California’s Highway 1 fully deserves its ranking of one of the very best scenic drives in the country. The section between Carmel-by-the-Sea and San Luis Obispo is collectively known as Big Sur, and it offers the greatest concentration of fantastic sights and locations.
The scenery is beautiful around every corner; sometimes you’ll be down at water level, and others you’ll be enjoying panoramas from up high in the ocean cliffs. The most famous photo stops are at Bixby Bridge, McWay Falls and at the giant redwood trees – but you’ll find many more along the way.
Expect to see wildlife, whether it’s lumbering Elephant Seals lazing on beaches, whales out in the water or otters floating in rocky coves. And you even have a chance of seeing zebras – no joke!
Cultural and manmade features include the fascinating Hearst Castle, incredible views from Napenthe, and even the sheer magnitude of the road construction and slide sheds. Plus, hikers are guaranteed to find the right trail to match all energy levels.
It can be busy, so be prepared to find your driving progress a little slow at times. And you may have to take a lazy start to the day if the marine fog needs to burn off to reveal those stunning views. Just take your time, and be prepared to stop frequently to enjoy all the views and locations.
The Big Sur Scenic Byway is part of the Pacific Coast Highway: the breathtaking, ocean-fronted route that connects Northern and Southern California. Many people choose to incorporate Big Sur as part of a San Francisco–Los Angeles itinerary, meaning it’s most convenient to fly into one city and out of the other. If you’re driving cross-country, Interstate 80 will drop you off in the San Francisco Bay Area, while Interstates 10, 15, and 40 will all take you to Los Angeles. If you’re flying in and out of San Francisco, consider returning to the city on the faster Highway 101, located inland, after completing the scenic coastal drive in the southern direction.
San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is the closest major airport, roughly 100 miles (161 kilometers) north of Monterey. Flights connect to over 80 cities in the US and 50 international destinations. Car rental can be booked in advance and picked up at the airport; alternatively, if you plan on spending a few days in the Bay Area, you can take BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) directly into San Francisco. From the airport, It’s about two hours to Monterey by way of San Jose, or two and a half hours by way of Half Moon Bay and the more scenic Route 1. Traffic can be stop and go during rush hour, so plan accordingly.
Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) is the second-busiest airport in the United States, serving over 150 destinations worldwide. Car rental should be booked ahead; public transportation in LA leaves much to be desired. Roughly 200 miles (322 kilometers) south of San Luis Obispo, Los Angeles is twice as far as San Francisco from Big Sur, but it does make for a convenient starting or ending point if you are doing the whole drive up or down the coast.
Only interested in Big Sur? Consider flying direct to Monterey Regional Airport (MRY), which is the northern terminus of the scenic byway. Monterey only serves eleven destinations in the United States, though you can transfer here from both San Francisco and Los Angeles.
If you flew into San Francisco and are headed back that way to catch a flight, you can always follow Route 101 north from San Luis Obispo to make a nice loop. Wine connoisseurs should start with a short detour south to the Edna Valley along Highway 227. From there, head for Paso Robles, about 30 miles to the north. This agricultural town is famous for its Zinfandel, and you’ll have more opportunities to do some wine tasting here.
Next is Pinnacles National Park, dominated by an otherworldly collection of rock spires scattered throughout the chaparral hills. Just east of Monterey, Route 101 passes through Salinas, where you can drop in on the National Steinbeck Center. If you drove straight to Monterey without stopping on the way down, be sure to check out funky Santa Cruz and its famous boardwalk, and quaint Half Moon Bay with its art galleries and collection of beaches, just south of San Francisco.
Continuing south along Highway 101 will bring you to Pismo Beach, where you’ll have to make a choice: either stay on Route 101 and visit the wineries inland, or veer off onto Highway 1 again, passing the largest coastal sand dunes in the country at Guadalupe, followed by a string of wild beaches and the historic La Purisima Mission. After you get a shot of culture at one of Santa Barbara’s museums, Route 101 and Highway 1 merge again, hugging the coast and providing magnificent views of the Channel Islands just offshore. Known as California’s Galapagos, the Channel Islands are a national park and can be visited by boat from Ventura and Oxnard, further south. From Oxnard, Highway 1 continues to the upscale beach communities of Malibu and Santa Monica, where you enter the beginnings of Los Angeles’ urban sprawl.
