11 Scenic Stops on a San Francisco to Big Sur Road Trip

san francisco to big sur road trip
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Ready for one of the most scenic road trips in California? The San Francisco to Big Sur road trip is a bucket-list kind of drive with its jaw-dropping coastal scenes and the kind of views that make you blurt out “wow” even if you’re by yourself in the car (don’t judge me). Imagine dramatic cliffs, cool ocean breezes, and constant places to take pictures; Big Sur is like the highlight reel of any west coast road trip.

About five years ago, I went on this route for the first time, and I quickly fell in love. Every twist in the road brought a new “gotta-pull-over-and-snap-this” moment, and I did pull over often. And going on the drive from San Francisco to Big Sur once wasn’t enough – I went on yet another trip only two years later. Those serene beach spots, the sound of waves, and the trails had me addicted.

That’s why I captured all the best places to stop on Big Sur, have plenty of tips to share about what to bring and where to stay, and even have a sample itinerary if you want to expand your drive into two days (which I recommend). With that, let’s start planning the ultimate road trip from San Francisco to Big Sur!

Tips for Planning a Big Sur Road Trip From San Francisco

big sur road trip

Here are a few helpful tips to keep in mind when planning things to do in Big Sur in one day:

  • Watch your speed. Going on a Big Sur trip is beautiful, but many other people think that too. That said, there will be hundreds of other people on the road on any given day. That means many people may be going slowly and not paying attention to the cars behind them.
  • Don’t rush your trip. I know it’s tempting to fit in as many vacations as possible on your limited days off, but you should spend a few days exploring Big Sur. There are many things to do in Big Sur, and you don’t want to rush through them.
  • Don’t depend on cell service. Don’t expect to take any calls on the road trip, as only small areas of the road have service. This isn’t really a problem, though, as there’s only one main road, so you won’t get lost.
  • Save locations on your phone in advance. Since you won’t have cell service, that means you can’t look up each stop on your map as you go. The solution for this is to look up places you want to stop before you go. If you hit “save” on Google Maps for each location, you’ll be able to pull up the map later and see the areas that are starred.
  • Be aware of peak times. While summer in Big Sur tends to be one of the busier times, people go on a road trip to Big Sur from SF any time of the year, thanks to the warm weather. That means you can expect the roads to be crowded during the day, so aim to go early or later in the day.
  • Bring a cooler with you. There are several places to eat along Big Sur, but they are a little pricey. If you want to save money, load up on food and drinks at a grocery store and throw them in your cooler. Here are a few other helpful items to put on your road trip packing list.
  • Check for road closures. Parts of the road may close periodically due to mudslides or construction, so check online ahead of your trip to plan it out better.

Where Does Big Sur Start and End?

Big Sur starts just south of Carmel and ends just north of San Luis Obispo. Most people refer to Big Sur as the drive on Highway 101 between these two areas, but it’s also not to be confused with Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. This is a more specific area where people like to go hiking and camping.

How to Get to Big Sur

While beautiful, this area isn’t exactly quick to get to if you’re flying in. If you want to do the Big Sur day trip from north to south, you’ll want to fly into San Francisco International Airport and rent a car to head down. I always fly into SFO from Seattle and start my trip down south as soon as I get my car.

Alternatively, you could drive from south to north, and the largest and most affordable airport to fly into would be Los Angeles International Airport. There are smaller airports along the way, such as Santa Barbara, but they do have fewer flights and tend to cost more money. If you’re doing it this way, I also have tips on doing a Los Angeles to Big Sur road trip (or extending your trip to drive from Los Angeles to Palm Springs).

Renting a Car for a Road Trip to Big Sur

If you’re flying into San Francisco or doing a drive from Portland to San Francisco, you’ll want your own car to drive to Big Sur. You can easily rent a car online, so it’ll be ready for you to pick up when you land at the San Francisco International Airport.

Compare prices with the different companies, but also consider any extras you may need. This includes GPS and insurance, which is necessary in case you get into an accident on your drive.

