The ultimate itinerary for a Big Sur road trip

The ultimate itinerary for a Big Sur road trip

I’ve done the entire California coastal drive by dividing it into three sections, each completed on separate occasions.

First, I travelled from Los Angeles to San Diego by bus as part of a Contiki tour. This was on my first trip to the US back in 2009.

Then Rob and I drove from San Francisco to Crescent City on our way to Portland. This was on a two-week west coast trip back in 2013.

To finish it all off, Rob and I decided to complete the drive by filling in the gap between San Fran and LA in March.

I absolutely love the Californian coast, and can confirm that it’s one of the most scenic coastal drives in the world. It’s packed end-to-end with beaches, sea cliffs, rock formations, and more marine life than you could imagine.

If any of you are planning to drive the Californian coast, here’s everything you need to know about a Big Sur/California coast road trip!

Big Sur road trip itinerary map

Big Sur road trip itinerary

This is a relaxed pace three-day itinerary, with overnight stops in Monterey and Santa Barbara. To cut it down to two days, you can stay anywhere along the Big Sur coast (between Monterey and Santa Barbara) instead.

If you need to hire a car, you can get one from the airport or from the city, and do a one-way car rental. We ended up getting one from San Francisco Airport.

Monterey, California

San Francisco to Monterey

  • Be sure to spend some time in San Fran before you leave! I’ve put together a San Francisco city guide to give you some ideas. When you’re ready to start your road trip, head to Lands End then drive south along the coast.
  • Your first stop should be the classic Californian beach town of Santa Cruz. Treat yourself to a gelato then stroll along the pier and boardwalk while taking in the relaxed beachside lifestyle.
  • Moss Landing is next on the list. Take the Jetty Road turn off and drive all the way to the end – this is where you’ll see a bunch of lazy sea otters chilling on the beach.
  • We stop for the evening in Monterey. If you’ve got time, check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium, then take a walk along Fisherman’s Wharf before grabbing some on Cannery Row.
  • We stayed at Americas Best Value Presidents Inn in Monterey.
Big Sur, California

Monterey to Santa Barbara

  • On your way out of Monterey, check out Point Lobos for some hiking trails with sea cliff views.
  • The next vista point where you can marvel at the ocean is Rocky Ridge. Park your car on the side of the road and take a short walk to the lookout.
  • Bixby Bridge is one of the most photographed spots on Big Sur. There are multiple areas to pull over before and after the scenic bridge which stretches over a valley between the cliffs.
  • Take the turn off for Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and drive down the narrow road until you get to Pfeiffer Beach, one of the most scenic beaches on Big Sur (which apparently has purple sand after stormy weather).
  • Another highly photographed spot on Big Sur is McWay Falls. Take this short hike to the spot where you can see the waterfall drop directly onto a sandy beach.
  • Hearst Castle sits on top of a hill by the highway, and is a great stop if you’d like to learn a little history. To see the interior of the castle, you must book a tour.
  • A great spot for an afternoon coffee stop is Morro Bay, which features a rather massive rock that sits just offshore.
  • We stayed at Castillo Inn at the Beach in Santa Barbara.
Santa Barbara, California

Santa Barbara to Los Angeles

  • Before you leave, spend the morning enjoying Santa Barbara. Take a walk along Stearns Wharf, then wander along the east end of State Street through downtown Santa Barbara for some food and/or shopping before heading off on your final leg of the drive.
  • Stop in at Malibu to check out the overpriced beach houses where many LA celebrities live (I was a tad excited to discover that Leo DiCaprio owns multiple places there!). If you’re hungry, head to Kristy’s where you can sit on the patio overlooking the ocean with some wine and wood fired pizza.

California coast road trip extensions

If you’ve got some time on your hands and want to attempt more than just Big Sur, here’s the extensions you can do. If you start at Crescent City or San Diego, you should be able to do the entire coastline in about 7-10 days (at a comfortable pace).

California coast road trip itinerary map

Crescent City to San Francisco

We did this drive in one day, but you can split it into two days for a more relaxed pace.

  • The giant Redwood trees of Redwood National and State Park grow right on the edge of the road and tower above you as you drive through. Be sure to stop at one of the many hiking trails for a walk through the forest.
  • Stop in at Fort Bragg, where you’ll find Glass Beach – a former dump that now has smooth sea glass pebbles mixed in with the sand.
  • Point Reyes features a lighthouse with scenic views, walking tracks, rocky cliffs, and a beach.
  • Even though you might have already seen the Redwood trees up north, Muir Woods is another great place to stop and admire nature at its best. The Muir Woods National Monument is an area of forest with hiking trails that will have you swooning over its natural beauty.

