“. . . They had skies of pure azure and walls of fog moving in and out of the canyons with invisible feet, hills in winter of emerald green and in summer mountain upon mountain of pure gold. They had even more, for there was ever the unfathomable silence of the forest, the blazing immensity of the Pacific, days drenched with sun and nights spangled with stars. . .”
– Henry Miller, Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch
While idyllic life in Big Sur has changed quite a bit since Henry Miller lived there in the 1950s, the picturesque setting of the unspoiled Big Sur coastline remains the same today… serene and rugged!
You can theoretically spend days together in the area, even move here, and still not want to leave. Or you can be practical and take an incredible Big Sur day trip that covers all the highlights.
Doesn’t Big Sur in a day seem much more feasible option? Then read on for our essential Big Sur road trip stops.
Consistently ranked among the top scenic drives in the world, the 90 miles long stretch of road through Big Sur is a part of the Pacific Coast Highway i.e. PCH1.
The name Big Sur means ‘el Sur grande’ or the Big South in Spanish.
Big Sur can be reached as a day trip from San Francisco or San Jose or most places in the Bay area. It can be also reached from Santa Barbara or other cities in the south.
It is easier to drive to Big Sur from San Francisco and the famous Bixby Bridge is closer if coming from the north.
Also Read: 20 Best Roadtrips in the US
The route is often affected by weather and was actually closed for the better part of the last few years (2017 & 2018) due to a mudslide.
It has completely reopened since then but you should keep a watch on the weather before planning the trip.
If you are driving down from San Francisco like us, this makes a perfect out and back Big Sur to SFO trip.
We recommend renting a convertible if possible, this scenic PCH1 route is even more perfect with a top-down car in the summers.
Beautiful stops along the PCH 1 from San Francisco to Los Angeles (CC 2.0 / sranson)
Things To Know Before You Go On Big Sur One Day Trip
While this is a Big Sur one day itinerary, you can also use it for spending 2 days in Big Sur or even more if you prefer.
If you are interested in driving all the way down to Los Angeles, check out our San Francisco to Los Angeles road trip guide.
If you are planning a longer California road trip, then we have got you covered in an in-depth 10 day California road trip itinerary that covers the coast, the desert, the High Sierra, and the coastal redwoods!
There are lots of things to do in Big Sur in one day.
We have listed the most popular spots here. We suggest picking out 7-8 favorite spots and customizing your itinerary around them rather than trying to squeeze them all in and venturing on a hectic and chaotic trip.
Some must-visits include Point Lobos, Bixby Creek Bridge, Pfeiffer Beach, McWay Falls, Elephant Seal Rookery, and Hearst Castle.
Always check the weather apps and news for rain and storm forecasts and road closures along PCH1 before starting your Big Sur road trip.
This part of the Californian coast is still changing and even the slightest storms can trigger mudslides or floods.
Check out sunrise and sunset times before planning your trip. The daylight hours are lesser during winter and can affect how much you can see.
We do not recommend driving this route at night as the fog rolls in and visibility can get quite poor, creating bad conditions to drive in the Big Sur region.
Fill up your car before you enter the Big Sur area as gas stations are sparse on the route.
Don’t forget to take a rainproof light jacket, especially if you are visiting in the winter. Things can get chilly quite fast when it’s windy or after the sunsets.
If you are visiting in the summer, sunglasses, sunscreen and a hat are a must. Additionally, take a swimsuit if you plan to swim in any of the beaches during your Big Sur day trip.
To make the most of your one day in Big Sur, you need to wake up at dawn and get an early start from San Francisco.
We suggest leaving the city by 4:30-5 am. It takes at least 3 hours (~110 miles) to reach Big Sur and ideally you want to reach Bixby Creek Bridge by 8 am to beat the crowds.
Many times mobile phones do not work on some stretches of Big Sur.
We suggest keeping a print out of your Big Sur itinerary and a GPS to guide you in case of any difficulty.
