Getaway Compass

15 Places You Cannot Miss on Your Big Sur Road Trip

Big Creek Cove Vista Point Big Sur California

Big Sur is the dramatic coastline in California between Carmel and San Simeon. Here you can find breathtaking views, hiking trails, beaches, waterfalls and more. With so many incredible things to do in Big Sur it can be hard to decide what to visit. After multiple visits to Big Sur, I put together this guide with the 15 places you cannot miss on your Big Sur Road Trip to help you prioritize what to see in Big Sur.

Best Things to Do in Big Sur: Contents

Big Sur Highway 1 Conditions

In the winter there was damage to Highway 1 along the Big Sur coast. While some parts of the road have been fixed, the road is still currently closed between Lucia and Limekiln State Park (park is temporarily closed). 

If you explore Big Sur from the north it shouldn’t impact you too much since most of the top sites in Big Sur are in the northern part. However, if you are coming from LA or other places in southern California you will have to go around Highway 1 to get to the best destinations in Big Sur. To reach Big Sur from southern California during the highway closures you will need to go around Highway 1 by taking Route 101 north through Palos Robles and Gonzales. Make sure to check the latest Highway 1 conditions here before your Big Sur road trip. 

To save time and be able to see more I recommend staying in Monterrey, Carmel Valley, or Carmel-by-the-Sea so you can more easily get to the best destinations in Big Sur.

How Do You Get to Big Sur?

The closest airport to Big Sur is Monterey Regional Airport (MRY), but there are limited direct flights here. If you are flying in from the east coast you are more likely to find a direct and cheaper flight to San Jose airport which is about 1.5 hours from Big Sur. You can also get to Big Sur from San Francisco International Airport (SFO) or Oakland International Airport (OAK), but these airports are a bit further.

You will definitely need a car to explore Big Sur. If you are flying into California you should book your rental car in advance on Discover Cars, which searches across rental car companies to help you find the best deal.

How Much Time Do You Need in Big Sur?

Tips for Big Sur

Big Sur is an incredible coastline with countless things to see and do. You can see the highlights of Big Sur in one day but I recommend spending at least two days in the area to really enjoy this stunning place. If you were to do all 15 of the top things to do in Big Sur on this guide you will need at least two full days.

The best way to explore Big Sur is to split up two days between the northern and middle section of the coast. On your first day see the best things to do in Big Sur closest to Monterey such as Point Lobos and Garrapata State Park. Then, the next day continue with the next destination south of where you had reached the day before.

Where Should You Stay Near Big Sur?

If you are looking to stay right in Big Sur surrounded by nature two popular options are Big Sur Lodge and Big Sur River Inn. Both of these are located right near the best destinations in Big Sur such as Pfeiffer Beach. 

Airbnb Carmel Valley
Airbnb that we stayed at in Carmel Valley

Alternatively, you can stay in one of the nearby cities where you will find more accommodation options and restaurants.
Carmel-by-the-Sea: cute, walkable city. Closest option to the north part of Big Sur.
Monterey: City with a range of restaurants, accommodations and shops located about 20 minutes away from Big Sur.
Carmel Valley: Valley located 20 minutes away from the Big Sur Coast with local restaurants and wineries. It is usually significantly warmer in Carmel Valley than on the coast.

Tips for Your Big Sur Road Trip

Big Sur Road Trip
  • The weather in Big Sur can change quickly and is much cooler than areas further from the coast. Make sure to bring layers with you. You could be in Carmel Valley and it is sunny and warm but by the time you get to the coast the temperature can drop 10 degrees or more and there can be a thick fog.
  • Watch out for Poison Oak! It is very common throughout Big Sur and can cause you to develop a rash.
  • Bring snacks and lunch with you on your Big Sur road trip as the food is limited in Big Sur and can be very expensive.
  • There is no service in most of Big Sur. In order to not miss any incredible stops make sure to save our Big Sur google maps list. You can then download the offline version of the Big Sur map and have all the destinations and notes saved and accessible even without service. You can find the form to subscribe and get the FREE Big Sur google maps list below!
  • Fill up gas before Big Sur as there are limited options and they are pricey.
  • Bring a portable charger or car charger for your phone so you can take all the pictures and videos you want and still be able to navigate with our google maps list.
  • Tip to save time exploring Big Sur: If you are having trouble finding a parking spot at your chosen destination on the way down the coast, you can consider skipping it for now and seeing it on your way back up the coast instead.

