Located on the California coastline, Big Sur has made a name for itself as one of the most beautiful destinations in The Golden State. And that’s definitely saying something, considering the fact that California is home to stunning natural gems like the golden beaches of San Diego, the soaring mountains of Yosemite National Park, and the towering trees of Sequoia National Park. But with its picture-perfect beaches, thriving redwood forests, and cascading waterfalls, this small coastal California town certainly holds its own, and Big Sur is the perfect place for a day trip.
While a few days in Big Sur would be ideal, sometimes a day trip is all you may have time for. On this itinerary, we’ve included many of the must-see highlights of Big Sur – from beaches to bridges to hikes.
Most people make the day trip to Big Sur from San Francisco, as the drive only takes about two hours. But there is also the option to add this Big Sur day trip itinerary to a larger California road trip or West Coast road trip plan.
As always, this itinerary is just a structured suggestion of what you can do during one day in Big Sur. Feel free to adjust this guide to fit your preferences, whether that means taking activities out, putting some in, or mixing up the order.
Finally, it’s important to note that Big Sur and the roads to get there can get very crowded during peak season and holiday weekends. If you have some flexibility, try to visit during a weekday. And if that’s not possible for you, be sure to get an early start.
Pop by Calla Lily Valley
Now, Calla Lily Valley isn’t technically in Big Sur. It’s just outside of it. But regardless of that fact, we think it’s worth squeezing into your Big Sur day trip, especially if you happen to be visiting in the spring.
Between late February and early May, this lovely valley is filled to the brim with calla lilies! As if that weren’t stunning enough, this special spot also has stunning views of the Pacific Ocean, so you definitely don’t want to miss out.
There are a couple of ways to reach Calla Lily Valley. The most popular way is to take the trail near Stop #5 at Garrapata State Beach. From there, you’ll have to walk just under one kilometre each way. But there’s also a second, under-the-radar way via Soberanes Canyon Trail that takes less than five minutes.
Check Out the Bixby Creek Bridge
Bixby Creek Bridge is one of the most popular Big Sur landmarks. Built in 1932, this bridge was quite an architectural accomplishment for that time period. It soars nearly 80 metres over the Cross Canyon and required 45,000 sacks of cement to build! So it was definitely not a walk in the park to construct.
As you continue your drive down Highway 1, you’ll eventually cross this towering bridge. But before you get there, be sure to make a stop or two to snap some pictures! There are quite a few viewpoints near this bridge, but the Castle Rock Viewpoint is where everyone takes those iconic Bixby Creek Bridge photos.
*Note: The Castle Rock Viewpoint is just a small pullout along Highway 1. Please be careful when entering and exiting your car here!
Go for a Hike at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
While you’ll have gotten a few moments to stretch your legs at Calla Lily Valley and Bixby Creek Bridge, you’ll really get your blood pumping again with a hike at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park – and that will definitely be a welcome change after hours of driving.
There are a few different hikes in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park that are worth your time. But since you won’t be able to do them all during your Big Sur day trip, you can pick the one that works best for you.
First, there’s the Buzzard’s Roost hike. This is by far the most popular hike in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. As you wind your way on this 4.8-kilometre trail, you’ll be surrounded by towering redwood trees that are absolutely breathtaking! And as if the trees weren’t enough on their own, you’ll also get glimpses of the Pacific Ocean, the Santa Lucia Mountains, and the Sycamore Canyon.
Then, there’s the Pfeiffer Falls Trail. At only 3.2 kilometres roundtrip, this hike is perfect if you’re looking for something relatively short and sweet. You’ll be surrounded by massive redwood and oak trees, and at the end, you’ll get to see a cascading 18 metre waterfall. (Pro Tip: Add an extra kilometre to your adventure to see the landscape from the Valley View Overlook too!)
And last but certainly not least, there’s the Mt. Manuel Trail. Starting in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and ending in U.S. Forest Service land, this 12.9-kilometre roundtrip hike is great if you’re looking to get a workout in and enjoy fantastic views. With 914 metres of elevation gain, it’s certainly not for the faint of heart. But if you can handle it, you’ll be rewarded with amazing views of Big Sur Gorge, Little Sur Valley, the Santa Lucia Mountains, and of course the Pacific Ocean.
Before you head out on any of these hikes, be sure to check the California Department of Parks and Recreation website to make sure that they’re open. These trails often close due to damage from wildfires and other natural disasters.
See Purple Sand Beach at Pfeiffer Beach
No trip to Big Sur would be complete without a stop at Pfeiffer Beach. This strip of shoreline has so much going for it. First, there are some incredible tidepools to explore. The more you look, the more you’ll see – including crabs, sea urchins, sea anemones, and starfish!
Then, there’s the soaring Keyhole Rock. This awe-inspiring rock formation will inevitably make you want to take a few dozen pictures. If you time it right, you’ll be able to see the sunlight shining through the “keyhole,” which is absolutely magical.
And last but certainly not least, there’s a stretch of Pfeiffer Beach with rare purple sand! This uniquely hued sand comes from a natural collection of manganese garnet gemstones buried within the beachside cliffs.
You could easily spend hours at this one stop tidepooling, picture taking, and simply relaxing. If you’d like, you can even plan ahead, grab some food from one of the restaurants in Big Sur’s tiny town, and have a lovely picnic on the beach! Big Sur Bakery, the Restaurant at River Inn Big Sur, and Nepenthe are a few local favourites that offer takeout.
Gape in Awe at McWay Falls
The final stop on this Big Sur day trip itinerary is the incredible McWay Falls. This 24-metre waterfall is a rare tidefall, a waterfall that flows directly into the ocean. As a matter of fact, McWay Falls is one of about 39 tidefalls in the entire world!
This stunning waterfall is located at McWay Beach in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. You’ll have to hike the short and sweet McWay Waterfall Trail to get an unobstructed view of the falls, but it’s totally worth the one kilometre of effort.
If you have time left during your Big Sur day trip, you can stick around in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park a little longer. There are several hikes that are worth your time, including the Ewoldsen Trail, the Canyon Trail, and the Tan Bark Trail. But before you head out, check the California Department of Parks and Recreation website to see if the trails are open, as they are often closed to the public due to wildfire damage.
And there you have it! The ultimate Big Sur day trip. Let us know what you think in the comments!
Looking for other California road trip ideas? How about Los Angeles to Yosemite National Park!
Sunday 28th of May 2023
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