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Driving Big Sur: Best Big Sur Road Trip Itinerary (Top Views + Stops!)


Modified: December 27, 2023

by Candace Moynihan



Welcome to the picturesque coastline of California’s central coast, where rugged cliffs, pristine beaches, and breathtaking views await you on an unforgettable road trip through Big Sur. Nestled between the majestic Santa Lucia Mountains and the sparkling waters of the Pacific Ocean, Big Sur offers a natural beauty that is unmatched. Whether you’re a nature enthusiast, a photography lover, or simply seeking a serene escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, this iconic stretch of Highway 1 is the perfect destination.


Big Sur is located approximately 150 miles south of San Francisco and stretches for around 90 miles along the California coast, from Carmel-by-the-Sea to San Simeon. It’s renowned for its dramatic landscapes, including towering cliffs, ancient redwood forests, hidden coves, and cascading waterfalls. The journey along this coastal highway is as much a part of the experience as the destinations themselves, with numerous scenic viewpoints offering panoramic vistas of the ocean and rugged coastline.


Whether you have a few days or a week to explore this enchanting region, we’ve crafted the ultimate Big Sur road trip itinerary that highlights the must-see attractions and hidden gems along the way. From historic landmarks to secluded beaches, you’ll have the opportunity to immerse yourself in the beauty and tranquility of this coastal wonderland.


So buckle up, roll down the windows, and get ready to embark on a road trip of a lifetime. In this guide, we’ll take you through the best stops, top views, and essential tips to make your Big Sur adventure truly unforgettable. Let’s hit the road!


Getting There

Getting to Big Sur is part of the adventure, as the drive along Highway 1 offers stunning views and a sense of anticipation for what lies ahead. The most common starting point for a Big Sur road trip is San Francisco, located approximately 150 miles north of Big Sur.


If you’re flying into the area, the closest major airport is San Francisco International Airport (SFO). From there, you can rent a car and begin your journey southward. Alternatively, you can fly into Monterey Regional Airport (MRY) or San Jose International Airport (SJC), both of which are closer to Big Sur.


Once you have your transportation sorted, it’s time to hit the road. The most scenic route to enter Big Sur is via Highway 1, also known as the Pacific Coast Highway. From San Francisco, take US-101 South to CA-156 West, which will lead you onto Highway 1 South. This iconic coastal road will take you through charming seaside towns, over iconic bridges, and along sheer cliffs with breathtaking ocean views.


Keep in mind that Highway 1 in Big Sur has some twists and turns, and sections of the road may be narrow and winding. Drive carefully and be prepared to make frequent stops to admire the scenery and let other vehicles pass.


If you prefer not to drive, there are also bus tours that offer guided trips to Big Sur, allowing you to sit back, relax, and enjoy the views without worrying about navigation. However, having a vehicle will give you more flexibility to explore the various stops and attractions at your own pace.


It’s important to note that road conditions along Highway 1 in Big Sur can change due to weather, rockslides, or construction. Before embarking on your journey, check the official California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) website for any road closures or advisories.


Now that you know how to get there, it’s time to dive into the exciting details of your Big Sur road trip. Get ready to experience the magic of this stunning coastal paradise!


Day 1: Starting in Monterey

Your Big Sur road trip begins in the charming coastal city of Monterey. Known for its rich history, beautiful coastline, and vibrant marine life, Monterey offers a perfect starting point for your adventure.


Start your day by exploring Cannery Row, a historic district that was once lined with sardine canneries but has now been transformed into a bustling waterfront area with shops, restaurants, and attractions. Take a stroll along the scenic coastline and visit the renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium, where you can marvel at fascinating marine exhibits and get up close to sea otters, penguins, and other sea creatures.


After immersing yourself in Monterey’s coastal charm, head south on Highway 1 to Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. This stunning park is a haven for nature lovers, with its rugged cliffs, hidden coves, and diverse wildlife. Take a leisurely hike along the network of trails, marvel at the crashing waves, and keep an eye out for sea lions, seals, and colorful seabirds.


