In Big Sur, all of the best things to do lead outdoors. You can go from redwood forest hikes to waves crashing onto a purple sand beach within minutes. Though Big Sur is a popular spot for romantic getaways and wellness retreats, it’s also a wonderful place for families to unwind and connect.
Come here to get off the grid and tune out the world. Your phone won’t work much of the time and many lodging options come without televisions and phones. Get outside and enjoy family fun while immersing yourself in the area’s natural beauty.
If you’re considering a visit to Big Sur, read on for the best family-friendly activities plus some great places to stay and eat. I’ve also added our top 10 tips and a sample four-day itinerary to help you picture how all these wonderful places can blend into one amazing family adventure!
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BIG SUR FAMILY ACTIVITIES FOR EVERYONE
There’s a good chance that you’ll encounter some of the most stunning natural beauty in the whole state here.
Big Sur is technically a small town, but when people talk about Big Sur, they’re usually referring to the 90-mile stretch of coastline between Carmel and San Simeon. All the places and activities mentioned below are within those 90 miles. You can see them on the post map here. The top things to do below are listed from north to south.
TOP 22 THINGS TO DO IN BIG SUR WITH KIDS
1. Splash at Carmel River State Beach
Just south of Carmel-by-the-Sea, this beach is a great find for families exploring the area.
Like the other beaches in Big Sur, the ocean waves and rip currents are pretty rough at this beach. But what Carmel River State Beach has that many of the others don’t is the Carmel Lagoon that forms as the Carmel River approaches the ocean.
We love to look at the ocean in Northern California, but it’s rare to find a beach that we enjoy swimming in, so we’re always on the lookout for these lagoons. Not only are they safe for kids to play and wade in, but often draw in a fascinating array of seabirds.
2. Explore Point Lobos: The “Crown Jewel” of the California State Park System
At the northern tip of Big Sur is my happy place: Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. This park has wonderful nature trails that are unique, gorgeous, and fun for the whole family.
Our favorite walk with the kids is the Cypress Grove Trail. It’s less than a mile long but offers some of the park’s most awe-inspiring landscapes. You’ll find orange-algae-covered cypress trees next to the surreal blues of Monterey Bay. And there are opportunities for a little rock scrambling and side trails that the boys love.
From there, take a wander down the South Shore Trail which follows the water to Weston Beach. At low tide, you can explore the tide pools and even find a Hidden Beach which only reveals itself when tides are low.
There is so much to see and do in this park that we wrote one of our first posts all about visiting Point Lobos as a family. Check out all our favorite Point Lobos spots here.
For a special experience, book this popular private walking tour for the inside scoop from a local expert who’s written two books on the region.
3. Wander through Garrapata State Park’s Calla Lily Valley
A favorite Big Sur find is the ravine full of wild Calla Lilies that reappears every spring in Garrapata State Park. After you park, it’s a quick scenic walk to get to Calla Lily Valley, about 0.5 miles from the Highway.
To get there, park at the little dirt parking area on the shoulder of Highway 1 near mile marker 63. You’ll find a trailhead that leads into the valley.
As usual for us, we missed that turnout and parked near the entrance to Garrapata State Beach instead. From here, take an easy trail north and you’ll arrive on the opposite side of the ravine. A few stairways lead into the valley. The one closest to the freeway is the easiest to descend.
The best time to visit Calla Lily Valley is February through mid-April. We were there at the tail end, and there were still plenty of lilies in bloom! While there, keep an eye out for poison oak and ivy. Long pants and sleeves are a good idea!
Take some time to walk out onto the beautiful beach before heading back to the car. On our way in, a drenched man warned us that he was clobbered by a sneaker wave. It’s best to explore from the sand here.
Of course, Calla Lily Valley is only one of Garrapata State Park’s many wonders. If the lilies aren’t in bloom, you won’t be disappointed by the hike to gorgeous Soberanes Point. The trailhead is about 2.5 miles north of Calla Lily Valley. The coastal headlands here are a great spot to watch sea lions, otters, and harbor seals. You may even spot some whales during their annual migration!
4. Pose by Big Sur’s Famous Bixby Bridge
Bixby Bridge has long been one of Big Sur’s most famous landmarks. I have a hunch that it has become even more so for those of us who were glued to Big Little Lies. Watching from my living room in Virginia, the show’s opening credits alone were a reminder of the region’s endless natural beauty. I couldn’t wait to start planning another trip down Highway 1.
