Big Sur is one of those places that should be on everyone’s travel bucket list. While there are a lot of tourists, one still has a sense of peacefulness and solitude from the fast-paced chaos of the outside world. While on a recent trip to San Francisco, we visited Monterey for a couple of days and took a quick trip to Big Sur, California. Read on to see just how much you can fit into one day!
Drive the Big Sur Coast in One Day
We stayed in Monterey for a two-day detour from our trip to San Francisco. Our hotel was the beautiful Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa, which literally sits on top of Monterey Bay! We couldn’t believe our luck when we scored such an amazing hotel. A short walk from the hotel, we started the day with breakfast at Wave Street Cafe, made a pit stop for amenities, and then we were on our way to see the incredible coast of Big Sur, California. We will first stop at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve.
Hold on, folks, it’s about to get really pretty up in this post.
Tip: There is little to no internet access in all of Big Sur. If you’re using an app to navigate, be sure to download the offline version so you don’t miss any of the places you want to visit.
Start At Point Lobos State natural Reserve
While there’s so much to see in Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, we were on a mission to take in as many sights as we could in one day. That said, we chose a small section of the park to visit and explore.
From the Pacific Coast Highway, we entered the park and paid the $10 parking fee. You can park on the highway, however, we didn’t want to waste energy hiking a mile or so to the coast so we paid to enter. We found a parking lot near the South Shore Trail which was right on the coast. We walked through the coastal trail that intersected with Sand Hill Trail and finally Sea Lion Point. Such a beautiful span of land and a great start to the day.
There’s so much more to see aside beautiful, cascading coastlines. Be sure to capture the little details, too. Plants, animals, trails, and any other detail you may want to look back on.
Love California? Check our more California themed posts on the blog.
Turn off at Garrapata State Beach
Now that we’ve stopped at Point Lobos, our quick trip to Big Sur, California can commence.
There are only three turnouts to access Garrapata Beach along Highway 1 and they are easy to overlook if you’re not paying attention. Our first of two visits to the beach we parked at Gate 19 which gave us access to a beautifully landscaped path that led to a staircase to access the beach.
The beach is huge and the surf was powerful making it a dangerous place to play or swim in the water but an incredible place to watch the power of the ocean.
I loved the rocky coast surrounding the beach. The incredible detail from thousands of years of erosion and fault activity.
I could listen to the waves crash here for hours but we had several other stops we wanted to hit so we soaked in the beauty of the beach, watched the crashing waves for a while then made our way back to the car.
This was a huge beach, and I love using one of us to show scale. Since I’m the photographer it’s usually my husband who is featured but every now and then I get in a shot.
Enjoy Hurricane Point View
One thing you’ll notice while driving down Highway 1 is there are several turnouts with incredible views. You’ll be tempted to stop at each and everyone to stare at the incredible beauty of Big Sur and may notice many of the stops look similar to one another. This makes taking a quick trip to Big Sur, California tricky. If you are on a schedule like we were, you’ll want to optimize your viewing to the most unique stops so your views and photos are as unique as possible and give you the full visual experience of Big Sur.
That said, once you leave Garrapata State Beach you’ll continue to drive down Highway 1. Shortly after crossing Bixby Bridge (we’ll get to that stop on the drive back north) you’ll see a turnout for Hurricane Point View and it will not disappoint. With its sparkling turquoise and blue water, cascading rocky coastline, and a hint of Point Sur Lighthouse in the distance, it’s a really breathtaking view.
Why did we pass up on the most popular bridge in Big Sur, Bixby Bridge? Not by choice, as we reached the bridge there was a lot of construction happening and we were unable to stop. We made sure to stop on the way back north, though!
See some happy California cows near Point Sur Lighthouse
One thing we saw a lot of on this trip were cows. As someone who has visited California a lot, I can tell you seeing cows is not something that has happened often so, of course, I shout “Happy Californian Cows!”, ya know… like the commercial says? Anyway, that was my go-to whenever I saw cows on this trip. And how could they not be happy? Big, open land to roam with an ocean view? We took a quick stop at the entrance to the Point Sur Naval Facility for me to snap a few photos of the happy California cows.
We decided against stopping at the lighthouse, it just didn’t look like something we’d be interested in.
Stop for lunch at Nepenthe, Big Sur
Nepenthe, nestled in the woods and with sweeping views of the Pacific from its outdoor balcony, was one of the most highly recommended restaurants so we chose to stop there for lunch. There’s also a small cafe with equally stunning views called Cafe Kevah and a really cool shop called The Phoenix Shop you should definitely check out.
If you want a seat with a view, be sure to ask! We didn’t think about it and the hostess said she was taking us to one of the favorite seating locations so we assumed it would obviously be outside with coastal views but we were mistaken.
The food was good, the views spectacular, and the space was cozy and unique.
Stop at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park Vista Point for incredible views of the Big Sur coast
A great spot for an incredible photo op. This is a larger turnout point with ample parking and 180-degree views of the Pacific.
Want to see more rocky California coast? Check out my post on A Day at Point Dume State Beach in Malibu.
The two photos above are of the same location, but by zooming in to focus on a detail they feel like two different photographs. If you’re looking to add more variety to your shots consider cropping in tighter or getting a wider perspective.
See a waterfall pour into the sea at McWay Falls in Big Sur
On this trip, we made McWay Falls our stopping point. The Falls are probably one of the most photographed locations in Big Sur aside from Bixby Bridge. It’s iconic Big Sur and definitely a must-visit.
