Last Summer I got to ride down on a bus from San Francisco to Los Angeles through the coast with some of my tour groups a few times as part of my job as a Tour Leader. Although I had enjoyed a couple of the amazing viewpoints through the stunning, dramatic and very scenic 90-mile rugged coastal area known as “Big Sur”, I never had the chance to get off the bus and actually explore any of it. Recently, one of my good friends and fellow travelers- Karen (IG @kp_traveler4life)- asked me join her on a road trip adventure through the California coast with a big focus on Big Sur and of course I immediately jumped at the opportunity to go!
We spent a total of five days driving from Los Angeles to Monterrey Bay where we camped for three nights, driving back down through California Coast Highway 1, and spending the final night in Pismo Beach before returning to Los Angeles.
This entire road trip turned out to be more beautiful than I expected! I am a big nature lover and the Big Sur stretch was definitely the highlight of the trip. You can easily spend three days solely on this part of the coast if you find campgrounds or hotels en route.
Here is a 5 day itinerary that worked very well for us including Big Sur and a bit of exploration of some of the most famous coastal towns in the region.
5-DAY ITINERARY IN DETAIL
Day 1: Los Angeles to Monterey Bay
We left Los Angeles in the early morning and took Highway 5 North and 101 North to reach the Monterey Bay by late afternoon. We had reservations at the Manresa Uplands State Beach & Campground where we met up with another friend who drove down from San Francisco. The drive from LA takes approximately 5.5 hours in normal traffic conditions and it’s about 329 miles (measured from Downtown LA), not counting stops. I would recommend planning for a 7-hour drive to include stops for restrooms, restaurants, and grocery shopping. Our final stop before reaching the campground was Watsonville to buy some groceries to survive for the three nights we would spend at the campsite. Watsonville is a quaint little town only 8 miles from the campground offering a variety of Mexican markets selling traditional Mexican dishes- ready to eat- and other general grocery items. The town also has a Safeway and Grocery Outlet.
During our planning, finding camping inside Big Sur proved to be difficult since we were in the middle of Summer vacation when families want to go camping and also in the midst of Covid social distancing when everyone wants to be outdoors. As you can imagine, campgrounds are fully booked up and down the entire coast.
The campground at Manresa Uplands turned out to be perfect. It was surrounded by green coastal brush and offered views of the Pacific ocean from different spots. The campground also has fire pits, wood for sale, restrooms, showers, parking, and access to hiking trails that lead down to the beach. We definitely lucked out with our amazing spot!
That first night we enjoyed a nice meal by the campfire.
Day 2: Santa Cruz and Monterrey Bay
Our campground was located inside the area known as Monterey Bay which is 56 miles of coastline that spread from Santa Cruz (just south of San Jose) to the city of Monterey. After a previous long day of driving we decided to spend the better part of the day chilling in Santa Cruz. This beautiful city to the North of the Bay is best known for its Boardwalk which features an amusement park housing a historic wooden rollercoaster known as the Giant Dipper and Neptune’s Kingdom offering arcade games, mini golf, laser tag, and bowling. On the Boardwalk you can also find all of the typical amusement park American fried food you can imagine. For other healthier options, head across the street just outside of the park to find different restaurants. There is also the Santa Cruz Wharf with a few seafood restaurants. The water here is good for swimming but of course very cold as any other beach in Central California.
Unfortunately the attractions on the Boardwalk are closed during Covid social distancing and options for restaurants are limited.
We made it back to Manresa Uplands just in time for a beautiful sunset at the beach.
If you wish for a more active day, you can head to adventuresbythesea.com and rent kayaks or paddle boards to explore the Monterey Peninsula. You can also drive further South beyond the Bay and visit the town of Carmel-By-The-Sea (aka. Carmel), a stunning coastal town with whimsical cottages, fancy restaurants and bars, art galleries and a beautiful beach.
Day 3: Big Sur and Carmel by the Sea
After a restful second day we were ready for some action in Big Sur. As you drive south of Carmel you begin to go through a series of State Parks that make up the area of Big Sur- Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, Garrapata SP, Andrew Molera SP, Pfeiffer Big Sur SP, and Julia Pfeiffer Burns SP. They all offer different hiking trails in open meadows, high ridges, groves of sycamore and redwood trees, rivers, beaches, and bluffs. There is something for every taste!
