Inspiration

How to Plan the Perfect Road Trip On Big Sur, An Iconic Stretch of California Coast

Our definitive T+L guide to where to stay, what to eat and more on that most romantic American coastal road.

Big Sur

Big Sur. Photo by Emma Surell/Getty Images/Canva

By Stacey Leasca

Sep 2, 2022

BIG SUR IS A 145-KILOMETER stretch of coastal California Highway 1 between Carmel-by-the-Sea (to the north) and San Simeon (to the south), and a road trip can take drivers about four hours to complete. But, with so many places to stop for photos, hikes, quirky shops and restaurants, we suggest dedicating a long weekend to the trip.

Big Sur is home to breathtaking cliffs, beaches, and seemingly endless trails that snake their way through verdant landscapes — it’s also a road trip brimming with plenty of hairpin turns that will wrack even the most confident driver’s nerves. Our recommendation is to drive north to south because it gives passengers the best view of the Pacific Ocean. However, for the more road-weary drivers, traveling south to north may be preferable. Keep in mind the road is incredibly windy and quite narrow at times.

A look at the natural flora and breathtaking scenery in Big Sur
A look at the natural flora and breathtaking scenery in Big Sur. Photo by Dayenu/Getty Images/Canva

Remember, Big Sur is known for its views, not its cell service, so you may find yourself with little-to-no reception for most of the road trip. Plan ahead and enjoy the time being unplugged from the rest of the world. No matter how much time you have to spend in Big Sur, here’s how to experience the best of the area.

How to Get to Big Sur

Winding Highway 1 along the Big Sur coastline in central California
Winding Highway 1 along the Big Sur coastline in central California. Photo by china face/Getty Images Signature

Most travelers experience Big Sur when driving between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The beginning of Big Sur’s coastal drive is about 480 kilometers north of L.A. From L.A, the best way to get to Big Sur is to make your way up US-101 North to CA-1 North, otherwise known as Highway 1.

From San Francisco, you’ll drive about 240 kilometers miles to Big Sur, taking US-101 South to Highway 1. It’s a pleasant drive through places like Salinas and Monterey. Those who prefer to fly are best off flying into Monterey Regional Airport or San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport.

The Best Time Visit to Big Sur

Big Sur’s fog covers the surface of the Pacific Ocean
Big Sur’s fog covers the surface of the Pacific Ocean. Photo by Ron and Patty Thomas/Getty Images Signature/Canva

Thanks to its position along the coast, Big Sur’s weather remains rather temperate year-round, according to BigSurCalifornia.org.

While the winters are chilly, they most certainly aren’t freezing. The coldest month is February when temperatures dip between 8 degrees Celsius and 15 degrees Celsius. However, the winters can be a lovely time to come as rainfall fills the streams, making for more scenic hikes. December through April offers the best chance to see gray whales migrating south, according to the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce.

Big Sur wildflowers in yellow on a cliff
Big Sur wildflowers in yellow on a cliff. Photo by Michelle robertson/Getty Images/Canva

In the summer, visitors can expect morning coastal fog that burns off by early afternoon. August marks the hottest month, with an average temperature of 20 degrees Celsius. With better summer weather comes bigger summer crowds — and more cars making more frequent stops along the route. Spring and fall have their merits, too, thanks to wildflower blooms in the former and colorful foliage in the latter.

What to Do in Big Sur

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, Big Sur
Pfeiffer Falls and Valley View Trails in Big Sur. Photo by Sheldon Currington/Getty Images/Canva

Big Sur is a perfect destination for the adventurous traveler. There are myriad excellent hiking trails in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, where awe-inspiring views are plentiful. Inside the park, visitors can find towering sycamore and oak trees, along with the ever-popular coastal redwoods that make this park a must-see attraction.

Similarly named Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is another beautiful site with plenty of tall trees and a famous 25-meter waterfall that flows directly into the Pacific Ocean below. (You’ve probably seen it on Instagram.) The two parks — named after lifetime Big Sur resident Julia Pfeiffer whom the latter of the state parks is dedicated to— are only about 20 minutes apart by car.

