GUIDE: How to Spend a Wallet-Friendly Weekend in Big Sur

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McWay Falls in Big Sur (Cocoabiscuit/Flickr)

As we all know, week-long vacations are life-enhancing, soul-enriching...and expensive as hell. The good news: living in the Bay Area means you've got no shortage of options for making your weekends into mini-getaways that don't rinse your wallet.

A Big Sur vista
A Big Sur vista (Albert de Bruijn/Flickr)

As one who is routinely mocked (albeit affectionately) by her friends for her relentless pursuit of All Things Budget, I'd venture to position myself as something of an expert on the Bay Area's many 'Wallet-Friendly Weekenders.' So without further ado, here are my tried-and-true, entirely subjective tips for making the most of a weekend escape to Big Sur -- and emerging on Sunday evening with your credit card limit un-breached.

Big Sur, California

Distance from San Francisco: around 150 miles via Hwy 1 (and you should take Hwy 1)
Drive-time: 3.5 hours
Travel Note: Grab your gas before you hit Big Sur. Just like Yosemite, there are only a handful of gas stations on this long stretch, and you'll have to bear the exorbitant prices as a consequence.

Iconic Bixby Bridge in Big Sur
Iconic Bixby Bridge in Big Sur (Giuseppe Milo/Flickr)



Without a doubt, the cheapest way to “do” Big Sur is camping, but if you’re looking for campsite recommendations, I am not your woman, and this is not your guide. Rooms with actual ceilings can run expensive in Big Sur for the most basic accommodations (we’re not even talking about the luxury Post Ranch Inn or Ventana here) and especially for last-minute bookings.

The Fernwood Resort
The Fernwood Resort (Rachel Coyne, Flickr)

With wallet in mind, my preferred place to stop is the Fernwood Resort, which offers unpretentious motel-style rooms, as well as cabins, “adventure tent” canvas cabins and (yes) camping spots. Several of the motel rooms have cozy little fireplaces, and one even has a hot tub. The best thing about this place is the on-site bar and grill, which means you can eat decently priced burgers, maybe listen to some live music, and drink to your heart’s content, without someone having to be Designated Driver along this windy dark stretch of the PCH. There’s also a small General Store where you can pick up your bug spray and Clif bars (although if you're a true thrift fiend, you'll have brought those with you).

Heaven is a Sunday morning read in front of a fireplace in one of Fernwood's motel rooms
Heaven is a Sunday morning read in front of a fireplace in one of Fernwood's motel rooms (Carly Severn/KQED)

If Fernwood isn't an option, try the Big Sur Lodge. It's still more expensive that it should be, but it's reliable and still less spendy than many of the other options.

Pro tip: If you are the type of person that enjoys camping, but also doesn’t particularly enjoy planning ahead, check out KQED’s handy “Secrets to Scoring Last-Minute Campsites” -- which recommends you head to Veterans Memorial Park just east of downtown Monterey. While you won’t be right in the thick of Big Sur proper, this campground is located on a 50-acre park at the top of a hill overlooking Monterey Bay, and a Friday night here “can have you in striking distance of Andrew Molera or Pfeiffer Big Sur State Parks for the 8 am stalking of the walk-ins.” Godspeed!

Cheap/Free Thrills

Big Sur is obviously a hiker’s paradise, and you could explore its trails for weeks. Still, the thrifty weekend visitor (that's you) only has limited time, and my must-sees are:

Pfeiffer Beach at sunset
Pfeiffer Beach at sunset (Matthew Hansen, Tours Departing Daily/Flickr)

Pfeiffer Beach: a.k.a the “purple sand beach,” a.k.a. “the beach with that rock with a hole in it that seems to be Flickr’s sole purpose for still existing.” It’s very easy to miss the sharp hairpin turn off Hwy 1 to this secluded beach -- about four minutes drive past the Big Sur Lodge as you’re driving south, onto Sycamore Canyon Rd -- but that doesn’t stop hordes of people flocking here for the stunning views.

Note: the tight and winding approach to the limited parking lot from PCH can get terribly backed up at popular times, so if you want to see the sun set through that famous hole in the rock out to sea, be prepared to arrive early or spend sundown in Big Sur’s equivalent of gridlock. There's a $5 entrance fee but come on, it's worth it.

McWay Falls
McWay Falls (Dawn Ellner/Flickr)

McWay Falls: a.k.a “that iconic waterfall.” This trail is less of a hike and more of a short stroll off the highway -- just park and follow the herd onto a board-walked path, from where you can see the incredible view onto the falls and the ocean beyond. Alas, you can’t hike down to the cove below to see the base of the waterfall -- there’s a reason it’s so secluded down there -- but it’s still worth a trip, plus you’ll almost certainly get a great photo of someone standing at an easel on the trail, painting the vista.

