Updated: Dec 27, 2021
Unforgettable. Believe me, you will never forget this trip.
California is blessed with all sorts of natural wonders such as mountains, beaches, deserts, waterfalls, forests, you name it. While the abundant leisure options make the Golden State a bucket list destination for travelers from all over the world, one thing is certain, there is no place like Big Sur.
The best way to explore the majestic coastal cliffs of California is by going on a road trip, so that you can pullover along the way to take in the breathtaking views that were sculpted by the wind through millions of years.
Here’s all you need to know to plan your next bucket list getaway:
What is best? Southbound or Northbound SR1?
Since I live in Southern California, we start our road trips to Big Sur in OC, taking the SR1 north all the way to San Francisco and then the southbound way back home.
I must say, if you have the option to choose, I’d recommend starting your road trip up North and then driving down, as the Southbound views of Big Sur are the prettiest in my opinion!
Where to Start?
1- If you start in San Francisco, make sure to save a couple days to explore the city. There are lots of amazing things to see and do here, and I have a blog post including the attractions you can’t miss when visiting San Francisco, click here to read it!
2- Santa Cruz is a quintessential California city that lives and breathes the surfing culture. It’s one of my favorite places in NorCal and you should consider spending a day here.
3- Monterey / Carmel: No trip to Big Sur is complete without visiting Carmel and the incredible 17mi drive. Also, Lover’s Point in Pacific Grove and Cannery Row in Monterey are definitely worth the visit if you have the time.
1- You can start exploring the California coast as south as San Diego. I honestly think that some of the most beautiful beaches in California are in San Diego and Orange County (La Jolla, Pacific Beach, San Clemente, Laguna Beach (several beaches here), Newport and Huntington Beach).
2- If you’re anywhere around LA, head west to Santa Monica and start working your way up from there. The coastal views from Pacific Palisades and Malibu are something like the ultimate California Dreamin’ vibes. I have several blog posts highlighting the best of Southern California, click here to browse them.
3- If you’re running low in time, instead of driving through the always busy PCH, you can save an hour or two by taking the 101N through Ventura and Santa Barbara. To me, the real Big Sur type views start in the San Simeon / Cambria area, but Morro Bay and Pismo Beach are some of the places you can stop to sleep or eat during your trip.
Note, there is minimal to zero phone reception in Big Sur, so plan accordingly. Take this opportunity to disconnect with the outside world and connect with what really matters. Download essentials like maps, music and bring a book!
Also, even in the hottest of days, it gets cold at night and early mornings, so it is always good to pack a jacket, regardless of which season you're visiting.
A question often asked is, how many days do I need for this trip? Well, it really depends on your traveling style. I'd say the minimum amount of days to travel from LA to/from San Francisco and actually get to experience a little bit of each is 5 days. If you’re doing San Diego, you’ll need at least 7 days. I’ve traveled to Big Sur twice in one-weekend-long trips, but I live relatively close and I did not get to visit all the attractions in just one time.
Where to Stay
Big Sur has not many options as far as lodging, so expect nightly rates to be to on higher side if you need to spend the night here.
The best option is camping. There are several campgrounds in state parks all along California that offer RV parking with water/sewer access, and some even offer cabins for those looking a for “glamping” trip.
We’ve camped in the San Simeon Campgrounds, which is south of Big Sur, as the campgrounds further north are usually always booked up. Plan to make reservations way ahead of time and you'll be able to choose the best location for your stay.
"It was right here in Big Sur that I first learned to say 'Amen'." Henry Miller
The drive through Big Sur is believed to be one of the most scenic in the entire planet. So what to do while visiting the dramatic coastal cliffs of Central California?
The options are endless, you will drive through rugged seaside mountains, and will have the chance to stop at many, many, vista points to photograph landscapes, hike dozen of trails through waterfalls, forests, valleys, beaches etc. Spend the day at the beach, enjoy a picnic with your loved ones, but whatever you do, don’t leave Big Sur without watching a sunset.
Here are my favorite sightseeing locations along the narrow 2-lane SR1:
Gateway to Big Sur if you’re driving North. The views of the beach cliffs and rocks are postcard worthy and the surf is pretty consistent.
Hilltop estate in San Simeon turned into museum that offers offers breathtaking views of California's pristine Central Coast and the Pacific Ocean.
Tickets start at $25/adult and $12/children 5-12.
Picture this: a beautiful 80-ft tall waterfall dropping to a turquoise water beach. It exists, in Big Sur. I will never ever forget this day!
The beach is closed to the public, but you can view the waterfall from a overlook. Here’s how to get there:
Start at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. From the parking lot, take the Overlook trail 0.8 mi walk down a dirt path toward the ocean, through a short tunnel under the highway to arrive at the overlook.
One of the world's most photographed bridges. Pull over at several turnouts for amazing views of the bridge, my favorite stop is right before it (southbound).
Point Sur State Historic Park
Point Sur is the only complete turn-of-the century Lightstation open to the public in California, and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Visits only available through reserved tour.
Garrapata State Park / Beach
Big Sur’s northernmost park. Love that this “hidden gem” is hardly ever crowded.
Point Lobos State Reserve
This is believed to be the "crown jewel" of California's state parks. You can easily spend a couple hours or an entire day exploring here. Lots of sightseeing, photography, painting, nature study, picnicking, SCUBA diving, and jogging.
17 Mile Drive
MUST! This scenic road through Pebble Beach and Pacific Grove offer several stops to overlooks where you can photograph and admire the pacific coastline and wildlife
Entrance Fee $10.50 per vehicle.
There are tons of overlooks along California 1 Hwy to take in the beauty of Big Sur. You'll feel very tempted to stop at all of them, and every time I go, I discover new and breathtaking views I didn't notice before.
Where to Stop in Big Sur for Amenities:
Ragged Point: Amenities include lodging, dining, a gift shop, and gas station
Gorda: Offers gas station, restaurant, coffee shop with public restrooms and lodging
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