15 Incredible Stops on a Los Angeles to Big Sur Road Trip

LA to big sur road trip
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Ready to rev up your engine for a road trip like no other? Then you need to go on a Los Angeles to Big Sur road trip! Imagine those towering cliffs, the soft whispers of the ocean, and endless photo ops that’ll make your friends green with envy. This is by far one of my favorite road trips to go on, and that’s saying something because I’ve been on dozens over the years.

My first trip here was in 2017, when a friend and I came down from Seattle to see what stops we needed to make (which were a ton, as you’ll shortly see). I love the look of the dramatic cliffs plunging into the ocean, so we stopped to take plenty of photos and had some good food in small towns along the way.

However, that trip wasn’t enough, and two years later, I was back on this same road, going on a long drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Each time, I uncovered something new, something hidden. It’s like a song you’ve heard a million times but still discover a new note each time you listen – that’s exactly how I feel about this area.

That’s why I created this article to give you all the tips you need to know when driving from Los Angeles to Big Sur, the most-stop places, and even a sample Los Angeles to Big Sur itinerary. Let’s get to planning your next trip!

Tips for a LA to Big Sur Road Trip

LA to big sur drive

Your road trip plans from Los Angeles to Big Sur have a big chance of falling by the wayside if you cut corners on preparation. Luckily for you, I’ve compiled a list of frequently asked questions that share some insights and travel advice on how to plan an epic road trip from LA to Big Sur.

Like I said, I’ve done this trip multiple times, as well as the opposite way of driving from Big Sur to San Francisco.

How Long Is the Road Trip From Los Angeles to Big Sur?

The drive from LA to Big Sur will take about six to seven hours if you take the scenic Pacific Coast Highway, but that’s without making any stops and if LA traffic favors you that day. If you make it a one-day trip, you’ll cover over 360 miles in one go, but that’s no fun.

This road trip from LA to Big Sur is full of intriguing twists and turns, fairytale-esque villages, and towering boulders bulging along the coastline that will take three or more days to fully explore. You can even make it a whole week; there’s that much to enjoy between LA and Big Sur.

I’ve been using Roadtrippers for years to help me plan out my trips and find fun stops along the way. Use my code “BTR5QTP” for $5 off when you sign up!

Can You Drive From Los Angeles to Big Sur in One Day?

Absolutely. Unlike an LA to Joshua Tree drive, you can drive from LA to Big Sur in one day, with a few pit stops along the way. Although I don’t suggest that you do this road trip in one day, as you’ll miss out on many fun and interesting attractions.

If you’re a resident of Los Angeles, I would recommend that you hire a rental car if you don’t already own one. No public buses or trains run along the Pacific Coast Highway, so driving is the best way to get the full LA to Big Sur experience. However, you will miss out on spending extended time at stops if you do a day trip to Big Sur from Los Angeles.

san francisco to big sur road trip

What’s the Best Time To Do a Los Angeles to Big Sur Road Trip?

California is one of the sunniest states in the US, so you can do this road trip from LA to Big Sur all year. The state gets over 280 days of sunlight each year, and the region sees very little snowfall, so there’s no need to worry about freezing temperatures even during the colder months.

From August to October, you’ll get the best views of the Pacific coastline, so it’s an excellent time to visit. These months are generally warmer and often accompanied by sunny, clear skies. July and August are also good times to visit, but these are peak months, and generally experience heavy traffic along the Pacific Coast Highway.

Another precaution to consider along this highway is the possibility of fog and mudslides during the region’s rainiest months, which run from December to March.

What To Pack for a Los Angeles to Big Sur Drive

If you want your trip from LA to Big Sur to be smooth sailing, you’ll want to carefully consider the items you pack and, more importantly, how to fit them all in the car. I’ve made a list of my must-have items for a Big Sur itinerary from Los Angeles; check it out.

  • Reusable water bottle – There are quite a few stops along the way, so a reusable water bottle will help you refill and rehydrate without costing you a dime.
  • USB car chargers – You’ll be on the road for hours at a time, so make sure your phone and other mobile devices are fully charged while en route.
  • Emergency roadside kit – Unfortunately, flat tires and breakdowns are common occurrences during road trips, so throw this nifty toolkit into your trunk before leaving LA.
  • Reusable coffee mug – Save paper cups (and the earth) by using a reusable cup for your morning coffee.
  • Loose-fitting clothes – These will come in handy on sweltering days; also bring a light sweater or windbreaker for the chilly evenings.
  • Sun protection – You’ll need plenty of sunscreen for this trip; also, bring a sunhat, sunglasses, and anything else that will protect you from getting sunburned.
  • Hiking boots – These are a must if your LA to Big Sur road trip itinerary includes hiking.
  • Camera and batteries – You’ll need these to capture every fleeting moment. 