Los Angeles to San Diego

Spend some time in LA if you can! Check out my Los Angeles city guide for some ideas on things to do in the city. There’s not a lot of places to stop between Los Angeles and San Diego as the drive is fairly short at around 2.5 hours, but you have a few options:

  • If you’re into theme parks – take your pick between Disneyland or Knott’s Berry Farm in Anaheim, or Universal Studios in Hollywood. Or do all three. Your choice.
  • Stop at Newport along the way (especially if you’re a fan of The OC like I used to be!).

Big Sur, California

Other tips for driving the California coast:

  • My #1 mistake on this road trip was not anticipating the weather. We visited in March, which is the shoulder season for Big Sur. It’s usually a little rainy at this time of year, and unfortunately for us El Niño was causing it to be even wetter than usual. The drive might be busier during the peak season of April-October, but believe me, it will be worth putting up with additional traffic for nicer weather!
  • Don’t rush it. This is an incredibly scenic drive and there are plenty of places to stop along the way. You could do Big Sur in a day or the entire California coast in 2-3 days if you really wanted to, but it will be much more enjoyable if you do it slowly.

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27 Responses to “The ultimate itinerary for a Big Sur road trip”

  1. Lauren

    Great itinerary! Definitely also would recommend Morro Bay for a coffee break. I would also recommend stopping in nearby Cayucos for the famous Brown Butter Cookie Company cookies.

    Also, just past Monterey and right before Point Lobos, it’s worth taking a quick stop at charming Carmel-by-the-Sea as well for lunch. Little Napoli is a personal fave as restaurants go, and the ice cream at the bakery is also worth noting.

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Thanks Lauren! I’ve heard that Cayucos is pretty great too (though I didn’t get to visit this time). I can’t say no to cookies so I’ll definitely head there next time 😉 Thanks for your tips on Carmel-by-the-Sea, there’s honestly so much to do around that area – you could spend days there and not get bored!

    • Jay

      Have you heard of river inn? It’s somewhere in Big Sur, it’s a hotel with a restaurant and behind the restaurant is a river where you can sit on the chair with your feet on the river water. I’ve never been to this place but my friends who’d been there recommended it.

      • Tmartmarcraig

        Hi Jay, just stopped at The River Inn for lunch this afternoon on driving down the Pacific Coast Highway.
        Food very good. Nice atmosphere. Busy but Plenty of outdoor seating.
        Saw those big relaxing looking chairs in the river.
        Saw people think they bought food in deli on site and took lunch in the stream.
        So cool. Bring pool shoes …….Tmar

  2. Stacey

    I have done a California road trip and you are right – it is awesome!
    We started in San Francisco and took 8 days to get to San Diego. By far my favourite part of the drive was in the Big Sur area. Very scenic, a fun drive, and I loved that that were tons of places to pull of the road to take photos. My piece of advice is to drive from north to south so it is easier to pull over on the side of the road (ocean side) without having to cross in front of oncoming traffic. And maybe get a convertible 😉

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Ooh good tip, Stacey – north to south would definitely be the superior direction to drive, especially in the scenic Big Sur area where you’re stopping every 5 minutes to take photos! We had a sunroof in our rental car, but didn’t get to use it because of the weather! So devastated 🙁

  3. Nicole

    What a road trip! Looks amazing, and oh well about the rain still got an incredible trip there.

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      It was definitely an awesome place for a road trip! The weather did suck, but we had a good time time anyway. I guess we can’t be lucky with weather all the time!

  4. Michelle D

    This was super helpful – thank you! My husband and I are thinking of taking this trip in mid-September and will be coming from out of state. From what I’m reading it sounds like we should start in San Francisco, correct? If so, where would make the most sense for us to fly out of? We are trying to keep this to a four day trip.


    • Ashlea Wheeler

      I’m so glad you found it useful, Michelle! We did the San Francisco to LA trip which fit perfectly into 4 days. If you’re not interested in seeing LA, then you could probably head straight on to San Diego and it should take about the same amount of time!

