How to have an EPIC Big Sur Road Trip! (Top tips, best stops, & itinerary options!)

A Big Sur road trip is one of the BEST scenic drives in the United States! In this guide we’re sharing all about the drive, our top tips, best stops, and itinerary options.

Out of the thousands of miles we have driven in the lower 48, our road trips along California’s Big Sur coastline have been some of the most stunning of them all! When you think of California, you likely think of its coastline. And the 90 mile stretch of coastline along Highway 1, from near Monterey to San Simeon, which is referred to as “Big Sur,” is in our opinion, the most gorgeous stretch.

With miles of hiking, rugged cliffs, redwood forests, pristine beaches, wildlife, many California State Parks, and endless views of the Pacific Ocean, it is one of the most scenic drives, not only in the US, but in the world. 

Watch our experience on our latest Big Sur road trip, including camping, hiking, checking out overlooks, and more!

We have been lucky enough to road trip Big Sur four times now and have seen a good chunk of what the coastline has to offer (with many stops still on our to-do list!). And even though we have driven it multiple times, it is one of those road trips where you have a constant smile on your face and no matter how many times you see it, it is still pure magic.

In this guide we are sharing everything you need to know before going on a Big Sur road trip, including things we have learned over multiple experiences, the best stops to make, where to stay, and itineraries for 1-4 days, to help get you started!

Looking for more things to do in California? Check out these guides & videos:

How to get to Big Sur

Where does it start and end?

As we mentioned above, Big Sur is a 90 mile stretch of coastline along Highway 1 (the Pacific Coast Highway). It does not have an official start and end point, but it is considered to start near the Carmel-by-the-Sea and Monterey area in the north and end in San Simeon in the south. 

Some will drive from one end to the other and then turn around, while others may continue on in California from their ending point, while some may just do a day trip and only visit part of it. The beauty of Big Sur is that you can experience as little or as much as you want and still enjoy its breathtaking scenery.

Where to fly into for your Big Sur road trip

There are no major cities along Big Sur, but it is close to a handful of cities and larger towns that offer airports, if you need to fly into California for this drive.

The closest major airports to the northern end of Big Sur are the San Francisco International Airport (SFO) and San Jose International Airport (SJC). SFO is about a 1 hour, 45 minute drive to Monterey, while SJC is about 1 hour, 15 minutes. 

The first time we went on a Big Sur road trip we combined it with a trip to San Francisco, which is a popular way to do it and we highly recommend it, to get to experience a big city in California, plus the coast. The drive from San Francisco to Big Sur (if you go the longer, scenic route) is also gorgeous and has plenty of stops to check out too! 

For those who want to start on the southern end of the drive and visit some other incredible coastal cities in California, you can also fly into San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport (SBP), which is 1 hour from San Simeon and offers direct flights to and from many major cities like Dallas/Fort Worth, Denver, Phoenix, Portland, Seattle, LA, and San Francisco through Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, and United. 

The Santa Barbara Airport (SBA) is also another option for starting your Big Sur road trip in San Simeon. You can expect to drive about 2.5 hours from Santa Barbara to San Simeon. Both San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara are incredible and worth adding a few days to your trip to check out!

Big Sur Road Trip

What kind of car do I need?

You will need your own car to drive Highway 1 so if you don’t have your own or are flying in, you’ll need to rent a car. Any type of vehicle will work fine, but we’d suggest the smaller the car, the better, as parking can get busy and tight.

How long does it take to drive?

Big Sur can easily be driven in a day as the drive from Monterey to San Simeon only takes about 2.5 hours (5 hours round trip) without stops, but not stopping would be a huge mistake! This road trip is meant to be taken slow with many stops!

While you could do part of the drive as a day trip, there is tons to see in Big Sur and it’s best to have multiple days so you can see as much as possible. We’d suggest at minimum, giving yourself two days to hit up the major highlights. At the end of this guide we’ll share several itineraries to help you figure out how to spend your time! 

Garrapata State Park | Big Sur Road Trip

Which direction should I drive?

We have road tripped Big Sur both directions, starting in San Francisco and also starting near San Luis Obispo, and while both directions are amazing and give you a different perspective, we’d suggest driving North to South to get the full experience, as the ocean will be on the same side of the road as you and it will be easier to pull off at overlooks. 

And just a note for those who may not enjoy heights or windy roads, this can be a very windy road, with drop offs on the side. While there is always some sort of protection, like a guard rail or a shoulder, make sure to take your time and drive safely, only pulling over at actual overlooks (don’t block the road!).

When to visit Big Sur

This area of California can be enjoyed year round, so there really is no bad time to go on a Big Sur road trip! The weather tends to be mild any month of the year, with cooler mornings and mild temperatures in the afternoons, with the occasional heat wave in the summer.

The most popular times to visit Big Sur are April through October, with July and August being especially busy, so to avoid the busy season, you’ll want to visit in the late winter through early spring. We have visited in December, January, March, and August and our best experiences were in the winter and spring months. 