As the day comes to a close, make your way to one of Monterey’s seafood restaurants for a delicious dinner. Indulge in fresh local seafood, from clam chowder and Dungeness crab to grilled fish and lobster. Pair your meal with a glass of local California wine and savor the flavors of the region.


After dinner, take a leisurely walk along the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail, which stretches for 18 miles along the coast from Castroville to Pacific Grove. Enjoy the cool ocean breeze and stunning sunset views as you wind your way along the trail.


For accommodations, Monterey offers a range of options to suit every budget. Whether you prefer a waterfront hotel with ocean views or a cozy bed and breakfast in the heart of the city, you’ll find plenty of choices to ensure a comfortable night’s rest.


As you settle into your accommodations, reflect on the beauty and serenity of your first day in Monterey. Tomorrow, the journey continues as you venture deeper into the breathtaking landscapes of Big Sur. Get a good night’s sleep and prepare for another day of awe-inspiring sights and unforgettable experiences.


Day 2: Exploring Carmel-by-the-Sea

On day two of your Big Sur road trip, immerse yourself in the quaint and picturesque seaside town of Carmel-by-the-Sea. Known for its storybook charm, artistic atmosphere, and pristine white-sand beaches, Carmel-by-the-Sea is a must-visit destination along the California coast.


Start your day with a leisurely stroll down Ocean Avenue, the main street of Carmel-by-the-Sea. Lined with boutique shops, art galleries, and charming cafes, this pedestrian-friendly street is the perfect place to explore and soak up the town’s unique atmosphere. Admire the captivating architecture and whimsical cottages that add to the town’s charm.


Make your way to Carmel Beach, a pristine stretch of sand with dramatic views of the Pacific Ocean. Take off your shoes, feel the sand between your toes, and breathe in the fresh ocean air. This beach is beloved by locals and visitors alike, offering a tranquil escape and the opportunity to soak up the sun or watch the colorful sunset.


If you’re a nature lover, don’t miss the opportunity to visit Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, located just south of Carmel-by-the-Sea. This natural reserve is a paradise of scenic trails, rugged cliffs, and diverse wildlife. Explore the various hiking trails, from easy coastal walks to more challenging treks, and be enchanted by the beauty of this coastal wonderland.


For lunch, indulge in a meal at one of Carmel-by-the-Sea’s renowned restaurants. From gourmet cuisine to casual seafood eateries, there’s something to satisfy every palate. Enjoy farm-to-table dishes, fresh seafood caught daily, and delectable desserts that showcase the region’s culinary expertise.


After lunch, take some time to explore the town’s artistic side. Visit the numerous art galleries and boutiques that dot the streets, showcasing the work of local artists and craftsmen. From paintings and sculptures to jewelry and ceramics, you’ll find unique pieces to bring home as a memento of your time in Carmel-by-the-Sea.


As the day comes to an end, find a cozy spot at one of the town’s wine tasting rooms and savor the flavors of Carmel Valley. Sample a variety of locally produced wines and learn about the region’s winemaking history. Raise your glass to a day well-spent and toast to the beauty and charm of this idyllic coastal town.


For your overnight stay, Carmel-by-the-Sea offers a wide range of accommodation options, from charming bed and breakfasts to luxury beachfront resorts. Choose a place that suits your preferences and enjoy a restful night’s sleep, knowing that more awe-inspiring sights await you in the days ahead.


Day 3: Breathtaking Views from Garrapata State Park

Day three of your Big Sur road trip takes you to the awe-inspiring Garrapata State Park. Located between Carmel-by-the-Sea and Big Sur, this hidden gem offers stunning coastal views, diverse ecosystems, and the chance to immerse yourself in the natural beauty of the region.


Begin your day with a scenic drive along Highway 1 towards Garrapata State Park. As you wind your way through the coastal cliffs, keep an eye out for the pullouts and viewpoints that offer panoramic vistas of the Pacific Ocean. Take a moment to pause, breathe in the fresh sea air, and admire the rugged beauty of the coastline.


Upon arrival at Garrapata State Park, lace up your hiking boots and explore the park’s network of trails. The Soberanes Canyon Trail is a popular choice, leading you through a lush forested canyon and offering expansive views of the coastline. The trail can be challenging, with steep sections and uneven terrain, but the reward is worth it. Traverse the trail with caution and be prepared to encounter diverse plant and animal life along the way.


