The Ultimate Big Sur Road Trip Guide with Map 2023
Going on a Big Sur Road trip? You are going to want to use this guide and map to create your perfect itinerary!
Big Sur Road Trip
Our Big Sur Road Trip will cover 100 miles of the California Coast starting in Carmel and ending in Cambria.
Although the drive itself only takes a few hours, allow yourself time for traffic, road work, and most importantly, photo opportunities. In this article, we will elaborate the best Big Sur Viewpoints and scenic places of interest. Let’s get started!
The Ultimate Big Sur
Road Trip Guide with Map!
Table of Contents
Point Lobos Natural Reserve
Garrapata State Park
Andrew Molera State Park
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park :McWay Falls
Slates Hot Springs and Esalen Institute
New Camaldoli Hermitage
Limekiln State Park
Sand Dollar Beach
Elephant Seal Vista Point
Big Sur Itinerary
It is amazing there is so much to see and do in less than 100 miles. Your itinerary will reflect your physical capabilities as well as your time allotment. In our opinion, Big Sur is best enjoyed over the course of several days, especially if you plan to hike the suggested trails.
Overnight stays near the midpoint will help you lay out your itinerary. These are a few options to consider.
- Big Sur Lodge
- Big Sur Cabins and Campground
- Fernwood Campground and Resort
Although you can visit each point of interest in order, we recommend that you split up your road trip and make a plan that works for you.
California State Parks charge an entrance fee. However, that one-time fee will give you access to all of the parks in a 24-hour period. You can also park on the road outside of the park and walk in for free. Only park in designated areas though, the highway is dangerous.
Big Sur is often foggy in the early morning. Starting too early may seem like a good idea, but you won’t be able to see much, including the road directly in front of you.
Likewise, the Pacific Coast sunset is AMAZING and definitely worth watching from one of the scenic overlooks or beaches. However, the switchbacks and twisting roads can be scary to navigate after dark.
Planning a Big Sur Day Trip Itinerary
If I had to pick 3 places to stop on Big Sur that are get-out-of-your-car, must-sees, they would be:
- Bixby Bridge
- Partington Cove
- Pfeiffer Beach State Park
All 3 of these can be done on the same day, and they are outstanding viewpoints. Of course, there is so much more to see and do, so let’s get started!
Big Sur Viewpoints and Scenic Stops
Big Sur runs along the California Coast from Carmel to Cambria. The two-lane highway allows drivers to cruise the coastal highway both north and south. Going south can be nerve-wracking as the cliffs seem to be right out the passenger’s window. This does allow the passengers a bird’s eye view and great photo opportunities.
For this article, we are driving North to South and stopping at 18 named viewpoints along the way. So, buckle up, and let’s go!
What better way to start or end your Big Sur Road trip than a short stay in Carmel-by-the-Sea? This quaint village is storybook-perfect. Wander through the art galleries, and specialty boutiques, or simply enjoy the sunset, Carmel is fascinating.
Carmel has been the setting for many movies and television series. Play Misty for Me, The Graduate and Pretty Little Liars are just a few.
Besides celebrity sightings and amazing views, Carmel has some peculiar and fun laws:
- Unit 1986, ice cream was outlawed, as it would create a sticky mess on sidewalks and streets if spilled.
- Unless you have a permit, you cannot wear high heels. The town’s streets and walkways are not stiletto-friendly. In other words, safety first!
- There are no streetlights or sidewalks in Carmel with the exception of the downtown area.
- Carmel residents have no street address and there is no door-to-door postal delivery. Rather than 123 Maple Street, a neighbor might say, 3rd house on the left after the little white bungalow.
- Did you know Clint Eastwood was once the Mayor?
- Carmel’s Beach is dog friendly. Thank you Doris Day!
Carmel-by-the-Sea is magical, so stop in and experience it for yourself.
2. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
62 CA-1, Carmel-by-the-Sea
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is often referred to as “the crown jewel” of the state parks system. On your visit, you will surely agree.
Tide pools, pristine beaches, wildlife, and a Pacific view for miles. While there, be sure to check out the Whalers Museum as it holds treasures of the early whaling industry.
From hiking to scuba diving, you can easily spend the day here. With 9 beach trails to explore, these views will never get old. As you gaze out to the ocean you might just see some grey whales, especially during the late winter through spring.
