This past May, after stops in San Diego and at Disneyland, we followed the coast of California north to Big Sur—some of the most beautiful land in the state, if not in the world. Our stay was brief—just two nights—but I’m counting on many return trips in the years to come.
Here are some highlights from our visit…
We left Disneyland early in the morning, as quickly as possible once we recalled just how long it takes to get into the heart of Big Sur. To drive from Anaheim to San Francisco on Interstate 5 will take you six hours, but following the coast to the same destination can easily take ten. If you’re driving the route, there are natural stops in Santa Barbara, Moro Bay, or Cambria (perhaps to see Hearst’s castle in nearby San Simeon), but getting into the Big Sur state park will take at least 7 hours.
We decided to push through, stopping only a few times: in San Luis Obispo for coffees, in Cayucos for cookies (the ones at the Brown Butter Cookie Company are amazing), and at the incredible Piedras Blancas elephant seal rookery. They’ve built a new viewing boardwalk since the last time Aron and I visited, and the views are amazing. Depending on the time of year, you’ll see molting, mating, or even birthing activities among hundreds of elephant seals. The pull-offs are well-marked and you will see plenty of vehicles stopped, so you can’t miss it.
We were also lucky to spot sea otters and a pod of whales further out. It was quite the welcome!
Once we passed the rookery, the roadside views became increasingly dramatic. Coastal fog hovered over green meadows dotted with wildflowers while iceplant, colored by spring, reached out over the rocks to meet the sea.
Those staying at the south edge of Big Sur (in Treebones, for example) will only have another 40 minutes in the car, but those pressing onto the state park will go yet another 80 beyond that. The road winds arounds curves so steep it made me want to look up the history of the highway and those intrepid first visitors. Of course my curiosity would have to wait—only those with stomachs of steel could read along this portion of highway (and even they would probably rather be taking in the views).
We were relieved that neither Hudson nor Skyler got carsick, but it was a long ride.
We had reserved a cabin (Room 16) at the Big Sur Lodge—one of the few hotels we found that accommodates children and which occupies prime space just inside the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. I’m sorry to say that we did not have a good customer experience there, but on the plus-side, there are amazing trails right outside your door and you can start your mornings exploring, without a long drive. Your room rate gives you free admission to three Big Sur State Parks, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, Andrew Molera State Park, and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.There’s also a pool and a small, general store.
We didn’t consider camping on this particular trip, so I was interested to discover how difficult it is to find non-camping, affordable options for family lodging around Big Sur. The region is at once so well-suited to families—kids will love exploring among the redwoods—and so off-limits: most of the luxury resorts don’t allow children under 13.
This prompted me, upon our return, to solicit some advice from travelers I know who have visited more often with kids, and I’ve shared what they told me at the end of this post.
One suggestion that was shared by everyone I spoke with was to visit Big Sur Bakery—which is just down the road from Big Sur Lodge.
It happened to be our wedding anniversary, so after a particularly unpleasant breakfast experience at the lodge, I decided we needed a re-do. We should have bee-lined it to the bakery as soon as we woke up: everything was incredible—the setting and food alike.
I can’t even remember precisely anything we got, and yet somehow I’ll never forget how good it all was. (Oh, the pastries!)
I’d visited the iconic McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park on my last visit to Big Sur, but Aron had never been. Even if you’ve seen a dozen photos of the place, it will impress you. The water is so many beautiful shades of blue, and the landscape is changing with every season. Here again we were lucky to see whales breaching and spouting along their migration route. At one point we even saw a mother and her calf!
It was the perfect place to take an anniversary photo: nine years!
We took a brief break back at the lodge and then set out again for USFS Pfeiffer Beach, rumored to have purple sand and dramatic sunsets.
The turn off the road is easy to miss, so ask for directions. From the the lodge or Pfeiffer Burns State Park, it’s a half-mile south on Highway 1, and then a sharp turn down a single-lane road. No campers or RVs allowed, and you drive for two miles on a windy unpaved stretch before you get to the $10-parking lot. We found aromatic plants along the way and Aron snapped off a a bay leaf for the kids.
And sure enough: the sand is purple! It’s color comes from manganese garnet deposits found in the surrounding rocks. (Most beach sand gets its greyish color from quartz.) Neither Aron or I had ever seen this before!
The wind was strong, and the tide was coming in. The kids played in the sand and joined other visitors in stacking piles of rocks.
