The Ultimate Big Sur Road Trip Itinerary (2024 Guide)

Hoping to plan a Big Sur road trip itinerary? Here is our complete guide to this stunning part of the central California coast!

Big Sur is one of the most famous areas in California. This dramatic region of Central California on the Pacific Coast Highway is known for its photogenic coastal views, diverse state parks, and charming small towns.

Adventure seekers can have the ultimate Big Sur experience by road tripping along this gorgeous section of California highway! Take a few days (or more or less) to embark on an incredible Big Sur road trip for an unforgettable expedition.

Visit Sand Dollar Beach, Carmel Beach, or Pfeiffer Beach for a taste of that iconic and gorgeous California coastal life. Snap a photo at the famous Bixby Bridge. Go camping and hiking in the stunning state parks and mountains scattered around the Big Sur area.

There is so much to do in Big Sur, and a road trip is the best way to see it all on your own schedule. Here is a detailed itinerary that includes all the highlights of Big Sur so you can plan the road trip of your dreams!

From spotting sea lions in Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, to admiring views of the Big Sur River and endless Pacific Ocean, a drive along this iconic California Highway is sure to impress.

Find more epic things to do in California with this list of attractions!

Where is Big Sur?

Big Sur is a stunning stretch of coastal land on California’s Central Coast. The area stretches from Carmel by the Sea down to San Simeon, covering dramatic cliffs, tranquil beaches, historic landmarks, and gorgeous scenery along the way.

The entire coastline of Big Sur is around 90 miles, and it’s located smack in the middle of the iconic Pacific Coast Highway!

The Pacific Coast Highway, or Highway 1, is one of the most beautiful road trips in the USA. And Big Sur is considered the most beautiful part of the Pacific Coast Highway! So this road trip is arguably one of the most epic you can choose in all of North America.

How long does a Big Sur road trip take?

An ideal Big Sur road trip is about 3 days. But the total distance of the Big Sur coastline is only around 90 miles, so you can do the entire road trip in just a few hours if you want.

But the best way to experience Big Sur is slowly! Take your time winding along the breathtaking coastal roads. Stop in all the small towns and go for a few forest hikes along the way. Dip your toes in the Pacific and take a nap in the sunshine on a rocky beach.

Big Sur is gorgeous, and you won’t want the road trip to end so quickly. We’re going to list all the best places to stop on a Big Sur road trip, so it’s up to you how long you want to spend in each place. The average Big Sur road trip is probably around 2-3 days.

If you do want to stretch your road trip out into a few days, you can check out some of the accommodations that we recommend as well! There are fancy resorts, cozy lodges, and wilderness campgrounds in the area.

Big Sur Rocky Coastline
Big Sur is a stunning area of California!

Where to start a Big Sur road trip?

The most convenient place to start your Big Sur road trip itinerary is in the north. You can fly into San Francisco or San Jose and rent a car here if you don’t already have one.

From San Francisco, it’s only a 2 hour drive to Carmel by the Sea at the start of the Big Sur road trip. From San Jose it’s just 1.5 hours. So San Francisco and San Jose are the closest major cities with an international airport to Big Sur.

If you’re coming from the south, you could also fly into Los Angeles and rent a car there. It’s just a bit further from LA to the southern end of Big Sur in San Simeon (about 3.75 hours). In this case, you’re basically just doing an entire Pacific Coast Highway road trip!

The easiest way to tackle this road trip is flying into San Francisco or San Jose, picking up your rental car, and hitting the Pacific Coast Highway south from there to Big Sur.

The best way to get around is to rent a car and explore on your own! We recommend Rental Cars, which has the largest range of vehicles for the best value on the market.

Big Sur Road Trip Tours

For travellers who want to experience the beauty of a Big Sur road trip without the responsibility of driving themselves, there are a handful of Big Sur tours you can book.

The most affordable option is joining a small group tour that includes 4 to 5 stops along the Big Sur coastline. It’s a guided sightseeing tour that takes you to the most scenic spots between Carmel by the Sea and Big Sur State Park, including the Bixby Creek Bridge.

You can also opt for a private tour of Big Sur! Let a private driver take you to gorgeous locations of the Big Sur coast including McWay Falls, Pebble Beach, and more.

