Best Cultural Things To Do in Big Sur
There are an amazing number of unique historic and cultural things to do in Big Sur for what is essentially a wild area along a rugged mountain road.
Big Sur is one of the prettiest stretches of coastline in the United States. Not to be confused with the unincorporated village of Big Sur, the Big Sur region does not have definite boundary lines. It encompasses approximately 71 miles of coastline along California State Route 1, stretching from Malpaso Creek in the north to San Carpoforo Creek in the south.
Big Sur receives many visitors a year en route to Yosemite but is deliberately underdeveloped. Limited bus service and a two-lane highway have helped to preserve the region’s distinctive character, while local development plans are among the most restrictive in the world.
Exploring Rich History One of the Best Things To Do in Big Sur
Big Sur’s history is an interesting one. Some of California’s indigenous groups long inhabited areas of Big Sur such as the Esselen Tribe, but they lost their land to Spanish explorers in the eighteenth century (recently, the Esselen Tribe purchased 1,200 acres in the area to regain some sacred land).
The Spanish started calling it “El Pais Grande del Sur” or “big country to the south” because the terrain was so difficult to move through. The region was not attractive to Spanish settlers or those from the United States in part because it was so remote, and in the early twentieth century, most of the economy was devoted to redwood logging. It developed slowly: many towns didn’t receive electricity until the 1950s. It’s still small today, with only around a thousand permanent residents.
In the twentieth century, however, Big Sur began to attract a different group: bohemians. The poet Robinson Jeffers moved to Carmen in 1914 and popularized the region through his writings. Henry Miller did much the same thing in the 1950s with Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch, and other writers such as Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson made their home in the region. So did famed nature photographer Ansel Adams!
California State Route One Through Big Sur
If you’re going to navigate Big Sur, it pretty much has to be through State Route One. The region was remote and difficult to access because of the surrounding mountains. State Route One was first proposed in 1921 as a way of finally breaking the region’s isolation, and was under off-and-on construction until 1937 when it was finally completed. It’s a small highway compared to what else you might see in California. You’re probably better off staying away in the summer or over holiday weekends when traffic jams can become quite common. But the drive is worth it: the highway is usually ranked as one of the best drives in the United States, with winding roads, a view of the California coastline, and the backdrop of rich forests.
State Route One is more than just a highway: it’s a central part of the draw that Big Sur holds. Bixby Creek Bridge is just one of the sights on the highway. Built in 1932, it’s a three-hundred and sixty foot bridge that consists of a single span. It’s one of the tallest-such bridges in the world, and one of the most photographed as well. In total, the Big Sur highway is home to twenty-nine different bridges (you can see why it took them so long to finish the highway!) Do plan ahead and listen to news reports: frequent landslides shut down traffic, and heavy storms will often close the road.
Monterey, Highlights Include Steinbeck Sites and Jazz Festival
Even though Monterey is technically outside of Big Sur, it’s a good northerly point to begin from, and one of the best places to visit in the Big Sur region. It’s just a few minutes south to get on State Route One and head for Big Sur. The city was the original capital of Alta California when it was under Spanish and then Mexican rule.
Famous for its position in Monterey Bay and its aquarium, it also attracted a Bohemian reputation because of the many writers who came to live there. John Steinbeck set his novels Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday there. The novels looked at the characters of Monterey: tramps, Chinese-American shopkeepers, prostitutes, fishermen, and marine biologists. Steinbeck dedicated his novels to his friend Ed Ricketts, a marine biologist who, among other things, helped pioneer the study of fishery ecologies.
Monterey’s Aquarium opened in 1984, making it relatively new, but it rapidly became one of the most popular attractions in California. It’s home to the first kelp forest exhibit in the United States. The construction of the aquarium also encouraged the preservation of the city’s cannery row, which by the 1980s had long since gone away: overfishing led the last canneries to shut down by 1973. Some of the buildings were preserved, however: you can visit Pacific Biological Laboratories, where Ricketts worked, a cafe that inspired a bar in the novel, and a store that features prominently in the novels.
