4 utterly gorgeous Big Sur hikes — with tasty bite recommendations, too
From Point Lobos to Molera Beach and Pfeiffer Falls, here's how to explore Big Sur's trails -- with four tips on where to grab a bite before or afterward.
“Pull over! Pull over!” my husband said.
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 new-adventure adrenaline, we hopped out, breathing in the ocean air and the sight of ocean bluffs and Santa Lucia Mountains in Garrapata State Park.
Ever since then, the Big Sur coast — that 90 mile-stretch of Highway 1 between Carmel and San Simeon — has become one of our favorite drives and the perfect place to bring out-of-town guests. As summer fog gives way to autumn skies and off-peak tourist season, now’s a great time to plan a visit.
Here are four leg-stretching hikes with options to grab a bite nearby. (Find more helpful tips in the Big Sur Visitor 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 magnificent sights at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. Trace these highlights on a 5.0-mile loop along the reserve’s coastline, a couple miles south of Carmel.
A beautiful place to start is on the reserve’s southwestern side, overlooking sandy Gibson Beach. Heading northwest, the South Shore Trail hugs the shoreline, offering family-friendly access points to small beaches, tide pools and uplifted sedimentary rocks. Rounding the Reserve’s northwestern tip, the Cypress Grove Trail is a must-do 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 humongous whale bones outside the Whalers Cabin and harbor seals lounging on rocks. Return on the Carmelo Meadow Trail to the park entrance under lace lichen-draped pines.
Side trip: A 1.1-mile round trip on the Granite Point Trail visits coves and Carmel Beach vistas.
Trail map: https://tinyurl.com/pointlobosloop
Details: Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, which is currently open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, is located 2.2 miles south of Rio Road in Carmel. Vehicle entry fee is $10. Arrive well before 9:30 a.m. (or after 3 p.m.) to get one of the 75 coveted parking spots. Roadside parking is available on the ocean side of Highway 1. There is no walk-in fee, however, donations are appreciated. Find out more at www.pointlobos.org.
Grab a bite: Dametra Cafe serves lunchtime 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 that delivers the “Wow!” impact of Big Sur. The Santa Lucia Mountains, covered in green coastal scrub, slope dramatically down to the ocean. Wide trails wander coastal bluffs, overlooking sea stacks and hidden coves.
A 2.1-mile loop explores Soberanes Point and climbs to offer 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 the warm pink California buckwheats, lavender seaside daisies and yellow woolly sunflowers.
Side trip: A 2.9-mile round trip on the Soberanes Canyon Trail visits a redwood grove. Please take care: The trail is located across Highway 1 on the east side of the park, and there is no pedestrian crosswalk.
Trail Map: https://tinyurl.com/soberanespointloop
Details: Garrapata State Park is open daily from 8 a.m. until a half hour after sunset. There is no entrance fee. Parking is available on dirt turnouts beginning seven miles south of Rio Road in Carmel. Find park details at https://www.parks.ca.gov/.
Grab a bite: California Market at Pacific’s Edge mixes casual and fine dining, serving seafood, main dish salads ($19 and up) and burgers at 120 Highlands Drive in the Hyatt Carmel Highlands. Open daily from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Reservations recommended.
Molera Beach & Big Sur River, Andrew Molera State Park
The Creamery Meadow Trail to Molera Beach is a heck of a leg-stretcher; just long enough to work out the gas pedal kinks 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 beach umbrella signs 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 flitting among lupine shrubs, live oak and — beware — poison oak.
In a mile, you’ll reach the beach, studded with driftwood tipis and beach wrack. To the left, Molera Beach stretches 2 miles one-way to Cooper Point, and is walkable at low tide. To the right, hidden from view, is a calm estuary where the Big Sur River meets the ocean.
Side trip: Follow signs onto the Bluff Trail for a 10-minute hike to a panorama of Molera Beach.
Trail map: https://tinyurl.com/andrewmolerabeach
Details: Andrew Molera State Park is open daily from 8 a.m. to sunset. Vehicle entry fee is $10. The entrance is 21.5 miles south of Rio Road in Carmel. Find park details at www.parks.ca.gov.
Grab a bite: Popular Nepenthe serves lunch and dinner daily from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. with a side of Big Sur coastline views, just seven miles south of Andrew Molera. Seating is first come, first served. The veggie burger ($20.25) on warmed wheat bread with Nepenthe’s ambrosia sauce and a side of coleslaw is altogether yummy. Find out 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 for Pfeiffer Falls through a coast redwood forest.
In a quarter mile, you’ll reach a junction for Valley View to the left and Pfeiffer Falls to the right. Going right will take you up flights of stairs to the waterfall. It’s the most direct route, but to make a 1.5-mile loop and descend the stairs instead of climbing them, turn left onto Valley View.
The partly sunny Valley View Trail climbs 300 feet over the next half mile, then descends to a viewpoint of 60-foot Pfeiffer Falls flowing over metamorphic Sur gneiss. Past the falls, a spectacular 70-foot pedestrian bridge overlooks the Pfeiffer-Redwood Creek ravine and tall redwoods. Close your loop and return to the trailhead, where ice cream awaits.
Side trip: An extra 0.7-mile round-trip on the Valley View Trail leads to Big Sur River Valley views.
Trail map: https://tinyurl.com/pfeifferfallsloop
Details: Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is open daily from 8 a.m. to sunset at Highway 1 and Pfeiffer Big Sur Road, 26 miles south of Rio Road in Carmel. Vehicle entry fee is $10. Find park details at www.parks.ca.gov.
Grab 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, to-go breakfast, hot beverages and ice cream ($5.25 for a double scoop). Find out more at www.bigsurlodge.com..