Planning to visit Big Sur from Carmel by the Sea or Monterey and looking for the perfect road trip planner?
This Central Coast guide provides all the information you need to make the most of your coastal drive, including where to stop, what to see and do, and – of course – sandy beaches!
The entire drive along the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) takes you from the charming towns of Carmel-by-the-Sea and Pebble Beach, through Point Lobos Natural Reserve and on to the dramatic Big Sur coast.
Why visit Big Sur?
Big Sur is one of the most gorgeous places on Earth and a must-see for any road tripper traveling up or down California’s Central Coast.
The dramatic coastline, lush forests, views of the Santa Lucia mountains and Pacific Ocean, and winding roads make for a beautiful and unforgettable journey.
The road itself – Pacific Coast Highway – is one of the most scenic drives in the world!
Also Read: Big Sur Road Trip Itinerary
When to visit Big Sur?
Big Sur is best visited from late spring to early fall, when the weather is warm but not too hot and the roads are clear.
Winter can be foggy and rainy, while peak summer can get very hot.
Overall, the weather is much milder than that of northern California or southern California and makes it a great place to visit year-round.
What to bring?
Make sure to pack your camera, sunscreen, a hat, snacks and drinks, and a light jacket – it can get cool up in the mountains or along the coast in the winter months.
How long to plan for the Big Sur Itinerary?
The drive from Carmel to Big Sur takes about 2-3 hours, depending on how often you stop to take pictures or explore the area.
If short on time, you can also plan a Big Sur Day Trip from Carmel Beach.
Where to start Carmel Big Sur Road Trip?
The best place to start your Carmel Big Sur road trip is in the charming town of Carmel-by-the-Sea.
However, many other destinations along Highway 1 are perfect starting points for this iconic trip.
Carmel by the Sea
Carmel by the Sea is a beautiful little town on the Monterey Peninsula that is a great place to start your road trip.
Explore the art galleries, tasting rooms, and boutiques in town while you’re here.
From Carmel, you can drive south on Highway 1 (PCH) towards Big Sur, or continue further south up to Santa Barbara or even Los Angeles.
If you have time, stop at the Carmel River State Beach, located just south of Carmel by the Sea.
This beautiful beach features a wide sandy beach, rocky tide pools, and is a great place for whale watching – especially during the winter.
If you’re coming from the north, Monterey is a great place to stop and explore.
The historic downtown area has a variety of shops and restaurants, attractions such as Cannery Row, as well as the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Asilomar State Beach is a great place to stop for a swim and enjoy the views of the Pacific Ocean.
From here, you can continue south on Highway 1 towards Big Sur.
Pebble Beach is a must-see affluent community is known for its world-famous golf course, luxury resorts, and picturesque coastline.
Take a stroll along 17-Mile Drive, a scenic road that winds through Pebble Beach and Pacific Grove, for beautiful views of the ocean and coastline.
Pacific Grove is a charming town located in Monterey County.
Take a walk along Lover’s Point, a popular beach with rocky tide pools and views of the Pacific Ocean, or wander through the downtown area for shopping and restaurants.
Santa Cruz is a fun coastal town located about an hour and a half north of Monterey.
There’s plenty to do in Santa Cruz, including surfing, whale watching, and visiting the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk amusement park.
If you have time, stop at Natural Bridges State Beach, a beautiful beach known for its rock formations.
You can even begin this iconic road trip in San Francisco and head south down Highway 1 to Carmel.
The drive from San Francisco to Carmel takes about 3-4 hours, so you can easily visit Big Sur on a weekend from the city by the bay.
Take some time to explore popular San Francisco attractions such as Fisherman’s Wharf, Union Square, and Golden Gate Bridge.
Also Read: Ultimate San Francisco to Big Sur Road Trip Planner
Carmel to Big Sur Road Trip Stops
The stretch of the road has few restaurants, lodging, and other amenities but makes up for it in scenic views!
Tip – Be sure to fill up the gas tank as there are very few gas stations in Big Sur.
Also Read: 5 Day pacific Coast Highway Itinerary
Point Lobos Natural Reserve
Point Lobos is an incredibly beautiful state park located just south of Carmel-by-the-Sea.
It’s home to stunning ocean views, coves, hiking trails, and some of the best whale watching in California.
Point Lobos is also popular for spotting sea lions, sea otters, seals, nesting sea birds, as well as shorebirds.
Garrapata State Park
Garrapata State Park is a beautiful park located south of Point Lobos.
It’s known for its rugged coastline, redwood forests, and stunning views.
Bixby Creek Bridge is a California landmark and the most photographed bridge on the Central Coast.
It’s located about halfway between Carmel and Big Sur and is a great place to stop and take pictures.
It can get pretty windy at the lookout points so be careful, especially with small children!
Point Sur Lighthouse
If you’re looking for a more adventurous stop, Point Sur Lighthouse is a great option.
This historic lighthouse is located south of Garrapata State Park and can only be accessed by foot or boat.
It offers great views of the coast and is a popular spot for whale watching.
Andrew Molera State Park
Andrew Molera State Park is a large park located at the mouth of the Big Sur River.
Here, visitors can enjoy miles of hiking trails, a beautiful creek, and great ocean views.
Pfeiffer Beach is a beautiful purple sand beach that is famous for its sunset views.
To find the parking lot that leads to the beach: turn at Sycamore Canyon Rd between Big Sur Ranger Station and the Post Office.
The beach is accessible via a short, steep hike down to the rocky shores.
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is another great option for hikers and nature lovers.
It is one of the most popular state parks in California.
The park features miles of hiking trails, towering redwoods, and beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean.
It is also famous for its dramatic scenery and its diverse array of plant and animal life.
McWay Falls is a must-see on any trip to Big Sur.
This 80-foot waterfall is a gem of the West Coast!
It cascades into the ocean below and can be viewed from a path near the parking lot.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is located in the heart of Big Sur and offers some of the most dramatic coastal views in the area.
With mountains, cliffs, and beaches all within view, it’s no wonder that this park is such a popular tourist destination.
Hiking and swimming are just some of the ways to enjoy the park’s beauty.
It’s a great place to spend a day or two exploring the area.
Also Read: Best Things to do in Big Sur
Limekiln State Park
Limekiln State Park is a small but beautiful park located near Lucia on the Big Sur coast.
It features a waterfall, old lime kilns, and stunning ocean views.
If you continue south from Bixby Bridge, you’ll reach Ragged Point.
Ragged Point is one of the most beautiful places on the Central Coast of California.
It’s known for its rugged cliffs, crashing waves, and amazing sunsets.
This small town is home to a gas station, restaurant, and the Ragged Point Inn, as well as some of the best views of the coast.
San Simeon Elephant Seal Rookery
If you’re looking for something a little different, the San Simeon Elephant Seal Rookery is worth a stop.
This rookery is home to hundreds of elephant seals who come to shore to give birth, mate, and molt.
The site is accessible via a short hike from the parking lot.
Carmel and Big Sur are hidden gems overshadowed by other California attractions such as Los Angeles, San Diego, and national parks such as Yosemite and Death Valley.
A road trip along California’s Central Coast is an unforgettable experience.
From the dramatic coastline and abundant marine animals to the lush forests and winding roads, the Bug Sur region offers something for everyone.
Planning to visit Big Sur on our next trip?
Let us know your favorite part of the vacation in the comments.
Also Read: Pacific Coast Highway Road trip Planner