Construction on Bixby Bridge was completed in 1932. It’s the longest concrete arch span bridge in the California State Highway System. Its completion was a game-changer in connecting the remote coastal communities to Monterey County.
Most days, you’ll know you’re nearing the bridge by the slowing of traffic. If you want to stop to take a look and some photos, there are small parking areas near the northeast and northwest corners of the Bridge. I’ve found that there are usually more spaces on the northeast side which is also the starting point for the Old Coast Road.
The most popular viewing area is the Castle Rock Viewpoint on the northern ocean side of the bridge. There is a sidewalk here and markers commemorating the completion of this engineering feat.
As with all popular locations, the best time to visit is weekdays and early mornings. The most crowded times are summer weekends.
5. Brave the Point Sur Lighthouse
The Point Sur Lighthouse is the only complete turn-of-the-century light station open to the public in California. It sits on a large chunk of volcanic rock, 361 feet above the ocean, where families lived and worked from 1889 until 1974. The unique stone lighthouse still guides ships with its light, but today the operation is automated.
Before Highway 1 was completed in the 1930s, leaving the lighthouse required climbing 400 stairs and then trekking several miles to a country road. Residents could only get supplies by ship. Visiting a doctor required a four-hour horseback ride to Monterey.
Today it is on the National Register of Historic Places, and the buildings where the keepers and their families lived are a ghost town. Literally. The lighthouse embraces its reputation as one of the country’s top haunted lighthouses. Check out this KQED article for all the spooky details.
You can visit the lighthouse facilities on a three-hour walking tour offered on select weekdays and weekends. Moonlight tours are offered on 11 days between April and October, and special haunted ghost tours are offered on select dates before Halloween. Check the official Point Sur website for the latest dates and details.
6. Count the Monarch Butterflies at Old Cooper Cabin
Finding monarch butterflies in their winter hibernating spots is a fascinating natural wonder to experience. In Big Sur, they return in October and stay through January.
The Eucalyptus tree grove near Cooper Cabin in Andrew Molera State Park is one of the more predictable observation sites. They cluster in trees in the morning when it’s cold, and can be seen fluttering around when the sun warms up later in the day.
No other butterflies migrate like the North American Monarch. They travel up to 3,000 miles and are the only butterflies to make the long two-way migration each year. Unlike birds and whales, each individual only makes the trip once. It is their children’s grandchildren that make the return trip the following year.
Up until recent years, the monarchs flew en masse to the same winter destinations. Even to the same trees! For a few years, our attempts to visit hibernation sites in Pismo Beach and Pacific Grove revealed a shocking change in migration patterns. In 2020, we didn’t see a single butterfly in Pacific Grove. However, the butterflies returned in full force in 2021. We hope they’ll continue finding Cooper Grove for the foreseeable future!
7. Hear the Story of the California Condor at Andrew Molera State Park
Named for the man who brought the artichoke to California, Andrew Molera is the largest state park on the Big Sur Coast. It is home to The Discovery Center operated by the Ventana Wildlife Society. The Center features educational exhibits and programs about the California Condor Reintroduction Program.
The center is open during the summer months, from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Visitors during this time can take part in free Condor Tours and presentations. It’s always a good idea to check for programs and schedules before you go.
After learning about the region’s most famous birds, visitors enjoy over 20 miles of hiking trails. Popular options are the easy hike to the beach along the Big Sur River and the Bluff Trail which offers breathtaking coastal views.
8. Hike the New Trail to Pfeiffer Falls
The Pfeiffer Falls Trail is a great Big Sur stop with kids. It’s one of the park’s easiest and most popular trails, and it finally reopened in 2021 after suffering severe damage in a 2008 fire.
The new trail offers an improved visitor experience while also focusing on the health of the surrounding ecosystem. Visitors climb through a redwood canyon to view the 60-foot falls streaming into a serene pool below. This area houses one of the most southern groves of redwoods in California, so be sure to look skyward before continuing south.
You can explore the trail as a 1.3-mile out and back, or connect with the Valley View Trail for a slightly longer loop.