Most state parks and beaches charge a small fee for each vehicle. If you walk into a park on foot – sometimes the case when the parking lots are full – there is no admission. Since not all parks accept credit cards, it’s useful to carry some cash. Keep in mind that you can use a state park entrance receipt at more than one state park over the course of a single day – just remember to tape it to your windshield instead of throwing it out! If you are over 62 and traveling outside of the peak summer months (Memorial Day through Labor Day), look into the Limited Use Golden Bear Pass.
The cultural highlight of the drive is Hearst Castle, which can be visited by tour only. There are a wide selection of tours available; we recommend the Grand Rooms tour for all first-time visitors. An admission fee applies here too.
When it comes to accommodation, there are plenty of choices: vintage redwood-clad motor lodges, luxe California spa retreats, rustic cabins, historic properties and mom-and-pop motels blocks from the beach. And some of the most idyllic campgrounds you’ve ever seen. Depending on your itinerary, budget, and tastes for being on- or off-the grid, you may want to base yourself in Monterey – at the northern end of the scenic drive – or Morro Bay or San Luis Obispo – at the southern end. However, the most sought-after locations are in the middle of Big Sur itself.
State park campgrounds are a great deal, but you will need to reserve months in advance to secure a spot at some of the more popular parks. These include Julia Pfeiffer Burns, Limekiln, Pfeiffer Big Sur, and Andrew Molera. National Forest campgrounds include optimal locales like Kirk Creek and Plaskett Creek. And if you can’t find a spot, don’t fret – private campgrounds exist too. Or, check out the Treebones Resort for the full-on glamping experience.
Expect to spend anywhere from $150 to $1,000 per night for hotel stays, with $300 being a good mark to aim for for midrange lodging. Reserve well in advance.
You can definitely drive Big Sur year-round, but note that winter storms regularly wash out parts of the road, with closures lasting from days to months at a time. Always check the current road conditions before leaving; one recommended site is bigsurkate.blog.
Beyond the issue of road closures, each season brings its own charms. Summer (June-August) is high season, with sunny weather, temps in the 70s, and plenty of events and activities. The downside is that the crowds and traffic can be overwhelming, and that coastal fog that looks so enchanting early in the morning can take longer than expected to burn off. Humpback whales can be seen offshore during this time.
The shoulder seasons (March to May and September to November) are ideal, as the crowds drop slightly and the weather is still pleasant. Spring brings wildflowers and gray whales headed north, while fall brings blue whale sightings off the coast and monarch butterfly migrations inland.
Winter (December to February) can be chilly and wet, but don’t let that deter you. Even in the depths of December, you might experience jawdropping bluebird days and pleasant daytime temperatures. During low season expect fewer crowds, though more businesses may be closed. Gray whales are migrating south to Baja, and elephant seals and sea otters give birth during this time.
It’s only 312 miles (502 kilometers) from Monterey to San Luis Obispo, and you can easily make the drive in a single day, taking the time to stop at only a few select highlights. However, we certainly recommend spending at least one night in the area, as that will allow you to drive more slowly, stop more often, and discover all those places that daytrippers don’t have time for. It also will give you the option to have a slow morning getting started in case you are waiting for the fog to burn off.
If you’re flying in and out of San Francisco, spend one day driving down to Monterey, the next day or two exploring Big Sur, and final night in Morro Bay. Return to San Francisco the last day via Highway 101, which is home to an entirely different landscape.
As part of a longer road trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles, consider driving the Pacific Coast Highway in five days, with one night in Monterey or Big Sur, and a second night in Morro Bay or another small coastal town near the southern end.
Do note that driving north to south is the preferred way to go, as this will put you on the ocean-side lane the entire way, and will make pulling into and out of beaches and other sights considerably easier.
