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11+ Best Places you need to stop in Big Sur, California

A Big Sur road trip is one of my top recommendations for must-visit places on a West Coast road trip itinerary.

The beautiful coastline complete with waterfalls cascading onto beaches, beautiful flowers, deserted sands, and forests is sure to impress you as you drive this gorgeous stretch of road.

We drove this highway in 2017 after we’d explored Yosemite National Park. We headed over towards Monterey with plans to drive south on HWY 1, also known as Big Sur. I’d heard there were plenty of places to stop in Big Sur, that the drive is absolutely beautiful, that there were waterfalls crashing onto the beach, and great walks to do too.

As we headed from Big Sur to San Francisco it became clear that unfortunately, there’d been a huge winter storm that resulted in flooded beaches and destroyed beaches which was a bit of a theme during this part of our American road trip.

This meant that Big Sur was closed going south near Andrew Molera State Park. On top of that, if we’d tried to hike down to the beach we’d be given a HUGE fine if caught. We decided not to risk it and enjoyed the part of the drive we could do.

Luckily, we still got to see most of the top Big Sur California places to visit and were able to head back a few years later to tick off the rest.

If you’re planning on driving HWY1 in California, then consider this your guide to visiting Big Sur, CA. It includes the best places to stop in Big Sur, where to stay in Big Sur, and plenty more useful information for your road trip in California.

a guide to a big sur road trip from san Francisco pin

Top tips for a Big Sur road trip

If you’re planning on driving Big Sur, be sure to bear these things in mind and be sure to check out my road trip packing checklist for more top tips.

Don’t rush it!

Drive slow or you’ll miss it! Some of the best viewpoints in Big Sur aren’t official attractions in Big Sur, or well-known places to stop. Many of the pull-offs with incredible views. These were some of our favourite stops so go slow, be ready to pull over and snap some gorgeous Big Sur views!

Go slow

On a nice day, there are 100s of people driving up and down, doing their own Big Sur road trip. Be wary and pay attention to the road to make sure you don’t end up hitting someone

Forget your phone…

There’s not much mobile phone service along the Big Sur. If you’ve already added the points on my Big Sur road trip map below to your phone then you can use that to see where you should be stopping. It’s pretty hard to get lost so you don’t really need your phone to navigate.

…Unless You want an audio tour!

If you love knowing more about what you’re seeing, the history, and what to look out for, you’ll love this audio tour of Big Sur. 

Go early in the day

I’m an early bird so I’m always going to preach about doing things early but take my word for it with Big Sur. Summer, in particular, is busy but so is any nice, sunny day. Go early in the morning and the roads are a lot quieter so you won’t be competing for parking spaces and photo spots!

Take road snacks and/or lunch

There aren’t many places to grab food in Big Sur and any Big restaurants you do find are going to be a lot more expensive because of their location.

It’s a good idea to stock up on snacks and food for your Big Sur scenic drive in San Francisco or Monterey first.

big sur road trip

Where to stop in Big Sur from San Francisco to Julia Pfeiffer State Park

Car hired, now it’s time to begin your Big Sur road trip from California. These stops take you from San Francisco to Pfeiffer State Park but, if you like to hike, you’ll want to carry on driving south for some of the best hikes in Big Sur.

If you’ve been wondering what to do in Big Sur on Highway 1, here’s your answer as well as details on where to stop at Big Sur.

A map for your Big Sur Road trip

big sur road trip map

Add this Big Sur map to your Google Maps app and you’ll be able to see where the stops are when you do your Big Sur road trip, even without a signal.

On the map, I’ve pinpointed what to see in Big Sur, as well as some of the best hikes in the area.

battery west san francisco

San Francisco

Chances are you’ll be spending several days in San Francisco and are just making a Big Sur day trip from San Francisco.

In that case, make sure to check out these things to do in San Francisco including Pier 39 & Fishermen’s Wharf, wandering the Mission District during the day, and going across the Golden Gate Bridge or check out the best Golden Gate viewpoints.

Recommended San Francisco tours

monterey hwy 1 california big sur

Browse the art studios of Monterey

Whilst this isn’t exactly Big Sur itself, it’s well worth adding a morning or afternoon in Monterey to your Big Sur itinerary. Monterey is a very artsy place with many galleries and studios to check out.

