Driving Big Sur soon? Here’s a handy Big Sur road trip itinerary with things to do and a map!
Boasting a dramatic rugged coastline to the west and views of the alluring Santa Lucia Mountains to the east, it’s not exactly hard to see why Big Sur is constantly referred to as “the greatest meeting of land and water.”
Being just 90 miles long, a Big Sur road trip can easily be completed in just under two hours as it stretches from Carmel to San Simeon.
Still, with all that eye candy to be found mile after mile and a vast array of wonderful state parks to make pit stops at, we actually recommend dedicating at least a few days to your Big Sur itinerary!
If you’re currently in the planning stages of your road trip through Big Sur and find yourself wondering what to see and do along the way, we created a list of all the must-do stops along the way that absolutely need to make it in your schedule.
Oh, and we also created a free, interactive map with the stop mentioned here. You’ll find at the bottom of this article.
What Is Big Sur?
Big Sur is a rugged and mountainous section of the Central Coast of California highway between Carmel and San Simeon.
Many people consider it one of the most scenic driving routes in the United States, if not the world, which is why this experience is on our USA bucket list.
The drive along Highway 1 has been described as “one of the best drives on Earth” and is considered one of the top 10 motorcycle rides in the United States. On top of that, Highway 1 was named the most popular drive in California.
How to Get to Big Sur
To get to Big Sur, you have a few options. If flying, consider San Jose Airport because it is the closest airport.
If you’re flying into San Francisco or Los Angeles, these cities are a bit further away, especially LA, but you can certainly make a fun road trip out of it and stop in some cute small towns in California.
Big Sur Cabins
If you’re looking for a comfortable oceanfront cabin to stay along the Big Sur, you can’t go wrong with this place on Pacific Grove.
It has three bedrooms, a master suite with panoramic views, a queen bed, and a TV. In addition, a fully equipped kitchen is the perfect place to cook a quick but hearty meal.
This cabin is located on Monterey Peninsula, so you have plenty of hiking, wine tasting, shopping, and more opportunities.
It is an excellent place to enjoy the area, drive the 17-mile drive from Monterey to Carmel-by-the-Sea, and to stay for the night before continuing your Big Sur road trip!
The Ultimate Big Sur Road Trip Itinerary
Apart from taking a scenic drive, there is plenty to do in Big Sur for every type of traveler. Here are our favorite stops to add to your road trip itinerary.
Also, this Big Sur driving guide begins in Carmel and ends at Ragged Point, so from northern California traveling south down.
That being said, if planning a San Francisco to Big Sur road trip itinerary, a few incredible places we recommend stopping along the way include Daly City, Half Moon Bay, Gilroy, Santa Cruz, and Monterey (there is a scenic road between Pacific Grove and Pebble Beach).
Heck, you could even include Morro Bay, San Luis Obispo, Pismo Beach, and Santa Barbara. However, if you want to drive to San Diego in southern California, you might want to plan a 3-day road trip.
Lastly, if you’re driving from Big Sur to San Francisco, you would have to invert this itinerary, but that shouldn’t be a problem!
Picturesque cottages blanketed in flowers, narrow cobblestone streets, charming boutique shops, and farm-to-table eateries are all staples of this dreamy fairytale town.
Strolling through Carmel’s European-style streets is an absolute dream, and even more so when you consider you’ll get to hear the sounds of crashing waves every step of the way!
During your time at Carmel, make sure you take some time to walk its streets admiring its whimsical fairytale cottages, all of which feature timbered details, high pitched roofs, and fairy-like chimneys. Seriously, you’ll feel as though you’re walking inside a fairytale village!
Moreover, Carmel is home to two dreamy beaches. Carmel Beach, the main one boasts a sandy shored framed by cypress trees, creating a gorgeous landscape perfect for a day spent relaxing, walking, or surfing.
Carmel River State Beach is another gem right around the corner from Carmel Beach and a perfect alternative if you want to experience a little more solitude.
Carmel marks the starting point of any Big Sur road trip, making it the ideal place to stop and gather some last-minute items you may need.
Even though we’re sure you’re super excited to buckle up and hit the road, we recommend spending at least a full day taking in Carmel’s enchanting vibes.
Oh, be sure the tank is filled. While you can get gas in Monterey and Carmel, the next gas station when heading south isn’t until you’re near Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, which is at least a 30-minute drive away.
Read next: Best Road Trips in California
2. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Not far from Carmel, you’ll find Point Lobos State Reserve, a gorgeous park that features breathtaking views of the coast, beautiful coves, interesting flora unique to the area, and a wide array of marine life and birds to spot.