I don’t recommend getting a large vehicle when getting around Big Sur, as some points are narrow and windy. A medium-sized car will also get better gas mileage, so you don’t have to worry about spending as much money.

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

What’s the Best Time to Visit Big Sur?

You can drive to Big Sur at any time of the year. However, you should be aware that some places are closed during the off-season. The ones that are open may have reduced hours, so look up where you want to go ahead of time.

That said, the best time to drive to Big Sur is typically from April to October. This is when the weather will be the warmest and driest, which you’ll want so you can explore each Big Sur stop. This is also the best time to visit Big Sur if you’re camping.

What’s the Distance from San Francisco to Big Sur?

The distance from Big Sur to San Francisco is approximately 141 miles, depending on which route you take to get out of the city.

Looking for another trip? Check out the Los Angeles to Sequoia National Park drive.

How Long Does It Take to Drive Through Big Sur?

road trip on big sur

The Big Sur drive is approximately 17 miles long. However, don’t let that number fool you. There are dozens of windy turns that require you to go slow. Even if you drove without stopping, the minimum time it would take you would be 2 hours.

That’s not counting all the times you’ll want to pull off on the side of the road or get out and explore, so I recommend leaving a minimum of 5 hours of allowed time to drive one way. If you do a day trip to Big Sur, it can easily take you 10–12 hours for the day, depending on where you’re coming from.

How Many Days Are Enough for Big Sur?

While spending a night or two in the area allows you to see more of it, it is also possible to do a San Francisco to Big Sur day trip. However, it’ll be a long day, so you’ll want to plan out your stops accordingly so you don’t waste time and make the most of your drive.

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

Big Sur Road Trip Itinerary

Here are the Big Sur stops I’ll be recommending for your road trip from San Francisco to Big Sur. Feel free to add or subtract from this list as you see fit when making your itinerary for where to stop in Big Sur.

  • San Francisco
  • Monterey
  • Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
  • Garrapata State Park and Beach
  • Bixby Creek Bridge
  • Point Sur State Historic Park
  • Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
  • Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
  • Limekiln State Park
  • Elephant Seal Vista Point
  • Hearst Castle

Big Sur Road Trip Map

I’ve placed these stops on a map of Big Sur so you can visually see where you’ll be stopping as well.

Where to Stay in Big Sur

Many people choose to do a day trip from San Francisco to Big Sur, but if you do decide it’s too long of a day, here are some suggestions of where to stay.

Hotels Near Big Sur

big sur lodge
  • Big Sur Lodge: This is a hotel, restaurant, and store, making it a convenient place to stop. It’s also the last place to buy anything before the road ends, so it’s a good place to stock up on items. (rates start at $278 per night; book your room on Booking.com or Hotels.com)
  • Big Sur River Inn: This is in the heart of Big Sur and right next to the Big Sur River. Breakfast is available each morning, and there’s a pool to swim in when it gets hot out. (rates start at $425 per night; book your room on Booking.com or read reviews on TripAdvisor)
  • Coast Riders Inn: If you want to stay south of Big Sur, this location has a great view of the ocean. (rates start at $229 per night; book your hotel on Booking.com or Hotels.com)

Vacation Rentals in Big Sur

I personally prefer to stay in a vacation rental on vacation, so here are a few options. Note that there aren’t many directly in Big Sur, but rather nearby.

  • Artist’s Treehouse Studio Apartment: This adorable apartment sleeps up to three people and is on a one-acre property in Carmel Valley. (rates start at $239 per night)
  • Inspiring Oceanfront Home: This three-bedroom home has stunning views of the Pacific Ocean, a full kitchen, and a deck and patio to enjoy. (rates start at $295 per night)
  • Charming Coastal Cottage: This beautiful cottage is a great place to enjoy both the indoors and outdoors, with an outdoor fireplace and vegetable garden. (rates start at $229 per night)

Camping in Big Sur

If you’re driving to Big Sur from San Francisco when the weather is warm and dry, I recommend camping for the night. I personally love camping wherever I go, and this is one of the best places to do it. There are over a dozen different places to camp, but here are a few I recommend on your Big Sur itinerary from San Francisco.