3. Garrapata State Park
34500 CA-1, Carmel-by-the-Sea
Garrapata State Park is known for its scenic hikes above the coast and pristine beaches. As you take the trails out to the cliffs, you will be blown away by the views. Often you can view migrating grey whales, seals, and other wildlife.
Visiting Garrapata State Park during February and March may give you a pleasant surprise as the Calla Lillies are in peak bloom.
Take the stairs down to the sandy beach and explore the fascinating rock formations. As beautiful as this area is, it is often unoccupied, giving you a perfect opportunity for peace and quiet.
4. Bixby Bridge
CA-1, 18 miles south of Carmel
The iconic Bixby Bridge is a sight in itself. Standing 260 feet from the canyon floor and spanning 714 feet gives you a feeling of driving over nothingness.
The beautiful architecture makes Bixby Bridge the 2nd most photographed bridge in California (The Golden Gate Bridge is #1). It’s no wonder TV and movies have often featured views of the Bixby Bridge.
Parking is allowed on the north side of the bridge, but be extremely careful. There are no guardrails preventing an accidental fall into the canyon below.
Pedestrian traffic is prohibited on the bridge, but you can get spectacular pictures from this vantage point.
In our opinion, Bixby Bridge is one of our top 3 places to stop and visit while in Big Sur.
5. Andrew Molera State Park
45500 CA-1, Big Sur
Rustic and wild is the best way to describe Andrew Molera State Park.
With roughly 4800 acres, there are 10 trails to hike depending on your level of expertise. Surfers, hikers, and nature lovers agree that Andrew Molera State Park is a favorite.
Be sure to keep your eye on the sky and witness the beautiful condors in their natural habitat.
6. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
47225 CA-1, Big Sur
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park provides visitors with lush forestry and natural beauty. From easy to strenuous hikes, there is something for everyone.
The Redwoods tower high above keeping the forest floor cool.
Hike along the Big Sur River, climb to the vista point or just take a leisurely stroll on the boardwalk. Adventurous hikers often choose the Pine Ridge Trail leading to the secret Sykes Hot Springs.
7. Pfeiffer Beach
9100 Sycamore Canyon Road
Pfeiffer Beach is one of our TOP 3 places to stop as you travel through Big Sur. With its crashing waves, rocky coastline, and purple sand (Yes! I said purple), Pfeiffer Beach is spectacular.
The famous Keyhole rock stands majestically in front of you as the waves crash through the opening. During December and January, you might be lucky enough to catch the sun setting through the keyhole. Whether it’s waves or the sun, you will agree the view is picture worthy.
Manganese garnet from the nearby hills causes the sand to have a purple color. After the rain, purple is more prevalent.
Pfeiffer Beach can be windy and chilly. The water is cold and the currents are strong. Swimming is not advised.
This is truly a beautiful beach, but be prepared. Bring chairs, a blanket, a picnic, and someone that will love the views. Wear layers as it can be windy and chilly. After all, this is the Central Coast.
There are a few things to keep in mind when visiting Pfeiffer Beach.
- The turn for Pfeiffer Beach road sits between the Big Sur ranger station and the Big Sur Post office on the southbound side of Hwy 1. The entrance is not well-marked and may appear that it is a private road.
- Sycamore Canyon Road is paved, but very narrow. RVs, buses, and campers are prohibited on the road. There are potholes and curves, as well as 2-way traffic.
- Parking is limited.
- This is a day-use-only beach, with no overnight camping
- The entrance fee is $12 CASH per car.
- Nudity is legal on this beach and is common at the northern end of the beach.
48510 CA- 1, Big Sur
Nepenthe is a Big Sur icon. Sitting 600 feet above the ocean, the views are outstanding. Enjoy a relaxing glass of wine on the patio, or a delightful meal as you gaze out to the Pacific Ocean.
The gift shop and cafe are open for something quick and easy as well.
Nepenthe is a great place to stop and relax as you are cruising Big Sur.
9. Partington Cove
51700 CA- 1 Big Sur
By far, this stop is off the hook and definitely one of our top 3 places to visit on Big Sur.
Fair warning, there is a 1 mile out and back hike to the prize views The path down to the cove is dirt and easy. However, like all rules of physics, eventually, you will have to come back up.
Park carefully along the road as there is no lot. Follow the dirt path down, down down. The path will fork, and both trails are worth walking.
To the left, cross over the wooden footbridge and go to, then through the tunnel. It’s creepy for sure, but the view on the other side is OUTSTANDING!
