Keyhole Arch “Light Show” on Big Sur’s Pfeiffer Beach
A few weeks each winter, a natural phenomenon lines up sunset through Keyhole Arch on Big Sur’s Pfeiffer Beach. If you’re in Monterey, California in the winter, it’s a must-see. This post shares peak dates, photos, and tips for experiencing this ethereal “Light Show.” (Updated January 5, 2022.)
The light comes through the Keyhole Arch perfectly (or close to it) during this time of year due to the angle of the sunset, which also explains why there aren’t fixed dates for the event. As the angle of the sun gradually changes from day to day, the best days for the “Light Show” are right in the middle of the date range, as that’s when the sun is directly in the middle of the arch at sunset. The earlier and later dates in the range will see the weaker quality of light.
If you’ve never been or are unfamiliar with Big Sur, it’s an area of the Central California Coast located off of the Pacific Coast Highway and encompassing a fairly large chunk of land roughly between Carmel and San Simeon. There are no official boundaries of Big Sur, so don’t expect to see “Now Entering” and “Now Leaving” signs when you arrive. Pfeiffer Beach is located near Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, which is off the Pacific Coast Highway about 37 miles south of Carmel.
The beach itself is down a narrow, one-lane dirt road. If you have an overly large or overly small vehicle, you might have issues navigating this road, especially if your vehicle is large and there’s oncoming traffic. At the end of the road is a paved parking area with restrooms, and from there, the beach itself is a leisurely 10 minute walk. You can camp at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, albeit not on this particular beach.
There are numerous California State Parks in the area, plenty of public beaches, and many other cool points of interest like McWay Falls and Bixby Bridge, among other things. See our Guide to Pacific Coast Highway for road trip tips along this iconic stretch (and beyond).
As for the best time to experience the Keyhole Arch “Light Show,” mid-January 2022 will be the sweet spot in terms of the best light. After the holiday rush is ideal, as a lot of people tend to come to this beach because that’s either when they’re off from work or traveling to California, so we’d recommend avoiding those dates if you can.
If you want lower crowds, aim for around January 6-14, 2022. That’s typically the peak of the lighting, but after the holiday rush. We’d also recommend avoiding Friday and Saturday nights, as well as the Martin Luther King Day long weekend. All of those dates are busier, which in turn makes getting a good spot–and quality photos–more difficult.
Aside from this particular time of year, Pfeiffer Beach is a popular spot and one of California’s many impressive beaches along the Pacific Coast Highway that is known for its purple sand. That purple sand coupled with the rays of light shining through the Keyhole Arch at sunset almost make it feel like something out of science fiction (or perhaps that sunlight is tractor beam aimed at reclaiming E.T.’s precious purple sand that his planet lost), and it’s really a sight to behold.
If you’re thinking of paying Big Sur a visit during the Winter Solstice–and I highly recommend doing so even if you’re not a photographer–be prepared to encounter tons of other people. Photos of the Keyhole Arch rays of light have made it into mainstream media, and it has become something of a destination event.
Thankfully, it’s still fairly under-the-radar, and does not draw nearly the crowds of the Firefall at Yosemite National Park, which occurs each February. That event blew up due to extensive coverage in the mainstream media over the last 5 years, and we fear the same could happen with Keyhole Arch–and this quiet beach does not have the capacity or infrastructure to support those colossal crowds. (So let’s try to keep this a relative secret.)
On the night I visited, the small, dirt road leading down to Pfeiffer Beach was closed, which meant a bit of a hike down to the beach for most visitors that probably deterred a lot of people, but there were still probably 10 other photographers on the beach right at sunset, all jockeying for a position in the path of the Keyhole Arch’s light, which is quite narrow.
Normally, people would jockey for position nearer to the rocks in the water for reflections of the light, but the tide was low this particular evening. If you visit on a weekend evening when this road is open, don’t be surprised if you’re fighting for positioning with 40 or more others, as reports I’ve heard from others indicate it’s a very popular occurrence.
Because of this, one thing you might consider doing is foregoing the tripod or trying for an alternative location–or both. My approach for the photos here was to start out by hiking up a hill directly behind Pfeiffer Beach (and the Arch) and taking photos from up there. This spot offered a great view, and was totally uncrowded. Unfortunately, there’s no trail leading up, so you sort of just have to scramble up, which isn’t too difficult if you’re reasonably fit.
The upside to this spot is that it’s somewhat unique and going to be a lot more peaceful and serene of an experience. While the phenomenon of the light shining through is truly majestical, there’s nothing majestic about seeing it elbow-to-elbow with 20 of your closest friends. If you’re going to Pfeiffer Beach simply to experience this event, the higher elevation is somewhat compelling in this regard.
The downside to this spot is that it doesn’t have quite the same affect in that you aren’t actually seeing the light head-on as it comes through Keyhole Arch at sunset, and you’re somewhat limited in the kind of shot you can try from up here. The perspective up high is unique, to be sure, but I don’t think it’s as good as a lower angle.