Partington Cove | Big Sur Road Trip

And if you can, try to visit midweek. The most popular viewpoints, parks, and campgrounds will be crowded on the weekend. We also suggest avoiding spring break and holidays if you can! Our latest visit was midweek during spring break season and we struggled to find a campsite, even over a month in advance. Beyond crowds, visiting this time can also bring lower lodging prices and it can be easier to find lodging.

Regardless of when you visit, expect varying weather. We have done the drive in the fog and rain and also in the pure sunshine. Both are beautiful in their own way and provide a different experience. It can also get windy on the drive! During our last visit, it was insanely windy outside, which didn’t impact our experience too much, but is something to be aware of.

Where to Stay to visit Big Sur

In our opinion, where to stay is one of the most difficult parts of visiting Big Sur, for a couple reasons. First off, this is a pricier area to visit and since it’s more remote, there aren’t a ton of options to begin with, so the cheaper options can fill up quicker. Another potential issue (depending on how you like to travel), is if you want to take your time and see it all, vs. just doing a one day drive, you will likely have to change accommodations at least once, which may not be everyone’s preference.

For budget travelers, like us, camping will be your best bet on a Big Sur road trip! Whether you choose to tent camp or travel in a van or RV, camping will be the cheapest option for lodging. Just keep in mind that not all campsites are created equal. State park campgrounds are around $35 a night, while we saw some private campgrounds at $100+ a night for a basic tent site.

Below are some options both at the north end (Monterey), south end (San Simeon), and midway point of Big Sur, ranging in price and amenities. In our itinerary options at the end of the guide, we will suggest where you should stay each day depending on how many days you plan to do the drive.

Near Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea, California

Hotels

Hyatt Regency Monterey
Hampton Inn Monterey
Intercontinental The Clement Monterey
Monterey Marriott

Airbnbs

Mermaid Bungalow (1 bedroom, 1 bathroom): This super charming bungalow has everything you need for a little home away from home, including a fire pit and grill for fun evenings outdoors. 3 night minimum

Cozy Guest Suite (Studio, 1 bathroom): This small studio, with a kitchenette, is a good spot to stay if you plan to spend most of your days exploring the area. 2 night minimum

Pebble Beach Getaway (1 bedroom, 1 bathroom): This is a private room, so you will be in someone’s house, but have your own bedroom and bathroom. The hosts even provide breakfast and coffee! No nightly minimum.

Campgrounds

Monterey Veterans Memorial Park: This is a first-come, first-served campground that caters mostly to tent campers, with a max vehicle length of 21 feet.

Saddle Mountain Ranch: This beautiful property is tucked up in the mountains behind Carmel and has cabins, RV sites, tent sites, and even glamping tents to rent.

Andrew Molera State Park | Big Sur Road Trip

Along Big Sur

These spots below are all close to midway through the Big Sur coastline, making them a good option if you want to spend a couple days and visit different areas each day. While there are more options than this, some of them are well over $1,000 a night (yes, you read that correctly!) and these are the best affordable options we could find.

Hotels

Big Sur River Inn
Big Sur Lodge
Fernwood Resort
Glen Oaks Big Sur

State Park & National Forest Campgrounds

For the most affordable option, the state park and National Forest campgrounds will be your best bet!

Andrew Molera State Park: This state park offers 24 trail campsites, which you have to hike ¼ mile to get to.

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park: We stayed here on our last visit and it’s a nice campground with 189 sites. They also offer en-route parking, which means self-contained RVs can park for one night in their parking lot, which is a good option if you need something last minute. While pricier than their campsites at $45, it is nice to know there is an option if you cannot find anything else.

Limekiln State Park: This state park has 29 sites total, with 12 sites allowing campers up to 24 feet.

Kirk Creek Campground: If you can camp anywhere in Big Sur, camp here! This campground has incredible views, with some sites having ocean views. There are 33 sites and some are first-come, first-served, which are competitive to get, as usually this campground is full.

Plaskett Creek Campground: This campground has over 40 sites and is located close to Sand Dollar Beach!

Privately Owned Campgrounds

These do cost more than the state park campgrounds listed above, but also have more amenities.

Riverside Campground: This campground has both cabins and RV camping.

Big Sur Campground & Cabins: This campground offers tent sites, RV sites, and a couple cabin options, all within a gorgeous wooded setting.

Fernwood Resort: Beyond having hotel rooms, Fernwood also has a campground with tent sites and RV sites, plus glamping tents.

Ventana: This is a tent only campground that is located on a gorgeous property, with tent sites, glamping tents, and a very expensive adults only hotel ($1,400+ a night!!!). 

Near San Simeon, California

Big Sur Road Trip

The southern part of Big Sur has less lodging options than Monterey, but does tend to be cheaper!

Hotels

Coast Riders Inn
Cavalier Oceanfront Resort
Cambria Pines Lodge

Airbnbs

Private Suite with Panoramic Views (1 bedroom, 1 bathroom): This suite is located in Cambria, just south of San Simeon, and has a small kitchenette plus ocean views!

