Big Sur is one of my favorite day trips from the Bay Area, and when you make your way through here, you’ll totally understand why. The rugged coastline and pristine turquoise waters are truly a sight to see. If you love nature, Big Sur is a great place to visit. Enjoy a weekend of exploring hidden beaches, catching unforgettable views at all the vista points along Highway 1, and hiking through redwood forests and ancient trees. Notable spots include Bixby Creek Bridge, McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, and Keyhole Arch Rock at Pfeiffer Beach (unmissable sunset spot).
Without a doubt, Big Sur is one of my favorite places in California. It’s hard to describe the jaw-dropping, natural beauty of this region. You really need to see it for yourself.
This Big Sur itinerary will help you discover and plan your perfect Big Sur road trip and all the stops you need to make.
Fancy a hike through the redwoods? A picnic and some whale-watching at an isolated beach? How about a leisurely walk along the bluffs and wildflowers? Beachcombing for sand dollars and jade? I’ve got you covered with an entire list of things to do in Big Sur.
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WHAT IS THE BIG SUR?
Big Sur cannot be boiled down or defined by a single town, state park, or national park. It’s an unincorporated area that makes up the coast, spanning roughly 70 miles from north to south. This incredible stretch of California coastline is known for its rugged cliffs, lush forests, and incredibly clear blue waters. All along the iconic Highway 1, you’ll find numerous state parks, natural preserves, beaches, waterfalls, and hiking trails worth visiting.
The drive will consist of twists, turns, and winds along a two-lane road. You’ll find no streetlamps and likely no cellular service during most of the drive. But that’s half the fun–you’re completely immersed in a world of scenic forests and rugged coastline. Welcome to the majestic Big Sur.
After the early morning fog burns off, a diverse environment of redwoods, canyons, and oceanside cliffs will reveal itself, beckoning to be explored! Seriously, there’s a wealth of things to do in Big Sur for outdoor enthusiasts and tourists alike.
BIG SUR, CALIFORNIA: LOGISTICS
Nearest Cities: Monterey and Carmel to the north (40 minute drive), San Simeon and Cambria to the south (1.5 hour drive)
Closest International Airports: San Jose International Airport (SJC) – 1.5 hour drive | Oakland International Airport (OAK) – 2 hour drive | San Francisco (SFO) – 2.5 hour drive
Best Time to Visit: April through October, early fall is best
How to Get Around: By car
Most Photographed Areas: McWay Falls, Bixby Bridge, Keyhole Rock at Pfeiffer Beach
For our Pacific Coast road trips, we typically like to pick up rental cars from a nearby airport, even though we’re local (there’s often more availability at the airports compared to rental car shops in town). You’ll also find that rental car prices are cheaper at OAK or SJC (compared to SFO, where rental car prices are the highest).
We like to rent from Hertz. Usually, rental car companies charge one-way fees upwards of $200. However, in a recent instance, we booked our car with Hertz, and there happened to be no one-way drop-off fee. (Obviously, your results may vary, but check them out regardless!)
And with their Hertz Gold Plus Rewards program (completely free to join), you’ll get counter-free pickup at select locations, and even mobile alerts with your exact rental car and its location before you arrive. Check out rental car pricing and availability here.
If you are more the type to compare prices between rental car companies, use Priceline’s rental car search. Not only does the tool allow you to compare rental car prices, but most of the time you can book with no prepayment and no cancellation fees. We check Priceline nearly 100% of the time when we start thinking about renting a car.
Pro Tip: To avoid higher rental car prices, be sure to book your car ahead of time. If you’re booking early enough, shop around and check for rental companies offering seasonal promotions.
HOW MANY DAYS NEEDED TO VISIT BIG SUR?
Big Sur’s well-known viewpoints are located in Northern to Central California, roughly 35 miles in length. That makes it doable for a simple day trip or, more ideally, an overnight trip. As you wind down the coast, you will find plenty of well-marked vista points, attractions, and state parks to explore. A few of them are simple roadside viewpoints, while others are longer, not-to-be-missed hikes or walks at natural preserves or state parks.
For that reason, I highly recommend spending the night in Big Sur during your road trip down the California coast. If you have more time to spare, two nights in Big Sur would be even better!
Personally, I’ve been to Big Sur on five separate occasions. I’ve done three separate day trips, one overnight camping trip, and one SF to Los Angeles road trip where we drove the entirety of Highway 1. My day trips usually consist of a larger hike, time for lunch, as well as time for exploring various sights and hidden gems. And guess what? To this day, I still haven’t seen or done everything that been on my list! The takeaway: there’s a lot to see and do here.
If you want to go on a few hikes and see all of the best sights that Big Sur has to showcase, it’ll be really hard to fit that all in one day. Therefore, I highly recommend slowing down and spending at least one night in the area.
If that’s not an option or if hiking is not your thing, you may need less time. However, you should at least dedicate one full day (8-10 hours) to driving through and exploring Big Sur’s hidden gems. In either case, this is a place that simply should not be rushed.
