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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The viewpoint is open every day year-round and is free to visit. I highly recommend it to witness their quirky shuffling moves firsthand!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Equal parts bookstore, art museum, and performance venue, this space honors the late author, who was a long-time resident of 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Speaking of cozy, they do recommend reservations to ensure you get a space.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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?
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!
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beatravellingDecember 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
Caity PfohlApril 24, 2020 at 9:42 pm
DC to New Orleans sounds like so much fun. I would love to spend more time in DC, and I’ve never been to New Orleans!
HilaryDecember 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
Caity PfohlApril 24, 2020 at 9:41 pm
The Library was definitely unique! And the American Southwest is definitely a road trip I would love to take. (Or several road trips, really – I know there is so much to see!)
Erin Gustafson | Oregon Girl Around the WorldDecember 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
Caity PfohlApril 24, 2020 at 9:39 pm
Oregon is high on my list! I would love to explore the coastline there. 🙂
Catherine’s Cultural WednesdaysDecember 13, 2018 at 4:18 am
I love Big Sur, we have stayed at Deetjen’s many times. #FarawayFiles
Caity PfohlApril 24, 2020 at 9:35 pm
That sounds lovely!
RebeccaDecember 16, 2018 at 9:40 pm
I’m so excited to see this part of the world when we head there on a road trip next year! Which was your favourite place/stop??
Caity PfohlApril 24, 2020 at 9:39 pm
Wow – your comment is making me realize how *seriously* late I am checking in on these! But I’m sure you guys had an amazing trip! I don’t know if I could pick a favorite part, I honestly felt like the whole drive was so much fun; but McWay Falls was a highlight, and also having a drink while enjoying the view at Nepenthe. How about you – did you end up in this area? What did you think?!