Big Sur is one of our favorite California road trip locations when we feel like unplugging and going off the grid to enjoy some quality time outdoors.
Big Sur Highway 1 travels along one of the longest and least developed stretches of coastline in California. Although the drive is just 2 hours long, Big Sur offers an unforgettable road trip route.
Within a 90 mile coastline, you can experience breathtaking viewpoints, rugged ocean shorelines, a beachfront waterfall, and lush, rolling mountains as far as you can see.
In this post, we share all the best things to do in Big Sur – whether you’re just going for the day or turning the drive into a multi-day trip!
What Is There To See & Do In Big Sur?
As California locals, we’ve done the Big Sur drive several times now, sometimes starting from San Simeon in the South and sometimes starting from Carmel in the North.
The entire Big Sur coastline, from Carmel to San Simeon, is around 90 miles long.
If you’re limited to a shorter vacation or a weekend, you can also do smaller sections at a time. Often, we head out to Big Sur for quick weekend camping trips and spend time in just one area.
To help make your trip planning easier, I have divided our guide into two different parts:
- Things to do in Northern Big Sur
- Things to do in Southern Big Sur
Some of the top attractions along Big Sur Highway 1 include oceanfront waterfalls, rugged beaches, redwood trails, and wildlife sightings. The entire Big Sur coastline is just incredible, but it can be hard to see it all!
Pssst! Prior to heading out on your Big Sur adventure, we recommend getting this self-driving audio tour to learn more about the main attractions in Big Sur as you drive!
Before we dive into the details of what highlights to visit, here are some frequently asked questions about Big Sur.
How Much Time Do You Need?
If you look up Big Sur directions between Carmel-By-The-Sea and San Simeon on Google Maps, the total distance comes out to just over 2 hours of driving time. But in reality, a Big Sur road trip takes much longer due to windy cliffside roads, oftentimes foggy conditions, and stunning viewpoints & attractions that you’ll want to pull over and see.
Keep in mind that Highway 1 is not a road that you’ll want to speed through.
On our trips to Big Sur, we’ve seen cars flipped over from going too fast on blind corners, cars driving on flat tires, rescue missions taking place, and a variety of other reasons why you should take your time and enjoy this drive slowly (and safely).
Big Sur is located pretty far away from major California cities so we suggest making a multi-day trip out of it. While technically you CAN drive the entire Big Sur Highway 1 in a few hours, we typically set aside a couple of days to enjoy a Big Sur road trip at a leisure pace and explore some of the top attractions along the way.
When To Go?
There is no such thing as a “bad time” to do a Big Sur road trip. But there is the busy travel season and the somewhat less busy season.
June through August is the peak time for traveling in Big Sur when everything is booked up. Personally, we enjoy visiting Big Sur in the fall and spring months when the weather is pleasant and campsites & hotels have more availability.
Big Sur is also one of the best places to visit in California in winter while other mountain destinations are covered in snow and not as easily accessible. Just be sure to pack a warmer jacket, a few sweaters, and waterproof hiking boots for the rainy season in Big Sur and you’ll be all set!
Where To Stay?
The lodging options along the Big Sur coastline include campgrounds, hotels, Inns, private rentals, and cabins. But finding available lodging in Big Sur can be a challenge! Most campgrounds often get booked up months in advance and there are only a few hotels along this rugged stretch of coastline.
Because of limited hotel options, many people opt to stay in Carmel or Monterey in the North or Cambria in the south and make day trips out to Big Sur.
Here are some of the best places to stay in Big Sur to help you narrow down your options:
- Alila Ventana Big Sur. This luxurious five-star hotel boasts impressive amenities that include swimming and spa facilities situated along California’s breathtaking coast. The Alila Ventana Big Sur is an all-inclusive, adults-only resort perched high above the Pacific Ocean. Posh rooms, suites, and private villas feature upscale accents like hot tubs, fireplaces, or separate living rooms. Rest and relaxation amongst luxurious decor is the highlight of the Alila Ventana resort.
- Big Sur Lodge. Wake up in the heart of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park at the Big Sur Lodge. This three-star hotel offers professionally maintained units that can accommodate between two and four guests. Each room is furnished with a small seating area, a private balcony, and coffee-making supplies. Upgrade options are available and may include a kitchenette or a fireplace.
- Big Sur River Inn. Striking redwoods and the passing Big Sur River make the Big Sur River Inn a haven in nature. Take your pick between standard rooms for two adults or larger suites that can accommodate up to four. One of the highlights of this hotel is its unique river seating area. Half-immersed wooden chairs and benches stand in the water, allowing guests to relax in the cool passing river.