We opted for an all day visit to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park as we wanted to go on a nice long hike inside the coastal redwoods forest. Once we paid our entry fee and parked, we walked to the point known as the Redwood Deck where various hiking trails begin. From there, we went South just across the Big Sur River to find the trailhead for the Buzzards Roost Viewpoint hike. This is a moderate 3-mile roundtrip hike which follows the Big Sur River and then climbs a series of switchbacks through shady redwoods to a ridge where you find panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean, Sycamore Canyon, and the surrounding Santa Lucia Mountains. Absolutely gorgeous and a great work out.
After the hike we headed back to the Redwood Deck to find the start for the Pfeiffer Falls trailhead to the North of the Big Sur River. After climbing for about a third of a mile we came to a junction with options to go right to reach the waterfall or left for views of the valley. Unfortunately the trail to the waterfall was closed. From the junction you can continue on the trail to the Valley View towards the West. We didn’t do this part as we wanted to get to the beach as soon as possible to see the sunset.
To reach Pfeiffer Beach you have to drive further South on Highway 1 until you reach Sycamore Canyon Rd where you turn right and head about 2 miles down a twisty and narrow road to the paid parking area. The beach is just a short walk from there. The beach is known for its purple sand and big rock formations like the famous Keyhole Arch. It was absolutely beautiful but super windy!!! Our walk across the beach to get to the Keyhole Arch was a physical feat as we had to resist the pain caused by the sand hitting our faces and legs at a high speed. The spectacular scenery around us was worth the pain though.
After the hike we drove back towards Monterey Bay stopping in Carmel for an amazing dinner at Vesuvio Restaurant and a night stroll around town.
Day 4: Big Sur to Pismo Beach
Today was our big day to head down the coast and make our long-awaited drive through the entire 90-mile area from Carmel to San Simeon which makes up the California’s central coast area known as “Big Sur”. The curvy road with the Santa Lucia Mountains to one side and the Pacific Ocean to the other offers amazing views of seaside cliffs, stunning coastlines, green cypress groves, and lots of opportunities for stops to take it all in.
I recommend getting a very early start if you plan to do the entire drive in one day. Big Sur is a windy road with many stops along the way- some are well known, and some will be dirt pull-out areas with perfect views but no name. Take your time driving through it and stop wherever you feel the views are calling you!
If you want to camp or stay at a hotel inside Big Sur you must make reservations well in advance, as all accommodations fill up quickly during the Summer months.
If you plan to spend the night in one of the towns further South along the Pacific Coast like Morro Bay, San Luis Obispo, Pismo Beach or Santa Barbara, you are looking at 70-150 miles of additional driving. Your total drive may be between 6-9 hours depending on how many photo, food, or hiking stops you make along the way.
This is a list of the stops we made on Big Sur:
Keep in mind we had already spent an entire day at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and Pfeiffer Beach so we did not include these again on our way down.
Castle Rock Viewpoint- one of the best and most popular stops along Big Sur as it offers the best views of the most photographed bridge in this part of the country- the Bixby Creek Bridge. There is a dirt pull-out with parking. From here you can get stunning views of the entire bridge, the beach below and the ocean. You can also cross the highway and walk up Coast Road to get views of the opposite side of the bridge.
Bixby Creek Bridge- Next you will drive over this magnificent architectural wonder, best known for its appearance on the intro of the HBO series Big Little Lies. This beautiful concrete bridge was built in 1932 and stands at 260 feet high above the canyon carved by the Bixby Creek.
Hurricane Point- A wide open area that gets a ton of wind, hence the name. From here you get views of all directions including a far perspective of the Bixby Creek Bridge.
Sea Otter Refuge– Another great pull out area with limited parking to get open ocean views. Sea otters can be spotted all throughout Big Sur but we were not fortunate enough to see any on this day.
Great Sur Turnout– Another great dirt pull-out section lower on the highway from where you can admire the Little Sur River Beach.
Big Sur River Inn- a perfect stop for lunch where they have a restaurant with outdoor seating with views of the River, a bar and a hotel. You can order your food to go at the restaurant and they will pack it up in a small cooler so you can take it to the grassy area and have lunch with views of the river. Or you can eat it at the tables located on the actual river bed. This place was so peaceful we did not want to leave.
Big Sur Bakery- This was a nice stop for coffee and desert. The baked goods selection was actually pretty small but they did have sandwiches and other meals making it another lunch stop option. There is a cute artsy shop with souvenirs in the back.
