With a dramatic coastline and stunning views of the Pacific Ocean, a Big Sur road trip is one of the most beautiful drives you can take in the country. Some of the most breathtaking parts of the California coastline are found on this part of Highway 1. Many people consider Big Sur one of the best parts of a west coast road trip.
I’ve visited Big Sur twice now and still can’t wait to go back again each time the trip is over. I love exploring each stop and pulling off at random viewpoints every time I drive down. Whether it’s a view of the waves crashing into the rocks or a quiet walk through the forest, I can’t get enough of the area.
Based on my trips there, I’ve put together a few tips and my favorite stops. Here’s how to plan your Big Sur itinerary and where to stop on Big Sur. You can easily do a Big Sur day trip from San Francisco or decide to extend your time and stay for a few days.
Planning a Big Sur Road Trip
Here are a few helpful tips for driving down to Big Sur.
- Watch your speed – Going on a Big Sur road trip is beautiful, but many other people think that too. That said, there will be hundreds of other people on the road on any given day. That means many people may be going slow and not paying attention to the cars behind them.
- Don’t rush your trip – I know it’s tempting to fit in as many vacations as possible on your limited days off, but you should spend a few days exploring Big Sur. There are many things to do in Big Sur and you don’t want to rush through them.
- Don’t depend on cell service – Don’t expect to take any calls on the road trip, as only small areas of the road have service. This isn’t really a problem though, as there’s only one main road so you won’t get lost.
- Save locations to your phone in advance – Since you won’t have cell service, that means you can’t look up each stop on your map as you go. The solution for this is to look up places you want to stop at before you go. If you hit “save” on Google Maps for each location, you’ll be able to pull up the map later and see the areas that are starred.
- Be aware of peak times – While summer in Big Sur tends to be one of the busier times, people go on a Big Sur road trip any time of the year thanks to the warm weather. That means you can expect the roads to be crowded during the day, so aim to go early or later in the day.
- Bring a cooler with you – There are several places to eat along Big Sur, but they are a little pricey. If you want to save money, load up on food and drinks at a grocery store and throw them in your cooler. Here are a few other helpful items to put on your road trip list.
Need help planning out your road trip? I’ve been using Roadtrippers for years to see exactly how long it’ll take from one point to the next and also find new places to add to my itinerary!
The Best Time to Visit Big Sur
You can drive on Big Sur during any time of the year. However, you should be aware that some places are closed during the offseason. The ones that are open may be reduced hours, so look up where you want to go ahead of time.
That said, the best time for a Big Sur day trip is typically from April to October. This is when the weather will be the warmest and driest, which you’ll want so you can explore each Big Sur stop. This is also the best time to visit Big Sur if you’re camping as well.
How Long It Takes for a Big Sur Day Trip
The Big Sur drive is approximately 17 miles long. However, don’t let that number fool you. There are dozens of windy turns that require you to go slow. Even if you drove without stopping, the minimum time it would take you would be 2 hours.
That’s not counting all the times you’ll want to pull off on the side of the road or get out and explore, so I recommend leaving a minimum of 5 hours of allowed time to drive one way. If you do a day trip to Big Sur, it can easily take you 10-12 hours for the day depending on where you’re coming from.
Renting for a Car for Your Big Sur Road Trip
If you’re flying into San Francisco, you’ll want your own car to drive to Big Sur. You can easily rent a car online so it’ll be ready to pick up when you land at the San Francisco International Airport.
Compare prices with the different companies, but also consider extras you may need. This includes GPS and insurance, which is necessary in case you get in an accident.
I don’t recommend getting a large vehicle, as some points are narrow and windy. A medium-sized car will also get better gas mileage so you don’t have to worry about spending as much money. Look into one of these companies at the start of your trip.
Where to Stay in Big Sur
There are several places to stay if you just want to spend the night instead of doing a San Francisco to Big Sur day trip.
