile loop explores Soberanes Point and climbs for 360-degree views of the ocean and Santa Lucia Mountains from 280-foot Whale Peak. The cool sapphire blue ocean and swirling blue-green pools are visually stunning against hot California pink brash, lavender seaside daisies and woolly yellow sunflowers.
Parallel displacement: A 2.9 mile round trip on the Soberanes Canyon Trail visits a grove of redwoods. Please be aware: the trail is located across Highway 1 on the east side of the park, and there is no crosswalk.
Trail map: https://tinyurl.com/soberanespointloop
Details: Garrapata State Park is open daily from 8:00 a.m. until half an hour after sunset. There are no entrance fees. Parking is available at dirt switches beginning seven miles south of Rio Road in Carmel. Find park details at https://www.parks.ca.gov/.
Take a bite: California’s Pacific’s Edge Market mixes casual and fine dining, serving seafood, main course salads ($19 and up) and burgers at 120 Highlands Drive in the Hyatt Carmel Highlands. Open every day from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Booking is recommended.
Molera Beach and Big Sur River, Andrew Molera State Park
The Creamery Meadow trail to Molera Beach is one hell of a stretch; just long enough to solve gas pedal problems with a reward of crashing waves, an ocean beach in the shadow of 3,709-foot Pico Blanco, and the surprise of the Big Sur River at the beach.
From the parking lot, follow the signs for the umbrella to the Creamery Meadow trail and cross a seasonal bridge over the Big Sur River. The wide trail is flat and exposed, with California quail and woodpeckers fluttering among lupine shrubs, live oak, and – beware – poison oak.
Within a mile you’ll reach the beach, dotted with driftwood teepees and kelp. On the left, Molera Beach stretches 2 miles one way to Cooper Point and is walkable at low tide. To the right, out of sight, is a calm estuary where the Big Sur River meets the ocean.
Parallel displacement: Follow the signs on the Bluff Trail for a 10-minute hike to a view of Molera Beach.
Trail map: https://tinyurl.com/andrewmolerabeach
Details: Andrew Molera State Park is open daily from 8:00 a.m. until sunset. The vehicle registration fee is $10. Entrance is 21.5 miles south of Rio Road in Carmel. Find park details at www.parks.ca.gov.
Take a bite: The popular Nepenthe serves lunch and dinner daily from 11:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. with side views of the Big Sur coast, just seven miles south of Andrew Molera. First come, first served. The veggie burger ($20.25) on warmed wheat bread with Nepenthe ambrosia sauce and coleslaw is downright delicious. Learn more at www.nepenthe.com.
Pfeiffer Falls Loop, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
Newly reopened in 2021, the Pfeiffer Falls Trail visits a 60-foot waterfall along Pfeiffer-Redwood Creek in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Across from the Big Sur Lodge Espresso Bar, follow signs to Pfeiffer Falls through a forest of Coast Redwoods.
In a quarter mile you will reach a junction for Valley View on the left and Pfeiffer Falls on the right. Going right will take you up some stairs to the waterfall. This is the most direct route, but to do a 1.5 mile loop and go down the stairs instead of up, turn left onto Valley View.
The partly sunny Valley View Trail climbs 300 feet for the next half mile, then descends to a viewpoint of 60-foot Pfeiffer Falls flowing over metamorphic Sur gneiss. After the falls, a spectacular 70-foot pedestrian bridge spans the Pfeiffer-Redwood Creek Ravine and tall redwoods. Close your loop and return to the trailhead, where ice cream awaits.
Parallel displacement: An additional 0.7 mile round trip on the Valley View Trail leads to Big Sur River Valley View.
Trail map: https://tinyurl.com/pfeifferfallsloop
Details: Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is open daily from 8:00 a.m. to sunset on Highway 1 and Pfeiffer Big Sur Road, 26 miles south of Rio Road in Carmel. The vehicle registration fee is $10. Find park details at www.parks.ca.gov.
Take a bite: Now about that ice cream… The Big Sur Lodge Espresso Bar & Deli is open daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and offers sandwiches, on-the-go breakfast, hot drinks, and ice cream ($5.25 for a double ball). Learn more at www.bigsurlodge.com.