9 Must-See Sights along the Pacific Coast Highway and Big Sur

9 Must-See Sights along the Pacific Coast Highway and Big Sur

California’s coastline is known for its diversity and beauty. The stretch along the Pacific Coast Highway south of the Monterey Peninsula is known as Big Sur and offers some of the most breathtaking views on the West Coast of the United States. There are plenty of hidden beaches and great spots for hiking.

While the Monterey Peninsula is technically north of Big Sur, I’ve included it in this article because most travelers going to Big Sur will want to stop in Monterey first. Let’s take a look at nine must-see places to stop when you visit.

1. Asilomar State Beach (17-Mile Drive)

The Monterey Peninsula is a rugged and gorgeous part of California’s central coastline. You won’t want to miss the famous 17-mile drive. The sunset views are especially magical. One of the most popular spots on the peninsula is Asilomar State Beach. This mile-long beach sits perfectly between the Pacific Ocean and a flourishing natural area with plenty of trails for walking or hiking. Take a trip down to the beach and you’ll find locals surfing, kayaking, and taking sunset strolls along the shore.

2. The Restless Sea (17-Mile Drive)

Named for its constantly turbulent waters, the Restless Sea is a fascinating area of 17-Mile Drive. It is particularly noted for its unique swirling currents. Observing the relentless power of the waves here, crashing against the rocks, is a humbling experience emphasizing the wildness of the California coast.

3. The Lone Cypress (17-Mile Drive)

Perched on a rugged granite outpost, the Lone Cypress is more than just a tree; it’s an enduring symbol of the Pebble Beach community. This iconic tree is what draws many photographers to 17-Mile Drive. The solitary Monterey cypress set against the vastness of the ocean, standing against the winds and waves for over 250 years, offers a majestic testament to survival against the odds.

4. China Cove (Point Lobos State Natural Reserve)

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is often hailed as a jewel of California’s state park system. This breathtaking slice of natural beauty offers a serene escape into a world where land meets sea in dramatic fashion.

China Cove at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is a hidden gem that captivates visitors with its almost surreal beauty. Tucked away in an intimate setting, the cove features stunningly clear, turquoise waters that contrast with the lush greens of the surrounding vegetation.

Its small, sandy beach offers a peaceful retreat, while the protected waters often host playful sea otters and seals, adding to the magic of the spot. Access to the cove may be restricted at times to protect the delicate ecosystem, but the view from the trail above is equally breathtaking, providing a perfect backdrop for photography or a moment of serene contemplation.

5. Sea Lion Point (Point Lobos State Natural Reserve)

The trail to Sea Lion Point provides stunning panoramic views of the rugged coastline and the vast Pacific Ocean, making it a favorite among photographers and nature lovers alike.

Interpretive signs along the path offer insights into the lives of sea lions and the ecological richness of the area. While Sea Lion Point is a popular gathering spot for sea lions, their presence can vary depending on several factors such as the season, time of day, and food availability. Sea lions are more frequently observed during certain times of the year, especially during breeding season; however, these animals are wild and their movements are unpredictable.

Even if you don’t spot sea lions during your visit, the beauty of the natural surroundings and the rich biodiversity of the area make it a worthwhile experience. Bring binoculars for a better chance of spotting them, along with other wildlife that may be in the area.

6. The Pinnacle (Point Lobos State Natural Reserve)

This dramatic rock formation, jutting out from the ocean, captivates visitors with its sheer presence and the panoramic views it offers of the surrounding marine landscape. The Pinnacle is a favorite subject for photographers, drawn by the contrast between the rugged silhouette of the rock against the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean.

The area around the Pinnacle is also rich in marine life, offering glimpses of sea otters, seals, and numerous bird species, making it not only a visual feast but a vibrant ecological spot.

7. Bixby Bridge

One of the most iconic sections along California’s Highway 1 is the Bixby Bridge. Soaring 260ft above the bottom of the steep canyon, the Bixby Bridge is truly a magnificent structure. Completed in 1932, the bridge is an accessible location for photographers, filmmakers, and road-trippers.

There are plenty of safe spots on either side of the bridge for you to pull over and hop out to snap a picture of the bridge and surrounding area.  The bridge is stunning at sunset when the light catches the pillars of the bridge and illuminates the canyon.

8. Pfeiffer Beach

The California coastline is filled with secret beaches. Located in the heart of Big Sur, Pfeiffer Beach is an off-the-beaten-path beach that is mostly unspoiled and never crowded. One of the more unique features of Pfeiffer Beach is its purple sand, caused by manganese garnet deposits in the surrounding environment.

Even with the sand’s color, the main attraction at the beach is an unusual rock formation that looks like a doorway into the setting Pacific sun. If you catch the sunset at the right time, you’ll see its rays shining through the rock opening, making for an epic picture.   

9. McWay Falls – Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

 Big Sur is one of the most iconic stretches of beaches in the county. Within the Big Sur area is the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. This section of the coastline features California’s iconic redwoods and hidden beaches.

Named after a well-respected pioneer woman in Big Sur country, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park offers visitors an abundance of activities. When you visit the park, the one must-see attraction is McWay Falls. You can take in the view of this 80-foot waterfall spilling into the ocean from Overlook Trail. (There aren’t very many waterfalls that flow directly into the ocean. Check out my article about Costa Rica for another.)

Plan a trip to Big Sur and the Pacific Coast Highway

I hope you enjoyed reading about and seeing the many stunning vistas in Big Sur. Are you ready to plan a trip to Monterey and Big Sur? Consider the benefits of working with a professional travel advisor to plan your trip. Please read about my services and then contact me to get started.

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