When we arrived, the lot at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park was full but we were able to find one on the side of the road that felt safe and was also on the side of the falls. The views from the road level were incredible and while we did hike into the park and down to the lower level viewing area, I didn’t think it was worth it. Part of that lower-level viewing area was closed, though, so I assume it may lead to better views when opened.
When I think of McWay Falls I instantly think of the famous view of the waterfalls shown above. What I don’t ever think of is what’s directly across. I made sure to get photographs of the other side of McWay Falls and honestly? It’s just as beautiful.
Time to head back north up the Big Sur coast to Bixby Creek Bridge
On our way down the coast, we encountered some construction happening right around Bixby Creek Bridge and decided to try to stop to see it on our drive back north. This was probably the most difficult stop we had to make because the turnoff isn’t as obvious – at least it wasn’t for us. We ended up stopping on the inland side to get photographs. The view was beautiful and it’s worth a stop to snap some photos.
On the drive, I questioned why everyone loves this bridge so much when there are several bridges but the size and grandeur of this bridge really give it an advantage over the other bridges in the area.
One last stop at Calla Lily Valley, Big Sur
Took a snap of us squeezing our way through the trail as I wanted to remember just how challenging that walk was.
This was an “oops, we forgot” visit as this little hidden spot is right near Garrapata Beach. While driving back north you will see a small, nondescript dirt turnout directly across from the entrance of Doud Creek Ranch. This is where you want to park to take the Garappata Trail down to Doud Creek and eventually to Garappata Beach. Along the trail, you’ll see Calla Lillies! However, we were there in the fall so there were only a few stragglers left. I imagine if you go in the spring or summer there’s a lot more.
The trail is very narrow at parts with brush coming out into the path so be cautious. Once you get down to Doud Creek, there are small handmade bridges to cross some of the water. It was pretty mild when we were there but, again, I imagine in the spring this creek will have heavier water flow. If you continue to take the trail you’ll start to hear sounds of the ocean and soon you will find yourself on Garappata Beach!
17-Mile Drive & Carmel-by-the-Sea and back to Monterey for dinner
See what we thought about the 17-Mile drive in Monterey, California
We have seen a lot of beautiful sites but we still had plenty of time to visit more! We decided to drive the 17-Mile Drive and check out the quaint and adorable town of Carmel-by-the-Sea. I’m going to save that for another post but wanted to let you know it is possible to do all of this in a day.
After checking out Carmel-by-the-Sea we ended our day in Monterey at Alvarado Brewery and after dinner walked out into a farmers market which was such fun, got ice cream at Revival and spent the rest of the evening relaxing in our hotel’s jacuzzi and listening to the waves crash on the hotel deck. A perfect ending to a day full of hiking.
On the to-do list for our next visit
While I’m telling you that you can see Big Sur and several other attractions in one day, do note that this is an abridged version of this journey and there is SO MUCH more you can do and see. We wanted to take in as much as we could on our short trip but this trip could easily span a couple of days.
There are literally dozens of turnoffs with incredible views, I’d like to visit so many of them. Here’s a few standout spots below:
China Cove: We honestly didn’t think we had time to explore more of this area, I wish we did, though, as the images I’ve seen show it’s stunningly beautiful.
Pfeiffer Beach: The famous beach with purple sand! Oh, how I wish we found the entrance. I think the construction that was happening in the area made it extra hard to find for us and we gave up. This is definitely on the to-d0 list for our next visit.
Henry Miller Memorial Library: Book nerd here, wish this place was open when we drove by.
Limekiln State Park: The images look so beautiful but hiking the woods wasn’t on our agenda for this stretch of the trip. We had an upcoming visit to Muir Woods which we felt would get that out of our system so we passed.
Sand Dollar Beach: The largest beach in Big Sur and we just didn’t have time to make it.
Big Sur Bakery: I’ve read so many good things – wish we made the stop here. Next time!
Post Ranch Inn / Treebones Resort / Ventana Inn & Spa: We’d have to save up for this but hopefully a visit to one of these places is in our future.
Things to Know
-There is no real defined border of Big Sur, research has told me it’s roughly a 90-mile stretch beginning just south of Carmel and ending just north of San Simeon.
– Once you are in Big Sur, don’t expect to find wifi and good phone service.
-Map your trip in advance. Download offline maps, “heart” locations to find them easily, and make notes if you have to. It’s very easy to pass things by.
-This is a drone free zone.
-Leave it better than you found it. Help combat extreme tourism by leaving beautiful places better than you found them. See trash? Pick it up. Brought it in? Take it out. You get the idea.
-There are a lot of winding coastal roads on cliffs. Please drive carefully and pay attention to the road. There are areas with no guardrails and can feel a little scary.
Map of Big Sur
Helpful Links for A Quick trip to Big Sur, California
While I can share our trip experiences, it always helps to do your own planning. Here are some resources I found to be helpful while planning our trip to Big Sur, California.
Big Sur Kate: (visit site) Tons of websites recommended this site for up to date weather and road conditions and a ton of other helpful information.
Big Sur Visitors Guide: (visit site) A great site with lots of resources to help you plan your trip.
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve (visit page)
Garrapata State Park (visit page)
Point Sur State Historic Park (visit page)
Andrew Molera State Park (visit page)
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park (visit page)
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (visit page)
Have you been to Big Sur? Tell me all about it below! I can’t wait to visit again!