Big Sur California Coastline with Bixby Creek Bridge

Big Sur Road Trip: Epic Places to visit & hike

Big Sur is a beautiful stretch of coastline along the Big Sur River, south of Monterey Bay and is one of California’s most scenic coastal drives and a popular tourist destination. A Big Sur Road Trip is iconic and a must to add to your California bucket list. It stretches from San Francisco to Carmel or Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo with a mix of long straightaways and sharp curves through redwood forests, past vineyards, farmlands and steep cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. This area offers spectacular views for photographers as well as plenty of opportunities for family friendly activities like kayaking, hiking, beach combing, or just driving along the coast with your windows down!

Wondering what not to miss, and how to make the most of your trip? I’ve put together my list of the best places to visit and hike in Big Sur to help you plan an awesome road trip.

Don’t forget to grab the Complete Road Trip Planner so you can stop stressing about road trip planning & logistics, and keep everything organized and in one place. 

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Big Sur Road Trip: California Coast Adventure

Big Sur is a scenic drive along the California Coastline that can be done as a day trip from San Francisco, Los Angeles or Carmel. The best Big Sur Road Trip itinerary starts in San Francisco and winds its way down the coast.

While you can do it in a day in a pinch, we recommend spending at least a couple of days in the area to really get a feel for the area and have time to enjoy the beauty.

Big Sur is a beautiful place to visit at any time of the year, but we recommend taking your road trip during Big Sur Hiking Season (May-October) or the Whale Watching & Sea Lion season (December – March). So pack your bags and get ready for an adventure of a lifetime!

Last time I was in Big Sur was the end of December, early January, and it was lovely even at that time of year. There really is something to see and do all year round, as the weather is mild even in winter.

Pacific Coast beach on sunny day in California, USA
Pacific Coast beach on a sunny day in California, USA
Photo: ” kamchatka / Deposit Photos”

BIG SUR DIRECTIONS

San Fransico to Big Sur Road Trip

If you’re starting your Big Sur road trip from San Francisco, make sure to take the scenic route and drive down Pacific Coast Highway. The drive will take approximately 4 hours, without many stops, but it’s well worth it for the amazing views. The Pacific Coast Highway is open all year and they experience mild weather even in winter months.

We recommend breaking up the drive in two, and spending a night in Monterey or Pacific Grove, then the next day or two exploring Big Sur.

If you have time stop in Monterey Bay, which has the world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium, Pebble Beach, and shopping in Cannery Row. Kids will especially love to check out the Aquarium.

There are many cool stops along the Pacific Coast Highway (though you will need more than one day to do any of them). Here are just a few ideas:

  • Devil’s Slide – Just past Pacifica, through a tunnel. Before the tunnel opened this was a “dangerous” section due to frequent rockslides. Good place to stop and stretch your legs.
  • Half Moon Bay – Fill up on gas and snacks in this scenic beach town popular with tourists and surfers.
  • Pigeon Lighthouse – About 20 miles south of Half Moon you will find this most photographed lighthouse. Keep an eye out for seals and whales, and check out the Visitors Centre
  • Año Nuevo State Park – Famous for its elephant seals, it’s a fun 3-4 mile walk along the coast. You can book a guided elephant seal walk from December to March through reservecalifornia.com
  • Natural Bridges State Park – View these gorgeous natural arches from the State beach. It’s $10/car for the day.

PRO TIP: Summer time is the busiest months. To avoid the crowds go during the off season November – March.

LA to Big Sur

If you’re traveling from Los Angeles on your Big Sur, road trip take Highway 101 north to Salinas and then take Highway 156 west, and eventually ending up on Highway 1. The 315 miles (507 km) drive will take anywhere from 6-8 hours (depending on how long it takes you to get out of LA), but make sure to stop at some of the viewpoints for pictures!

If you have time, stop in Santa Barbara and explore Stearns Wharf, then take a stroll or surf along the stunning coastline at Pismo Beach. Followed by lunch at one of their many delicious cafes or restaurants. We recommend spending a night or two exploring Santa Barbara before continuing along.

