November Spotlight – Big Sur River Inn

The place we call the Big Sur River Inn dates from 1888 when Jay Pheneger acquired a 160 acre parcel from the federal government and gave his name to the creek that bounds the River Inn on the south side of the property. Barbara and Michael Pfeiffer, who had already homesteaded and were farming near Pfeiffer Beach purchased the Pheneger property. In 1926 John – Michael and Barbara’s son – took over the land on which The Big Sur River Inn now stands and his daughter, Ellen Brown started the River Inn in 1934 – on the east side of the road.

She opened her living and dining rooms to the public and began serving “Hot Apple Pie.” Lodging units were built and Big Sur’s first resort was established. Her famous Apple Pie, which is still on the menu today gave the place it’s first name … “Apple Pie Inn.” The ridge that rises above the east side of Highway One, behind the Inn is still known as Apple Pie Ridge.

When Ellen left Big Sur in 1937 her mother Florence took over the Inn and as the paved Highway One between Carmel and the Hearst Castle was completed, Ellen’s house was moved to the west side of the road. The home was converted to a dining room and kitchen. Gas pumps were installed and the name was changed to Redwood Camp.
In 1943, Florence’s daughter, Esther Pfeiffer Ewoldsen and her husband, Hans took over the operation. In Esther’s own words … “the place was renamed ‘The River Inn’ in hopes of keeping the river out … because in those days the river often rose up during the winter storms to the level of the dining room door.” Esther replaced her mother as Big Sur Postmaster (Esther was careful to point out the title is not Postmistress… but Postmaster) and the Post Office was moved to the River Inn, situated where the HeartBeat Gift Gallery is today.

After some extensive remodeling and before he reopened for business, Hans did a traffic survey by standing at the Highway; for one whole day to count cars. “Seven went by,” he reported, “and every one stopped for gas.” So he knew that the enterprise would be a success. With lots of help, Hans built the General Store and lodging units ten through fifteen. He rebuilt the dining room and “fixed it up fancy.” Esther reminded us that there was a bridge crossing over it. People admired the “indoor bridge” and stopped by again and again to see it.


The Pfeiffers and the Ewoldsens started a tradition at the Big Sur River Inn of fine food, excellent service and warm hospitality. In 1988 a small group of family and friends purchased the Big Sur River Inn and continue the Pfeiffer tradition of welcoming locals and visitors alike to our little piece of paradise.


Article and historical photographs provided by Janet Lesniak, General Manager. For more information:
Big Sur River Inn
Highway One at Pheneger Creek
Big Sur, CA 93920
831-667-2700 office

or check out their website at:
Big Sur River Inn