24 hours in Big Sur, California

Big Sur, California

When you live in San Francisco and you have a free weekend, you get out of town. For us, we decided to do a road trip to Big Sur. It’s roughly a 3 hour drive each way without stops (shorter than a road trip to Tahoe) but the highway 1 drive is breathtaking.  We’ve both driven through before but wanted to experience more of the area this time around. It didn’t disappoint, Big Sur was magical. Here is our 60 seconds in Big Sur.


 Score Card: 6.5/10

  • Transportation: 4/10 (winding one lane roads with no other ways in/out that sometimes succumb to traffic with no public transportation options. But, the roads are beautiful and well maintained which is why you do the drive.)
  • Price: 5/10 (there are inexpensive and expensive options for food/accommodations to fit your budget and needs)
  • Safety: 9/10 (no graffiti, no pickpockets, no thief incidents, and overall very low crime)
  • Food: 9/10 (Amazing food options served at locations with breathtaking views)
  • Culture: 2/10 (there isn’t a lot of culture as it’s a sleepy town)
  • History: 7/10 (they have US history dating back to the early 1900’s but not much beyond that)
  • Excitement: 6/10 (there weren’t many thrill factors to indulge in but if you are outdoorsy you can find challenging hiking, surfing and fishing spots)
  • Awe Inspiring: 10/10 (everything made us feel in awe of nature and the beauty it holds)
  • Technology Equipped: 1/10 (no service, you’re off the grid unless you find a location to put you on their wifi. For some this good, others this is bad. If you have to be connected, this trip won’t work for you)
  • Female Friendly: 9/10 (It’s a safe city for women)
  • Solo Travel Recommended: 9/10 (everywhere we went we met friendly people, if you are looking to make connections on your way people are open to meeting you and hearing your story)

Where to go:

Pro Tips:

  • Save a Google Offline Map of Big Sur before you leave as you will not have phone service (or bring a real map). We lost service around Caramel and didn’t get it back at any point during the drive south of there. Having the offline map was a lifesaver, we were still able to have triangulation services through our cellphone and thus driving directions while using points that were located on the cached map.
  • Bring cash, the parks require it for parking
  • Make reservations ahead of time for dinner and camping/hotels
  • Get ready to scoop up Esalen hot spring tickets at 9am the day of your trip, well worth it!

Experience Highlights:

Skydive Monterey Bay
Description: What better way to start your day than by racing to the ground! If skydiving is your thing or just on your to-do list this is a great spot to squeeze it in! Make sure the weather is good as they close on days weather won’t permit jumps to happen (just call the night before).
Location: Monterey Bay, CA
Cost: $35+ per person for Fun Jumpers at 18k feet (tandem starts at $179 at 10k feet)
Hours: opens at 8am until mid afternoon, hours are determined by weather and the amount of jumpers signed up
Website / Tickets: www.skydivemontereybay.com
Notes: They have a fast plane to get you to jumping altitude in about 6 minutes andthe highest fun jumper and tandem jumps at 18k feet with beautiful views overlooking the Pacific coastline.
Pro Tips: Sorting out Fun Jumper paperwork took awhile (but walk-ins are welcome). Make sure your last jump was in the last 30 days, have your USPA license with you, and your jump log is completely filled out. Gear rental is available if you don’t own your own stuff yet.  They have a morning and afternoon shift. The plane is quick and runs each load back to back in 10/15 min cycles for each shift with a large break between the two. During our stay they had 12 loads, 6 in the first shift and 6 in the second shift.