Most private tours of Big Sur depart from San Francisco. Another option for those who prefer a guide but want the independence of their own Big Sur road trip is an audio tour. This self guided audio tour for a Big Sur road trip gives you stories, fun facts, and directions as you cruise along the Big Sur coast.

Is Big Sur worth the drive?

Whether you’re going to join a group sightseeing tour, book a private tour from San Francisco, take your own car, or rent a car for the drive, a Big Sur road trip is definitely worth it!

This stunning section of the Central California coast is one of the USA’s best road trips. You’ll get majestic views of the Santa Lucia Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. You can stop in charming small towns, take on beautiful hiking trails, and soak in the best views of the West Coast.

Even if you just spend one day driving along the Big Sur coast, the memories you’ll make when you visit Big Sur are sure to last forever.

Read next: The Perfect 3 Days In San Francisco Itinerary

The Ultimate Big Sur Road Trip Itinerary

Now let’s get into the Big Sur road trip itinerary! We’ll list the destinations from north to south, since most people will probably start this road trip in San Francisco or elsewhere nearby.

So once you’ve got your rental car and you’re ready to take on one of the USA’s best road trips, here are some of the best places to stop in Big Sur.

We’ll include a few accommodation recommendations along the Big Sur road trip. Much of the road runs through remote national parks and there are only a few places to stay along the way!

Most of the accommodation options in Big Sur are in Carmel by the Sea up north or in San Simeon down south. But there are a few lodges and hotels just inland from Pfeiffer Beach and near Ragged Point if you need somewhere to stay in the middle of the Big Sur road trip.

Important Note: Always check local alerts for road closures and weather updates. Big Sur is a coastal road that is greatly affected by weather conditions and portions of the road may be closed at times. This local website lists all the current road closures for Highway 1, with “Central California” referring to the Big Sur area. So plan your Big Sur road trip around the conditions on the California coast.

Carmel by the Sea

Carmel by the Sea, often simply called Carmel, is a picturesque coastal town located in the northern part of Big Sur on California’s Monterey Peninsula.

Renowned for its enchanting beauty, Carmel by the Sea combines stunning natural landscapes with a quaint, European-style village ambiance. The town is famed for its fairy-tale cottages, art galleries, and white sandy beaches, particularly the scenic Carmel Beach.

It’s worth stopping in Carmel by the Sea for at least a few hours on your Big Sur road trip. There is a charming, walkable downtown area, which has lots of nice boutique shops, fine dining establishments, and an array of cultural offerings. Check out the historic Carmel Mission and or watch a performance at the Sunset Center performing arts venue.

The town’s strict zoning laws and absence of street addresses and chain businesses help maintain its old-world charm and tranquil atmosphere. So kick off your Big Sur road trip itinerary with a bit of culture, art, and ambiance in Carmel by the Sea.

Where to stay in Carmel by the Sea:


Carmel Wayfarer Inn is one of the most affordable places you can find in the Big Sur area. Carmel by the Sea is not cheap, but this budget inn offers quaint accommodation in the heart of town for reasonable prices.

Mid Range

Carmel Garden Inn is a great option for those who want a homey, bed and breakfast that is within walking distance of the town center. Enjoy delicious homemade food, adorable gardens, and a wood-burning fireplace during your stay in this part of Big Sur.


Or for a slightly more upscale experience, you can try the Carmel Beach Hotel. Just steps away from Carmel Beach and the local attractions, this lovely hotel has everything you need for a luxurious stay on your Big Sur itinerary including a fitness center, garden, terrace, and more.

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

As you head south from Carmel by the Sea, you’ll enter the majestic landscapes of Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. This popular nature reserve is often referred to as the “crown jewel” of California’s state park system and is a highlight of Big Sur.

The reserve is renowned for its rich biodiversity, offering visitors the opportunity to see a wide variety of wildlife including sea otters, harbor seals, and migrating gray whales. The intertidal zone and underwater habitats are equally diverse, making it a popular spot for scuba diving and marine research.

Hiking trails such as the Cypress Grove Trail and the Sea Lion Point Trail provide easy access to breathtaking viewpoints and intimate encounters with nature. The Sea Lion Point Trail in particular is a popular spot for animal lovers, as you can get close-up views of the local sea lions.