BEST TIME TO VISIT BIG SUR, CALIFORNIA
Since Big Sur is located on the sunny and beautiful California coast, Big Sur’s peak season runs long, from April to October. However, in my opinion, you can go anytime and still have an amazing time. That’s one of the major benefits of being in California–great weather all year round!
My favorite time to visit is early fall from September to November. Summer crowds are gone by this time, meaning you’ll get a more peaceful experience while you explore nature (as it should be). The fog also seems to hang around a lot less from September to November, unlike in the summer, where it tends to hang around until midday. The fog is usually gone by early fall, and you can even catch whales and butterflies migrating this time of year.
Spring is also a good time to visit as the wildflowers are in bloom all over the place.
Winter is also a perfectly fine time to visit. Lodging will be much cheaper in the wintertime, but be sure to check the weather for rainy conditions! It’s also important to note, between the months of November to March (off-peak season), many businesses have shorter business hours.
WHAT TIME TO START YOUR BIG SUR ROAD TRIP
What time you depart your house/hotel will depend on where your starting point is.
Coming from the San Francisco area? Assuming ideal driving conditions, the drive from San Francisco down to the start of Big Sur (let’s say Point Lobos in this instance) will take around 2 hours.
Coming from closer to San Jose? The drive from San Jose to Point Lobos Natural Reserve will take about 1 hour 20 minutes.
Based on the amount of time it takes to reach the mouth of the Big Sur area, figure out what time you need to wake up and hit the road in order to arrive at the starting point in the morning. If you can arrive by 10am, that’ll give you plenty of time to do the Big Sur drive. If you can arrive by 8am-9am, even better.
Why so early? Well, you’ll want to get ahead of the weekend traffic (Bay Area traffic is annoying). Getting to the mouth of the Big Sur area early means you’ll get stuck behind fewer cars as you continue to heads south on the 1, and you won’t be fighting for parking as much at some of the smaller or popular attractions’ parking lots. This will save you so much time throughout the entire day! Plus fewer people, less traffic = a more pleasant experience!
I’ve done the Big Sur drive on many occasions. Regardless of what Bay Area city I’ve started my road trips, I always aim to be in the Monterey/Point Lobos area by 8-9am. (Earlier even, like 7:30am, if I plan to do a hike that’s over 5 miles long.)
Note: I’m an early riser, especially when it comes to hiking or road-tripping! I know not everyone will want to wake up that early. For later risers, 10am should suffice just fine.
THINGS TO DO IN BIG SUR, CA – BEST ROAD TRIP STOPS AND VIEWPOINTS
Alrighty, on to the fun stuff! Below is a list of my favorite things to do and see on any Big Sur road trip. I’ll include some of Big Sur’s most famous sights, as well as a few off-the-beaten-path finds and even a few hiking trails. This list starts from Monterey and spans all the way until Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.
Note: The list of attractions and activities below is ordered from north to south. This list assumes you’ll be starting in Monterey/Carmel (or any northern CA city) and traveling south on Highway 1.
Pro Tip: The majority of the popular viewpoints are on the coastal side, so by driving north to south, turning in/out of the viewpoint parking lots is a breeze. If you see a pull-out off the freeway and it piques your interest, just stop and enjoy the sights, even if it’s not on this list. This road trip is meant to be done slowly, so stop wherever you please!
Just an hour from Santa Cruz, you’ll find Monterey Bay. This seaside town is even more sleepy than the last, but that might just be due to the overcast skies that frequent the area. Don’t fret because they’re actually a lot to do here.
Highlights include the Monterey Bay Aquarium (often considered as one of the best aquariums in the world) and Old Fisherman’s Wharf. When in Monterey, you definitely cannot miss walking down Cannery Row, the setting of two John Steinbeck novels. You’ll notice many warehouses that used to be sardine canneries now serve as home to popular restaurants, shops, and hotels. Whale watching, sailing, kayaking, golfing, horseback riding, and biking are also popular activities to do here.
Monterey to Carmel: 12 minutes
17-MILE DRIVE (SCENIC ROUTE TO CARMEL)
From Monterey, take the scenic 17-Mile Drive to Carmel-by-the-Sea. The 17-Mile Drive is an exclusive stretch of road full of dramatic coastal cliffs, peaceful beaches and forests, and world-class golf courses. It sure is beautiful! But the catch? You do have to pay an entrance fee just to drive on it.
Admission is $10.75 per vehicle. The gate fee is reimbursed with a purchase of $35 or more at all Pebble Beach Resorts restaurants, excluding Pebble Beach Market. Bicycles can get in for free if they enter through the Pacific Grove gate.
There are four entry gates where you will stop to pay the entry fee and pick up a map. The one closest to Monterey is the Pacific Grove entrance, though if you’re already on Hwy 1, the Highway 1 entrance may be the most convenient. Follow this driving map as you wind through and admire the beauty along the way.