Commonly dubbed “the crown jewel of the California state park system,” a day spent at Point Lobos is guaranteed to captivate even the fuzziest of travelers!
A must-see at Point Lobos State Park is Gibson Beach, a gorgeous beach with teal-shaded waters and by far one of the most beautiful ones in the entire Big Sur.
China Cove is another gorgeous spot worth checking out if you wouldn’t mind catching glimpses of a hidden cove boasting striking emerald green tones where seals are often found hanging out in!
You can access both Gibson Beach and China Cove by following the Bird Island Trail, which is easily one of the most beautiful hikes at the park, if not the entire Big Sur.
Moreover, this trail also leads to a viewpoint of Bird Island, a seasonal nesting area where you can see a ton of species of sea birds going about their day (spring and summer only).
While you can’t access the island itself, you can still do some serious bird-watching from the trail itself, so bring along a pair of binoculars!
Another wonderful hike to tackle during your visit, especially if you’re into wildlife sightings, is the Sea Lion Point Trail.
As its name suggests, this beautiful path will have you hiking your way through cypresses and beautiful coastal views before arriving at Sea Lion Point, a viewpoint where you’ll get to see hundreds of sea lions huddling on rocky islets off the shore.
Aside from hiking, Point Lobos State Park also has a ton of activities to offer under its waves.
Being one of the richest marine habitats in Cali, the park is considered one of the best diving destinations on the entire West Coast.
At Whalers Cove, you’ll find a forest of giant kelp boasting various diving areas where you’ll find boulders and valleys that are favorite hangout spots for harbor seals, multicolored schooling fish, and a ton of other water-dwelling animals.
Do note that Point Lobos State Park requires a special permit for diving at its designated areas, so make sure you plan ahead if you’re keen to explore this fascinating underwater portion of the park.
3. Garrapata State Park
Covering almost 3,000 acres of pure wilderness, a visit to Garrapata State Park is all about massive rugged cliffs, enchanting redwood groves, hidden coves, white-sandy beaches backdropped by mountains, and beautiful canyons.
A top activity is hiking, with lots of trails available offering opportunities to both catch amazing views of the Pacific as well as explore the rest of the natural beauty that calls the Garrapata State Park home.
A favorite trail is the Bluffs Trail, which goes along the park’s coastal bluffs, offering mesmerizing views of the ocean and mountains as well as wonderful opportunities to get up-close views of the flora in the area.
If you’re into marine life, make sure Soberanes Point is on your bucket list. This is a gorgeous spot offering amazing vistas of the coastal cliffs, but the main stars of the show are migrating gray whales if you happen to be visiting during the season.
While encounters aren’t guaranteed, Soberanes Point is considered one of the best places in Big Sur to catch glimpses of these marine giants.
A few miles before the Bixby Bridge, you will find the sandy Garrapata State Beach in Calla Lily Valley.
This beautiful secluded beach along the Pacific Coast is the perfect spot for strolling, sunbathing, or simply watching the time go by while looking at the gorgeous views of waves crashing onto the rocky shore.
Swimming in Garrapata Beach is not recommended, but it does make for a perfect day spent relaxing by the water!
Still, you will want to add this stop to your road trip itinerary. Once you’re ready to continue your Big Sur driving adventure, stop quickly by Rocky Creek Bridge for photos!
4. Bixby Creek Bridge
Featuring a canyon to one side and beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean to the other, the views Bixby Creek Bridge offers are pretty hard to beat.
Bixby Creek Bridge is one of the most iconic landmarks in Big Sur, and even though you’ll get to drive over the bridge as you cruise along Highway 1–aka Pacific Coast Highway–we actually recommend parking your car.
This way, you can snap a photo of the magnificent views and fully be able to take in the gorgeous vistas that surround the Bixby Bridge.
This stop if by far one of the best places to visit in California!
5. Andrew Molera State Park
If you’re looking for raw landscapes and insanely good views of Monterey Bay, look no further than Andrew Molera State Park in central California.
Being the largest state park in Big Sur, Andrew Molera offers a wide array of different environments perfect for those who love variety in their schedule.
This park is not as frequented as the others, making it a perfect stop if a little solitude is what you’re after.
Home to meadows, hilltops, bluffs, and picture-perfect beaches, the main thing to do at Andrew Molera is put your hiking shoes on and follow a few of the twenty miles of trails available at the park.
Every hike guarantees insanely good vistas and vastly different experiences, ranging from riverside walks to coastal hikes and strolls under the shade of redwood trees.