9. Gaze Up at Big Sur’s Beautiful Redwoods
Big Sur has some of the southernmost coastal redwood groves in the state. If you’re driving south, make sure to soak in their beauty before the central coast landscape changes.
Near the turnoff to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, the feel of Highway 1 changes as you meander through some of the gorgeous trees. Though you can find them in many of the region’s state parks, Pfeiffer Big Sur is one of the best known for its beautiful redwoods.
Though there is no beach access at the park, you can walk along the banks of the river where the giant trees flourish. The park’s 0.8-mile Nature Trail is kid-friendly and a wonderful way to take notice of Big Sur’s plants and the role that they play within the local ecosystem.
Make sure to stop by to visit the Colonial Tree near the park’s softball fields. Estimated to be around 1,100 years old, it’s the park’s largest and likely oldest tree.
10. Soak Up the Sun at the River Gorge Swimming Hole
Though Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park may not have access to the ocean, it offers one of Big Sur’s favorite swimming experiences at the Big Sur River Gorge. Visitors love to take a dip in the inviting pool of clear river water found in this granite-walled gorge. River crossings and rock scrambling along the way make for an adventurous day.
Park near Day Use Lot 3 and follow the Gorge Trail to a bridge. From here, head upstream and follow trails on either side of the redwood and oak-lined river banks. If the footbridge has been removed, hike past the abutments and continue along the left side of the river to reach the gorge. As long as you continue upstream, you’ll reach the pool.
The hike itself is only a half a mile round trip, but it requires agility for rock scrambling and climbing over trees along the way. Wet rocks are slippery, so wear shoes with good traction.
The pool itself stretches across the gorge between steep granite walls. It’s now more shallow than in previous years as it has filled with sediment from recent wildfires. Some people enjoy continuing into the gorge past the pool where you’ll find a few more swimming holes, cascades, and boulders to explore upriver.
Only access the gorge when the river is low. The season usually begins in early summer and continues into fall, as you’d expect. In the spring, the river swells and the area is prone to flooding after rain. The river can be dangerous when the current is at its strongest in the winter and spring.
11. Play on a Purple Sand Beach
I’d been up and down Highway 1 many times before I learned about one of Big Sur’s most popular attractions: Pfeiffer Beach.
Pfeiffer Beach is known for its pockets of purple sand. The color comes from manganese garnet deposits washing onto the beach from neighboring hills, so the best time to visit is after it rains. But we still found plenty of purple sand on a sunny October day.
Not only is this beach known for its purple sand, but it’s also home to the well-photographed Keyhole Arch. If you can time it right, try to visit at sunset when the brightest light shines through the small archway opening!
As with most of Big Sur’s beaches, play on the sand, but don’t take a dip here. Rip currents are strong, and sneaker waves are common. Aim to go at low tide, take in the beautiful sights, and have fun seeking out the beach’s famous purple sand instead!
Pfeiffer Beach is at the end of Sycamore Canyon Rd. The only sign alerting you to the turnoff is a small yellow sign that says “Narrow Road.” If you are driving south, the turnoff is a sharp right 1.1 miles past the entrance to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. If you are driving north, the turnoff is going to be on your left 1.8 miles past Nepenthe. There’s a good chance that you won’t have cell reception here, so setting your odometer at these landmarks is helpful.
Click here for a full post on planning a family day at Big Sur’s purple sand beach.
12. Browse the Hawthorne Gallery
Art and nature blend seamlessly at the Hawthorne Gallery. The gallery represents work by the multi-talented, multi-generational artists in the Hawthorne family. This family lived the dream of moving off the grid to this gorgeous region. They focused on building nature connections and developing their children’s creative instincts. And a new generation of artists was born.
Inside the gallery, you’ll find sculptures, ceramics, glassworks, paintings, and jewelry. And the building itself is a sight to behold. Its curved lines, huge glass windows, and wood finishes combine to fit effortlessly into the gorgeous surroundings.
Open daily from 10 am – 6 pm, the gallery is worth a stop. There are even a few works in the surrounding garden if you prefer to peek at the art outdoors.
13. Learn Something New at the Henry Miller Memorial Library
This quirky spot isn’t a traditional library where you can borrow books. It’s also not a memorial to novelist Henry Miller, who lived in Big Sur from 1944 to 1962. You won’t find the site of Miller’s home here either.