Skydive, Monterey, Bay, fun jumpers

Bixby Bridge
Description: The longest and tallest span when it was completed in 1932, this bridge allows people to pass over Bixby creek. It’s a great photo op with the contrasting ocean to land to manmade bridge. We spent about 10 minutes here.
Location: Big Sur, CA
Cost: free, stop at the vista point, park and get out to get a good look
Hours: n/a
Website: http://www.visitcalifornia.com/attraction/bixby-bridge


Pfeiffer Beach
Description: We picked this location for the purple sand, and yes — it is really purple. Amethist stone gets crushed while in the ocean and washes up giving the sand (actually amethist particles) the appearance of being purple. Aside from the sand, the beach has a beautiful rock called the ‘Doorway to Heaven’ and beautiful views for picnics, sunrises, sunsets and on a hot day – some fun in the sand and surf.
Location: Big Sur, CA
Cost: $10 for parking.
Hours: sunrise to sunset
Website: http://www.yelp.com/biz/pfeiffer-beach-big-sur
Notes: They are only allowed to have a certain number of cars on the road leading from Highway 1 down to Pfeiffer Beach. If they are at capacity you will have to come back. We tried three times and on our third time were successful.  Make sure you have $10 cash (or check) to pay for parking at the park.

pfieffer beach, doorway to heaven, big sur, purple sand20160326_184710-e1

Description: We read that the views and food were fabulous so we picked this spot for dinner and we were not disappointed. 
Location: Big Sur, CA
Cost: They had entree items starting at $15 and going up to $50, drinks start around $10 and apps around $5. It can be an affordable or expensive meal depending on your taste and budget but the views are priceless
Hours: sunrise to sunset
Website: www.nepenthebigsur.com
Notes:  They take reservations if you book in advance but have a bar if you want drinks/apps or to get a snack while you wait. And, although they told us it would be a 45 min wait, we had a table outside overlooking the coast in 15 minutes. They have a lovely fire pit, stay after dinner and curl up while you look at the stars — it’s beautiful!


Esalen Hot Springs Night Baths
Description: If you are looking for something unique to do in Big Sur, this is it, it’s a hidden gem with limited access. The natural hot springs are a perk they have on the property and offer to the students taking one of their workshops (400 offered annually). The workshops are expensive and the grounds are lovely as they are located on side of the cliff. However, everyday (at least most days) they open it to the public for night baths from 1-3am.  However, they only allow 25 people to attend and open up tickets that same morning (technically the day before i.e. if you want to go at 1am on Sunday they open up tickets Saturday) at 9am online.  They had a guide meet us at the parking lot at the top of Esalen Institute and walk us down a hill to the check in spot where they call us off by name and then walk us to the hot springs located on the cliff overlooking the ocean.  They had one bath at the top, three on the main level on the ‘quiet side’ and one on the ‘silent side.’  Cooling tubs and massage tables are located throughout (used during the day at the Institute as they offer massages for purchase). There are faucets at most of the hot spring tubs so you can add more hot water in it yourself. They are natural hot springs so they contain sulfur thus take off your silver as it will tarnish. It’s clothing optional. There is a shower room that overlooks the ocean as well.  It was great having so many spots to share with only 25 people, it never felt crowded and we were left in our own hot spring tub a few times. 
Location: Big Sur, CA
Cost: $30 per person
Hours: 1am-3am for public admittance (with online ticket purchase / reservation)
Website: https://nightbaths.esalen.org/reservations/new
Notes:  Bring a plastic water bottle (they have water fountains you can refill it in) as you will get dehydrated. If possible, go on a full moon or when the moon is mostly full for a stunning sight.

Esalen Institute, Hot Springs, Night Baths

Limekiln Falls
Description: We picked this spot because it not only looked beautiful, but it’s only a 1 mile hike from the parking area. We had to trek through the creek at certain points to make it to the stunning waterfall view. The walk over was the most memorable, it was fun being on an adventure and since we were there early, we had the whole area to ourself to enjoy!
Location: Big Sur, CA
Cost: $10 for parking
Hours: 8am to sunset
Website: www.hikinginbigsur.com/hikes_limekiln.html
Notes:  Bring shoes you don’t mind getting wet as you have to walk over/around/through the creek. Camping is allowed at this area with reservation. Non-camping parking spots fill up quick so get there early or be prepared to wait.