One of the highlights of Garrapata State Park is the stunning Garrapata Beach, with its golden sands and crashing waves. Take a leisurely stroll along the shoreline, feel the sand between your toes, and listen to the rhythmic sound of the ocean. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can even dip your toes in the chilly Pacific waters.


As you explore the park, keep an eye out for the abundant wildlife that calls Garrapata home. Deer, rabbits, and a variety of bird species are often spotted in the area, adding to the enchanting atmosphere of the park.


After a morning of hiking and immersing yourself in nature, find a secluded spot for a picnic lunch amidst the coastal beauty. Pack a delicious spread of sandwiches, snacks, and refreshing beverages, and enjoy a leisurely meal while overlooking the panoramic ocean views.


In the afternoon, continue your exploration of Garrapata State Park by venturing towards the iconic Rocky Ridge Trail. This trail takes you to higher elevations, providing even more staggering views of the surrounding landscape. Ascend to the top of the ridge and marvel at the dramatic coastal cliffs, the turquoise waters, and the expansive natural beauty that stretches as far as the eye can see.


As the day draws to a close, experience the magic of a coastal sunset from Garrapata State Park. Find a serene spot, perhaps perched on a cliffside or on the beach, and witness the sun sink below the horizon, casting a golden glow over the landscape.


After a day filled with breathtaking views and memorable experiences, it’s time to head back to your accommodations and recharge for the next leg of your Big Sur adventure. Rest up and get ready for more awe-inspiring vistas and exciting destinations that await you in the days ahead.


Day 4: Pfeiffer Beach and McWay Falls

Day four of your Big Sur road trip is filled with two iconic stops that showcase the natural beauty of the region – Pfeiffer Beach and McWay Falls.


Start your day by heading to Pfeiffer Beach, a hidden gem renowned for its stunning coastal landscapes. Accessible via a narrow and winding road, the beach offers a serene and secluded atmosphere that will take your breath away. As you step onto the soft sands, be prepared to be mesmerized by the sight of the iconic Keyhole Rock, which frames the crashing waves and creates a picture-perfect scene. Marvel at the natural arch formed by the rock and capture the beauty of the beach with your camera.


Make sure to take a leisurely stroll along the shoreline, enjoy the sensation of the cool ocean breeze, and feel the grains of sand beneath your feet. Pfeiffer Beach is also known for its distinctive purple sand, a result of manganese garnet deposits. Take your time to explore the beach and soak up the tranquil ambiance before moving on to your next stop.


From Pfeiffer Beach, make your way to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, home to the famous McWay Falls. This picturesque waterfall cascades 80 feet down onto a pristine beach, creating a postcard-worthy scene. Follow the short trail that leads to an overlook, and be prepared to be awestruck by the beauty of this hidden gem. The turquoise waters, lush greenery, and cascading waterfall create a scene straight out of a fairy tale.


While visiting McWay Falls, take some time to explore the other trails and viewpoints within Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. The park offers a variety of hiking options, each providing unique perspectives of the rugged coastline and lush forests. Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife sightings, including seals and dolphins that can often be spotted in the clear waters.


For lunch, find a spot in the park to enjoy a picnic amidst the natural beauty that surrounds you. As you dine, listen to the crashing waves and breathe in the fresh coastal air. It’s a perfect opportunity to relax and soak up the tranquil ambiance of Big Sur.


Before leaving Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, take a moment to reflect on the magnificence of McWay Falls and the wonders of nature. The sight of the waterfall flowing into the turquoise cove will likely remain etched in your memory of Big Sur.


As the day comes to a close, head back to your accommodations or find a cozy spot to catch the sunset along the Big Sur coastline. Witness the sky ablaze with vibrant hues, reflecting on the tranquil waters as the day ends in a blaze of color.


With Pfeiffer Beach and McWay Falls checked off your list, you’ll continue your Big Sur adventure with even more breathtaking views and memorable stops. Get a good night’s rest and prepare for another remarkable day on the road.


