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Big Sur Road Trip: A Thousand Wonders on California’s Central Coast

June 22, 2021 /
Big Sur california

Warning: Due to COVID 19 some information in this article (e.g. operating hours) may not be up-to-date.

One of the most beautiful scenic roads of the United States, and also one of the most famous in the world, runs along the central coast of California, close to the Pacific Ocean. This impressive road has tall cliffs that rise above the rushing and roaring sea and reach between 1,640 ft and 3,280 ft. What are we talking about here? Big Sur, America’s most famous scenic byway.

What Is Big Sur?

This section of the coast stretches along the legendary Highway 1 for over 93 miles, between two other Californian coastal gems, Hearst Castle at the south end and the charming town of Carmel at the northern end. However, the term Big Sur refers not only to the scenic route, but to a region, and the famous cliffs are only part of it.

In fact, Big Sur extends 20 miles inland and includes many nature parks, protected areas, beaches, and forests, proving to be a tourist destination suitable not only for road trip enthusiasts who are content to admire the picturesque views from the car, but also for those who love hiking trails and perhaps even sharing romantic moments.

Directions to Big Sur

Big Sur tripThe directions are simple. Big Sur is located in the center of the Californian coast and to get there, whether you’re coming from San Francisco or Los Angeles, just make sure you take Highway 1 (also known as the Pacific Coast Highway). At a certain point you’ll see hairpin bends and winding roads opening up on the horizon and you’ll know you’ve arrived!

You can choose to travel all the way up Highway 1, whether you’re coming from the north or south, but be mindful that the travel time on Highway 1 is much longer than on the faster inland roads that go from Los Angeles to San Francisco and vice versa. If you are only interested in driving through Big Sur, here are the different options:

From Los Angeles to Big Sur

Disclaimer
The described route takes into account road closures, so it may differ from the route provided by Google’s interactive maps.
  • Fastest route: Follow Highway 101 to San Luis Obispo, then take Highway 1 and continue along the coast past Morro Bay, Cambria and Hearst Castle before you the dizzying hairpin bends of Big Sur come into view.

Enlarged map view

  • Scenic route along the coast: Take Highway 1 from Los Angeles, pass Santa Monica and Malibu, a popular location we discussed in the article about what to do in Malibu. After Point Mugu State Park,  continue on Highway 1 for a short drive inland to Ventura. From there, you will return to the coast, pass Santa Barbara and Pismo Beach, two beautiful coastal resorts, and then continue to San Luis Obispo. Then follow the same directions described above.


Enlarged view of the map

From San Francisco to Big Sur

  • Fastest route: Head south of San Francisco via Daly City, San Mateo, Redwood City, Palo Alto, and San Jose. Continue on Highway 101, and after about 97 miles, take SR 156 west towards Monterey Peninsula and continue on the Pacific Coast Highway to Big Sur.


Enlarged map view

  • Scenic route along the coast: From San Francisco, take Highway 1 and follow it until you arrive at your destination. You’ll pass through unspoiled wilderness, but you’ll also have the chance to interesting cities and towns like Santa Cruz, Monterey, Carmel, Pacific Grove, Pebble Beach, as well as the scenic 17-Mile Drive.


Enlarged map view

Big Sur Photos

Things to Do in Big Sur: Itinerary With Points of Interest

The possible destinations on this stretch of coast are many more than you might think. To list them all would be nearly impossible. Here I will mention the main things to see, which are more than enough in order for you to fully enjoy Big Sur. First, I will show them to you on the map and then I will talk about each one in detail.

Viewpoints

Along the entire coastal route, you will find numerous vista points where you can stop to admire the panorama, so you will have plenty of opportunities to admire the surroundings!

The most famous bridge in Big Sur is certainly the Bixby Creek Bridge, known more simply as Bixby Bridge. This bridge was built in 1932 and at 279 ft above the water, you can see remarkable scenic views.

Another unmissable viewpoint is Point Sur Lighthouse, where you’ll find one of the most famous lighthouses in California (if you want you can enter and visit it), a very fascinating observation point to admire the entire surrounding area.