What you will find is a community gathering place that serves as a memorial to a different time and spirit in the region. It celebrates beatnik history and its legacy in arts and culture.
Browse the selection of carefully curated books, including novels written by Miller and the books he found to be most influential. We enjoyed the children’s books, many of which are illustrated lyrics of music from the 1960s. Our boys chose “Octopus’s Garden,” which proved to be a fitting soundtrack as we made our way back north on Highway 1!
While I went through the book tables, John and the boys ran around the lawn area and explored the redwood groves.
Check out the online calendar for upcoming events before you go. During the summer, this is one of California’s most unique venues for live music, theatre, film festivals, and more.
14. Spot a Humpback Whale
Whales migrate along the California Coast for most of the year. Gray Whales are present in the Big Sur area from December through May, with peak numbers in mid-January and mid-March. Endangered Humpback Whales feed on the region’s anchovies, sardines, and krill from late April through November. And the largest animal to ever live on earth, the Blue Whale, is in Monterey Bay from June through October.
Humpback Whales are the most active of the three and can often be seen from Highway 1 turnouts. A popular spot to get a peek at the charismatic animals is the junction of Highway 1 and Partington Ridge. The deep submarine canyons in this area draw them in, allowing for frequent views of the whales.
15. Discover Partington Cove
A 1.5-mile hike to a hidden cove is the appeal behind one of Big Sur’s favorite easy hikes.
Technically a part of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, you access the trailhead to Partington Cove 2 miles north of the main park entrance. The turnoff location used to be trickier to find, but now you can pull it up on Google maps (if you have service!). When you reach the turnout on the ocean side of Highway 1, you will see a gate and a steep dirt road that leads toward the water and forest below. This is the path you will take to the cove.
As you get closer to the water, you’ll come to a junction. Veer left to continue to the cove. You reach a bridge that then takes you to the 60-foot tunnel built for John Partington in the 1880s. He used the tunnel to transport oak from the mountains to ships moored in the cove on the other side. Rumor has it that the cove was also used by smugglers and bootleggers in the twentieth century.
On the other side of the tunnel, you’ll reach the cove, beloved for its crystal clear blue-green water. It’s so clean that you can see the kelp forest growing below. Head out to the bench, sit back, relax, and enjoy the view!
16. Take a Family Photo at McWay Falls
McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is one of the most popular stops along this route. The secret’s out on this one, so don’t expect to have the scene to yourself!
Bug saw a photo of the famous tidefall in a San Luis Obispo hotel, and couldn’t believe it when I said we could drive to see it in person. This was the most excited his little 4-year-old self has ever been for a road trip stop!
The walk to the falls overlook is quick and easy, about 0.25 miles. Shortly after the falls come into view, you’ll come to a fence that has closed off the rest of the trail. Unfortunately, the natural processes that shaped the park’s dramatic scenery have also made some of these areas unsafe for hikers.
McWay Falls is one of only two tidefalls, a waterfall that pours into the ocean, in California. As long as you know to expect a short trail and some crowds, it’s fun to view it with others. At the very least, you’re sure to find someone willing to snap your family photo!
17. Check Out Historic Lime Kilns and Limekiln Falls
Limekiln State Park’s waterfall is one of the most impressive natural wonders in the park. As you walk to the 100-foot falls, you’ll also find second-growth redwoods and access to a dark sand beach.
When the falls are at their most dramatic, the large limestone slab behind them is draped in water. But during a drought year, the waterfall splits in two revealing the layers of moss that the falls nourish.
On the way back, you can take another fork off the trail to visit the park’s namesake Lime Kilns. The kilns are remnants of the three years from 1887 to 1890 when the site of the park was the region’s premier site for harvesting limestone. Four massive 100-foot kilns were built to heat and extract the lime. After only three years, Rockland Lime and Lumber Company had depleted the area’s valuable natural resources, redwood timber, and limestone, and moved elsewhere. The kilns stand today as an eerie memorial to the region’s troubled recent past.
The trail from the falls to the parking lot is about a mile round trip. If you double back to see the kilns, the hike is about 1.5 miles. At the end of your journey, make time to stop by the park’s beach accessed under a bridge near the parking lot.
18. Play on Sand Dollar Beach
Sand Dollar Beach is on the southern end of the Big Sur Coastline. The crescent-shaped shoreline is the region’s longest and most continuous strand of beach. It also retains the region’s turquoise blue waters and scenic mountain backdrop.