From what I can tell, the views of the sea cave at the start of the beach is particularly stunning at low-tide, but we all got a thrill watching the water rush in. Well, maybe not Skyler, who watched the incoming tide nervously and would dart between our legs if it came within a few feet of hers.
We decided we couldn’t do better than to return to the Big Sur Bakery for dinner. There happened to be a wedding outside on the patio, and it struck me as fitting on our anniversary. We watched and then turned back to our table, which at one point also held glasses of champagne—only now alongside Magnadoodles and crayons.
Our romantic hearth is now shared with two sweet little kiddos and roasted s’mores.
On our last morning, we went for breakfast at Deetjen’s—someplace I’ve wanted to visit for years. On the National Register of Historic Places, Deetjens Inn was opened by “Grandpa” Helmuth and his wife Helen in 1937, in a beautiful canyon off the coast. The whole place has a beautifully rustic, hand-crafted quality, and the little cozy restaurant is filled with knick-knacks and that give it the atmosphere of a slightly boho, slightly old-world B&B breakfast nook.
They didn’t accept reservations, so we waited a short while for a table to become available. At first I’d thought we’d made the wrong choice to bring our two hungry little ones there—the ambience was very quiet and I’d read, while we waited, that children are only allowed to stay in rooms where a whole cabin is rented so that neighbors aren’t disturbed. But our server was very welcoming to them, telling us where we could find some books and toys in a cabinet and offering frothy chocolate milk. I of course tried their famous Deetjen’s Dip that I’d read about in my Sunset cookbook.
But the best part of all was looking around beyond the restaurant and discovering the beautiful, lush canyon. Apparently they will give tours of the property between noon and 4pm is staff is available.
We spotted one car with a “Just Married” sign on the back and again remarked on what a romantic place Big Sur is.
My friend Garrick also suggested Nepenthe for next time: “where adults sip cocktails & kids scramble over stepped bleacher style seating at an edge-of-the-world location.”
Back at the Lodge, we checked out and then went on one more short nature trail from the back of the reception area. The kids loved this big image of all the things to look for among the redwoods and it kept them focuses along the trail.
One day we’ll return to take some longer, more ambitious hikes in Big Sur with the kids.
For now, our goal is simply to keep moving!
(Ah, the joy of “hiking” with toddlers.)
As I mentioned, I asked one of my favorite local experts, Garrick Ramirez, for his top recommendations for visiting Big Sur with kids after our trip—and wish I’d reached out sooner. I’ll be bookmarking his suggestions for our next visit:
The Big Sur River is your family’s best friend.
As it flows through the village area, it morphs shapes: spreading out into wide shallow areas that are perfect for little kids splashing about, and in other areas, collecting in deep swimmable pools. Always crystal clear. You can experience both scenarios in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. On your way to the campgrounds, you’ll pass a day use area that has plenty of parking and easy access to the shallow part of the river. If you drive to the very furthest campground site, you’ll find a short path that leads to the river gorge. It’s here that the river is its most dramatic, gently tumbling over huge boulders and forming deep clear pools with little fish darting about. Lots of spots to layout on sunny rocks and dip in when it gets too hot. Also, the Big Sur River Inn fronts a shaded, shallow stretch of the river with adirondack chairs plunked directly in the water. Grab a beer from their open air bar and the day writes itself.
Partington Cove is just one of those special places with a grandeur so immense it might make even an atheist reconsider.
One of the few areas in Big Sur—whose roads are usually hundreds of feet above ocean—where you can interact directly with the shore: tidepooling, spotting whales, and quite frankly, just calmly basking in the mesmerizing churn of deep, turquoise waters. Which brings us to kids: The best part—the craggy point that juts out into the water—is strict hand-holding territory, but I always bring my young son and he is fine. Also, the 15-minute walk down to the cove is fun; kids get to cross a stream and go though a cool old tunnel. You might get some requests to be carried on the way back up the hill, but for adults, the serenity and unreal color of the cove’s water should be worth it.
Salmon Creek Falls is worthwhile detour.
McWay Falls—which everyone recognizes from their IG feed—is the biggest bang for your buck in Big Sur. But check out Salmon Creek Falls too if you’re near Big Sur’s southern boundary, headed towards or coming from Hearst Castle. The rush of water is audible from the roadside turnout, and a quick 5 minute “hike” takes you direct to the falls, a beautiful creek and a grove of towering boulders that form great spots for kids to play.
What suggestions would you add?