Nestled between the Santa Lucia Mountains and the Pacific Ocean lies the beautiful town of Big Sur, California. With beaches, waterfalls, forests, and mountains, it’s one of the most jaw-dropping places in the state. But Big Sur is a little out of the way from California’s major cities, so many people opt to take a roadtrip there. Odds are, if that’s the case, you’re planning on leaving from San Francisco or Los Angeles. Both Big Sur roadtrip options are fantastic in their own ways.
If you’re looking for a short and sweet option, San Francisco is the way to go. If you want a longer journey through some of California’s most iconic beach towns, Los Angeles it is! Regardless, we’ve included both possible routes in this itinerary, so you’re sure to find the information you need.
As with all of our itineraries, this Big Sur roadtrip isn’t set in stone. Feel free to add, remove, or change up any of the recommendations we include below. After all, we want this guide to work best for you and your travels, and that’s likely only going to happen if you put your own little twist on things.
Wondering the best time of year to plan this trip? Check out our guide to the best time to visit Big Sur here.
San Francisco to Big Sur Roadtrip
With just 227 kilometers to cover, the drive from San Francisco to Big Sur can easily be covered in a day. After all, if you drive straight there, it takes just three hours. That said, we recommend taking your time on your Big Sur roadtrip. Spread your drive over two or three days to see all of the best stops along the way.
Stop 1: San Francisco
If you’re starting in the brilliant city of San Francisco, you won’t want to immediately start driving and leave the concrete jungle behind. In fact, the opposite is true. Before you take off on your Big Sur roadtrip, take some time to explore The Golden City.
Of course, the first thing that you have to do in San Francisco is see the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. Take a few pictures, warm up with a cup of coffee at the nearby Equator Coffees, or hike your way all the way across the bridge.
And after you’ve checked that famous attraction off your San Francisco bucket list, you can then move on to exploring Pier 39, sail on over to Alcatraz, or wind your way down Lombard Street.
Stop 2: San Jose
Once you’re ready to officially set off on your Big Sur roadtrip, you’ll make your way to San Jose. This Bay Area city is often overlooked in favour of San Francisco, but there’s loads to see here as well!
You can shop until you drop on Santana Row, stop and smell the flowers at the Municipal Rose Garden, and get educated at the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum. There really is something for everyone in this California city.
Stop 3: Santa Cruz
By stop 3, you’ll hit the famous California coastline, and you’ll be welcomed by the lovely town of Santa Cruz. This Central California city seamlessly blends parts of both Northern California and Southern California in a way that can’t be found anywhere else.
The most popular attraction in town is the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Fried foods, thrilling rides, and sunny skies are just the beginning of this Santa Cruz landmark.
Once you wrap up at the boardwalk, there are a few other things you can do while you’re in town. Bike along the beautiful West Cliff Drive, say hello to a few marine friends at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center or pay a visit to the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum.
Stop 4: Monterey
Next up, Monterey! Once upon a time, Monterey was known for its sardine packing industry. And while that’s not very glamorous, over the years, Monterey has figured out how to put a lavish spin on its fishy past.
Today, Monterey’s old packing district is now the visitor hub known as Cannery Row. This area is filled with cute shops, lovely hotels, and relaxing spas – along with a few tasty seafood restaurants, like Sea Harvest Restaurant & Fish Market and Schooners Monterey.
But the most famous attraction in Monterey – fish-focused or not – is the Monterey Bay Aquarium. With over 800 species and 75,000 individual animals, you’ll have lots of marine friends to make!
Stop 5: Carmel-by-the-Sea
By this point, you’ve almost made it to Big Sur. But with just 42 kilometers left to go, there’s one more can’t-miss stop: Carmel-by-the-Sea. Often simply called Carmel, this California beach town is the smallest destination on this itinerary, population-wise, but there are a shocking number of things to do.
With its stunning ocean views and blooming lily fields, Calla Lily Valley is a must-visit. Point Lobos State Reserve is perfect for a scenic hike or a photo stop. Or enjoy a California-grown wine tasting at one of the many spectacular tasting rooms in town. Simply put, you can stay entertained in Carmel-by-the-Sea for as long as you’d like.
Stop 6: Big Sur
By your sixth stop, you’ll have finally reached your destination: the beautiful Big Sur! This coastal town will absolutely take your breath away. From beaches to hikes to waterfalls, Big Sur definitely showcases nature at its finest.
While you’re in Big Sur, there are a few things that you simply have to experience. First, there’s the hikers’ paradise known as Big Sur State Park. Whether you’re hoping for a short waterfall hike or an all-day mountain trek, this state park has the perfect hike for you.
Then, there’s the incredible Pfeiffer Beach. With tidepools and rock formations, it’s already stunning. But the most unique part of Pfeiffer Beach is the purple sand! This boldly coloured sand comes from a natural collection of manganese garnet gemstones buried within the beachside cliffs. It’s definitely something you won’t want to miss.
And last but certainly not least, there’s McWay Falls. This 24-meter waterfall is one of about 39 cascades in the world that run directly into the ocean! So while it does require a short hike to get there, it’s certainly worth the effort.
