Pfeiffer Beach is mainly known for two extraordinary natural wonders: pockets of purple sand and gorgeous rock formations including the frequently-photographed Keyhole Arch. You may have seen photos of Keyhole Arch at sunset when the sun’s golden rays align with the arch at just the right time creating a magical sight. The combination of its natural beauty and the adventure of getting there makes Pfeiffer Beach a Big Sur gem that you’ll want to experience for yourself.
Despite being one of the most photographed locations in a very photographed region, the lack of signage on Highway 1 and limited parking allows this beach to retain the feel of a hidden gem. It’s also the reason you’ll want to plan out your first visit. Read on to learn everything you need to know for a wonderful family visit to Big Sur’s purple sand beach.
- Why visit Big Sur’s Pfeiffer Beach?
- Things to do at Pfeiffer Beach
- Why is the sand purple at Pfeiffer Beach?
- Where is the purple sand beach?
- Pfeiffer Beach FAQs
- What to pack for a family visit to Pfeiffer Beach?
- Tips and tricks for your visit
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Why visit Big Sur’s Pfeiffer Beach?
Wondering what to expect when you arrive at Pfeiffer Beach? After grabbing a spot in the small parking lot, you’ll make your way to a short trail that leads through lush greenery and then opens into a small, but beautiful beach. The following three natural wonders are what it’s most known for:
The Purple Sand
The first thing we looked for upon arrival was that famous purple sand. We arrived early in the day when the sand hadn’t been disturbed yet. The purple sand was more noticeable than I expected in the dunes. The boys had a great time inspecting it, and we found that the colors grew even more dramatic closer to the water.
I’ve heard that the colors are the most brilliant after the rain. This is likely due to the flow of minerals from the surrounding hills and the increased contrast within the sand itself. Since Big Sur weather is impossible to control, arrive early in the day when it’s been dampened by fog or a high tide. The sand was harder to spot once it had been kicked around a bit, so it’s best to explore before it becomes disturbed by other beachgoers!
As you walk north, the beach narrows and you can’t miss the large rock formation known as Keyhole Arch. The center of the formation has a small natural arch that waves crash through. It’s mesmerizing to watch, and though the beach wasn’t crowded when we arrived, we were not the only ones hanging out to watch the show.
Sunsets at Pfeiffer Beach are stunning, with particular magic around mid-December when the rays of the setting sun perfectly align and shine through the arch with even more intensity than the rest of the year. Expect more company during sunsets. Some people stay on the beach all afternoon to line up that perfect shot.
Aside from Keyhole Arch, Pfeiffer Beach is surrounded by other unique rock formations that draw scramblers. Come prepared with good shoes that have traction if you hope to join them. This is outside our comfort zone with the kids, but others consider it to be a highlight of their Pfeiffer Beach adventure. As a bonus, tide pools form at the base of rock formations on the north side of the main beach at low tide.
Things to do at Pfeiffer Beach
Inspect the Purple Sand
While the grown-ups were drawn to the views out into the ocean, the boys were fascinated by the beach’s purple sand. Not all the sand on the beach is purple, but there are patches throughout, particularly along the more northern parts of the beach which have less foot traffic.
The purple sand comes from manganese garnet in the surrounding hills. As the hills erode, the minerals wash down the hills onto the beach and through the creek. The purple is also more noticeable in wet sand, which is why it’s advisable to go after a rain if your timing is lucky enough. We arrived early when the sand was damp and hadn’t been disturbed by others. It’s the darkest where it meets the water when the tide is coming on shore.
Take a Beach Stroll
This is a perfect beach for strolling and hanging out on the sand. It’s not very long, so you can easily wander up and down its 1 mile of coastline, taking in the beautiful sights of the rock formations jutting up from the Pacific Ocean.
Check Out the Tide Pools
During low tides, you can find tide pools near the rock formations at the north end of the beach. Tide pools are always an exciting discovery for the whole family.
Enjoy a Picnic
This is a great spot for a picnic anytime, but especially at breakfast when you won’t be met with crowds. Stop by Big Sur Bakery for some baked goods and coffee, bring your beach blankets and simply relax and enjoy. The same goes at sunset, with a stop at the Big Sur Deli for delicious sandwiches to go.
For some reason, there are four picnic tables near the parking area. Skip those and munch on the beach instead.
Photograph the Keyhole Arch
For those chasing the famous sights of this very Instagrammable region, make sure Keyhole Arch is on your list. After Bixby Bridge, it’s the most photographed landmark in Big Sur.
