Big Sur has a dramatic rocky coastline that’s stunning to look at, but can be challenging to access. Where do you go when you want to take a good walk on the beach? To dip your toes in Big Sur’s sand, there may be nowhere better to visit than Sand Dollar Beach. This half-mile long beach (or longer if the tide is out) is a crescent-shaped arc of pale sand between the blue water of the Pacific Ocean and the orange rock of tall sea cliffs. To reach the beach and take in two panoramic vista points along the way, hike 0.5 miles round trip, descending 125 feet on Sand Dollar Beach Trail.
The hike begins from Sand Dollar Beach Day Use Area, located along Highway One near Plaskett Creek Campground. This Los Padres National Forest day use area has a parking lot, picnic tables, and vault toilets, as well as the trail to Sand Dollar Beach. Take the path from the parking area through a row of Monterey pines to a trail running along the top of a grassy bluff. Bear right and you will come to a split just past a large wooden trail sign. The trail to Sand Dollar Beach descends to the left, dropping 120 feet to the beach. Before heading this way, stay to the right on a level trail to an overlook above Sand Dollar Beach.
Walk out along the dirt trail for less than a tenth of a mile to a wooden railing just behind the cliff’s edge. Be mindful of the surrounding poison oak as you take in a grand view over Sand Dollar Beach. Below you to your left is the south end of Sand Dollar Beach where the trail terminates. A few rocky islands break up the surf off the south end of the cove. The most notable of which is Plaskett Rock, a large white sea stack off the end of Plaskett Rock Point, the headland between Sand Dollar Beach and Jade Cove. Below the overlook lies Sand Dollar Beach, a long run of uninterrupted sand (no rocks). Looking up the beach to the right, the sand extends for a greater distance before it is cut off by the tall cliffs that run along the back of the beach. You can look west over the expanse of the Pacific Ocean, or turn your eyes north to see Cone Peak and the green ridges of the Santa Lucia Mountains. This lovely coastal range rises to the east as well, on the other side of Highway One.
Backtrack from the overlook to the junction near the trailhead and take the other trail now, which descends toward a gap in the cliffs. Hike 0.05 miles toward the ocean along the side of the ravine to come to another junction. A short spur to the right leads to a second overlook. This lower overlook is located along the edge of the cliff below the first overlook and presents more views over Sand Dollar Beach.
Head to the left at the second junction to continue toward the beach. The trail descends a zig-zag of short switchbacks into a depression in the coastal bluffs. The dirt trail can only take you so far through, leading to a long wooden staircase that descends the final 40 feet to the beach. Walk down the stairs to reach Sand Dollar Beach.
This is the end of the trail (but could be the beginning of a long beach walk). You’ve hiked 0.35 miles down to the beach and it is a 0.15-mile hike back (if you don’t revisit the overlooks). Now that you’re at the beach, there’s no reason to turn around immediately. To the left, the beach extends a tenth of a mile or more to the south end of the cove near the interesting dark rock islands off the shore of Plaskett Rock Point. To the right, the beach rolls out for half a mile, offering a longer stroll in the sand. Behind the beach stand the Pacific Valley Bluffs (home of Pacific Valley Bluff Trail) and beyond those rise the Santa Lucia Mountains. When you’ve had you fill of fun on Sand Dollar Beach, walk back up the stairs and hike up the trail to Sand Dollar Beach Day Use Area.
Dogs are welcome on Sand Dollar Beach. They are expected to be on leashes on the trail, but you’ll see some dogs off leashes once they reach the beach, running free across the sand to chase sea gulls or tennis balls. The beach and parking area are closed at night. There is a $10 day use fee to park a vehicle at the trailhead. A National Forest Adventure Pass or an America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass are accepted in place of the fee. Additionally, if you are camping at a nearby campground in Los Padres National Forest (Kirk Creek Campground or Plaskett Creek Campground), you can use the Sand Dollar Beach Day Use Area without paying the entry fee. There is no need to pay the additional $10 entrance fee if you have already paid for a camping permit (all prices as of July, 2014). The same rule applies for another amazing Big Sur beach, Pfeiffer Beach. Aside from the use fee, no permit is required to hike to Sand Dollar Beach, so get out and enjoy!