However, if art galleries aren’t your thing you’ll find wandering the pretty, tree-lined streets reason enough to check out the town. We enjoyed wandering around by the docks and watching the seals flip and flop out of the water.

Then, it’s time to leave Monterey to Big Sur and the views that await!

carmel by the sea big sur road trip

Carmel-by-the-Sea

Carmel-by-the-Sea is just the cutest little town. Despite its small size, there’s a lot to do and see. Even though the town is only one square mile, it’s filled with wonderful things.

You can walk down the main street and find boutique shops, art galleries, and places to eat. One of the most popular places to visit in Carmel is the old Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo. The Mission was built in 1797 by Spanish immigrants and today, it’s one of the best restored Catholic missions in California.

We had a wander around Carmel at the start of our drive to Big Sur from Carmel, stopping for coffee and browsing in some of the shops.

Carmel to Big Sur is 1-2 hours but more with stops.

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

Point Lobos State Park is a place of outstanding beauty. There are rare plant communities, endangered archaeological sites, unique geological formations, and incredibly rich flora and fauna of both land and sea.

The Reserve has often been called “the crown jewel of the State Park System” and is full of headlands, coves, and rolling meadows.

Visit from December to May and you may see the migrating grey whales. Follow hiking trails to the shoreline and hidden coves for an experience you won’t forget.

AllTrails is my go-to hiking app for finding, planning, and navigating while I’m out on the trails. With offline maps on AllTrails+ you can be confident you’re still on the right track, even without mobile signal.

where to stop in big sur california road trip

Walks at Garrapata State Park

I feel like not many people stop at Garrapata State Park. It’s pretty easy to miss the entrance, especially when you’re rushing to tick off stops like McWay Falls and Pfeiffer Beach. However, I’d definitely recommend making Garrapata one of your Big Sur stopping points.

When we drove Hwy 1, Garrapata State Park was the only area where we could walk down to a beach.

There are plenty of trails that take you through the meadows and wildflowers down to the sand. Or, if you prefer you can stay up high. If that sounds like you, walk the Rocky Ridge Trail or Soberanes Point Trail.

a big sur road trip

Bixby Bridge

Bixby Creek Bridge is seriously impressive. The arch in the lower half of the bridge is beautiful and on top of that, there are beautiful surroundings too!

This was one stop in Big Sur we could do and we spent a while here taking in our surroundings. It’s also one of the most popular things to see in Big Sur so parking spots near it get full quickly!

There’s another bridge about a mile away, Rocky Creek Bridge, that’s equally impressive in my opinion.

point sur lighthouse

Point Sur State Historic Park & Point Sur Lighthouse

Point Sur Lighthouse is another of the Pacific Coast Highway stops in Big Sur that you should add to your list of things to do in Big Sur.

The lighthouse stands tall on some beautiful rock just offshore and is very much needed on this treacherous stretch of coast.

If you want to get a bit closer to the lighthouse you can take a guided tour where you’ll learn more about the history too.

where to stop in big sur california road trip

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and beach

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is full of giant trees, rocky waterfalls, and out-of-this-world scenery. It’s more than worth getting out of your car for your road trip of California’s Hwy 1. Take a hike to Pfeiffer Falls and wander along the Valley View Trails.

Another thing to do while you’re visiting Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park be sure to check out Pfeiffer Beach.

This Big Sur beach is known for its strangely colored sand. The sand here is actually purple and that makes it well worth a stop in Big Sur whilst driving Hwy 1. The purple sand beach is best seen at the northern end and it’s created due to the manganese garnet rocks in the cliff.

The focal point of the beach is Keyhole Rock; an amazing natural arch (a bit like Lulworth Cove if you’re from the UK!) which is super cool to see as you road trip Big Sur.

If you’re a keen photographer it’s best to come between December and January to capture the sun shining through Keyhole Rock.

elephant seal vista

Seal Beach Overlook

Seal Beach Overlook is a quick place to visit to see many adorable elephant seals. You can find it near San Simeon. The seals here are really unique looking and you can often see them fighting with each other which is wild to watch.