  5. Maria

    Great guide! I am seriously considering doing the drive from San Francisco to LA this November, hopefully the weather will still be good if it’s just off the peak season..

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Thanks Maria! You will love the drive from San Fran to LA, I’m sure 😀 We were just incredibly unlucky with the weather – hopefully it will be fine for your trip!

  6. chris welsh

    I am planning a last minute trip to LA and then drive up the coast and back to LA in three days.
    Want to stop where interesting and spend time in Bid Sur.

    Hotels to recommend?

  7. Jan

    Thank you both for your help on this route. We are spending 1 week in SF from 21st Sept 17, 5 nights in Yosemite then over to Monterey, Carmel, Big Sur to Stanta Barbara then back up for our flight out. WE want to see more of Monterey/Big Sur, Carmel and Santa Barbara. Do you have any tips on how long we might stay at each to get a good idea of whats there and enjoy it to the max?
    Hope thats not too tall an order? Also is Carmel by the sea the same Carmel whose mayor was Clint Eastwood?
    Many thanks
    Matt and Jan (from the UK)

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      This sounds like an amazing trip, Matt and Jan! I’ve also done Yosemite before – the national park is truly spectacular 😀 The number of nights will depend on how in-depth you want to travel. We stayed one night in Monterey and one night in Santa Barbara which seemed like enough, but if you’re looking to travel a little slower than we did then you could easily stay 2 nights in each. As for the Carmel/Clint Eastwood question, I actually have no idea!

  8. Janet

    Thank you for a wonderful article on the California coast drive. My husband and I are wanting to do that this year. I’m torn between going with an escorted tour or driving it ourselves. We are small town people not used to driving in heavy traffic so I am leary of renting a car in San Francisco and driving down to Los Angeles. Can you tell me if the traffic is that terrible. I’d rather drive it on our own but I also like the thought of someone else driving. Also, if we did decide on an escorted tour, which company would you recommend? Thanks so much for your advice!

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Thanks for your comment, Janet! I think Big Sur would be more enjoyable if you were driving it yourself, though the roads and traffic in San Francisco and Los Angeles can be very intimidating for someone who is not accustomed to city driving. If you wanted to do the trip on an escorted tour then this California Coast tour by Intrepid would be a great option 🙂

  9. Jolene

    Fab article!! We r coming over in 6 weeks time for our honeymoon, so excited!
    Picking a car up after 4 nights in San Fran before making our way down to LA over 8 days or so. Is it worth doing the theme parks over Hollywood and Beverley Hills as we have 3 days in Anaheim so wondering what to fit in and what to leave this time round.
    Also do u know if u can buy a pass in San Fran to do multiple excursions? I’ve been to New York and Boston and they do discount cards to visit a number of tourist attractions. Any more tips u can provide would be greatly received.
    Jolene 😊

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Thanks Jolene! That’s so exciting, I’m sure you will love Big Sur! There is a San Francisco CityPass which gives you discounted entry into multiple attractions and should come in handy if you’ve got 4 days in the city.

      If you have 3 days in LA, then you should have plenty of time to check out a theme park or two. My personal favourite is Universal Studios as the tram tour of the studio shows you a behind the scenes look into the filming of their movies and tv shows. I’ve also got an LA city guide which might give you some activity ideas!

  10. Susan Herrmann

    We are leaving on a cross Country trip on April 27 for 2 months and 2 weeks. We are coming in to solvang on June 4 and will be arriving at a camp called Riverside at Big Sur and will stay 3 full days not counting arrival and departure days. We will then head to Yosemite for 4 days, Napa for 1 day, Redwoods for 2 days and on to Oregon.
    PROBLEM: They tell me “the bridge”. Is out around Pfieffer from the rains. Any suggestions or warnings? Is it Bixby Bridge?

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Not sure if I can help with this one as I don’t live in California – maybe try a few Google searches on Bixby Bridge and road status updates in Big Sur?

  11. Shiv

    Thanks, very helpful. We are planning to drive from either SF or San Jose. we have a day and a half. I have two questions. Is it better to drive from Half Moon Bay to Big Sur or Santa Cruz to BS ? And Is there much to see on the coastal route beyond Big Sur?

    Your help and tips will be greatly appreciated Ashlea.

  12. Jill Robinson

    My family and I are planning to fly into San Francisco and do a road trip to L.A. My husband would like to include Yosemite. Can you help with an itinerary?
    Big Sur is a must see.


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