Big Sur stretch of PCH1 can get quite crowded during the holidays, weekends and in summer.
Leave early or avoid major holidays to skip the crowds.
The best time to go to Big Sur is from spring to fall.
Summers can be very foggy and you may miss out on clear panoramic coastal views.
Also during winter, you will have fewer daylight hours to see everything in Big Sur in a day.
The road through Big Sur is continuously winding and turning. If you are prone to motion sickness, we recommend getting your favorite remedies.
Lunch or dinner stops in Big Sur are few and far in between.
Either plan your trip down to where you will be having lunch or bring a picnic basket along and eat on the go.
We really like the second option as it allows for picnics among the redwoods, near the beach and so on!
When hiking in Big Sur, be wary of poison oak.
If you purchase the California State Park day entry pass for $10 it covers entry to all California parks on that day and significantly reduces the cost of your trip.
What To Bring For San Francisco To Big Sur Day Trip
2. Great Camera
3. Telephoto zoom lens + wide-angle lens
4. Comfortable shoes for hiking
5. Raincoat or light jacket
6. Layered clothing
7. Swimsuit or wetsuit (depending on the season)
9. Picnic lunch
10. Nutrition bars and other snacks
11. Water – lots of it!
13. An amazing rental car and plenty of gas
14. An adventurous spirit!
Big Sur Road Trip: 21 Popular Stops Along The Way
The 90 miles of Big Sur starts after the coastal town of Carmel in the north and end near San Luis Obispo in the south; the majority of Big Sur highlights are centrally located in a 25 miles long stretch from Bixby Creek Bridge to McWay Falls.
The road is a two-lane, curving and winding coastal one; it is sandwiched between the Santa Lucia Mountain ranges and the Pacific Ocean.
In spring, wildflowers bloom on the hills and cliff tops, and innumerable pull-out points lure tourists into admiring the views.
We can guarantee it, you will feel like getting down at every turn and twist on the road, especially when it’s foggy.
And that’s okay too, the Big Sur coastal drive is all about the journey and aimless driving for miles!
In this Big Sur itinerary, we list the points of interest as they appear when driving south from San Francisco.
If you are driving northwards, you can refer to the below Big Sur stops in the opposite order.
Point Lobos Landscape view (CC2.0 )
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Point Lobos near Carmel and at the start of Big Sur is a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts.
It has great hiking and most of the trails have incredible views of the Bay.
Point Lobos is also one of the popular things to do in Big Sur with kids as it has plenty of easy hiking trails for all ages and fitness levels.
We like the Cypress Cove Trail and China Cove Trail in particular.
Apart from hiking, Point Lobos is also excellent for bird watching and whale watching. We have also seen sea otters. You need to reach Point Lobos early in the morning to find a good parking spot.
Garrapata State Park
Garrapata State Park with its rocky beaches and secluded coves is a great stop along the way.
The spot is favorite with painters and artists residing in Carmel.
We really liked the short bluff trails, especially Soberanes Point Trail, with its great ocean views.
Rocky Creek Bridge
Many visitors often mistake Rocky Creek Bridge as Bixby Creek Bridge since they look quite similar.
However, there is no parking at Rocky Creek Bridge and you can’t stop whereas you will be seeing hordes of tourists getting down and parking before Bixby Creek Bridge.
However, even if we can’t get down we like looking at the views of the bridge from the car.
Also Read: 10 Best convertible drives in the country
Bixby Creek Bridge
Bixby Creek Bridge is where the fun on Big Sur truly starts.
This bridge is a compelling architectural feat and is one of the most popular bridges in California.
Pull Out points are located on both sides of the Bridge and while we recommend getting down at both ends, it is the majestic views from the North end that are most iconic.
The north parking lot has a trail with great views and it is from here that most popular photos of the bridge are taken.
Visiting and taking photos at Bixby Creek Bridge is one of the most popular things to do in Big Sur in one day.
