11 Awe-Inspiring Stops to Make on a Big Sur Day Trip

big sur day trip
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With a dramatic coastline and stunning views of the Pacific Ocean, a Big Sur day 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, and I 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 day trip to Big Sur and where to stop while you’re there. You can easily do a Big Sur day trip from San Francisco or decide to extend your time and stay for a few days.

Tips for Planning a Big Sur Day Trip

big sur road trip

Here are a few helpful tips to keep in mind when planning things to do in Big Sur in one day:

  • Watch your speed – Going on a Big Sur one day 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 one day trip to Big Sur 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 packing list.
  • Check road closures – Parts of the road may close periodically due to mudslides or construction, so check online ahead of your trip to plan it out better.

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 find new places to add to my itinerary!

Where Does Big Sur Start and End?

Big Sur starts just south of Carmel and ends just north of San Louis Obispo. Most people refer to Big Sur as the drive on Highway 101 between these two areas, but it’s also not to be confused with Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. This is a more specific area where people like to go hiking and camping.

How to Get to Big Sur

While beautiful, this area isn’t exactly quick to get to if you’re flying in. If you want to do the Big Sur day trip from north to south, you’ll want to fly into the San Francisco International Airport and rent a car to head down. I always fly into SFO from Seattle and start my trip down south as soon as I get my car.

Alternatively, you could drive from south to north, and the largest and most affordable airport to fly into would be the Los Angeles International Airport. There are smaller airports along the way, such as Santa Barbara, but they do have fewer flights and tend to cost more money.

Renting a Car for a Road Trip to Big Sur

If you’re flying into San Francisco or doing a drive from Portland to 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 into an accident on your Big Sur 1 day itinerary.

I don’t recommend getting a large vehicle when getting around Big Sur, 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 to rent a car for your Big Sur itinerary for one day:

What’s the Best Time to Visit Big Sur?

You can drive to Big Sur at any time of the year. However, you should be aware that some places are closed during the off-season. 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 to drive to Big Sur 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 Does It Take to Drive Through Big Sur?

Big Sur itinerary

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.

How Many Days are Enough for Big Sur?

While spending a night or two in the area allows you to see more of it, it is possible to see Big Sur in a day. It may be a long day, so you’ll want to plan out your stops accordingly so you don’t waste time and make the most of your drive.

Big Sur Day Trip Itinerary

Here are the Big Sur stops I’ll be recommending for your day trip to Big Sur. Feel free to add or subtract to this list as you see fit when making your itinerary for where to stop in Big Sur.

  • San Francisco
  • Monterey
  • 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

Big Sur Road Trip Map

I’ve placed these stops on a map of Big Sur so you can visually see where you’ll be stopping as well.

Where to Stay in Big Sur

Many people choose to do a San Francisco to Big Sur day trip, but if you do decide it’s too long of a day, here are some suggestions of where to stay.

Hotels Near Big Sur

big sur lodge
  • 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)

Vacation Rentals in Big Sur

I personally prefer to stay in a vacation rental on a vacation, so here are a few options. Note that there aren’t many directly in Big Sur, but rather nearby.

  • Artist’s Treehouse Studio Apartment – This adorable apartment sleeps up to three people and is on a one-acre property in Carmel Valley. (rates start at $239 per night)
  • Inspiring Oceanfront Home – This three-bedroom home has stunning views of the Pacific Ocean, a full kitchen, and a deck and patio to enjoy. (rates start at $295 per night)
  • Charming Coastal Cottage – This beautiful cottage is a great place to enjoy both the indoors and outdoors, with an outdoor fireplace and vegetable garden. (rates start at $229 per night)

Camping in Big Sur

If you’re driving Big Sur 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 road trip to Big Sur.

  • 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.

11 Stops to Make on a Day Trip to Big Sur

day trip to big sur

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!

1. San Francisco

big sur road trip san francisco

You’ll likely fly into San Francisco if you’re coming from out of state for your Big Sur drive. 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.

2. Monterey

big sur road trip monterey

There is so much to do on a Monterey to Big Sur day trip, 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 were 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, which I participated in last time I was there. The kelp forests are unlike anything I’d ever seen before when diving.

There are several wine-tasting shops here if you have time to try a few samples. The Wine Experience is a fun way to try some of the best in the region. It’s a great stop on your way from Monterey to Big Sur day trip.

3. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

big sur road trip point lobos

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 scenic drive.

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 one day in Big Sur.

Whalers Cabin is another place you’ll want to check out on your Big Sur one day itinerary. The cabin was a popular fishing cabin in the 1860s built to house Chinese and Japanese fishermen.

Cost: $10 per vehicle to enter

4. Garrapata State Park and Beach

big sur road trip garrapata

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!

5. Bixby Creek Bridge

big sur road trip bixby bridge

This is one of the most recognized and best stops along 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 this the hard way the first time).

6. Point Sur State Historic Park

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.

7. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

day trip from big sur pfieffer beach

You’ll want to add Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park to your Big Sur itinerary. One of the best parts is Pfieffer Beach, and one of my top recommended places to stop in Big Sur. 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 on your Big Sur day trip? 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)

8. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

McWay Waterfall Trail

Add chasing waterfalls to 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’d seen this so many times before on social media, so I was excited to finally visit it in person on my Big Sur road trip.

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 on your Big Sur day trip.

Cost: $10 per vehicle to enter

9. Limekiln State Park

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

10. Elephant Seal Vista Point

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.

11. Heart Castle

hearst castle gardens

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).

Want to continue exploring California? You’ll love all the beautiful hikes in Lake Tahoe, whether you visit Tahoe in the summer or go skiing during winter in Tahoe.

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.

35 thoughts on “11 Awe-Inspiring Stops to Make on a Big Sur Day Trip

  1. Kaitlin says:

    I love driving down the 1! My family is from Santa Cruz and Monterey, so whenever I go home to visit I always take a nice drive down to Big Sur. Bixby Bridge is usually my turnaround point. Miss those views!

  2. Kim says:

    Our last road trip was from Kona to Hilo on the big Island! My husband visited Big Sur as a child, and we’d love to take the kids there.

  3. Nazrjn says:

    Every single one of these are on my bucket list! I can only hope to see these babies and touch their gems one day!

  4. Jennifer Hall says:

    My kids and I got to go to Santa Cruz and Monterey last year (I had been before). The California coast is gorgeous and a little bit of my heart lives there.

  5. Stephanie Rasmusson says:

    I LOVE Big Sur!! This is a great guide, already looking forward to the next time I can make the journey!

  6. Giulia says:

    I did this drive a few years ago but going to San Diego. It’s too bad part of the road is closed off now. But such a beautiful route!

  7. Gabby says:

    So envious! Love all the gorgeous state parks, there’s also a brewery in Monterey I’ve been dying to try. Looks like an amazing trip!

  8. Wino On A Budget says:

    “I was curious how far I could go down Highway 1, so I drove all the way until I ran into this sign. This is just past Big Sur Lodge, so you can turn around and get lunch there or spend the night.”

    It’s funny because I did the same thing! I was like “I wonder if this road just ends at some point”. It was cool to reach that end!

  9. Jenni L. says:

    This is a fantastic road trip. It’s been far too long since I’ve been to San Francisco or Monterey. I need to make a trip back again!

  10. Jessica Phelps says:

    This looks like a dream road trip! What fantastic spots to visit. I love getting in the car and going on adventures! Whether planned or unknown.

  11. Blushy Darling says:

    This looks like such a fun trip, you also got amazing weather, I love being in the car but I hate to drive so I definitely would need a partner XD

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