Los Angeles to Big Sur Roadtrip
The drive from Los Angeles to Big Sur is quite a bit longer than the San Francisco to Big Sur journey. You’ll need to cover 475 kilometers, which will take about 5 hours and 30 minutes – without traffic.
So while it can be done in a day, it’s not recommended. As a matter of fact, you could easily spend a full week just hopping to and from each of these incredible California locations! (But if we were planning this trip, we’d opt for a three- to five-day adventure.)
Stop 1: Los Angeles
Los Angeles, the City of Angels, is one of the most famous cities in the world. So why not make it your departure point for your Big Sur roadtrip?
Of course, before you set out, you’ll want to take some time to explore this iconic city. Find your celebrity crush’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, catch a live taping of your favourite TV show (you’ll likely have to reserve your spot in advance), or hike all the way up to the Hollywood sign.
Stop 2: Malibu
Similar to Los Angeles, your second stop, Malibu, is known for two things: beaches and celebrities. In other words, you’ll want to check both off your bucket list during your Big Sur roadtrip.
If you’re looking for sun and sand, you really can’t go wrong with any Malibu beach, but Zuma Beach, El Matador Beach, and Leo Carrillo State Park are just a few local favourites. As for the celebrities, they’re a little harder to find, but the Malibu Country Mart and the Malibu County Fair are pretty consistent celebrity hotspots. Be sure to stop at Malibu Farm Cafe for a bit to eat before hitting the road again.
Stop 3: Santa Barbara
After you’ve caught some sun, jump back in your car and speed off on the famous Pacific Coast Highway for another 107 kilometers or so. Soon enough, you’ll come across Santa Barbara, arguably one of the most underrated towns on the California coast.
With its oceanfront location and Mediterranean-inspired architecture, Santa Barbara is picture-perfect. But it’s not just great to stroll around and look at (although, that’s loads of fun too), there are also a ton of things to do. Climb to the top of the courthouse tower for some epic views, stop and smell the flowers at the Santa Barbara Botanical Garden, or grab a scoop from the famous McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams.
Stop 4: Solvang
Solvang is one of the coolest towns on this Big Sur roadtrip. While the other stops exude California beach town vibes, Solvang takes you all the way to Denmark.
Settled by Danish immigrants in the early 1900s, Solvang still proudly shows off its roots more than 100 years later. While you’re in town, you can visit one (or more!) of the five windmills, take a few pictures with The Little Mermaid Fountain (modeled after the one in Copenhagen), and dine on some delicious Danish food.
Stop 5: Morro Bay
Next up is Morro Bay. Most people who drive on the Pacific Coast Highway just cruise on past Morro Bay, but we’re here to tell you that it’s definitely worth a stop.
If there’s just one thing to do in Morro Bay, it’s say hello to all of the marine animals. While there isn’t an aquarium, you can see loads of animals from the shore. Otters, sea lions, seals, and whales are just the beginning.
With all of those animals hanging around, it should come as no surprise to find out that fish are swarming the waters of Morro Bay – and that comes with a whole lot of fun opportunities. If you want to head out on the water, go on a fishing charter! And if you want to stay on land, enjoy the fishermen’s hard work with a delicious bite of seafood. Dutchman’s Seafood House, The Galley Seafood Grill & Bar, and Tognazzini’s Dockside Restaurant are a few beloved local eateries.
Stop 6: Hearst Castle
Between Morro Bay and Big Sur, there’s not a whole lot to see. Luckily, Hearst Castle can help break up the 151-kilometer drive.
Built between 1919 and 1947 for American publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst, Hearst Castle is quite an awe-inspiring estate. While it was originally intended to be a family home, it actually ended up serving as a Hollywood celebrity party venue for a couple of decades instead. The likes of Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, and Jean Harlow all made frequent visits here.
But the partying eventually had to come to an end. After Hearst and his ex-wife both passed away, the family decided to donate the estate to the State of California in 1957. By 1958, it became the museum that it is today.
During your Big Sur roadtrip, you can pop by and explore this historic celebrity hotspot. Admire the architecture, get a glimpse of the interior design style, and learn even more about the storied past of Hearst Castle.
*Note: You’ll want to reserve tickets for Hearst Castle in advance. Without them, you might not get to see this lovely castle, as spots tend to get snatched up days – or even weeks – ahead.
Stop 7: Big Sur
After seven incredible stops, you’ll finally find yourself in Big Sur. As we mentioned in the San Francisco to Big Sur roadtrip route, there are so many jaw-dropping things to see in this town – from the cascading McWay Falls to the blood-pumping hikes of Big Sur State Park to the purple sand of Pfeiffer Beach. Wherever you choose to explore, you’re practically guaranteed to have a fantastic time in Big Sur.
And there you have it! The ultimate Big Sur roadtrip! Whether you’re driving from San Francisco, Los Angeles, or another incredible destination, we hope that this guide comes in handy. And if you have any comments or questions, just let us know in the comments!
Looking for a more in depth guide as to what to see in Big Sur? Check out our Big Sur Day Trip Itinerary here.