Hotels Near Big Sur
- Big Sur Lodge – This is a hotel, restaurant, and store, making it a convenient place to stop. It’s also the last place to buy anything before the road ends, so it’s a good place to stock up on items. (rates start at $278 per night; book your room on Booking.com or Hotels.com)
- Big Sur River Inn – This is in the heart of Big Sur and right next to Big Sur River. Breakfast is available each morning, and there’s a pool to swim in when it gets hot out. (rates start at $425 per night; book your room on Booking.com or read reviews on TripAdvisor)
- Ragged Point Inn and Resort – If you want to stay south of Big Sur, this is a great location with a view of the ocean. (rates start at $229 per night; book your hotel on Booking.com or Hotels.com)
Airbnbs Near Big Sur
- Morning Lite Cabin – If you’re planning on hiking in Big Sur, you’ll love staying at this cabin that sleeps up to four people. (rates start at $155 per night; book your house here)
- Relaxing Guest Suite – The area around Big Sur can be expensive, so if you mainly plan on being gone during the day you can save money staying at this guest suite. (rates start at $60 per night; book your room here)
- Carmel-by-the-Sea Getaway – This beautiful condo has you in the heart of Carmel next to restaurants and shops. (rates start at $180 per night; book your house here)
Camping in Big Sur
If you’re visiting when the weather is warm and dry, I recommend camping for the night! There are over a dozen different places to camp at, but here are a few I recommend on your Big Sur road trip.
- Ventana Campground – This redwood canyon has 40 acres of campsites to choose from, and several bathrooms are available. They’re close to restaurants, coffee shops, and general stores in case you need something from town.
- Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park – There are 169 sites available here and it’s the perfect place to get lost in nature, as there are over 1000 acres of forest and meadows. You can walk to Big Sur Lodge to buy food or drinks.
- Andrew Molera State Park – If you’re looking for a campground that’s more private, you’ll like this one that only has 24 sites available. However, it’s first-come, first-serve, so go early in the day. There are many places to hike here, and you can enjoy the Big Sur River as well.
The Best Big Sur Road Trip Itinerary
Big Sur technically starts just south of Carmel and ends at San Simeon, but I’ve added optional stops in San Francisco and Monterey to the Big Sur road trip itinerary since they’re fun cities to visit on the way. If you’re doing a Big Sur day trip, you can skip these and drive straight to Point Lobos.
Here are the best places I recommend for where to stop on Big Sur. These are all in order from north to south, so feel free to take out what you don’t want to see to customize your trip. If you’re driving from Los Angeles to Big Sur, you can just reverse the order of these stops.
I’ve also listed the cost to enter the parks if there is one, but you should note that you’re able to pay the $10 entrance fee once and use it in all California State Parks until sundown. Make sure you save your receipt!
Big Sur Itinerary:
- San Francisco
- Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
- Garrapata State Park and Beach
- Bixby Creek Bridge
- Point Sur State Historic Park
- Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
- Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
- Limekiln State Park
- Elephant Seal Vista Point
- Hearst Castle
Stop 1 – San Francisco
You’ll likely fly into San Francisco if you’re coming from out of state. It’s worth it to spend a day or two in this city exploring before you drive south if you have time. You can either do a San Francisco to Big Sur day trip and drive back at night or choose to stay at a hotel further south.
There’s the famous Golden Gate Bridge, which is best seen at sunrise or sunset in my opinion. Make sure to check out Fisherman’s Wharf by the water as well. If you have time, visiting Alcatraz Island is an eerie yet fun way to learn about an important part of history in the area.
Stop 2 – Monterey
There is so much to do in Monterey, so plan on spending a few hours here. They also have their own Fisherman’s Wharf which is lined with shops and restaurants. Many of the restaurants also have free samples outside to lure you inside for lunch.
Parts of Big Little Lies was filmed here, so you might recognize a few parts if you watch that show. That said, the restaurants they filmed at changed out their tables, chairs, and general decor, so you might have to look hard.
Cannery Row is another cute area to walk around and enjoy the view of the ocean. You’ll see many scuba divers coming in and out of the famous Monterey Bay.
There are several wine tasting shops here if you have time to try a few samples. It’s a great stop on your way from Monterey to Big Sur.
Stop 3 – Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Places like this reserve are what make the Pacific Coast Highway drive so beautiful. If you’re a nature lover, you’ll enjoy visiting this part of the California State Park system during your Big Sur day trip.
Bring your hiking shoes to enjoy a peaceful walk through the forest and down to the water. You could even bring a picnic for lunch to eat by the water. If you’re lucky, you might see a local with an easel painting the scene during your Big Sur road trip.
Whalers Cabin is another place you’ll want to check out when you’re here. The cabin was a popular fishing cabin in the 1860s built to house Chinese and Japanese fishermen.