Other highlights include the Monterey Jazz Festival. Held the third week of September, it’s run every year since 1958. The festival attracts some of the best names in jazz and includes performances, workshops, and documentary screenings. Single-day tickets start around $90, with full weekend packages available as well. If you’re interested in jazz, this is one of the best festivals in the United States.
San Carlo Borromeo de Carmelo
San Carlo Borromeo de Carmelo is about five miles south of Monterey and is a serene, beautiful place. It also has a profound religious and social history, as well as being representative of a moment in time architecturally. Some of the distinctive structural elements include domes, arches, vaults, belfries, pillared arcades and aqueducts which are impressive given the limited material to build with. These period pieces of architecture, along with tiled roofs and stucco walls, influenced the California building style known as the "Mission Revival".
San Carlo Borromeo served as the headquarters of the Franciscan order of the Catholic Church's 21 missions in what was then a province of New Spain called Alta California. These were religious outposts run by the Franciscan religious order to convert California’s indigenous peoples to Catholicism. These missions have become extremely controversial as more of their history has been uncovered, especially their role in forcibly converting the people who lived there.
The missions were designed by artisans from Mexico and this property is one of the best restored examples and is the only mission left in California with its original bell tower. Built in 1797, it is a National Historic Landmark.
The missions were more than just churches. They functioned as farms and plantations. This of course had a dark side to it, because indigenous peoples provided all of the labor and were coerced into working there. They farmed, raised livestock such as cattle, and sold leather goods that were exported around the world.
By the 1830s, the missions were abandoned when the Mexican government secularized them, worried that the missions might still be loyal to Spain. The Catholic Church regained San Carlo Borromeo in 1859, and while heavily damaged, managed to continue running the mission as a church. In the 1930s, restoration began on the mission, and today it serves as a museum and event space for the community.
Carmel-by-the-Sea, A Cultural Hub
About four miles south of Monterey, Carmel-by-the-Sea is one of the highlights of the Big Sur region. It’s small, with around 4,000 people calling it home. It became home to an artists’ colony beginning in 1906, with many people moving there from the Bay Area in the wake of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. Some actors make their home in Carmel: Clint Eastwood was mayor from 1986 until 1988.
Robinson Jeffers became one of the most famous residents and left a lasting imprint on the community. Jeffers was an outdoorsman who preferred to be in nature, and he came to Carmel with his wife Una in 1914. Together, they built the famous Tor House and Hawk Tower, an imposing stone structure, and Jeffers spent the remainder of his life in Carmel, writing poetry.
Jeffers’ own philosophy was matched by the natural world he found in Big Sur: mankind was by nature selfish, and the best cure for that was to lose oneself in nature, an idea which he termed “inhumanism.” Jeffers died in 1962, and visitors to Carmel can still visit his house. Other noteworthy writers who spent time in Carmel included Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, and Jack London.
Today, Carmel is a cultural hub. Despite its small population, it is home to a number of theaters under the umbrella of the Pacific Repertory Theater. If the visual arts are what you’re interested in, check out the Carmel Arts Association, which sells works from local artists through a gallery. The Carmel Bach Festival has run since 1935 (except for 2020), and the Monterey Symphony plays in Carmel from time to time.
Carmel Valley Offers Vineyards, Motorcycles and Hiking
Most of the travels through Big Sur take place along State Route One, but Carmel Valley is a trip eastward from Carmel-by-the-Sea. Carmel Valley is one of the best places to visit in Big Sur. It’s a thirteen-mile drive to this unincorporated town; a bus also runs here hourly from Monterey.
Home to around 4,000 people, there are restaurants, wine bars, and galleries. A number of vineyards are located around Carmel Valley, including Folktale Winery, Joullian Vineyard, and others. If you’re interested in the local history of the Carmel Valley, the Carmel Valley History Museum has exhibits dedicated to the local settlers. For motorcycle enthusiasts, Moto Talbott features more than one hundred and fifty motorcycles from all over the world.
