This Big Sur road trip guide covers all of the must-visit sights and what to look out for when planning your visit to this stunning destination in California!
Imagine cooking dinner over a crackling fire while absorbing the panorama of a crimson-orange skyline from your campsite on an open bluff 100 feet above the Pacific Ocean. This is Big Sur!!
Just 30 miles South of Monterey and 70 miles North of Morro Bay, you will find towering cliffs, stunning views, and magnificent, lofty redwoods that converge with the sea. Nicknamed “The Big South,” Big Sur is sure to inspire your soul with beauty. You can’t help but feel a serene calm while you surround yourself with emerald green trees and the peaceful sounds of nature.
From awe-inspiring whale watching to grand views of glistening tidal waters, the central coast has it all. Leave the traffic behind as you saunter along Hwy 1 in search peace and a little adventure.
No matter how many times I visit the Central California Coast and drive along Hwy 1 through Big Sur, it never ceases to amaze me. It’s a destination that can be overlooked by someone, as myself, who has been born and raised in California. But as I grow older, I am now able to appreciate and relish in the beauty of such an incredible place.
Big Sur, California Road Trip Guide (Must-Visit Sights!)
Point Lobos State Reserve
We began our adventure in Carmel, California, just South of Monterey. First stop, Point Lobos State Reserve where photographers and astonishing scenery are abundant. Point Lobos is the granite peninsula that forms the southern shore of Carmel Bay. Francis McComas called it “the greatest meeting of land and water in the world”.
You can drive along the park roads and view far reaching landscapes filled with high-reaching trees and blue waters of the pacific. If you want to see the best of Point Lobos you will need to do a little hiking. The trails are not overly strenuous and definitely well worth it.
After watching the warm sun set behind velvety clouds and finally sink below the horizon, we ventured on down the coast toward Big Sur. Passing the infamous and the third most photographed bridge in California, the Bixby Bridge. We were not able to capture any photos since it was dark by then, but if you want to do a search online for a photo of this bridge, I’m sure you won’t have any trouble finding one.
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
We decided to meet up with some friends at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park campgrounds that night in the heart of Big Sur. Pfeiffer reminds me so much of the jagged Northern California coast with giant redwoods all around. It’s a very mystical and peaceful place.
I recommend hiking the 2 mile Pfeiffer Falls waterfall trail in the middle of the redwoods if you visit this park. It’s the most popular and a great sight to see, especially if you go in the spring when the falls are gushing with water.
The campsites at Pfeiffer are $35/night and they were surprisingly crowded for a rainy night in November considering they have 218 campsites. Big Sur is a great place for whale watching in November, so I shouldn’t have been too surprised at the crowd of people willing to camp in the cold and rain. And did I mention that it was also Thanksgiving weekend?
Andrew Molera State Park
We awoke to a sunny morning and the weather had warmed up a bit. We brought our surfboards on this trip, so it was time to check the surf. I wasn’t expecting much since it had been very windy the day before. Just as we had expected, there were not any rideable waves when we checked Andrew Molera, which is one of the few workable surf spots in the area.
It was time to stop for a snack and free internet at Fernwood Resort. Fernwood Restaurant and Tavern has a very funky, hippy vibe with an open patio in the back where they were setting up for a band that night.
The restaurant has a wide assortment of meals including baby back ribs, fish tacos, hot and cold sandwiches, salads and burgers. They also have a convenience store that is packed with healthy snacks and quick meals. Coast Ridge Outfitters is right next door where you will find a plethora of camping supplies, t-shirts, sweatshirts and even music supplies.
The campsites at Fernwood are tucked among the redwoods and spread out along the river. In the summer you can enjoy tubing down the river or just relaxing in the wooden chairs they provide. In addition to tent camping, they also have tent cabins and a motel. This place really has it all!
If you’re looking for a place to stay in this area, I also highly recommend Big Sur River Inn.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
Making our way down the coast from Fernwood, our next stop was Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park for the view of the legendary McWay Falls that cascades into the ocean. Definitely a must see if you are passing through this area.
The best time to take pictures of this waterfall is in the early morning unless you want your pictures to be partly shady and the rest of the image to be too bright. This park has 2 campsites that are by reservation only and you will have the luxury of pitching your tent on the bluff and falling asleep to the gentle crashing of the waves below.
About 20 to 30 minutes South of Julia Pfeiffer Burns, we stopped at Kirk Creek Campground and we were lucky enough to find a campsite right on the cliff overlooking the Pacific for a mere $22/night. The only thing this campground doesn’t have is showers, but you are camping so who cares!
Our one night stay at Kirk Creek was not without some unexpected adventure. We awoke to squeaking noises coming from behind us and looming shadows scurrying along the side of our tent. After some investigation, we found the raccoons were enjoying a picnic in the trash cans on the road beside our campsite. If you are a light sleeper, you may want to pick a site furthest away from any trash cans.
Our last stop along this stretch of coast is Salmon Creek Falls. Just a short hike from Hwy 101. We were the only ones to be seen on this particular morning at Salmon Creek. The signs are not great, so I’ll give you a little hint. Once you park, take the trail to the South side of the small bridge. This will lead you past some large boulders and finally to the waterfall. It can get pretty dark in there, so bring your tripod if you intend to take photos.
I should mention that before you take this Hwy 1 adventure through Big Sur, make sure you gas up in Carmel if heading South bound. Northbound, gas up in San Luis Obispo, Morro Bay or Cambria. You don’t want to have to spend upwards of $4.00 per gallon or more to gas up at the smaller places in between.
I hope this gives you a little glimpse of the abundant beauty of this spectacular coast. It is quickly becoming a favorite destination of mine in California!