Pet Friendly Suite Retreat (Studio, 1 bathroom): This small guest suite in Cambria is a great value (under $100 per night!), has a microwave and mini fridge, and allows dogs. 

Campgrounds

Hearst San Simeon State Park: There are 134 campsites here, both for tents and RVs (max length 35 feet). This is a great, affordable spot to camp near the southern part of Big Sur!

Things to know before your Big Sur Road Trip

Sand Dollar Beach | Big Sur Road Trip

Check the status of all trails and parks beforehand

The Big Sur area has dealt with construction, landslides, as well as some wildfires, over the years and therefore has caused parts of the road or specific parks and trails to close for safety reasons. We have dealt with closures during three of our four visits, so make sure to look at the status of the road and each park ahead of time so that you know what you can actually do and are not surprised when you get there!

Dogs are not allowed in many spots

Unfortunately, many trails and beaches in Big Sur do not allow dogs, so we suggest making sure you have somewhere safe to leave them while you enjoy this road trip. We will note on this guide which spots do not allow dogs.

Cell service

This part of California is mostly undeveloped and is remote compared to the rest of California. The remoteness can be great, but much of the area does not have cell service so be sure to download offline Google maps so you can still navigate safely.

Also, make sure to download the AllTrails maps for any hikes you plan on doing.

Want to get 30% off an AllTrails+ membership? Click this link or use our code aplusk30 (you must redeem this code on the website, not the app)!

We use AllTrails+ on every single hike and it is the most helpful hiking tool out there! Some of the features we love are offline maps (so we can navigate even without cell service), wrong-turn alerts, and its 3D maps feature, so we can get a feel for trails before we hike.

Gas stations and other services

This area is pretty remote so there aren’t very many services or amenities. Be sure to fill up your fuel tank before you begin your road trip. There are a couple places to get fuel, but they are not cheap!

Most state parks have a fee

Most of the state parks in Big Sur have a fee to visit, which is typically $10 per day. However, if you pay the fee for one park, it will get you into other state parks that same day without paying an additional fee. You also can walk or bike into the parks for FREE. If you plan to visit many state parks while in California, you may want to consider the California State Parks Pass.

What to bring on your Big Sur Road Trip

Andrew Molera State Park | Big Sur Road Trip

Camera

You are of course going to want to bring a camera on your Big Sur road trip! The best camera is the one you have at the moment, but if you’re curious what cameras and gear we use, check out our gear list.

Also, while we LOVE our drone and use it as much as possible, there are a lot of drone restrictions in this area, including no flying over the ocean and no flying in state parks, so please read up on them beforehand and always fly legally and responsibly. We did not fly our drone at all on this drive and would suggest keeping yours at home as well.

Food, snacks, water

As we mentioned, there aren’t many services on this journey, so you’ll want to bring plenty of snacks and meals with you, plus water to drink.

Pro tip: store it all in a cooler! When we road tripped in our Mazda, before we had our Sprinter van, we used this YETI cooler to store our road trip provisions and it was a champ!

Hiking gear

If you’re doing any hiking, make sure to bring the appropriate hiking gear with you (see what all we take here!). We also always recommend having the 10 essentials on you, which can come in handy both for hiking or if you have any car troubles and get stuck in one spot for a bit.

Layers

The weather in Big Sur can be cool in the mornings and evenings, so you’ll want to pack some layers for the changing temperatures. Wind can also be an issue along Big Sur (we had SO much wind on our last visit), which can make it feel cooler.

Car phone charger

You’ll be spending a lot of time in the car, so you’ll want to pack a car charger to keep your phone charged.

Music and Podcasts

While the scenery alone will keep you entertained during the drive, you may want some music or podcasts to listen to as well! Some of our favorite podcasts are Beach Too Sandy, Water Too Wet and we like to listen to The Bobby Bones Show, which is a national radio show. Make sure to download anything you want to listen to in advance, as you won’t have service most of the drive.

The best stops on a Big Sur Road Trip

There are tons of things to do along the Big Sur coastline and it’s impossible to list them all, but below are the stops that we have loved the most during our time driving the road. We have put these in order from north to south, but as we mentioned earlier, the drive can be done either way. 

While the scenery is magnificent and postcard worthy, it can also be extremely fragile and we should all do our best to limit our impact. Following the Leave No Trace Principles will help ensure we can enjoy this special place for years to come.

Monterey

Many resources online say the drive starts in Carmel-by-the-Sea, but we think the best place to start the drive is in Monterey! This small city is located just 10 minutes from Carmel-by-the-Sea, so it’s a no brainer to add it on as well. Here are some spots to check out while in Monterey!

Grab coffee at Captain + Stoker 

Captain + Stoker is a super cool coffee shop in Monterey that has delicious drinks, a cool vibe with bikes hanging from the ceiling, and loaded avocado toasts to fuel you up for a big day exploring! Some other breakfast spots in Monterey that are well loved are Old Monterey Cafe and Wave Street Cafe.

Monterey Bay Aquarium

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of the top things to do in Monterey! The aquarium houses over 200 exhibits and 80,000 plants and animals and is said to be one of the best aquariums in the US. It is definitely not the cheapest place to visit, with tickets ranging from $35-$50 per person depending on age, but we hear it is well worth it.

