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Frequently referred to as California’s own Italian Riviera, Big Sur sits along a legendary stretch of coastline along the Pacific Coast Highway. On one side, lush forests extend to the edge of hidden beaches while deep gorges cut through rugged mountains. The region has inspired countless artists, poets and writers, and it’s easy to see why. If you’re lucky enough to experience it, be sure to put these unforgettable things to do on your list.
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Big Sur hosts one of the most unique beaches on the planet: Pfeiffer State Beach. This is one spot you really shouldn’t miss. The rare purple sand beach has a gorgeous purple shade that’s derived from the manganese garnet deposits that are found in the surrounding rocks. With the turquoise waves crashing against it, the contrast is absolutely magical. The best way to experience it is to simply kick back and enjoy the beautiful scenery. The views offshore are pretty spectacular too, with the waves crashing against numerous sea stacks.
If you want to camp near Big Sur there are few better places than Kirk Creek Campground, with each site offering an amazing ocean view as it sits atop a bluff overlooking the Pacific. A short walk will bring you down to the beach, which happens to be a popular spot for jade hunting. Unzip your tent or open your camper door in the morning and marvel at the glistening expanse of the ocean. Campers not only enjoy the awe-inspiring views and access to the rocky beach known for jade discoveries, but also have the chance to hike miles of trails that lead to soaring redwood trees, cascading falls, lush meadows and streams.
New Camaldoli Hermitage has long been known as a popular spot away from the hustle and bustle of the busy Bay Area to the north and Los Angeles to the south. If you want to enjoy true solitude among the incredible central coast scenery, this working Benedictine monastery offers the perfect place to stay. Guests are invited, but not required, to attend daily prayers. The basic rooms, private houses with gardens and outdoor spaces, offer lots of peace and tranquility, but little else. Just keep in mind that no app can take the place of listening to the actual sounds of the surf while soaking up magnificent ocean views.
For a short but extremely sweet hike that doesn’t require a lot of effort, take the 0.64-mile McWay Waterfall Trail trek, the shortest trail in Big Sur. It may be short, but it brings huge rewards. The 80-foot-tall waterfall can be seen from the trail, plunging down to the beach below in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. It is one of the world’s most renowned waterfalls, and it flows all year round.
You can really experience the feel of the Mediterranean region without having to spend hours and hours on a flight simply by heading to Big Sur and California’s central coast. Along the way, you’ll get to view the Santa Lucia Mountains that rise alongside the dramatic coastline and its many idyllic beaches. One of the most jaw-dropping, beautiful destinations in the world, you might want to begin in San Francisco, drive south through Santa Cruz, Monterey and Carmel, before reaching Big Sur and enjoying the variety of things to do.
The Big Sur area also happens to be home to the largest deposit of jade on Earth. Known as nephrite jade, it can be found underwater by diving into the ocean or combing the beach at Jade Cove. The region has been attracting visitors from across the globe for more than a half-century, who hope to find these precious gems, easy to distinguish from other rocks by its almost luminescent color. The best time to find it is just after a winter storm during the calm period, as the rough undercurrent often exposes many of the hidden gems. Search under the large rocks and under-hangs as well as between the boulders and piles of rubble along the shore.
The Esalen Institute sits atop the dramatic coastal cliffs, offering one of the most breathtaking settings you can possibly imagine. Guests can join the soul-seeking meditation and mindfulness workshops in this historic lodge that’s housed legendary guests like actor Steve McQueen and singer Joan Baez, along with world-spiritual people like Deepak Chopra. A variety of meditation practices are available, from Buddhist to tantra, depending on the particular workshop. There are over 500 workshops on all different subjects to choose from, including mindfulness, massage and martial arts. In between, kayak the Pacific or enjoy a tranquil hike through the forest.
The Big Sur Taphouse, an eclectic, cozy beer bar with high ceilings, offers the chance to sip craft beers or regional wines and dine on tasty pub grub from the deli next door. Enjoy them on the back deck under the sun, or next to the warmth of a fireplace when the weather doesn’t cooperate. It has a fabulous atmosphere that includes board games and televisions for catching the big game as well.
While the Soberanes Fire of 2017 damaged the trail to reach Sykes Hot Springs, it’s expected to reopen soon and well worth a visit – check for current information on the trek at Ventana Wilderness. Once there, you’ll discover two stone-lined natural pools, each about the size of a typical four-person hot tub, with temperature averaging around 102 degrees, though varying a bit depending on the season. This is for the adventurous and fit, requiring an approximately 10-mile hike through the Ventana Wilderness on the Pine Ridge Trail, but the reward is a true slice of paradise.