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Where to Swim in Big Sur: Top 7 Beaches and Hidden Coves

As someone who tries to seek out swimming spots everywhere I go, I wanted to check out where the best spots are in one of my favorite places: Big Sur, California. I couldn’t find any great resources, so I looked myself and did some research. Here’s what I found.

Swimming at beaches in Big Sur is not recommended as the tides are dangerous and cold. However, rivers and holes are popular for swimming such as Big Sur River Gorge and Salmon Creek Falls. You still can swim at beaches such as Pfieffer Beach or Andrew Molera State Park, just be sure to check water conditions before.

Here’s a guide I came up with for the best places to swim in Big Sur.

The Top 7 Places to Swim in Big Sur

Unlike Southern California, swimming at the beaches in Big Sur is not recommended year-round. This is because of the dangers the water presents such as strong currents, cold waters that do not rise above 68 degrees, and rocks.

Don’t worry though, you can still swim at the beaches in the hotter months with the right water conditions. Not to mention, Big Sur has many swimming holes (and even rivers) to choose from. Here are some of my favorites of all of the above, even some beaches.

1. Big Sur River Gorge

Big Sur River Gorge

Located inside Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, the River Gorge is the most popular swimming hole in Big Sur.

The swimming area consists of a large swimming hole with a little beach, surrounded by boulders. It is possible to jump in the water from rocks lower to the ground, snorkel, or just enjoy the beautiful scenery. The deepest part of the water reaches around 10 feet.

To reach the swimming hole, there is a trail that is 1.2 miles there and back. The trailhead is in the State Park right next to Lot 3, between campsites #111 and #112. If you follow the river upstream on the right side, you can then cross over towards the end.

This hike is not considered too difficult but it makes it a lot easier if you have both hands as you will be climbing on slippery large rocks.

I recommend bringing water shoes, a backpack with water, a snack, a towel, and your phone stored away so it will not get wet.

The water at the swimming hole is not freezing, but still cold. I would recommend visiting in the months from March to September. If you really don’t like swimming in cold water, I would opt for going during the months of June or July.

2. Pfeiffer Beach

Pfieffer Beach

Pfeiffer Beach is a popular spot for swimming in Big Sur. It is a secluded beach with turquoise waters and purple sand, which makes it a unique destination.

Although the beach is not very large, it offers plenty of space for swimming, sunbathing, and exploring the tide pools. The waves can be strong at times, so it’s important to be cautious and aware of the conditions before entering the water.

One of the highlights of Pfeiffer Beach is the Keyhole Arch, a natural rock formation that frames the sunset perfectly. Visitors can take a short hike to the arch and watch the sun go down behind the ocean.

There are no facilities at Pfeiffer Beach, so visitors should come prepared with food, water, and sunscreen. It’s also important to note that there is a small parking fee to access the beach.

They also allow dogs!

3. Sand Dollar Beach

Sand Dollar Beach

Sand Dollar Beach is known for its pristine white sand and crystal-clear water. It is located about 15 miles south of the town of Big Sur and is easily accessible from Highway 1.

The beach is a favorite spot for surfers, as the waves can get quite large and powerful. However, it is also a great place for swimming, especially during low tide when the water is calm and shallow.

There are no facilities at Sand Dollar Beach, so visitors should come prepared with food, water, and sunscreen. There is also no lifeguard on duty, so swimmers should be cautious and aware of their surroundings.

Overall, Sand Dollar Beach is a beautiful and peaceful spot to spend a day, with its stunning views and clear water. Don’t forget to pack in, pack out.

4. Andrew Molera State Park

Andrew Molera

Andrew Molera State Park is a popular destination in Big Sur. Visitors can enjoy a variety of outdoor activities, including swimming, hiking, and camping. The park is located along the Big Sur River, which is a popular spot for swimming and picnicking.

The beach part of the park is wide and sandy, and there are plenty of places to spread out and relax. Visitors can swim in the ocean, play in the surf, or simply soak up the sun.

In addition to the beach, visitors can also swim in the Big Sur River. The river is relatively shallow and slow-moving, making it a safe spot for swimming. There are also several small waterfalls and pools along the river that visitors can explore.

For those who want to explore the park further, there are several hiking trails that lead to other swimming spots. The Creamery Meadow Trail leads to a secluded swimming hole, while the Ridge Trail offers stunning views of the ocean and the surrounding landscape.

Overall, Andrew Molera State Park is a great destination for swimming in Big Sur. With its beautiful beaches, calm river, and scenic hiking trails, there is something for everyone to enjoy.

5. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

My photo of McWay Falls Waterfall

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park features an 80-foot waterfall that drops from granite cliffs into the ocean, creating a breathtaking view. Visitors can swim in the McWay Creek, which flows into the ocean and creates a small cove.

The beach is relatively small, but it’s a great place to relax and enjoy the scenery. The water is usually calm and clear, making it ideal for swimming. However, visitors should be aware that there are no lifeguards on duty, so they should exercise caution when swimming.

There are restrooms and picnic tables available, making it a great spot for a picnic lunch. Visitors can also hike the park’s many trails, which offer stunning views of the coastline and the surrounding mountains.