If you’re interested in taking in the natural sights, Garland Ranch Regional Park offers hiking and an interpretive center detailing the history of the ranch. The park consists of a number of different properties that were gradually consolidated during the twentieth century. It’s one of the more popular parks in the area, in part because of the larger number of trails (over fifty miles of them!) but also because of their relative ease for hiking: many of them are grassland trails. Wild animals in the area include cottontail rabbits, deer, bobcats, and mountain lions.
Point Lobos, First Marine Reserve in the U.S.
California has 280 state parks, but Point Lobos is one of the best-loved and best places to visit in Big Sur. Ten minutes south of Carmel-by-the-Sea, it’s a marine highlight and is located near a marine reserve and marine conservation area. The area was originally part of a Mexican land grant but spent decades being bitterly litigated to determine ownership in the 1800s. Beginning in the 1850s, it was home to a group of Chinese and Japanese fishermen who used it as a whaling site. Today, one of the whaler’s cabins is still intact, offering a rare view into how the fishermen of that era lived.
In 1874, coal was discovered in the area and it was home to a coal mine. Alexander Macmillan Allan moved there with his family to oversee the mine and soon fell in love with the area, which regularly received visitors coming to enjoy the coastline. It was largely preserved by the Allan Family, who collected land for the state to turn it into a park and began selling it off in 1933, and in 1960 it became the first marine reserve in the United States.
Several miles of trails dot the area around Point Lobos, offering spectacular views of the coastline. Scuba diving is popular in the area, as is kayaking, and one of the best areas to snorkel is near the whaler’s cabin. The marine area is protected, and visitors are not allowed to disturb the wildlife that exists here. Because of a nearby underwater canyon, the biodiversity here is very rich, and marine biologists study the area to better understand overall ocean health. Lucky visitors can even go whale watching, as gray and blue whales visit the area.
Andrew Molera State Park
To get to Andrew Molera State Park, you’ll officially be entering Big Sur! Big Sur’s hallmark is its pristine natural area, and this park is one of the best places to visit in Big Sur for that. Twenty-six miles south of Monterey and twenty-three miles south of Carmel-by-the-Sea, it’s a forty-minute drive with traffic. In turn, the family donated the land to California in 1965 under the stipulation that the land remains undeveloped.
The Cooper Cabin sits on the site, as does a discovery center dedicated to California wildlife. The cabin is the oldest structure in Big Sur, built either in 1861 or 1862. It was built by Juan Bautista Rogers Cooper, a U.S settler who came to California in the 1820s, became a Mexican citizen, and became an important landowner in the state. The land that makes up the park came into his possession as Rancho El Sur. After Cooper’s death, the land stayed in the Cooper family and passed to the Molera family through marriage. In 1965, members of the Molera family agreed to donate this land to the State of California on the condition that it remain undeveloped.
There’s a small campground and the park has twenty miles of trails for hiking. Some trails cover the coastline, while others offer views of nearby waterfalls, including the forty-foot Highbridge Falls. A nature interpretive center offers information on animals in the park, including the California Condor. It’s supposed to have the best surfing opportunities in all of Big Sur. Notably, dogs are not welcome in the park.
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
Get ready to enjoy the drive on State Route One when you head to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, a beautiful place to visit in Big Sur! Twenty-eight miles south of Carmel-by-the-Sea, the park is named for the Pfeiffer family who settled there in the nineteenth century. Reportedly, they were stopped there by weather while moving south and spent the winter in the area. They decided it so much that they stayed there and raised children in the area, who in turn stayed there. The family was offered money to sell their land to a real estate developer from Los Angeles in 1930, but instead decided to sell it to the State of California in order to preserve it. For a time, it was home to a Boy Scouts camp, but the camp closed in 1954.
Today, the park is an attractive place to visit. A hotel exists in the park for visitors, the Big Sur Lodge. A separate campground also exists in the park. The park has some beautiful hikes and is home to some very old redwoods, many of them hundreds of years old. One such tree, the Colonial Tree, is well over a millenia old. Visitors can also visit John Pfeiffer’s original cabin, which is still standing in the park.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
Nine miles south of Pfeiffer Big Sur is the similarly named Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. The Pfeiffer family left their mark through the Big Sur area, and this is one of the best places to visit in Big Sur. The park is a popular campsite, though it requires reservations. The half-mile Overlook Waterfall Trail is a short hike to a spectacular sight: an eighty-foot waterfall that falls right on the beach!