  • Ventana Campground: This redwood canyon has 40 acres of campsites to choose from, and several bathrooms are available. They’re close to restaurants, coffee shops, and general stores in case you need something from town.
  • Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park: There are 169 sites available here, and it’s the perfect place to get lost in nature, as there are over 1000 acres of forest and meadows. You can walk to Big Sur Lodge to buy food or drinks.
  • Andrew Molera State Park: If you’re looking for a campground that’s more private, you’ll like this one, which only has 24 sites available. However, it’s first come, first serve, so go early in the day. There are many places to hike here, and you can enjoy the Big Sur River as well.

11 Stops to Make on a San Francisco to Big Sur Road Trip

sf to big sur road trip ocean

Big Sur technically starts just south of Carmel and ends at San Simeon, but I’ve added optional stops in San Francisco and Monterey to the Big Sur road trip itinerary since they’re fun cities to visit on the way. If you’re doing a Big Sur day trip, you can skip these and drive straight to Point Lobos.

Here are the best places I recommend for where to stop on Big Sur. These are all in order from north to south, so feel free to take out what you don’t want to see to customize your trip. If you’re driving from Los Angeles to Big Sur, you can just reverse the order of these stops.

I’ve also listed the cost to enter the parks if there is one, but you should note that you’re able to pay the $10 entrance fee once and use it in all California State Parks until sundown. Make sure you save your receipt!

1. San Francisco

San Francisco

You’ll likely fly into San Francisco if you’re coming from out of state for your Big Sur drive. It’s worth it to spend a day or two exploring this city before you drive south if you have time. You can either do a San Francisco to Big Sur road trip and drive back at night or choose to stay at a hotel further south.

There’s the famous Golden Gate Bridge, which is best seen at sunrise or sunset, in my opinion. Make sure to check out Fisherman’s Wharf by the water as well. I love all the fresh seafood you can buy here, and it all tastes amazing.

If you have time, visiting Alcatraz Island is an eerie yet fun way to learn about an important part of the area.

You can also head in the opposite direction to go on a fun San Francisco to Yosemite drive or drive from San Francisco to Joshua Tree.

2. Monterey

big sur road trip monterey

There is so much to do on a Monterey to Big Sur day trip, so plan on spending a few hours here. They also have their own Fisherman’s Wharf, which is lined with shops and restaurants. Many of the restaurants also have free samples outside to lure you inside for lunch.

Parts of Big Little Lies were filmed here (my friend and I were so excited about this when we visited!), so you might recognize a few parts if you watch that show. That said, the restaurants they filmed at changed out their tables, chairs, and general decor, so you might have to look hard.

Cannery Row is another cute area to walk around and enjoy the view of the ocean. You’ll see many scuba divers coming in and out of the famous Monterey Bay, which I participated in last time I was there. The kelp forests are unlike anything I’ve ever seen before when diving, and I can’t wait to go back.

There are several wine-tasting shops here if you have time to try a few samples. The Wine Experience is a fun way to try some of the best wines in the region. It’s a great stop on your road trip to Big Sur from San Francisco.

Get your free road trip packing list here!

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3. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

point lobos state natural reserve

Places like this reserve are what make the Pacific Coast Highway drive so beautiful. If you’re a nature lover, you’ll enjoy visiting this part of the California State Park system during your Big Sur scenic drive.

Bring your hiking shoes to enjoy a peaceful walk through the forest and down to the water. You could even bring a picnic for lunch to eat by the water. If you’re lucky, you might see a local with an easel painting the scene during your one day in Big Sur (which I did last time I was there).

Whalers Cabin is another place you’ll want to check out on your SF to Big Sur itinerary. The cabin was a popular fishing cabin in the 1860s, built to house Chinese and Japanese fishermen.

Cost: $10 per vehicle to enter

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!

