Big Sur is a rugged and mountainous section of the Central Coast of California between Carmel Highlands and San Simeon, where the Santa Lucia Mountains rise abruptly from the Pacific Ocean. It is frequently praised for its dramatic scenery. Big Sur has been called the "longest and most scenic stretch of undeveloped coastline in the contiguous United States," a "national treasure that demands extraordinary procedures to protect it from development" and "one of the most beautiful coastlines anywhere in the world, an isolated stretch of road, mythic in reputation." The stunning views, redwood forests, hiking, beaches, and other recreational opportunities have made Big Sur a popular destination for about 7 million people who live within a day's drive and visitors from across the world. The region receives about the same number of visitors as Yosemite National Park, but offers extremely limited bus service, few restrooms, and a narrow two-lane highway with few places to park alongside the road. North-bound traffic during the peak summer season and holiday weekends is often backed-up for about 20 miles (32 km) from Big Sur Village to Carmel. Residents complain regularly about finding human excrement near the road and their homes.
The unincorporated region encompassing Big Sur does not have specific boundaries, but is generally considered to include the 71-mile (114 km) segment of California State Route 1 between Malpaso Creek near Carmel Highlands in the north and San Carpóforo Creek near San Simeon in the south, as well as the entire Santa Lucia range between these creeks. The interior region is mostly uninhabited, while the coast remains relatively isolated and sparsely populated, with between 2,500 and 3,000 year-round residents and relatively few visitor accommodations scattered among four small settlements. The region remained one of the most inaccessible areas of California and the entire United States until, after 18 years of construction, the Carmel–San Simeon Highway (now signed as part of State Route 1) was completed in 1937. Along with the ocean views, this winding, narrow road, often cut into the face of towering seaside cliffs, dominates the visitor's experience of Big Sur. The highway has been closed more than 55 times by landslides, and in May 2017, a 2,000,000-cubic-foot (57,000 m3) slide blocked the highway at Mud Creek, north of Salmon Creek near the San Luis Obispo County line, to just south of Gorda. The road was reopened on July 18, 2018.
The region is protected by the Big Sur Local Coastal Plan, which preserves it as "open space, a small residential community, and agricultural ranching." Approved in 1986, the plan is one of the most restrictive local-use programs in the state, and is widely regarded as one of the most restrictive documents of its kind anywhere. The program protects viewsheds from the highway and many vantage points, and severely restricts the density of development. About 60% of the coastal region is owned by governmental or private agencies which do not allow any development. The majority of the interior region is part of the Los Padres National Forest, Ventana Wilderness, Silver Peak Wilderness or Fort Hunter Liggett.
The original Spanish-language name for the mountainous terrain south of Monterey was el país grande del sur, which means "the big country of the south." The name el Sud (also meaning "the south") was first used in the Rancho El Sur land grant made in 1834. In 1915, English-speaking settlers formally adopted "Big Sur" as the name for their post office.