Beachcombers look for the namesake sand dollars, and rockhounds search for minerals like jade. Jade Cove is located on the southern part of the beach, named for the beautiful rocks found there. You can still find small bits, but, not surprisingly, the most valuable stones were hauled out long ago.
This beach gets more day-use visitors than others in the area, but its larger size provides plenty of elbow room.
Though it’s known to be one of the best surfing spots in Big Sur and draws many fishermen, like the other Big Sur beaches, it’s best for hanging out on the sand. The waves and rip currents are still considered too dangerous for swimming and sneaker waves can be risky too.
Popular Plaskett Creek Campground is across Highway 1 from Sand Dollar Beach. Its proximity to the beach makes it one of the most popular campgrounds in Big Sur for families.
19. Walk to Salmon Creek Falls
When you’re driving Highway 1 in the Big Sur area, you’ll often see a bunch of cars parked at the side of the road and will wonder what they are up to. This is one of those spots.
The trailhead to Salmon Creek Falls is located on a large horseshoe bend, south of the now out-of-service Salmon Creek Ranger Station. The bend is at the southern end of Big Sur, about 3.7 miles north of Ragged Point.
This is a great option for a quick but impressive Big Sur stop. The walk to the waterfall is only about 0.25 miles from the road. You should be able to start hearing the falls shortly after you get started on the trail. What makes this waterfall so strong is that two streams of water unite as they drop 120 feet into the pool below.
Unlike other attractions like McWay Falls, you can do some scrambling to get close to the falls. Nearby, a large boulder blocks easy access to the base, but you can hoist yourself up using the rope that hangs from the rock to get a clear view of the other side.
20. Take a Break at Ragged Point
Ragged Point welcomes northbound travelers with their first glimpses of Big Sur’s magical coastal views. And if you’re driving south, it’s a great place to pull over for one final peek before the Central Coast landscape widens out.
Besides the viewpoints, visitors can take a nature trail and hike down to a black sand beach and waterfall. Though only 0.5 miles, this is a steep hike that quickly descends 400 feet. It will be a challenge with young children.
The true perk of a stop at Ragged Point for families is the range of amenities you’ll find. The resort has a restaurant and Sandwich Stand for quick bites (and milkshakes). With both an Espresso Bar and Ice Cream Stand on-site, it’s a perfect stop for parents and kids alike. There are also picnic tables with a wide lawn for kids to run around.
Ragged Point is also one of the few places to get gas in the region. Make sure to fill up here if you haven’t already, though you’ll already be paying Big Sur rates.
21. Smell the Sea Lions at Piedras Blancas
Elephant seals love the California coast! At the very southern tip of the Big Sur region, you’ll drive right by the Elephant Seal Preserve at Piedras Blancas. There are several elephant seal preserves on Highway 1, but this is the most accessible. The public can view the seals from a wide boardwalk without a tour or hike.
Friends of the Elephant Seals supports the site, trains docents to speak with visitors, and maintains an informative site with a kids zone. Check it out before your trip or use it to answer all the inevitable post-visit questions!
Visit in late January during pupping season, early May at peak molting season, and in late October when the juvenile elephant seals return from the ocean.
22. Imagine the Past at Hearst Castle
Hearst Castle looms high on the mountain above San Simeon. It is a mansion-turned-museum that reimagines what it would have been like to be a guest of media baron William Randolph Hearst in the 1920s and 30s.
The visitor center offers movies about the site’s history, food options, and gift shops. From here, buy tickets for a shuttle that winds up the hill to the “castle.” The Grand Rooms tour is the most popular for first visits, though there are several options to choose from.
The experience is best for families with kids 5+. We visited when the boys were 2 and 4 years old. They loved the bus ride, and JJ was impressed by the grand scale of the house. But tour sizes are large, and they aren’t structured for kids. We enjoyed the outdoor spaces because I could walk with Bug at the edge of the group when he got antsy, but the inside portions were a bit stressful.
Keep a lookout for zebras as you drive by the Hearst Castle property. They are descendants of some of the animals from Hearst’s onsite zoo. I’ve only glimpsed them once, and of course, everyone in the car was snoozing!
