Escape to the tranquility and natural beauty of Big Sur for a day trip. Despite its popularity, Big Sur offers peacefulness and solitude that’s rare in the outside world. On our recent trip to San Francisco, we spent a couple of days in Monterey before heading to Big Sur. In this post, we’ll show you how much you can fit into a one-day trip to Big Sur!
Exploring Big Sur’s Best Views in One Day
Get ready for an unforgettable adventure as we take you on a breathtaking drive down the stunning Big Sur coast! Our week-long visit to San Francisco couldn’t have started off any better. We were lucky enough to stay at the luxurious Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa, located right on the gorgeous coast of Monterey Bay. As we embarked on our Big Sur journey, we couldn’t contain our excitement knowing what we were about to witness. From towering cliffs to sparkling beaches, we soaked in all the must-see sights that Big Sur has to offer. But that’s not all – we managed to squeeze in a few more iconic destinations. So buckle up because this post is about to take you on a journey you won’t forget!
Pro tip: Keep in mind that there’s little to no internet access throughout Big Sur. To avoid missing out on any must-visit spots, make sure to download the offline version of your navigation app beforehand.
Start Your Day Right: Breakfast at Wave Street Cafe
We decided to start our day at a cafe just a short walk away from our hotel. The Wave Street Cafe was an inviting space with incredible views of Monterey Bay and a charming patio. After finishing our meal, we eagerly walked back to the hotel on a nice paved trail. We then grabbed our rental car from the valet and got ready to go on our Big Sur adventure.
Discover the Natural Wonders of Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Exploring Point Lobos was like stepping into a dreamland, with endless views that seemed to stretch on forever. With so much to see, we knew we had to stay focused and decided to tackle one trail area. To save energy, we opted to park inside the parkland and save our strength for the hike.
Lucky for us, we found a perfect parking spot near the South Shore Trail next to the coast. We made our way through the scenic coastal trail and soon found ourselves on the Sand Hill Trail. This trail soon led us to the spectacular views at Sea Lion Point. We took it all in for a while and then returned to our car to continue our journey.
Experience the Intense Beauty of Garrapata State Beach
Having completed our Point Lobos adventure, it was time to dive into the next leg of our journey. Along Highway 1, there are only a few turnouts that provide access to the magnificent Garrapata State Beach. Blink and you might miss them! We found parking at Gate 19 which led us to a beautiful path and staircase down to the beach. Despite the strong surf making it unsafe for swimming, the vast expanse of the beach was nothing short of picture-perfect.
The rocky formations surrounding the beach were a marvel to behold. Details carved over thousands of years from erosion gave the rocks a lot of character and made a stunning backdrop. Listening to the waves crash against the shore was music to our ears. I wish we could have stayed there for hours, but we had a lot of stops on our list! After taking time to enjoy the sights and sounds, we made our way back to the car excited for more.
Jaw-Dropping Views at Hurricane Point View in Big Sur
Driving down Highway 1 in Big Sur, you’ll be blown away by the numerous turnouts offering spectacular views. It’s tempting to stop at every turnout and gaze at the stunning beauty of Big Sur, but with so many similar-looking stops, it can be tricky to optimize your limited time. That’s why we made sure to visit the most unique stops that would give us the ultimate visual experience of Big Sur, all while fitting within our schedule.
As we drove down Highway 1, we crossed the iconic Bixby Bridge. Shortly after crossing, we stumbled upon Hurricane Point View. The view was simply breathtaking, with turquoise and blue waters glistening against the rocky coastline. We even saw a hint of Point Sur Lighthouse in the distance.
Why did we pass up the most famous bridge in Big Sur, Bixby Bridge, you ask? Unfortunately, construction was taking place when we reached the bridge, so we had to drive on by. However, we made a point to stop on the way back north to take in its stunning views.
Visiting the Cows near Point Sur Lighthouse
We were surprised to see so many cows during our Big Sur trip. As someone who has visited California many times, it’s not something I’ve seen often, so I couldn’t help but shout “Happy California Cows!” as we drove by. Who could blame them for being happy with such a beautiful view of the ocean and plenty of open lands to roam? We couldn’t resist pulling over at the entrance to the Point Sur Naval Facility to snap a few photos of these cheerful creatures. While we passed on the lighthouse tour, the cows made for a memorable and unexpected highlight of our trip.
Lunch with a View: Nepenthe in Big Sur
Nepenthe, a hidden gem in the woods with awe-inspiring panoramic vistas of the Pacific from its outdoor balcony, had been highly recommended as a must-visit dining spot, and we couldn’t wait to check it out for ourselves. Besides, we were excited to explore the nearby Cafe Kevah, which offered equally breathtaking views, and The Phoenix Shop, an awesome store that we had heard a lot about.
If you’re keen on snagging a table with a view, make sure to ask for one! Unfortunately, we didn’t think of that and were guided to what we thought was the best spot but turned out to be wrong.
The food was good, the views were simply mesmerizing, and the atmosphere was cozy and distinctive, making for an unforgettable lunch experience.
Discover the Majestic Scenery of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park’s Vista Point and the Famous McWay Falls
This expansive turnout point offers breathtaking views of the Pacific and is perfect for capturing unforgettable photo moments. With ample parking available, it’s an ideal spot to stop and soak in the panoramic 180-degree vistas.
Our trip to Big Sur wouldn’t be complete without a stop at the famous McWay Falls, one of the most photographed spots in the area. As we arrived at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, the parking lot was already full, but we managed to find a safe spot on the side of the road, which happened to be on the same side as the falls. The views from the road level were breathtaking, and although we decided to hike down to the lower level viewing area, it wasn’t as impressive as we expected. Unfortunately, part of the lower level viewing area was closed during our visit, so we assume that it may lead to better views once it’s reopened.
Iconic Bixby Creek Bridge: A Must-See on Your Big Sur Adventure
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 was 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.
A Colorful Oasis: Calla Lilly Valley in 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 State 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 State 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 the sounds of the ocean and soon you will find yourself on Garappata State Beach!
17-Mile Drive and Carmel-By-The-Sea: A Perfect Ending to Your Big Sur Adventure
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.
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 listened to the waves crash on the hotel deck. A perfect ending to a day full of hiking.
Learn Where To Stop Along the 17-Mile Drive on one of our most popular posts!
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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 are 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-do 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 and “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 that can feel a little scary.
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!
Clazz - An Orcadian Abroad says
Incredible photos!! I really loved McWay Falls, and the views are so consistently amazing. I think my favourite stop was near San Simeon, where all the elephant seals were sunbathing on the beach. But we missed a few of your stops! So many things to see.
Jen @ Local Love & Wanderlust says
I can’t wait to visit again – there’s so many stops I want to see that we didn’t have time for – and I’d like to explore further south of McWay Falls!
It is impossible not to love Big Sur. I have visited as day trips (or for the day) but really want to stay for the night to keep exploring. Let’s see if I can make that dream come true next year.
Jen @ Local Love & Wanderlust says
Good luck! The hotels and resorts in Big Sur are crazy expensive but some of them look so dreamy!
These pictures are beautiful! Each time you explore there are new things to discover! You lucked out with the weather it seems, hopefully on return trips it is as sunny and nice!!