A surfer’s guide to Big Sur

Andrew Molera Overlook; photo by Stacey Swinehart/Wikicommons

Whether you are a born-and-raised California surfer or just passing through the Golden State, spending several days exploring the Big Sur coastline is an experience not to be missed.

Where else can you find jaw-dropping coastal scenery, empty lineups, and enough wilderness to get truly lost in? For surfers looking to escape from urban oppression, Big Sur offers a rugged surf adventure.

Bixby Creek Bridge; photo by Gretchen Wegrich


Like an oyster waiting to be opened, the Big Sur coastline can seem harsh and uninviting until you discover the pearls hidden between the cracks. The ocean here demands respect. Stay alert and watch for hazards.

Big Surf coastline; photo by Gretchen Wegrich

The playful Big Sur Rivermouth is consistently offshore, except during west winds. The river keeps the gravel sandbar in decent shape, creating a miniature pointbreak setup. Waves here are typically fast rights and mushier lefts, breaking directly into the river mouth. A short hike to reach the break also helps to keep crowds down.

The Big Sur Rivermouth is always worth a check, but the break also has its share of bad days, when fast currents sweep through the break and waves close out or the sandbar is too shallow.

Sand Dollar Beach is a crescent-shaped, white sand beach popular with surfers and visiting tourists alike. On days with little swell, the break offers gentle waves and a sand bottom perfect for longboarders and novice surfers. Don’t be surprised to find a small crowd in the water, thanks to easy access from popular Plaskett Creek Campground, located just across the highway.

Add a bit more swell, and the break transforms into a playground for shortboarders.

Not for the inexperienced surfer, Willow Creek is a rocky stretch of coastline facing powerful waves, which break in multiple peaks up and down the shore.

The peaky break in front of the parking lot is the most friendly, offering sloped faces and strong, consistent surf.  Take time to scout any potential hazards, as the waves serve up a powerful punch that can send unwary surfers straight onto dry rock.

Conditions here are hazardous, with exposed boulders and plenty of bull kelp to keep surfers on their toes.

The less consistent peak at Willow Creek is a long, left-breaking wave that mimics a left point break. Check Willow Creek when other Big Sur surf spots are maxed out; the left can hold up to double overhead.

Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park; photo by Gretchen Wegrich

There are a handful of other unmarked Big Sur surf spots that fall slightly farther off the beaten path. Take the time to explore the coastline, and you won’t be disappointed. But visiting surfers should proceed with caution; localism can be rampant at Big Sur’s lesser-known surf spots.

The water temperature in Big Sur is typically in the mid-to-low 50s, so a 4/3 wetsuit and booties are recommended. During winter and spring, the addition of gloves and a hood (and possibly even thicker neoprene) can mean the difference between a fun session and absolute misery.

What to do when the waves are flat

There’s no shortage of exploring to do in Big Sur when the ocean looks like Lake Superior (or more likely, is simply too big to surf). Big Sur Station offers multiple hiking trails, with difficulty ranging from a mellow stroll to a rugged, all-day or overnight expedition.

Feeling truly adventurous? Sykes Hot Springs–a notoriously difficult 10-mile hike–is the perfect reward for sore muscles … if you make it.

If hiking sounds about as unappealing as your cold, soggy wetsuit, head to Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park, where an 80-foot waterfall cascades onto a pristine beach. Your Instagram followers will thank you.

Moonrise during sunset at Nepenthe; photo by Gretchen Wegrich


Options for meals run somewhat far apart in Big Sur; make sure you are stocked with snacks and a few easy meals-on-the-go before you leave civilization. Nevertheless, there are some tasty options for hungry surfers.

Nepenthe gets our vote for the best place to grab a bite at sunset. With expansive views of the Pacific and a true Big Sur vibe, the only decision you’ll have to make is whether to cozy up by the open fire or try out that panorama feature on your camera. Traveling on a budget? Eat dinner at camp, then head to Nepenthe for drinks. (www.nepenthebigsur.com)

As an added bonus, Nepenthe’s little sister, the charming (and less expensive) Café Kevah, does a delicious and thoroughly laid-back brunch.

Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant offers baked goods and wood-fired American classics including soups, seasonal salads, pizzas, and more. Hit up the Big Sur Bakery, which opens at 8 a.m., for some morning surf fuel. (www.bigsurbakery.com)

At Big Sur Deli , discover the best (and biggest) sandwiches in Big Sur, along with a store stocked with supplies for a meal cooked over the open fire. Check out the Big Sur Deli for a quick lunch in between surfs, or before heading back to the campground. (www.bigsurdeli.com)

Morning surf; photo by Gretchen Wegrich


The quirky Treebones Resort offers tent camping, yurt camping, and The Nest, an elevated, human-sized, orb-shaped construction of sticks with a breathtaking view of the Big Sur coastline. The Nest is quite possibly the coolest place to spend the night in Big Sur, with the cozy yurts coming in at a close second. (www.treebonesresort.com)

Plaskett Creek Campground ranks among the most popular destinations for traveling surfers in Big Sur, due to its nearness to the surf at Sand Dollar Beach. Nestled in a grassy meadow surrounded by coastal pines, this family-friendly campground is busy on weekends and quiet during the middle of the week. (www.recreation.gov)

Andrew Molera State Park Trail Camp is conveniently within walking distance of the Big Sur Rivermouth. This campground is walk-or-bike-in only; campers must leave vehicles in the parking lot and carry their gear into the campsites, located about a quarter of a mile away.

Bordered on one side by the Big Sur River, the campground is in a grassy meadow dotted with large trees. Visit in the off-season and you might have the entire meadow to yourself. Andrew Molera is first come, first served and does not accept reservations. (www.parks.ca.gov )

Treebones resort_photo credit Emdot (Flickr - okay for use)
Treebones resort; photo by Emdot/Flickr

For access to exclusive gear videos, celebrity interviews, and more, subscribe on YouTube!