What I did, and would recommend doing, is starting at the higher elevation, and then (safely) rushing down about 10-15 minutes before the actual sunset time. Again, this requires a bit of fitness, as it’s not easy running down a trail-less hill with a camera bag in a quick and safe manner.
This is what I did, taking my tripod-mounted shots from the hillside and then shooting handheld from the beach itself with two cameras (one with a telephoto lens, the other with a wide angle/fisheye). The advantage to shooting handheld is that you aren’t constrained to one fixed spot as you would be with a tripod, and aren’t disadvantaged if another photographer moves in your way, which is likely to happen.
You can move around more nimbly, and other photographers aren’t as likely to be irritated if you politely ask if you can quickly swoop in front of them for a shot, and then quickly run out of their way. Since you’re probably only going to have one crack at photographing this natural phenomenon, this also means walking away with a greater variety of shots.
The downsides to this are primarily in that shooting without a tripod is sloppier, doesn’t require you to stop and think about composition as much, and prevents you from going for a longer exposure to capture wispiness in the water. It all depends upon what kind of photographer you are, and how many keepers you expect.
I’m a quantity over quality kind of guy, so I don’t mind if I have to raise my ISO a little or have slight imperfections in my shots. I enjoy the thrill of the fast-paced “chase” that moving around gives me, and in this case, I think having a tripod can be inhibiting (and potentially stressful if a lot of other photogs are there, getting in your way, and you can’t adjust or quickly move around them when tethered to a tripod). That’s just me, though, and I know everyone is different.
Overall, I highly recommend a visit to the Big Sur region if you’re taking a California road trip, and a stop at Pfeiffer Beach is a must, regardless of whether you can make it out during the Winter Solstice. The beach is beautiful and photogenic any time of year, and well worth the drive down to the parking area. I think this whole area has a lot to offer that’s unique from other areas of California, and I plan on revisiting Big Sur in the near future.
If you’re planning a California road trip or vacation, check out my California category of posts for other things to see and do! To get some more Big Sur photo ideas or to purchase prints, check out my Big Sur Photo Gallery. For photo licensing inquires, please contact me.
Have you been to Pfeiffer Beach or any other part of Big Sur? What do you think of it? Have a favorite spot? Have you photographed the Keyhole Arch “Light Show”? Interested in shooting it? Have any questions or other thoughts? Do you agree or disagree with our assessment? Any questions? Hearing your feedback—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!
Keyhole Arch is featured in the first few minutes of the 1963 film “The Terror” starring Boris Karloff in one of his last roles and Jack Nicholson in one of his first. Francis Coppola filmed the Big Sur scenes and others, and Jack is filmed thrashing around in the water at Keyhole Arch, which still looks the same 60 years later
Big Sur is the Holy Land, you have some truly beautiful shots, thanks for sharing.. One should note that almost yearly when the rain finally comes, highway 1 washes out in Big Sur, so make sure to keep an eye on the weather or you may have a much longer visit than you were planning.
Stunning shots! You explanation is short yet detailed. Certainly helps plan my trip better. Thank you!
Quick Question: Do you know if drones are allowed at Pfeiffer Beach? Did you find any photographers using it while you were there? PLMK. Thank you!
You might want to mention there’s a fee (I think $10) to get in. The keyhole shots are worth it… and yes there’s is quite a photographer jostle.
wow these photos are incredible!!
What a gem! I will have to go.
These are some truly fantastic shots! Nice work my friend! Also thank you very much for sharing your experiences and suggestions. I am a “weekend warrior” landscape and astrophotographer. I’m always looking for new places to add to my “bucket list” of places to shoot. This is definitely going on the list for sure! I know what you mean by trying to keep is somewhat of a secret. You want to share it with other likeminded photographers but the last thing you need is it to turn into one of these places with a ton of, as you nicely put it, “oblivious tourists” hogging up the chance for a once in a lifetime shot!
Thanks for the kind words! Pfeiffer Beach definitely gets crowded during this ‘light show’ but it’s not yet at the point of being unbearable. Hopefully it stays that way!
Great info. Thx!
I absolutely love how in the first picture, the shaft of light from the keyhole terminates exactly where the photographers are camped out. Is your next stop Bixby Bridge? (that’s the nice one along the PCH right?)
We photographed Bixby Bridge fairly late that night under the full moon, but I want to make it back at some point for sunrise or sunset. I really need to post a trip report from that whirlwind weekend.
Great post and beautiful photos! We love the Big Sur area, but have never ventured down to Pfeiffer Beach. Will have to add it to our “to do” list.
Thanks! It’s a really beautiful beach any time of year (spring is a great time to go see it in bloom, I hear) and the purple sand is really interesting.
That first “overview” shot of the beach is a really unique angle, and one which few photographers get. It really does give a sense of place and puts the arch into perspective. The group of photographers clustered in line with the sun is a nice bonus!
I have other shots where I went for a lower angle so the ground in front of me on the hill blocked out the cluster of photographers, but I ultimately decided to go with this one because I think the little specks of photographers on the beach help give the Keyhole Arch some scale.