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Embrace the Slow Life—and Maybe a Few Trees—in Big Sur

By Aislyn Greene

Sep 30, 2020

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The rugged, fog-soaked coast of Big Sur is within a three-hour drive of San Francisco.

Photo by Doug Meek/Shutterstock

The rugged, fog-soaked coast of Big Sur is within a three-hour drive of San Francisco.

Now that Highway 1 is open again, the coastal glories of one of San Francisco’s best weekend escapes await.

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Big Sur—cultural icon, marvel of nature, and ancestral home of the Esselen Tribe—is accessible once more. Following a month-long closure due to the Dolan Fire, Highway 1 reopened on September 21. Fires are still burning behind the ridge—the Los Padres National Forest remains closed, making the backcountry off-limits for now—but the smoke has cleared (for now), and a handful of campgrounds will reopen on October 1, making this an ideal time for a weekend visit. 

The boundaries of Big Sur are as blurry as the fog that frequently cloaks it. Many refer to the Carmel River as Big Sur’s starting point and San Simeon, the town 90 minutes south, where Hearst Castle looms large, as its endpoint. Geographic quibbles aside, most agree that the stretch of coast is among California’s most magnificent. 

Where to stay in Big Sur

The 59 rooms and suites at Ventana Big Sur blend seamlessly into the resort’s 160 acres.

Ventana Big Sur

Book now: from $1,775/night, all-inclusive, expedia.com

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Surrounded by 160 acres, the adults-only Ventana Big Sur feels like it’s part of the glorious landscape around it. The comfortable suites feature tree views, the Sur House restaurant is perfectly positioned to maximize ocean and sunset-in-the-hills views, and activities range from morning tai chi to hikes led by one of the experienced outdoorspeople from Big Sur Guides. When Ventana reopened in July, it did so with a new all-inclusive model, as well as some of the most rigorous guest safety practices in the industry (such as a disinfecting process that cleans 100 percent of surfaces and door seals to ensure guests are the first to enter a clean space). Travelers can also book one of 15 glamping tents (from $240/night), though glamping guests no longer have access to Ventana facilities.

Post Ranch Inn

Book now: from $1,275/night, postranchinn.com

Just across the highway from Ventana is Post Ranch Inn, a 39-room (and one private home) resort overlooking the Pacific. The creative rooms range from tree houses built on stilts among the towering redwoods to a butterfly-shaped building with three guest rooms. In addition to the inn’s lineup of yoga, sound baths, and stargazing, watch for a new falconry program and expanded chef’s garden (and check out the enhanced safety procedures). 

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

Book now: from $35/night, parks.ca.gov

Expected to reopen to the public on October 1, Pfieffer Big Sur is among the best places to camp in Big Sur. Nicknamed “mini Yosemite” for its enormous redwoods, it’s also home to sprawling sycamores, the Big Sur River, and miles of hiking trails. Campers can choose from more than 170 campgrounds, the most popular of which are on the river.

Fernwood Campground & Resort

Book now: from $70/night, fernwoodbigsur.com

Also expected to reopen October 1 is Fernwood Campground & Resort, which has been in existence since 1932. The forested piece of land just off Highway 1 offers pretty much any outdoor experience you can imagine: 3 luxury tents, 6 cabins, 12 tent cabins (basically a tent with camp beds and electricity), and more than two dozen campsites, as well as a motel, tavern, restaurant, and general store. Bonus: From the Fernwood property, travelers can hike directly into Pfeiffer Big Sur. 

Where to eat in Big Sur

The terrace at Nepenthe was recreated in the 1965 film

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The fine-dining restaurants that once topped many Big Sur food lists—Ventana’s Sur House and Sierra Mar at Post Ranch Inn—are currently closed to everyone but guests, but there are still plenty of places to soak in the views, vibe, and general deliciousness of Big Sur.

Top of the list is Big Sur Bakery, where you could easily eat all three meals in a day. Arrive early to snag the best pastries, but don’t overlook the lunchtime pizzas, and at dinner, some of the finest fried chicken served on the coast. 

Along that same stretch of road, there’s the Big Sur Taphouse (go for a posthike local beer and hot wings) and the Big Sur Deli, which traffics in satisfying, road trip–friendly sandwiches. For a sobering nature excursion, check out the Taphouse Trail, a mile-long access path created by the community after the devastating fires and landslides of 2016 closed the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge. 

