Big Sur


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After the beginning of the pandemic in March, we pretty much hunkered down at home. By summer, the realization dawned that we are in it for the long haul and need to find a safer way to travel again. Since the summer, this was our daily debate – should we fly or go on a road trip? Though flying is not as bad as some people think, we decided to go for a fall road trip after months of deliberation. After a long hiatus from traveling, our first adventure in midst of COVID days! Choosing the destination was an easy one.


Big Sur is only a few hours’ drive from all three big cities of California – San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego. Thus, for both southern and northern Californians, it is a local favorite. It is one of the most beautiful places in California and among the most picturesque places globally. If you ever peeked at a travel magazine to plan your next California road trip itinerary, chances are that Big Sur was adorning the front page of that magazine. Tourists from around the world fly to California to enjoy the unforgettable experience of driving through California state route 1. For locals, it offers a perfect gateway for a few days.


If you are planning to make a trip now, or in the future, to Big Sur, I hope you will find this post helpful!

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Where to stay:


Monterey is the most popular destination for Big Sur bound travelers. It is a relatively big town, and one can find hotels within a broad price range. It has an exciting food scene and has many tourist attractions – Monterey aquarium, 17- mile drive, Fisherman’s wharf, Carmel-by-the-sea’s picturesque village, and many more.


We have been to Monterey a few times. Plus, since we were driving from San Diego, and Monterey is located at the northernmost end of Big Sur, we decided to stay somewhere in the middle. This allowed us to explore both the north and south sides of Big Sur without spending too much time on the road. There are some beautiful yet affordable places along the coast. Lucia Lodge, Ragged point Inn & resort, and Treeborne resorts are some of my favorites. Reasonably priced but require reservations well ahead. While the reclusive location is their biggest attraction, it also means that you are stuck with the on-site restaurant. For this reason, Cambria and San Simeon are preferable to some people. Both are little waterfront towns. Yet, roughly a dozen hotels and restaurants give you some options to explore. We chose San Simeon because a) it was a bit cheaper than Cambria, and b) Cambria is a popular destination in Big Sur; thus, it is more crowded. We stayed at the Cavalier oceanfront resort in San Simeon. I would highly recommend getting an ocean view room – it was worth the money.

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What to see:


San Simeon is a sleepy coastal town. Beaches of San Simeon are mostly frequented by guests from oceanfront resorts only. So, if you want to experience some tranquility, this is the perfect spot!


The elephant seal vista point is a local favorite. Only a 10-minute drive north from the town, you will find the signs of “Elephant seal vista point” on the road. A short boardwalk trail starts from the parking lot that leads to the viewing decks. These are Northern Elephant Seals, the second largest in the world, after the Southern elephant seals. They are called “elephant” seals because adult males have large noses that resemble elephants’ trunks. Size-wise, they are not far off – the average weight of adult males is around 5000 lbs.! Elephant seals migrate in search of food, traveling for months at sea and frequently diving deep to forage. Foraging helps them boost energy reserves that allow land-based activities, i.e., breed and molt while fasting for 2-4 months. Northern elephant seals migrate to the North Pacific twice a year, in a pattern called a double migration. Over these two migrations, they travel roughly 13,000 miles. They come back to their rookeries every winter to breed and give birth. This time of the year (we visited in September), things were pretty chill. But in December, this place becomes a full-blown WWE. December is the breeding and birthing season. Elephant seals birth and mate in harems. Only the toughest and the most aggressive males will attain the rank of alpha. Through bloody flights, alpha males ascertain control. These bloody feuds are rarely fatal, though. Harems commonly have 20 to 50 females.

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Only a 10-minute drive from San Simeon is Cambria – a charming coastal town frequently referred to as the “Gateway to the Big Sur Coast.” With its beautiful waterfront, Cambria is famous for its beaches and waves, which was pretty apparent from the number of surfers we saw. Moonstone beach is the most popular spot here. Hike in the Moonstone beach boardwalk - a one-mile long path with beautiful ocean views - is a must for every Cambria visitor. Some offshoots lead to the sandy beaches and rocky tide pools with sea stars, hermit crabs, sea anemones, and many other animals along the promenade.

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We also spotted several birds – waterfowl, ducks, egrets, pelicans, seagulls, and cormorants. Have a bit of patience, and you might be lucky to catch dolphins and whales as well. We were fortunate to see three bottlenose dolphins swimming close to the shore. We parked at the north end of the trail. Plenty of free parking is available if you come here early in the morning. Dogs are allowed on the boardwalk, which was great for us. The boardwalk runs parallel to Moonstone Beach Drive, lined on the inland side by restaurants and hotels. A hearty brunch after the boardwalk hike is always a good idea.

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The drive from San Simeon to Monterey along the coastal route is regarded as one of the most beautiful drives in the world. We were feeling kind of lazy and decided to drive up to the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. This small state park has some beautiful hikes. We had a lovely time during our visit a few years back. Due to the Dolan Ridge Fire, the park is completely shut down now. We parked along the road and walked to a small viewing area to see the iconic McWay falls. If there is a single most famous image of Big Sur, it is probably of this iconic 80-foot falls. McWay waterfall trail is a popular hike. But, due to the park closure, we could watch it from the road only. A quick tip for photographers: sunset is the best time to visit.

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Morro Bay, a seaside fishing village with bursting waterfront, is another attraction in Big Sur. It’s known for the iconic Morro Rock, a 23-million years old volcanic mound located at the end of the Morro Rock Beach. Morro Rock is home to nesting American peregrine falcons, and climbing is prohibited. The rock sits within Morro Bay State Park, home to lagoons, trails, and a bird-rich saltwater marsh. Morro Estuary Natural Preserve located in the park is an 800-acre wetland where freshwater mixes with ocean tides. Marina peninsula trail, a 0.5-mile boardwalk that starts at the parking lot, goes through the estuary. From the trail, you can see the salt marsh, mudflat, sandpit, and of course, the iconic Morro rock.

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Don’t miss:


From the pier of Monterey, several companies offer a variety of boat tours. A whale watching tour is my favorite. On my first visit to Monterey 5 years back, we took a whale watching tour. I expected to catch a sight of one or two whales from a distance. But we saw so many of them along with other marina animals like bottlenose dolphins, sea otters, sea lions, elephant seals – that at one point I was tired of taking pictures and decided to just sit and relax inside the cabin! A couple of companies offer this tour, and they update their website with daily sightings. Generally speaking - Humpback whales are seen from March through November; Gray whales are seen December-May, Orca sightings are common in mid-April through mid-May, as well as late August-October, and Blue whales are frequently found from May through October. If you are interested in a whale watching tour and are staying at either Cambria or San Simeon, I recommend taking the tours offered at Morro bay. Morro bay is a significantly shorter drive than Monterey (30 minutes vs. 2 hrs. 30 minutes).

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