Anyone who has spent time in Big Sur lights up when they talk about it. This 90 mile stretch of the California coast accomplishes the nearly impossible: fierce preservation of land and culture with well-oiled hospitality and recreation.
We flew into LA and drove to and from there so that we could scoop up camping gear from friends. The Highway 1 drive is a key part of the experience with serious views, twists and turns.
Along the way: From LA, we drove for a couple of hours then stopped to explore Ojai for the afternoon. Tasted some wine at the Ojai Vineyard Tasting Room, walked around town, browsed a lavender festival, had a slice of pizza and went on our way. Cute town. We then drove a couple more hours and stopped for dinner at the Madonna Inn. I have seen photos of this place as it’s a popular stop between LA and SF and it’s even better in person. Over the top, hot pink design and great energy. We had dinner in the steak house while a live band played old classics and the dance floor filled with couples boogying. The food was good and it’s worth a stop whether you stay the night or just drop in.
From there we finally made it to Cambria where we stayed the night at the Cambria Beach Lodge. The Beach Lodge sits on a stretch of quiet, dreamy beach. I walked from there to Shamel Park which has a small pool and access to Moonstone Beach, then picked up the beautiful Santa Rosa Creek trail for a hike that ended in town. Eat at Hidden Kitchen– the waffles, smoothies and ladies that run it are the best!
On our return drive back to LA we stayed the night in the Dutch town of Solvang at the Landsby. The hotel was nice but we found the town to be touristy. In the past I have stayed a few times at El Capitan Canyon near Santa Barbara and loved it. It’s fun to get a feel for as many towns along the way as possible so try to bake in a couple of extra days. OK, on to the Sur!
STAY: Make sure you book way ahead because whether you are going lux or camp, it all books out months in advance in peak season. We camped for the first part of the trip at Ventana Campground. The grounds are impeccably cared for, surrounding you are towering redwoods and a stream runs through the campsite quietly drowning out any potentially annoying noise from other campers nearby. It’s a small camp, shared by campers and glampers, there’s bath houses throughout, fresh water spigots, and even a cute airstream bar that is open on the weekends. The glamping tents are a nice option if you don’t have gear and they have a nicer bath house. I like that Ventana offers all levels of stay – camp, glamp, very chic resort.
Next we stayed at Deetjen’s. While it doesn’t seem like much has changed since it opened in the 1930s, it somehow feels fresh. Each room is unique, well decorated with antiques, appointed with very nice bedding and is quirky and elegant at the same time. The grounds at Deetjen’s are fantastic, it sits on the edge of a beautiful forest and the restaurant, both food and decor, is the best in Big Sur (more on that below). This place is not to be missed and embodies Big Sur living. Note that there is no cell service and no wifi at Deetjen’s. They instruct you to use the pay phone in the library if you need to make a call. Yes, I said pay phone.
EAT: Breakfast and dinner at Deetjen’s are exceptional. Whether you are staying there or not, eat there. For lunch we stopped at the Roadhouse which is simple and good and has a nice backyard. We got sandwiches at the Deli paired with beers at the Taphouse (they are connected), also a great backyard. The Deli is the one sort of “general store” in the area we were staying so we ended up there quite a bit for anything we needed. The Bakery is right there too, we never ate there but people love that spot. While camping at Ventana we did one night of cooking over the fire at the campsite and one night at the Sur House at the Ventana Resort. The Sur House design and view were great, the food was mediocre. I would recommend going for drinks instead of dinner. You can’t actually see the sunset from The Sur House restaurant but the light hits the surrounding landscape in an equally impressive display.
The night of campsite cooking was obviously delicious, I have never tasted a bad bite cooked over an open fire in the forest. We also really enjoyed the slow camp mornings of making a fire, heating water for pour overs and cooking a hearty breakfast before leaving for the day.
DO: We did three great hikes. The Andrew Molero Loop is the answer for a long hike (8.8mi) with all the Sur terrain and views. From the river cross to the bluffs, panorama and ridge trails, each delivers on their name. Spend the day out there, eat snacks, take sunbathing breaks, look at flowers, live it up.
The day after the long loop we wanted a shorter morning hike through Redwoods. We drove to Pfeiffer State Park and the very helpful rangers at the entrance recommended Buzzard’s Roost. It was exactly what we were looking for, it’s a three mile loop (love me a loop) though actually more elevation than anticipated. The first half is through the forest with impressive, massive and very old trees and lots of switchbacks. It opens up at the top where there’s an antenna and the walk back was along the ocean ridge.
The third hike, or I guess it’s more of an adventure than a hike, will change your life. If you can time it so you are there when the sun is getting low, it’s even better. Just be careful not to get stuck in the dark. If you have a really solid off road vehicle you could drive all the way up and camp for the night. Just south of the Plaskett Campground entrance there is a dirt road going into the backcountry hills- turn onto this road and it’s five miles up the rocky road. There’s some tricky spots, you may get stuck, take it slow and drive as far up as you can get. A car can potentially do the first 2.5 miles. I think we abandoned our car after 2 miles. The walk is tough. It’s then worth it for the wide open expanse – magic in every direction you look. We met one couple and one family up there who were staying the night, which I would like to do next time.
After a day of hiking hit the River Gorge swimming holes in Pfeiffer State Park. This may be my favorite thing in all of Big Sur. Park in Day Use Lot 3, follow the river gorge trail along the road adjacent to Lot 3 (ask people in the lot if you can’t find it) until you get to where the bridge used to be (you can still see the base of the bridge). From here you will probably want to cross the river and then continue walking upstream along the river bed. Keep going about a quarter mile where the bigger boulders and deeper swimming holes are. We were so dirty and sun scorched by the time we arrived here, the water was clear and freezing and utterly delightful.
KNOW: The Old “The Journey Is the Destination” comes to mind. It was so fun zipping around Highway 1 and discovering gems around each turn. Make sure you have wheels that are as ready for the journey as you are. We rented a car through Turo at LAX and had a very positive experience. There is a stretch of at least 45 miles with no cell service in Big Sur. Download those offline maps and know before you go. $10 per day gets you access to all of the CA State parks- we learned this mid way through the trip. Some trails are closed due to recent storms so dig into the CA Parks advisory page for info. The rangers at every park were so friendly and helpful. They know everything, ask them! Lastly, my big take away from this trip is that there’s no “musts” on a Big Sur list of things to do. The things I loved most were different than others that I compared notes with. There’s no BEST hike or BEST restaurant, it’s ALL good, just get outside and go with the flow of each day spent in Big Sur, that right there is the magic.