Don’t miss the Lone Cypress or a quick visit to Pebble Beach. Make reservations for a sit-down meal at The Inn at Spanish Bay or The Lodge at Pebble Beach. Or for a more casual experience, pack a picnic breakfast/lunch and enjoy the scenic sights at Seal Rock.
If you have the extra time to spare, allow 2-3 hours or more for the whole drive, especially if you plan to stop and eat. If you’re short on time and would rather see the heart of Big Sur, skip this drive for now and do it on your way back up from Big Sur.
Pro Tip: If you’re keen on doing a scenic drive through Monterey, there is a free alternative route! Start at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and follow Ocean View Boulevard and Sunset Drive along the coast (past Asilomar State Beach) to CA Highway 68. This will connect you to CA Highway 1 where you can continue your road trip.
Don’t feel like paying a fee to drive through nature? No problem! Just skip this one and go straight to Carmel–you’ll come across tons of natural beauty on your Bug Sur road trip drive.
CARMEL BY THE SEA, CA
Most people begin their Big Sur road trip in Carmel, CA. Carmel is one of the cutest little towns I’ve laid eyes on–it’s a quaint and romantic seaside village with a great selection of shops, galleries, cafes, and restaurants. You will not be able to resist the charm that the town of Carmel carries, evident the minute you step out of your car.
Carmel is a great town to grab a bite to eat and go wine tasting. If you want to stay the night here, it’s a great place to unwind and relax, though the B&B lodging options here might be pricier than in neighboring cities like Monterey. From here, you’ll begin to enter Big Sur territory, where the seaside views from the highway really get impressive.
Pro Tip: There are only a few spots along Highway 1 where you can stop for food, so I would make sure to bring snacks for the car ride or load up on a big breakfast in Monterey or Carmel. Or both!
Carmel to Point Lobos SNR: 15 minutes
POINT LOBOS STATE NATURAL RESERVE
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is the first, all-nature stop on your Big Sur road trip. In this reserve, you will find a few hiking trails, hidden beaches, and many viewpoints to keep you busy for 1-2 hours. There are a ton of walks and trails to choose from, and most of them are relatively easy and can be done without breaking too much of a sweat.
While the entire reserve is beautiful and worth exploring, don’t miss China Cove and Bird Island Lookout (on the south end of the park). Here, you’ll find coves filled with some of the clearest waters in all of Big Sur. If you’re looking for a short hike here (since you’ve got a whole day of exploring still ahead of you), I’d recommend the South Plateau Trail to Bird Island hike. This hike is only 1.6 miles long.
All year-round, you’ll be able to hear and see harbor seals and sea lions hanging out. If bird watching is your thing, you’re in luck! Point Lobos is home to hundreds of sea birds in the spring and summer, and you’ll especially see them on the Bird Island Trail. If you’re visiting in winter, don’t miss the chance to go whale-watching, this is the place to do it!
The parking fee is $10. Once you buy a parking pass here, it will be good for all the California state parks you go to for the next 24 hours. There will be no need to pay $10 at each park you visit, which is awesome.
Point Lobos State Park to Garrapata SP / Soberanes Canyon Trail: 7 minutes
GARRAPATA STATE PARK
Within the Garrapata State Park, you’ll find your first epic hiking option. The Soberanes Canyon Loop is a 4.7 mile lightly trafficked loop trail that features a waterfall, awesome coastal views, redwood forests, and seasonally blooming wildflowers. You’ll climb your way up on the Soberanes Canyon Trail, and your return will be down the Rocky Ridge Trail. The trailhead is located on the east side of Highway 1, across from the Gate 8 sign.
If you’d rather just explore here for half an hour or so, take the shorter, 1.3-mile hike via the Soberanes Point Trail. This loop trail is located on the west side of the highway via gates 8, 9, or 10. The trail loops around Soberanes Point, offering wonderful views of the coast. A side trail takes you to the top of Whale Peak.
Pro Tip: Winds can pick up here. Be prepared by bringing a windbreaker and even a hat or beanie.
Soberanes Canyon Trail to Calla Lily Valley: 3 minutes
CALLA LILY VALLEY
Calla Lily Valley is such a unique spot, and not a lot of people know it exists! How often do you get to see an entire valley of blooming lilies? This area is only in bloom in the spring so if you’re heading to Big Sur from February to late-April, you’re in luck! Be prepared to witness a sea of Calla Lilies just naturally growing in a tiny valley with its own little creek!
How to get there: Parking is available along the dirt pullout at Gate 19 for Garrapata State Park, near mile-marker 63. Please note, signs are small and difficult to see. There is a small, almost hidden gate you’ll need to walk through. From there, take the right fork, heading north to the bluff overlooking the beach. Continue north and follow the trail down the stairs to Doud Creek, where the Calla Lilies bloom. Follow the trail through the valley out to the beach.
If you are traveling to the Big Sur in the springtime, this is a neat little spot you do not want to miss.