Overall, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is a must-visit destination for anyone looking to swim in Big Sur. Its stunning waterfall and clear, calm waters make it a beautiful and relaxing spot to spend a day.

6. Salmon Falls

Our vacation to Salmon Creek Falls

Salmon Falls cascades down a steep canyon wall that happens to be apart of the Santa Lucia Mountain range.

Salmon Creek Falls is a natural swimming hole in San Simeon, CA which is known for its waterfall. Visitors take the Salmon Creek Trail, a 0.3-mile in-and-out hike. This trail is open at all times of the year.

My family and I went here a few years ago and we loved it. Definitely cold, but beautiful.

Just be careful with the rocks. It’s important to exercise caution and be aware of local conditions and safety guidelines. Always check the weather and surf reports before swimming, and never swim alone or in areas where there are signs of dangerous currents or undertows.

Whether you’re looking to take a dip, or simply take in the stunning views of the falls, Salmon Falls and the surrounding area is a must-visit destination for water lovers.

7. Tanbark Trail and Tin House

Alexis swimming in a creek in Big Sur

I hiked this trail a year ago and stumbled upon a creek to the left of the trail about half of a mile in.

Literally, my favorite spot I’ve ever swam. It’s more of a dunk yourself in the water kind of experience because of how cold it is, but I have never felt so relaxed.

If you are looking to see redwoods while visiting, I recommend going here. The trail begins with the beautiful creek, redwood trees, and ends with views of the ocean. The whole thing made me feel like I was in a fairy tale.

Tip: Park along Highway 1, basically at the Partington Cove trailhead. Instead of going towards the ocean, you go inland to the other trailhead named Tanbark Trail.

Can You Surf and Kayak in Big Sur?

My photo of the big sur coastline

Kayaking is a great way to experience the area’s coastline, beautiful beaches, and abundant marine life up close. Here are a few places to rent kayaks in Big Sur:

  1. Monterey Bay Kayaks: Located in Monterey, just a short drive from Big Sur, Monterey Bay Kayaks offers a variety of kayaking tours and rentals. Visitors can choose from single or double kayaks and explore the nearby Elkhorn Slough or the rocky coastline of Point Lobos.
  2. Sea For Yourself Kayak Outfitters: Located in Moss Landing, Sea For Yourself Kayak Outfitters offers kayak rentals and tours of the Elkhorn Slough. Visitors can paddle through the calm waters and enjoy the stunning scenery while spotting sea otters, harbor seals, and other marine creatures.
  3. Adventures by the Sea: Located in Pacific Grove, just a short drive from Big Sur, Adventures by the Sea offers a variety of kayaking tours and rentals. Visitors can choose from single or double kayaks and explore the nearby Monterey Bay or the stunning coastline of Point Lobos.

As for surfing, you can rent a surfboard at Monterey Bay Kayaks, Adventures by the Sea, or Aqua Sports. You can take your own surfboard to any of the beaches mentioned above.

Just be sure to follow safety guidelines and check weather and surf conditions before heading out on the water.

What to Pack When Visiting Big Sur

My photo of a car in big sur

To make the most of your trip, it’s important to pack appropriately. Here’s a quick guide on what to bring, along with average temperatures, fog reports, and water temperatures.

  1. Clothing: Big Sur experiences a Mediterranean climate, with mild winters and cool summers. Average temperatures range from 40°F to 70°F (4°C to 21°C). Pack layers, including a lightweight waterproof jacket and comfortable, breathable clothing for hiking. Don’t forget a hat and sunglasses to protect yourself from the sun!
  2. Footwear: Sturdy hiking shoes or boots are essential for exploring Big Sur’s scenic trails. Pack flip-flops or water shoes for beach visits, as the rocky shores can be challenging to navigate.
  3. Fog Gear: The region is known for its fog, which can roll in unexpectedly, especially during the early morning and late afternoon. A lightweight, water-resistant jacket and a pair of moisture-wicking pants will keep you comfortable in foggy conditions.
  4. Swimming Essentials: Big Sur’s water temperatures average around 50°F to 58°F (10°C to 14°C) throughout the year, making it too cold for most swimmers without a wetsuit. However, if you’re determined to take a dip, pack a swimsuit and swim shoes. Don’t forget a towel, sunscreen, and a change of clothes for after your swim.
  5. Camera and Binoculars: With its breathtaking scenery and abundant wildlife, you’ll want to capture every moment. Pack a high-quality camera and binoculars to make the most of your Big Sur experience.
  6. Safety and Navigation: Cell service can be spotty in Big Sur, so bring a physical map or download an offline version on your phone. A small first aid kit, flashlight, and a portable charger are also recommended for safety and convenience.
  7. Snacks and Hydration: While there are a few dining options in the area, there are not a ton. It’s always a good idea to pack some snacks and plenty of water for your hikes and explorations. We packed more than half of our food when we visited.

Packing for a trip to Big Sur involves preparing for a range of weather conditions, from cool foggy mornings to sunny afternoons. Layered clothing, sturdy footwear, fog gear, swimming essentials, and safety/navigation items will help you make the most of your visit.