The famous Bixby Bridge in Big Sur (CC2.0 / Pixabay)
Located about 1.3 miles south of Bixby Creek Bridge, Hurricane Point is one of the highest points on the Pacific Coast Highway.
From here you have almost 360-degree views of the coast towards the North as well as South.
Because of its high elevation, it is very windy here, hence the name.
The sunsets from this viewpoint are incredible and magically paint the coast on golden hues.
Point Sur Lightstation State Historic Park
This historic lighthouse also has the reputation of being a haunted one.
Located at a strategic position with a commanding view over the valley, the Point Sur Lightstation makes for iconic photographs.
Tours are offered on specific days, we recommend checking the state park website for timings.
The lighthouse provides an incredible adventure experience with scary winds, dense fog, churning ocean, and the tall cliffs.
Andrew Molera State Park
This state park is famous for the 9 miles long Andrew Molera Loop trail that goes from the hills to the purple sand beach and is great for a day-long hike.
While you won’t be able to fit it in on a Big Sur day trip, the park also has smaller trails that are equally beautiful.
The park also has excellent birding.
Big Sur Lighthouse (CC 2.0 NOAA Photo Library)
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
One of the most visited state parks on Big Sur day trip from San Francisco, this park has it all – majestic redwoods, campsites under the trees, secluded trails with beautiful views, and wildlife viewing opportunities.
Valley View Trail is one of the popular trails in this state park.
While Pfeiffer Beach is nearby, it is not a part of the park and isn’t covered by the state park entry fee.
Big Sur Ranger Station
We strongly recommend stopping at the visitor information center on your Big Sur itinerary.
Docents have up to date information on closures and weather forecasts.
There is also a gift shop which is great for buying Big Sur souvenirs.
While it is exceedingly popular, Pfeiffer Beach is also hard to find.
The road turn-off has no signage which confuses many visitors.
After you leave Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, you will cross the Big Sur River.
The road to the beach is the first after the bridge across the river and begins about half a mile after the Big Sur Ranger Station (around MM 45).
Follow the single lane road for a couple of miles till you see the beach parking lot.
Finally, hike the mile-long trail to the beach. This trail passes through sand and we suggest wearing your beachy footwear to avoid getting sand in your shoes.
If you still can’t find it or prefer GPS coordinates, the ones for Pfeiffer Beach are 36.24023 / -121.77706. You can use the National Parks pass to visit the beach.
Travel Tip: During peak travel times, the beach parking lot gets full early on in the day.
The beach is quite pretty with a unique purplish hued sand but it’s the (seemingly) wildly strewn rock formations that are the star attraction here.
From arches to holes and jagged curves, the rock formations have it all.
The most famous rock is the Keyhole Rock, so named for the natural keyhole at the bottom.
If you have the time or are staying in the area, we suggest returning here at sunset to see the water take on magnificent colors and paint the rocks in brilliant hues.
Henry Miller Library
A must for fans of the American writer Henry Miller, this is also a great stop for all book readers and literary fans.
Henry Miller lived in the Big Sur region for over 17 years and the Henry Miller Library commemorates his life and career.
The library is unlike any other and is a delight to wander. It is located 0.25 miles south of Nepenthe restaurant.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
Most people know Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park due to the famous McWay Falls (see below). However, the state park has lots more than that.
It is also home to Partington Cove, a secluded cove with amazing ocean views.
Many of the park’s trails are currently closed (as of August 2018) due to weather damage, including McWay Falls, so check before you go.
Easily reached by a short 15-20 mins hike down the cliff from Highway 1 after mile marker 37.8, Partington Cove is wonderful to explore.
It is not that well-known among visitors and you will often have the cove to yourself.
To reach the cove, find the green gate to the unmarked trail that follows Partington Creek, crosses a wooden bridge, and then splits before passing through a tunnel.
Once you reach the cove, you will have sublime views of the turquoise, blue water, and shellfish.