Big Sur averages between five and seven million visitors per year, and the busiest months unsurprisingly coincide with the summer vacation season. Route 1 is not a highway, and the best way to avoid an accident or road rage is to manage your traffic expectations accordingly, drive slo-o-o-wly and switch drivers regularly, so that at least one person always has the opportunity to enjoy the scenery. The closer to winter you get, the less crowds there will be. And remember, while winter is the rainy season, this is California, not New England. The weather may be more pleasant than you expect.
One of the highlights of any trip to Big Sur is a tour of one-time newspaper baron William Hearst’s elaborate estate: Hearst Castle. Every inch of the buildings here incorporate some sort of historical artifact. Entire choir stalls were built into the walls. Priceless medieval tapestries hang in many of the rooms. The chairs that guests sat in for dinner were crafted in Renaissance France. Even the swimming pool features an actual Roman temple! The entire ensemble, from the main building’s Spanish-style church facade to the incorporation of Gothic statues is truly a whimsical mishmash of styles. This is the most popular state park in California – make sure to reserve your tour in advance.
There are 32 bridges along this stretch of Highway 1, but none are more recognizable than Bixby. With a graceful white span backed by the rolling coastal mountains and fronted by sheer cliffs dropping into the sea, it’s not hard to understand why this is such a photogenic spot. In addition to its massive popularity on Instagram, you may have seen it featured in any number of car commercials. What sets Bixby apart from other Big Sur bridges is its size: this is one of the tallest single-span bridges in the world, rising to a height of 280 feet (85 meters) above the canyon floor.
Coastal redwood trees are the tallest organisms on the planet, with specimens in northern California growing over 350 feet tall (107 meters). Big Sur is the southern edge of their habitat, and because the weather is warmer and drier here, the trees only grow up to 250 feet (76 meters) tall. One of the best spots to explore Big Sur’s redwood groves is the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Within the park are several trails, the most popular of which leads to Pfeiffer Falls, a 60-foot-high (18-meter) cascade that is accessed on a one and a half mile round-trip hike. Don’t miss the Colonial tree, which, at over 1,100 years old, is the oldest redwood in the park, with a circumference of 27 feet (8 meters).
For some, this is Big Sur’s loveliest stretch of sand – and the local manganese garnet makes it purple! Not only is Pfeiffer a picturesque convergence of river and ocean, and bluffs and forest, but there are also spectacular natural doorways, or arches, in the offshore rocks through which the waves and the setting sun are funneled in spectacular fashion. If you have a picnic, this is a wonderful place to take a break. The winding one-lane access road, called Sycamore Canyon Road, makes it something of a detour. Rangers at the top of the road will either wave you through or turn you around based on the parking availability.
A rough-hewn coastal town wrapped in fog and kelp forests in its cold-water bay, Monterey has a unique charm. The main draw is the world-famous aquarium, which reveals the mysteries of the National Marine Sanctuary just offshore. Historic Cannery Row hearkens back to nearly a century ago, when the town vied for the title of “Sardine Capital of the World.” Going further back in history are a collection of sights that recall Monterey’s role as the capital of the Spanish-Mexican province of Alta California.
Perhaps no sight in Big Sur is more iconic than McWay Falls – an 80-foot-high (24 meters) waterfall that spills off a forested cliff and onto an unspoiled beach in a crescent-shaped cove. Access to the waterfall is via a short flat trail that’s only half a mile (800 meters) long and easily hiked by anyone. Be aware that you can’t go down to the beach or waterfall – the trail leads to an overlook only, but it’s a perfect spot to snap a selfie. One of the most popular spots along the coast, you’ll likely need to park along the road because the main lots will be full. In addition to the waterfall, there are several other trails here that go through lovely redwood groves.
Named after a drug in Homer’s Odyssey that was given to Helen of Troy to help her forget her sorrows, you may indeed feel your worries slipping from your shoulders as you gaze out at the particularly lovely crescent of coastline from this famous terrace. More than a restaurant, Nepenthe’s perfect location – perched 800 feet (244 meters) up on the side of a bluff, with the glitter of the midday sun across the Pacific the perfect backdrop – makes it the stuff of Hollywood legend. Orson Wells and Rita Hayworth, and Richard Burns and Elizabeth Taylor, are just a few of the celebrity couples whose names are associated with this spot. There are no reservations – arrive early and have your name scribbled onto the wait list.