To the right, the path will lead directly to the ocean. The rocky shoreline is nothing short of breathtaking.
The huge boulders make a great place to sit and watch the waves.
10. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park – McWay Falls
52801 CA-1, Big Sur
McWay Falls is an 80-foot plunge tidefall.
During high tide, the water falls directly into the ocean. The scenic overlook gives views of the pristine beach, emerald green water, and stunning waterfall.
Unfortunately, you cannot access the beach, and attempting to do so can get you into a heap of trouble.
The path out and back is about 1/2 mile and very easy.
Since there is a $10 fee to access this state park, you may want to park on CA-1 and walk in for free. Also, CA State Parks allow you same-day entrance to the other state parks thereby stretching your dollar.
11. Slates Hot Springs & Esalen Institute
55000 CA-1 Big Sur
For those desiring a break from the world, you can find tranquility here at the Esalen Institute. Their holistic approach to reviving your spirit, soul, and body makes them a leader in the industry. Relaxing spa treatments, meditation, and jaw-dropping views are only the highlights
The mineral-rich natural baths overlook the Pacific Ocean creating an immersive experience.
The Esalen Institute requires advanced reservations. However, the Slate Hot Springs within the property is open to the public from 1 am-3 am nightly.
12. New Camaldoli Hermitage
62474 CA-1, Big Sur
High above the CA-1 sits the New Camaldoli Hermitage. The community of Camaldolese Benedictine monks welcomes visitors from all walks of life. Whether you seek the solitude of a silent weekend retreat or the peaceful views from convenient benches, this is a beautiful stop along Big Sur.
Please be considerate of the spiritual nature of the New Camaldoli Heritage. Children, pets, music, and loud talking are not permitted. Kindness and understanding is always appreciated.
13. Limekiln State Park
63025 CA-1, Big Sur
Due to a fire, the trails have been closed for some time. Volunteers have worked countless hours cleaning the area and making the trails safe again.
As the trails open again, visitors can wander through the giant redwoods, search for the 100 ft waterfall or explore the kilns.
14. Sand Dollar Beach
69232 CA-1, Big Sur
This stunning cove is a favorite of surfers and beachcombers alike. The soft sand and big waves welcome visitors. Tidepooling is popular, as you can sometimes find sand dollars and jade.
The high bluffs protect the beach from the wind making your visit comfortable and relaxing.
Visit from the top or take the stairs down to the beach. Either way, Sand Dollar Beach is unforgettable.
15. Ragged Point
19019 CA-1, Ragged Point
Ragged Point offers some of the most incredible views of Big Sur. Whether you come to spend the weekend in one of the 39 cliff-side rooms or grab something to go from the snack bar, Ragged Point will treat you to their million-dollar views.
For those that are up for a hike, take the .6-mile trail down to the black sand beach. Remember to look behind you to view the 300-foot waterfall. This is a strenuous hike and best enjoyed by experienced hikers.
The rest of us can take a leisurely walk out to the Portal and look 400 ft down to the beach below.
16. Elephant Seal Vista Point
CA-1 , San Simeon
Have you ever wondered what Elephant Seals do all day?
This is your chance to see, hear and smell them in their natural environment.
From late November through March there are hundreds of elephant seals doing seal things: sleeping, swimming, and singing!
17. Hearst Castle
750 Hearst Castle Road, San Simeon
Built between 1919 and 1947, Hearst Castle sits high above San Simeon overlooking the valley below. The property encompasses over 250,000 acres secluded from those that want to sneak a peak. With 115 rooms including 38 bedrooms, 40 bathrooms, a salon, a Theatre, and two pools, The Hearst Castle was once the ultimate party house.
Celebrities and the ultra-wealthy of yester-year often visited William Randall Hearst at the Castle for extravagant functions. Guests would fly into the private airstrip and be shuttled to either the main house or one of the 3 guest houses.
At one point, Hearst Castle was home to the largest private zoo. The zoo housed bears, orangutans, camels, giraffes, and zebras. The zoo was dismantled in 1947 due to financial difficulties. Most of the animals were rehomed to other zoos, while some were permitted to roam freely. Zebras, (yes zebras), elk, and antelope continue to freely roam the countryside in San Simeon. Keep your eyes open as you take the drive.
Three years after William’s death in 1951, Hearst Castle became a California State Park. The Castle is open for tours.
