A Big Sur day trip promises to be one of the best days of your life. A drive along the California Central Coast’s legendary Highway 1 to Big Sur ranks at the top of many a bucket list of do-before-you-die experiences. For good reason: this is one of the planet’s most rewarding road trips, with gorgeous vistas, unlimited nature encounters and countless opportunities to sooth the human spirit. We recommend at least a few days to dive deep into the mystical Big Sur world. But many of the millions of visitors who drive along this magical road find themselves limited to a quick trip, tucked between meetings or travels to other destinations.
For all you time-challenged travelers, we offer these suggestions for a perfect one-day Big Sur adventure. Check it off your list and make plans for a longer sojourn as soon as possible.
8 am (or earlier)
Start your trip from Monterey or Carmel. Depart early, for a number of reasons. First, you’ll maximize your time. Second, you’ll beat the traffic. It’s 26 miles from the Carmel River to Big Sur—but you will be traveling about 20 miles an hour, and sometimes slower. This is a two-lane road, and many travelers (including yourselves) will make frequent use of turnouts to gaze at the stunning views and snap photos. From Big Sur, it’s about 60 miles to the turnaround point near the tiny town of Gorda. Again, this is not a freeway, so plan accordingly.
It’ll be tempting to stop at every scenic lookout, but stick to the highlights on the way down so you can return home (or to your next destination) before dark. (Believe us, you should avoid driving along the cliffs at night, as there are no street lights along most of the route.)
You’ll know you’ve entered the main 5-mile stretch of Big Sur “town” when you see the Big Sur River Inn amid a collection of shops and other services. Stop here for breakfast or a snack, and if you must, connect to WiFi.
Stop at Big Sur Station to get information on short hikes in the vicinity, at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and nearby ridges and mountains. Or drive down to nearby Pfeiffer Beach to check out tidepools.
You have a number of lunch options, depending on your mood and budget. Nepenthe, famed for its terraces overlooking miles of Pacific coastline to the south, draws a steady stream of visitors year-round. Local budget faves include Big Sur Deli and Big Sur Bakery.
Make reservations well in advance for ocean-view tables at the upscale Restaurant at Ventana or Sierra Mar at the Post Ranch Inn.
Continue south to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park to view McWay Falls, another Big Sur icon, tumble onto the beach below.
Time to put your trip in reverse and head back north up Highway 1. On the way, stop at Coast Gallery, Henry Miller Memorial Library and Hawthorne Gallery.
It’ll take about an hour to return to Carmel or Monterey. Tempted to stay? You might be able to get a room at these top Big Sur lodges. But don’t count on any availability on weekends or during summer months and holidays.
• Deetjen’s Inn & Restaurant
• Glen Oaks Big Sur
• Big Sur Lodge
• Big Sur River Inn
• Ventana cabins and campground
Luxe rooms and suites might be available at Ventana and Post Ranch Inn, but these generally sell out weeks and months in advance. Best to make a reservation if you’re planning to stay in the Big Sur area.