Calla Lilly Valley to Garrapata Beach: 2 minutes
If you are stopping at Calla Lily Valley, then Garrapata Beach (not to be confused with Garrapata SP) will be a breeze to locate since they are practically in the same area. Unlike many other beaches in Big Sur, Garrapata Beach actually allows beach access. The beach is great for a quick stroll or even for sunbathing if the day is warm enough!
The walk over to the beach is awesome in itself, as you’ll get to see beautiful wildflowers in the spring / summer. When the tide is low, you can access the small sandy cove at Garrapata Creek at the very south end.
Garrapata Beach to Bixby Creek Bridge: 5 minutes
BIXBY CREEK BRIDGE
Bixby Creek Bridge is one of the most photographed spots along the Big Sur and for good reason! Since it was completed in 1932, it has become an iconic symbol of the Big Sur coastline. There are two viewpoints on either side of the bridge, so if you’re looking for the perfect shot, I recommend stopping on the coastal side of the bridge first (heading south, this parking lot will be on your right). To get views from inland, you can easily cross the street to get to the other side or continue driving south a bit to get to the other parking area.
Pro Tip: From this point onwards, you will likely lose access to cell service. Be sure to have all the landmarks you plan to visit marked on your Google Maps beforehand, or have instructions printed out or screenshotted on your phone. It’ll be hard to get lost on Highway 1, but it’ll be easy to miss a few hidden gems without the proper driving instructions!
Bixby Bridge to Andrew Molera State Park: 12 minutes
ANDREW MOLERA STATE PARK
Andrew Molera State Park is the largest state park on the Big Sur coastline, which makes it the best option for day hiking and exploring. Here, you’ll find miles and miles of hiking trails that will take you through a varied terrain of forested redwoods, coastal bluffs, creeks, and sandy beaches. Two beaches, reached by easy walks of approximately 1 mile each, are the park’s most popular destinations. Getting to the secluded beach includes a river crossing, which is a ton of fun (but be prepared with water shoes or a lightweight towel to dry off your feet if you’re heading in with just hiking boots).
If you’re looking to get a formal hike in, my favorite hike is The Ridge, Panorama, and Bluffs Loop, which clocks in at 7.5 miles with 1300 feet of elevation gain. This hike will take you a few hours to complete and is quite a workout, but it’s simply too enjoyable to skip if you like to hike (I’ve done this hike twice!). This loop hike climbs a ridge that offers outstanding views of the Big Sur Valley and the Pacific ocean, then drops through chaparral to the coastal bluffs and two small beaches. You’ll get a taste of every type of coastal terrain while you’re here.
Horseback tours are also offered, which will take you onto the Bobcat and Creamery Meadow Trails.
Pro Tip: If you want to add the 7.5-mile hike to your itinerary, you’re probably going to need to stay in the area overnight to fit in all the other sights you have yet to see.
Andrew Molera State Park to Big Sur River Inn: 12 minutes
Andrew Molera State Park to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park: 20 minutes
BIG SUR RIVER INN
If you’re looking for a spot to grab a real meal and relax, look no further than Big Sur River Inn! Here, you can enjoy a lunch or dinner on their outdoor decks, the lawn, or even along the bank of the Big Sur River. They provide chairs actually in the river so you can enjoy your meal and drinks while letting the smooth river current cool your feet! Your entire experience here, hanging out along the river, will be like those nostalgic summer camp days. Just ask for your meal to-go and let them know you’ll eat it by the river.
If you’re looking for a place to stay, Big Sur River Inn is a great option, but you’ll have to book far in advance because this place sells out fast.
PFEIFFER BIG SUR STATE PARK
Not to be confused with Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park or Pfeiffer Beach, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park features redwood groves, open meadows, and waterfalls. Unlike many of the other state parks in Big Sur that offer hikes along the edge of the coast, this park is further inland and doesn’t offer many ocean views. Instead, hikes are situated along the Big Sur River, which runs through the entire park. Hiking, biking, swimming in the Big Sur River, and camping are some of the main activities enjoyed here.
There are 8 miles worth of trails to explore within Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. The most popular is the 1.4-mile hike to Pfeiffer Falls, standing 60-foot tall.
If you’re looking for a place to stay overnight, Pfeiffer Big Sur SP is a very affordable option. There are over 150 campsites here that accommodate tents and RVs along the river, as well as a restaurant and mini grocery/gift shop. Not a camper? Another option is to stay in one of the 62 rustic cottages at Big Sur Lodge, also located within the park.
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park to Pfeiffer Beach Parking Lot: 15 minutes
Pfeiffer Beach has got to be on my list of top 3 unmissable experiences along the Big Sur coastline. This beach is not only home to the purple sand, but also to one of the best sunsets viewpoints in all of California. The Pfeiffer Keyhole Rock is the main event here and often considered the most-photographed attraction in Big Sur after Bixby Bridge. Hands down, the best time to see the rock is at sunset when the sun shines brightly through the keyhole, creating an unforgettable photo op. At low tide, you can also walk towards Pfeiffer Keyhole Rock to explore the surrounding tide pools.