There’s also another place to see seals along Big Sur called “Elephant Seal Vista Point”.

hearst castle big sur

Hearst Castle

Ever wanted to see a castle in America? There aren’t many castles in the United States, so you should visit the famous Hearst Castle.

A man named William Randolph Hearst began building this big house on his land near the town of San Simeon in 1919. He was well-known as a businessman, newspaper owner, and politician and he brought over old art from Europe to build this amazing castle.

I had a great time visiting the castle. There’s a beautiful pool and the inside is pretty impressive (if not also a little over the top!).

big sur hwy 1 mcway falls

McWay Falls, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

Chances are that you’ve seen a photo of McWay Falls before. It was an iconic stop in Big Sur and was one of the places that we couldn’t get to when we visited on our three-month USA road trip (it was a great excuse to go back!).

The waterfall falls onto the beach and then into the sea. The photos all look incredible and I can totally imagine sitting on the cliffside whilst having a picnic during a Big Sur trip!

Insiders Tip: The best view of McWay Falls is usually from the roadside! Just be careful of traffic as you walk along the road!

La to Big Sur Road Trip

If you’re going to Big Sur from La or vice-versa, here’s a detailed breakdown of a Los Angeles to Big Sur road trip, with some interesting stops along the way:

  • Start in Los Angeles: Begin your journey in the city of Los Angeles. Make sure your vehicle is ready for the trip and you have all the essentials packed.
  • Santa Barbara: The first stop is the beautiful city of Santa Barbara, about 2 hours north of Los Angeles. Enjoy the Spanish architecture, walk along the wharf, visit the old mission, or stroll through the Botanic Gardens.
  • Solvang: From Big Sur to Santa Barbara, stop in Solvang, an hour north. This Danish-style town is known for its windmills, traditional Danish bakeries, and unique shops.
  • Pismo Beach: About an hour from Solvang, you can enjoy some beach time. You can also check out the Monarch Butterfly Grove, where thousands of butterflies migrate between October and February.
  • San Luis Obispo: Another 20 minutes north, you’ll find the city of San Luis Obispo. Be sure to explore the downtown area, visit the local farmers market, and hike up to Bishop Peak for a fantastic view.
  • Morro Bay: 20 minutes west of San Luis Obispo, Morro Bay is famous for Morro Rock, an ancient volcanic mound at the end of Morro Rock Beach.
  • Hearst Castle: An hour north, stop to visit the world-famous Hearst Castle in San Simeon. Tour the grand rooms, guest houses, and pools.
  • Elephant Seal Rookery: Just 10 minutes north of Hearst Castle, check out the Elephant Seal Rookery, a beach filled with elephant seals.
  • Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park: About an hour and 45 minutes north, you’ll find this state park, home to the stunning McWay Falls, an 80-foot waterfall that drops from cliffs directly into the ocean.
  • Big Sur: Your final destination, Big Sur, is only 15 minutes north of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Enjoy the majestic coastal views, hike in the redwood forests, or relax at one of the many stunning beaches.
usa west coast road trip

Best hikes in Big Sur

If you like hiking then make sure you do some of the hikes in Big Sur. Some of the walks we did were among my favorite Big Sur stops.

It’s not a massively mountainous area (at least where you’re hiking) so most of them are easy hikes in California but they’re beautiful too. Plus, if you’re looking to lose the crowds, going hiking is a pretty good way to do so.

Jade Cove Trail (0.3 miles)

This trail involves a short walk through the bluffs and then a scramble down into Jade Cove where you may find some shards of real jade! It’s lovely and relaxing down here as not many people make the walk down here.

Sand Dollar Beach Trail (0.4 miles)

This short and easy hike takes you down some stairs to Sand Dollar Beach where you may be able to find some sand dollars. If, like me, you have no idea what a sand dollar is, then here you go: a sand dollar refers to a species of extremely flattened, burrowing sea urchins!

If you take some of the side trails that split off from the path down to the stairs, you’ll get some nice views from the bluffs out over the beach.