Old Fisherman’s Wharf

Old Fisherman’s Wharf is a pier in Monterey that was built in the late 1800s by the Pacific Coast Steamship Company for passenger and freight service and eventually was used as a wholesale fish market. Today it is loaded with shops and restaurants and while a bit touristy, is fun to walk around! 

Cannery Row

Cannery Row is another popular tourist area in Monterey with shops and restaurants. While we would definitely suggest not spending time here over exploring more of Big Sur, if you have a free evening and want somewhere to go, or if it’s too rainy to properly enjoy nature, this could be a good spot.

Lover’s Point Park

Lover’s Point Park is a gorgeous park and beach, with a beautiful sandy area to lay out on, plus rocks to explore and find marine life, like starfish!

Bike the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail

This 18 mile (round trip) pathway takes you from east of Monterey all the way to Lover’s Point Park and is the perfect way to experience the town, stopping at some of the attractions above along the way! Need a bike? You can rent a bike from Adventures By The Sea in Monterey!

17 Mile Drive

Pebble Beach may be known for its epic golf, but for the non-golfers (or if you’re like us, cheap golfers), another way to experience this scenic region of the Monterey Peninsula is on the 17 Mile Drive! This drive, as the name implies, is 17 miles long, and along the way you’ll see different rock formations, beaches, and maybe even wildlife. We did this on our first visit to the area and while it was pretty rainy, it was still gorgeous and we can imagine it’s spectacular on a sunny day! 

There is a fee to drive the road, which is $11.25 per vehicle, but if you spend $35 or more at one of the Pebble Beach restaurants, this fee is waived.

Carmel-by-the-Sea

If you have a little time before you start your road trip, check out Carmel-by-the-Sea, also known as Carmel. This charming little town may make you think you stepped into a fairytale, with its quaint cottages and beautiful downtown area. And fun fact: Clint Eastwood once won the election to be the mayor of Carmel-by-the-Sea in 1986! 

Here are a few spots to check out while in Carmel!

Photo by mana5280 on Unsplash

Explore the town (+ eat!)

Carmel is a great spot to grab a bite to eat before or after your Big Sur road trip, with tons of restaurants to choose from. Some of these can get a bit spendy, but if you want something affordable, we enjoyed Carmel Belle and we really want to check out Rise Bakery + Roam Restaurant and Treehouse Cafe next time.

Carmel River State Beach

Lay out on the white sand beach at Carmel River State Beach, which is a FREE mile long beach, or go for a walk on the scenic path above the beach. Just make sure to get here early, as the parking lot fills up fast!

Photo by mana5280 on Unsplash

Carmel Mission Basilica 

When this part of California was under Spanish control in the 1760s, the Spanish began building 21 missions from what is now San Diego to Sonoma in order to colonize the territory and convert the Native Americans to Christianity. And you can still visit these missions today along California’s Missions Trail.

One of these missions, the Carmel Mission Basilica, is located in Carmel and is open to visitors Wednesday-Sunday. It does cost $13 per adult to visit, but includes access to a museum, the grounds, and the Basilica.

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

Photo by Y S on Unsplash

Referred to as the “crown jewel” of the 280 parks in the California state parks system, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is home to miles of hiking trails, headlands, coves, rolling meadows, rich flora and fauna on land and in the sea, and so much more! 

The Natural Reserve is open 8AM to 5PM and costs $10 per vehicle. The park only allows 75 vehicles to enter the park, so you may have to park outside the park along Highway 1 and walk in, which will save you the $10. Every time we have driven by here it has been packed, with tons of cars along the highway, so don’t expect solitude here!

However, you can beat crowds a little bit by arriving early, visiting midweek, and avoiding summer break or holiday weekends. And if you visit in November you may get lucky and catch a glimpse of gray whales passing by from Alaska to Baja California! 

One other VERY important thing to know about visiting here is that dogs are NOT allowed. Because of this, we have yet to visit here, even though we are dying to! Every time we have road tripped Big Sur, we have had our dog Kona with us, and we had heard that they are not even allowed in your RV or van on the property. In the future, we plan to park along the highway and walk in, leaving Kona in our van, so that we can visit.

Most of the hikes in Point Lobos State Natural Reserve are pretty short and relatively flat. Here are some of the more popular sites and trails in the reserve!

Point Lobos Loop Trail

Miles (round trip): 6.7
Elevation (feet): 741
Reviews & Current Conditions

The trail will take you to many popular spots including Whalers Cove, Bluefish Cove, Sea Lion Cove, and China Cove and is the ultimate hike to do in the park to get the full experience. It is a big loop of connecting trails and can be started at different points throughout the reserve, going both along the coastline, as well as through Monterey pine and Cypress groves. 

If you don’t have enough time for the entire loop you can park at just about any parking area and follow the trail to amazing views of the reserve!