At the time of writing, Hearst Castle and the Visitor Center are closed for road construction. The park is scheduled to reopen to the public again in early 2022.
Tip: If you need to rent a car for your trip, check out Discover Cars. They compare car rental deals from several companies to find you the best price. And they include all fees and taxes in the quote so there are no big surprises when you pick up your car.
WHERE TO STAY IN BIG SUR WITH KIDS
Big Sur is known for its rugged and remote feel. You’re not going to find big family resorts here. It’s a great spot to connect with nature in a tent, rustic cabin, or yurt. On the other hand, you’ll want to plan months ahead or keep your fingers crossed for a cancellation in this area. Things book up fast!
The following are some of our favorite finds.
Big Sur Camping
Big Sur is a camper’s dream, with amazing campsites beneath the redwoods and awesome ocean views.
Kirk Creek Campground
Kirk Creek campground is known for its dramatic ocean views. The stunning sunsets and sunrises help campers forget the lack of amenities. If you’re ok with bringing your own fresh water and using vault toilets, you’ll love this spectacular campground. With nearby attractions like Sand Dollar Beach, you can stay in one little area for your whole trip and be happy.
Plaskett Creek Campground
Though located on the east side of Highway 1, breaking surf can be heard from most campsites at Plaskett Creek Campground. The main appeal here is the proximity to Sand Dollar Beach, one of Big Sur’s most popular. The campground only has 44 sites and it is best suited for tents and small trailers. All campers have access to basic plumbing, flushing toilets, and fresh water.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
These sites top my Big Sur wish list. There are exactly two campsites at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and they are extremely difficult to book! These are tent-only walk-in primitive campsites located behind gorgeous McWay Falls. Camping here means amazing views that few will ever see. Seems worthwhile to me, even if you do have to haul in your water and firewood!
Big Sur Hotels
Big Sur’s lodging options tend to be on the extreme ends of the accommodation scale. In this case, they are either extremely posh or very “rustic.” Most options on the fancy side are not kid-friendly. I’ve yet to find a slam-dunk option here, but the following are some of our top picks for family-friendly lodging.
Big Sur Lodge
Big Sur Lodge is not fancy, in fact, “rustic” features prominently in its own description. But if you’re looking for comfort and convenience within beautiful Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, this could be a good option for you. The lodge features 61 cottage-style rooms, some of which have two rooms, kitchens, and fireplaces. You won’t have TV or WIFI, but you’ll be near the park’s hiking trails, a heated pool, the river, and the Lodge restaurant.
Accommodation fees include admission to three state parks: Pfeiffer Big Sur, Andrew Molera, and Julia Pfeiffer Burns.
Ripplewood Resort offers rustic family lodging options among the redwoods and along the river. Some families return here year after year, so aim to make your reservations well in advance.
Expect a rustic cabin experience: no TV, no telephones, and very limited WIFI (you’ll find it around the store and cafe, but not in your room). This is the type of place to bring books and board games and spend the day splashing in the river.
The resort offers 17 cabins, one of which is a duplex. Most of the cabins have a kitchen and fireplace. Some have outdoor decks with fire pits. The most popular cabins have decks perched over the Big Sur River.
Big Sur Vacation Rentals
If you want to experience life as a Big Sur local, check out these unique vacation rentals set in spectacular locations.
Peaceful Retreat with Amazing Views
Less than a mile from Sand Dollar Beach in the town of Gorda, this peaceful retreat will help you get away from it all. The home is perched 800 feet above the Ocean with gorgeous views from every room. After entering the gate at the end of the driveway, pass through a small redwood forest to get to this off-the-grid home.
Getting to the house requires driving one mile up a dirt road with all the bumps and ruts you might expect. You’ll need a 4WD in the rain.
Restored Post-Adobe with Sweeping Ocean Views
Set on Point Lobos Ridge, this restored historic home combines the feeling of getting away from it all with the convenience of being close to Carmel. Located in a warmer microclimate above the fog, you’ll experience the best of what the area has to offer, especially its magical sunsets. With a gourmet kitchen and multiple outdoor dining areas, you’re sure to create unforgettable meals and memories here.
Sea Otter Cottage
Also at the northern end of Big Sur near Point Lobos, Sea Otter Cottage offers easy walking distance to Monastery Beach. You don’t want to swim here, but it sure is beautiful to play on and look at from the back deck! Monastery Beach also has San Jose Creek running through it, which offers a safer place to splash.