Hike to Partington Cove (1.1 miles)

This is another stop in Big Sur that is very easily missed. On this short hike, you descend pretty steeply.

This stop in Big Sur can be found on Google Maps. However, if you don’t have a cell signal just look out for some limited parking 2 miles north of the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.

Limekiln Falls (1.5 miles)

If you’re after a relatively short, easy hike in Big Sur, then head to Limekiln State Park.

Once there make your way through the giant redwood trees, over streams, and come out at Limekiln Falls.

This 100ft waterfall may be very impressive but make sure you also hike to the abandoned lime kiln too.

Andrew Molera Loop (8.2 miles)

The Andrew Molera Loop trail takes you along beach, bluffs, panoramic views, along ridges and through meadows. It’s the most popular trail in Andrew Molera State Park and is moderately difficult.

Hiking clockwise gives you constant breathtaking views. Take the detour on the Spring Trail and go down to the ‘hidden’ beach.

It’s quiet there because most people won’t hike that far to get to the beach, they will just take the short little beach trail near the beginning of the loop.

big sur road trip

What is Big Sur?

Big Sur is a beautiful scenic drive on the Central Californian Coast in the United States. While some people might refer to the area as Big Sur National Park, it’s not technically a US National Park, although its beauty makes it deserving of being one and there are several State Parks within the designated Big Sur area.

The Big Sur highway is often lauded for its dramatic scenery and is deemed to be something of a national treasure. The coastal views, redwood forests, hiking opportunities, and beaches in Big Sur make it impossible not to be impressed with the drive.

Where is Big Sur California?

The drive is situated between Carmel Highlands and San Simeon. Most people will end up doing the drive southwards from San Francisco or as part of a longer road trip from Los Angeles or Yosemite.  It’s about 2 hours south of San Francisco to Monterey.

Going from Los Angeles to Big Sur takes over 6 hours of driving.

When is the best time to visit Big Sur Ca?

The best time to visit Big Sur is during the shoulder season. In summer there are 1000s of people traveling along the road and you’ll often get queues and find yourself competing for the best spot to stop. With more than 300 days of sunshine per year, you’re likely to get good weather.

Visiting Big Sur between September and November is a great option when the temperatures are a little cooler, but likely still sunny.

Peak season in Big Sur is between April – October. If you are visiting in peak season, then just make sure to go early in the morning.

How long does it take to Drive Big Sur?

You can drive through Big Sur in a single day, but many prefer to take more time to enjoy everything the area offers. Here are some common routes for your Big Sur itinerary:

  • Starting and ending in Carmel-by-the-Sea, driving the full Big Sur Coast, and returning via an inland route (268 miles total).
  • Starting and ending in Carmel-by-the-Sea, driving the full Big Sur Coast, and returning along the same coastal route (240 miles total).
  • Starting in Carmel-by-the-Sea and ending in Morro Bay (120 miles total).
  • Starting and ending in Carmel-by-the-Sea, driving up to McWay Falls and back (78 miles total).

Ideally, it would be great to spend a week slowly traveling down the coast, stopping at every viewpoint but since most people don’t have the time for that, you can pick and choose where to stop. If you have more than 1 day in Big Sur, add in some hikes, or stop in a Big Sur cabin for a night or two as part of your road trip to Big Sur.

a big sur road trip

How to get to Big Sur California?

Most people visiting Big Sur will start and end in San Francisco since it’s the closest big city. If you’re doing a longer West Coast USA road trip you may be coming from another direction, but luckily it’s pretty easy to navigate around America so you shouldn’t get too lost!

For those of you coming from San Francisco to Big Sur, you simply head out of the city southbound towards Monterey. Depending on traffic, this will take you about 2 hours. From there, you head south until you’re ready to turn around!

Don’t have a car for visiting Big Sur? Take this day trip to Big Sur from San Jose and you’ll be driven and guided around on your private tour.

If you’re planning an LA to big sur road trip then your drive will be a bit longer. You’re looking at around 4-5 hours.

I use comparison sites like DiscoverCars and RentalCars to book my car rentals as it’s easy to check prices and compare the best deals!

where to stop in big sur california road trip

Where to stay in Big Sur

Whilst you can easily take a day trip out to Big Sur, with all the beautiful views and hikes, it’s nice to make it into a longer trip. If you’re planning to spend a night or two then check out these options for hotels near Big Sur.