Some of the other iconic stops along the way include:

  • Visit a Malibu Beach – some funs ones include Topanga Beach, Zuma Beach, or Pirates Cove Beach. Zuma Beach and Malibu Lagoon (beside popular Surfrider beach) are great family friendly options.
  • Oxnard – Besides being a quaint town to stop for a snack at one of their cool cafes or restaurants, it’s also where you can catch a ferry to the unique Channel Islands National Park. If you have a bit more time, definitely stop here.
  • Ojai – head inland a bit if you are interested in wine tasting, and art.
  • Hearst Castle – Check out this testament to the 20’s and 30’s. This is a bit of a strange Disneyland-like castle in the middle of CA, with its own zebras. This mansion-turned museum was built by media baron William Randolph Hearst.
  • Elephant Seal Vista Point – Just outside of the town of San Simeon along the Central Coast, you’ll find viewing platforms to watch these wonders bask in the sun.

Carmel to Big Sur

Carmel by the Sea is a lovely town in California to visit before or after your Big Sur road trip. Carmel by the Sea is located on the Big Sur coastline and is a great place to visit for lunch or dinner. Take Highway One south to Big Sur and then head west on Route 1 until Big Sur Station (about two-and-a-half hours).

Closest Airport to Big Sur

The closest airport to Big Sur is the Monterey Regional Airport, which is about 22 miles from Big Sur. The San Jose International Airport (75 miles), or San Fransisco (98 miles) are also options.

PRO TIPS: There is limited to no cell service in the park, so pack a physical map, or download an offline map.
– Fill up on gas before you head to Big Sur, as there are few gas stations in the park itself.

Most importantly don’t forget to pack a portable car phone charger as you will be using your phone to take photos, and navigate. Don’t want to run outta charge.

Best Places to Visit & Hike in Big Sur

If you are heading out to Big Sur on a day trip, make sure you leave early to make the most of your day. We will give a brief overview of the top favourite spots not to miss.

Big Sur River Overlook

This stop offers a beautiful view of the Big Sur River and canyon. You will find this overlook on the north side of Big Sur, just before you get to Point Lobos State Park.

Point Lobos State Park

  • Location: On Highway 1, 3 miles south of Carmel-by-the-Sea
  • Hours: 8:30-5pm (last entry at 4:30pm)
  • Fees: State Park Day Use Fees: $10 per car

The Point Lobos State Park is known for its rugged coastline, coves and Cypress trees. It’s a great place for whale watching (December-April) or hiking. The Cypress Grove Trail is a fairly easy 30 minute trail with gorgeous ocean views and awe-inspiring landscapes. Kids will be intrigued by orange-algae-covered cypress trees next to the surreal blues of Monterey Bay. Plus their are opportunities for a little rock scrambling and side trails that kids will love exploring.

You will find Point Lobos State Park on the south side of Big Sur, just before you get to Big Sur Station. It’s popular place with locals and tourists, and the parking lot fills up early most days.

PRO TIPS: If the Sea Lion Point parking lot is full, park in the Piney Woods picnic area just down the road. Go before 9am or after 3pm to avoid the worst of the crowds.

Bixby Creek Bridge on a sunny day in Big Sur, CA

Bixby Creek Bridge

  • Location: Highway 1

Bixby Creek Bridge is a iconic bridge that was built in 1932 and spans 260 feet over Big Sur River. It is the longest concrete arch span bridge in the California. The arch is unique and is one of the most photographed & instagrammed bridges in Big Sur. It offers amazing views of the coastline & the Pacific Coast Highway. Those who watched Big Little Lies will recognize this iconic landmark.

PRO TIPS: For the best photograph angle, pull off the road at Castle Rock viewpoint, right before the bridge.
Parking can be impossible during peak tourist season (summer months). Don’t park illegally on the road, it is dangerous.
– Sunrise and sunset are particularly pretty times to visit. Sunrise is wayyyy less busy.

Big Sur Lighthouse

Location: Point Sur Historic State Park – Highway 1 (between Andrew Molera State Park & Little Sur River Beach)
Hours: Tours: Saturdays & Wednesdays 10am and 1pm. First Come, First serve.
Fees: $15 Adults, $10 Kids, under 5 free

Point Sur Lighthouse sits along the dramatic ocean views of the California coast. You’ll notice a large rock jutting out of the ocean into the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. This lighthouse is the only complete turn-of-the-century light station still working and open to the public in California.