15 Stops on a Los Angeles to Big Sur Road Trip

You cannot possibly drive a six-hour road trip along one of the most scenic coastlines in the United States without making a few stops. There are many beautiful spots to pull off along the way, but here are 15 of my favorites.

1. Malibu

MALIBU CA

Malibu is a known celebrity hideout located about an hour’s drive from Los Angeles. It’s famous for its pristine beaches and many public parks within the lush Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. “The Bu,” as it’s locally known, is also popular with outdoor adventurers like hikers and surfers, as it’s home to some of the best swells in the country.

If you’re up for a swim, Malibu’s Zuma Beach boasts deep blue waters and soft golden sands, perfect for a stroll along the shore during your Big Sur road trip from Los Angeles. Want to catch some waves? Head to Surfrider Beach, a stone’s throw away from the Malibu Pier, where you can grab lunch.

Check out this drive from Seattle to Los Angeles for a longer road trip.

Make sure to reserve your rental car ahead of time! I love using Discover Cars for my trips.

2. Oxnard

Carnegie Art Museum Oxnard
Image by: Carnegie Art Museum

You’ll drive about 40 minutes from Malibu along the Pacific Coast Highway before reaching Oxnard City. Nicknamed the “Strawberry Capital of California,” the city has a massive export industry. Oxnard was built during the sugar beet boom in the 1800s.

Oxnard has lots to explore, from the Carnegie Art Museum, which houses a collection of contemporary art, to Heritage Square, where you can admire a series of early 1900s homes. On the other hand, Oxnard’s Harbor and Channel Islands National Park make it an outdoor enthusiast’s haven, offering boating, kayaking, and hiking opportunities amidst coastal beauty that you’ll love on your Los Angeles to Big Sur road trip.

Love national parks? Head out on an LA to Yosemite road trip.

3. Ventura City

Ventura City

Ventura is about a 20-minute drive from Oxnard, and the city perfectly blends art, culture, and oceanfront allure, making it an ideal stop along the way. Head down to Ventura’s bustling Main Street, where you can explore the Mission Basilica San Buenaventura and Mission Park across the way. Main Street also features several cafes and restaurants to get some refreshments.

Stroll along the Ventura Promenade for oceanfront views, or head to Surfers Point at Seaside Park to surf or windsurf. It doesn’t get better for a waterfront shopping experience than Ventura Harbor Village, where you’ll find plenty of boutiques and seaside restaurants.

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4. Ojai

Ojai CA

From Ventura, you’ll veer away from the Pacific Coast for a detour to the quaint city of Ojai for this part of your Big Sur drive from Los Angeles. Set amid the Topatopa Mountains, Ojai’s village-like city center boasts art galleries, museums, and wineries you should not miss.

You can enjoy hikes, local markets, and Ojai’s famous “pink moment” sunset glow that many travel photographers flock here to capture. Libbey Park is a hub for art and community events, while Bart’s Books, an outdoor bookstore, is the ideal place to pick up your next read.

Want to extend this trip? You can drive from San Diego to San Francisco to see more.

5. Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara’s Spanish-style architecture, botanical gardens, museums, and beaches characterize its elegance and coastal charm. Located about 45 minutes from Ojai, the city has a Mediterranean vibe, boasting white stucco homes crowned with red roofs resembling those of Spain, France, Italy, and Croatia.

Visit Lotusland for a unique garden experience, or explore the Santa Barbara Zoo, where you can see over 500 animals in their natural habitat on your LA to Big Sur drive. For shopping and dining, State Street, in the heart of downtown, boasts numerous upscale boutiques and restaurants serving local wines and mouth-watering seasonal cuisine.

This is a fun city to stay at on your Los Angeles to Big Sur road trip if you have several days to do this trip.

I’ve been using Roadtrippers for years to help me plan out my trips and find fun stops along the way. Use my code “BTR5QTP” for $5 off when you sign up!

6. Solvang

Solvang, CA

Set in the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley, about an hour’s drive from Santa Barbara, Solvang boasts a Danish-inspired charm with windmills, wineries, and bakeries dotted on each corner. The architecture in this town is arguably its main attraction, but there’s more to Solvang than meets the eye on this part of your Los Angeles to Big Sur drive. 

Wander through the Hans Christian Andersen Museum for an inside look at the famous author’s life and popular works like The Little Mermaid and The Ugly Duckling. For something a little different, hike through the 85-acre Nojoqui Falls Park or head to Ostrichland, where you’ll find over 100 ostriches and emus that you can feed.

If you love national parks, you’ll love going on a road trip to Sequoia National Park from Los Angeles.

