Located on the Pacific Coast of Central California, Big Sur is a beautiful destination stretching 90 miles along California Highway 1. It may be short but a Big Sur road trip packs a huge punch filled with incredible scenery, several state parks, culinary delights, and beautiful seaside communities.
It’s no wonder the Big Sur Road Trip is often rated as one of the best road trips in the world. With sea stacks and waterfalls, hiking trails, and ocean cliffs, this is one of the most beautiful destinations we’ve been to in the United States. It’s worth spending more than just a day driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco along this route. Take your time to see the sights and be sure to stay the night.
Big Sur Road Trip Itinerary
We have put together a Big Sur Road Trip itinerary highlighting all of the top viewpoints on California Highway 1, suggested hotels, and top attractions. The Big Sur drive could easily be done as a day trip from San Francisco, but there is so much to see, that we recommend spending at least four days driving along this stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway 1.
Big Sur is meant to be taken slowly, so enjoy the ride, pullover when you can, or follow a backroad to wherever it goes. Enjoy!
Note: Parks in Big Sur are constantly changing with openings and closures. Stay up to date at the California Government Website here. Highway 1 also sometimes has closures so be sure to follow this Website during your Big Sur itinerary for updates on any problems.
How to Get to Big Sur
To Get to Big Sur from San Francisco, follow US 101 to 85 South and then merge onto 17 South until you come to highway 1. You will then follow Highway 1 all the way to Monterey where you will begin your drive along the Big Sur coastline of the Pacific Coast Highway.
Our Big Sur Road Trip itinerary follows a route from north to south, but it can be driving south to north from L.A. The official Big Sur drive begins in Carmel by Sea continuing south to San Simeon. If you want to exploring everything along California Highway 1 you can read our Complete California Road Trip guide here: The Ultimate California Road Trip Itinerary
The two closest airports to Carmel by the Sea are San Francisco and San Jose Airport (they are only 30 minutes apart, so it doesn’t matter which on you fly into but San Jose is the closes). We recommend flying into San Francisco and spending a few days in the city you can start your road trip by driving across the Golden Gate Bridge! Read our guide at 72 Hours in San Francisco – A Local’s Guide to the City
We picked up our rental car at the airport and had the freedom to explore the city by car before moving on to Big Sur. You can’t really get to Big Sur if you don’t drive. There are some tours and day trips but if you don’t have your own car, we highly recommend renting a car to experience Big Sur to the fullest. Compare rental car prices at RentalCars.com for quotes on cars.
Big Sur Road Trip – Points of Interest
Once you have made your way to Carmel, we suggest making a base either here or in Monterey. Carmel is just a few minute’s drive from Monterey and there are plenty of things to do in both communities.
We have entire posts dedicated to all the things to do in Monterey and Carmel but let’s break down a few things to see in both communities to start the road trip off right. If you want to read more about them, you can do so at Things to do in Carmel by the Sea, California, 20 Great Things to do in Monterey, California
Monterey is a destination in its own right and is a fantastic place to visit in California. I think the top draw in Monterey is the Monterey Bay Aquarium which is dedicated to research and conservation to preserve wildlife in the waters offshore. It has interactive displays and an open sea exhibit displaying hundreds of species of marine life. It is located on Cannery Row which is a historic street filled with shopping and restaurants.
When strolling along Cannery Row, you feel as if you stepped back in time into a John Steinbeck novel. This has kept the feel of when it was the sardine capital of the world. We also recommend getting on the water, you can go whale watching, kayaking and see the resident sea lions and sea otters. Read more: 20 Great Things to do in Monterey, California
2. Carmel by the Sea
The first official stop on our Big Sur road trip itinerary is Carmel by the Sea. It is a beautiful seaside community that is one of the most exclusive communities in the United States. Clint Eastwood was the mayor of this beautiful seaside town and there are plenty of things to do in Carmel to keep you occupied for a day or two. Carmel truly does feel like a storybook with fairy tale cottages, art galleries, and gorgeous ocean views.
We stayed at The Hideaway which had gorgeous rooms and was located just a half a mile from the beach. It was centrally located in downtown Carmel so we could walk to restaurants at night making it a great base for the north portion of your Big Sur road trip. TripAdvisor / Booking.com
3. 17 Mile Drive
There is a road trip within a road trip here where you can take a detour to see 17-Mile Drive. We rented an e-bike to see this drive. It was a great way to avoid traffic and to be able to stop at all the famous viewpoints including the Ghost Tree and the Lone Cypress.