The Point Lobos Foundation, in partnership with California State Parks, actively works to preserve the area’s natural beauty and historical artifacts through conservation efforts and educational programs.

Visitors to Point Lobos State Natural Reserve can learn about the reserve’s ecological and cultural history at various museums, presentations, or on guided walks through the area. From the lovely hiking trails and coastal views to opportunities for learning and engagement, Point Lobos is a must-visit on any Big Sur road trip itinerary!

Point Lobos Nature Reserve
Check out the rugged wilderness of Point Lobos.

Garrapata State Park

After exploring Point Lobos for a few hours, continue south through the Carmel Highlands to Garrapata State Park, another gem of Big Sur.

Garrapata State Park spans nearly 3,000 acres and has an array of hiking trails that lead visitors through coastal bluffs, dense forests, and serene redwood groves.

Some of the park’s highlights include the Soberanes Point Trails and Whale Peak Trail, which provide spectacular panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean and the rugged coastline. These trails, along with others in the park, offer excellent opportunities for spotting local wildlife such as sea otters, harbor seals, and migrating whales.

The beach area at Garrapata State Park, with its golden sands and crashing waves, is a favorite among visitors to Big Sur. If the weather is warm enough, you can take a break from your Big Sur road trip and go for a refreshing swim here!

Managed by the California Department of Parks and Recreation, Garrapata State Park emphasizes preservation and public enjoyment, offering a pristine retreat for those looking to experience the unspoiled beauty of Big Sur.

From Garrapata State Park, continue south to one of the most famous landmarks on the Big Sur Scenic Drive, Bixby Creek Bridge. You’ll actually pass a similar bridge on the way called Rocky Creek Bridge, which also straddles a dramatic cliff and has a signature arch shape to the Bixby Bridge. It’s worth stopping and getting a photo of both!

Explore north of Big Sur with a visit to Monterey, California.

Bixby Creek Bridge

Next up on your Big Sur road trip itinerary is the famous Bixby Creek Bridge (also just called Bixby Bridge).

Completed in 1932, this elegant concrete arch bridge spans 714 feet across Bixby Creek, towering 280 feet above the canyon below. The graceful design and stunning location of Bixby Bridge make it the most photographed bridge in Big Sur, and possibly all of the California coast!

No Big Sur road trip is complete without a quick stop at Bixby Bridge. If you can time your visit to be here at sunrise or sunset, the natural colors will be even more impressive at Bixby Bridge. After marvelling at this iconic landmark, continue south towards Pfeiffer Beach, another highlight of Big Sur!

Bixby Bridge Big Sur Sunrise
Bixby Bridge is one of the most photographed spots in Big Sur.

Pfeiffer Beach

As you start to approach the central heart of Big Sur, you’ll drive through Andrew Molera State Park before reaching Pfeiffer Beach. This park, less developed than many other Big Sur destinations, provides a more rugged and unspoiled environment, perfect for hiking, horseback riding, and bird watching.

Just south of Andrew Molera State Park lies Pfieffer Beach, a hidden gem known for its striking natural beauty and unique features.

The secluded Pfeiffer Beach is famous for its distinctive purple sand, a result of manganese garnet deposits eroding from the surrounding cliffs, which gives the shore an otherworldly appearance. Some may refer to Pfeiffer Beach as the Purple Sand Beach because of its natural colors.

Towering rock formations at Pfeiffer Beach, including the iconic Keyhole Rock create dramatic views that make for amazing photos.

Accessible via a narrow, winding road that branches off Highway 1, Pfeiffer Beach offers a tranquil and less crowded alternative to other tourist spots in Big Sur. It’s definitely one of the most beautiful places to see when you visit Big Sur, so it’s worth taking a small detour here.

Where to stay near Pfeiffer Beach:


Back on Highway 1, just 10-15 minutes inland from Pfeiffer Beach, there are a few places where you can spend the night on your Big Sur road trip.

The cheapest and most adventurous places to stay in this part of Big Sur are campgrounds. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park Campground is great for RVs and campervans, whereas Ventana Campground offers a true wilderness experience out in the forest for tents only.

Mid Range

For those who want a more rustic, outdoorsy experience, Big Sur Campground and Cabins are also nearby. Here you can book cozy cabins surrounded by nature and make use of the picnic area and outdoor fireplace.


