Everything you need to know for an awesome venture along the iconic Highway 1
Who hasn’t dreamt of a long getaway on America’s most beautiful coastal highway? Never-ending sunlight, crashing waves, mountains cascading down into the ocean as far as the eye can see. When people think “road trip,” they are likely envisioning a drive down Highway 1 through Big Sur. Who could blame them? It is one of the most gorgeous places in the world. The weather is almost always perfect, the winter temperature rarely dips below the 50s even when occasional storms move through the area. More often than not, you can see the Marine Layer—low oceanic clouds—rolling in from the Pacific at the end of the day and if you are higher up in the mountains, you can count on being in the clear above the cloud layer until the next morning. The landscape itself is—as the name implies—big. The Santa Lucia mountains shoot straight up out of the ocean to over five thousand feet of prominence in some places.The highway itself is an absolute marvel of engineering, built right into the hillsides and cliffs in a place where a road was never meant to be. Giant redwood trees dot the landscape, even along the road in some places. It is, in my opinion, road-trip heaven.
The only thing you really need to contend with, other than traffic on busy holiday weekends, is the rare road closure after a storm. Since the road is built into a mountainside, there are sometimes hazards in the road after a rockslide or once every few years, a mudslide large enough to damage the road itself. It’s not very common, but it is worth checking the status of the highway if you plan on making the pilgrimage in winter months. I’ve only seen it happen once in the last three years. There is almost no cell reception along the road, which can be an issue if you run into trouble, but for most people it adds to the “getaway” appeal of a Highway 1 road trip. It’s always best to know before you go. I do enjoy getting away from civilization myself. Just make sure you set your GPS before you get further south than Carmel Highlands or have a working knowledge of the area map.
If you plan on making the trip a multi-day journey, there are plenty of places to park your vehicle and spend the night if you are so inclined. Several day-use campgrounds are established along the highway in the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park area. Campgrounds fill up far in advance, especially in the summer months, so if you plan on doing so, reserve early. You can do it online here . You can also camp for free along the forestry roads in the Los Padres National forest which is further south. Many people will take a risk and park along the side of the road wherever they feel tired. Keep in mind that this is not legal and you run the risk of being woken up in the middle of the night and told to move and possibly even ticketed. If you are too tired to drive, pulling over for a nap is better than driving tired on a dark, winding 2-lane road that sits hundreds of feet over the ocean but proper planning will keep you out of such a situation. If you do end up spending the night in your vehicle, make sure you pull into a turn off a get some distance between yourself and the roadway before bedding down.
I myself am a landscape photographer, so I have an appreciation for dramatic scenes and light. Big Sur has no shortage of that. I’ve been to many places in the world but I am happy to call this area my back yard. My list of favorite places is by no means comprehensive, but I would be happy seeing each of these. If you start your journey in the north and drive southbound, I recommend fueling up and grabbing snacks and supplies in Monterey beforehand. It is a wonderful old town with plenty to see and lots to do. If you’re into ice cream (who isn’t?), you should definitely stop at Revival Ice Cream on Alvarado Street and try the Bee’s Knees sundae. It comes with bits of honeycomb and cocoa paper, and to this day remains the best ice cream I’ve had. A bit further south and on the cusp of Big Sur sits Carmel-by-the-Sea, a wealthy town where the houses have a ton of character and some movie stars call it home. Clint Eastwood was once the mayor believe it or not! If you have the time and don’t mind the $10 toll, 17-Mile Drive is a nice way to begin your adventure. As the name implies, it stretches 17 miles and the road zigs and zags it’s way through a well-to-do area full of old mansions, gnarled cypress trees, golf courses, and rugged coastline. It spits you out right at the entryway to the Big Sur coast itself, so it’s not a bad way to spend a few hours in the morning.
Point Lobos is a gorgeous nature reserve and a short drive south from there. I recommend the Cypress Grove trail, a short 1.5 mile walk around one of the coolest coastal trails I’ve ever seen. Parking can be a chore if you don’t get there early, so be prepared to walk a little extra if you aren’t there by 830am.
Next along the route is Garrapata State Park, which features some great shoreline cliff hiking and a trail that heads inland through a canyon and up into the hills. If you are in the mood to hike a few miles on the Sobranes Canyon trail, there is a grove of impressive redwoods for you to take a break in at the end! It’s a gorgeous trail with 5 small stream crossings, starting at sea level and snaking it’s way up through a draw between two mountains. The trail is officially closed after 1.25 miles, but it doesn’t seem to stop people from completing the roughly 4.5-mile loop up the Rocky Ridge trail to the north. Coming here in the spring is also a treat as the area explodes with wildflowers. March-May are the best time to see this, and you will not be disappointed.
