This post contains affiliate links.
Our day in Big Sur is one of those days that I will occasionally pause to remember and I’m just … speechless. It is simply one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. The turquoise water was unreal, the ocean water gorgeously faded into the horizon, and then California had the nerve to add even more beauty to the scenery by scattering colorful wildflowers.
The day began early and would be a leisurely one, just as a jaunt down the coastal highway should be. We had just over 70 miles of coast-hugging road in Big Sur to cover, a couple of must-see locations, and a handful of other possibilities to take advantage of or not depending on the consensus in the car at the time.
California State Route 1 is a scenic two-lane highway with numerous pull-offs to take in the views and many trails along the way, not unlike the Blue Ridge Parkway back home in that regard. While we saw an occasional house and cow pasture, most of Big Sur is undeveloped, offering gorgeous views of untouched coastline.
The first point of interest we’d reach on day’s itinerary was a must-see location that anticipated difficulty finding. While planning this trip, one of the first pins I added to my Pinterest board was the photo of a small valley stream filled with wild calla lilies. Further research revealed it was an area within Garrapata State Park, through which Route 1 meanders. We had an estimated mile marker and a note that it was “across the street from a cow pasture” to guide us.
We reached the mile marker, kept our eyes open, and voila! We drove over a small bridge and peered down into a creek of calla lilies! Returning to the pull-off we had passed, we noticed the trailhead at labeled gate 18 and the cow pasture on the other side of the road.
We followed a short path through the coastal vegetation down into the bottom of the shallow valley where several wooden planks crisscrossed Doud Creek which empties onto the beach. As expected, the calla lilies were mostly past prime, but there were still plenty blooming to provide us with a beautiful scene.
The next point on the itinerary would be much easier to find. Bixby Bridge is one of the most photographed bridges in the world, after all! We parked in the lot on the north side of the bridge along with a dozen or so other vehicles. After viewing the bridge from the overlook, we drove a short distance up the gravel inland-bound Old Coast Road to view the bridge from another angle.
Back on Route 1, we continued south as the road brought us inland for a while. We stopped Big Sur Station for scarce restrooms and souvenirs (shockingly, postcards and magnets again!).
We had a few lunch options dog-eared along the route and as lunchtime neared, we were also closing in on a quintessential Big Sur restaurant. Nepenthe is famous for its outdoor seating overlooking the ocean. Our view was obstructed, but it was a good meal and the setting couldn’t have been more perfect.
Crowds were increasing by early afternoon on this Sunday and our next stop would be the most crowded of the entire day. McWay Falls brings large crowds to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Water from the iconic falls beautifully tumbles onto the beach and into the ocean. The paid lot at the park was full so we joined the cars already lining Route 1 in both directions.
There is no beach access to McWay Falls, but a short, easy trail follows the cliff opposite the falls for multiple viewpoints.
McWay isn’t the only waterfalls at the park and there are miles of hiking trails available. The Ewoldsen Trail led us beside a creek among redwoods to Canyon Falls. The trail loops all the way to an oceanview overlook, but we only hiked to the 30-foot falls and back. The hike was perfect for the day, not too long at less than a mile round trip, and not strenuous yet with enough scrambling to keep the boys happy. It was also delightfully poorly marked which made it difficult to find the actual trail at many points. We always have more fun when we’re slightly lost! Overall, we couldn’t have chosen a better hike to stretch our legs.
After an hour among the redwoods, we were ready for the longest uninterrupted stretch of the day, nearly 40 miles to San Simeon. We paused at several overlooks along the way.
Big Creek Bridge
Several miles from our end point, we stopped at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal rookery, a series of viewing platforms beside a large parking lot overlooking the beach where an elephant seal colony numbering 15,000 can be viewed. While we were in awe of the California scenery we had seen, the days had been light on wildlife. That changed significantly! There were so many elephant seals on the beach that we couldn’t see the sand in most places. We watched a few swim in and out of the water, but most lazily dozed on the sand, often flicking sand onto their backs with their flippers to keep cool under the late afternoon sun.
Several miles down the road, we arrived at our oceanfront hotel for the night. Following a quick sandwich dinner in our room, we ran a full load of laundry (the reality of a three-week trip!) while we headed out to the beach. The boys played at the water’s edge, tossing rocks and trying to keep the cold water off their feet for nearly an hour until the sun dipped below the horizon.