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Places you need to stop in Big Sur, California

Places you need to stop in Big Sur, California

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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 on to 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 which resulted in flooded beaches and destroyed beaches.

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.

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.

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

What is Big Sur?

Big Sur is a beautiful scenic drive of 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 in 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?

The best time to visit Big Sur is in the shoulder season. In summer there are 1000s of people travelling 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 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 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 simply 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.

Need to rent a car in San Francisco? I always check RentalCars.com before renting a car. They make it super easy to compare deals on car rental sites, so you can find the best deal for you.

Looking for flights to San Francisco? Skyscanner is my go-to website when it comes to finding cheap flights. See my other flight hacking tips here.

Top tips for a Big Sur road trip

If you’re planning on driving Big Sur, be sure to bear these things in mind.

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 with snacks and food for your Big Sur drive in San Francisco or Monterey first.

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

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

San Francisco

Chances are you’ll be spending several days in San Francisco and are just doing 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 in the day and going across the Golden Gate Bridge. Check out these posts for most San Francisco travel ideas.

Recommended San Francisco tours

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 and there are loads of 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!

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve 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.

Walks at Garrapata State Park

where to stop in big sur california road trip

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 which 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.

Bixby Bridge

where to stop in big sur california road trip

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!

Point Sur State Historic Park & Point Sur Lighthouse

Point Sur Lighthouse is another of the Pacific Coast Highway stops in Big Sur 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.

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and beach

where to stop in big sur california road trip

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 on your road trip of California’s Hwy 1. Take a hike to Pfeiffer Falls and the 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 strange coloured 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!). If you’re a keen photographer it’s best to come between December and January to capture the sun shining through Keyhole Rock.

McWay Falls, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

big sur hwy 1 mcway falls

Chances are that you’ve seen a photo of McWay Falls before. It 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 (an excuse to go back!). The waterfall falls on to 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!

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 favourite 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.

Jade Cove hike details

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.

More details on this hike here.

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. You’ll begin by going down through a tree-lined canyon to a rocky beach before walking through a tunnel and coming out a Partington Cove. There’s a bench at the end for your effort as well as beautiful, quiet views.

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

See more about the hike here

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 is very impressive! Make sure you also hike to the abandoned lime kiln too.

Hike details here. 

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.

More details on the loop trail

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 has 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.

Want more California travel ideas & adventures?

Hannah Flack

Tuesday 20th of April 2021

"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"

Rebecca

Saturday 12th of May 2018

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