For those interested, you can become a member of the Hearst Castle Foundation, which is dedicated to the preservation of the Castle and philanthropic educational endeavors through science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics. Through special events including pool parties (yes, you can swim in the Neptune pool), the Foundation raises money to support these programs.
The Village of Cambria is a vibrant community that has so much to offer its residents and visitors.
Stunning beaches, a farmers market, fine dining, and a weird roadside attraction. Whether you spend a few hours or a few days, Cambria will be a beautiful memory.
Frequently Asked Questions about Big Sur Road Trips and Big Sur Itinerary
How much time do I need for a Big Sur Road trip?
Big Sur is roughly 100 miles from Carmel to Cambria. The posted speed limit is 55mph, however, the hairpin turns steep inclines, and jaw-dropping views, coupled with traffic and lane closures don’t often allow drivers to go so fast. Where available, slower drivers can utilize pullouts to allow faster traffic to pass. CA-1 should not be driven if you are under serious time constraints.
Save this spectacular scenic route for when you have ample time, 4 or 5 hours minimum. It is far too beautiful to rush.
In our opinion, Big Sur is best experienced over a few days. Visiting the beaches, taking a few hikes, and of course, catching a famous Pacific Coast sunset are all part of the magic.
How many days should I spend in Big Sur?
Spending even 1 night in Big Sur, somewhere near the midpoint will add to your overall Big Sur Experience. Spending 2 or more nights will definitely enhance your visit. By staying multiple nights, you can spend more time at each of the viewpoints as well as enjoy some of the hikes.
Whether you fancy dinner at Nepenthe or s’mores nestled amongst the Redwoods, Big Sur can be enjoyed for a little or as long as you desire. Ask any of the locals, they never want to leave.
Is Big Sur Worth Driving?
If miles of hairpin turns, scenic overlooks, jaw-dropping views, and countless photo opportunities are your jam, then Big Sur is DEFINITELY worth driving.
There is a reason that CA-1 is often counted as one of the top 10 best road trips in the United States. Big Sur is just THAT IMPRESSIVE.
As constant travelers, we have driven some beautiful scenic roads: The Road to Hana, The Million Dollar Highway, and The Apache Trail to name a few. Big Sur makes our Top 5 road trips of all time.
We’d love to know your favorite roads!
Can I Drive My RV on Big Sur?
The short answer is yes, RVs are permitted on CA-1. However, just because you can, doesn’t always mean you should drive your RV on Big Sur.
With steep grades throughout Big Sur, driving your RV or pulling a camper might not be the best idea when it comes to visiting Big Sur. Plus, the scenic overlooks are not RV friendly. Many are small and only have room for a few cars.
With Over 40 years of experience driving and towing, Robb considers himself an expert driver. After navigating CA-1 in our Renegade Verona, he was quite relieved to make his way to Interstate 5 (I-5). The steep grades will burn up your brakes if you are not careful.
For those that are camping in Big Sur, you will have to drive part of the highway. Our best advice is to drive directly to your destination. Take the road as slowly and carefully as you need to. Leave your rig at the campground and explore Big Sur by passenger vehicle or motorcycle.
When Is The Best Time To Visit Big Sur?
Peak season in Big Sur is April to October. Temperatures are in the mid-70s, which makes the beach days and hikes more pleasant. With the warmer temperatures the crowd increase. Traffic can be a nightmare on a 2 lane coastal highway.
Although the winter months may bring some rain and cooler temperatures, it is also prime time to see beautiful gray whales. The crowds have gone home and Big Sur is fairly quiet.
Only you can decide between whales or crowds.
Big Sur is often windy, chilly, and foggy in the morning. Daytime temperatures fluctuate from the high 70s in August to the low 60s in January and nighttime temperatures are a moderate 43-50 degrees. There is little chance of freezing roads, however, the threat of a landside or mudslide is high during the rainy season.
Wildfires are far too common on Big Sur. Severe damage has been seen in some of the inaccessible trails.
Big Sur is a fragile area and should always be treated with respect and care.
Where to stay in Big Sur?
Big Sur is such a magical experience, captivating families, road-tripping friends, and especially lovers. Whether your plans are hiking, driving, or exploring the many beaches, consider spending a few nights in one of the cozy lodges.
46800 Highway 1, Big Sur.
Big Sur River Inn is located center stage of Big Sur. Just a few minutes from Andrew Molera State Park and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, Big Sur River Inn is perfect for winding down after a long day of sightseeing. Relax with a glass of wine or enjoy dinner in the on-site restaurant. During the summer, you can take advantage of the beautiful in-ground swimming pool. Wi-Fi is available or you can disconnect for a little while as you explore the creek and trails.