FREE Big Sur Google Maps List

Make sure you don’t miss top viewpoints and hidden gems in Big Sur by getting access to this google maps list! As long as you download the offline version of google maps ahead of your Big Sur road trip you will be able to navigate to the destinations even when there is no service.

Big Sur Google Maps List
Image from Google Maps

15 Best Things to Do in Big Sur

These 15 best things to do in Big Sur are listen in order of their location from north to south. Don’t miss these top places to see in Big Sur including nature reserves, view points, state parks, and waterfalls.

1. Carmel-by-the-Sea

Carmel-by-the-Sea

Carmel-by-the-Sea is a cute town in the beginning of the Big Sur coast with many restaurants, wineries, shops, and galleries. Start your Big Sur road trip with brunch in Carmel-by-the-sea.

2. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

Gibson Beach at Point Lobos Natural Reserve

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is a beautiful reserve that is worth spending a few hours at. Point Lobos is one of the best things to do in Big Sur with nice hiking trails, great views, and pretty beaches. Look out for animals as you walk around Point Lobos as sea lions, harbor seals, sea otters, and a variety of sea birds are commonly seen.

The parking lot in Point Lobos has a fee and fills up quickly. Instead, can park along the highway near the reserve entrance for free. You can see the highlights of Point Lobos by combining multiple hiking trails and creating a loop through the reserve. 

For more detailed information about the best way to spend your time in Point Lobos, continue to our Point Lobos State Natural Reserve Guide.

3. Hidden Viewpoint

Big Sur Places You Cannot Miss

You cannot miss this viewpoint on your Big Sur road trip. Soon after Point Lobos you will find a small lot with a short trail to a hidden viewpoint. The coordinates of the trail are (36.468081, -121.930886) and it is also saved on the Big Sur google maps list that you can get using the form above. Since the parking lot is small and the path is hidden you can usually get the viewpoint (almost) all to yourself. Make sure to walk to the end of the path for the best views of the cove below where you can witness the impact wind and water have had on the cliffs.

4. Soberanes Point and Whale Peak Trail in Garrapata State Park

Top Things to Do Big Sur

Garrapata State Park is one of the top places to see in Big Sur. This state park is only about 10 minutes drive from Carmel-by-the-sea so it is easy to get and is a perfect place to visit if you have limited time in Big Sur. On the 1.6-mile trail you will find hidden cove beaches, dramatic cliffs, sea lions, wildflowers, and incredible views. Don’t miss the hike up Whale Peak for great views of the Big Sur coast. The main elevation gain on this hike is to get up to the peak, but otherwise the trail is relatively flat.

5. Calla Lilly Valley and Garrapata Beach

Garrapata Beach

Calla Lilly Valley and Garrapata Beach are places you cannot miss on your Big Sur road trip itinerary. Walk the path through Calla Lilly Valley to enjoy the Lilies which are usually blooming February-April, but this year they were blooming through July. You will get to enjoy incredible views of Garrapata Beach and its clear water below from the trail.

Garrapata Beach is a secluded beach with bright blue water and intense waves. The best way to get down to Garrapata Beach is to follow the maintained stairs on the south side of the beach.

6. Bixby Bridge

Bixby Bridge Big Sur

Bixby Bridge is one of the top stops that you cannot miss in Big Sur. This historic bridge was built along route 1 in 1932. Find a safe spot to park along the Route 1 or in the small parking lot just north of the bridge and walk to the viewpoint of Bixby Bridge. This widely photographed bridge is surrounded by dramatic cliffs and features a beautiful ocean view.