- Big Sur Home. This three-bedroom Big Sur home takes the upscale amenities of a hotel and combines them with the homey touch of privacy you can only expect from a vacation rental. Inspired by the nature of the region, classic decor elements fill the space, such as exposed wooden beams and a stone fireplace. However, the star of this property is the fantastic outdoor area equipped with an in-ground heated swimming pool, a hot tub, and ample outdoor seating that looks out onto the picture-perfect coast.
- Big Sur Dream Home. This unique one-bedroom is a design dream and features a beautiful outdoor area furnished with a separate yurt, hot tub, and an adobe fireplace. Graceful wooden arches and tall windows help create eye-catching architectural lines that pair so well with the surrounding wilderness. On the ground level of this incredible home, you’ll find a small but well-appointed kitchen, living room, and bathroom.
- Notleys Landing Cabin. This Notleys Landing cabin is nestled in the hillside of an expansive property just a few miles from Hwy 1. The interior is equipped with all the comforts of home and filled with quaint interior touches for a comfortable experience. Relaxation-focused amenities such as a wood-fired sauna and an open-air clawfoot soaking tub make this 600-square-foot cottage ideal for a romantic getaway for two.
There are several campgrounds along the Big Sur coastline that offer tent, campervan, and RV camping. These are a couple of our favorites!
- Kirk Creek Campground. This is one of the most scenic campgrounds to experience along the Big Sur coastline. Kirk Creek Campground is perched on top of bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean with dreamy views all around. The campsites are grassy, open, and very spacious with plenty of distance from the rest of the campers. The front campsites are lined against the bluffs and the back campsites are slightly elevated so everyone can enjoy ocean views. Kirk Creek campground offers the perfect place to enjoy nature, rest, reset and explore a few fun outdoor adventures!
Read More: Staying At Kirk Creek Campground In Big Sur
- Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground. This scenic campground offers 189 tent and RV sites along with restrooms, hot showers, a restaurant on-premises, a couple of camp stores where you can buy camping goods, and even a laundromat. Here campers have the opportunity to unwind and relax at large campsites scattered amongst ancient redwood trees which is a dream come true for any nature lover in California. Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground is located next to serene wooded trails and is just a short drive from scenic beaches like Pfeiffer Beach.
Read More: Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground Along California Coast
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What To Pack For Big Sur?
If you’re wondering what you should pack for Big Sur, check out our road trip essentials post that covers what we bring for road trips in our car.
Or maybe you’re getting into van life and want to take your home on wheels for a spin on the coast? We have a WHOLE separate list with 85 essentials that you should pack in a campervan.
Here are a few basics that we recommend bringing for your trip to Big Sur:
- Light Jacket. The weather in Big Sur is unpredictable and can change drastically throughout the day. When traveling to the coast it’s always colder than expected so pack a jacket that you can easily carry around and to the beach. I have an ultralight jacket by Mountain Hardwear that I bring in my backpack with me everywhere.
- Hiking shoes. I’m pretty clumsy so I prefer wearing hiking shoes with extra grip that prevent me from slipping & falling especially in misty coastal conditions. But any walking shoes will do it for the easier hikes.
- Travel towel. To wipe off mud and sand before getting into your car.
- Poison oak treatment. Poison oak can be found all over the Big Sur coastline. Bring poison oak treatment in case you get exposed to it.
- Sunscreen. This is an absolute must for traveling in California. It’s easy to get sunburned even on foggy coastal days.
- Portable phone charger. It’s always a good idea to bring a phone charger just in case your phone runs out of battery mid-hike.
- Emergency kit. REI sells compact lightweight emergency kits that are easy to bring in a car or day pack. You never know when you’ll need one and in Big Sur, it’s best to go prepared!
Now that you have an idea of what to expect, here are 15 incredible things to see & do in Big Sur!
Things To Do In Northern Big Sur
The northern section of the Big Sur coastline is one of the most popular areas to explore for those coming from San Francisco, Monterey, and Carmel. A few of the must-see locations include Bixby Creek Bridge, Pfeiffer Beach, and McWay Falls.
Monterey coastal town is an excellent place to start (or end) your Big Sur road trip. Monterey is also a great location to make as a home base for longer trips if you can’t find any accommodations more south along the Big Sur route.
Spend some time at the Asilomar State Beach which consists of a mile-long shoreline full of unique rock formations. Then head over to Old Fisherman’s Wharf to browse through gift shops and indulge in some fresh seafood.
If you have the time to spare, March through November is a great time for whale-watching in Monterey. To see the majestic whales up close, you can go on this highly rated whale-watching tour in Monterey. With knowledgeable guides and raving reviews, your chances of seeing whales and ocean wildlife are really high on this tour!
