A rugged and extraordinary stretch of coastline between Carmel and San Simeon in Central California, Big Sur is known for its towering seaside cliffs and supreme ocean views. It can be surprisingly hard to find beach access, but we know exactly where to look. From secluded coves to long stretches of purple sands, here are six of Big Sur's most alluring seaside spots.
It's one of Big Sur's most popular beaches: a stunning, crescent-shaped stretch of sand sheltered by towering sea cliffs. Pfeiffer is especially known for Keyhole Arch, a natural rock formation that catches the sun's dazzling rays through its "keyhole" each December. In the days leading up to Winter Solstice, make your way here for some truly spectacular sunrises and sunsets.
And then there's the purple sand. The unusual color is the result of the heavy garnet minerals that come from the above hillsides, and is especially prominent on the beach's north end after a good rain.
The beach is day-use only and there's a self-pay station for parking. While pups are allowed, they must remain on-leash. Pfeiffer Beach is accessible via Sycamore Canyon Road, which is about a mile south of the entrance to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.
Another crescent-shaped beach—this one about mid-way between the bucolic hamlet of Cambria and the Big Sur Station visitor center—Sand Dollar is a great place to sit back and take in the ocean views. Featuring a series of high bluffs that protect it from heavy winds, it's one of Big Sur's most popular beaches for surfers (including novices and long-boarders) and a great spot for fishing. While sand dollars aren't especially prolific here, you can find natural jade stones in a variety of colors that the sea has polished and churned.
Although Sand Dollar Beach is day-use only, the nearby Plaskett Creek Campground is within walking distance and offers a variety of family-friendly sites for both tents and RVs. Sand Dollar is located just off Highway 1 at mile marker Mon 13.8.
The largest state park along Big Sur's spectacular Pacific Coast, Andrew Molera houses a lovely secluded beach that's accessible via a one-mile hiking trail (just be forewarned: the footbridges for crossing the river are only open in summer, so you'll have to wade through it unassisted at other times of the year).
While surfers often flock to the waters of the park's Big Sur Rivermouth, sunbathers bask in the beach's remoteness, setting up their blankets among the driftwood. Much of the shore's two-mile stretch disappears during high tide, so be sure to note your escape routes before settling in—otherwise you may find yourself trapped in a cove without realizing it. The 4,749-acre park also features a campground, a discovery center, plenty of hiking trails, and even horseback tours.
Experienced surfers flock to the mighty waves of this day-use picnic area, whose sandy and secluded beach appears and disappears depending on the tide. You can do a bit of jade hunting among a rocky section of the coastline, and watch for whales migrating north and south in the Pacific waters. Willow Creek is located approximately 28 miles north of San Simeon, home to Hearst Castle.
Although the 711-acre Limekiln State Park is best known for its historic 19th-century kilns (used to create cement when building the San Francisco Bay Area), it also boasts coastal redwoods, a 100-foot-tall waterfall, and a sandy beach located below a Highway 1 traffic bridge. There's also a campground, so you can spend the weekend hopping between the ocean and the many surrounding hiking trails.
Located on the stretch of highway between Big Sur and Carmel, Point Lobos is home to a series of beaches awash with tide pools, lounging sea lions, and thousands of seabirds. At both Whalers and Bluefish coves, divers can find kelp forests, seals, and rockfish in the reserve's rich waters, while birdwatchers should make their way to Gibson Beach. Point Lobos also happens to be a great place for catching sight of migrating whales, especially between December and May.