Bird Island Trail

Miles (round trip): 0.8
Elevation (feet): 95
Reviews & Current Conditions

To get to one of the most popular, and gorgeous, spots in the reserve, park at the southernmost parking area and take the Bird Island Trail to China Cove. You can also get to Gibson Beach from this trail, which looks stunning as well! 

This trail can be done separately or with the larger Point Lobos Loop Trail. 

South Shore Trail

Miles (round trip): 2.5
Elevation (feet): 150
Reviews & Current Conditions

This trail traverses the southern shore of the nature reserve. Along the trail you’ll visit Sea Lion Point, Sand Hill, Weston Beach, and Hidden Beach. 

Some other popular spots to see at the reserve are:

Garrapata State Park

Garrapata State Park | Big Sur Road Trip

Garrapata State Park is one of our favorite stops in Big Sur! This park is FREE to visit (a rarity in California!) and every time we have visited it has never been too crowded. It is just off the highway and offers a handful of trails and stunning beaches, including a beach that is dog friendly (they are only allowed at this beach and are NOT allowed on other trails)!

Here are some of our favorite spots in the park!

Garrapata State Park | Big Sur Road Trip

Garrapata Bluff Trail  

Miles (round trip): 0.6
Elevation (feet): 49
Reviews & Current Conditions

The Bluff Trail is a very quick and easy hike that makes for a good leg stretcher along your Big Sur road trip, while not sacrificing on views. On this trail you’ll get to see the rocky coastline, beautiful water, plus the surrounding area. This is also an amazing spot for sunset!

Garrapata State Park | Big Sur Road Trip

Soberanes Point & Whale Peak Trail

Miles (round trip): 1.6
Elevation (feet): 278
Reviews & Current Conditions

For amazing coastal views, check out the Soberanes Point Trail to Whale Peak! This hike takes you along the coast, through some beautiful trees, and up Whale Peak for sweeping views of the area. We highly recommend combining this with the Bluff Trail, which is a very easy add-on!

Doud Peak via Soberanes Canyon

Miles (round trip): 5.9
Elevation (feet): 1,876
Reviews & Current Conditions

For something a bit more challenging, hike up to Doud Peak! This hike takes you through Soberanes Canyon (another popular hike option!) and up Doud Peak, where you’ll be standing almost 2,000 feet above the ocean and have views of the mountains around you.

Garrapata State Park | Big Sur Road Trip

Garrapata Beach

Garrapata Beach is the dog friendly beach in the park and our pup Kona LOVES it! The beach area is vast and has tons of sand to run around on, plus gorgeous water. And hiking out to the beach from the parking area (which is short and downhill) has amazing views as well.

Even though dogs are allowed, they must be on a leash. As someone with a reactive pup that does not like strange dogs running up to her, and out of respect to humans who do not like dogs, please follow this rule. 

Calla Lily Valley at Garrapata State Park | Big Sur Road Trip

Calla Lily Valley

One very unique feature near Garrapata Beach is Calla Lily Valley. This is a valley that during specific times of the year (spring) is filled with calla lilies! We visited in March and they were still there, but definitely past peak bloom. To get to this valley, you can follow this trail, which can also take you to Garrapata Beach!

Bixby Creek Bridge

Bixby Creek Bridge | Big Sur Road Trip

One of the most iconic sites in Big Sur is the Bixby Creek Bridge. This concrete bridge was built in 1932, 5 years before the entire highway was complete. And to build it, they had to make a wooden framework and then manually haul up 45,000 individual sacks of cement 

It is one of the highest bridges of its kind in the world, at 714 feet long and 260 feet tall and is extremely photogenic, with mountains surrounding it, plus the coast below. We LOVE coming here at sunrise (WAY less busy) and watching the sky turn from pink to golden, while admiring the blue waves crashing on the rocks below.

Little Sur River Beach Overlook

For a super quick, but beautiful stop, head to the Little Sur River Beach Overlook! This is where the Little Sur River meets the ocean and makes for a unique sight, with the river winding through the sand, as it reaches the water. The beach itself is on private property and is not open to the public, so you can only view it from the road, where there are a couple small pull outs that you can see it from.

Big Sur Road Trip

Andrew Molera State Park

Andrew Molera State Park is another gorgeous state park along the Big Sur coast that is worth checking out, especially if you have a few hours to spend. This park does cost $10 per vehicle, but there is a decent sized parking area along the highway you can park at for free and walk into the park. And similar to most spots in Big Sur, dogs are NOT allowed on trails here.

One of the best things to do in the park is hike the Creamery Meadow, Bluffs, Panorama, and Ridge Trail Loop, which is 8 miles and gains 1,440 feet. It’s not an easy or short hike, but is well worth the effort if you have a good chunk of a day to spend.

The hike starts out exciting with a walk through an ice cold creek (make sure to bring something to dry your feet off with!), takes you up some steep inclines to a ridge line with views of the ocean and surrounding mountains, and goes along a bluff with amazing coastal views and access to different beaches. 