Between 1889 and 1974 families lived and worked on the island. Until the 1930’s when Highway 1 was built, lightkeepers had to walk down 400 stairs and trek several miles to a country road to leave.

McWay Falls

Location: Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
Hours: Park open 8 a.m. to sunset
Fees: State Park Day Use fees: $10 per vehicle for Day use.

This 80-foot waterfall is located in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, which is about half way between Carmel and Big Sur. It’s one of only 2 tidefalls in California (a waterfall that flows into the ocean). The park offers great hiking trails including the popular family friendly McWay Falls. This Trail is accessible by foot and makes for a quick 30-45 minute stop. It’s about 0.5 miles roundtrip.

The breathtaking scenery is only available from the lookouts, as there is no access down to the beach.

McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, California
Photo: “kanonsky / Deposit Photos”

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

Location: Near mile marker 47.2 on Highway 1, about 26 miles south of Carmel
Hours: Park open 8 a.m. to sunset
Fees: State Park Day Use fees: $10 per vehicle / per day

This state park is known for its redwoods, waterfalls and rivers. It’s a great place for hiking, camping and swimming. You will find Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park on the north side of Big Sur, just before you get to Bixby Creek Bridge.

 Pfeiffer Falls Trail is a fun Big Sur hike with kids. It’s one of the park’s easier and most popular trails. We are happy to report it finally reopened in 2021 after suffering severe fire damage in 2008. You will climb through a redwood canyon to view the 60 foot falls streaming into the pool below. It also is home to one of the most southern groves of redwoods in California.

Taking a dip in the Big Sur River Gorge Swimming Hole is a swimming experience you won’t want to miss. Expect a bit of an adventure with rock scrambling, and river crossings amongst the granite gorge. The hile is only about 0.5 miles round trip, but you will need good shoes as you’ll be climbing over trees and scrmabling over at times wet and slippery rocks. You canonly visit from early summer to fall when the water is low. Park near Day Use Lot 3 and follow the Gorge Trail.

Road Trippin’ with the littles? Keep them entertained on long car rides with easy & fun road trip activities

Pfeiffer Beach

Location: Highway 1, approx. one mile south of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park’s entrance.
Hours: 9am to sunset
Fees: $12 entrance fee per car (not part of a State Park so separate fee)

Pfeiffer Beach is a popular place to visit because of its amazing views of the Big Sur coastline, purple sand and rock formations (Keyhole Arch). The beach is located near Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, which is about half way between Carmel and Big Sur. Favourite things to do at Pfeiffer Beach include picnicking, dipping toes in the Pacific Ocean and walking along the Big Sur coastline.

PRO TIPS: This beach is very busy year round, so the parking lot fills up quickly, especially May to October. Visit the beach during the week, and go before 11am weekdays and 9-10 am weekends for a better chance at finding parking. Avoid going around 12 and 2:30pm.

Big Sur Bakery

Location: Highway 1 – close to Pfeiffer Beach Day
Hours: Wed – Sunday: Bakery opens 8:30, Breakfast starts 9:30am, Lunch 12-3pm. Dinner available Thurs – Sun 5-8pm
Resevations: Recommended for brunch & dinner

If you can’t decide what to do or where to go, Big Sur Bakery is the place for you! At this 30’s style ranch house they offer live music, delicious coffee and great food. It’s also a perfect spot to sit back, relax and enjoy Big Sur at its finest. Our favorite things here are their yummy salads, hearty bread and delicious croissants.

Whale Watching in Big Sur ( December to March / April)

Big Sur is also a great place for whale watching during the winter season (December – April). Make sure to check out the schedule of Whale Watching tours ahead of time. Tours typically leave from Monterey Bay and you can see dolphins,  humpback whales, sea otters, seals and other Pacific Ocean wildlife.

Sea Lions

If you want to see Sea Lions near Big Sur your best bet is to visit the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery. This is located in San Simeon, at the southern edge of the Big Sur coast. This refuge hosts several thousand elephant seals each year, and is a site you don’t want to miss. You can see them October to May but January and February is when the big show of birthing and breeding happens.

More helpful tips, and road trip ideas:

Big Sur Road Trip: Big Sur Itinerary

If you are planning only a day trip to Big Sur we recommend that you leave early and plan for traffic if going during busy hours!