Big Sur is also home to several stunning beaches; one of the best is Sand Dollar Beach. As the longest stretch of sand in Big Sur, Sand Dollar Beach is a place to spend an entire day exploring the craggy coast, setting up picnics, and daring to take a dip in the cool Pacific waters.

Milky Way and Bixby Creek Bridge, Big Sur
Milky Way and Bixby Creek Bridge, Big Sur. Photo by aido75/Getty Images/Canva

A highlight for many Big Sur visitors is a drive across Bixby Creek Bridge. The iconic bridge is only about 30 minutes south of Carmel-by-the-Sea, so it’s an excellent way to start or end your trip. The gorgeous span, first built in the 19th century, sits 80 meters above the shoreline. Since its construction, the bridge has become an emblem of the destination — and has even appeared in movies and TV shows, including in the opening credits of HBO’s Big Little Lies.

Big Sur Hotels for Every Budget

Big Sur Suite, Alila Ventana Big Sur
Big Sur Suite. Courtesy of Alila Ventana Big Sur

For such a small destination, Big Sur comes packed with high-end hotels. Alila Ventana Big Sur is a masterclass in luxury amenities, including a cliffside infinity pool and suites with individual fireplaces. There is even the option to stay in safari-style glamping tents (although glamping guests will not have access to resort amenities).

Another glamping option is Treebones Resort, an eco-resort that has a mix of pre-built tents and yurts, along with campsites. There’s also the wildly popular “human nest,” which is a campsite made out of woven twigs that invites guests to bring a sleeping bag and live like a giant bird for the night.

Adobe Motor Lodge, Glen Oaks Big Sur
Adobe Motor Lodge. Courtesy of Glen Oaks Big Sur

For views that will leave your jaw on the floor, book a stay at the Post Ranch Inn. The individually styled suites and bookable private rooms that sit on the edge of a cliff provide unobstructed views of the horizon. Each of the rooms are crafted using natural materials including wood, glass, and steel. The property also has a tree house — built literally into the trees — that guests can rent complete with a private deck, indoor fireplace, and mini bar.

Need more? There’s also Glen Oaks Big Sur, a laid-back accommodation made up of cabins, cottages, and a motor lodge. Another option is Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn, a historic inn built in 1937 that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

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The Best Big Sur Restaurants

Big Sur Bakery
Courtesy of Big Sur Bakery

If starting from the north, kick off your Big Sur road trip with phenomenal pastries (and even better coffee) at Big Sur Bakery, located about an hour south of Carmel-by-the-Sea. It’s the perfect spot to stock up on fresh baked goods, bread, and other grab-n-go goodies to fuel your day.

For more locally sourced goods, stop in at Coast Big Sur, a restaurant serving delectable California fare, including avocado salads and sourdough pizza. Guests can choose to dine in at the rooftop tables or take the food to go (a picnic at Sand Dollar Beach, perhaps?).

Nepenthe, Big Sur
Courtesy of Nepenthe

For dinner, reserve well in advance at Nepenthe, another Big Sur institution. The restaurant, which opened in 1949, offers stellar views of the sea and dazzling sunsets thanks to its position in the Santa Lucia Mountains. Meat eaters should consider the famous Ambrosia Burger, which includes ground steak topped with ambrosia sauce on a soft French roll. There are plenty of vegetarian offerings, as well as seafood choices like the shrimp BLT, seared scallops, and smoked wild salmon.

Travelers weary from a day of driving can also stop in at Big Sur Roadhouse, which serves pub staples like beers, burgers, and burritos. If deli choices are more your speed, the Big Sur General Store does massive sandwiches like the avocado-, bacon-, and sprouts-loaded Big Sur Hipster — not to be confused with the Big Sur Hippie, a totally different sandwich, stuffed with roast beef, Sriracha, and horseradish cheddar cheese.

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