The park is also home to a curious structure: the tin house. Built for a congressman named Lathrop Brown, it was built in 1944 out of tin because of wartime shortages of construction materials. It was nicknamed “the Gas Station” and offered spectacular views of the Big Sur coast, as well as a way to get above the fog. However, the Browns didn’t count on one thing: the effect the sun had on their tin house and the noise the metal made as it contracted and expanded from the height. Reportedly, Brown and his wife only slept there for one night before leaving. The house they built is a striking one, though it’s a derelict structure now. It’s about a seven-mile hike to the house, and the views are stellar.
Despite their bad experience with the Tin House, the Brown family loved the area and donated their land to California. They named it for Julia Pfeiffer, who had been a friend when they first moved to the area. Today, it’s another treasured California state park.
Named for a drug in Homer’s Odyssey that erases grief, this restaurant is a highlight of the Big Sur region. The restaurant sits about thirty miles south of Carmel-by-the-Sea. Opened in 1949, this is situated on a high vista offering stunning views of the coastline and Santa Lucia Mountains. Inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture, the restaurant is strikingly designed. Originally, the area was home to a cabin owned by Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. When the two divorced, the land was acquired by Bill and Lolly Fassett. It became a hub for the Bohemians who visited the area, including Henry Miller, who befriended the Fassetts.
In addition to the restaurant, there’s the Cafe Kevah and The Phoenix Shop. The wine list is extensive and they’re famous for their Ambrosia Burger, a French ground steak burger with a house sauce. It’s best experienced near the end of a long afternoon so that you can watch the sun set over the ocean.
Henry Miller Memorial Library
Henry Miller is one of the best-known writers who called Big Sur home. Author of books such as Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn, and of course Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch. Miller’s works were banned in the United States because of their explicit sexual content. Miller visited Big Sur soon after publishing his book The Air-Conditioned Nightmare in 1940, a biting critique of American materialism. Perhaps he saw the Big Sur area as an antidote to what he disliked about the rest of the United States because he lived there until 1963. He became a counter-cultural symbol to Beat writers such as Jack Kerouac. Miller died in 1980, but he remains an indelible influence on the region.
If you want to visit a place where you can capture some of Miller’s influence, the Henry Miller Memorial Library is fabulous. This library is housed in Miller’s former home and has the second-largest collection of Miller’s papers and books (UCLA’s library takes first place). It’s more than just a library, though. Major bands like Arcade Fire or the Fleet Foxes play here, and it attracts the same kinds of oddballs, hippies, and artists that Miller surrounded himself with. Fairs, book signings, and events happen here frequently, and it’s a good place to visit after spending a couple of days in Big Sur’s wilder areas.
Spiritual Growth at Esalen
Big Sur’s remote location and Bohemian reputation attract people looking to explore their own spirituality or artists looking to hone their craft. If you’re looking for spiritual growth, a better understanding of wellness, or just a new experience, it’s one of the best places to visit in Big Sur. An hour south of Carmel-by-the-Sea, the Esalen Institute is a retreat that helped to drive much of the New Age Movement. The same things that drew Robinson Jeffers and Henry Miller drew similar individuals who found that Big Sur was a good place to better study themselves and the world around them.
Founded in 1962 by Michael Murphy and Dick Price, the institute offers workshops on spirituality, wellness, ecological sustainability, and other topics. Murphy and Price were influenced by Aldous Huxley’s ideas about human potential, and also by Buddhist and Taoist spiritual practices. They were joined by prominent psychologists and thinkers like Abraham Maslow, famous for Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Gestalt therapy was taught and practiced there extensively during the 1960s and 1970s. Workshops brought thought leaders such as photographer Ansel Adams, psychologist B.F. Skinner and historian Arnold Toynbee.