Just north of Hearst Castle is one of the best places in all of North America to see elephant seals. While females look like your typically cute seal, the males are another story. Often weighing an incredible 5,000 pounds (2,268 kilograms) and measuring up to 15 feet (4.5 meters) long, they are easily recognized by their odd looking snout, which (sort of) resembles an elephant’s trunk. During the breeding season from December to March, the seals don’t leave the beach at all, not even to eat, so you are guaranteed to see lots of them. April is also a good time, as pups have just been born and are practicing their swimming and diving skills close to shore.
Because Point Lobos is right at the very beginning (or at the very end, depending on which way you choose to drive) some visitors feel it’s too early or too late to make this stop. If you have time, and especially if you are staying in the Carmel/Monterey area, it’s a very worthwhile place to visit. The preserve offers a perfect example of the Pacific Ocean meeting the windswept land, and you can expect to see seals, sea lions, and the ever-popular sea otters playing in the water. There’s an excellent network of trails that allow you to visit different rocky outcrops and viewpoints, though if hiking isn’t your thing, many are drivable too. It’s well worth a few hours of your time!
Remember, vehicles over 20 feet (6 meters) may enter the reserve when traffic is light, but not during weekends, school vacations, holidays, or from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Trailers or motor homes towing vehicles are not permitted at any time.
By the end of your Big Sur tour, you’ll definitely be a waterfall connoisseur! Salmon Creek Falls is less well known than many other cascades, but it’s definitely dramatic enough to warrant a visit. From a hairpin turn in the road, you can follow your ears a quarter of a mile upstream to the falls, which are actually a pair of 120-foot (36-meter) cascades that both drop into the same pool. In order to reach the falls, follow the trail to a picturesque boulder garden, shaded by bay trees. You’ll need to pick your way through the giant rocks, so take your time and wear good shoes. Enticed by the Silver Creek Wilderness? Continue climbing two miles (3.2 kilometers) up to Spruce Creek Camp for greater solitude and ocean views.
From the road this looks like just another dirt pullout, with no sign indicating what lies below. But if you have a bit of extra time or you’re looking for an awesome place to picnic, this is the spot. From the parking area, follow the access road down the hillside toward the sea for half a mile until you reach a bridge on your left across the small Partington Creek. From here, the trail narrows and then passes through an old 60-foot (18-meter) tunnel that bores right through the hillside – the remnants of a short-lived tanbark-oak harvesting venture. On the other side of the tunnel is a deep cove, with tide pools and dramatic crashing waves on the rocks: the perfect place to sit and take in the Pacific.
Most visitors zip by Garrapata State Park in their rush to get to nearby Bixby Bridge, but the coastal fog, windswept bluffs, and whale-watching opportunities from – where else? – Whale Peak, are just some of the reasons to hop out of the car here. Soberanes Point is a moderate 1.8-mile (3-kilometer) loop, with options for longer hikes up Soberanes Canyon across the road.
Reopened in 2021 after several years of trailwork, Pfeiffer Falls is ready for action! A 1.3-mile (2-kilometer) nature loop, leading up steps, over bridges, and through redwood groves, this is a popular choice with families. Tack on an extra detour up to Valley View on the way back. Slightly more challenging is the nearby Buzzards Roost, which ascends over 800 feet (of switchbacks to a panoramic lookout over the Santa Lucia Mountains.
There’s a lot for serious hikers to love on this one: steep, wide-open hills plunging into the sea, Indian paintbrush and wild poppies in spring, old-growth redwood groves in Hare Canyon, and best of all, the opportunity to camp at Vicente Flat, the trail’s terminus. It’s a 10.9-mile (17.5-kilometer) hike round-trip, and with 2,600 feet (792 meters) of elevation gain, so expect your quads to get a good workout. Long pants are recommended, as ticks and poison oak may be prevalent along the narrow, brushy trail.
