4 In North America

A Big Sur, California Road Trip

Big Sur is a region of California coastline stretching ~90 miles from San Simeon in the south to Carmel in the north. Two-lane Highway 1 is sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Santa Lucia mountains on the other.

Big Sur

Largely undeveloped, it’s celebrated as one of the country’s most beautiful coastal drives, offering an array of options for hiking, biking, swimming, fishing, photography, places to make googly eyes at the dreamy views, and more.

Big Sur

Our road trip through Big Sur was the last leg of our California vacation, but it’s the first one I’m writing about here. 

I couldn’t help myself! It was such a fun road trip and I am so excited to share some tips with you. Keep scrolling to see our route from south to north and information on the places we stopped at along the way.

Cambria

We drove to the coast from Yosemite National Park a day earlier than planned. Flood warnings convinced us to forego our last night of camping and stay at a motel on the coast in San Simeon instead.

Waking up the next day feeling antsy to hit the road, our plans were delayed by low hanging clouds and intermittent rain, leaving us wary to start our “scenic” drive.

Instead, we visited the nearby town of Cambria and enjoyed coffee at Seed & Soul, trying to ward off the sneaking feeling that the whole day might be a wash. 

Cambria

While you’re in this area, consider stopping at: Hearst Castle

Elephant Seal Rookery 

After coffee and a walk along the town’s Moonstone Beach, we decided to continue on our way and hope for the best.

Cambria
Piedras Blancas

Our next stop was about twelve miles north. The Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery is a popular vantage point to observe elephant seals in their natural habitat. It was great to see them up close, and there were volunteers on-site from the non-profit group Friends of the Elephant Seal to answer visitors’ questions.

Piedras Blancas

The viewpoint is open every day year-round and is free to visit. I highly recommend it to witness their quirky shuffling moves firsthand!

Ragged Point

We didn’t want to jinx it, but as we left Piedras Blancas, we began to see spots of blue peeking through the thick cloud clover. By the time we reached Ragged Point 10 miles north, the day had completely transformed.

Big Sur

While Big Sur doesn’t have defined boundaries, Ragged Point is generally considered to be the southern gateway to the region. This is a great spot to pull over and stretch your legs. There’s an inn, a snack bar, a gas station, and a convenience store/gift shop.

And the best part? Stunning ocean views.

Big Sur

We were especially excited for the scenery as we had so recently resigned ourselves to a foggy day. The vivid blues of the sky and water made it hard to tell where one stopped and the other began.

Big Sur

If you’re up for it, you can descend the Cliffside Trail to visit the black sand beach below. It’s a short but very steep trail, so save some energy for the climb back up! 

Viewpoints

As you drive along the coast, there are dozens of areas where you can pull over to enjoy the views. During the 37-mile stretch between Ragged Point and our next stop (keep scrolling!) we pulled over constantly, unable to resist the temptation of spending more time with the scenery.

Big Sur
Big Sur

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park & McWay Falls

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is one of a handful of state parks that you’ll drive past as you visit Big Sur. The park is home to McWay Falls, one of the most famous vistas in the region.

Big Sur

McWay Falls is one of two tidefalls in California, meaning that its waters fall into the ocean. Reconstruction after a 1983 landslide created a sandy beach at its base, but it still flows directly into the Pacific when the tide is in. 

The main entrance to the state park can be found on your right as you drive north up the coast. The waterfall viewing area is on the left, reached by a short walk from the road.

Big Sur

Parking in the state park lots requires you to pay a day-use fee. You’ll notice as you drive that many people park along the side of the road instead, which saves you from paying the fee. The roadside also serves as overflow, as the parking lots fill up quickly during the busy season. 

Big Sur

In addition to McWay Falls, we were hoping to hike the park’s Tanbark Trail or Ewoldsen Trail to see some of the area’s famed redwoods. Unfortunately, the majority of the park’s trails were closed when we visited.

This is something to keep in mind as you plan your trip to Big Sur: there are often trail, beach and road closures in place due to various issues ranging from fires to mudslides and more. Be aware that some of the activities that you plan for might not be accessible.

Luckily, there is a whole lot of coastline to enjoy!

Big Sur

You Might Also Like: Driving the Blue Ridge Parkway

Henry Miller Memorial Library

Eight miles north of McWay Falls is the Henry Miller Memorial Library

Big Sur

Equal parts bookstore, art museum, and performance venue, this space honors the late author, who was a long-time resident of Big Sur.

Big Sur

The space was built by Miller’s friend Emil White in the 1960s. After Miller’s death, White turned the property into a memorial for his friend. Today, the library is run by a non-profit organization. 

Big Sur

Nepenthe, Café Kevah and The Phoenix Shop

Located just north of the Henry Miller Memorial Library is a trio of businesses that you won’t want to miss while in Big Sur.

Nepenthe is a renowned restaurant that first opened in 1949. The now iconic spot was named for a drug used by the gods to banish sorrow. Known for its unparalleled setting with gorgeous panoramic views, the name does seem fitting. 

Big Sur

Nepenthe was a favorite of Henry Miller’s during his time in the area, in addition to many other artists including Ernest Hemingway, Anaïs Nin and Clint Eastwood. Adding to its star-studded history, the cabin that the present-day restaurant is built around once belonged to Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles.

While tables are reserved for parties ordering food, there’s a terrace with bench seating where you can have a drink and soak in the incredible scenery.

Big Sur

Next door you’ll find Café Kevah, a more casual eatery with counter service and outdoor patio seating.