Weekend workshops start at $400 and become progressively more expensive for private rooms or longer workshops. Guests often stay in communal rooms, though private rooms are available at a higher price. Esalen has a dedicated, month-long massage school on-site for people wishing to become practitioners. Because you probably haven’t gotten your fill of the outdoors, hiking and wilderness classes are also available through Esalen.
San Simeon is the southerly end of the Big Sur trip. The town is very small and home to less than 500 people, but it has a number of beautiful sights. It’s two hours south of Carmel-by-the-Sea. San Simeon was founded originally as a support community for a neighboring Franciscan mission San Miguel Arcangel. Portuguese whalers set up shop in the immediate vicinity in the 1860s, and the town subsequently became home to George Hearst, miner and subsequent founder of the Hearst newspaper conglomerate.
Neighboring attractions include a large elephant seal rookery to the north within Hearst Simeon State Park. William Randolph Hearst Memorial Beach offers spectacular views of the coastline. Try and catch the sea otters if you can. If you’re interested in the area’s maritime history, Piedras Blancas Light Station offers tours of the neighboring lighthouse. Want to see something you find anywhere else in Big Sur? The road leading up to Hearst Castle has zebras!
George Hearst helped to build up San Simeon, but it was his son William Randolph Hearst who built the so-called Hearst Castle. Ninety miles south of Carmel-by-the-Sea, it’s one of Big Sur’s most striking attractions. William Randolph Hearst was the inspiration for Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane, who had an ostentatious mansion called Xanadu, and the Hearst Castle lives up to it. The mansion is an eclectic mix of 20th-century revival styles, including Spanish colonial, Mediterranean, and others, and covers a 90,000 square foot area. Multiple smaller guest houses existed for the luminaries of the 1920s and 1930s, ranging from actors like Douglas Fairbanks to politicians like Winston Churchill. It was built between 1919 and 1947.
Hearst was, among other things, a prolific collector, and the Hearst Estate is full of antiques and rare items that he amassed throughout his life. Ancient antiquities like Greek vases and rare books abound throughout the house, along with art and architecture from Spain. Hearst’s library includes thousands of volumes of rare books. Three large guest houses, each of them thousands of square feet, were intended for visitors who came to spend time with Hearst.
A visit to Hearst Castle is easy to set up. Because it’s close to San Simeon, you can easily fold it into your visit to Big Sur. You need tickets and reservations in order to get a tour of the Hearst Castle, which is strongly recommended so that you can take in all of the attractions. Tickets are $8 to see the grand rooms, and more than a dozen tours exist around the Hearst Castle.
The terminal point of a trip to Big Sur, Morro Bay is a town of ten thousand people. It’s a good final thing to take in on your visit to Big Sur. One hundred and twenty miles away from Carmel-by-the-Sea, it’s firmly outside of Big Sur. That doesn’t make it any less pretty, though! Morro Bay is named for Morro Rock, a fifty-acre extinct volcano in the ocean. It’s got a beautiful Morro Bay Marine Reserve to visit to take in the coast’s aquatic beauty. If you’re a bird watcher, there’s a cormorant and heron rookery nearby. Trails and state parks abound if you still haven’t gotten your fill.
The town was first settled by Europeans when the area was divided into ranchos by the Spanish. The town itself was settled in 1870 as a port for ranching and dairy goods destined for export. Later, it became a fishing town, focusing on abalone fishing in the 1940s, but later expanding to oysters, halibut, and albacore, and much of the fishing industry is still alive today. The town’s home to a number of good restaurants, too.
Morro Bay has other attractions in addition to all of that beautiful scenery. There’s a maritime museum and a museum of natural history. For something a little bit more unusual, there’s the Morro Bay Skateboard Museum!
Wrapping Up Your Big Sur Tour
Big Sur can be done in a single day starting in Monterey and ending in Morro Bay, but it’s best to spread it out over a couple of days to enjoy Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea, potentially spending a day camping in one of the beautiful parks, and then ending with a visit to the southerly reaches. From there, it’s just a few hours’ drive to Los Angeles. If you’re starting in the south, reaching Monterey means it’s just a few hours to San Francisco! Take the time, cherish the landscape, and enjoy a truly unique place.
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