Cost: $10 per vehicle to enter
Stop 4 – Garrapata State Park and Beach
One part I loved about exploring Big Sur was how many scenes I recognized from movies and TV shows, such as Big Little Lies. I can see why they filmed here – the views are absolutely stunning.
You can walk along the beach for two miles, go hiking, or climb 50-feet to have an amazing view of the ocean. If you visit Soberanes Point, you have a good chance of seeing sea otters, sea lions, and even gray whales during the migration season during your Big Sur day trip.
Just a note – nudity is allowed at the beach, so it’s just something to be aware of so you’re not confused if you see someone freely enjoying themselves!
Stop 5 – Bixby Creek Bridge
This is one of the most recognized parts of a day trip to Big Sur. When coming from the north, there’s a pull out you can stop your car at to get this ideal shot safely.
I recommend coming here at sunset to get the best photos but come early since you won’t be the only one. If you’re an early riser, this will also be a stunning spot for the sunrise. You’ll have a hard time getting other people out of your photo if you come mid-day (I learned the hard way the first time).
Stop 6 – Point Sur State Historic Park
You’ll have an amazing view of the coastline from here (are you sensing a theme on this drive yet?). Sometimes the foggy mornings make it seem like you’re on an island.
If you love lighthouses, you’ll enjoy stopping here as part of your Big Sur itinerary. This park is the location of the Point Sur Lightstation. Sign up for a tour so you can visit the lighthouse from 1889 and learn about the caretaker’s family.
Stop 7 – Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
You’ll want to add Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park to your Big Sur itinerary. One of the best parts is Pfieffer Beach. The sand here looks purple depending on what part of the beach you’re at. I’ve seen the green sand beaches of the Big Island before, but have never seen purple sand. This is also a fairly empty beach, so take your time enjoying it.
You can hike and even camp in some parts here, which I’d recommend when the weather is nice. Since there’s not much around, it’s a quiet area where you can get lost in nature.
Cost: $10 per vehicle to enter
Looking for more hikes to do? Check these out (in order from shortest to longest).
- Sand Dollar Beach Trail (0.7 miles)
- Jade Cove Trail (1.5 miles)
- Oak Grove Trail Loop (3 miles)
- Ragged Point Fire Road (4 miles)
- Salmon Creek Trail (6.5 miles)
- Andrew Molera Loop (8.8 miles)
Stop 8 – Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
Add chasing waterfalls on your list of things to do in Big Sur. McWay Falls are the famous waterfalls that go over a cliff and into the ocean, making for beautiful photos.
I’ve seen many waterfalls in my life, but never ones that go straight into the ocean before. While summer in Lake Tahoe is one of the most scenic places in California in my opinion, this area rivals that.
The park opens 30 minutes before sunrise and closes 30 minutes after the sun goes down. I’d recommend getting there early for the best pictures and before it gets crowded.
Cost: $10 per vehicle to enter
Stop 9 – Limekiln State Park
Another beautiful stop to put on your Big Sur itinerary is Limekiln State Park. You’ll want to spend a few hours here if you can afford it, as there’s so much to do. You can visit the beach, go geocaching, take a hike through the forest, and more.
If you’re spending the night, you can camp here as well. Restrooms, showers, and drinking water are all available.
Cost: $10 per vehicle to enter
Stop 10 – Elephant Seal Vista Point
If you want a quick but unique stop during your Big Sur road trip, pull off in the parking lot for the Elephant Seal Vista Point. You’ll see hundreds of elephant seals lounging around and living their best life.
This is a fun place to learn more about them and the sea life in the area in general thanks to the signs that line the pathway. Just be aware – these elephant seals clearly aren’t bathing properly because it smells pretty bad here! Don’t let that deter you from getting a few pictures, though.
Stop 11 – Heart Castle
While this may not be a scenic view, this area signals the end of what’s officially considered Big Sur. Hearst Castle has a fascinating history to it and played a big role in celebrity get-togethers in the area back in the 1950s.
The Hearst complex is so big that they offer multiple tours just to see it all. The castle has 165 rooms, and you can choose to go on a tour of the cottages and kitchen, upstairs suites, or grand rooms (I did the latter and loved it).
There you have it – 11 amazing stops to put on your Big Sur itinerary! Whether you only have enough time for a Big Sur day trip or decide to stay in the area for a few days, you’ll love going on a Big Sur road trip.