4. Garrapata State Park and Beach

garrapata ocean

One part I loved about exploring Big Sur was how many scenes I recognized from movies and TV shows, such as Big Little Lies. I can see why they filmed here—the views are absolutely stunning.

You can walk along the beach for two miles, go hiking, or climb 50 feet to have an amazing view of the ocean. If you visit Soberanes Point, you have a good chance of seeing sea otters, sea lions, and even gray whales during the migration season during your SF to Big Sur trip.

Just a note: nudity is allowed at the beach, so it’s just something to be aware of so you’re not confused if you see someone freely enjoying themselves!

5. Bixby Creek Bridge

bixby bridge big sur drive

This is one of the most recognized and best stops along Big Sur. When coming from the north, there’s a pull-out you can stop your car at to get this ideal shot safely. That said, watch where you’re walking – I saw so many people standing halfway in the road as cars whizzed by, plus the area to stand on for pictures can be a bit slippery.

I recommend coming here at sunset to get the best photos, but come early since you won’t be the only one. If you’re an early riser, this will also be a stunning spot for the sunrise. You’ll have a hard time getting other people out of your photo if you come midday (I learned this the hard way the first time).

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. Point Sur State Historic Park

point sur historic state park

You’ll have an amazing view of the coastline from here (are you sensing a theme on this San Francisco to Big Sur road trip yet?)., and sometimes the foggy mornings make it seem like you’re on an island.

If you love lighthouses, you’ll enjoy stopping here as part of your Big Sur itinerary. This park is the location of the Point Sur Lightstation. Sign up for a tour so you can visit the lighthouse from 1889 and learn about the caretaker’s family.

The best way to know what you’re looking at on your drive is to download a Big Sur self-driving audio tour before you go.

7. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

pfeiffer beach

You’ll want to add Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park to your San Francisco to Big Sur itinerary. One of the best parts is Pfieffer Beach, which is one of my top recommended places to stop in Big Sur. The sand here looks purple, depending on what part of the beach you’re at.

I’ve seen the green sand beaches of the Big Island before, but I have never seen purple sand. This is also a fairly empty beach, so take your time enjoying it.

You can hike and even camp in some parts of this area, which I’d recommend when the weather is nice. Since there’s not much around, it’s a quiet area where you can get lost in nature.

Cost: $10 per vehicle to enter

Looking for more hikes to do on your Big Sur day trip? Check these out (in order from shortest to longest).

  • Sand Dollar Beach Trail (0.7 miles)
  • Jade Cove Trail (1.5 miles)
  • Oak Grove Trail Loop (3 miles)
  • Ragged Point Fire Road (4 miles)
  • Salmon Creek Trail (6.5 miles)
  • Andrew Molera Loop (8.8 miles)

Looking for a longer trip? Take the scenic drive from California to Arizona!

8. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

los angeles to san francisco road trip

Add chasing waterfalls to the itinerary for your San Francisco to Big Sur drive. McWay Falls are famous waterfalls that go over a cliff and into the ocean, making for beautiful photos. I’d seen this so many times before on social media, so I was excited to finally visit it in person on my Big Sur road trip.

I’ve seen many waterfalls in my life, but never ones that go straight into the ocean. While driving from LA to Lake Tahoe in the summer is one of the most scenic places in California, in my opinion, this area rivals that.

The park opens 30 minutes before sunrise and closes 30 minutes after the sun goes down. I’d recommend getting there early for the best pictures and before it gets crowded on your San Francisco to Big Sur road trip itinerary.

Cost: $10 per vehicle to enter

9. Limekiln State Park

limekiln state park

Another beautiful stop to put on your San Francisco to Big Sur itinerary is Limekiln State Park. You’ll want to spend a few hours here if you can afford it, as there’s so much to do. You can visit the beach, go geocaching, take a hike through the forest, and more.

If you’re spending the night, you can camp here as well. Restrooms, showers, and drinking water are all available, making it fun to add an extra night to your Big Sur road trip from San Francisco.