Day 5: Hiking and Wildlife Spotting in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

Day five of your Big Sur road trip takes you deeper into the natural wonders of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, where hiking trails and wildlife encounters await.


Start your day by exploring the various hiking trails that wind through Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. The Ewoldsen Trail is a popular choice, offering a moderate hike through lush forests and along the park’s coastal cliffs. Along the trail, you’ll encounter breathtaking vistas, majestic redwood groves, and the opportunity to spot a diversity of plant and animal life. Keep your eyes peeled for soaring hawks, curious squirrels, and elusive deer as you navigate the trail.


For a shorter hike, you can venture along the Partington Cove Trail, which leads to a tucked-away cove with stunning views of the ocean. This trail features a picturesque wooden bridge and a historic tunnel that adds a touch of adventure to your hiking experience.


As you hike through the park, take the time to pause and appreciate the serene beauty of this coastal wonderland. Listen to the sounds of nature, breathe in the scent of the redwoods, and let the peaceful ambiance envelop you.


After a morning of exploration and hiking, head to the park’s picnic area to enjoy a well-deserved lunch amidst the beauty of nature. Unpack a delicious spread of sandwiches, salads, and snacks, and savor your meal while surrounded by towering trees and the melody of birdsong.


After lunch, continue your wildlife spotting adventure by exploring other areas of the park. Visit the McWay Creek area, where you may have the chance to glimpse freshwater birds and small mammals that inhabit the creek banks. Keep your binoculars handy and watch for ospreys and herons fishing in the waters.


If you’re lucky, you may even spot a California condor, an endangered species that has been reintroduced to the region. These large and graceful birds are a rare sight, so keep your eyes on the sky for a chance to witness their majestic flight.


For a more leisurely experience, visit the overlooks that offer panoramic views of the coastline. These viewpoints are perfect for capturing stunning photos and soaking in the beauty of the Big Sur landscape.


As the day winds down, find a serene spot to watch the sunset and bid farewell to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Witness the sky ablaze with hues of pink and orange as the sun dips below the horizon, creating a dramatic and unforgettable end to your day of exploration.


With another day of hiking and wildlife spotting complete, you’ll head back to your accommodations, with the memories of stunning vistas and encounters with nature fresh in your mind. Rest up and get ready for more remarkable adventures that await you on your Big Sur road trip.


Day 6: Venturing into Hearst Castle

Day six of your Big Sur road trip takes you on a journey to the magnificent Hearst Castle, a remarkable architectural masterpiece nestled in the hills of San Simeon.


Start your day by driving south from Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park to San Simeon, where Hearst Castle is located. As you approach the hilltop estate, you’ll be greeted by stunning views of the Mediterranean-inspired architecture and the sprawling grounds that surround it.


Embark on a guided tour of Hearst Castle that offers insight into the opulent world of media magnate William Randolph Hearst. Explore the grand rooms adorned with European antiques, tapestries, and art collections that span centuries. Marvel at the exquisite gardens, dazzling swimming pools, and the breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean from the estate’s hilltop perch.


Learn about the fascinating history of Hearst Castle, from its construction in the early 20th century to the lavish parties that once took place within its walls. Imagine what life was like for the upper echelons of society during the “Golden Age” of Hollywood as you stroll through the grand halls and rooms.


After the tour, take some time to explore the picturesque grounds of Hearst Castle at your own pace. meander through the gardens, admire the intricate architecture, and take in the stunning vistas that stretch to the horizon.


For lunch, head to one of the nearby restaurants or cafes that offer delicious cuisine overlooking the ocean. Sample fresh seafood, delectable California cuisine, or opt for a picnic on one of the scenic coastal viewpoints nearby.


After a leisurely lunch, if time permits, consider a visit to the nearby Elephant Seal Rookery. This protected area is home to a large population of northern elephant seals, providing a unique opportunity to observe these fascinating marine mammals in their natural habitat. Watch as they lounge on the beach, bask in the sun, and engage in playful interactions.


As the day comes to an end, witness the sunset from one of the nearby beaches or viewpoints. The vibrant colors of the sky paired with the majestic coastline will create a memorable and serene experience, a fitting end to a day spent exploring the grandeur of Hearst Castle.


