Dreaming of a scenic Big Sur road trip? Here is everything you need to know before embarking on one of the most beautiful drives in the U.S.
Big Sur is the California coast at its finest. It’s a spectacular slice of the state’s famous Pacific Coast Highway, where a two-lane road hugs the edges of cliffs that drop into an indigo blue horizon.
But Driving Big Sur is not for the faint of heart: The winding roads curve up and down California’s mountainous coastline, the wind gusts are intense, and the seaside cliffs are steep. I had a few of those *just don’t look down* moments during my Big Sur road trip — anyone else terrified of heights around here?
Still, a Big Sur road trip is worth the extra cautious driving. The drive takes you through one of the most beautiful regions of California, no doubt about it.
If you’re planning to visit Big Sur, you probably have some of the same questions I did when I was planning my own road trip — like where is it, exactly, and what is Big Sur, anyway?
Here you’ll find answers to all of those questions and more so that you’re fully prepared to make the best of your Big Sur experience.
Where Is Big Sur?
Big Sur lies on a stretch of California’s central coast, between the charming town of Carmel-by-the-Sea to the north and San Simeon to the south.
More specifically, Big Sur lies about 5 ½ hours north of LA. From San Francisco, it’s about 3 hours south on California Highway 1.
The region is bordered to the east by the Santa Lucia Mountains and to the west by the grand Pacific Ocean, which is what makes the landscape so stunning.
How To Get to Big Sur?
You want to use a car to get to Big Sur. Your Big Sur road trip will involve a lot of stops along the coastline at scenic viewpoints, beaches, state parks and more. The best way to see them all is to have your own car.
How To Get From San Francisco to Big Sur
The drive from San Francisco to Big Sur is quite literally picture-perfect. I personally drove down from the Bay Area and can’t recommend the drive enough!
You’ll want to start on Highway 1 and make your way down the coast to Half Moon Bay. From there, it’s basically a straight shot to Big Sur. Google Maps claims the drive takes 3 hours, but with all the stops you’ll be making, you can count on doubling that!
There are several worthy stops to make between Half Moon Bay and Carmel, where you begin to enter the Big Sur region. I’ll share my favorite stops on the route from San Francisco to Big Sur in the “sights to see” section below.
How To Get From LA to Big Sur
Driving from LA to Big Sur can take anywhere from 6 to 8 hours, depending on traffic. Again, you’ll be taking Highway 1 up and making several stops along the way.
| READ BEFORE YOU GO: 40+ Road Trip Essentials You Can’t Leave Home Without
Best Big Sur Driving Route
Both the drives from San Francisco and LA are spectacular, though I’m partial to the Bay Area! My mom has been living there for quite some time now, and I have a special attachment to that portion of the beautiful Pacific Coast Highway.
That being said, you can visit all the must-see Big Sur attractions coming from either direction.
When To Visit Big Sur
When is the best time to plan your Big Sur road trip? That depends on what you’re looking for.
Although the region is plagued with foggy mornings, Big Sur actually gets more than 300 days of sunshine per year.
That means Big Sur has a long peak season that stretches from April to October. It’s one of the most popular road trips in California, so you can expect lots of company during those months.
If you prefer fewer crowds, you should aim for some time between September and November. Spring, once the weather has warmed, is when you’ll catch the area’s beautiful wildflowers blooming.
You’ll find even fewer people in the winter, but driving can be tricky then due to heavy rainfall, mudslides and road closures.
How Long Should You Stay in Big Sur?
It’s really up to you! I drove down from the Bay Area and spent a night in Carmel. I spent the first day exploring my favorite beaches on the way down to Carmel and the next day exploring the top sights in Big Sur.
You could definitely squeeze a Big Sur road trip into a weekend away from San Francisco. If you’re coming from LA, though, you may want to give yourself a couple of extra days to fully enjoy the long drive.
Because there are so many incredible places to see in Big Sur, the more time you have there, the better. It’s not the kind of place where you want to feel rushed, either. Take your time and appreciate each stop along the way.
10 Things To Know Before Driving Big Sur
- It’s not a town, it’s a region: If you were trying to pinpoint Big Sur’s exact location on a map — like I was before my road trip — you may have realized that it’s not a city or a town. Big Sur is, in fact, a region.
- No cell service: You’ll soon lose cell service once you pass Carmel or San Simeon, depending on where you’re coming from.
- Plan ahead: That being said, the best way to prepare for your Big Sur road trip is to plan ahead! Make a list of the stops you don’t want to miss and research how to get to them. I like to jot down all the stops I want to make on my Google Maps app so that I have an idea of where they are, even when I lose service.