Another perk of the property is that you can bring the family pup, a rare find. This property has a 5-night minimum, and finding available dates can be a challenge. If interested, book directly by calling the property managers to discuss availability.
KID-FRIENDLY EATS IN BIG SUR
You won’t find many cheap eats in Big Sur, but there are a few spots that are worthwhile for the experience. We usually pack a picnic for main meals and then stop somewhere to enjoy a special treat after a hike or at the end of a day at the beach. The following are some worthwhile Big Sur dining options for families.
Big Sur River Inn & Restaurant
If you’re looking for comfortable outdoor dining for the whole family, look no further than the Big Sur River Inn & Restaurant. Hosting travelers for over 100 years, you can expect good food in a comfortable environment. The restaurant features a Kids’ Menu and the option to take your food to go in a cooler so you can enjoy it on the large patio or even by the river. After dinner, relax in Adirondack chairs while the kids splash around nearby. If you are looking for a quick bite, a burrito from their General Store might be just what you need.
Big Sur Lodge
We stopped at the Big Sur Lodge to enjoy an ice cream after hiking the Pfeiffer Falls Loop. It’s a part of the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, but outside of the main gates. It’s casual and comfortable with a lovely patio overlooking the Big Sur River. You can have a full meal, or some snacks and a cup of coffee. Outside the restaurant is a lounge with a fireplace that would be perfect on a cool Big Sur morning.
Big Sur Deli
If you’re looking for a quick and casual bite, Big Sur Deli is your place. This full-service deli has made-to-order and specialty sandwiches, burritos, tortas, BBQ, and more. If you need to fill up before a morning hike, you can’t go wrong with their selection of breakfast burritos, breakfast sandwiches, and pastries. Yum.
Unlike many places in Big Sur, it’s hard to drive by Nepenthe without noticing it. You’ll see the large parking lot and multi-story building as you approach. Normally we avoid crowded spots like this, but the views from Nepenthe are worth it.
We stopped here as a special treat for my birthday one year. I honestly can’t remember what I ate, though I do remember a bit of sticker shock at the menu prices. But we all enjoyed soaking in the winter sun and gazing down at the ocean from our table.
The Phoenix Shop downstairs is a great place to find one-of-a-kind gifts and souvenirs.
Located between Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, COAST is perfectly situated for a break from one of the windiest sections of the road. Stop here for some ice cream and coffee with gorgeous views from the rooftop terrace.
TOP 10 TIPS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
1. WHEN TO GO:
The best time to visit Big Sur is from late April through October. Off seasons have less traffic, but you need to watch out for the heavy rain, landslides, and mudslides that can close Highway 1. You’ll also need to be aware of fire conditions in late summer and early fall.
2. ROAD CONDITIONS:
When heading to Big Sur, always check road conditions before you go. Weather events and construction can close down sections of Highway 1 year-round.
3. BRING A MAP:
Large portions of Big Sur do not have cell service. Plan ahead by downloading maps or bringing a good old road atlas along with you.
4. PLAN AHEAD:
Book accommodations in advance. There are limited lodging options here, and many book up months ahead of time. While there are a few first-come, first-served sites, you might have to drive through to Carmel or San Simeon for lodging if you don’t have reservations.
5. PACK A PICNIC:
During COVID, we started packing picnics for our road trips instead of stopping at restaurants. Not only were we assured of outdoor dining, but we also found that this was a budget-friendly and healthy option for our family. Big Sur is a great place to pack your meals, as restaurants tend to be on the pricey side. Splurge on a special treat, but otherwise, bring some sandwiches with you to the redwoods and the beaches. Enjoy the beauty of your surroundings and let the kids have the freedom to run around.
6. ENJOY THE VIEWS WITH CARE:
Along Highway 1, you’ll find plenty of places to pull over and enjoy the view. Take advantage of the roadside viewpoints, but when you do, make sure to keep kids close on the cliffs. Big Sur is no stranger to landslides, so it’s best not to get too close to the edges.