2. Garrapata State Park Vista Point
Garrapata State Park is a recreational area consisting of nearly 3000 acres of coastal wilderness including a 2-mile long beachfront. The Garrapata State Park Vista Point is one of the best places to take in views of the ocean!
There is a free lot and a short trail that leads down to the Garrapata State Park Vista Point. From this overlook, you can observe amazing views of rugged cliffs, jagged rocks, and waves crashing against the shoreline.
Garrapata State Park is also a great location to see marine wildlife such as sea lions, harbor seals, sea otters, and grey whales that you can oftentimes spot in the ocean.
Location: Garrapata State Park Vista Point
3. Bixby Creek Bridge
Situated just 30 minutes south of Carmel-By-The-Sea, the Bixby Creek Bridge is an essential stop on a Big Sur road trip.
This attraction features an impressive bridge that is made of a grand concrete arch. The Bixby Creek Bridge was built in 1932 to serve as a continuation of Highway 1 and a safe way to cross the Bixby Creek that runs between a deeply carved canyon.
The Bixby Bridge is one of the tallest single-arch bridges in the world and will truly take your breath away when you see it for the first time! Bixby Creek Bridge View Point is an excellent place to stop for photography, sunset watching, and enjoying views of the ocean.
Location: Bixby Creek Bridge
4. Pfeiffer Beach
If you’re looking to spend the afternoon on the coast, Pfeiffer Beach offers one of the best beach access points along the Big Sur Highway. This is also one of the few beaches in Big Sur that allows dogs (as long as they are leashed).
It costs $12 to visit Pfeiffer Beach for the day and there is a designated day-use area that includes a paved parking lot, restrooms, and access to a trail that leads down to the shoreline. Within a short walk, you can reach the beach where you can walk around, lounge in the sand, go swimming, surf, and check out the Keyhole Arch.
Pfeiffer Beach consists of unique rock formations and a long strand of beach that continues along the northern shore. Most people hang out near the entrance but if you keep going to the right, you might find parts of the beach all to yourself!
Location: Pfeiffer Beach
5. Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground
With serene redwood trails, several picnic areas, and a turquoise river running through the campground, there is plenty to do at Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground to keep you occupied for a full day.
Here are a few fun activities to do at Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground:
- Go for a relaxing walk. There are several easy family-friendly paths throughout the entire campground spanning in all directions. Many of these trails include informative signs about Big Sur history, geology, redwood trees, and climate.
- Explore the Redwood Deck. The redwood deck is a small area within the campground that has a cluster of giant redwood trees. Coastal Redwoods are some of the tallest trees on Earth and here you can roam along wooden paths that travel next to them. The Pacific Coast is the only place in the world where you can see redwood trees in their native habitat.
- Stop by the Colonial Tree. The Colonial tree is a notable redwood tree by the Day-Use 4 parking lot. This tree is the largest redwood tree in the park at 31 feet in diameter.
Location: Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground
6. McWay Falls
McWay Falls is one of the most popular stops on a Big Sur road trip.
McWay Falls is a scenic 80-foot tall waterfall that flows down an ocean cliff into a small cove next to the beach.
This is not something you get to experience very often so it’s a must-see highlight!
To visit McWay Falls you can park at the McWay Waterfall Parking Lot which costs $10 for day use. From there you can take a short trail that leads directly to a viewpoint of the waterfall.
Unfortunately, due to erosion, part of the trail is currently closed so the overlook is limited to a small area. I’ve been to this location several times now and sometimes it can also be a hit or miss weatherwise. Be sure to come on a sunny day to avoid the waterfall being enveloped in heavy coastal fog.
Location: McWay Falls
7. Big Creek Bridge
Big Creek Bridge is another scenic bridge along the Big Sur Highway 1. The Big Creek Bridge is a great alternative to check out if you don’t have the time to drive and see its larger version, the Bixby Creek Bridge up north.
The Big Creek Bridge is 589 feet long and is made of giant concrete arches built into the canyon walls. There is a designated viewing area next to the highway to stop and take in the views.
Location: Big Creek Bridge
8. Gamboa Point
Gamboa Point is a quick viewpoint where you can see views of the stunning Big Sur shoreline. This area overlooks a rugged ocean landscape, lush hills, and turquoise blue water that looks especially stunning on a sunny day.
There is a small cove at the bottom of the viewpoint but access to this beach is closed to the public.
Location: Gamboa Point
Things To Do In Southern Big Sur
Southern Big Sur is where we typically start when driving from SoCal. This is a great stretch of the Big Sur coastline where you can observe marine animals, camp right on the beach, and enjoy stunning ocean views.