A relaxing 3.8-mile (6.1-kilometer) out-and-back hike, from Elephant Seal Vista to the historic whitewashed lighthouse and fog signal building. Constructed in 1874 and originally 100 feet (30 meters) tall, the Piedras Blancas Light Station has survived several earthquakes, though the trembler in 1948 ultimately resulted in the top third of the building being removed due to structural concerns. Great for a mellow stroll, wildlife watching, and a dash of history. Just bear in mind that visiting the lighthouse grounds is by tour only; so you’ll want to reserve in advance.
This state park has some lovely spots, but be aware that at the time of writing, all trails were closed for renovation work following the 2020 Dolan Fire. When the trailwork is complete, be sure to check out the 100-foot (30-meter) Limekiln Falls, which is a casual 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) out and back. There are a lot of boulders and downed trees that you’ll need to use to cross the creek, so prepare to get your feet wet! About halfway to the falls, the trail branches off to the four ruined kilns (used to produce thousands of barrels of lime, for building construction in San Francisco). The kilns are slightly easier to access than the waterfalls. You can easily combine the two trails for a mellow hike that’s about 2.25 miles (3.6 kilometers) in total.
Stop often and get those kids onto the beach. Sand, rocky bluffs, and crashing waves – swimming might not always be an option, but even moody teens will find something in the landscape to identify with. Wherever you go and whatever you do, make sure you always bring plenty of sun protection and water.
This world-famous aquarium will top the list of must-dos for many families. Visit the kelp forest for a sneak peek at what lies beneath the surface along the coast. On edge? Visitors of all ages are entranced with the hypnotic, pulsating movements of the innumerable jellies. Curious about those places where the sun don’t shine? Into the Deep, the aquarium’s newest exhibit, takes visitors into the strange world of bioluminescence, blind fish, and other monstrous entities that live in some of the most inhospitable conditions on earth. Reservations are essential.
Breaching whales, massive elephant seals battling one another for dominance, playful sea otters, and North America’s largest bird – keep your eyes peeled and you’ll be sure to spot some amazing sights from the animal kingdom. One of the strangest sights of all, however, is near the town of San Simeon, south of Hearst Castle. If you’re lucky, you just might see – wait a minute, was that – was that a zebra? That’s right, the United States’ only herd of wild zebras roams the coastal grasslands around San Simeon. These are the descendants of the herd that William Hearst once brought to California for his own private zoo, which he hoped would give his guests the impression they were on a safari in Africa.
The waters of Big Sur are generally too cold and too rough for swimming, but head to the tiny town of Cayucos along the southern stretch and you’ll be able to sign up for surfing lessons, rent standup paddleboards and kayaks, or even go fishing. Wetsuits are included with rentals, so you won’t feel the ocean’s chill… too much.
At the southern end of the tour is the college town of San Luis Obispo – aka the happiest place on Earth. While we can’t verify that last claim, we do know that among other youthful oddities, such as Bubblegum Alley, you can finally get the lead out with a thrill-packed zipline course at Margarita Adventures. Kids only need to be 36 inches (91 centimeters) tall and weigh a minimum 30 pounds (13.6 kilograms) to participate. Margaritas not included.
The Pebble Beach Equestrian Center, located in historic Carmel, is the place to go if someone in your family has always dreamed of riding a horse on the beach. In operation since 1924 and once the site of Olympic team trials – in addition to belonging to the same organization as the famous golf course – these stables have plenty of pedigree.
Ever dreamt of going eye to eye with a leviathan from the deep? Okay, we can’t promise that will happen, but on a whale-watching tour you generally see plenty of sealife, no matter what. When choosing a tour, try to ensure that the experience comes with a naturalist and a captain, and be sure to wear warm, waterproof layers, no matter the season. Most whale-watching boats run out of Monterey, though a handful are based in Morro Bay down south. December through mid-March is gray whale season, while the rest of the year focuses on whales who come into Monterey Bay to feed on krill and fish.