Cost: $10 per vehicle to enter

Want to extend your trip? Continue on for an SF to San Diego road trip.

10. Elephant Seal Vista Point

elephant seal vista point

If you want a quick but unique stop during your Big Sur trip from San Francisco, pull off in the parking lot for the Elephant Seal Vista Point. You’ll see hundreds of elephant seals lounging around and living their best life.

This is a fun place to learn more about them and the sea life in the area in general, thanks to the signs that line the pathway. Just be aware – these elephant seals clearly aren’t bathing properly because they smell pretty bad! Don’t let that deter you from getting a few pictures on your drive to Big Sur from San Francisco, though.

Want a different kind of SF trip? You’ll love going on a drive from San Francisco to Las Vegas.

11. Hearst Castle

While this may not be a scenic view, this area signals the end of what’s officially considered Big Sur. Hearst Castle has a fascinating history to it and played a big role in celebrity get-togethers in the area back in the 1950s.

The Hearst complex is so big that they offer multiple tours just to see it all. The castle has 165 rooms, and you can choose to go on a tour of the cottages and kitchen, upstairs suites, or grand rooms (I did the latter and loved it).

Want to continue exploring California? You’ll love all the places to go, such as a drive to Yosemite from Los Angeles or even driving to the Grand Canyon from Los Angeles.

2 Day San Francisco to Big Sur Drive Itinerary

big sur road trip ocean

If you choose to extend this into a few days (which I highly recommend), here’s how you can break it up.

Day 1: San Francisco to Point Sur State Historic Park

Start your San Francisco to Big Sur road trip from the heart of San Francisco, and take the journey south to the coastal town of Monterey. Spend your morning here exploring the renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium or strolling along Fisherman’s Wharf.

From Monterey, it’s just a short 3-mile drive to the pristine Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. This haven has a variety of trails that highlight the rugged coastline and marine sanctuaries. You’ll love seeing sea otters, seals, and tide pools from here.

Continuing down the scenic CA-1, your next stop is Garrapata State Park and Beach, about 6 miles away. It’s perfect for a sandy break and some sea breeze before heading 8 miles to the iconic Bixby Creek Bridge. This is a great spot to capture a panoramic shot of the coastline and the bridge’s impressive architecture.

To wrap up the day, make your way 9 miles south to the historic Point Sur State Historic Park. Experience a sunset like no other, with waves crashing on the rocks below the lighthouse.

Where to Stay: You’ll love relaxing at the historic Big Sur Lodge before continuing your road trip. (rates start at $278 per night)

Day 2: Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park to San Simeon

Wake up with the refreshing oceanic air and start day two with a visit to the nearby Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, which is roughly 18 miles away. The park, set amidst redwoods, conifers, oaks, and maples, offers tranquil hiking trails and breathtaking views of the Big Sur River.

A mere 12 miles south and you’ll find yourself at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. This park is famous for the McWay Falls – an 80-foot waterfall that flows directly into the ocean. It’s a sight not to be missed!

Further on, 12 miles down CA-1, the mysterious Limekiln State Park awaits. Dive deep into this park to explore the historical lime kilns, after which the park is named. Don’t forget to take a walk through the redwoods that touch the sky.

A drive of 22 miles brings us to Elephant Seal Vista Point. This location provides a unique chance to observe these marine mammals in their natural habitat. Depending on the season, you might witness the seals’ molting, breeding, or birthing activities.

Lastly, 8 miles further lies the magnificent Hearst Castle. The grandeur and history encapsulated within this mansion make it a fitting conclusion to your road trip. Marvel at the architecture, gardens, and opulence of the estate before heading to your final destination in Big Sur or planning your return trip.

Where to Stay: Sands by the Sea Motel is right by the ocean, has a pool, and is affordable. (rates start at $162 per night)

Whether you only have enough time for a Big Sur day trip or decide to stay in the area for a few days, you’ll love going on a San Francisco to Big Sur road trip.

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