Big Sur Lodge is next to a grove of towering redwoods. // © 2016 Chelsee Lowe
Feature image (above): Even on cloudy days, the colors of McWay Cove draw many visitors. // © 2016 Chelsee Lowe
Big Sur is magical year-round, from the days when the sun lights up the sea in brilliant hues of blue to those when the fog settles low on the mountains like snow. This mystical central coastal region of California isn’t suitable for the weary, however. Measuring roughly 90 miles long and traversed by a two-lane highway that curls and curves with the undulating coastline, drivers here — especially those with kids in the backseat — need patience in spades. A keen interest in nature viewing helps pass the time, too. Below are a few recommendations for playing and staying in Big Sur with children.
Big Sur Lodge
Located in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, Big Sur Lodge is both a family-friendly accommodation option and a great pit stop for day visitors. Just steps away from check-in is a fantastic grove of redwoods, most of which are connected by wood-planked walkways and informational plaques. Guests can also follow markers for an up-close look at (or a dip in) Big Sur River. Free programs for children — including read-alouds, crafts, nature walks, evening campfires — are offered through the Junior Ranger Program, and most take place in the lodge’s vicinity.
The property is also a great destination for beginner hikers. The beloved Pfeiffer Falls trail is less than 2 miles roundtrip, and the trailhead is adjacent to the lodge, so it’s easily accessible. Though a bit steep in places, the path is well-shaded and scenic. Groups with older kids might opt for the longer Valley View trail, which rewards hikers with expansive vistas of the region.
Quite possibly one of the most photographed spots in Big Sur, McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is also one of the easiest to see — folks need only park their car on Highway 1, then walk down a short dirt trail for a decent view. If it’s sunny, McWay Cove appears otherworldly, glimmering with every imaginable shade of blue. On gray-sky days, it’s still lovely to watch the seagulls enjoying the spray of the falls. Sadly, this adorable beach is not accessible to visitors, so mark it down simply as a place to take a few good pictures.
Travelers don’t go to Big Sur for its dining scene, but what it lacks in culinary appeal, it makes up for with cliffside venues too pretty to miss. Nepenthe Restaurant, opened in 1949 and located about 3 miles south of Big Sur Lodge, is an old visitor favorite. Patrons climb multiple sets of stairs to get to the hilltop restaurant, which offers both indoor and outdoor seating overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It’s a bustling place with long waits on weekends, so arrive early or with plenty of diversion for the kids. The top menu pick is surely “The Famous Ambrosiaburger,” the restaurant’s take on a steak sandwich with a secret sauce. There are also homemade desserts, a good list of California wines and a reasonable children’s menu.
Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery
Though not officially in Big Sur, anyone exiting or entering the region from the south will drive past Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, a long stretch of coastline that’s home to elephant seals for large chunks of the year. In the winter, the adult seals come onshore for pupping and mating season, and in late spring and early summer, they’re back to molt and grow new fur. Young seals, called juveniles, come onshore sometime during September and December.
Large wood-planked walkways line the area, bringing guests close enough (but not too close) to note the differences between the males and females, to hear their barking and to see the animals snuggle or fight with one another. This particular colony has been making its home here since around 1991. The site is open every day of the year, and parking is free.
Ragged Point Inn and Resort
Ragged Point Inn and Resort is another family-friendly accommodation option, though it’s vital for visitors to know that it is as far south as one can get in Big Sur. That means seeing main sights of the region will come with a lengthy, snaking drive. However, the inn has quite a bit to offer on-site, including a restaurant, a bar with pub fare, a coffee counter, a mini-mart, a gas station, a gift shop and live music on the weekends, complete with barbecue fresh off the grill. Those feeling particularly nervy can trek down the steep trail that leads to a tiny (and public) black-sand beach — it’s a thrill for kids and adults alike, especially if they’re accustomed to typical California seashores.
Sand Dollar Beach
This is one of the largest swaths of beach travelers will find in Big Sur, located about 30 miles south of Big Sur Lodge. Though it’s no easy feat getting to the sand — it’s a little more than half a mile from the $10 day-use parking lot —that doesn’t stops groups from navigating the trail with kids, dogs and requisite gear. The beach gets its name from the shells visitors are likely to find once the waves pull out, and a very tall cliff acts as barrier on windy days, making it a serene stop on the way to the next sight.