Big Sur River Inn is one of the most popular accommodations in the area. Big Sur River Inn is a great place to spend a few days as it’s close to Pfeiffer Beach, Andrew Molera State Park and the various hikes, and it has lovely amenities and a pool to keep you relaxed.

McWay Falls

The Big Sur itinerary continues! Head south through Julia Pfeiffer State Park and take a detour to McWay Falls, a spectacular sight in Big Sur.

This 80-foot waterfall is unique because it flows year-round and drops directly onto the sandy beach of McWay Cove or into the Pacific Ocean, depending on the tide. The falls are fed by McWay Creek, which traverses through the coastal terrain before cascading off a granite cliff.

Surrounded by lush vegetation and set against the dramatic backdrop of the Pacific, McWay Falls offers a striking contrast of natural elements, making it one of the most photographed and iconic spots along the California coast.

McWay Falls is accessible via the Waterfall Overlook Trail, a short and easy hike that provides stunning views of the falls and the coastline. The area around McWay Falls is protected, and visitors are not allowed to go down to the beach, ensuring the preservation of its natural beauty and fragile ecosystem.

The state park area around McWay Falls offers several other trails, camping facilities, and opportunities for wildlife viewing. It’s a great stop on your Big Sur road trip itinerary!

Mcway Falls Big Sur
McWay Falls, a stunning beachfront waterfall on the Big Sur coast!

Limekiln State Park

Continue south from McWay Falls, passing scenic bridges, rocky cliffs, and amazing views of the Pacific Ocean along the way.

Another fabulous place to stop and explore on your Big Sur trip is Limekiln State Park, known for its diverse landscape that includes redwood forests, gorgeous coastlines, and remnants of 19th-century lime kilns.

These kilns, for which the state park is named, were once used to extract lime from limestone, an essential ingredient in cement production. The park’s trails, such as the Limekiln Trail, lead visitors through dense redwood groves to these historic kilns, offering a fascinating glimpse into the area’s industrial past amidst the beauty of the natural surroundings.

In addition to its historical attractions, Limekiln State Park is celebrated for its pristine natural environment, which includes streams, waterfalls, and forests. The park’s diverse ecosystem provides a habitat for various wildlife species, making it a haven for nature lovers and photographers.

Note: Limekiln State Park is currently closed due to landslides, and infrastructure in the park is being repaired. Check the national parks website for updates!

Sand Dollar Beach

Next on this epic Big Sur itinerary, stop off at one of the most beautiful beaches on the West Coast USA.

Sand Dollar Beach is the longest stretch of sandy beach in Big Sur, making it a favorite spot for both locals and visitors. Known for its stunning beauty and expansive shoreline, Sand Dollar Beach offers amazing views of the rocky cliffs and the vast Pacific Ocean.

The beach is accessible via a short trail from the parking area, which descends through coastal vegetation and provides panoramic vistas along the way. Popular activities at Sand Dollar Beach include beachcombing for sand dollars and other marine treasures, picnicking, and simply soaking in the serene coastal views.

Sand Dollar Beach is also a hotspot for surfers, particularly in the winter months when the waves are bigger. The beach’s consistent surf breaks attract enthusiasts of all skill levels. For those preferring a more leisurely visit, the tide pools are a delightful exploration spot, revealing a variety of marine life during low tide.

So if you’re craving a good beach day on your Big Sur road trip, Sand Dollar Beach is the perfect place!

Read next: 21 Best Things To Do In Napa Valley, California

Silver Peak Wilderness

As the drive continues, there is a majestic area of natural beauty where you can pull over and spend some time exploring if you want to extend your road trip.

The Silver Peak Wilderness Area nestled within the Santa Lucia Mountains in the southern part of the Los Padres National Forest offers an unspoiled and rugged retreat for outdoor enthusiasts.

Spanning over 31,555 acres, this wilderness area is characterized by its diverse ecosystems, ranging from coastal chaparral to oak woodlands and redwood groves. The centerpiece, Silver Peak, rises to an elevation of 3,590 feet, providing hikers with panoramic views of the sea and the surrounding mountains of Big Sur.