7. DON’T SWIM:
You might think I’m a bit overboard on the “don’t swim in the Big Sur ocean” spiel, but I can’t emphasize this enough. On our last visit to Pfeiffer Beach, I watched families stroll in with little boogie boards and puddle-jumper vests. These may seem like natural items to bring on a beach vacation, but the waves are rough and riptides are real. Some areas even have steep drop-offs to submarine canyons. Please heed the beach warning signs, and play on the sand instead. If your kids want some water fun, look for beaches with lagoons and rivers to splash in.
8. FILL UP BEFORE YOU GO:
Before heading onto the Big Sur part of Highway 1, it’s a good idea to fill up your tank before leaving Carmel or San Simeon. In the northern section, there are a few two-pump options near the lodges. But there’s a long 40-mile gap between the Shell near Nepenthe and Ragged Point to the south. And you’ll likely pay a premium at these remote stations.
9. BRING LIMES:
When you drive Highway 1 through Big Sur, come prepared for motion sickness. It happens to grown-ups and kids alike in the back seat of this famously winding road. You can buy some kid-friendly Dramamine or ginger tablets, but honestly, the thing that’s worked best for us is limes. We learned this trick on a choppy ocean catamaran ride years ago, and it’s served us well. We quarter two or three before we go, and start giving them to the boys early, well before the winding parts begin. And then we keep passing them back whenever they think they might need them. Read more about limes and other road trip secrets here.
10. WEAR LAYERS:
Layers are your friend in a place like Big Sur. Mornings are cool and foggy for much of the year, especially the summer! After the fog burns off or you warm up during a hike, you’ll start peeling off the fleeces and replacing beanies with sunhats. Don’t forget sunscreen even when it’s foggy though! You can still get a decent sunburn, even if you can’t feel the sun.
ITINERARY: BIG SUR FAMILY ACTIVITIES FOR A 4-DAY WEEKEND
Sometimes there are just too many options to sort through! I put together this sample itinerary to help you picture the possibilities for a family-friendly 4-day weekend in the Big Sur.
Get Settled and Unwind (Day 1)
On Day 1, we try to take it easy. It’s likely been a long week topped off by a long drive, so we focus on switching to the getaway mindset and finding some options for the kids to run around.
- On your way into your camp or lodge, enjoy a relaxing stop along the coast. If you’re starting near Carmel, stop at Carmel River State Beach where the kids can play in the sand and splash in the lagoon. If you’re driving north, stop at Sand Dollar Beach and try to spot some surfers. Slow down and enjoy your first views of the Big Sur coastline.
- Check in or set up camp and get settled.
- Grill for dinner, and enjoy together time hanging out by a campfire or fire pit.
A Day on the Coast (Day 2)
- Start your day with a Point Lobos hike. We love to begin on the Cypress Grove Trail and then wander down to Weston Beach for some tide pooling. This is a gorgeous park with many views of the dramatic Central Coastline. If you arrive past 9 am on a weekend, you’ll likely see a line of cars on the street outside. It’s normal to park outside and then walk in if the parking is full.
- Make your way down Highway 1, stopping along the way at sites that pique your curiosity. Have an ice cream at COAST or browse the wonderfully curated selection of books at the Henry Miller Library along the way.
- Get your cameras ready and make a stop to see the famous tidefall at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. If you have more energy left to explore, head two miles north for the hike to Partington Cove before heading back for dinner.
- If you’re still wanting to wander in the evening, complete your first full day in Big Sur with sunset at Pfeiffer Beach or a moonlight tour at the haunted Point Sur Lighthouse.
Explore the Redwoods and the River (Day 3)
- Start Day 3 by exploring redwoods and waterfalls with a hike to Pfeiffer Falls at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.
- Spend the rest of the day relaxing and playing by the river. Hike upriver to the Big Sur River Gorge Swimming Hole and soak up the sun on the big boulders. Or if you’re staying at one of the lodges near the river, stay close to home and splash by the river banks.
Savor Your Last Day (Day 4)
- Celebrate a successful getaway by splurging on lunch at Nepenthe, with its unparalleled Big Sur views. Pick up a souvenir (or two) at The Phoenix Shop downstairs before heading home.
- Make one more quintessential Big Sur stop by pulling over to see Calla Lily Valley if you’re heading northbound in the spring. If the lilies aren’t in bloom, enjoy a hike along the bluffs to Garrapata’s Soberanes Point instead. On the way home via the southern route? Make one last quick and easy stop to see Salmon Creek Falls for a final photo opp.
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