47225 Highway 1, Big Sur
Big Sur Lodge is a perfect place to “leave the outside world behind”. Located centrally along Highway 1, visitors have easy access to the Pheiffer Big Sur State Park and Pheiffer Beach. During the summer months, the in-ground pool is perfect for cooling off after a day of hiking. Likewise, you can snuggle up in front of the fireplace after a chilly Northern California fall afternoon. The convenient onsite restaurant and bar make dining easy.
Where can I find Big Sur Campgrounds?
There are several campgrounds in Big Sur, as well as lodges, cabins, and hotels, but don’t leave your stay to chance. Reservations are required for most campgrounds and RV space is a premium. Consider traveling during the mid-week for more options.
We enjoyed our stay at the Big Sur Cabins and campground. Although the campground is “big rig friendly”, parking an RV can be challenging. The RV spaces are tight, as you would expect, deep in the Redwood forest. The campground is well-maintained and quiet. We would return in a heartbeat.
As with most of Big Sur, there is no cell service or internet service. However, the nearby Big Sur Library has free Wi-FI and free DVD rentals.
Check out these convenient campgrounds:
- Riverside Campground and Cabins: Accommodates RVs up to 34ft
- Big Sur Campground and Cabins: Accommodates RVs up to 40ft
- Pfeifer Big Sur State Park South Camp: RV and Tent Camping
- Ventana Campground: Tent camping only
- Fernwood Resort: RV & Tent Camping
What type of vehicle should I rent for my Big Sur Road Trip?
We’ve all seen the Hollywood version of the California Coast, right? Cruising CA-1 in a cute little convertible might sound fun, but the reality is somewhat different.
The mist and the fog will surely dampen your early morning plans. Save the sports car for Southern California or even Wine Country. Think about a jeep or 4Wheel drive small SUV for some of those hard to get to places.
Tips For Your Big Sur Road Trip:
By far, Guide Along to Big Sur is the most comprehensive road trip companion we have used. Your guide will help you navigate Big Sur with stories, history, and a few surprises.
Guide Along is like having a personal guide at a fraction of the cost. The narrator is witty and knowledgeable while guiding you to all the best sights of Big Sur.
There is little to no cell phone service in Big Sur. Don’t leave your “Best places to see” to memory. Download a copy of this Ultimate Big Sur Road Trip Guide. It would be a shame to miss that one spot you wanted to see!
Interactive Big Sur Map
Point Lobos Natural Reserve
Garrapata State Park
Andrew Molera State Park
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park : McWay Falls
Slates Hot Springs Esalen Institute
New Camaldoli Hermitage
Limekiln State Park
Sand Dollar Beach
Elephant Seal Vista Point
Note The Ranger Station Information
47555 CA-1, Big Sur
The Big Sur Ranger Station has a wealth of information. Stop in for travel guides and up-to-date information about trails, traffic, and wildlife.
Bring snacks and drinks:
Although there are a few convenience stores along CA-1, you may not pass them when you venture out. Always pack plenty of water and easy snacks for your road trip. Plus, who doesn’t love an impromptu picnic in an amazing location?
Dress in layers:
Big Sur weather can fluctuate rapidly. The mornings are often foggy, misty, and chilly. The afternoon can warm up considerably. This coastal drive is often windy, especially on the beach and overlooks. Dressing accordingly will keep you comfortable.
Wear appropriate footwear for walking and hiking.
Of course, this should be common sense, but you would be surprised at the fashionable shoes on the trails. Rocks, snakes, and sprains are all too common to hikers. Sturdy shoes will help keep you from accidental slips and slides.
Stop at the scenic overlooks, take pictures
The scenic overlooks, jaw-dropping views, and the Pacific Ocean are the reason we come to Big Sur. Stop and smell the sea air from high above.
Big Sur Road Trip and Big Sur Itinerary: Conclusion
Big Sur will always be one of my favorite destinations.
There is something mysterious, yet energizing about this region. Maybe it’s the fog or maybe it’s the way the mountains meet the sea. Whatever it is, Big Sur is magical, serene, and definitely worth the visit.
Robb and I appreciate you for reading this article. We hope that we have brought value to your upcoming Big Sur Road trip.
Until next time,
Travel Safe and Adventure Often,
Maureen & Robb