Have you ever wanted to take a road trip down the coast of California? If you’ve never driven the Pacific Coast Highway (aka “the PCH” or Highway 1), you definitely need to add it to your bucket list, ASAP. California’s Big Sur road trip is one of the most beautiful road trips in the US and can be done in just a weekend or across a week or two, depending on how much time you have.
The major region stretching along the coastline between San Francisco and Los Angeles is the Big Sur region, a popular destination for hiking, backpacking and just scenic drives. And since the Big Sur region—and California in general—is slowly beginning to reopen, allowing more access to trails, campsites and beaches where social distancing can be maintained—it’s the perfect time to plan an epic road trip.
Keep reading to explore and save our interactive map for ideas as you drive, then scroll down for details on all of our top picks.
Keep in mind that coastal weather and seasonal mudslides and fires in this region can make some of these hikes inaccessible in certain seasons or years. Make sure to check online before you go for official updates on trails or areas that may be closed.
1. San Francisco
If you’re starting in San Francisco, plan to spend a day in The City first! There’s plenty to see and do—and lots of free things to do in San Fran—that will help you kick off your epic road trip. Enjoy a sunny day in Golden Gate Park or enjoy views from Twin Peaks or Baker Beach. Grab a bite at the Embarcadero Ferry Building or head to Union Square for plenty of restaurant options. Once you’ve gotten some food and a bit of time on the beach in, you’re ready to head south (don’t worry, there’s plenty more coastline to explore!)
2. San Francisco to Big Sur
From San Francisco, it’s about a 3 hour drive to the start of the official Big Sur region. Hop on the Pacific Coast Highway (aka Highway 1) from San Francisco, and you’ll follow the same highway all the way south down the coast. You’ll have amazing views right off the bat, so don’t be surprised if you want to stop along the way for some pics! If you want to stretch your legs between San Francisco and Big Sur, some good places to stop include:
Half Moon Bay
Half Moon Bay is a small city with some great beaches and stunning coastline that provide a great place to get out and stretch your legs if you need. Mavericks Beach is a legendary spot for adventurous surfers wanting to catch some massive waves.
Stretch your legs on the Santa Cruz Wharf or on the Beach Boardwalk with rides, beachside roller coasters, shops and more.
Monterey & Carmel-by-the-Sea
If you want a detour with even more scenic views, turn off in Monterey to follow the 17-Mile-Drive. It’s a scenic drive with a few iconic stops, including Lover’s Point and Asilomar State Beach, for a bit of a beach break. If you need a bite to eat, head to Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey or downtown Carmel-by-the-Sea for some delicious restaurants.
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Point Lobos has some quick and stunning walking trails along the coastline, perfect for a quick walk to break up your drive.
3. Big Sur
Once you’ve arrived in the Big Sur region, you’ll be greeted with coastline views, hiking trails with stunning outlooks, forested drives and plenty of parks and campgrounds along the way. Make sure you don’t miss these amazing stops:
Andrew Molera State Park
This is the first State Park within the Big Sur region. Luckily, it has some beautiful beaches and hikes to welcome you to Big Sur. The Andrew Molera Loop Trail is one of the most famous hikes—featuring ridge trails and panoramic ocean views—but it’s also on the longer side (about 9 miles). The beaches here are generally pretty secluded, so it’s also a great place for a quiet picnic.
McWay Falls is possibly the most iconic Big Sur vista point. A small trail leads down to a viewing point where you can see McWay Falls splashing down onto an (inaccessible) beach below. It’s a magical spot and definitely worth a stop while you’re driving! If you need a bit more time to stretch your legs here, there’s several hiking trails that start in the nearby parking lots.
Bixby Creek Bridge
Another iconic Big Sur landmark, the Bixby Creek Bridge is one of California’s most photographed sights. If you were a fan of Big Little Liars, you’ll recognize it from the opening credits (along with a number of other sites around the Northern Big Sur and Monterey region). Either way, you should definitely pull off and snap a few pictures for Instagram. (There’s not a big sign, so have it marked on your maps. There’s a small dirt parking lot before you cross the bridge where you can pull off into and park before hopping out to get your pics.)
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
This State Park (and beach of the same name) are some of the most famous sections of Big Sur. The Pfeiffer Falls and Valley View hikes are two popular ones to start with in this park. If you have more time, the Ewoldsen Trail is by far one of the best hiking trails in Big Sur. At about 6 miles roundtrip, it’s a good loop trail for anyone who’s reasonably active—just make sure you check for trail closures in advance. It’s often affected by seasonal mudslides.