Hiking Trails

In Big Sur, there are more than 80 hikes to choose from if you want to spend the day hiking. Some have panoramic ocean views as their final destination while others will take you through the most pristine forests in the area. Here are 2 short hikes that are really worth it:

  • McWay Falls Overlook Trail (pay for parking): Arrive at the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. The short trail (just over half a mile) that begins next to the parking lot passes through a tunnel under Highway 1 and will lead you to a spectacular cliff. Right here, you’ll find McWay Falls, which plunges 82 ft down to the beach, often forming rainbows, and a bench situated in an ideal position to enjoy the view. If you come here in March or April, you will see whales!
  • Partington Cove Trail: This is a less frequented but equally fascinating hike. It is also a fast hike (one mile long) although slightly steeper. From Highway 1, the trail leads down through a tree-lined canyon and a historic wooden tunnel to Partington Cove, an isolated and scenic beach.

Beaches

Sometimes, as a result of cold currents, it is not ideal to go swimming at the beaches in Big Sur, but they are wonderful beaches that are worth visiting anyway. The top destination is certainly the scenic Pfeiffer Beach. Thanks to the unique color of the sand, the picturesque stacks, and the unbeatable sunsets, it is certainly considered one of the most beautiful beaches in California.

There is a parking fee (arrive early in the morning) and be careful because cars parked on the street usually get towed. If you are looking for a wider beach that is not as windy, you should visit Sand Dollar Beach.

Whales and Sea Lions: Where Can You See Them?

road trip big surIn Big Sur, there is also the opportunity for surprise wildlife encounters. Humpback whales, famous for their “acrobatics” on the water’s surface, regularly migrate to and around Monterey Bay and are usually seen between late April to early December. One of the spots in Big Sur where they are observed regularly is in the area near the intersection of Partington Ridge and Highway 1, although there is a good chance to spot them at any viewpoint!

To see the sea lions, you’ll actually have to go south of Big Sur to San Simeon. Shortly after passing the lighthouse at Point Piedras Blancas, you’ll find a sign (Vista Point) for an observation point (with a parking lot) where you can get a close-up view of many sea lions. If you are using Google Maps, search for Elephant Seal Vista Point. The distance between Big Sur Station and the vista point is about 60 miles.

Something unexpected…

The last thing you would expect to find here is a community of monks of Camaldoli… and yet, they are here. Located in a beautiful scenic position, the New Camaldoli Hermitage (official site) is open to visitors and sells handicrafts and food.

Places to Eat in Big Sur

Between Andrew Molera State Park and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, you will find the Big Sur Village, which has shops, businesses, and accommodations. The place to eat with the most breathtaking views, however, is the Nepenthe. At this restaurant, you can dine on a romantic panoramic terrace while watching the sunset.

Where to Stay in Big Sur

Accommodations at Big Sur Village, especially in the summer, always fill up well in advance, so I suggest that you book online as soon as possible and not search strictly in Big Sur Village.

If you are looking for a special experience, you can select the Post Ranch Inn, perched 3937 ft above the Pacific, like a window that opens out to the ocean on a clear day. Even on cloudy days, you can still enjoy the unique atmosphere, with traditional wood-burning stoves and indoor thermal baths included in all 30 rooms. On the opposite side of the road, Ventana Inn also gives guests the experience of being immersed in nature.

For those who are looking for a quaint place to stay, there is the Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn. This historic inn has been open since 1930. The rooms are comfortable and are enriched with antiques. The inn’s restaurant is also popular. It serves a hearty breakfast every morning. To find accommodations in the area and plan your itinerary, you can also read my advice on where to stay between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Below is a list of accommodations in the area:

List of hotels at Big Sur on Booking.com

List of hotels at Big Sur on Hotelscombined.it


Our Tip:
Looking for accommodations for your trip from California to other parts of the Southwest? Read our guide that contains reviews of hotels and strategic tips for finding accommodations near major attractions: Where to Stay: Our Tips for the SouthWest Area

lorenzo puliti

I am fascinated by the wonders of the world I never tire of going in search of them.

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