To get to the trailhead: From the south, drive up Highway One to Sand Dollar Beach Day Use Area, located on the west side of the road, 15.3 miles north of Ragged Point Inn (or 38.5 miles north of Cambria). From the north, drive 21.5 miles south from Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (home of McWay Falls). The Sand Dollar Beach Day Use Area is just north of Plaskett Creek Campground (which is on the east side of Highway One).
Trailhead address: Highway One, Los Padres National Forest, Big Sur, CA 93920
Trailhead coordinates: 35.921639, -121.466913 (35° 55′ 17.90″N 121° 28′ 00.88″W)
You may also view a regional map of surrounding Central Coast trails and campgrounds.
|Jade Cove and Plaskett Rock Point|
This 1.5-mile hike along an ocean bluff visits a prominent peninsula and a small cove.
|Pacific Valley Bluff Trail|
This short out and back hike extends from Highway One to an ocean bluff with fantastic views of the Big Sur Coast.
This 0.6-mile hike looks out on a stunning Big Sur waterfall that pours 80 feet right on to the beach.
This 0.9-mile hike heads inland up McWay Creek past a picnic area in a redwood grove to a lovely little waterfall.
This 1.5 mile hike visits a cove and a secluded beach along the scenic Big Sur coast. The cove is accessed through a tunnel.
|Salmon Creek Falls|
This short hike visits a fine 120-foot waterfall near the start of Salmon Creek Trail.
This hike of 6.5 miles or more reaches incredibly ocean vistas and trail camps in the Silver Peak Wilderness. Connect Cruickshank Trail and Buckeye Trail for an excellent shuttle hike of 8.25 miles or more.
This hike into Silver Peak Wilderness starts with bold ocean views and crosses redwood groves to reach Upper Cruickshank Camp at a junction with Buckeye Trail, 5 miles round trip from Highway One.
|Hare Creek Trail, Limekiln Trail, and Falls Trail|
This 2.65-mile hike in Limekiln State Park explores a trio of trails along lovely streams in redwood-lined canyons, reaching Limekiln Falls and historic lime kilns.
This short walk reaches an absolutely stunning beach that’s a classic feature of the Big Sur landscape.
|Big Sur River Gorge|
This half-mile off-trail hike ventures up the Big Sur River on a water-wading boulder-hopping adventure to a crystal clear pool that’s a gorgeous Big Sur swimming hole.
|Pfeiffer Falls and Valley View|
This 2.4-mile hike is like two hikes in one, reaching a waterfall in a canyon of redwoods and a vista point overlooking the Big Sur River Valley.
|Nature Trail – River Path Loop|
This easy 0.55-mile loop explores woodlands along the Big Sur River and a redwood grove that includes the unique and impressive Proboscis Tree. The loop can be combined with the trail to Pfeiffer Falls and Valley View for a 3-mile trek.
|Ridge Trail – Panorama Trail – Bluff Trail Loop|
This 8.7-mile loop in Andrew Molera State Park crosses a coastal ridge, bluff, and beach that are packed with amazing Big Sur views.
|More Central Coast Hikes|
Explore other destinations along the California coast between Ventura and Monterey, including trails in Los Padres National Forest.
|Plaskett Creek Campground|
This 45-site campground in Los Padres National Forest is positioned across Highway One from Sand Dollar Beach and Plaskett Rock Point on the coast of Big Sur.
|Kirk Creek Campground|
This outstanding 33-site campground in Los Padres National Forest has enormous ocean views from a bluff along the Big Sur coast.
|Limekiln State Park Campground|
This small Big Sur campground at the bottom of Limekiln Canyon has sites along a creek through a redwood grove and near the ocean, with access to trails up Limekiln Canyon.
|Andrew Molera State Park Trail Camp|
This trail camp is easy to reach (just a short walk in) with campsites in a meadow along the Big Sur River near Molera Beach.
|Pfieffer Big Sur State Park Campground|
This large campground in the heart of Big Sur is spread out through oak and redwood groves along the Big Sur River.