The trail is about a mile long and you return the same way.
If you follow the other part of the trail where it splits, you will come to a second cove with crashing waves.
While Big Sur has many waterfalls, the famous McWay Falls draws the most visitors.
Located inside Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, McWay Falls was one of the highlights of our Big Sur day trip.
I have fallen in love with this waterfall since I saw a few photos floating on social media; something about the stream of water tumbling 70 feet below onto turquoise foaming waves has held me spellbound long before I visited Big Sur.
To visit McWay Falls, park in the parking lot at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (costs about $10, cash only or California State Park annual pass accepted) and follow the mile-long trail to the observation deck.
From here you have panoramic views of the McWay Falls cascading onto the untouched Sandy Beach below.
You also have uninterrupted views over both sides of the Big Sur coastline.
The views from the observation deck are simply breathtaking.
Big Creek Bridge
Another of Big Sur’s majestic bridges, this is a double-arched bridge on Highway 1.
It spans across the Big Creek Canyon and is photogenic.
Lookout points are located at both ends of the bridge and have great views over the coast.
Limekiln State Park
Limekiln State Park is a great addition to Big Sur itinerary with plenty of small hiking trails leading to the 4 limekilns in the park.
It also has good trails through the redwood forests.
The state park beach is very beautiful and has great sunset views. We also liked the campgrounds that we saw on our way to the beach.
Los Padres National Forest
Los Padres National Forest is a wild forested area that extends well into the interior.
The forest has many winding roads that go perpendicular to the PCH1 and meet the coast; these are a delight to drive and make for excellent detours.
Los Padres is also popular for hiking and camping. We visited the Willow Creek Day Use Area and liked the views from Willow Creek Vista Point.
Sand Dollar Beach is another popular day-use area with picnic tables and beach access.
While the California State Park entrance day pass doesn’t allow entry into Los Padres National Forest, the National Parks pass does.
Located within Los Padres National Forest, Jade Cove is a unique attraction.
More of a hidden gem in the San Simeon and Big Sur area, this cove is a favorite with jade hunters.
However, the trail leading to the cove is not marked and goes down a steep cliff.
Not for the faint-hearted, the rewards for reaching the cove are worth it: you can find pieces of jade if you look carefully enough and also the views from the cove are breathtaking.
Piedras Blancas Light Station
Piedras Blancas Light Station can be seen by 2 hour-long guided tours which are available only on certain days.
Since you can’t walk up and visit, advance reservations to the tours are needed.
The tour is a great way to learn about the history of the lighthouse and the surrounding marine life.
Visiting the lighthouse is more feasible if you are spending 2 days in Big Sur but it can also be accommodated on a day trip if you really want to visit.
The lighthouse is a hit with kids of all ages. Views of the coast and the ocean from the top of the lighthouse are stunning.
Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery
Located south of the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse, the rookery is free to visit.
There is plenty of parking available near the rookery and you can mostly always see elephant seals flopping around the beach from the lookout point.
To see the pups, plan a trip around February to April.
The volunteers at the Rookery are very knowledgeable and like to share information about the seals, making it a great place to learn about natural history.
This is a great stopover for families with kids.
Hearst Castle is the lavish mansion built by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst.
Built over a period of 28 years, the mansion has 165 rooms and is furnished in an opulent style.
Castle tour takes you on a walk through the grand rooms, ornate sculptures, and the staggering grounds including the famous swimming pools.
Also, the views from the top of the hill where the castle is located are stunning.
Hearst Castle is one of the musts on your Big Sur one day trip itinerary.
Grand swimming pools at Hearst Castle (CC 2.0 Pixabay)
Besides the above stops along the Pacific Coast Highway, there are plenty of other things to do in Big Sur in one day.
You can relax at one of Big Sur’s spa resorts. While you can’t get into many of them without staying the night, some do offer day spa activities. This is also a great option if you are looking to stay the night and spending 2 days in Big Sur.