Pfieffer Beach is accessible by a one-lane road and is a must-visit in my book. If you’re sold on the idea of visiting, then pay attention because getting there can be confusing! After you pass the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and the Big Sur Lodge, there will be a hairpin turn on the right that is hidden by trees. There are no signs that tell you what the turnoff leads to, but it will take you onto Sycamore Canyon Road down to Pfeiffer Beach. If you keep your eyes out for a yellow “Narrow Road” sign, make the turn once you see it.
It’ll be a long road down to the beach, but you’ll reach the parking lot in no time. After paying for parking, you walk through a densely covered area of trees before arriving at the opening to the beach.
Pro Tip: It costs $10 to park, but get there early because if the lot is full, you’ll have to wait for cars to exit before you’re able to park and head over to the beach. If you have the time and can swing it, definitely stay for the golden hour and sunset. Absolutely gorgeous lighting will light up the keyhole section of Keyhole Rock! Don’t forget to bring a football/frisbee, beach chair, camera, and snacks!
Pfeiffer Beach to Big Sur Bakery: 10 minutes
BIG SUR BAKERY
Big Sur Bakery is located right off the highway and a great place to stop by for a foodie break. Be warned though, prices here typically reflect the cost of food around Big Sur (almost too expensive than what we’re normally used to) but at least the food and pastries are delicious! They have baked goods, coffee, as well as lunch options such as salads, sandwiches, soups, and wood fire-roasted pizza. I didn’t get to eat lunch here, but oh boy did the food look and smell amazing!
The restaurant/bakery is in the same area as Big Sur Taphouse and Big Sur Deli. You can park in the small parking strip by the post office and walk uphill to get to the bakery. It’s located right across from the gas station.
Big Sur Bakery to McWay Falls: 17 minutes
Nepenthe is another great sit-down restaurant spot to hit up if you’re looking for a break from all that driving. The best part? The view from the back patio! If you’ve already had lunch, this spot is still worth it for the view. Just grab some drinks and maybe some dessert here. If the fog is coming in thick and is drastically impeding the views, you can skip this spot. While the food and drinks are good, you’re really paying for the view and the ambiance.
The restaurant is located at Mile Marker 43 between Pfeiffer Big Sur SP and Julia Pfeiffer Burns SP. Right across from it is the Hawthorne Gallery.
MCWAY FALLS AT JULIA PFEIFFER BURNS STATE PARK
McWay Falls is a must-see during any Big Sur road trip. And for good reason— the 80-foot waterfall cascading right onto the secluded beach, flowing into the most turquoise blue water you’ll ever see, is absolutely stunning. The combination of coastal flora, rocky cliffs, turquoise waters, and the waterfall makes for a gorgeous photo-op. It’s important to note that you can’t walk down to the beach, but you can see it from above. It only takes about 5-10 minutes to get to the viewpoint from the parking lot. It’s really quite an effortless walk!
You will see plenty of signage for Julia Pfeiffer Burns SP and there will be a large parking lot. There is a self-pay station for parking at the entrance of the parking lot, but if you’ve already stopped at one of the previous state parks along Highway 1, there is no need to pay again.
Pro Tip: Visit Julia Pfeiffer Burns SP in the early morning or late afternoon for the best lighting. If you go during the afternoon when the sun is shining directly on the waterfall, it will be cast in shadows and will be difficult to see, and you won’t get good photos.
HEAD BACK TO YOUR LODGING TO REST
For day-trippers or travelers staying in Monterey / Carmel overnight: At this point, it’ll probably be late afternoon or sunset by the time you finish seeing McWay Falls. As the sky darkens, it’s time to head back to where you started from for a good night’s rest! The next day, visit the remaining sights on your list that you may have missed on Day 1.
For overnight travelers staying somewhere in Big Sur or in a town south of McWay Falls: You should also get a good night’s sleep. If you didn’t have enough time to tackle all the sights or activities that you wanted to on day 1, carve out some time on Day 2 for them.
Starting your day off with a hike followed by a delicious breakfast at a sit-down restaurant is always a great option! Continue reading below for additional stops for Day 2.
If you somehow still have daylight to burn, or you plan to spend the night in a town in central/southern California (like San Simeon, Cayucos, Morro Bay, San Luis Obispo, or Santa Barbara), here are a few more worthwhile stops south of McWay Falls:
ESALEN HOT SPRINGS
Available by online reservation only, you can experience the healing waters of the Esalen hot springs during their public night bathing from 1:00 a.m. to 3:00 a.m. The cost is $35 per person. You must book the same day for the evening you wish to visit. Registration opens at 9am PST and can sell out quickly. Please note, the baths are on private property so registration is a must.