With almost zero coverage from the sun, this hike can get a bit toasty and with its elevation gain, felt pretty challenging for us. And if we were to do it again, we’d probably skip the Ridge Trail and just do the Bluffs Trail portion, as the Ridge Trail was pretty steep and felt like a slog at times and the Bluffs Trail had better views, in our opinion. 

Pfeiffer Beach

Photo by joel protasio on Unsplash

One unique stop along Big Sur is Pfeiffer Beach, which is known for its purple sand and keyhole arch. This beach costs $12 (cash only) to visit and requires a drive down a steep and narrow road, which didn’t seem like the best idea in our large van. 

The purple sand is due to manganese garnet deposits, but don’t expect a vibrant purple beach when visiting. The beach tends to have a purple hue more so after it rains or when wet, with a lot of the beach looking more tan. Besides the purple sand, many photographers come to this beach to photograph the keyhole arch. 

While the arch itself is beautiful, what makes it extra special is that during a specific time of the year (usually around New Years), a sun ray shines directly through the hole as it sets, which is a gorgeous phenomenon.

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is a 1,000 acre state park nestled on the western slope of the Santa Lucia Mountains, with the Big Sur River running through it. This park is one of the best spots to stay in the area, as it has almost 200 campsites and a lodge, but it also offers a couple trails to hike as well!

Note: Similar to other parks in the area, dogs are only allowed on the Warden’s Path and River Path, plus at the campground, but not on other trails.

Buzzard’s Roost Trail

Miles (round trip): 2.6
Elevation (feet): 810
Reviews & Current Conditions

This trail takes you higher up into the mountains and gives you a nice view of the ocean!

Pfeiffer Falls Trail

Miles (round trip): 1.3
Elevation (feet): 403
Reviews & Current Conditions

This hike takes you through a pristine forest and to a 60 foot tall waterfall!

Grab a bite to eat 

Between Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and Partington Cove is the most developed area of Big Sur, not including the start and end points. Here you can find a handful of restaurants and bakeries, which make for a great place to stop if you want a bite to eat. A few spots to check out here are Big Sur Bakery, Nepenthe, and COAST Big Sur!

Partington Cove

Partington Cove was one of the best surprises of the drive for us! This 1.1 mile trail gains 347 feet of elevation (which is on the way back, as it starts by going downhill) and takes you to multiple gorgeous coves, through giant trees and a tunnel, and by a beautiful creek. It packs a HUGE punch for its short distance!

To access this hike, you’ll park along the highway and then go through a gate to get on the trail. While short, it is a steep hike back up and very exposed, so make sure to have water handy!

Note: dogs are NOT allowed on this hike either. Sorry pups!

McWay Falls

McWay Falls | Big Sur Road Trip

Another one of Big Sur’s most iconic sights is McWay Falls. This gorgeous 80 foot single stream waterfall falls gently onto a perfectly pristine beach and sometimes directly into the ocean. It’s such an idyllic scene and there’s no doubt it is the background of many laptop screens!

The “official” way to get to McWay Falls is to park in the parking lot on the east side of the highway in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. It costs $10 to park for the day and there is a trail that takes you under the highway and to the other side of the highway to a few viewpoints. This trail will take you a bit closer and lower to the beach and falls, but we think the best view is just from the road.

To view the waterfall from the road, you can pull off at one of the pull offs along the highway and walk to a viewing area. This is FREE to do and like we mentioned, we think the view is even better, since you’re higher up. Either way you experience it, this is an absolute MUST when visiting Big Sur!

You can pay to park in the state park, but what we do is park in the shoulder parking along the road just north of the entrance to the park where you can park for free and still access the trail.

You are NOT allowed to hike down to the beach or cove. There are hefty fines and you might even be arrested if you are caught doing it. 

Limekiln State Park

NOTE: This park has been closed since August 2020 due to the Dolan Fire. It will continue to be closed from January 1-31, 2023. You can see the park’s current status here.

We have yet to visit Limekiln State Park, as it was closed during our most recent visit, but it is on the list for a future trip! And one of the top things we want to check out here is the Limekiln Creek Falls Trail, which is 1.4 miles and 331 feet of elevation gain and incorporates both nature and history!

This trail traverses through redwood forests along a creek to a beautiful waterfall and along the way you’ll come across four old iron and stone kilns from the 1880s, when limestone was harvested nearby. They would use the kilns to extract the lime, which was used for cement for many buildings in San Francisco and Monterey. Redwood trees would be used to fuel these kilns and once all the lime was harvested, the kilns were abandoned. 

Sand Dollar Beach

Sand Dollar Beach is a gorgeous, crescent-shaped beach that is almost three quarters of a mile, which is Big Sur’s unbroken stretch of sand. You might not find very many sand dollars here, despite its name, but you will find a fantastic beach with pristine water and a mountain backdrop.

To access the beach, you can either park in the parking lot for $10 or do what we did and park for free on the road. After parking, you’ll head down the short trail and down a staircase to the massive beach. We especially recommend coming at low tide, when the beach is more exposed. At high tide, the beach is often engulfed by the ocean. 

Dogs are also welcome at the beach and are allowed to be off leash. This is also a popular spot to surf too!