After a day of immersing yourself in history and architectural wonders, return to your accommodations in San Simeon or a nearby town along the coast. Rest, relax, and anticipate the final day of your Big Sur adventure, which promises more incredible sights and experiences that lie ahead.


Day 7: Ending in San Simeon

On the final day of your Big Sur road trip, take the time to soak in the beauty of San Simeon and reflect on the unforgettable experiences you’ve had along the way.


Begin your day with a visit to the legendary Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, located just north of San Simeon. Marvel at the sight of these magnificent marine creatures as they bask on the sandy shores and engage in playful interactions. Take a leisurely stroll along the viewing boardwalk and learn about the unique behaviors and biology of the elephant seals from informative interpretive signs.


After spending some time with the elephant seals, head to the nearby coastal town of Cambria for a leisurely breakfast. Explore the charming streets lined with boutique shops, art galleries, and quaint cafes. Indulge in a delicious meal at one of the local eateries, or grab a cup of coffee and a pastry to savor as you take in the relaxed coastal ambiance.


From Cambria, make your way back to San Simeon and visit the historic San Simeon Pier. Take a walk along the pier, soak in the panoramic ocean views, and watch as fishermen cast their lines into the sparkling waters. On a clear day, you may even spot playful dolphins or surfers riding the waves.


Next, venture to the unspoiled beauty of San Simeon State Park. Take a relaxing stroll along the sandy beach, explore the tide pools, or simply find a peaceful spot to sit and absorb the tranquility of the surrounding nature.


For lunch, savor the flavors of the Central Coast at one of the local seafood restaurants in San Simeon. From fresh catches of the day to classic seafood favorites like clam chowder and fish tacos, there are plenty of delectable options to satisfy your palate.


End your Big Sur road trip by visiting the landmark Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument. Explore the exhibits and learn more about the fascinating history of the Hearst family and their influence on the region. Admire the grandeur of the estate, its stunning architecture, and the beautifully preserved artifacts that tell the story of this iconic American family.


Before bidding farewell to Big Sur, take a moment to reflect on the incredible journey you’ve had, from the breathtaking coastal vistas to the encounters with wildlife and the immersion in rich history and culture. The memories you’ve created along this road trip will stay with you for a lifetime.


As your Big Sur adventure comes to an end, you may choose to spend one final night in San Simeon or begin your journey back home. Whether you’re heading back to San Francisco or exploring other coastal destinations, cherish the memories made during your Big Sur road trip and look forward to new adventures in the future.



Your Big Sur road trip has come to an end, leaving you with memories of stunning coastal vistas, breathtaking landscapes, and unforgettable experiences. As you reflect on your journey through this enchanting region on California’s central coast, you can’t help but feel a sense of awe and gratitude for the natural beauty that surrounds you.


From the charming coastal towns of Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea to the rugged cliffs and hidden beaches of Garrapata State Park, each stop along the way offered unique sights and experiences. You ventured into Hearst Castle, a masterpiece of architecture, and marveled at the grandeur of McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.


Throughout your road trip, you indulged in delicious seafood, sipped local wines, and picnicked amidst the beauty of nature. You hiked through lush forests, spotted wildlife along the trails, and witnessed stunning sunsets over the Pacific Ocean. You immersed yourself in the history and cultural heritage of the region, from the sardine canneries-turned-tourist attractions of Cannery Row to the opulence of Hearst Castle.


Big Sur has left a lasting impression on your heart and soul. The rugged cliffs, pristine beaches, and breathtaking vistas have reminded you of the power and beauty of nature. The sound of crashing waves and the scent of the coastal air will forever be etched in your memory.


As you bid farewell to Big Sur, take a moment to appreciate the journey and the memories you’ve created. The road trip may have come to an end, but the spirit of adventure and the love for nature will continue to inspire you in your future travels.


Remember the joy of driving along Highway 1, the excitement of discovering hidden gems, and the peacefulness of watching sunsets along the coastline. Carry these memories with you as you explore new destinations and continue to embrace the beauty of the world.


Thank you for embarking on this Big Sur road trip adventure. May the magic of Big Sur stay with you, as you continue to explore and discover the wonders that await you on your next journey.