Limekiln State Park
Limekiln is located in central Big Sur and has some great hiking (and camping). There’s a few short hikes: one, Hare Creek, follows a small river. Another, the Limekiln Falls trail, leads to a waterfall. Together, they’re just a few miles, so it’s perfect for day-hiking to break up your Big Sur road trip.
Heads up: there’s not a lot of places to stay (besides campgrounds) or restaurants in the Big Sur region. Although there are a few, you’ll probably want to plan to either camp and bring your own food in or stay just north or south of Big Sur and drive in for day hikes. Either way is definitely doable, it just depends on weather and what kind of experience you’re looking for!
4. Southern Big Sur
Before you make your way into SoCal, there’s a few more can’t-miss stops for your Big Sur road trip. First up: the Elephant Seal Beach Viewing Point. This beach is off-limits to humans because it’s home to a huge group of massive elephant seals. You can often catch them tanning, snoozing or playing on the beach and in the waves. While you’re here, you may want to stop by the Hearst Castle for a tour. This massive, glamorous mansion was designed in the early 1900s (by California’s first female architect!) and now offers tours to the public. It’s pretty extravagant, and definitely worth a stop!
5. San Luis Obispo to Los Angeles
Once you’re out of the Big Sur area, you’re officially in Southern California—home to warm, sunny beaches, good food and plenty to do. You could easily spend another week (or more!) just exploring these SoCal cities and beaches. Here’s some of our favorites to add to your must-stop list:
San Luis Obispo
San Luis Obispo, known as SLO by locals, is a relaxed and hip California coastal city that’s definitely worth a stop. Whether you’re just staying the night here after a long day of driving or want to hang out for a bit to check out some nearby beaches and restaurants, the chill vibes (and good food) will give you just what you need to relax a bit on your road trip.
Solvang is a great hidden gem in Southern California. This small Dutch village will transport you right to Europe with its many restaurants and Dutch pastries. Walking around the quaint town, seeing the windmills and eating a few too many pastries makes this a great pit-stop on the way to Santa Barbara.
Santa Barbara is a posh, but chill, Californian town—a perfect place to stay for a night during your road trip. With beautiful views of both mountains and beaches, a very walkable downtown full of shopping and chic cafes and restaurants, Santa Barbara is both exactly what you’d hope for with SoCal beach vibes while also having a unique flair. Hike up into the nearby mountains for panoramic ocean views or spend the day downtown exploring and shopping.
6. Los Angeles
Los Angeles can certainly be a vacation all on it’s own, so it’s the perfect place to wrap up your Big Sur road trip. If you’ve flown into San Francisco and rented a car for your trip, you can easily fly out of Los Angeles to avoid making a roundtrip drive back up the coast. You’ve probably got a lot on your Los Angeles bucket list already, but if you need some ideas, we recommend:
The Getty Museum and Villa are home to some of LA’s best art and architecture. Explore the Greco-Roman inspired gardens and museum of the Getty Villa or enjoy the sprawling art museum. The Getty is free, but you’ll need to reserve timed-entry tickets in advance.
Venice Beach is known for its hip, bohemian beach-town vibes and is definitely worth a visit. The beaches (and the surrounding boardwalk) is perfect for catching some waves (or just a tan) and often full of street performers and street art. The canals are also a great spot to walk through. Once you’re ready for some food, just head to Abbot Kinney Boulevard—it’s the center for hip cafes and foodie restaurants.
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (aka “the LACMA”) is the largest art museum in the Western US. It’s definitely worth a visit! It’s full of collections of all kinds of art from all corners of the globe, including plenty of modern exhibitions that highlight LA’s diversity. And yes, lots of cool architectural features that are perfect for insta-worthy pics. Tickets are $21 with a student ID.
Griffith Park and Observatory
Griffith Observatory (and the surrounding park) are the perfect place for views of the city and the Hollywood sign, especially at night. Oh, and views of the night sky, too if you head into the observatory and planetarium. (You may recognize it from it’s feature in La La Land.) You can also come here to hike to the Hollywood sign via the Mt. Hollywood Trail, which starts at the Griffith Observatory Parking Lot.
One of the most famous beaches in California, a trip to Malibu is a must for a day spent soaking up the sun on the beach.
Eat your way around LA
Los Angeles has an incredible food scene, so make sure you treat yourself while you’re here with some delicious eats. Whether you want to fill up on tacos, Korean BBQ or just a delicious burger or sandwich, LA has definitely got you covered. With such a diverse local population, you can find incredible food from just about anywhere in the world. You can also fill up on California favorites at places like Urth Caffe or Cafe Gratitude.