McWay Falls– Another one of the most popular stops on Big Sur with views of a scenic cove where you find an 80 foot waterfall flowing out of a rocky cliff onto turquoise blue and green waters. You can enter the area by turning onto the road towards the mountain side where you will find plenty of parking. There are signs for the trailhead of a 0.6 mile flat hike that goes under the highway to the ocean side and offers a closer view of the waterfall and the beach. It’s not possible to go all the way down to the actual beach or waterfall as this is a protected area. The trail was closed when we were there (most likely due to Covid social distancing regulations) so we had to settle for views from the top. You can also find parking on the dirt pull-out area on the ocean side of the highway.
Bonus! If you park on the ocean side, be sure to walk to the other end, opposite to the waterfall for more stunning views of another cove.
Cape San Martin– This was a lucky unplanned stop at another small dirt pull-out with no signs. There was only one car there and it caught our interest. When we got out we were surprised by yet another amazing view. We didn’t see anyone in the car so we proceeded to take a look over the cliff and we spotted a guy taking a selfie at the end of a steep narrow ridge descending from the parking area. It looked really sketchy but when he came up he told us we had to try it. We put on our hiking shoes and proceeded to go down. The trail was windy, steep, narrow and very exposed but it offered truly stunning views of Willow Creek Beach towards the North.
Ragged Point– A must see and another popular stop en route. This is a great spot to take a break and use the restrooms, enjoy amazing views, eat at the Inn, go shopping for souvenirs and snacks, or even better spend the night! The Inn has rooms for $200 to $500 a night depending on the size and season.
Elephant Seals Rookery of San Simeon aka. Piedras Blancas– Another must see along the route and just 7 miles from the end of Big Sur in San Simeon. This is the only elephant seal rookery that is accessible, free and open year-round for all visitors. Walk along the wooden boardwalk going over the beach from where you can perfectly spot and photograph large groups of Elephant Seals who usually lay around and make interesting snorting and burping sounds. Chances are you will see two males fighting one another during your visit. This is a highly protected area to conserve this beautiful species that almost became extinct in the early 1900’s. The Elephant Seals in this area are the largest seals in the Northern Hemisphere and the second largest in the world. The adult males can weigh up to 4,000-5,000 pounds (1,400-2,300 kg).
We ended the Big Sur part of the trip shortly after San Simeon. Highway 1 continues inland and away from the Coast after passing the town of Morro Bay, eventually ending in San Luis Obispo. We found a room at La Cuesta Inn to rest for the night, we still had a good 4-hour drive down to Los Angeles which we had to leave for the following day. We found a lot of last minute hotel availability and good prices on Booking.com.
Day 5: Pismo Beach, Santa Ynez & Solvang
The final day we drove back towards the coast for about half an hour to reach the town of Pismo Beach. This is a cute seaside town known for its Dunes, a Monarch Butterfly Grove, its beautiful beach, and pier. We bought the famous cinnamon rolls from Old West and headed to the beach to enjoy our breakfast with sea views.
Afterwards we continued on our way to Los Angeles but as we were entering the gorgeous and picturesque Santa Ynez Valley I found out that Karen had never been wine-tasting in the area so stopped at the first vineyard we spotted- Vincent Vineyards. It turned out to be an amazing place with great service and a beautiful patio where you can do the wine tasting next to the vineyards.
Our final stop before ending our trip was a quick visit to Solvang, a cute Dutch town where people usually go after wine tasting for some food. We had been there before so we focused on just getting lunch so we could get back on the road.
Other popular stops on Big Sur are:
LIMEKILN STATE PARK, POINT SUR LIGHTHOUSE, SAND DOLLAR BEACH, WILLOW CREEK BEACH and HEARST CASTLE
My recommendations on preparing for the drive:
- The most popular times to visit Big Sur are from April to October. Prices for accommodations will be higher and reservations ahead of time are a must!
- The winter months are less crowded and the coastline and mountains can get quite misty and foggy at times. It is possible to see whales as early as the end of September and throughout the Winter.
- It is best to drive from North to South so you are on the right side of the highway to better enjoy the views from your car. It is also safer to make the quick turns into the dirt pull-outs from the right than it is to make the left turns from the opposite direction.
- There is no cell service throughout Big Sur so be sure to download a map of the area on Google Offline Maps and mark all points of interest in advance.
- Bring a charger and fill up your gas tank. Fuel Service is limited and expensive.
- And most importantly, don’t drive Big Sur in a rush. Try to spend at least a couple of days seeing this magnificent part of the Central California Coast.
Thank you for reading! Please leave me some comments below on your favorite parts of Big Sur.