Big Sur is one of the most sought-after locations along California’s coast. Most people often consider Big Sur a city, but it actually refers to a stretch of land along the coast. There are quite a few things to do in Big Sur, but it’s most well known for it’s seaside cliffs along Highway 1, making it the perfect place to take a road trip. Keep reading for all my tips for doing a Big Sur road trip as well as the best places to stop along the California coastline.
Where to Stay:
If possible, I recommend staying in Carmel-by-the Sea. Carmel-by-the-Sea is about 25 miles north of Big-Sur but it is one of the cutest coastal towns filled with beautiful beaches, cute shops, and great restaurants. Even if you don’t stay in Carmel, I still recommend visiting here when doing a Big Sur road trip.
Hotels in Carmel-by-the-Sea
Carmel has quite a bit of hotel accommodations, many of which I found to be more modern and trendy. I stayed at the Getaway and have nothing but positive things to say about it. The hotel had complimentary wine at happy hour, a cute patio that was covid-friendly, and a breakfast basket delivered to your door in the morning. The hotel even offered complimentary bikes to explore the town. I’m not one to rave about a hotel because I typically stay in more affordable airbnb options, but I absolutely loved our stay here and it was the perfect place to take my mom.
Other hotel options:
- The Hideaway–this is actually a sister hotel to the Getaway. This hotel is a bit more modern but has a lot of the same amenities.
- La Playa--for more of a splurge, you can get an ocean view room at the La Playa. From this hotel you’re about a 7 minute walk away from the beach.
- Hotel Carmel–another boutique hotel in the heat of Carmel. The rooms have a modern seaside vibe and look so cute!
Best Time of Year to Visit:
Luckily for Californians, the weather on the California coast is relatively consistent, ranging from low 60s-70s. Carmel tends to experience sunnier days in the Fall. My mom and I were here in December and we found the weather to be perfect, plus the crowds were minimal. For that reason, I recommend visiting in Fall or Winter; however, you can’t go wrong with the other months.
Things to do in Carmel:
There’s quite a bit of exploring to do in Carmel. This beach town has one of the cutest downtowns filled with adorable little shops and great dining options. After spending a couple hours perusing and eating your way through downtown Carmel, I recommend heading over to Point Lobos State Park and doing the South Plateau Trail to Bird Island. Point Lobos is a fairly big park, so there is a lot that can be explored in this area. Because we were only in Big Sur for the day, we chose a relatively shorter trail. There is a $10 entrance fee to get into this park. I saw quite a few cars parking outside the park to avoid paying, so that is an option as well.
This is a 1.6 mile roundtrip hike with little elevation gain, so it is a great hike to do with the family. The trail takes you through a forest and ends with coastal views.
Prior to arriving at the end of the trail, there is a turn off for a beach called, “Gibson Beach“. There is a set of stairs that lead you down to it, so it’s pretty hard to miss. This beach was definitely the highlight of the hike, it was secluded and one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve seen in California.
Must See Stops Along California Coastline:
After leaving Carmel by the Sea, you will want to stop at Bixby Bridge. This is the iconic bridge that people think of when they hear ‘Big Sur’. The views from this bridge were INSANE, the water was so clear and the surrounding cliffs were massive. We stopped at the bridge in the later morning when there was some fog, so we stopped by again on the way home. I could’ve spent hours sitting up there. It’s not a surprise that it’s one of the most photographed bridges in California. This would be a great place to stop at sunset!
There’s quite a few good opportunities to pull off to take in the coastal views as you’re heading South on Highway 1. I’ve done quite a few road trips and Highway 1 is one of the most beautiful drives I’ve taken. I enjoyed being the passenger on this one 🙂
Eat: Nepenthe Restaurant
As you make your way down Highway 1, I recommend having lunch at Nepenthe Restaurant. It’s a fairly pricey place, but the views alone are worth the experience. Nestled high up on a Cliffside, their patio overlooks the ocean and you can see for miles on a clear sunny day. Unfortunately when we visited, dining was closed due to COVID, so we decided to order our food to go and eat it on the beach. We ordered the burger, and although it was good, I felt it was fairly pricey for what it was! This is definitely a place you visit more for the ambiance and views, as opposed to the food.
Below the restaurant is a really quaint store called “Phoenix”. The shop is PRICEY but they had some of the cutest things. It was basically a boujee gift shop, all the items were high quality and there was a lot of unique things.
Picnic at Pfeiffer Beach
When researching Big Sur recommendations, this was the the #1 place I saw people talk about time and time again. I did a quick images google search and I’m not going to lie to you, I wasn’t that impressed. I did not understand the hype from looking at the photos. I knew I couldn’t visit Big Sur without making a stop at this location and seeing what the hype was about!
After having a picnic on the beach, I 100% understand why this is such a popular place. For one, the drive into the beach is beautiful. It’s a narrow road that seems to go on for miles and miles, but you drive through massive trees and the scenery just had such a peaceful vibe to it. Once you arrive, you walk under those same massive trees to get to the beach.
End the day at: McWay Falls
We ended our day by visiting McWay falls, another popular photographic spot. McWay falls is an 80 foot waterfall along the Big Sur coast that flows into the Pacific Ocean. We visited this stop around 2:30pm, and I will say that’s about the worst time to photograph and see this spot. I wish we were able to see it around sunset because the lighting was so harsh it was nearly impossible to see the waterfall, let alone take photos of it.
Something to note about McWay Falls is that you can’t actually get that close to the waterfall. It’s about a half a mile walk to an overlook platform where you can view the waterfall from afar. This is another place that requires a $10 parking fee, so plan accordingly.
- Sunblock–No matter the time of year you’re visiting this is an essential! <<Check out Supergoop>>
- Hiking Boots–I recommend investing in a good pair of boots that’ll last you. I LOVE my danners. I personally didn’t bring my boots on this trip because we didn’t do any strenuous hikes, but if we did, these are my go-to boots 🙂 <<Shop Here>>
- I loved these nikes for the short hikes we did. <<Check out walking shoes here>>
- Merino Wool Base Layers–Winter months in Big Sur can be a bit chillier–I loved having a base layer to keep me warm during the day. <<Check out Merino Wool here>>
- Dupe for Lululemon Shorts–If you’re coming in the warmer months, I LOVE these shorts. They have pockets and underwear lining. <<Shop shorts here>>
- Dupe for Lululemon Tank–Another great dupe. Love this fitted long line padded bra/crop top.<<Shop longline bra here>>
- Jacket–Bringing a jacket is essential, even if it’s just for evenings when the temperatures drop. <<Shop my jacket here>>
- Day Pack–I loved having a backpack to carry snacks and my camera. I love the osprey brand. <<Check out my day pack>>
- First Aid Kit–I always have this in my hiking bag in case of emergency. It’s always good to carry one. <<Check out first aid kit here>>
- Camera— This place is so easy to capture because of how beautiful it is. I love my sony alpha and have found it’s a great starter camera. <<Shop my camera here>>
- Lens–Great lens for landscape photography. <<Shop Tamron Lens Here>>
- Water Bottle–Highly recommend bringing a water bottle to avoid plastic waste. Hydro Flasks are worth the price. <<Shop hydro flasks here>>
- Snacks–Hear me out, yes these may be eaten primarily by children, BUT I love these. I always throw a couple of these in my backpack because they’re perfect when you need a quick snack. <<Check out smoothie packs here>>
That’s a Wrap:
That concludes our mother-daughter getaway to the California Coast. Still can’t believe it took me moving out of California to visit this place. Highly recommend making this trip at least once.