The Esalen Institute is also a great place for spiritual experience along Big Sur. It has week-long classes aimed at reconnecting and rejuvenating yourself.
The Big Sur region is also rich in diverse wildlife including marine life.
The area is great for bird watching, and spotting otters, dolphins, elephant seals, grey whales, sea lions, and other animals that reside along the California central coast.
You can also ride the beach on horseback or indulge in a romantic getaway in Big Sur.
With its amazing views and cozy cabins, the area is perfect for honeymooners and to spend Valentine’s Day getaway.
Where To Eat In Big Sur?
The most popular options to have lunch in Big Sur include Nepenthe, where the famous once ate – including Henry Miller or Deetjen’s – a charming organic restaurant.
Other dinner options include the pricey but yummy Big Sur bakery or the wallet-friendly Big Sur Deli. Big Sur Deli is also where the local’s shop and this is a great place to buy a picnic meal.
Post Ranch Inn is as famous for its views as it is for the gourmet food and luxurious amenities.
Some other great options in the area include Ventana Inn, Big Sur Roadhouse, and Big Sur River Inn.
Sunset over PCH1 (CC 2.0 / amarcotty)
Where To Stay In Big Sur?
While this is a Big Sur one day itinerary, your trip need not be that short!
Essentially the Big Sur coastal drive itinerary remains the same even if you are staying in the area and exploring the magnificent redwoods and pristine beaches.
The lodging and accommodation options in Big Sur are limited and you do need advance reservations for most of the year.
Many of the inns and hotels also have on-site restaurants and so you will find the same names popping over again.
Located at the southernmost end of Big Sur, Ragged Point Inn has great views over the coast and serves good food at the on-site restaurant.
It also has a gift shop to buy your Big Sur souvenirs.
Other good options to stay include the luxurious Post Ranch Inn or the glamping yurts at Treebones Resort.
Big Sur River Inn has a great location along the riverbank while Ventana Inn is located in the cozy woods and has deer or two peeking through the windows.
Resources To Plan Your Trip To Big Sur
We would like to reiterate, there is limited to no cell service in Big Sur and you need to carry maps, addresses, guides, printed itineraries, and reservation copies to be on the safe side.
Also, many of the roads and trails are unmarked – like the Pfeiffer Beach road, and we recommend carrying a guide you trust throughout the trip.
You can either print out our Big Sur guide or check out these guides below that we trust.
Great Travel Guides To Plan Your Big Sur Road Trip:
Great Website Resources To Create Big Sur Itinerary:
Pacific Coast Highway Itinerary in 5 Days: Big Sur and Beyond – Our guide to planning your entire road trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles over the length of a week
A Guide to California’s Big Sur – This is an awesome website by John Rabold, a Bay Area and California native, is a great travel guide to the region. It has lots of practical information including Big Sur business’ addresses and phone numbers.
TripAdvisor Central Coast Guide – This was another website that we found quite useful while planning our trip.
Big Sur is a trip for couples, friends, and families.
Apart from the scenic stops and hiking trails, there are lots of things to do in Big Sur with kids.
Whale watching is a popular winter activity while Big Sur camping and RVing is popular in the summer.
Big Sur has long been the muse of artists, writers, and photographers and was originally home to an artist’s colony.
If you are interested in reading about Big Sur, its history, and the artists that live there – I highly recommend Henry Miller’s memoir, ‘Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch’.
If you follow our blog, you know I often like to wax lyrical about perfectly ordinary things!
However, honestly speaking, Big Sur road trip is an oh-so-dreamy, leave-me-here-forever moment.
The views were so scenic and incredible that I felt as if I had pulled an Instagram filter over my eyes!
As the frothing and foaming waves of the Pacific Ocean crashed against the rugged coastline, I felt a deep reverence for this beautiful coast.
To once again quote Henry Miller,
“It is here at Big Sur that I first learned how to say Amen!”