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The original Spanish-language name for the unexplored mountainous terrain south of Monterey, the capital of Alta California, was "el paĆ­s grande del sur" meaning, "the big country of the south." The boundaries of the region have gradually expanded north and south over time.

Esther Pfeiffer Ewoldson, who was born in 1904 and was a granddaughter of Big Sur pioneers Micheal and Barbara Pfeiffer, wrote that the region extended from the Little Sur River 23 miles (37 km) south to Slates Hot Springs.

Members of the Harlen family who homesteaded the Lucia region 9 miles (14 km) south of Slates Hot Springs, said that Big Sur was "miles and miles to the north of us." Later on the northern border was extended as far north as Malpaso Creek, 4.5 miles (7.2 km) south of Carmel River.

Most current descriptions of the area refer to Malpaso Creek in Monterey County as the northern border.

At Bixby Creek Bridge, visitors sometimes park on the nearby Old Coast Road, blocking the road and resident's access to their homes.

For that reason, development of all kinds is severely restricted.Along with the ocean views, the winding, narrow road, often cut into the face of seaside cliffs, dominates the visitor's experience of Big Sur.The highway has been closed more than 55 times by slides, and in May 2017, a 2 million cubic foot landslide blocked the highway at Mud Creek, north of Salmon Creek near the San Luis Obispo border, to just south of Gorda. The region is protected by the Big Sur Local Coastal Plan which preserves the region as "open space, a small residential community, and agricultural ranching." The program protects viewsheds from the highway and many vantage points, and severely restricts the density of development.The views are one reason that Big Sur was ranked second among all United States destinations in Trip Advisor's 2008 Travelers' Choice Destination Awards.Despite and because of its popularity, the region is heavily protected to preserve the rural and natural character of the land.