Plan at least two-three hours in Point Lobos State Park, Big Sur River Overlook & Bixby Creek Bridge. If you want to include other stops it will be a full day. Be sure to include time to eat lunch and stop at the Big Sur Bakery or any of the restaurants we recommend below.

We recommend checking these out when planning your itinerary for your Big Sur Road Trip and one day Big Sur itinerary.

  • Big Sur River Overlook
  • Point Lobos State Park & Hike Cypress Grove Trail (approx 30 minutes)
  • Stop at Bixby Creek Bridge
  • Hike to McWay Falls (approx. 30 minutes)
  • Big Sur Bakery or Nepenthe Restaurant for lunch
  • Pfeiffer Beach
  • Big Sur Lighthouse

Big Sur Hiking Trails

Big Sur is known for its beautiful hikes. There are so many to choose from. Make sure to dress appropriately for your hike, wear sturdy shoes and bring plenty of water, sunhats and sunscreen! Many of the hikes are exposed with little shade.

Salmon Creek Trail is a popular quarter-mile round-trip hike off Highway 1 to a scenic 120 foot waterfall. You can find the entrance at a pullout, about 3.6 miles from Ragged Point.

Another popular hike is the Bobcat Trail in Andrew Molera State Park which is a six-mile roundtrip fairly easy hike that takes you through a Big Sur redwood forest and along the Big Sur River.

Big Sur is also home to the Point Lobos State Reserve which offers some of the most beautiful views in California. The reserve has over 900 acres of land to explore and is a great place for a day hike. A good family friendly hike here is the Cypress Grove Trail. Or to look out for whales take the easy 2 mile round trip path on the Whalers Knoll Trail.

Pfeiffer Falls / Valley View Trails are perfect for seeing everything from big redwood trees to widlflowers and waterfalls. The trailhead begins at Highway 1 located on the east side of Hwy 1, about 10 miles north of Pfeiffer Burns State Park. It splits into two trails one to Pfeiffer Falls (recently reopened) and the other Valley View Trails.

Sand Dollar Beach Trail – Short walk to an often less busy beach, with gorgeous views. There are shaded picnic areas offer ingocean views and the path leads down to a large crescent beach with tidepools and rock formations. Plus it is one of the few places Dogs are allowed, as long as they are on a leash. The Sand Dollar Beach Trail hike is about 0.5miles roundtrip.

For those looking for something more strenuous, with an amazing payoff, there is the Mt. Manuel Trail in Garrapata State Park. This difficult 16-mile hike will take you to the summit of Mt. Manuel. The climb to the top is about four miles and gains over 3000 feet in elevation!

Wooden staircase leading down to Sand Dollar Beach in Big Sur, CA
Sand Dollar Beach in Big Sur, California, USA
Photo: “Cavan / Deposit Photos”

Big Sur Beaches

Big Sur also has amazing views from its many beaches! While you won’t find the long stretches of sandy beaches like you typically find in Southern California, there are still many adventures to be had. Beaches here are often on the cool side and windy, even in the summer. Here are a few kid friendly Big Sur Beaches to check out:

  • Sand Dollar Beach – If you are traveling with kids (or even without) Sand Dollar Beach is a good choice. Be on the lookout for shells, marine life and maybe even jade. It’s one of the largest in Big Sur, is near a campground and is a lovely spot to watch whales.
  • Pfeiffer Beach – Known for its purple pockets of sand which come from the manganese garnet deposits washing onto the shore from the hills. No swimming here as there is a strong rip tide. Perfect place to watch the sunset, set up a blanket and make sandcastles, or wade through the small creek.
  • Andrew Molera State Park – Walk the delightful mile long Creamery Meadow Trail that follows the Big Sur River to a sandy sheltered beach. You have to cross the river, annd the seasonal footbridge is in place from approx. June 15 to October 31 each year.

Be sure to pack all the family beach vacation essentials if you are traveling with kids.

Big sur Lodging Options (Hotels, Vacation Homes, Camping)

Big Sur, California is known for its beautiful coastline views, hikes and lodgings. When it comes to Big Sur lodging there are many options to consider: hotels, camping, home rentals. Big Sur is a land of extremes however, as accommodations run either fancy and posh or more rustic, but very little in between. Most of the more posh places to stay aren’t geared towards families.

