Mon. Jul 4th, 2022

Why we love Big Sur

  • Its endless vistas.
  • Its towering redwoods.
  • Its classic Californian charm

Stephen Copeland’s journey to Big Sur started as someone else’s dream.

More than five decades ago, Copeland arrived in this coastal community after hitching a ride with a friend. He didn’t plan on staying long. But then he met Madelaine “Lolly” Fassett, the owner of Nepenthe, an iconic restaurant dusted with a little Hollywood lore. (The property once belonged to Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles.) To hear Copeland tell it, Fassett also had a bit of mythology about her.

“She was the goddess of Big Sur,” he says. “People would come from all over the world just to sit in her living room. She would put them on [their destined] path.” It was Fassett’s dream that Copeland become a tour guide in Big Sur. “She said, ‘I believe it’s your destiny to show this place to the world.’ And I was like, ‘What!?’ I was born and raised in Beverly Hills!”

Stephen Copeland with Pacific Ocean in background
Stephen Copeland

But Copeland gave it a shot. With his company, Big Sur Guides, he began guiding travelers through the maze of forests and trails, growing more and more familiar with the 90-mile stretch of rugged terrain. While on his treks, he connected to the area’s natural wonders. And in time, Fassett’s vision became his own.

Now Copeland can list out must-see attractions like Pfeiffer State Park, Partington Cove, and Old Coast Road. He can also rattle off intel on the local flora and fauna. “Big Sur sits in a collection of California coastal redwoods. It’s a tree that only lives in the Southern coast of Oregon to San Luis Obispo,” he explains.

But ultimately, the connection he’s making is one that’s far deeper. “When people drive the highway, entering Big Sur, they start to get a feeling of how the earth enters the ocean.” According to Copeland, this sensation doesn’t just stir the heart and the brain, but the soul. In fact, Copeland isn’t shy about describing his job as guiding people to the divine through nature. “I’m not saying what god is,” he clarifies. “But people come out of [here] with a sense that they’ve been touched by god.” And when it comes to spiritual communions with nature, Copeland is clear: “No place touches you like Big Sur.”

In this edition of the WeekEnder, we dive deep into the places every outdoor-loving traveler should see and experience this fall and beyond.

Stacey Leasca, SoCal’s Senior WeekEnder Guide

Editor’s Note: Your safety is our primary concern. We encourage you only to travel when it feels safe for you. While we’ve vetted businesses featured here to ensure they are adhering to the state’s current COVID requirements, the situation is fluid. If you’re not comfortable traveling just yet, save this guide for a later date, as all these activities will be as amazing in the future as they are today.

Map of the area

Map of Big Sur and its top sights
  1. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
  2. Bixby Creek Bridge
  3. Sand Dollar Beach
  4. Esalen
  5. Henry Miller Memorial Library
  6. COAST Big Sur
  7. Nepenthe
  8. Big Sur River Inn & Restaurant
  9. Big Sur Bakery
  10. Big Sur Roadhouse
  11. Ventana Big Sur
  12. Glen Oaks Big Sur
  13. Post Ranch Inn
  14. Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn
  15. Treebones Resort

Things to do

Bridge surrounded by trees in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

Ground yourself in nature with these solo hikes and local experiences.

Hike Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

If you do just one thing here, make it a hike through Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Look up in awe at the massive sycamore trees, oaks, maples, and—of course—the coastal redwoods that call this 1,000-acre park home. Dip your toes in the river after a long nature walk, and soak in the views from endless vista points overlooking the best that Big Sur has to offer. (Note: For those who can’t hike, Copeland offers a driving tour by request to ensure everyone can experience the glory of this park.)

Snap an iconic photo at Bixby Creek Bridge

Built in the early 19th century, Bixby Creek Bridge quickly became an icon of coastal California life. The bridge, which sits more than 260 feet above the ground, is a beloved landmark for those driving Highway 1. Photographers also adore this scenic spot that captures the enormity of Big Sur in one snapshot. It’s so famous, it even scored a cameo in the credits of HBO’s hit show “Big Little Lies.”

Left: Bixby Creek Bridge; Right: Deck at Esalen
Bixby Creek Bridge (L), Esalen (R)

Soak up the sun at Sand Dollar Beach

Alas you won’t find sand dollars dotting the shoreline of this beach, but you will find ample peace and tranquility. As the longest stretch of sand in Big Sur, Sand Dollar Beach provides just the spot for an idyllic picnic, a day of surfing, or a place to collect a few sunbeams as the days grow cooler. As a bonus, walk to Jade Cove to see glimmers of bright green jade hidden in the rocks.

Get spiritual and sustainable at Esalen

Need a little help tapping into your spiritual side? Dig deep with a visit to Esalen, a retreat center and educational institute specializing in journeys of personal growth. The center offers single-day and multi-day workshops, along with guided explorations for mind, body, and spirit. And it doesn’t hurt that the property comes with drop-dead-gorgeous ocean views and private hot springs, so you can soak away your troubles.

See a show at Henry Miller Memorial Library

Named after the once-banned author, the Henry Miller Memorial Library is the cultural epicenter of Big Sur. The venue hosts regular music, fashion, and film events by local creators and celebrates Big Sur’s best with reverence. And while this nonprofit isn’t a lending library per se, it does have a wonderful bookstore packed with titles sharing local knowledge.