9. Limekiln State Park
At the Limekiln State Park, you can access the Big Sur shoreline, head on short redwood trails and camp just steps away from the beach!
The Limekiln State Park offers several wooded hiking trails that lead to old limekiln ruins in the forest and a waterfall. This beach and campground is part of the Limekiln State Park so it costs $10 to visit it for the day.
Location: Limekiln State Park
10. Sand Dollar Beach
If you’re looking to take a break from driving and want to stretch your legs, Sand Dollar Beach is one of the best beaches to visit in Big Sur.
Sand Dollar Beach is located right off Highway 1 and has a designated visitor lot with restrooms and beach access that cost $10 for parking.
From the parking lot, you can take a short path to a viewpoint of the beach or take stairs down onto the shoreline. Sand Dollar is the longest stretch of beach in Big Sur so there is plenty of space for visitors to spread out. Dogs are also welcome onto the Sand Dollar Beach but must stay on a leash.
Location: Sand Dollar Day Use Beach
11. San Martin Rock
San Martin Rock is a stunning coastline stop that overlooks a giant rock protruding tall from the ocean. There are two locations to check out the rock – from San Martin Rock Scenic Spot and Willow Creek Picnic Area and Beach.
San Martin Rock Scenic Spot has an overgrown trail that leads closer to the cliffs to take in the views. But if you plan to wade your way through the bushes for a closer look watch your step as this trail ends abruptly!
Willow Creek has a parking lot with an overlook of the ocean and a designated day-use area. The Willow Creek viewpoint is free but if you wish to head down to the beach, it costs $10 for the day.
Location: San Martin Rock
If you’re looking for a casual café to grab lunch, be sure to stop by Gorda to enjoy lunch at the Whale Watchers Café. You have the option to dine indoors or on a garden patio that overlooks the ocean.
If you’re running low on gas, Gorda is one of the few locations along Big Sur Highway 1 where you can fill up on gas and road trip supplies. But do note that Gorda has a reputation for having some of the most expensive gas prices in the country so try to fill up on gas in Monterey or Cambria before entering Big Sur – or it will cost ya a pretty penny!
13. Salmon Creek Falls
Salmon Creek Falls is one of the top waterfall hikes in Big Sur. This hike is a hidden gem and easy to miss if you don’t have the trailhead marked ahead of time.
The Salmon Creek Falls is a shaded hike that leads through a forest to a 120-foot tall waterfall.
Do note that if you want to get up close to the waterfall, you will need to scramble across rocks and use a rope to repel up a small cliff – so be sure to wear sturdy hiking shoes.
Location: Salmon Creek Falls
14. Ragged Point
Ragged Point is one of our favorite stops on a Big Sur road trip. Here you can enjoy lunch at the Ragged Point Restaurant, walk through a manicured garden or peep through the Portal to Big Sur art piece that looks out into the ocean.
Ragged Point is a popular spot for outdoor musicians, weddings, and events so it always feels very lively! If you’re just looking for road trip necessities, they have a minimart, gift shop, and gas station on the property as well.
Location: Ragged Point – Scenic View
15. Elephant Seal Vista Point
Elephant Seal Viewing Point is an essential must-see stop on a Big Sur road trip. Elephant Seal Viewing Point offers visitors the opportunity to see marine wildlife up close in a safe and environmentally friendly way.
At this viewpoint, you can learn more about elephant seals from the many information plaques or by chatting with the local volunteers. Elephant seals were hunted to near extinction in the 1800s and it was only due to a small group of elephant seals that hid out on a remote island in Mexico that the species were able to repopulate.
Now, this colony has more than 25,000 elephant seals thanks to the preservation and volunteer efforts. At this viewpoint, visitors can walk around on trails and pathways that are closed off with fences from the beach so the elephant seals can lounge on the beach undisturbed.
Location: Elephant Seal Vista Point
If you’re planning a trip down the Big Sur Highway 1, there are so many incredible things to see & do along the way. Whether you’re looking for the best campgrounds to stay at, beaches to take your pup for a walk, or a hiking adventure, these places to visit in Big Sur will ensure a memorable trip of a lifetime!
Looking for more California travel inspiration? Be sure to check out some of our other popular California travel posts below:
- 16 Best Places to Stay in Big Sur, California
- 15 Best Campgrounds In California For an Outdoor Trip
- 20 Best Hikes In California For All Skill Levels
- 10 Best Day Hikes In Yosemite That Should Be On Your List
- The 10 Best VRBO Rentals Near Yosemite National Park
- 15 Stunning Destinations To Visit In California In Winter
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