Watching the water flow through the arch is mesmerizing any time of day, but it is known to be breathtakingly beautiful at sunset.
View an Unforgettable Sunset
Sunset is one of the most popular times to visit Pfeiffer Beach, and for good reason. Though we are more morning people, I’d love to witness one of those magnificent Keyhole Arch sunsets someday.
The sunset is particularly gorgeous around mid-December. The sun sets at an angle that sends its rays through the keyhole as brilliant streams of light. The show may last only for a few minutes, but like Yosemite’s Firefall, this is one of those iconic California nature shows that photographers will wait hours to capture. And honestly, hanging out on the beach waiting for sunset isn’t exactly a hardship! Arrive in the afternoon, spend the day on the sand, and enjoy the light show.
Don’t Come Here to Swim!
Simply put, this is not a good beach for swimming. As we were leaving the beach, we saw a family with young kids strolling in with typical beach gear, apparently ignoring the posted warning signs. Some of the kids had boogie boards and some were wearing floaties on their arms. The water at Pfeiffer Beach is freezing, rip currents are strong, sneaker waves are common, and jagged rocks are everywhere. Like many beaches in Big Sur, Pfeiffer Beach is best enjoyed from the sand.
Why is the sand purple at Pfeiffer Beach?
The purple sand comes from manganese garnet in the surrounding hills. As the hills erode, the minerals wash down the hills onto the beach and through the creek. The purple is more noticeable after rain and in wet sand, which has greater contrast.
The day of our visit was foggy and overcast, but not rainy. We arrived early before the purple sand hadn’t been disturbed by others. Though it wasn’t everywhere it was very visible. It is the darkest where the sand meets the water as the tide is coming on shore.
Where is the purple sand beach?
Pfeiffer Beach isn’t hard to get to once you know where it is. The lack of signage from Highway 1 in addition to the relatively small parking lot, is one reason it retains its hidden gem feel. You’ll want to do a bit of planning before your first visit.
The turnoff from Highway 1 is unmarked, so knowing the mile markers and GPS coordinates are helpful. Most of Big Sur has poor cell reception, so it’s a good idea to come prepared with maps and directions before you go.
- The turnoff is at mile marker MON 45.64. GPS Coordinates are Lat N 36° 14.416, Lon W 121° 46.637.
- If you are heading south, the mile markers count down. The turnoff is 0.66 miles past the Ranger station. You’ll see a “Narrow Road” sign before a sharp right turn onto Sycamore Canyon Road.
- If you are heading north, the mile markers count up. The turnoff onto Sycamore Canyon Road is on your left, 0.6 miles past the post office.
Sycamore Canyon Road is a narrow single-lane road with some bumpy patches and few turnouts. RVs and trailers are not recommended. It is a two-mile drive from Highway 1 to the parking area. From the parking area, it’s a short walk along a marked trail to get to the beach.
Pfeiffer Beach FAQs
How much is the entrance fee at Pfeiffer Beach?
Pfeiffer Beach is managed by Los Padres National Forest. The parking fee for Pfeiffer Beach, at the time of writing, is $12.00. Cards are accepted, but it’s a good idea to have cash for the entrance fee on hand just in case. Check out the official page for the most current information on fees and hours before you go.
Does the entrance fee to Pfeiffer Beach cover our entrance to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park?
No. Many people see the name Pfeiffer Beach and understandably assume the beach is connected with Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, known for Big Sur River and Big Sur Lodge, or Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, known for McWay Falls. Though each park is named for a member of the Pfeiffer family and their descendants, they are all separate. Pfeiffer Big Sur and Julia Pfeiffer Burns are each a part of the California State Park system, whereas Pfeiffer Beach, the one with the purple sand, is managed by the Los Padres National Forest.
When to visit?
Pfeiffer Beach is open all year, from 9 am until sunset. Some people make a special trip around mid-December when the sun hits Keyhole Arch at just the right angle during sunset. But unless you’re trying to capture this particular seasonal wonder, the best time to visit anywhere in Big Sur is from late April through October.
In the winter you’ll need to watch out for the heavy rain, landslides, and mudslides that can close Highway 1. Also, be aware of fire conditions in late summer and early fall. Check out this website for the latest on Big Sur road conditions.
Where to park?