Photo by Jocelyn Allen on Unsplash

Ragged Point

Ragged Point is a popular area on the southern end of Big Sur and is loaded with hiking opportunities here, hidden beaches, and waterfalls! Here are a handful to check out.

Salmon Creek Trail to Salmon Creek Falls

Miles (round trip): 0.3
Elevation (feet): 26
Reviews & Current Conditions 

This short, flat walk takes you to the 120 foot Salmon Creek Falls. If you go during the heat of the summer there is a natural pool there to take a dip, so don’t forget your swimsuit if you’d like to jump in!

Reviews say the trail can be a bit confusing, so definitely download the offline map for this one.

Ragged Point Trail

Miles (round trip): 0.8
Elevation (feet): 269
Reviews & Current Conditions 

The Ragged Point Trail is deceptively signed as a “nature trail,” but don’t be misled to think it’s easy. On this hike you’ll descend about a few hundred feet down a steep and slick trail to a black sand beach cove with a very tall waterfall! In some photos there are some ropes to help you down and many reviewers said they scooted on their butts on the way down to feel more secure. We mention all that to say this hike isn’t for novice hikers or those who aren’t up for an adventure.

Make sure to plan your hike during low tide so that the beach is exposed. Also, remember, what goes down must come back up!

Pacific Valley Bluff Trail

Miles (round trip): 1.6
Elevation (feet): 127
Reviews & Current Conditions

This is another short, but sweet hike in the Ragged Point area. This trail is 1.6 miles round trip and when you get out to the coastline you’ll have amazing vistas! Keep an eye out for poison oak and ticks along the trail.

Elephant Seal Vista Point

Photo by mana5280 on Unsplash

The Elephant Seal Vista Point is home to a pretty exciting natural event every year, the return of elephant seals! Around mid-November the dominant bull seals arrive from their long migration, begin displacing the sub males, and begin their mating rituals.

There will possibly be thousands of seals battling to win the affection of the female seals all day long over this stretch of beach! It’s a loud and chaotic scene, but is truly a National Geographic moment! At the viewing area there is a short trail you can take to explore a bit more of the coastline and stretch your legs.

Seals can be seen at the beaches year round, but some seasons are better than others. To see these elephant seals during their mating season, visit the viewpoint between mid-November and mid-January. Molting season, when the seals shed their coat for a new, silver fur, starts in April and lasts until early August. From then until mid-November is when the least amount of animals are on the beach.

Hearst Castle

Hearst Castle is a stunning mansion up in the hills of San Simeon that was built by William Randolph Hearst in the early 1900s. It has ornate architecture, both on the exterior and interior, and is open to the public to visit through a variety of tour options, which will take you to different rooms, depending on the tour you choose.

Unfortunately during our visit it was closed, but if you’d like to visit, tours are offered daily and tickets start at $30 per adult and $15 per child. You can book your tours here!

Big Sur Road Trip Itinerary Options

As you can see, there is a LOT to do in Big Sur and it would be hard to see and do everything in one visit, so to hopefully help you figure out how to spend your time while on your Big Sur road trip, we’ve whipped up some itineraries, for 1-4 days, to help get you started!

Big Sur Road Trip

1 Day Itinerary

If you only have one day in Big Sur, we suggest not driving the entire coastline and focusing on the first half, which has the most popular sights. This will give you more time to truly enjoy the scenery vs. rushing. This itinerary also assumes you start and end in Monterey, so you’ll want to stay in or near Monterey.

  • Grab coffee and breakfast at Captain + Stoker in Monterey.
  • Visit Point Lobos State Natural Reserve and hike the Point Lobos Loop Trail. Try to get there right when they open to ensure you have enough time for the other stops.
  • Check out Calla Lily Valley (if in season) and hit the beach at Garrapata State Park.
  • Drive to the iconic Bixby Creek Bridge.
  • Hike to Partington Cove.
  • See McWay Falls.
  • Drive back towards Monterey and along the way, enjoy the sunset along the Soberanes Point and Bluff Trail Garrapata State Park!
  • Grab dinner in either Monterey or Carmel-by-the-Sea.

2 Day Itinerary

If you have two days to explore Big Sur, we’d recommend driving the entire coastline and staying the night halfway, so that you can eliminate backtracking and having to drive extra the second day.

Day 1

  • Grab coffee and breakfast at Captain + Stoker in Monterey.
  • Visit Point Lobos State Natural Reserve and hike the Point Lobos Loop Trail. Try to get there right when they open to ensure you have enough time for the other stops.
  • Explore Garrapata State Park! We suggest checking out the Soberanes Point and Bluff Trails, Calla Lily Valley (if in season), and hitting the beach.
  • Drive to the iconic Bixby Creek Bridge.
  • Stay near Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, whether at the lodge, the campground, or any other options we listed earlier in this guide.
  • Watch the sunset from Pfeiffer Beach.