This stretch of road goes through the exclusive community of Pebble Beach where there are world-class golf courses, plenty of beaches, and scenic views. Read all about our time here: 17 Mile Drive – What to See on the Scenic Drive of Pebble Beach
4. Point Lobos State Park
The first designated stop on the Big Sur road trip is the Point Lobos State Park which is located just outside Carmel by the Sea. This is one of the most picturesque stops along the Big Sur road trip located in the north end of the drive. There are hiking trails leading out to scenic views, and it is a scuba diving mecca for people wanting to explore the underwater sea kelp forests. But Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is also a bird lovers’ paradise. Cost: $10 per vehicle.
Whale Watching and History
Make sure to check out Whalers Cove to learn about the 1800s whaling and abalone business. Whales migrate through this route of the Pacific Ocean and it was once a large whaling area. It’s dark yes, but important to learn about all history. This small cabin was once home to Chinese Fishermen and has now been converted into a museum.
To visit Point Lobos State Park there is a $10 fee per vehicle. You’ll find that you’ll be paying $10 a lot on the Big Sur road trip as there is a $10 fee per vehicle to enter State Parks. If you plan on visiting a lot of the parks, we recommend a State Park Pass.
5. Garrapata State Park
Another one of the many California state parks located along this drive outside of an urban center is Garrapata State Park. This was one of our favorite stops and it is one of the best free things to do in Big Sur. With hiking trails leading out to sea cliffs, Garrapata State Park offers beautiful views of rock formations off the coast of the Pacific Ocean.
Located in Northern Big Sur, you’ll find the pull-off between mile markers 17 and 18. When we were there hardly anyone else was walking the hiking trails. We felt like we had extraordinary views all to ourselves.
Note: Most of Garrapata State Park remains closed since the 2016 Soberanes Fire but the first 1.25 miles of the trail is open. Cost: Free
6. Bixby Creek Bridge
The Bixby Creek Bridge (often just referred to as Bixby Bridge) is the most famous of attractions along our Big Sur Road trip and is a place that you must not miss pulling over to snap some photos. It’s been featured in countless films and most recently, The Bixby Bridge was front and center in the series Big Little Lies. At the opening of each episode, the Bixby Creek Bridge is featured.
The Bixby Bridge is a scenic stop along the Big Sur coastline with pull-offs on either side. It is one of the most photographed spots in the area and with good reason. The bridge stands 260 feet above a deep canyon and was built in 1932. It truly is a feat of engineering and is worth making a stop to take in the gorgeous views up the coast.
- There is no fee to park at the Bixby Bridge, but parking is limited. We went at sunrise and nobody else was there. We stopped again at sunset and in mid day and found it difficult to find parking.
7. Andrew Molera State Park
If you are looking for a long sandy beach on your Big Sur drive, Andrew Molera is a good stop. It is also the largest of the many State Parks along this road trip so be prepared to walk. For a fun adventure, take the beach trail walking along a 1-mile long route (1.6km) to the beach where you’ll have to wade through the waters of the Big Sur River. When the water is high, the park puts up seasonal footbridges.
8. Point Sur lighthouse
Continuing north, make your way to Point Sur Lighthouse, part of the California State Park system. What was once an important beacon of navigation for ships traveling through the treacherous waters of the Pacific Ocean of the Central California Coast, can today be viewed on a guided walking tour. Dating back to 1889, it offers beautiful views from its coveted perch.
9. Big Sur River Inn & Restaurant
One of our favorite stops on our Big Sur road trip was the Big Sur River Inn and Restaurant. Located on the Big Sur River, guests can relax on the Adirondak Chairs (or as residents of Ontario, Canada like to call them – Muskoka Chairs) and enjoy the peace and solitude. This inn was the first restaurant and hotel in the area and is a must-stop. Dating back to 1888, the property was originally owned by early homesteader Jay Pheneger and then sold to Michael and Barbara Pfeiffer. (I told you the Pheiffer’s got around).
Make sure to peruse the memorabilia hanging on the walls of the restaurant. It’s also a good place to fill up at the gas station, pick some food at the general store and grab and ice cream at the ice cream truck. This is a staple in the area and a good place for lunch on your Big Sur drive or to pick up some snacks for the road at the General Store. Don’t forget to grab an ice cream there as well. It is to die for.
10. The Big Sur Roadhouse
The Big Sur Roadhouse was a great stop for lunch with meals made from local ingredients and a farm-to-table menu. The food was fantastic, but we also loved the relaxed atmosphere. Sure, the rich and famous frequent this spot, but it doesn’t feel snooty or unwelcoming. In fact, it still has that hippie vibe that made it so special in the first place.