If you’re a beginner, start with the Beach Trail, which is pretty flat and leads to a beach along the Big Sur River.
If you’re up for more adventure after relaxing at the beach, you can continue onwards to the Bluff Trail from there, which provides the most amazing views of the iconic coastal bluffs of the park.
For a super varied trail, try the East Molera Trail, which will give you the chance to hike amid redwood trees and walk along a ridge, all with panoramic views of the ocean and the mountains keeping you company every step of the way.
Another wonderful aspect about Andrew Molera is the fact that, aside from its nature, it also gives visitors a chance to learn more about the area’s rich natural and historical heritage.
For all things history, head to the Andrew Molera Ranch House Museum, where you’ll get to see collections of artifacts by the pioneers, Indigenous people, and artists that have called Big Sur their home.
Moreover, make sure you also visit the Ventana Wildlife Society Discovery Center, where you’ll get a closer insight into the wildlife at Big Sur, with a special focus on the California Condor.
6. Pfeiffer Beach
You’d only expect to see purple sand on a fantasy movie, but it actually does exist, and you’ll get to see it with your own eyes by visiting Pfeiffer Beach, one of the most enchanting beaches on the entire planet!
Even though Pfeiffer Beach is mostly famous for its purple sand, it’s not exactly its only claim to fame.
Another wonderful attraction that makes this beach so unique is Keyhole Arch, a gorgeous natural arch that sits offshore of the beach.
Sunsets are a real treat here when the last rays of the light pass right through the arch and create the dreamiest views!
Getting to Pfeiffer Beach requires a little detour from Highway 1 and skirting through some pretty twisty and narrow curves, but once you get there, its dreamy scenery makes an effort well worth your while.
Keep in mind that Pfeiffer Beach isn’t signposted on the road, so make sure you pin it on the map before you start your Big Sur road trip!
Good to know: There is a fee to park at Pfeiffer Beach, and your national park pass, if you have one, will not work here.
7. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and McWay Falls
Hidden coves, verdant forests, dramatic cliffs, and impressive views of the Pacific Ocean’s rugged California coastline are all staples of this magical state park on Big Sur.
If you were to only make one stop while driving Big Sur, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park should be it.
McWay Falls is Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park’s main highlight and quite possibly one of the most iconic landmarks on any Big Sur road trip!
Even though California brims with gorgeous waterfalls, there’s none quite like McWay Falls, which you could very likely confuse for a waterfall on a painting.
What makes it so unique, you ask? This glorious 80-foot waterfall cascades downs from a dramatic seaside cliff.
Depending on the tide, the waterfall crashes down into a pristine cove on the beach or directly into the ocean, both of which create a mesmerizing sight you’re not bound to forget anytime soon!
To reach McWay Falls, you’ll need to walk the Waterfall Overlook Trail, which is a super short (only 0.5 miles round trip) hike that’s flat and paved most of the way, making the lookout accessible for anyone driving through Big Sur.
Aside from seeing the falls, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park has a lot more on the menu to offer visitors keen to explore beyond its main highlight.
Hiking one of its trails is a must, all of which provide a variety of landscapes ranging from miles-long creeks, redwood forests, jagged bluffs, granite cliffs, and more.
Being one of the few places on Big Sur where scuba diving is allowed, Julia Pfeiffer Burns is also a prime spot to get to see the area’s marine life up close.
As if all of the above weren’t reason enough to convince you to visit this gem, this place is also a great destination to spot migrating grey whales, who love hanging out around the park’s shore, and some even swim around the mouth of the cove that McWay Falls tumbles into!
8. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
Big Sur is all about ocean views, but a few landlocked spots dot the road and are well worth a place in your itinerary.
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is a prime example of a destination worth visiting if you’re also keen to explore the mountainous side of the highway.
Located on the western slopes of the Santa Lucia Mountains, this glorious state park is all about redwood forests, riverside hikes, and wildlife sightings galore (keep your eyes out for animals like black-tail deer, bobcats, and more!)
If you’re feeling up for a hike, start with the Pfeiffer Falls Trails, a beautiful hike that will have you walking amid dreamy redwoods before stumbling across a gorgeous 60-foot waterfall.
From here, you can continue your way down the Valley View Overlook Trail, which, as its name suggests, leads to a panoramic viewpoint where you can catch glimpses of Big Sur Valley and even the nearby Andrew Molera State Park!
Even though there are no beaches at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, swimming here is possible at a natural swimming hole.