Day 2

  • Start the morning with a hike to Buzzard’s Roost.
  • Have breakfast at Big Sur Bakery or COAST Big Sur.
  • Hike to Partington Cove.
  • See the majestic McWay Falls.
  • Admire the views from Ragged Point and if you have the time, do one of the hikes.
  • See the seals at Elephant Seal Vista Point.
  • Continue on to your next California destination (we highly recommend San Luis Obispo County!) or turn around and head back the same way you came. If driving back north, we suggest taking the more inland route, which will be shorter.
Big Sur Road Trip

3 Day Itinerary

With three days in Big Sur, you can enjoy more longer hikes along the way! Similar to the two day itinerary, we’d suggest staying down the coastline for both nights so that you don’t have to drive back to Monterey or San Simeon everyday.

Day 1

  • Grab coffee and breakfast at Captain + Stoker in Monterey.
  • Visit Point Lobos State Natural Reserve and hike the Point Lobos Loop Trail. Try to get there right when they open to ensure you have enough time for the other stops.
  • Explore Garrapata State Park! We suggest checking out the Soberanes Point and Bluff Trails, Calla Lily Valley (if in season), and hitting the beach.
  • Drive to the iconic Bixby Creek Bridge.
  • Stay near Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, whether at the lodge, the campground, or any other options we listed earlier in this guide. 
  • Watch the sunset from Pfeiffer Beach.

Day 2

  • Have breakfast at Big Sur Bakery or COAST Big Sur.
  • Hike at Andrew Molera State Park. We’d plan for at least 4 hours here!
  • Hike to Partington Cove.
  • See the majestic McWay Falls.
  • Enjoy a sunset dinner at Nepenthe.
  • Stay at the same accommodations you had for the previous night.

Day 3

  • It’s time to head more south! Start the morning with breakfast at Big Sur Bakery or COAST Big Sur and then hit the road!
  • Spend the first part of the drive stopping at different overlooks and if Limekiln State Park is open, hike to the waterfall there!
  • Enjoy a picnic lunch on Sand Dollar Beach (if low tide).
  • Admire the views from Ragged Point and if you have time, hike one of the trails.
  • See the seals at Elephant Seal Vista Point.
  • If you have extra time, tour Hearst Castle!
  • Continue on to your next California destination (we highly recommend San Luis Obispo County!) or turn around and head back the same way you came. If driving back north, we suggest taking the more inland route, which will be shorter!
Big Sur Road Trip

4 Day Itinerary

The perk of 4 days in Big Sur is that you’ll have more time to enjoy Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea! For this itinerary, we have multiple lodging suggestions, which we will include under each day.

Day 1

  • Have breakfast in Monterey at Old Monterey Cafe or Wave Street Cafe.
  • Rent bikes and bike the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreational Trail! If biking isn’t your thing, the aquarium is another activity option to check out.
  • Check out the Old Fisherman’s Wharf.
  • Spend the rest of the day in Carmel! Grab lunch at Rise Bakery + Roam Restaurant, wander around the charming town, and check out the Carmel Mission Basilica. 
  • For sunset, head to Carmel River State Beach!
  • Enjoy dinner at Treehouse Cafe.

Day 2

  • Grab coffee and breakfast at Captain + Stoker in Monterey.
  • Visit Point Lobos State Natural Reserve and hike the Point Lobos Loop Trail. Try to get there right when they open to ensure you have enough time for the other stops.
  • Explore Garrapata State Park! We suggest checking out the Soberanes Point and Bluff Trails, Calla Lily Valley (if in season), and hitting the beach.
  • Drive to the iconic Bixby Creek Bridge.
  • Stay near Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, whether at the lodge, the campground, or any other options we listed earlier in this guide. 
  • Watch the sunset from Pfeiffer Beach.

Day 3

  • Have breakfast at Big Sur Bakery or COAST Big Sur.
  • Hike at Andrew Molera State Park. We’d plan for at least 4 hours here!
  • Hike to Partington Cove.
  • See the majestic McWay Falls.
  • Enjoy a sunset dinner at Nepenthe.
  • Stay at the same accommodations you had for the previous night.

Day 4

  • It’s time to head more south! Start the morning with breakfast at Big Sur Bakery or COAST Big Sur and then hit the road!
  • Spend the first part of the drive stopping at different overlooks and if Limekiln State Park is open, hike to the waterfall there!
  • Enjoy a picnic lunch on Sand Dollar Beach (if low tide).
  • Admire the views from Ragged Point and hike one of the trails.
  • See the seals at Elephant Seal Vista Point.
  • If you have extra time, tour Hearst Castle!
  • Continue on to your next California destination (we highly recommend San Luis Obispo County!) or turn around and head back the same way you came. If driving back north, we suggest taking the more inland route, which will be shorter!

Ready for an EPIC Big Sur road trip?

Pin this Big Sur Road Trip guide to help plan your trip!

about us

Hi y’all! We’re Adam, Kathryn, and Kona, an adventurous married couple (+ pup!) living on the road in our self-converted sprinter van! You can often find us driving all around the US and Canada, scoping out the best coffee shops, eating tacos and ice cream (we’re a 5+ taco and 2+ scoop household), and enjoying nature.

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