The wilderness is crisscrossed by numerous trails, including the popular Cruikshank and Salmon Creek trails, which lead adventurers through steep canyons, along bubbling streams, and past breathtaking vistas.

The biodiversity within Silver Peak Wilderness is remarkable, with habitats supporting a variety of wildlife such as black-tailed deer, bobcats, and an array of bird species. The area is also rich in plant life, including rare and endemic species like the Santa Lucia fir.

This remote wilderness area is a great place to disconnect from modern life on your Big Sur itinerary. If you want to spend the night immersed in nature, there are a few basic campgrounds in the area including Villa Campground, Lions Den Campground, and Spruce Campground.

Ragged Point

Ragged Point, often referred to as the “Gateway to Big Sur,” is a dramatic and picturesque location perched on the southern edge of California’s iconic Big Sur coastline.

If you’re starting your Big Sur road trip from the south, this is probably the first major landmark you’ll encounter once you leave San Simeon.

Ragged Point offers amazing scenery of endless cliffs plunging into the Pacific Ocean, along with panoramic views of the scenic Highway 1 winding along the coastline.

Visitors to Ragged Point can enjoy a variety of experiences, from hiking down the steep trail to a secluded black sand beach to exploring the beautiful gardens and viewpoints around the Ragged Point Inn.

Known for its striking sunsets, this idyllic spot also features picnic areas, art galleries, and a restaurant. Ragged Point is just 20 minutes from San Simeon, where you can spend a few days at the start or end of your Big Sur road trip.

Ragged Point Coastline
A misty morning at the majestic coastline of Ragged Point.

San Simeon

San Simeon, a charming coastal village located on California’s Central Coast, marks the southern end of Big Sur. It’s worth spending a day or two here before or after your Big Sur drive to relax and soak in the culture.

The area is best known for the iconic Hearst Castle. This lavish estate, built by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, has incredible architecture, stunning art collections, and beautifully landscaped gardens. Visitors to San Simeon can tour the castle’s opulent rooms, lush grounds, and even the renowned Neptune Pool, gaining a glimpse into the luxurious lifestyle of Hearst and his guests.

Beyond Hearst Castle, San Simeon is also celebrated for its wildlife and outdoor activities. The nearby Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery attracts thousands of visitors annually, who come to observe these magnificent marine mammals in their natural habitat.

San Simeon State Park offers additional attractions with its scenic hiking trails, picnic areas, and campsites, providing a perfect setting for nature lovers. The park’s beaches are ideal for beachcombing, tide pooling, and even spotting migrating whales offshore.

Where to stay in San Simeon:


Pacific Coast Roadside Hotel is a simple and affordable place to stay in San Simeon right next to Highway 1. It’s just a 10-minute drive from Hearst Castle, a 5-minute drive from William Randolph Hearst Memorial State Beach, and is near other attractions like wineries and restaurants.

Mid Range

For a more upscale stay, choose Cavalier Oceanfront Resort for beach views, heated pools and hot tubs. With a restaurant on-site, a fitness center, and premium amenities, you can relax in comfort before or after your Big Sur adventure.


Located a bit further south from San Simeon in the town of Cambria, treat yourself to absolute luxury at Fireside Inn on Moonstone Beach. It’s the perfect base for exploring the area before or after you hit the road to Big Sur!

Traveling beyond Big Sur?

If you have more time after your Big Sur adventure, continue the drive south or north to explore more of California.

Whether you want a Northern California road trip, a Los Angeles to San Diego road trip, or an entire Pacific Coast Highway road trip, there are lots of scenic drives to try in California. Combine Big Sur with the other highlights of the Golden State!

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Alesha and Jarryd

Hey! We are Alesha and Jarryd, the award-winning writers and professional photographers behind this blog. We have been travelling the world together since 2008, with a passion for adventure travel and sustainable tourism. Through our stories and images we promote exciting off-the-beaten-path destinations and fascinating cultures as we go. As one of the world's leading travel journalists, our content and adventures have been featured by National Geographic, Lonely Planet, CNN, BBC, Forbes, Business Insider, Washington Post, Yahoo!, BuzzFeed, Channel 7, Channel 10, ABC, The Guardian, and plenty other publications. Follow our journey in real time on Facebook, YouTube and Instagram.

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