Stretching between Carmel-by-the-Sea and Hearst Castle, the roughly 90-mile-long stretch of rugged coastline known as Big Sur is nothing short of magical. With sweeping ocean views at every turn, it’s no wonder Highway 1 is one of the most iconic roads in America. Big Sur is located an approximately 2.5 hr drive south from San Francisco and an approximately 6 hr drive north from Los Angeles. We’ve driven it from both directions and enjoyed everything from camping and hiking to surfing and elephant seal viewing. If you’re looking for an epic place to take a road trip, look no further.
To get the full Big Sur experience, we recommend staying at one of the campgrounds along Highway 1. Our top picks are Plaskett Creek, located just across the road from Sand Dollar Beach (the most popular spot in Big Sur for swimming & surfing), and Kirk Creek, which boasts a small number of campsites on a grassy bluff overlooking the ocean. If camping isn’t your thing, other accommodations are available, but most are super pricy. However, if you’re looking for a splurge some unique options include staying in an ocean view yurt at Treebones Resort, glamping in a luxurious canvas tent (s’mores kit included) at Ventana Big Sur, or a cabin tucked back in the redwoods at Glen Oaks (the Big Sur Cabin has a private courtyard off the bedroom where you can soak in a claw foot tub in front of a wood burning fire pit). A third option is to drive the whole thing in one day and avoid lodging altogether. It takes around three hours to drive non-stop from Hearst Castle to Carmel-by-the-Sea.
What To Do: A Few Personal Recommendations
1. View elephant seals at Piedras Blancas. There is a large graded parking lot for elephant seal viewing on the beach below. The entrance is easy to spot on the west or ocean side of Highway 1 just 4.4 miles north of the Hearst Castle turnoff. Traveling south on Highway 1, the parking lot is just 1.4 miles south of the Piedra Blancas lighthouse. The first we visited Big Sur we didn’t do any research and were just wandering up the coast with no agenda when we spied the parking lot mentioned above. We thought it was just an access point for the beach and were beyond delighted when we pulled in and saw all the elephant seals!
2. Explore Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. This state park is named after Julia Pfeiffer Burns, a well respected pioneer woman in the Big Sur country. The park stretches from the Big Sur coastline into nearby 3,000-foot ridges cloaked in tan oak, madrone, and chaparral. The most popular site in the park though is McWay Falls, an 80-foot waterfall that flows year round and drops from granite cliffs onto the beach below or the ocean depending on the tide. It is one of only two waterfalls in California that empty directly into the ocean. Although it’s very tempting to explore the beach at the base of the falls, it’s strictly forbidden as it’s dangerous to access and people trying to do so have resulted in some deaths and very costly rescues. However, you can (and should) explore Pfeiffer Beach with its dramatic sea caves and rock arches. The park is 37 miles south of Carmel.
3. Camp at Kirk Creek. I know I already mentioned Kirk Creek under accommodations, but it warrants a second mention because it has to be one of the most beautiful campgrounds in America. It’s very popular so we’ve never been able to score a site in the summer, but were able to stay there a couple weekends ago and it was an incredible experience. Follow the trail between sites 9 and 10 for access to Kirk Creek and a small rocky beach with a natural rock arch where Kirk Creek flows into the ocean.
4. Take in the views from Nacimiento Road, located just across the bridge by Kirk Creek Campground. We did this for the first time during our last visit and it was a great new perspective looking down on Highway 1. You can drive all 24 miles of Nacimiento Road, but it’s a bit narrower and windier than we felt like navigating in our Sprinter van, and larger RVs or vehicles towing trailers shouldn’t attempt it. A short distance up the road you’ll find a spacious pullout with the views mentioned above and enough room to turn around.
5. Photograph Bixby Creek Bridge. This elegant open-spandrel arched bridge was constructed in 1932 and has since become one of the most photographed bridges in California. It’s also appeared on a stamp, numerous car commercials, and in several movies and TV shows. The downside to its popularity is that parking by the bridge is limited and during the summer months traffic on Highway 1 can come to a standstill while people wait for parking spots. If you want some sort of photo of Bixby Creek Bridge but don’t want to deal with the parking situation, there’s a pullout just a few miles before Kirk Creek Campground that allows you to look back at the bridge with an absolutely stunning beach in the foreground (see photo below).
6. Hike in Garrapata State Park. Located just 10 miles south of Carmel-by-the-Sea, Garrapata isn’t a big park but offers some really well maintained trails with views into numerous rocky coves. There’s plenty of shoulder parking along Highway 1 from which you can access the trails. Signage isn’t very obvious so you’ll probably want to look up the exact location in advance. We hiked from the trailhead at Soberanes Creek Beach, which features a bridge spanning the creek as it drops in a series of beautiful pools and small waterfalls to the beach below. A number of interesting rock formations are visible from the trail and the waves slamming up against the cliffs can also be pretty impressive.
7. Swim and surf at Sand Dollar Beach, the biggest sandy beach in Big Sur. Due to steep and often rocky beaches with dangerous waves and strong currents, there aren’t many places in Big Sur suitable for swimming or surfing, so Sand Dollar Beach is pretty popular. That said, it’s a huge beach with plenty of room for everyone and dogs are also welcome. There’s a nice parking lot just above the beach (trail to the beach is at the end of the lot) with a $10 day use fee and picnic facilities/toilets. Of course, if you’re camped at Plaskett Creek all you have to do is walk across the road to access Sand Dollar Beach, which is why you’ll notice so many surfboards around the campground. When we camped at Kirk Creek we saw on their info board that the day use fee for Sand Dollar Beach is waved if you display your tag from the campground.
Things To Know
Peak season is April to October, but the crowds began to dissipate after August
Road closures on Highway 1 aren’t uncommon, so check road conditions before you go on the Department of Transport’s website
Blue whales, humpback whales and orcas are known to frequent the area in September
From December to February, gray whales migrate along the Big Sur coastline down to the warmer waters of Mexico
Wildflowers (poppies, lupines, irises and more) generally bloom March through May
There are tons of pullouts along Highway 1 but not many public bathrooms, so plan accordingly
Watch for cyclists - biking is a popular activity in Big Sur but most of Highway 1 is just a single lane in both directions so vigilance is required
Mobile service is rare in most of Big Sur and is usually pretty spotty when you do pick it up, so do your trip research in advance
Fuel up before entering Big Sur as there are only a few very expensive gas stations and diesel is not available