A family-friendly guide to the most beautiful stretch of California Coast
With a rugged coastline on one side and majestic mountains on the other, Big Sur is one of the dreamiest drives in California – if not the world!.
With a length of 90 miles, the drive itself is actually short, but it’s a well-known fact that a Big Sur road trip is more about the journey than the destination! Seriously, you could easily spend a whole week on your Big Sur road trip if you pause along the way to soak up all the fantastic vistas it has to offer.
Plotting your Big Sur itinerary can get a bit overwhelming because there’s just too much to see along the way. To make the planning stages a bit easier for you, we have crafted a perfect route with all the best the area has to offer so you can make the most out of your Big Sur road trip!
The Ultimate Big Sur Road Trip Itinerary
You can drive this part of Highway 1 (the Pacific Coast Highway) in just a few hours between Carmel-by-the-Sea and San Simeon – traffic dependent – but to truly experience this magnificent stretch of coast we’ve included our favorite overnight stopping points, along with viewing points and easy trails along the way!
Time needed: 1 to 2 days
Carmel-by-the-Sea is probably one of the quaintest seaside towns in the world, which makes it a good starting point for your Big Sur road trip.
Famous for its narrow cobblestone lanes, little cottages dressed in flowers and plants, and enchanting shops that sell tons of local goodies, Carmel is a magical setting that will make you feel as though you stepped inside a seaside village in a fairytale.
The perfect place to start your Big Sur road trip, we recommend you spend a night or two in Carmel-by-the-Sea, stock up on supplies before hitting the road.
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Time needed: 25 minutes to an hour
A fabulous photo stop near the start of your journey, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is full of amazing scenic views, including the sea lions that you can spot (or at least hear!) frolicking in the rocks below. There are plenty of longer trails or try the 0.6 mile easy to access Sea Lion Point Trail.
Bird Island Trail is a little longer but still an easy grade – just keep your eye on kids near the cliff edges – a must for little nature lovers. You can add on a stop here too at Gibson Beach – a steep climb down so careful what you’re carrying!
Garrapata State Park
Time needed: 30 minutes
If you didn’t stop at Point Lobos, there’s another sea lion spotting opportunity at Garrapata State Park – also the possibility to spot seals, sea otters and at certain times of year, migratory whales. The Garrapata Bluff Trail is easy to tackle with kids (Gates no7 and 8), though perhaps not as great views as you get on Bird Island Trail.
Note there is no car park per say for Garrapata State Park, just road side pullouts so plot out your stops and have a plan B if road side parking here is full.
Time needed: 10 minutes
Probably the most famous view point of Big Sur, Bixby Bridge is a must-stop on the California Coast. Because of its unique location that features expansive vistas of the rugged Pacific coastline on one side and views of the canyon on the other, stopping to snap a few pictures at this emblematic spot is an absolute must.
Top Tip: Too busy to pull out at Bixby Bridge? THRE’S another fabulous arch bridge just a mile or so away, Rocky Creek Bridge.
Time needed: 1 to 2 days
Due to its relatively underdeveloped status, Andrew Molera State Park is one of Big Sur’s lesser-visited state parks. Offering fantastic views of Monterey Bay, this underrated park provides a unique opportunity for you to fully immerse yourself in the nature of the area.
Besides spending time on the beach, going on a hike here is non-negotiable. Meadows, beaches, hilltops, bluffs, and spectacular vistas – that’s hiking at Andrew Molera in a nutshell.
If you’re looking for an easy trail, the Bluffs Trail is pretty short and sweet. The Panorama Trail is another wonderful choice if you’re looking for something a bit more challenging.
Stay: Andrew Molera Trail Camp (closed in the off-season)
Time needed: Half day
Yep, purple sand exists and you’ll find it on the northern end of Pfeiffer Beach along with a striking natural rock arch, twisting sand dunes, and hidden coves.
Set only two miles from Pfeiffer State Park, just south of Big Sur Station, the drive to reach this unique beach is pretty short, but it does require some skill and concentration as the path is narrow and kind of twisty (and the entrance hard to find!). Don’t fret, though! You’ll soon realize the challenge is well worth it when you see the stunning views that await you.
Tip: Make sure to remain at Pfeiffer Beach for sunset, when the last rays of sun wash right through Keyhole Arch, creating a real feast for the eyes.