Did you know that you can find jade stones washing up on the beach in Big Sur? In 1971, three divers found a nine thousand pound piece of jade that was eight feet (2.4 meters) long and was estimated to be worth nearly $200,000. Two of the most popular spots to look for the semi-precious stones are Sand Dollar Beach and Jade Cove, which are right alongside one another. The best time to search is during low tide, when more of the beach is exposed. Be aware that jade is not the only mineral present – you’ll also find serpentine, which looks very similar.
So how do you tell if that dark green rock you’ve found is jade? Simple, scratch it with something metal. If you succeed in marking it, it’s serpentine or something else. If you can’t make an imprint no matter how hard you try and bits of metal wind up on the rock, it’s probably jade.
While the southern stretch of Big Sur is less dramatic than the north, you’ll find a couple of cute towns here that are worth visiting: Cambria, Cayucos, and Harmony. Cambria has a lively downtown area and a long wooden boardwalk that runs along Moonstone Beach. Cayucos is famous for its wooden pier, a laid-back surf vibe, and antique shops and local wine-tasting room. Harmony is the most unusual of all – originally a dairy farm and creamery, it got a new lease on life in 2015 when a local couple decided to buy it up. Today you’ll see a glass blower’s studio, a pottery studio, and even a lovely four-pew chapel with a wine barrel façade. If the creamery’s ice cream truck is open for business, you’ve hit the jackpot.
If you’re a fan of indie bookstores, you won’t want to miss this one – it’s dedicated to the immortal bon vivant Henry Miller, whose books paved the way for free speech in the United States. In 1964, the landmark 5-4 Supreme Court decision ruled in favor of allowing Grove Press to publish the author’s previously banned Tropic of Cancer – first released in France all the way back in 1934. Miller eventually relocated from Paris to Big Sur in 1944, and lived close to the bookstore’s present location.
This iconic stone lighthouse has been in operation since 1889, helping ships navigate the treacherous waters here. Perched nearly 400 feet (122 meters) above the Pacific Ocean, Point Sur is the only turn-of-the century lighthouse in California whose interior is open to the public through docent-led tours. All told, the lighthouse, and its foghorn, has done its job well over the years – since its establishment, it has been witness to only fifteen shipwrecks in the area, the last one coming in 1956. Point Sur Lighthouse tours are first-come, first-served, so plan to arrive early if interested, and check operating days and times before your visit.
Extra Layers: California is the land of microclimates. It can go from blazing hot while driving through the treeless coastal scrub to downright chilly when you park in a redwood forest or along a windy beach just a few miles down the road. Bearing that in mind, we advise that you dress in layers and always have a sweatshirt and outer shell handy, regardless of whether it is summer or winter, so that you can stay comfortable. Long pants are a good idea when hiking, to protect from ticks and poison oak.
Footwear: You’ll need at least two styles – trail shoes or boots for hiking, and sandals or flip-flops for the beach. When it comes to hiking shoes, note that some people prefer boots, which provide ankle support, while others opt for trail-running shoes, which are lighter weight but still have grippy soles. Either way, make sure that your shoes are snug and that they have a good sole.
Beach Supplies: Although there are few places to swim, hanging out on the beach can be a great way to unwind.
Daypack: A comfortable pack makes all the difference. In addition to carrying an extra layer, water, and headlamp, it’s a good idea to throw a few snacks in there as well.
Sun Protection: Broad-brimmed hat, sunblock, and sunglasses.
Hiking Poles: Light-weight hiking poles are like having a third leg. They help maintain balance and can get you into a rhythm while walking.
Water Bottles: Always bring water. And make sure you drink it! No matter what time of year you visit, dehydration is always a risk – even if you’re not doing much physical activity.
Headlamp: You never know when a hike is going to take longer than planned – we always throw a lightweight headlamp in our daypack just in case.
Map: Consider bringing an actual map – like, one made out of paper. Since your phone won’t have much service, it won’t be much use for navigation. Having a hard copy to consult can be useful when you’re leaving the tour route.
Binoculars: Great for whale, otter and condor spotting and close up views of elephant seals.
Portable Phone Charger and Cable: If you’re taking pictures with your phone, running out of batteries may result in missed opportunities.
Plastic Bag: We always like to take along a plastic bag to pick up any garbage we find along the trail.