If you’re planning to do a road trip in California, Big Sur should be at the top of your list. This 90-mile scenic stretch between Monterrey and San Luis Obispo, is famously known for its dramatic landscape, with its rugged cliffs towering over the Pacific Ocean and landmarks like the Bixby Creek Bridge, one of the most photographed bridges in the state. Here’s what should be on your list of what to see on your Big Sur road trip going north to south.
When to visit Big Sur
The best time to visit Big Sur is during the late summer/early autumn, when the summer crowds have gone home (trust me you don’t want to be stuck in traffic on this one-lane highway), and the weather is still mild and dry. The worst time to go is during the winter when rain can cause major mudslides and closes off part of the highway, as well as makes it dangerous to drive on the winding roads. Spring can also be a good time, but make sure to check road conditions before you head out.
Notes on driving through Big Sur
In true California coast fashion, the one-lane road is very windy and not for faint-of-heart drivers with its sheer drop-offs and hairpin turns (mostly south of Gorda). Speaking of curvy roads, motion sickness medicine (Bonine is a personal favorite) is a must for those who get carsick. The entire drive is about 3 hours without stops and once you get on Highway 1 past Monterrey, you must commit to sticking with it since the only alternatives are equally-as-scary mountain roads. The good news is that there are some turn-offs along the way to soak in the view and gather your composure if necessary.
Garrapata State Park
With two miles of stunning coastline, this park is a great introduction to Big Sur, with plenty of hiking trails that meander through redwood groves and alongside beaches. Soberanes Point is an easy hike and a great spot to take in those coastal views. If you’re out there during the spring you’ll be treated to a colorful wildflower display. If you’re lucky, you may spot some of the local wildlife that inhabits the nearby waters, including California gray whales, sea lions, sea otters and harbor seals. Garrapata Beach is a dog-friendly beach, and a great place to let your pup frolic in the waves.
If you have any images of Big Sur in your mind, this iconic bridge is probably what comes up. Constructed in 1922, this stunning concrete structure is the highest of its type at 260 feet and towers above Bixby Creek. There are several viewpoints to pull off and snap some photos. Plenty of parking exists on both sides of the bridge to pull off and take photos from nearby vantage points. Depending on the day, you might be lucky and get some of that famous California fog rolling off the Pacific Ocean that makes for the ideal shot.
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
Not to be confused with its other counterpart Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, this state park boasts hiking trails along the Big Sur River Gorge, where the Big Sur River enters this park. Please note that the trail to Pfeiffer Falls is currently closed due to a fire. Visit the Ernst Ewoldsen Nature Center that is located near the Warden’s Path (on the south side of the river), and learn more about the critters that call this place home. There are many campsites alongside the river that are available for advanced reservation. Entrance fee is $10 per car. The park is open a half hour before sunrise and closes half hour after sunset.
This beach feels almost otherworldly with its lavender-colored sand and key hole rock formations jutting dramatically out of the Pacific Ocean. To have it all to yourself head over early in the morning (bonus points if you make it at sunrise). The beach can be a bit difficult to find, so keep your eyes peeled for a sign that simply reads “narrow road,” and is about 1 mile south of Pfeiffer State Park. There’s a small parking lot that can get full easily (another motive to wake up early). A short walk brings you right to the beach. The park is open sunrise to sunset, and costs $10 to enter (please note state park passes cannot be used here).
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
This massive state park is home to the well-documented McWays Falls, a 80-foot waterfall that originates from McWay Creek and cascades into the Pacific Ocean. There are also numerous other trails throughout the park like the scenic Ewoldsen Trail (5-mile loop) ranging from easy strolls to strenuous full-on hikes. Camping is allowed with the proper permits. As of this article publication this state park has been temporary closed due to severe storm damage and it’s best to check up on the park’s closure on the official website. You can still spot the waterfall though from the pull-off point that’s located just north of the park’s entrance at mile marker 36.2.
Where To Stay In Big Sur
If you have a few days, it can be better to break up your Big Sur road trip over 2-3 days and take your time soaking in the coast. There are numerous campground options both in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park that you can reserve ahead of time. If you want something a bit more substantial, here are three alternative options.
Located in Pfeiffer Big Sur National Park, these cottage-style rooms are a great spot to spend the night at the beginning of your trip (especially if you’ve driven from somewhere like the Bay Area). The Homestead Restaurant on property uses local ingredients to whip up creative dishes like a veggie omelets and roasted miso salmon.
This cozy rustic-style lodging is also located in Pfeiffer Big Sur National Park, and is in a scenic location next to a river. It’s a great place to unplug with a glass of wine and unwind under the stars without cell service, though if you’re looking for all the bells and whistles, this place may not be for you.
For a taste of luxury, this 5-start resort just outside of Pfeiffer Big Sur National Park is where you go to get properly pampered. It’s pricey, but is the ideal getaway to celebrate special occasions. The property is stunning in the middle of redwood groves and with coastal views. There’s also a glamping option, where you sleep under the stars with all the creature comforts of home.