We would recommend visiting Pfeiffer Beach while parking up for a couple of days in Andrew Molera State Park.
Time needed: 1 to 2 days
Big Sur is all about fabulous views of the Pacific Ocean, but there are some spots worth checking out even if they have no ocean around. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is one of them!
Set on the western slope of the Santa Lucia Mountains, a visit to this state park is all about hikes along the river amid redwood trees, conifers, maples, and more. As for wildlife aficionados, this is surely the best place to spot bobcats, black-tail deer, and a myriad of birds unique to the area!
Tip: This is an awesome place to spend the night if sleeping in the woods sounds like your idea of a perfect evening. As for accommodation, there is a campground on-site as well as the Big Sur Lodge, which offers an enchantingly rustic stay in the middle of the forest – an ideal half way point if you’re tackling the drive over a couple of days.
Time needed: half day
One of the world’s prettiest stretches of coastline, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is a magical spot, which makes it the perfect destination to conclude your Big Sur road trip in an epic way.
Think hiking trails in lush forests, hidden coves an 80-foot waterfall crashing down right into the ocean, and some of the most stunning views of the ocean at Big Sur – talk about a grand finale!
While McWay Falls is the main reason road trippers come to this gem in Big Sur, a whole day at Julia Pfeiffer Burns is recommended in order to fully explore it. Think wonderful coast-side hikes, walks through charming forests and seeing the remains of a real shipwreck to get an idea of what a day spent here is all about.
Note, access to the beach and foot of the falls is prohibited to preserve the beach. There are several viewing points from the relatively easy to tackle trail above.
We hope this itinerary helped you plan the perfect Big Sur road trip. The awesome part about driving down this area of Cali is the fact that every location is pretty close to the next one, so you can easily adjust how much you want to spend in each place and get to see as much as possible even if you don’t have much time.
- Read on here to find more scenic drive itineraries in northern California to simply take your breathe away.
When to Take a Big Sur Road Trip
Not all seasons are created equal in California, each will bring with it different pluses and minuses for undertaking the Big Sur road trip.
Spring: Bringing the gorgeous wildflower season, the prettiest time to visit Big Sur is Spring. Early in the season you may still find trail closures and quite wet under foot.
Summer. You’ll enjoy beautiful weather, as will loads of other tourists who had the same idea. If you can avoid the peak school vacation times you might find summer do-able, but be aware campgrounds can be booked 6 months in advance.
Fall. Despite cooler temperatures, rug up and enjoy as we’d argue this is the best time to drive Big Sur from late September through to early November. The crowds have all but disappeared and many trails still remain open, first come, first served camping is possible to keep your itinerary flexible.
Winter. Whilst you’ll find things crowd-free and prices low, winter is rainy season which can many trail closures and the risk of rock and mud slides which may interrupt your plans – and let’s be frank – the novelty of camping in the rain with kids can quickly wear off!
Be aware that fog can happen at any time of year. Whilst for the photographers this can be a magical addition, with impatient littles to entertain, this can put a little bit of a spoiler on the trip if you pick a day blanketed in white! It would be unusual to get a completely clear blue day, so do bank on a little sea mist as part of the Big Sur experience.
More Resources to Plan Your California Family Road Trip
- Before you set our road tripping in California, always check for latest highway updates. This section of the California coast can be affected by both bushfires and landslides.
- North to South or South to North? We prefer heading southward, purely because your lookout points are to the west and it makes it easier to pull on and off the road.
- California State Parks come with daily parking fees of $10 – it’s good for 24 hours so make the most of it! With little kids or reluctant walkers, honestly just pay the fee and abide by the rules parking in a designated parking spot – your money helps maintain these parks.
- Big Sur is RV-friendly, though note size limitations at some camp sites. If you’re over 27-foot, consider Big Sur Camp. Not all roadside viewpoints, especially if you are towing, are appropriate for RV stops.
- This is the perfect place to unplug – but this also means there’s limited signal! If you love relying on electronic maps make sue you have downloaded offline versions
- Bring all the necessities you will need in terms of fuel and snacks, there aren’t many refueling stops along the way.
- Never forget an important item for your family again! Download our ultimate family road trip checklist before you set out.
- Check out more beautiful and unique places to visit in California here, or for even more incredible drives, you’ll want to experience the most beautiful roads in the world!
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