McWay Falls
Description: This is an iconic Big Sur photo spot (popular on Instagram). It’s amazing because the cove is realtively unreachable unless you are a skilled climber and the waterfall looks pictureque. Park your car on the side of the road and walk along the falls side, you’ll find a trail that will lead you to a bridge made to observe the cove and falls.
Location: Big Sur, CA
Cost: free
Hours: n/a
Website: http://www.hikinginbigsur.com/hikes_mcwayfalls.html
Notes:  It looks better after midday when the sun is coming in from the west.


Monterey Bay Aquarium
Description: It is the nicest aquarium we’ve been to; home to over 600 different species and visited by over 2 million people annually. They do a great job at providing a vast array of sea creatures to watch in habitats that are, to the best of our current capability, similar to their natural habitat along with several areas where you can touch creatures and ask questions. Leave at least 3 hours to get through all the exhibits, we left because we were exhausted but could have stayed a bit longer and seen a few more things.
Location: Monterey, CA
Cost: $39.95 per adult
Hours: 9:30am-6pm most days
Website: http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/
Notes:  Be sure to check their schedule and pop in the different areas for feeding time! Our favorite was the sea otter feeding!20160327_121328-e1

Costs: $208 per person for 2 days/1 night

  • $41 Gas
  • $8 Breakfast at McDonald’s (shhhh, don’t tell)
  • $40 for Fun Jumper Skydiving from 18k feet with helmet rental (just Rodney)
  • $116 Dinner for 2 at Nepente (we didn’t hold back and had great food)
  • $60 Esalen Hot Spring Night Bath tickets @30 each x 2 people
  • $10 Pfeiffer Beach Parking
  • $10 Limekiln Parking
  • $18 Breakfast at Cannery Row in Monterey for 2
  • $80 Monterey Bay Aquarium tickets @ 40 each x 2 people
  • $7 Street Parking near the Aquarium


  • Saturday
    • 8:55am: Stalked the Esalen Hot Spring Night bath site to get tickets for that night which were limited to 25 seats and only made available starting at 9am PST the same day. Luckily we got 2 tickets!
      • Note: I checked the site after check out, 9:02am, and it was sold out. If you want them, you need to be quick and a bit of luck!
    • 10am: Leisurely departed San Francisco
    • noon: Arrived at Skydive Monterey
    • 3pm: Jumped on load 10 for the day, fell 18,000 feet with an amazing view of the coast while falling
    • 3:30pm: Packed the parachute
    • 4pm: Hit the road
    • 5pm: Took photos at Bixby Bridge
    • 5:30pm: took photos at Pfeiffer Beach (purple sand and ‘Doorway to Heaven’ rock) close to sunset
    • 7pm: headed to Nepenthe for a sunset dinner
    • 9:30pm: Decided to car camp (opposed to tent or hammock camping). Found a nice spot and layed out our sleeping bags in the car after folding the seats down. Curled up and squeezed in a 2.5 hour nap!
    • 12:45am: Headed 5 min down the road to Esalen Institute for the Hot Springs Night baths where our guide meets us at the top of the hill and walks down with us.
    • 3am: headed back to the car then head a few minutes down the road to car camp
  • Sunday
    • 7am: Woke up to a beautiful view and packed the car up for a day of driving
    • 7:45am: Arrived at Limekiln State Park
    • 8am: Walked the 1 mile trail to the Limekiln falls
    • 9:15am: Headed back toward San Francisco
    • 9:45am: Stopped at McWay Falls, took the trail next to the road down to the overlook and got a great view of the cove and waterfall
    • 11am: Grabbed brunch at a cafe in Cannery Row in Monterey
    • 11:45am: Entered Monterey Bay Aquarium
    • 2:45pm: Headed back to the car and head home (hit traffic most of the way back)
    • 5:30pm: Picked up dinner in San Francisco

Unique Takeaways:

  • Big Sur is magical, the sunsets are not to be missed. Make sure you are in a good spot to watch it, it’s worth it.
  • If you get an early start, the roads are clear and it feels like you have the entire coast to yourself. Worth waking up early for.


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