To get there, all you have to do is walk a few hundred meters from the park entrance before you reach a gorgeous rocky pool perfect for relaxing your muscles after hiking the park’s trails!
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is a superb option to spend the night in before continuing your Big Sur road trip.
There’s a campground on-site that provides overnight visitors with the unique opportunity to sleep in the forest, but if you feel you need a bit more comfort, you’ll also find cozy cabins available at Big Sur Lodge.
Pro tip: Be sure to stop by the Big Creek Bridge before Gamboa Point Beach for some photos!
9. Limekiln State Park
Boasting gorgeous dramatic views of the Big Sur shoreline, Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, and coastal redwood forests, Limekiln State Park is a wonderful place to visit on a Big Sur road trip in order to experience nature at its fullest while also getting a dose of history.
Back in the 1880s, Limekiln State Park was the setting of a huge limekiln operation. Limestone was harvested here from a slope and fed into the kilns.
Due to intense heat and firest, pure lime was extracted from the area, which was a key ingredient in the cement used to build structures in nearby San Francisco and Monterey.
Not too long after, the kilns at the state park were abandoned after all resources were used up. Slowly but surely, the forest recovered and created the beautiful landscape of redwoods we see today.
However, hiking around Limekiln will give you the chance to explore the limekiln ruins that were left behind, which creates a pretty dramatic contrast between nature and history.
Aside from finding its historic kilns, camping, spotting marine life, and swimming at creeks and the beach are all favorite activities to take part in during a visit to this unique state park.
Hiking is another wonderful activity here, with three different canyons boasting a trail of their own: The Limekiln, Limekiln Falls, and the Hare Creek Trail.
Each of these trails has its own allure, but if you only have time to hike one, we recommend doing the Limekiln Falls Trail, whose junction meets with the other two canyons in the park, creating a wide canyon floor dotted by towering redwoods!
10. Sand Dollar Beach
Set just 7 miles south of Limekiln State Park, Sand Dollar Beach is a fantastic place to head to on a Big Sur road trip if you get tired of seeing all those ocean views without actually getting to touch them.
Known for being the longest stretch of sand in Big Sur, this gorgeous shore is not only considered a prime place for surfers to catch waves in, but it’s also a great place to park your car, stretch your legs, relax on the beach, set a picnic up, and admire the rock formations.
Despite its relatively popular status, Sand Dollar Beach is usually never crowded, and even you do happen to visit and share it with other travelers, this beach is so huge that you’ll still be able to get a spot all to yourself!
If you’re wondering why it’s called Sand Dollar Beach, its name comes from the myriad of sand dollars that often get washed up on the shore.
Even though you can’t (and shouldn’t) grab them as they’re an important part of the ecosystem in the area, you can actually go on a little scavenger hunt in search of gem-like rocks on the southern end of the beach, many of which are said to contain jade and serpentine.
11. Ragged Point
Wrap up your Big Sur itinerary with a bang by visiting one of the most stunning views on the entire highway.
Even though Big Sur is picture-perfect no matter where you stand, Ragged Point offers some serious eye candy guaranteed to have you dropping your jaw right on the ground!
If you’re not yet tired of hiking in search of gorgeous coastal views (and we guarantee you won’t be, considering every hike through Big Sur is completely different from the last), Ragged Point offers amazing hiking trails for every experience level.
A must for the adventurous hiker is the Ragged Point Cliffside Trail down to Young Creek.
At the end of the trail, you’ll be treated to a gorgeous beach boasting black sand, a completely different sight compared to the white sand and rocky beaches you’ve seen along the road trip.
Moreover, you’ll also find a gorgeous waterfall named Black Swift Falls. This hike is pretty short at just 0.8 miles, but it can get pretty steep and slippery, so make sure you take your time and bring the right shoes along!
Big Sur Map
Click here to access the free Big Sur map that you can use on your phone. The map has different icons and colors so you can easily read it while on your trip. We hope it’s helpful!
Final Thoughts on Driving Big Sur
We hope this list of the best stops to make while driving Big Sur helped you plot the perfect itinerary!
Seriously, there’s so much to do in this dreamy area of California that you could easily dedicate several weeks to your Big Sur road trip and never really have to do the same thing twice, except for taking photos of the Bixby Bridge under different lights (tip!).
Still, though, if you don’t have that much time available, the magical thing about a Big Sur road trip is that every place worth visiting is pretty close to the next, making it super easy to check everything out in a short span of time.
Which of these destinations are you most excited to visit during your Big Sur road trip? Let us know all about your plans and itinerary in the comment section below!