The "I'm in the ocean!" view that greets you at the end of the Partington Cove trail
The "I'm in the ocean!" view that greets you at the end of the Partington Cove trail (Carly Severn/KQED)

Partington Cove: a.k.a. “the best one I’ve never heard anyone talk about.” This small but mighty hike is my favorite for the absence of crowds, and the way the path leads you down from Hwy 1 into a wooded canyon and through an eerie wooden tunnel out into a stunningly remote cove that feels like the end of the world. (Or a smuggler’s lair: this cove is rumored to have been a favorite landing point for smuggling liquor during Prohibition.) Wear sensible shoes, because you’ll want to clamber across the rocks towards the ocean as far as you dare.

(Nothing tickle your fancy among the hikes I’ve suggested? Take a look at the wonderfully comprehensive Hiking in Big Sur site.)

The Henry Miller Memorial Library
The Henry Miller Memorial Library (Kent Kanouse/Flickr)

You can’t visit Big Sur without stopping by the free Henry Miller Memorial Library (the self-described “place where nothing happens”). It's a tiny arts center, Miller shrine and bookshop all in one, complete with sculpture garden. They offer coffee or tea on a pay-what-you-like donation basis (so pay something, please; don’t give us thrift-hounds a bad name). Drop in to peruse their great literature selection. I cringe to even admit this, considering the natural beauty that surrounds you, but the Library’s free WiFi is also pretty welcome after miles of data coverage drought for discreetly uploading your Big Sur Instagrams on their beautiful tree-filled deck. Don’t judge.

Food and Drink

Big Sur’s geographical remoteness is reflected in its general prices, and food is no exception. It's not so much "buyer beware" as "buyer be realistic," but it's possible to eat well down here without bankruptcy ensuing.

Kicking back in Big Sur
Kicking back in Big Sur (Cathrine Lindblom Gunasekara/Flickr)

Strongly recommended: start your trip south from the Bay Area to Big Sur with a stop-off in the wonderful -- and minute -- town of Pescadero, about halfway between San Francisco and Santa Cruz. While eating options are surprisingly plentiful on its super-cute Main Street, I always stop into Arcangeli’s Grocery and buy two big loaves of their always-warm, paper-bagged artichoke and garlic bread and a tub of whipped garlic butter. If I can wait until I’m past the register to start tearing off hunks of this stuff, it becomes a delicious lunch, to be scarfed down either on the drive down to Big Sur, in Arcangeli’s hidden back patio that’s always full of Lycra-clad cyclists in sunglasses needing a carb fix, or at Pigeon Point Lighthouse just down the road.

The super-sweet Ripplewood Resort
The super-sweet Ripplewood Resort (Carly Severn/KQED)

For value, my favorite daytime Big Sur spot (as recommended to me first by some friendly locals in Fernwood’s bar) is the Ripplewood Resort’s small diner/restaurant. Here, you can sit at the window tables or up at the diner-style counter and get breakfast, brunch or lunch until 2pm, accompanied by super-friendly service and damn fine coffee.

Ocean view dining at Nepenthe
Ocean view dining at Nepenthe (Carly Severn/KQED)

It’s basically sacrilege to visit Big Sur and not go to Nepenthe, the clifftop icon that’s been perched on top of the world since 1949. Its incredible location and wrap-around views from its deck all add up to a spendier experience, but the $14 Soup ‘n Salad combo is still a good deal given the portion size and unbelievable tastiness of that garbanzo and kidney bean salad. If you’re coming for dinner, try to time your arrival in order to be seated in time for sundown, so you can watch the sun set over the ocean. If you’re not down to eat (hey, you've probably got that Arcangeli's artichoke bread stored in your dash!), they’ll give you a blanket to keep you warm while you sip a cocktail on their stone seating.

The ocean view from Nepenthe's gift shop
The ocean view from Nepenthe's gift shop (Carly Severn/KQED)

The Big Sur Bakery is one of Big Sur's newest and most revered eateries. While it's an undeniably attractive -- dare I say hipster? --  offering, its lunch and dinner options are not cheap. (But you knew that from the absence of prices on its online menu, didn't you?) Stop by anyway to soak up the ambiance and grab a budget-friendly coffee and a pastry to be eaten in their little cafe area, instead.



What wallet-optimized Big Sur gems have I missed? Tell me in the comments!