Below Café Kevah is The Phoenix Shop, a beautifully curated gift shop with books, artwork, plants, candles, games and more. 

I love that this cluster of businesses offers something for everyone, whether you’d like to splurge on a fancy meal or simply enjoy a drink or pastry in the unreal setting. 

Big Sur

Big Sur Bakery

About a mile past Nepenthe, you’ll find another of the region’s most iconic restaurants: Big Sur Bakery. The cozy space is known for hearty meals reminiscent of family dinners. They weren’t yet open for dinner service when we stopped by, but pastries and coffee were available.

Big Sur
Big Sur

Speaking of cozy, they do recommend reservations to ensure you get a space.

Big Sur

Big Sur Deli and Tap House

Just north of Big Sur Bakery, we stopped by the Big Sur Deli to order sandwiches to take to the beach – and they were delicious. Build your own and while they’re making it, browse the grocery and souvenir offerings and pop into the newly opened taphouse, located in the same building.

You might also like: Coastal Crush: Experiencing Australia’s Great Ocean Road

Pfeiffer Beach

You’ll find Sycamore Canyon Road, the access road to Pfeiffer Beach, .5 miles north of Big Sur Deli. Pfeiffer Beach is known for its purple sand and keyhole arch rock formation. We learned earlier in the day that the road to the beach was closed to the public until 5pm for repairs. When we showed up a few minutes after five, we learned that it was actually fully closed and we wouldn’t be able to access the beach after all. 

As I mentioned earlier, closures are often a factor while visiting Big Sur. However, we had another beach in mind and not much daylight left, so we didn’t despair. 

While you’re in this area, consider a stop at: Big Sur Roadhouse

Big Sur River Mouth Beach at Andrew Molera State Park

Unable to reach Pfeiffer Beach, we continued the six miles to Andrew Molera State Park. (We were really excited to eat our sandwiches on a beach – can you blame us?) 

From the parking lot, we followed the Beach Trail to Big Sur River Mouth Beach. It was a longer walk than we expected, but definitely worth it. 

Big Sur
Big Sur
Big Sur

There is a small footbridge on the trail that is removed for the season at the end of October. After that point, you won’t be able to access the rest of the trail without wading through the river. 

Bixby Bridge

Eight miles north of Andrew Molera State Park, you’ll reach another one of Big Sur’s icons: Bixby Bridge. The bridge was completed in 1932, with a concrete arch standing a tall 260 feet above the small canyon that it spans.

There’s a parking lot and viewpoint at the north end of the bridge. We made it just in time for sunset.

It was pretty magical.

Big Sur

Carmel-by-the-Sea

Our last stretch of driving for the day was the remaining 15 miles to Carmel-by-the-Sea, where we stayed for the night before exploring Carmel and Monterey the next day. (More posts on those adventures to come!)

While you’re in this area, consider a stop at: Garrapata State Park

We had such an amazing time driving the Big Sur coast. It was a huge bucket list item to check off, although I would love to go back and see more someday! 

Big Sur

One of the best parts about it is how customizable your visit can be depending on how much time you have and what your budget is. 

Big Sur

No matter where you choose to stop or how long you have to spend, remember to be respectful. Big Sur is a beautiful region that receives millions of visitors annually. Be mindful of the area’s residents – people do live here. Dispose of your garbage properly. Use restrooms. Pay attention to signs asking you to stay on the path in order to allow wildlife to grow. Watch out for pedestrians and bikers as you’re driving. 

Big Sur
I’m asking for a friend

Hearing stories and witnessing many acts of frustrating behavior during our time in Big Sur was a reminder that as travelers, we can all choose how considerate we are in a new place. And at the end of the day, it’s not that hard to use a trash can. 

I mean, it’s safe to say we all want to do our part to protect this…right?

Big Sur

Have you visited Big Sur before? What did you think? 

And speaking of stunning coastal drives…what’s the next big road trip I should take?! Let me know in the Comments section below!

Pin it for later!

Big Sur

I’m sharing this post to one of my favorite blog link-ups: the Faraway Files, with Fifi + HopHilary StyleOregon Girl Around the WorldSuitcases and Sandcastles, and Untold Morsels. Follow the links to check out their sites!

You Might Also Like

4 Comments

  • Reply
    beatravelling
    December 7, 2018 at 4:17 am

    Got back from a DC-New Orleans road trip a couple of weeks back. Definitely doing the west coast next US road trip! #farawayfiles

  • Reply
    Hilary
    December 11, 2018 at 8:04 am

    Beautiful photos! I’ve driven The 1 many times and haven’t always been so fortunate when it come so to the cloud cover. Those statues at the Herman Miller liberty were a bit creepy weren’t they? Road trip in the US. Or elsewhere? We did the coast of Portugal and Spain, also Ireland, Scotland, England and the American Southwest. I’m dreaming of Italy and Croatia next! #farawayfiles

  • Reply
    Erin Gustafson | Oregon Girl Around the World
    December 12, 2018 at 10:57 am

    The West Coast is the best coast! Ok. I might be biased and more inclined to put Oregon above California. *wink, wink. No seriously Oregon is above California. ;). But this is truly a stretch of 101 that I would love to cruise. I have explored north and south of Big Sur, but never here. Clearly, need to rectify that situation. Thanks for sharing your finds and fabulous photography – such a beautiful stretch of American coastline. #FarawayFiles

  • Reply
    Catherine’s Cultural Wednesdays
    December 13, 2018 at 4:18 am

    I love Big Sur, we have stayed at Deetjen’s many times. #FarawayFiles

  • Leave a Reply

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.