Keep in mind as the weather in Big Sur can change quickly it is common to find a fog around Bixby Bridge so your view may be a bit different. I have seen Bixby Bridge in a fog and with a clear background and both times it was still a unique place to stop.

7. Viewpoint of Point Sur Lighthouse

Point Sur Lighthouse

Point Sur Lighthouse is a state historic park and a formal naval facility. The only way to access the lighthouse is with a tour that is offered on Saturdays and Sundays. The tour is first-come-first-serve and is about three hours long. We didn’t have a chance to do the tour of the lighthouse, but we did get to see a nice view of the lighthouse from a parking spot nearby. I highly recommend stopping at this viewpoint to enjoy the lighthouse from afar.

8. Valley View Trail in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

Valley View Trail Big Sur

In Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park you can find the Valley View Trail, a quiet trail surrounded by redwoods that takes you to a scenic viewpoint of the valley. Make sure to add this 2-mile trail to your Big Sur road trip itinerary.

9. Pfeiffer Beach

Pfeiffer Beach Purple Sand Big Sur

Pfeiffer Beach is a unique beach with purple sand and large rock formations that is known to be one of the top places to see in Big Sur. There is an entrance fee to access the road to Pfeiffer Beach and the parking lot is located a couple miles down Sycamore Canyon Rd. If you have trouble finding parking in the main lot you can continue to the overflow parking lot. Spend time walking along the beach on the purple sand and enjoy the views of the rock formations. Make sure to get to the further end of the beach where you may be able to find more vibrant purple sand.

10. Nepenthe

View from Nepenthe

Nepenthe is a restaurant in Big Sur with incredible views of the coast. The food at Nepenthe is expensive but you can still enjoy the views and relax with a drink from the bar on the outside patio.

11. Henry Miller Memorial Library

Henry Miller Memorial Library
Big Sur Henry Miller Memorial Library

Henry Miller Memorial Library is a unique book store surrounded by redwoods. This non-profit book store also serves as a cultural resource center and social center for the community. It is worth a quick stop on your Big Sur road trip!

12. Grimes Point Scenic Overlook

Grimes Point Scenic Overlook

This overlook doesn’t have any signs, however there is a small pull-out spot to park your car. You can find this overlook using the coordinates (36.204683, -121.733222). This spot is saved on our Big Sur google maps list which you can get through the form above. From this overlook you will see the road carved into the tall cliffs. We got to enjoy the overlook on a day where the fog was rapidly changing which made it even more memorable.

13. McWay Falls

McWay Falls Top Big Sur Stop

Did you even go to Big Sur if you didn’t see McWay Falls?
McWay Falls is popular for a reason. The waterfall falling into the crystal clear blue water is a sight that you have to see. Although you cannot go down to the beach where McWay Falls is, there is a small walking path that takes you to an incredible viewpoint of the falls.

Tip: If you cannot see the falls due to fog try to wait it out. The fog comes and goes so if you wait a few minutes you may still get a great view of the falls! We saw people leaving disappointed that they didn’t get to see much because of the fog but then 5 minutes after they left it cleared up.

Are you interested in seeing more incredible waterfalls? You will want to reach this article: 8 Best Waterfalls on Oahu, Hawaii

14. Big Creek Cove Vista Point

Big Creek Cove Vista Point Big Sur California

There are so many incredible vista points along route 1, but this one is a must-see in Big Sur. This viewpoint overlooks the rugged Big Sur Coast and Big Creek Bridge.

15. Limekiln State Park

Limekiln Falls Hike

In Limekiln State Park you can find Limekiln Falls Trail which is a 1-mile roundtrip trail through Redwoods that guides you to a 100-foot waterfall. The trail takes you next to and over a creek and the tall Redwoods are incredible. There is a fee to enter the park with a car, so in order to save money you can look for safe parking along the road and walk into the park.

Note: Limekiln State Park is currently closed (July 2023) due to Highway 1 damages from storms. You can check the latest status of the park here.

Disclosure: Please note that some of the links above are affiliate links for products and services I recommend. At no additional cost to you, I earn a commission if you make a purchase. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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Reut and Zack Elopement-5

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