7. Pismo Beach

pismo beach pier

An hour’s drive from Solvang takes you to the idyllic Californian city of Pismo Beach, a hub for beachfront fun, offering dune exploration, beachside dining, and a laid-back atmosphere. Known for its nature reserves, gardens, and abundant wineries, Pismo Beach offers ultimate relaxation.

You can learn how to surf along the beachfront or head to the Pismo Beach Pier Plaza to enjoy some gourmet street food. On your way, walk along the boardwalk and catch a stunning sunset. ATV rentals on the Oceano Dunes are a thrilling way to explore Pismo Beach.

Alternatively, you can visit the Monarch Butterfly Grove, where thousands of monarch butterflies appear from late October to February.

This was by far one of my favorite stops on the trip, and I loved staying beachfront at the Inn at the Pier Pismo Beach. You cannot beat the sunset or sunrise on this beach!

A Los Angeles to Tahoe road trip is also a scenic one that you’ll love. This is also a fun part of a Seattle to Los Angeles drive.

8. San Luis Obispo

San Luis Obispo, CA

Less than 20 minutes from Pismo Beach, San Luis Obispo boasts a lively atmosphere centered around its historic mission, performing arts theaters, museums, and art galleries. The city is also home to an abundance of wine and craft beer tasting rooms and eateries serving delectable Californian fare.

Downtown is home to the unique Bubblegum Alley, the weekly Farmers’ Market, and the iconic Fremont Theater, all of which are worth a visit. Hike to the “M” on Madonna Mountain for panoramic city views or a crisp glass of wine at Wolff Vineyards.

9. Morro Bay

Morro Bay California

Morro Bay is a haven for all things aquatic, with the enormous Morrock Rock protruding from the shores. While the iconic volcanic mound is the city’s main draw, Morro Bay offers plenty of canoeing, kayaking, and birdwatching opportunities.

You can learn more about the city’s ecology and the influence of Native American culture at the Museum of Natural History and the Morro Bay Maritime Museum. The Embarcadero is ideal for waterfront strolls, seaside shopping, and indulging in fresh seafood. Head down to the Libertine Pub for sundowners – cocktails, ales, and fresh beer brews are all on the menu. 

10. Paso Robles

Paso Robles California

From Morro Bay, you’ll drive inland for 45 minutes before reaching the wine country of Paso Robles. Dotted with lush vineyards and olive groves, Paso Robles offers a charming town square, hot springs, and wine-tasting tours that invite visitors from across the United States.

Explore the city’s vibrant arts scene and galleries by visiting Studios on the Park, or opt for something a bit out of the ordinary at Sculpterra Winery and Sculpture Garden. Here, you’ll get a chance to admire fascinating artwork while polishing a glass of wine.

11. Elephant Seal Vista Point

elephant seal vista point

Also located in San Simeon, about five miles from Hearst Castle, Elephant Seal Vista Point rewards you with one of the most inspiring scenes of elephant seals basking along the shore. These seals are among the largest marine mammals in the world, with adult males weighing up to 5,000 pounds and reaching lengths of around 16 feet. 

They are named “elephant” seals because of the large proboscis (or nose) the male seals develop during mating season, which resembles an elephant’s trunk. The best time to visit Elephant Seal Vista Point is during the breeding season, between December and February, or in spring and summer when the seals come ashore to shed their fur.

I should mention they do not smell good, and while that’s not a reason to stop, I’m just letting you know that it’s normal.

12. Hearst Castle

Your next stop is one of the most extraordinary places to visit along the Pacific Coast. Located in San Simeon, about a 50-minute drive from Paso Robles, Hearst Castle is a historic estate boasting luxurious architecture, intricate interiors, and breathtaking views.

Formally known as “La Cuesta Encantada,” the castle is home to over 25,000 artifacts sourced from across the world. Be sure to stop by the Hearst Castle Visitor Center, where you’ll find a five-story screen theater that plays the resident film “Hearst Castle: Building the Dream.”

There are many different tours you can take, and while I only had time to do the Grand Rooms tour, I really wished I had the whole day to do more. This place is an absolute dream to walk around and be in awe of.

13. McWay Falls

One of the more scenic stops on this LA to Big Sur road trip is none other than the picturesque McWay Falls. McWay Falls boasts stunning cascades framed by a turquoise cove, which highlights Big Sur’s magical natural beauty.

I’d seen this waterfall so many times on Instagram and was thrilled to finally see it in person the first time I went on this road trip about seven years ago. That’s why I knew I had to see it again on my last trip, even if it wasn’t a new stop for me.

You’ll find plenty to do surrounding McWay Falls; the scenic cascades fall 80 feet down into a turquoise lagoon, making it one of the most photo-worthy spots on this road trip. Hiking is also a great way to explore the area, and at sunset, you can catch the most beautiful glow over the waterfall.

14. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

Pfeiffer Beach

Located about a 30-minute drive from McWay Falls, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park presents an opportunity for you to escape into the natural wonders of Big Sur. It provides a serene retreat for hikers, nature enthusiasts, and anyone looking to immerse themselves in the beauty of this verdant coastal landscape.

This was a last-minute stop on my most recent Los Angeles to Big Sur road trip, but I loved that there weren’t many people around, plus the sand is strangely purple when you look at it up closer.

The park is renowned for its captivating natural beauty, featuring towering redwoods, rugged cliffs, and the pristine Big Sur River. Being one of the park’s highlights, the ancient redwood groves stand tall and majestic, creating a serene and awe-inspiring environment that’s perfect for leisurely walks or hikes amidst these giants.

15. Carmel-by-the-Sea

Carmel-by-the-Sea California

Located about a 50-minute drive from Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, the drive to Carmel-by-the-Sea is a scenic stretch on your road trip from LA to Big Sur. Carmel-by-the-Sea is a charming coastal village that exudes an artistic atmosphere with its picturesque cottages, art galleries, boutique shops, and white-sand beaches.

The town’s fairytale-like architecture and rich history make it a perfect destination for a leisurely stop. Take some time to stroll along Ocean Avenue to discover unique treasures, dine at gourmet restaurants, and enjoy the pristine Carmel Beach. 

You should also not miss the chance to visit the historic Carmel Mission and explore nearby scenic drives like the 17-Mile Drive, which has breathtaking coastal views.

LA to Big Sur Road Trip Map

Los Angeles to Big Sur Road Trip Itinerary: 3 Days

los angeles to big sur road trip

In addition to the fun road trip stops listed above, I’ve compiled a 3-day LA to Big Sur itinerary on how to spend your journey from LA to Big.

Day 1: Los Angeles to Santa Barbara

Depart from Los Angeles early in the morning to beat the traffic. Enjoy breakfast on the road or in a charming eatery along the way, perhaps at the Malibu Farm Cafe. Take a stroll along the iconic Malibu Pier, go swimming or sunbathing on the beach, enjoy some thrilling rides, and take in the ocean views before leaving.

Stop for lunch in Santa Barbara. State Street Promenade offers a number of local dining options that will satiate any appetite. In the afternoon, visit Lotusland, an enchanting garden estate in Montecito, then continue to the Santa Barbara Mission for a taste of history.

At the end of the day, you’ll have to check in at your Santa Barbara accommodation. For your evening entertainment, you can take a sunset stroll by the beach or visit The Funk Zone for art and culture, fine dining, and wine tasting.

Where to Stay: You’ll love Hotel Santa Barbara for its proximity to coffee shops, restaurants, and stores. (Rates start at $229 per night)

Day 2: Santa Barbara to San Simeon

Start your day with breakfast at a local cafe in Santa Barbara; Handlebar Coffee Roasters will give you a caffeine boost you’ll much appreciate. From Santa Barabara, you’ll head out to the Danish-themed Solvang village, where you can indulge in the bakeries, shops, and windmills.

I recommend that you eat lunch in Solvang to savor Danish pastries and other international foods. Keep driving along the Pacific Coast Highway until you reach Pismo Beach. Upon arrival, set aside some time to relax on the sandy shores and explore the Oceano Dunes.

Continue your journey to San Simeon and check in at your accommodation after arrival. In the evening, visit the Elephant Seal Vista Point to witness these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat, or stop by Hearst Castle for a fascinating history lesson.

Where to Stay: Staying at Sands by the Sea Motel is affordable and right by the ocean for stunning views. (Rates start at $109 per night)

Day 3: San Simeon to Carmel-by-the-Sea

If you can’t make it to Hearst Castle on the second day of your trip, I highly suggest you visit the historic estate first thing in the morning. Take a guided tour of this opulent mansion and its stunning gardens.

From Big Sur, continue driving along the Pacific Coast Highway and enjoy the scenic drive while taking in mesmerizing coastal views like the Seal Beach Overlook and Partington Cove. Stop for a picnic at a viewpoint overlooking the ocean, or grab lunch at one of the restaurants. Big Sur Bakery is perfect for a quick bite, while The Sur House offers gourmet fare.

You’ll arrive at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park sometime in the afternoon. Take some time to explore the redwood groves and hike to Pfeiffer Falls. Continue to McWay Falls, one of the most picturesque spots in Big Sur, to capture the stunning waterfall cascading onto the beach.

Finally, when evening comes, you can head to Carmel-by-the-Sea to check in at your accommodation. You’ll get to enjoy your dinner with a stunning view of the rugged coastline.

Where to Stay: I loved staying at Carmel Mission Inn, which is close to both the coast and the downtown area to explore. (Rates start at $212 per night)

You’ll love all these stunning LA to Big Sur road trip stops on your drive there!

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