The gem of the classic Highway One road trip along the California coast, Big Sur is often just a stunning iPhone photo opp for travelers heading to the next place. But you don’t have to be committed to a long drive to see Big Sur, and more and more visitors to San Francisco are figuring out it’s a really worthwhile two-to-three-day side trip. Here’s how to have an incredible long weekend trip visiting the perfect jumping-off point for Big Sur — Monterey, CA — and the Big Sur region itself that’ll allow you to completely soak in the natural beauty of the region and be easier on your wallet.
1. Take in the local wildlife… from the water. The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is a 276-mile stretch of sea life that’s so abundant and diverse, it’s been nicknamed the Serengeti of the Sea. In downtown Monterey, hop on a SUP and explore yourself (talk about one with the sea), or join a guided kayaking tour of Monterey harbor and beyond. You’ll get up close to playful sea otters, friendly seals and the laziest of them all: tons of sea lions lounging and flopping about on the piers and ship buoys.
2. Go on a whale-watching tour. If you can’t get enough of the wildlife in the harbor, it’s time to head for the open ocean on a whale-watching trip (marine biologist included). Migrating gray whales, sleek orcas and magnificent, breaching humpback whales are all fair game for your Insta feed, and you won’t be able to help audibly oohing-and-ahhing at their greatness. With two different whale-watching seasons, there’s never a bad time in Monterey to try your luck at spotting some gentle giants. Half-day trips start at $40, so if your stomach can handle the waves (but, seriously, bring some Dramamine), it’s definitely worth the ticket price.
3. Slow down your road-tripping pace on 17-Mile Drive. See how the other half lives for $10 by driving this scenic stretch of road, which offers not only epic coastal views, but a glimpse into the magnificent houses in the gated community of Pebble Beach (think: golf). There are multiple turnouts where you can take in the vista as you very slowly wind through lush forests, gorgeous beaches and craggy viewpoints, including the iconic Lone Cypress.
4. Drink with the jellyfish at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. This is an aquarium built for adults. The building itself is stunning, with an open, industrial design, a million-gallon shark tank and an outdoor amphitheater overlooking natural tide pools. On Saturdays and Sundays from July to September, they host Evenings by the Bay, where you can stroll through the jellyfish displays while you’re sipping on some local wine and listening to live music. Still not sold? We have two words for you: baby otters.
5. Immerse yourself in nature near Big Sur. No matter what type of hiker you are, there’s a trail for you near Big Sur. For a quick half-mile hike with a major payoff, take the Waterfall Trail at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park until you arrive at that classic view of McWay falls flowing over 80-foot cliffs down onto the beach. Then head to nearby Pfeiffer Beach to put your toes in the *purple* sand (yes, really).
For an actual backpacking-lite experience, commit to the tough 10-mile trek to Sykes Hot Springs, where you’ll be rewarded with a super hot soak alongside the Big Sur River. Hikes in the 554-acre Point Lobos State Reserve will stun you with California’s beauty, and butterfly lovers should head to Andrew Molera State Park in October for the annual butterfly migration. Yep, it’s as spectacular as it sounds.
6. Check out the sea-to-table and local wine scene. You’ll find sustainable seafood, local ingredients and sophisticated cocktail pairings galore around the Monterey Bay area. Restaurant 1833, a renovated historic adobe with very different stylish yet cozy vibes in every room, has a mouth-watering menu. Passionfish will fulfill your craving for seafood and a good cause. Started by a chef and sustainable seafood advocate hubby-wife team, your delish meal from the sea can be paired with a local wine from their incredible wine list — sold at super reasonable prices.
Down near Big Sur, the Big Sur Roadhouse will fill you up or hold you over with locally sourced grub after your nearby hike. Or stop by Nepenthe for a meal (or at least a drink) you won’t forget, thanks to their large veranda with breathtaking views of the coast. (Photo via Restaurant 1833)
7. Go glamping overlooking the sea. If the idea of sleeping on a cot makes you cringe, but you wish you could stargaze all night long, the Treebones Resort is for you. Cozy up to your boo or have a girls retreat in one of their 16 yurts perched on the coastline, starting at $263 per night. With plush queen-sized beds, a hot tub near the main lodge and redwood decks perfect for sunset watching, you’ll feel immersed in nature and get a good night’s sleep.
8. Join a full-on spiritual retreat… or just visit their hot springs. Get in touch with your inner zen at the Esalen Institute, a spiritual center built on the Big Sur coastal cliffside in the 1960s. Even if you aren’t into the philosophy, yoga or music workshops, you can still visit their famous hot springs from 1-3am. Forget to pack a suit? Totally fine to skinny dip, as clothing is optional.
9. Enjoy some world-class music. From classic to modern jazz, Monterey attracts some impressive acts. If you love dancing to big brass, visit in September to attend the longest running jazz fest, the Monterey Jazz Festival.
10. Get off the beaten path. Big Sur’s natural beauty is like a magnet, but if you’ve visited the area before or want a unique experience, you can definitely find it once you get off of Highway One. Gawk at the gorgeous little houses built into the hillside along Narrow Palo Colorado Road, or go back in time (and learn about California’s history) at the Mission San Antonio de Padua, which you may even have all to yourself. If leaving the coastline isn’t in the cards, explore deeper and you’re sure to find a private beach.
Have you visited Big Sur? What’s your favorite thing to do in the area? Let us know @BritandCo!
(Photos via Getty)