Located 5 minutes from McWay Falls
LIMEKILN STATE PARK
The 716-acre park is named after the limestone business that once thrived there in the late 17th century. Here you’ll find a few hiking trails, picnic areas, and campsites, as well as three historic lime kilns you can walk to. Limekiln State Park only has two trails, both of which are less than a mile long, making it perfect for travelers with only a few hours to spare. The Limekiln Trail splits into two, with one pathway (0.5-miles long) leading to the old limekilns and the second, Falls Trail, going to the 100-foot-tall waterfall. The other trail in this park, Hare Trail, is less than half a mile long and snakes through some of Monterey County’s oldest redwood trees.
Located 22 minutes from McWay Falls
SAND DOLLAR BEACH
Sand Dollar Beach is the largest unbroken stretch of sand in Big Sur. This crescent-shaped shoreline is considered to be one of the best surfing spots in Big Sur, and is also a hot spot for fishing. The most popular activity, however, is beachcombing! Spend a few minutes hunting for washed-up sand dollars, it’s a lot of fun finding sand dollars in perfect condition!
Located 30 minutes from McWay Falls, 12 minutes from Limekiln State Park
For travelers heading north from Southern California, Ragged Point is often the first few stops when traveling through Big Sur. When you get to Ragged Point, head to Ragged Point Inn and Resort, perched atop a 300-foot cliff, and soak in those views! Here, you’ll also find a gourmet restaurant, coffee bar, and a steep trail that descends to a black-sand beach. Not to mention, it’s a beautiful spot to spend the night!
Located 1 hour from McWay Falls, 25 minutes from Sand Dollar Beach
San Simeon’s Hearst Castle is a grand and decadent preserved hilltop estate that was once owned by art collector and newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Today, Hearst Castle is now an accredited museum and a California State Park, displaying Hearst’s extensive art collection. The Hearst Castle offers a variety of tours to choose from during your visit to San Simeon, CA.
First-timers will thoroughly enjoy the Grand Rooms Tour. If you’re looking to go deeper, you can take a tour through the cottages, kitchen and upstairs suites. Special tours also highlight the art and architecture of the property. If reenactments are your thing, don’t miss The Evening Tour, available only in fall and spring, where costumed docents recall the days when Howard Hughes, Buster Keaton and Greta Garbo wandered the castle.
Located 1 hour and 25 minutes from McWay Falls, 20 minutes from Ragged Point
To the south of Hearst Castle, you’ll find a few beachy towns and charming towns to visit (or conclude your visit) on your Big Sur road trip.
Morro Bay is a small, beachy town alive with family-friendly activities. It’s a great place for beach/water activities, including sailing, kite-flying, surfing, and kayaking. At a distance, you’ll surely spot Morro Rock, a humongous rock formation jutting from the water. Explore the energetic Embarcadero, filled with shops and art galleries, or spend a few hours dining at an oceanfront restaurant. If you don’t know what to order, just get seafood. Morro Bay is a fishing town, and the seafood is as fresh as can be!
SAN LUIS OBISPO
There’s San Luis Obispo, or what we Californians call “SLO” for short. San Luis Obispo is a pleasant university town with a historic Spanish mission in the middle of downtown. If you’re interested in learning more about the mission’s history, visit Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. Centered around the old mission lies the historic downtown area of SLO. What you’ll find here (Higuera Street) is traditional Spanish-style buildings housing various restaurants, shops, and cafes.
If you’re in a hurry, you can pass SLO by and head straight to Pismo Beach. Nevertheless, SLO is a great place to grab a coffee or tea before continuing on your road trip. If you’re looking for entertainment for the kids, check out San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum or San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum.
Steps away from SLO, you will find Pismo Beach, a classic Central Coast beach town famous for its sand dunes, boutique shopping, award-winning boardwalk, and beautiful coastline. You can easily spend a whole day here eating at the restaurants, wine tasting, fishing, surfing, beaching and enjoying the mineral springs here. Be sure to also check out the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, where thousands of butterflies migrate to spend the winter. Lastly, the main attraction that draws many Californians to Pismo Beach: ATVing on the sand dunes next to the beach!
If you want to prolong that old-school California flair on your road trip, consider spending a night here. You can spend your day on the golf course, horseback riding, or picnicking on the beach, then fill your nights with some good wining and dining options at one of the many waterfront restaurants. On the hunt for kitschy attractions and/or lodging? Check out Madonna Inn, one of California’s quirkiest places to stay. From the outside, it’s already unique as heck. On the inside, you’ll find that each one of its 100+ rooms is decorated in a unique style.
Local Tip: Do not miss the clam chowder at Splash Cafe. So thick, so creamy and dreamy. They even sell boxes of it for you to take home!
HIKING IN BIG SUR
Although Big Sur is a huge region, there are really only four main parks where you can hike, and many of the trails are rated easy to moderate. If you’re looking for longer hiking trails, your best bet will be Andrew Molera SP.