Big Sur hotels

There isn’t a huge amount of choice when it comes to hotels along the highway. The ones that are there tend to be a lot more expensive than those in nearby towns.

So, if you’re looking for places to stay in Big Sur that aren’t camping, you’ll likely be in Carmel or Monterey.

These hotels in Big Sur are budget-friendly and get great reviews.

  • Hidden Valley Inn: Nestled among the Santa Lucia Mountains, this charming B&B is just 5 minutes walk to Carmel Valley Village. Parsonage Village Vineyard, Joullian Vineyards, and other Carmel Valley wineries are nearby. Free guest parking is available and rooms have garden, pool, or mountain views. Rates also include breakfast and reviews suggest it’s one of the best hotels in Big Sur.
  • Carmel Valley Lodge: Super close to Carmel Village, this lodge includes a great continental breakfast and Big Sur is just 1 hour’s drive away.
  • Contenta Inn: With a hot tub and heated outdoor pool, this Big Sur inn called Contenta Inn, is a great place to stay. Rooms are large with pretty views and include breakfast.

Camping in Big Sur

If you’re visiting Big Sur in summer then it can be great fun to camping. There are lots of different places to camp, but some of the best camping in Big Sur include the following.

  • Andrew Molera State Park: This campground is quite private and only has 24 sites available. It’s first-come, first-served and fills up quickly so go early in the morning to grab your space. There’s loads of hiking to do nearby and you’re also close to the Big Sur River for cooling off in afterwards.
  • Ventana Campground: The Ventana campground is in a redwood canyon with 40 acres of campsite to choose from. You’re close to amenities such as stores and restaurants in case you’ve forgotten something too. This campsite is, however, only available for tents.
  • Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park: There are 189 RV and tent sites here that are on or near the Big Sur River. It’s an extremely popular campground and reservations fill up 6 months in advance, even in the winter so it’s one you need to prepare for.

You can make Big Sur camping reservations here: ReserveCalifornia.

big sur road trip

FAQs on Highway 1 Big Sur Road Trip

Is Big Sur open?

The good news is that HWY 1 is fully open again. The bridges have been repaired and the flooding has receded! You can check current conditions and see whether Big Sur is open here and learn about any Big Sur road closures or Big Sur driving conditions.

Where does Big Sur start and end?

The Big Sur route typically starts near Carmel-by-the-Sea and ends near San Simeon along the California coast.

How long does it take to drive Big Sur?

Driving through Big Sur without stops takes 2-3 hours, but time varies depending on traffic and stops.

How many days should I spend in Big Sur?

It’s recommended to spend 1-3 days in Big Sur to fully appreciate its beauty and visit the main attractions.

Is the drive to Big Sur worth it?

Yes, the drive to Big Sur is worth it. It’s well known for its breathtaking coastal views, majestic redwood forests, and iconic landmarks like Bixby Bridge and ocean waterfalls.

Can you drive Big Sur in a day?

Yes, you can drive through Big Sur in a day, but more time allows for better exploration of the area including some hikes.

Final thoughts on Big Sur California

If you’re looking for the best places to visit on a California road trip, then you’ve just found them.

The Big Sur coast drive is one of the prettiest places to see in California with gorgeous beaches and Pacific Ocean views as well as castles and wildlife, who knew?!

This Big Sur travel guide is just one of the USA travel guides I have from our 3-month road trip around the country. If you’re traveling in California for longer, be sure to check out these awesome this guide to Yosemite, or the best places to stop on Hwy 101 in Northern California. These Mammoth Lake hot springs are also well worth checking out as well as the Big Sur drive.

Last Updated on July 27, 2023 by Hannah

Leave a comment

  1. Rebecca says:

    Looks like an amazing trip! We are planning a trip along Highway 1 later this year – will be using these recommendations!

  2. Hannah Flack says:

    “It’s actually a nice and helpful piece of information. I am satisfied that you just shared this useful information with us.
    Please keep us informed like this. Thanks for sharing”

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