Spots to eat and drink

Outdoor ocean-view seating at Nepenthe

Think globally, eat locally at these iconic restaurants serving local produce and Big Sur flare.

For picnics to go, Coast Big Sur

Local, organic, and ethically sourced, the food at Coast will make every Big Sur tree-hugger happy. The restaurant itself offers picture-perfect views from its rooftop. But considering how everything served makes for prime picnic takeaways, you may not linger long. Grab a salad overflowing with avocado; a sourdough pizza topped with red peppers, onion, garlic; and whatever bakery treats are on display, and take your haul into the forest or along the beach for the ultimate al fresco meal. Bonus: Coast Big Sur also doubles as a local art gallery, with pieces that make the ultimate souvenir.

For epic sunset views, Nepenthe

In 1949, Nepenthe opened its doors and began serving the wide array of artists, travelers, and creators who relocated to Big Sur. Considering the restaurant’s views of the Santa Lucia Mountains hovering over the Pacific Ocean, it’s easy to see why it became a mecca for dreamers. Though everything on the menu is a delight, make sure to order the famous Ambrosia Burger made of ground steak and served on a French roll with ambrosia sauce. And reserve an outside table to watch the most spectacular sunset of your life.

Left: Outdoor seating at night at Coast Big Sur; Right: Dish from Big Sur River Inn & Restaurant
Coast Big Sur (L), Big Sur River Inn & Restaurant (R)

For in-nature dining, Big Sur River Inn & Restaurant

When we say a meal at the Big Sur River Inn will immerse you in nature, we really mean it. Diners can dig into their meal while seated in chairs set directly in the waters of Big Sur River with the lazy current washing over their feet. Of course, there’s still seating on dry land for those that want to enjoy their salad or a classic BLT without distraction. But nothing compares to tucking into a down-home dinner of salmon or tri-tip bits while the fish swim by your toes.

For a locally baked treat, Big Sur Bakery

If you go on a weekend getaway without stopping for sweet treats is it even a vacation? Swing by the Big Sur Bakery for fresh bread, homemade granola, and baked goodies like ginger scones. You’ll also find croissants that would make any Parisian proud. Those on the hunt for a heftier meal can grab salads, chili, local avocado toast or smoked salmon on toast with red onion and creme fraiche, and woodfire pizzas topped with veggies plucked right from the garden.

For an upscale road-trip pitstop, Big Sur Roadhouse

While the name may sound like a saloon-style, boot-scootin’ Gold Rush relic, the Big Sur Roadhouse is full of blond-wood furnishings, contemporary art, and seasonal food—or as the venue describes it “homegrown modernism.” Think of it as the 2.0 version of a dine-and-go pitstop. You can typically find a burger or locally caught fish on the menu alongside pulled pork sandwiches, all served with a hefty side of fries.

Places to stay

Nature-set Ventana Big Sur
Ventana Big Sur

Immerse yourself in Big Sur’s natural beauty even as you catch Z’s.

For a local take on luxury, Ventana Big Sur

Picture the generic luxury of most five-star hotels: high-thread-count bedding, concierge service, fine dining, etc. Ventana offers all that, but it also comes packed with amenities that reflect Big Sur itself like shimmering blue pools overlooking the ocean, suites with wood-burning fireplaces, outdoor “forest showers,” and even glamping tents for those who don’t want to leave the redwoods for a single moment. As if that wasn’t enough, the Ventana can arrange guided hikes and falconry lessons right on hotel grounds.

For “Little Cabin in the Woods” vibes, Glen Oaks Big Sur

“Hotel” may be a bit of a misnomer for Glen Oaks. This property is actually a grab bag of quirky accommodations, including a motor lodge, tiny homes, and a cluster of cabins. The latter look out into the forest and river and even boast outdoor soaking tubs, so you can stargaze from a bubble bath. Also Big Sur Roadhouse is right next door, giving easy access to their seasonal menu.

Left: Outdoor tub at Glen Oaks Big Sur; Right: Cabin porch at Treebones Resort
Glen Oaks Big Sur (L), Treebones Resort (R)

For prime-time real estate, Post Ranch Inn

Looking for the architectural drama showcased in “Big Little Lies”? The Post Ranch Inn makes a good stand-in. Its 40 hotel rooms and private rental homes are all located along a cliff’s edge for major wow-factor. Made of glass, steel, wood, and stone, the inn looks like a centerfold for Architectural Digest. Guests also have access to an infinity pool, daily yoga lessons, and guided hikes in the surrounding hillside.

For a classic getaway, Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn

For some serious old-school cool and plenty of local history, book an overnight stay at Deetjen’s. Completed in 1937, the building is so famous, it even made its way onto the National Register of Historic Places. While the hotel itself may not be as lavish as its more modern counterparts, it more than makes up for it in romantic gardens that bloom year-round, a spectacular setting amid nature with its own babbling brook and waterfall, and rooms that look out onto the redwood forest.

For an only-in-Big-Sur stay, Treebones Resort

Treebones Resort has the glamping thing on lock. The eco-resort is made up of campsites, yurts, and pre-built glamping tents constructed with translucent fabric to let in the natural light, all set on secluded land. Adventurous travelers can take it up a notch by booking the “human nest,” a campsite made out of woven twigs and wood to resemble a giant bird’s nest. Campers must bring their own sleeping bag and pillows, but they’ll be rewarded with heavenly views of the Pacific Ocean all day and night.

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