11. Pfeiffer Beach
One of our favorite places to visit in Big Sur was Pfeiffer Beach. Located just south of Big Sur Station, Pfeiffer Beach was a bit difficult to find, but luckily, Viktor Elizarof wrote a great Photography Guide here to help us find it!
How to get to Pfeiffer Beach: Take the cut-off at Sycamore Canyon Road and drive the rugged two-mile track down to the beach. Here you’ll find the gorgeous Dollar Beach and Keyhole Arch rock formation. Pfeiffer Beach has a long sandy beach that is a beautiful walk at sunset with amazing views. It’s a wide beach with high sand dunes and where Sycamore Canyon Creek empties into the Pacific Ocean.
Be sure to take a walk all the way along the beach where you’ll find the purple sand that made Pfeiffer Beach famous. The purple colour was created from the manganese garnet rocks found in the sea cliffs. There is a $10 entrance fee to Pfeiffer Beach.
12. Stop in at Nepenthe
This coast has drawn artisans for decades and no place shows that more than Nepenthe. Sitting high atop a sea cliff looking over the Pacific Ocean and Santa Lucia Mountains, this has been the go-to spot for poets, travelers and artists.
There is nothing better than sitting on its outdoor terrace to watch the sunset and imagine who else has enjoyed these views. It was once owned by Rita Hayworth and Orsen Wells. Be sure to peruse the Phoenix Shop featuring local artists.
10. Ventana resort
We stayed a night in both Monterey and Carmel but we also stayed two nights at Ventana Resort. There is camping and other accommodation along the route as well. Ventana Resort is expensive but they also offer camping and Glamping so there are affordable options Read more about Ventana here at Glamping in Big Sur – Luxury in the Redwood Forest
Two Sides to Ventana
Ventana Resort – We camped in the luxury tented camp among the redwoods of Ventana resort and then spent the night in one of its luxury suites. If you want to feel what it’s like to live like movie stars, splurge for a night on this place. It makes for a great base to explore all the top things to do in Big Sur as well. Read: Glamping in Big Sur – Luxury in the Redwood Forest
Ventana Big Sur An Alila Resort is a luxurious stay in Big Sur with decadent suites that have outdoor showers, hot tubs and hammocks. If you are looking to splurge just once in your life, stay here. Taylor Swift and Mark Zuckerberg have stayed at this resort.
11. Glamping at Ventana
A more affordable to enjoy Ventana is to camp with your own RV among its redwoods or book a night in the Glamping Tents. We stayed in one of the tents and they supplied everything from hot water bottles to cooking utensils and everything we needed to make SMores. You can also us the facilities when camping at the campground and enjoy the restaurants.
12. Post Ranch Inn
Post Ranch Inn is another place to stay on you Big Sur road trip. It is beyond incredible resort with private suites, infinity pools, and ridiculous luxury. (albeit a little less expensive than Ventana) But if you are going to splurge anywhere in your life, it might as well be on this luxurious drive in California. Enjoy the life of a movie star for a night or to as you celebrate an anniversary or special occasion.
13. Henry Miller Memorial Library
The Henry Miller Memorial Library honors the writer who was a long-time resident. It also features resident artists with live performances, and books for sale by local writers and it showcases local artists with rotating shows. It is open Wednesday through Saturday. Visit the website for events.
14. McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
Located in the south of the Big Sur at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is McWay Falls. It is one of the most popular things to do in Big Sur. Not to be confused with Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park (we’ll get to that in a minute), Julia Pfeiffer State Park was named after Julia Pfeiffer, an early pioneer in the area. Take a short half-a-mile hike (800 meters) to the most beautiful waterfall tumbling into the ocean.
McWay Falls is one of the most photographed sites in Big Sur and with good reason. This perfect little cove plunges 80 feet/24 meters from a granite cliff. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is a beautiful place for sunrise or sunset. How do we know? We went for both!
Cost to see McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park – You guessed it, $10 per car. For sunrise, we took a chance and didn’t pay. Nobody was there that early/
15. Redwood Forests of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
I have to say, the Pheiffer’s got around! (not in the way you are thinking). The Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park takes you to the southernmost place of the California Redwoods. Get off the coast and hike through the redwoods to Big Sur River. Therea are 38 miles of trails at Pfeiffer Big Sur and you’ll find some of the oldest and biggest redwoods in the area here.