- Winding roads: The road through Big Sur twists and turns through forests and along seaside cliffs, so keep that in mind if you’re prone to road sickness.
- Slow drive: That being said, it can be a very slow drive — which is a good thing! This isn’t a drive you want to rush through.
- You don’t need to stay in Big Sur: The accommodation options in Big Sur are somewhat limited and can be expensive. You can easily stay overnight in Carmel or San Simeon and drive to Big Sur during the day.
- Road closures: Road closures are common in the winter and can extend into the spring and early summer months depending on the damage.
- It’s SO windy: Hand’s down, one of the windiest places I’ve ever been. Bring a jacket!
- Dress in layers: It gets really warm during the day, especially if the wind isn’t hitting. Mornings and evenings can be cooler.
- Restrooms: Where are they located? Find them here.
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Big Sur Road Trip Essentials
I spent all my post-quarantine time road tripping around the East Coast in 2020, so I’ve gotten pretty good at packing for a road trip. Here are a few things you should pack for your Big Sur road trip:
- Bring plenty of snacks and water to fuel your trip, especially since you’ll be spending a lot of time driving through areas with limited dining options. Keep your snacks in a road trip-friendly cooler like this one.
- Bring a reusable water bottle to stay hydrated while exploring and hiking.
- It’s always good to have an emergency car kit on hand.
- I always pack my rain jacket, which doubles as a rain protector and windbreaker.
- You’ll appreciate having a good pair of hiking boots for your Big Sur adventures — many beaches require a quick (but steep) hike down.
- Don’t forget a cozy blanket for beach picnics, or to snuggle up in the car when it gets chilly outside.
- A quick-drying towel if you’re brave enough to take a dip in the cool Pacific!
- Addicted to coffee like me? Grab some coffee on the go.
Where To Stay in Big Sur?
I found the accommodation options in Big Sur to be quite limited. You can choose between ultra-luxury stays — which look incredible, if you’re in the mood to splurge — or camping.
Unless you’re planning to spend a lot of time at your hotel, like a romantic getaway or something like that, it makes more sense to choose a more affordable option outside of Big Sur. You’ll spend most of your time exploring outdoors anyway.
Carmel and San Simeon both have plenty of hotel options; I stayed in Carmel and loved getting to know the charming town.
Here are three wonderful hotels in Big Sur:
- Ventana Big Sur ($$$) — A five-star luxury resort that also offers glamping. The hotel is located on 160 acres featuring gardens, two heated swimming pools and Japanese baths.
- Big Sur River Inn ($$) — A three-star lodge just 10 minutes away from Pfeiffer Beach. The hotel has a swimming pool, on-site restaurant and a woodsy cabin feel.
- Big Sur Lodge ($) — A rustic four-star hotel featuring a pool, bar and restaurant. There are family-style rooms for up to four people as well as cottages with kitchens, fireplaces and an outdoor deck.
Here are three wonderful hotels in Carmel:
- The Colonial Terrace ($$) — This is where I stayed! I loved this charming inn so much. It was much more affordable than other options in the area, and there was breakfast included. Our room had a fireplace, and the property is only a block away from Carmel Beach. My mom and I caught a gorgeous sunset on the beach during our stay.
- Pine Inn ($$) — Another charming inn that’s close to Carmel Beach. The property features on-site shops, rustic decor and breakfast.
- The Hideaway ($$$) — A more luxurious yet still accessible option with pet-friendly rooms, happy hour drinks and an elegant terrace with fire pits.
Big Sur Road Trip Stops & Sights To See
There are endless sights to see on a Big Sur road trip — so let me help you narrow it down to the very best.
I’m also going to specifically point out the stops I made coming from San Francisco because the beaches are some of my favorite.
1. Pacifica State Beach
Pacifica is right outside the city of San Francisco on Highway 1. The beach gives you a taste of what’s to come: towering cliffs, huge waves and long sandy beaches. It’s a popular spot for surfers, and you can grab a coffee at Soul Grind Coffee Roasters while you’re there.
You’ll also find Rockaway Beach next door, where you can hike up the side of a hill and get an incredible view of the surrounding coastline. This is one of my favorite beaches to watch the sunset near San Francisco!
2. Shark Fin Cove Beach
Shark Fin Cove Beach gets its name from the massive shark-fin-shaped rock jutting out of the water near the shore. It’s an epic sight from the top, but make sure you take the quick (but steep) hike down to see it up close. The beach lies less than a mile south of Davenport.
3. Panther Beach
Just a few minutes down the road you’ll find Panther Beach, which is my all-time favorite stop on the PCH. I’ve watched so many sunsets at this beach over the years, and I’ll continue to do so for years to come.