All of the state parks below offer multiple hiking trails–they’re listed below in order from north to south. Specific hikes I recommend are listed above in the itinerary and you can find additional hikes on the park’s official websites.
- Garrapata State Park
- Andrew Molera State Park
- Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
- Limekiln State Park
WHERE TO STAY FOR BIG SUR OVERNIGHT TRIP
There are three areas I recommend for staying for a Big Sur weekend road trip: Monterey, Carmel and Big Sur.
Carmel and Monterey
- Lots of accommodation options to choose from including motels, chain hotels, bed & breakfasts, etc. Monterey will be more affordable than Carmel.
- Camping. The best options are Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park (campsites and cabins) or Fernwood Campground & Resort (campsites, adventure tents, forest cabins, tent cabins, motel rooms). Do note you will be amidst nature and there will likely be no cellular service.
- Big Sur River Inn – Adjacent to the Big Sur River, this California hotel features an on-site restaurant and bar. Pfeiffer Day Use Beach is a 10-minute drive away. Free Wi-Fi is provided in all rooms.
- Big Sur Lodge – Featuring a restaurant, a seasonal outdoor swimming pool as well as a bar, Big Sur Lodge is located in the heart of Big Sur nestled within Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.
- Ventana Big Sur Resort – This hotel is the ultimate splurge in the Big Sur area. Situated on top of a mountain, you’ll be living in luxury as you get to enjoy the incredible ocean views from the comfort of your own room. The onsite restaurant has an outstanding deck with ocean views.
- Treebones Resort – Treebones has amazingly unique accommodation options on their property. From yurts to autonomous tents to camping in a ‘human nest’, these glamping accommodations offer guests peace and solitude on the beautiful southern end of the Big Sur Coast.
BIG SUR ROAD TRIP ESSENTIAL TIPS
- Plan ahead. I highly suggest to map out your Big Sur road trip in advance to ensure you’re seeing things in order so you don’t have to double back and waste gas or time.
- A full day drive through can be enough time, but you’ll likely have to sacrifice a few off-the-beaten-path spots or activities (like doing longer hikes, having picnics on the beach, grabbing drinks at an oceanfront restaurant, etc.).
- Before you embark on your trip, make sure you have a full tank of gas. Get gas before you leave the Carmel / Monterey area. There is only one other gas station in the town of Big Sur, but other than that, you’ll find nothing else until way further south.
- Accommodations in the Big Sur area book up fast, especially in the summer and fall. I recommend you make hotel reservations as soon as possible.
- Driving from north to south is easiest. First off, driving on the coastal side means you’ll get the best views possible! Second, most viewpoint turnouts are on the coastal side (which would mean a simple right turn if you’re driving south). If you drive north, you will have to make lots of lefts along a winding highway when you enter and exit the turnout.
- There will be no cell phone service for almost all of the Big Sur drive. Highly recommend you print out a map of the stops you want to take, screenshot them on your phone, or save all locations on your Google Maps.
- Keep a swimsuit, sweater, and rain jacket in the car. Usually, morning skies are blanketed by fog, but as the daylight burns it off, it can get hot to the point where you won’t need a jacket. Some spots will be extremely windy, other areas will be super hot (perfect for lounging at the beach!). Best to be prepared for it all!
- Don’t rush this road trip, and stop at any of the turnouts whenever you want. Some of the best viewpoints were unmarked and had no other cars there. Take your time exploring and soaking in all the glory that is Big Sur.
BIG SUR ROAD TRIP ESSENTIAL PACKING LIST
Aside from the normal clothing and toiletries you’d pack for any regular trip, here are the things I’d recommend you not leave home without for your Big Sur road trip:
- License and registration | This is a no-brainer, but always good to check you have all documents before it’s too late and you get too far away from home. Do NOT leave home without them. They are road trip essentials!
- Roadside Emergency Kit | You never know what kind of car trouble you may encounter on the road. This kit contains 42 roadside emergency components, including jumper cables, an aluminum flashlight and batteries, 2-in-1 screwdriver, duct tape, poncho, cable ties, bandages, towelettes, and zipper-lock bags.
- Trunk Organizer | With any road trip comes lots and lots of stuff to pack. Keep your road trip essentials organized with a trunk organizer. Not only will this make it so much easier to find what you need, but it will also lead to more space in your trunk for you to pack other necessities.
- Smartphone UV Sanitizer and Charger | Our phones gather all the grime and bacteria we touch throughout the day, and then they are stored in warm, dark places like purses and pockets, which make for great breeding grounds for bacteria to grow. They are the third hand we never wash, but should! Using a UV sanitizer such as PhoneSoap on a regular basis will help keep germs and illness at bay.
- Flashlight | You never know when you’re going to be stranded on the road at night, out hiking late, or even exploring a dark cave. Leaving a flashlight in your car can really come in handy when you’re faced with unexpected situations.
