Family Guide to Big Sur

Big Sur Vacation Guide

Big Sur is a region just south of Monterey Bay that includes a dozen state-protected reserves and parks. It also includes Cone Peak, a nearly mile-tall mountain that is the highest coastal peak in the lower forty-eight United States. The region is all but pristine, with about 1,000 residents at last count. Highway 1 runs right down the coastal side of Big Sur, meaning that you can enjoy the views without ever having to leave your automobile or RV. Just don’t stop midlane. Use the frequently placed vista overlooks to ensure you stay out of traffic’s way.

There are twelve state parks and reserves in the Big Sur region. The ten that have visitor’s services are as follows:

  • Carmel River State Beach
  • Point Lobos State Reserve
  • Garrapata State Park
  • Point Sur Lightstation State Historic Park
  • Andrew Molera State Park
  • Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
  • Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
  • Limekiln State Park
  • Hearst Castle
  • William Randolph Hearst Memorial State Beach

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

The actual park that most people think of when they consider Big Sur is the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. It’s known for its waterfalls, which are accessible by hiking trails. It also has campsites along the Big Sur River, plus a lodge with sixty-one guest rooms, a conference center, and a grocery store on the grounds.

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

If you don’t want to stay overnight, you can find everything from campgrounds to five-star resorts along Highway 1 on the way to or from the park — but, because of the area’s protected land status, there are probably no more than 300 or so indoor rooms along the main stretch of roadway. As with the rest of California’s parks in the summertime, you’ll need reservations.

Hearst Castle

You’ll have a far different kind of sightseeing experience at Hearst Castle, which opened for public tours in 1952 and was officially donated to the state of California in 1957. Before that, it was a private 250,000-acre wilderness that the wealthy Hearst family used for camping trips. The castle was built by 1947 with some 165 rooms and 127 acres of gardens, pools, and walkways.

Hearst Castle

There are almost as many fireplaces (forty-one) in the guest areas as there are bathrooms (sixty-one). Today, Hearst Castle is one of the largest historic house museums in the United States — and it offers four separate tours, each about two hours long, to help you get a good look around:

  • Hearst Tour 1 covers the first floor of the main house as well as one of the three guesthouses.
  • Hearst Tour 2 includes viewing and interpretation of the main house’s upper rooms.
  • Hearst Tour 3 is more about construction and development, comparing the earliest-built guesthouse with the newest wing on the grounds.
  • Hearst Tour 4 is designed to be accessible for people who are mobility impaired, with a look at the main house’s ground floor as well as gardens, pools, and the main level of one guesthouse.

You can get more information about the tours, the castle, and the Hearst family at the castle’s official Web site,

Point Sur State Historic Park and Lighthouse

Lighthouse keepers began living in and staffing the Point Sur Lightstation in 1889. The last keeper didn’t leave until 1974, when the U.S. Coast Guard finished renovations that automated the lighthouse. For lighthouse aficionados, this meant replacing the original Fresnel lens with a beacon — as has been done in lighthouses all across the United States. A restoration of the lantern room at the top of the lighthouse was completed in 2001.

Point Sur State Historic Park and Lighthouse

Point Sur has never been one of the most treacherous places for shipping, but it was the site of numerous significant wrecks from 1894 until the mid-1950s. One of the most spectacular ship demises was in February 1935, when the 785-foot-long, helium-filled dirigible USS Macon crashed offshore and sank, taking eighty-one of the eighty-three people onboard to a watery grave. It was a spectacular sight from onshore, as the Macon was three times the size of a modern-day Boeing 747. The wreckage was later discovered, and you can view some of it during a tour of the visitor’s center.

Tours last about three hours and are available year-round between 10 A.M. and 2 P.M. Rates are $8 for adults and $4 for kids between the ages of six and seventeen. Children five and younger can take the tours for free. For more information, check out the Web site at

Family Tours

The Point Sur State Historic Park offers “moonlight tours” on selected dates from April through October, but children younger than six are not permitted to attend. You will also have to leave the family dog behind. Not only are pets prohibited on the grounds, but there’s also a restriction that says you can’t leave them in a car on the premises during your visit.

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