Panther Beach is hard to spot off the side of the road — there are no signs — but your Google Maps app should point you in the right direction. The biggest attraction here is the giant hole in the middle of a cliff that leads to a long stretch of sand on the other side. I’ve always found the orange-red rock formations stunning.
Fun Fact: Panther Beach is a popular spot for camping among locals.
4. Santa Cruz and Capitola
Santa Cruz is a charming seaside town with a famous boardwalk, restaurants and shops. If you’re ready for lunch or need a coffee boost, this would be a great place to stop. My mom and I often drive to Santa Cruz just to eat at our favorite Brazilian restaurant, Cafe Brasil.
Capitola is a smaller but just as charming city right next door. You can park at Capitola Beach and have lunch at one of the many restaurants at the Esplanada. On the day of our Big Sur road trip, we had wonderful fish tacos The Sand Bar’s outdoor patio, which faces Capitola’s adorable, brightly colored beach homes.
While Monterey can be worth a stop, I find Carmel to be its quieter, more charming neighbor. Carmel is a quaint little town with gorgeous homes, quirky art galleries and great restaurants.
It’s a great place to stay when driving Big Sur. We stayed overnight at the Colonial Terrace and explored Big Sur the following day. If you’re staying in Carmel, you should walk around town, check out one of the many wine tasting rooms and catch a perfect California sunset on Carmel Beach.
Fun Fact: The village of Carmel has no street lights, and the buildings have no numbers.
6. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Just 10 minutes from Carmel you’ll find Point Lobos, a natural reserve with spectacular scenery. There are wonderful hiking trails, beaches and aquamarine-colored coves there. The most well-known viewpoint spot is China Cove, where the water is a vivid shade of turquoise.
It’s common to spot sea lions, seals and otters while hiking through the park. Point Lobos is rich in sea life, and it’s considered to be one of the prime scuba diving spots on the West Coast.
7. Calla Lily Valley
This might have been my favorite stop on my Big Sur road trip simply because it felt like such a hidden gem. There’s a valley overflowing with calla lilies on the side of the road at Garrapata State Park. It’s hard to spot; there’s an almost hidden gate marking the entrance to the trail.
A narrow trail leads you through patches of wildflowers until you reach a set of wooden stairs. At the bottom, you’ll find hundreds of calla lilies facing the ocean. A creek cuts through the valley and runs to the shore. It’s one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen!
Tip: Your Google Maps app should actually be able to pinpoint the location for you.
8. Garrapata State Park
Since you’re already there, it’s time to explore Garrapata State Park. There are scenic bluff trails to hike that give you those quintessential California coastline views.
With plenty of different paths to explore, you might be able to make your owb way through the bluffs away from other people. When I visited in March, there weren’t many people around. You can also hike down to Garrapata State Beach, which looks like it could be in a scene from Jurassic Park.
9. Bixby Creek Bridge
When you think about Big Sur, you’ll likely picture Bixby Creek Bridge. The arch bridge suspended between two cliffs over the ocean is one of the state’s most famous landmarks.
The bridge itself is an architectural masterpiece, but what really makes this spot special are the views. From here you get a clear view of the rugged California coastline and the endless Pacific Ocean.
10. Pfeiffer Beach
Have you ever been to a beach with purple sand? If not, you have to make the stop at Pfeiffer Beach. The purple sand comes from manganese garnet rocks in the cliffs — while you can’t really see it in the photo above, it really does have a purple tint.
But that’s not all that makes the beach a must-see in Big Sur. Pfeffer is home to a key-hole rock formation that lets waves and sunlight through for a spectacular sight. It’s a really popular spot for pro photographers.
Pfeiffer Beach is harder to access than the other spots on this list. You’ll need to turn onto Sycamore Canyon Road off of Highway 1, but there’s no actual sign signaling the entrance. The only indication is a sign that reads “Narrow Road.”
The road is narrow indeed, and it twists through a woodsy area for about 2 miles before reaching the beach parking lot. The beach is a short walk from the parking lot.
11. McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
The final stop is McWay Falls, an 80-foot waterfall that plunges into the ocean. Unfortunately, you can’t hike down to the falls for safety reasons. Still, the view from the top is mesmerizing. The trail to the overlook is quick and easy. It’s kind of a tight space, so you may have to wait around to get a good shot of the falls from the best angle.
Now that you’re fully prepared for your Big Sur road trip, it’s time to pack up the car! Check out this list of 40+ essential road trip items for ideas on what to bring.
Even if you hit just a few of the stops on this list, I know you’re going to love your Big Sur road trip. Don’t forget to bring your camera and take it slow. The California coast is truly a breath of fresh air.