- Umbrella | An umbrella, particularly a wind-proof umbrella, is crucial when traveling to destinations with varying/unpredictable weather. If you have an umbrella with you, then it means the rain can’t stop you from enjoying your trip and exploring the outdoors.
- Portable Cooler | Coolers are a must for any road-trip. Not only will you be able to keep beverages cold and refreshing, but you will also be able to keep perishables fresh. A portable hard cooler will allow you to pack picnic lunches, bring cheese and jams, and more. If you’re looking for the best cooler technology out there, the Yeti Portable Cooler is top of the line, with ColdCell Insulation that offers superior cold-holding compared to other soft coolers.
- Swiss Army Knife | A multi-tool is great to have in any car, regardless of if you’re going on a road trip or not. It can be useful in so many situations! There have been so many instances where I’ve needed to cut something or open up hard-to-open packaging while away from home, and this has been a lifesaver.
- First Aid Kit | It’s always good to carry a first aid kit around with you when traveling. Road trips make it easier to do this since all you need to do is toss it in the trunk! Note: This is not the same as the roadside emergency kit.
- Hiking Boots | If you plan on hiking, bring well broken-in boots with good ankle support and good traction. My all-time favorites are the Lowa Renegade GTX Mid Boots. They’re one of the lightest boots in its class, very durable, and provide out-of-the-box comfort, which is extremely important if you want to prevent blisters from the start.
- Hiking Socks | Make sure you have a good pair of cushioned wool hiking socks. For extra toe protection and to prevent blisters from developing from skin-to-skin contact, go with a pair of Injinji toe socks.
- Adventure Sandals | Tevas and Chacos are my go-to brands for multipurpose summer sandals. If you’re planning on spending some time on the river or doing hikes with river crossings, you should definitely consider getting adventure sandals — they’re comfortable for long-distance walking, safe for submerging in water, and super durable.
- Waterproof Rain Jacket | A lightweight waterproof rain jacket is critical for any outdoor adventure on the coast. Since these weigh virtually nothing and are so easily packable, I recommend you carry one with you whenever you head outdoors. Depending on the weather forecast and chance of precipitation, I’ll either go with a rain shell or a puffier windbreaker. Despite the options I have here, one thing is for sure— I’m never without some sort of outer layer. My top recommendations are Marmot Men’s PreCip (for men) and The North Face Women’s Venture 2 Jacket (for women).
- Puffy Jacket | You’re going to need layers in Big Sur, which tends to get windy in certain areas. You have a lot of options here, but I personally have the North Face Thermoball, and it’s kept me warm throughout my many years of outdoor adventuring!
- Daypack | I’m a fan of the Deuter ACT Trail 30 Hiking Backpack. It has ample room for all the snacks and water you’ll need, as well as for your camera and the safety essentials for the hike.
- Hat, Bandana, or Buff | Sun protection is key for any outdoor destination. Keep the sun off your skin with a fancy sunhat, bandana, or a Buff. All three can be used to shield your neck or forehead from the sun. As a bonus, bandanas and Buffs can be used as headbands to keep hair and sweat off of your face. Soak your bandana or Buff then put it on your head, face, or neck for a quick cool down.
- Travel Towel | These are light and quick-drying, which is exactly what you need when you’re hopping from the beach to a car or need to dry your feet off. This one here is a great option.
- Hand Sanitizer | Hand sanitizer gel or wipes are a must any time you’re going to be in contact with surfaces many other people have touched. Never leave your hotel room without it! And if you do happen to forget it, remember to wash your hands often, especially before eating or touching your face.
- Body Wipes / Feminine Wipes | Feeling a bit gross after a hike but don’t have the time to shower right in that instant? Just whip out one of these body wipes for a quick refresher. The feminine wipes I like are infused with cucumber and aloe. Trust me, you will feel and smell so much better. Always good to have a few handy in your travel bag.
- Headlamp / Flashlight | Being able to find your way through the wilderness or through lava caves in darkness is essential, so you should always carry a light source with you, even if you don’t plan on staying out past sunset. An LED headlamp allows you to hike hands-free and is my preferred source of light. FYI, the flashlight on your smartphone is not an adequate substitute– the light is not bright enough, plus it’ll drain your battery life, which may be critical in an emergency. Always carry extra batteries.
- Portable Power Bank | You’re probably going to be out all day, snapping away taking pictures, GPSing to all the great breweries and eateries… the last thing you want is to be stranded with no phone battery! A portable power bank is a must-have, and Anker’s ultra-light, ultra-portable power bank is tried and true by so many travelers! I never embark on a day of exploration without it.
- Soft Hydration Flask | Stay hydrated throughout the day with a water bottle that can go anywhere with you—and fold up when not in use. I love the packability of these bottles!
- Medications | Motion sickness pills for those windy roads, painkillers, anti-inflammatories, etc.
I hope this Big Sur road trip guide has helped make your Big Sur itinerary planning a lot easier. Have fun and safe travels! If you’ve been to Big Sur before, what are some of your favorite things to do in Big Sur?