If you take the George Trail, you’ll be able to see a recreation of early homesteader John Pfeiffer’s 1884 cabin. Explore this part to witness the Santa Lucia Mountains rising from the Big Sur River Gorge and get lost in this 1,000-acre preserve. Cost: $10 per vehicle.
Limekiln State Park
Can’t get enough of Redwoods? If you want to do some camping, Limekiln State Park has campgrounds at Limekiln Creek and at a beach. Learn about the history of Big Sur here as you discover the 1880s industry of lime harvesting. Back then lime was taken from the sea cliffs and processed in lime kilns fuelled by the massive redwoods. Boy am I glad they stopped this industry. Although they didn’t have much of a choice, the lime and the redwoods were exhausted and left in ruins. But nature has grown back around the iron-and-stone kilns connects.
Sand Dollar Beach
Just a little farther south is the longest beach in Big Sur, Sand Dollar Beach. As well as being the longest beach, it is a popular spot for surfing. There is a nearby campground so if you want to spend some time at the beach, you can set up shop just down the road. Sand dollars can be found on the beach at low tide making this a popular tide pooling spot. Just make sure to look and don’t touch.
There is a $10 fee per vehicle to visit Sand Dollar Beach.
If you are looking for a break, stop in at the Ragged Point Inn and Resort which sits high on a sea cliff. Located north of San Simeon, Ragged Point was once part of the Hearst Ranch. The Ramey family set up shop here in the 1950s and it has been passed down to generations as today the great-grandchildren run the resort and restaurant. Even if you are not staying at Ragged Point, make sure to enjoy a meal and take in the views of the California Coast. Make sure to stop at Piedras Blancas State Marine Reserve to see the resident elephant seals.
End at San Simeon
San Simeon is where the Big Sur Road Trip ends but the Pacific Coast Highway continues on to Los Angeles. You can make a base here as there are plenty of things to do. This is home to Hearst Castle, there are beaches, hiking trails, and like this entire road trip, plenty of marine life and beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean. You can take tours of Hearst Castle starting at $30.
Read These other posts to help plan your Big Sur road trip
Where to Eat On Your Big Sur Drive
Incredible Prix Fix meals and fine dining overlooking the Pacific Ocean from high atop sea cliffs. We even saw whales in the distance during our breakfast here. (make sure to bring your binoculars). This place is busy for dinner so reservations are recommended.
Nepenthe is one of the most popular places to eat because of its awesome view. With views of the Santa Lucia Mountains to the Pacific, make sure to add it to your Big Sur itinerary. We loved our meal and the atmosphere of Nepenthe and highly recommend having dinner here.
Are there Budget Hotels in Big Sur?
Not really, this area caters to the luxury market unless you are camping. The historic Big Sur River Inn is the closest to affordable yet it is still pricey. However, ti doesn’t reach the thousands of dollars per night of the Post Ranch in or Ventana.
Fernwood Resort is also a good option with a variety of camping, cabins, and a motel.
Camping in Big Sur
Don’t worry, if you don’t want to spend a fortune on a room for a night, there is plenty of camping along the Big Sur road trip. Some popular campgrounds are Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground, Big Sur Campground and Cabins, and Riverside Campground and Cabins.
If you are looking for affordable accommodation, check out hotels in Monterey and Carmel by the Sea. They are great places to make a base while on your road trip.
Rent a Car – California is a state for driving so rent a car for your Big Sur drive. You can compare car rental prices at RentalCars.com
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Frequently Asked Questions
There is no bad time to visit Big Sur. Being California it can be explored year-round. The peak season is from April to November with crowds being heaviest in July and August. September to November is still beautiful and less crowded and winter is a good time to find deals on accommodation. We went in May and June and had few crowds and the weather was lovely with sunny days and chilly evenings.
You can see all the viewpoints and attractions in one day, but we recommend a three day Big Sur itinerary to really explore it and to do all the hikes, enjoy the restaurants and hotels.
You can drive to Big Sur from Los Angeles or San Francisco. It is popular to make a base in Carmel by the Sea or Monterey. It is a five-hour drive from Los Angeles and is 2 hours and 30 minutes from San Francisco.
There is no specific starting point for a Big Sur itinerary, but the drive is typically considered to begin in Carmel by the Sea if you are coming from San Francisco and ends near the San Carpóforo Creek in the north of San Simeon.
And these are the top things to do in Big Sur along with the most beautiful places to visit. If you are planning a trip to California, be sure to check out this gorgeous stretch of highway along the Pacific Coast.
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