After driving down Sycamore Canyon Road for 2 miles, you’ll arrive at the entrance station. Once you pay the $12 entrance fee, you can enter the parking lot. The parking lot is not large, so you may have to wait for visitors to leave before being able to park.
Are there accessibility services available?
There is accessible parking in the parking lot and an accessible restroom near the parking lot. A beach wheelchair should be available at the entrance kiosk.
Are there public bathrooms?
Yes, there are a few structures with vault toilets near the parking lot when you arrive. There are no restrooms on the beach itself.
Is Pfeiffer Beach dog-friendly?
Yes! Dogs on leashes are allowed at Pfeiffer Beach.
Is camping on or near Pfeiffer Beach allowed?
Pfeiffer Beach is day-use only, meaning no camping or bonfires are allowed. The closest campgrounds can be found in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park where there is a river, but not beach access.
What to Bring with You?
We visited Pfeiffer Beach on a morning in early October and wore clothes that were more appropriate for hiking than typical beach gear. Another family arrived as we left, hauling everything you could imagine for a beach day. Most families will want to plan for something in the middle. The following are our suggestions on what to bring with you:
Food and Drink
Pfeiffer Beach has cool purple sand and views for days, but there are no traditional beach amenities. With a parking lot that tends to fill up by mid-day, you aren’t going to want to run out to get food either. Bring in what you want to eat and drink during your visit. Don’t forget plenty of water.
Beach Blanket and Chairs
If you plan to stay awhile, pack what you’d want for a comfortable and fun day at the beach. It’s a splurge, but this Yeti Lowlands Blanket will keep you dry if laid on damp sand and easily shakes off the sand when you’re ready to go. As for beach chairs, you can’t go wrong with the lightweight and yet super comfortable, Helinox beach chairs.
Sand Toys and Magnifying Glasses
We have a go-to bag of sand and dirt toys like these, but at this beach, the magnifying glasses were the most used. The boys were fascinated by the purple sand and had a lot of fun investigating different areas.
Big Sur tends to be foggy and overcast, especially in the summer months, but don’t let the lack of direct sun fool you! Over 90% of UV rays can pass through clouds and fog causing sunburn. Sunscreen and sun hats are always a must at the beach.
Shoes with Good Traction
We pretty much stick to the purple sand on Pfeiffer Beach, but a lot of visitors enjoy doing some rock scrambling on the gorgeous rock formations. If you’re one of them, be sure to arrive with more traction and support than flip-flops! We are fans of Keen shoes for the boys. I may finally pick some up for myself this summer too!
When driving through Big Sur, come prepared for motion sickness. It happens to grown-ups and kids alike in the back seat of the famously winding Highway 1, and then you’re on Sycamore Canyon road for another bumpy 2 miles before the parking lot. You can buy some kid-friendly Dramamine or ginger tablets, but 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 leave, and give one or two to the boys early before the winding roads begin. And then we pass them back whenever they think they might need them.
Whether it’s your phone, a more sophisticated model, or an action camera for the kids, you don’t want to leave your camera at home when you visit this beach!
Tips and Tricks to Keep in Mind Before Visiting Pfeiffer Beach
Unless you’re aiming for sunset, arrive early to avoid the crowds and snag a stress-free parking spot. Many people have to wait a while for people to leave before finding a space. That’s not the end of the world, but it can be avoided if you arrive before 10 am.
Unless you already know the area well, you might want to print a map or directions before hitting Highway 1. Cell service is limited and the turnoff onto Sycamore Canyon Road comes up fast. Knowing the mile markers is helpful as there is no sign for Pfeiffer Beach from Highway 1.
Know the Tide Schedule
This isn’t a huge beach, so going at low tide will give you more space to roam. You’ll also see the deeper purple sand of the beach when the sand is wet after the tide has receded. Plus, if you know the tide schedule, you’ll know when the coast is clear for tide-pooling.
On the off chance the entrance kiosk isn’t taking cards, you don’t want to have to leave to find an ATM. It’s a good idea to have cash on you for basics, just in case.
Dress in Layers
This holds for much of the Big Sur region. Summers can be cold and foggy and winters can be clear and sunny. You never know what you’re going to get. Bring layers so that you and the family can be comfortable in any weather.
We hope you enjoy your visit to the purple sands of Pfeiffer Beach! If you want to extend your stay in Big Sur, check out our post on 22 Stunning Things to Do in Big Sur with Kids. It has our favorite spots to visit, tips on where to stay while you’re there, and some of our favorite family-friendly places to eat.
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