For classic Big Sur, try Nepenthe, where the food is less of a draw than the location and history. Since it opened in 1949, the midcentury restaurant with a prime view of the Pacific has hosted celebrities of all sorts (scads of musicians; writer Henry Miller, who lived in the log house above the restaurant; Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, who spent significant time there while filming The Sandpiper). 

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For something a little more under the radar, hit up the architecturally fabulous Coast Gallery, where you can settle at one of the outdoor tables with a green goddess salad, sourdough crust pizza, or a twist of soft serve and watch for local condors. 

Things to do in Big Sur

The Ventana Wilderness in Big Sur is one of five places in California where condors are released into the wild in an effort to rebuild the population.

Nature is one of the region’s biggest draws, but there’s plenty of exploration to do beyond the trees. In normal times, we’d include places like Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, Hearst Castle, the New Camaldoli Hermitage, a California condor tour with Ventana Wildlife Society, and a tour of the Point Sur lighthouse on this list, but all remain closed to visitors at this time (though Camaldoli recently reopened its retreat rooms to guests). Check the websites before you go, in case any restrictions have been lifted. 

Visit the Henry Miller Library

Sheltered in a grove of redwoods, this nonprofit bookstore-gallery-memorial space recently reopened to the public with limited hours (Friday-Sunday, from 11 to 5, according to its Facebook page). It is, of course, named for the writer Henry Miller, who called Big Sur his “first real home in America” (he also referred to the region as “the face of the earth as the Creator intended it to look.”) Currently, the Henry Miller Library is closed for public events, but in pre-COVID times frequently hosted live music, author readings, and other arts-forward events.

Shop local art

  • Hawthorne Gallery: Run by the Hawthorne family, this light-filled gallery (designed with help from Big Sur architect Mickey Muenning) features work from family members as well as other local artists.
  • Coast Big Sur: Built from three redwood water tanks, Coast is home to both an art gallery—named for Henry Miller—and a shop specializing in work from local artists, from cutting boards and Big Sur sea salt to fabrics and ceramics. 
  • The Phoenix: Part of the Nepenthe property—and named for Nepenthe’s famous outdoor sculpture—the shop sells items from around the world and California, as well as local goodies like pickles from the Random Pickler and Big Sur puzzles from local artist Edmund Moody.

Get out of the car and into the trees

The coastal Andrew Molera State Park has more than 20 miles of hiking trails.

Big Sur is the ancestral home of the Esselen Tribe, which in July 2020 won back 1,200 acres of their land. No matter where you hike in Big Sur, keep in mind that for many, this land is sacred. Trails may be closed, depending on fire and other conditions—check before you go. 

  • East Molera Trail in Andrew Molera State Park: Patrice Ward, a photographer and guide with Big Sur Guides, recommends the East Molera Trail, a 3.2-mile hike that climbs nearly 1,400 feet. “It’s a nice elevation hike,” he says. “But here’s a cool thing: At the base of the hike, right before the switchbacks that start to take you up, there are fossils right there at your feet in the rock.”
  • Soberanes Canyon Trail in Garrapata State ParkThis challenging 5.4-mile loop trail is popular for good reason: It offers phenomenal views and a waterfall. As of May 2020, the trail is partially closed for repair, but you can still hike 2.5 miles (out and back) along one of the prettiest, redwood-packed lengths of the trail. 
  • Mount Manuel Trail in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park: For a more strenuous climb, tackle the 8-mile Mount Manuel trail, which takes you up, up, up to the top of a ridge. The payoff is in the views of the Santa Lucia Mountains and the ocean. Bring lots of water and sun protection—there’s little shade. 

The best way to reach Big Sur from San Francisco

  • A car is your best bet. There isn’t much in the way of public transportation along the Big Sur corridor, although Amtrak offers train service from Oakland to Salinas, an hour north of Big Sur. And from Carmel-by-the-Sea, you can take the MST 22 bus as far south as Nepenthe
  • If you’re coming from San Francisco, the most scenic route is along Highway 1. From the city, take U.S.-101 to CA-1 S/Cabrillo Highway and cruise south, a route that takes a little over three hours. To shave 30 minutes off the drive, take 101 south until you reach the turnoff for Highway 1. 
  • If you’re coming from Los Angeles, hop on 101 and head north for about 5.5 hours.

>>Next: In Big Sur, Learning the Value of Being Alone

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