My sister and I recently got back from a road trip up to Big Sur, California – an adventure that has been sitting at the top of my bucket list for quite some time. We spent 3 days driving up and down CA Highway 1 exploring all of the beautiful beaches, parks, hiking trails and viewpoint stops that Big Sur has to offer.
Being based in Orange County, I’ve been focused on exploring more of the beauty of California and have been on a road trip kick since last year’s solo journey through the Southwest to visit more national parks. Being out in nature has always been my favorite way to recharge and play with my camera, and this stretch of the California coast definitely did not disappoint.
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Below I’m sharing a list of all the best stops in Big Sur for your drive along CA Highway 1, to guide your own road trip adventure.
- Things You Should Know for your Big Sur Road Trip
- Starting the Road Trip to Big Sur: 1 Day in Santa Barbara, California
- Hiking Trails, State Parks & Viewpoint Stops for your Big Sur Road Trip:
- More Stops to Explore for your Big Sur Road Trip
- Where to Stop to Eat during your Big Sur Road Trip:
- Where to Stay during your Big Sur Road Trip
Things You Should Know for your Big Sur Road Trip
- The majority of Big Sur (this 90-mile stretch of the California coastline) has almost zero cell reception. So you’ll want to download an offline map and save pins of the stops you want to visit before you leave! I use the Maps.Me app for my road trips.
- Big Sur is mostly undeveloped – part of what makes this road trip so beautiful! But this also means that gas stations, dining options and restrooms are few are far between. Be sure to pack snacks, water and anything else you think you might need before you hit the road. Better yet, bring a cooler with you.
- It’s a good idea to dress in layers – even during the summer months Big Sur can be breezy. That, and it’s a good idea to protect your arms and legs from brushing up against any of the poison oak in the area.
- For my fellow photography lovers: Something I wish I had brought with me is a zoom lens! My iPhone camera did the job this time, but with all the viewpoints and wildlife you’ll want to be able to capture things that are farther away. Most of my photos were shot with a Canon EF 35mm lens, but a good zoom lens option is this 75-300mm lens.
Starting the Road Trip to Big Sur: 1 Day in Santa Barbara, California
We first spent 1 day on our road trip in Santa Barbara, to break up the drive from Orange County to Big Sur. Santa Barbara is a beautiful coastal city along CA Highway 1 known for its beaches, dining and wineries.
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Hiking Trails, State Parks & Viewpoint Stops for your Big Sur Road Trip:
Salmon Creek Waterfall
Our first road trip stop while driving through Big Sur was Salmon Creek waterfall. We spent most of day 1 making the drive from Santa Barbara to our hotel in Carmel, but still wanted to check out a hike or two on the way up.
Salmon Creek Trail is a quick and easy trail to the waterfall – about 0.3 mile out and back. The trail also goes much further all the way out to Spruce and Estrella camps, which is a 7-mile hike out and back.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park & McWay Falls
McWay Falls is located in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and is one of Big Sur’s most popular attractions, and for good reason. It’s a rare waterfall that flows directly onto the beach – One of the only 2 in California!
During our road trip in Big Sur we stopped here on our drive back home, around midday. However, I definitely suggest visiting either for sunrise or sunset if you can.
Parking at the trailhead is limited and it costs $10 to enter the state park. During our visit part of the trail was actually closed off (as of March 2022), but it still leads you to this incredible view of the falls from above the cove. The hike to this point took less than 10 minutes and is completely flat.
Partington Cove Trail ended up being my favorite hike during our Big Sur road trip. It’s a moderate but quick 1-mile out and back hike (the return being all uphill), and the cove is definitely worth the trek.
Pfeiffer Beach & Keyhole Arch Rock
Pfeiffer Beach is separate from Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, so don’t skip this stop! On the second day of our Big Sur road trip we spent the afternoon here relaxing on the beach.
The turn for this state beach is easy to miss and kind of hidden by trees. (We had to stop and ask for directions.) It’s located on the coastal side and there’s no signs indicating what the turn-off is for.
Here are the coordinates for the turn-off from CA Highway 1 (save this on your offline map!):
Sycamore Canyon Road | 36.2402108, -121.7770750
From the highway it’s a 2-mile drive down a windy and bumpy one-car road (with pullouts to pass oncoming vehicles). At the end of the road you’ll find a toll booth – It costs $10 to park and access Pfeiffer State Beach.
When you get to the beach, be sure to check out Keyhole Arch Rock!
Point Sur Lighthouse & El Sur Ranch
Point Sur Lighthouse is located in Point Sur State Historic Park on a former naval base facility. Today, the lighthouse is open to guests for guided walking tours and sightseeing. You can learn more and view the lighthouse tour schedule here.
Right in front of the lighthouse you can find El Sur Ranch – a working free-range cattle ranch that was established in 1834. We had to pull over on Highway 1 while driving through Big Sur to stop and say hello to some new friends.
Hurricane Point in Big Sur is a beautiful pull-over spot along CA Highway 1 that’s worth the stop. You can find Hurricane Point just 1 mile south of Bixby Creek Bridge.
Bixby Creek Bridge
Bixby Creek Bridge is one of the most iconic stops for your Big Sur road trip. It’s even one of the most photographed bridges in California!
There are a few different spots on either end of the bridge where you can stop for photos. My photo above was taken at the viewpoint on the Northern side of the bridge.
Garrapata State Park & Calla Lily Valley
Garrapata State Park stretches for 2 miles along the coast and offers hiking trails and beautiful views of Big Sur. Inside the park you can also find Calla Lily Valley – a hidden valley where wild lilies bloom for only a short period of time every year.
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More Stops to Explore for your Big Sur Road Trip
Big Sur has a lot to offer, and there’s plenty of stops we didn’t get to that are also worth adding to your itinerary!
Be sure to also check out:
Where to Stop to Eat during your Big Sur Road Trip:
Nepenthe Big Sur
Nepenthe restaurant was hands down my favorite view from our entire Big Sur road trip. We stopped here for dinner on day 1 just in time for the sunset, and sipped wine while watching the clouds roll in.
Nepenthe is a popular spot so if you are coming in for dinner, expect there to be a wait. My sister and I arrived right at 5pm and were seated right away, but we definitely beat the rush.
Even with a wait, this view is worth it. I couldn’t recommend this place enough!
Big Sur River Inn & Restaurant
On the second day of our road trip we came across this spot on a whim, and it’s definitely worth the stop if you’re driving through Big Sur.
Big Sur River Inn is nestled right along the bank of Big Sur River and provides an incredible lunch view. They even placed chairs in the river that you can sit in. It’s for a perfect spot to unwind after a long day of hiking.
Where to Stay during your Big Sur Road Trip:
Carmel, California is a charming cottage-like beach town just north of Big Sur. We opted to stay here during our road trip instead of in Big Sur itself as we found the accommodation options in Big Sur to be a bit pricier.
Carmel-by-the-Sea is in the perfect location still nearby a lot of the spots we wanted to explore in Big Sur, and is worth a visit in itself. We spent an afternoon here grabbing lunch & wine at The TreeHouse Cafe.
Have you taken a road trip through Big Sur on CA Highway 1? I would love to hear about your favorite stops during your drive in the comments below!
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