If looking for a higher end experience, or cheaper accomodation options, staying in Monterey, or Carmel By the Sea are good choices.

Family Friendly Places to Stay Near and in Big Sur, California

California is such a fun family friendly place to visit, and Big Sur is no exception. Families love to stay at these three lodgings in and near Big Sur:

  • Big Sur Lodge – Is a rustic cabin experience the whole family will enjoy. Think comfort and convenience right within the beautiful Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. The lodge features 61 cottage-style rooms, some of which have two rooms, kitchens, and fireplaces, as well as an outdoor pool (opens in June), restaurant and bar.
  • Ragged Point Inn and Resort – A gem, guests love the proximity to Big Sur attractions, gorgeous setting, comfortable rooms and the good food onsite.
  • Big Sur Ranch Vacation Home – Gorgeous Ocean view, only a short walk to Post Ranch, Ventana, Nepenthe, Big Sur Bakery. On 5 private acres, hiking trails, spectacular views, heated swimming pool and spa in the Coastlands.

Camping in Big Sur

When it comes to camping Big Sur has many different campgrounds to choose from, but a family favourite is the campground at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. It has plenty of campsites both for RVs and tents, right on or near the Big Sur River, hot showers and evening programs on weekends. It’s also open during the off season.

For walk in tent camping, Andrew Molera State Park Campground is a fun adventure. It is only about a 1/4 mile hike to a meadow alongside the Big Sur River. There’s 22 standard tent sites and two hike-and-bike campsites.

Kirk Creek Campground is a gem. Right near Sand Dollar Beach it is an oceanside paradise. Stunning sunrises and sunsets will make you forget you have to use pit toilets, and bring in your own water.

Be sure to reserve your spots well in advance to avoid disappointment.

Traveling with kids? Pack some kid friendly camping gear and activities to maximize fun and avoid the whining.

Doorway through natural rock formation.
Keyhole Arch, Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur California
Photo: “Matt L Photography / Deposit Photos”

Big sur Restaurants and Cafes in the Area (Best of the best)

Big Sur is known for its amazing restaurants, and there are plenty of places to eat in the area. Here are some all time favourite Big Sur Restaurants:

Big Sur Bakery

Big Sur Bakery is located in the heart of Big Sur and is a must-stop for breakfast or lunch. The bakery offers fresh, homemade woodfire bread, croissants, soup and sandwiches and tasty treats. They also serve wood fire pizzas, salad and delicious meats for dinner. All with beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean.

Nepenthe Restaurant

Nepenthe is an iconic restaurant in Big Sur that is well known for it’s stunning views and delicious American cuisine with a Californian flair. The restaurant has been open since 1949 and is a Big Sur staple. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, even filmed scenes from the Hollywood film ‘The Sandpiper’ here in 1969.

For more affordable bites with the same great view, check out Cafe Kevah, also on the same site.

Cafe Kevah

If you’re looking for Big Sur cafes, Cafe Kevah is a popular favourite. This Big Sur Cafe overlooks the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Lucia Mountains surrounded by terraced gardens. It offers Californian cuisine with a healthy twist and has been open since 2000. The restaurant serves breakfast, and lunch, but they are known for their amazing brunch menu! Their brunch menu offers Big Sur favourites like Big Sur Eggs Benedict and Brioche French Toast.

The Big Sur Lodge

Big Sur Lodge is a historic hotel located in the heart of Big Sur. It’s part of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, but outside of the main gates. The lodge offers amazing views of the Pacific Ocean and serves up casual dining for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And if you are already staying here, then it’s a short jaunt.

The kids will love grabbing an ice cream here after a hot hike, or a snack and coffee for the adults.

Quick BitesBig Sur Deli

If you’re looking for a quick bite, to fill up on before heading out to explore and hike the area, then the Big Sur Deli is a great choice. Quick casual food, this full-service deli has made-to-order and specialty sandwiches, as well as pastries, egg wraps, tamales, calzones, and salad to name a few things.

There are plenty of amazing restaurants and cafes in Big Sur, so make sure to try as many as you can! You won’t be disappointed.

Big Sur Road Trip: Epic Places to Visit & Hike

Big Sur is such a fun and gorgeous place to take a road trip with family or friends. I hope these ideas inspire your next adventure in California, USA.

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