Continuing south on Highway 1 will bring you through an area known as Rocky Point, which features a dramatic panorama as you come around a corner and pass a large hillside. In the distance, you will see an incredible shoreline and the Rocky Creek Bridge. It is one of my favorite places to pull over and take in the view. The field directly to the side of the road is a pasture, so you will often see cows there grazing and taking in the scenery with you. They have a pretty good life! Once you get passed rocky point, the feel of Big Sur really becomes apparent. Everything is huge, including the views and the elevation of the road.
Perhaps one of the most iconic places in Big Sur is next along the road, the famous Bixby Creek Bridge. Thanks to shows like “Big Little Lies” and countless other songs, books and movies, this bridge is now a highly-trafficked stop along the road, full of tourists and photographers during most hours of the day. The traffic can be a pain here, but it is a gorgeous view that should be stopped at once in a lifetime at least. There are plenty of good places to line up a photo on either side of the bridge and none of them are challenging to find. Just remember, leave no trace and leave a place better than you found it. Lots of tourists means lots of trash, and because of this, the area has been struggling to stay clean and locals are beginning to get fed up.
As you continue south, you will gain a bit more elevation before coming around a sharp corner and begin a slow descent back to the sea. The road is very windy here, so watch your speed and pay attention. There are plenty of places to pull over and take in the view or also give your car a break if the drive gets a bit too intense. As you get to the bottom, you’ll be driving passed a large outcrop with some buildings at the base and on top. This place is known as Point Sur and it was a cold-war naval station.
Slightly further down the road is Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, home to the Big Sur Lodge and numerous trails, campgrounds, restaurants and a gas station that is open during the day. This isn’t a bad place to spend the night as well, so think of this as one leg of a multi-day journey if you plan on an extended stay. You’ll notice that the road moves a bit inland into an area dotted with large redwood trees. As you pass through, you’ll be entering into the Ventana Wilderness area. Once you pass the sign for Big Sur Station, the next road on your right is Sycamore Canyon Road, the path to Pfeiffer Beach. The road itself is unmarked, but it has a blank yellow sign and a sharp turn downhill. About 2 miles down the road is the day use parking area ($10) for Pfeiffer Beach. The beach, other than a wildly strong breeze, has a really cool rock embankment with a doorway-shaped hole that leads all the way through. In the winter months, the setting sun shines directly through it, giving off a really interesting glow. Also, a couple of times per year, the setting moon and Milky Way galaxy align perfectly with the doorway, giving off an even cooler effect as seen in the photo below. If you’re an astrophotographer, making the trip in August or September, it is definitely worth a try.
Continuing along, you will again gain elevation as you leave the woods and return to the edge of the land. You’ll pass a couple more restaurants: Nepenthe on your right as well as a place called Coast Big Sur on your left. Nepenthe is a fixture of Big Sur and has been in the same family for over 70 years. They have an enormous gift shop featuring local artists and a restaurant/cafe upstairs that has a massive wine list and a famous chicken dinner. The view is beautiful! Coast is another neat little shop that features more of an art gallery, a cafe, and a gift store as well. It was built in the 60s into the shell of a few old water tanks! It’s always a fun stop if you manage to catch them during daylight hours.
The next stop along the road is one of my personal favorite vistas, McWay Falls. You can park in the day use parking lot on the left hand side and walk through a tunnel to see the postcard-worthy viewpoint, or you can park along the side of the road and attempt to cross over for the tunnel as well. The viewpoint itself has been partially closed due to a landslide for the passed few years, but the falls is still visible and is absolutely gorgeous both day and night. It is and will always be one of the favorite places to photograph. An 80-foot waterfall leaves the cliffside and spills directly into the bright turquoise ocean water. The beach below is pristine and hugged by large cliffs on either side. It is insanely photogenic and I have never seen someone witness it for the first time and not be impressed. If you only make one stop along Highway 1, I recommend this being it.
After McWay Falls, you’ll travel for another 40 miles or so before you get to anything I would recommend you really stop for. Along the way, there are several pull-outs and viewpoints that you can stop for if you have time. Really, any view here is insanely beautiful. If time is of the essence, I recommend that you make your next real stop at Nacemiento-Furgusson road. It is a semi-paved road the snakes up into the mountains from sea level to several thousand feet up. There are a couple of seasonal campgrounds a few miles back, but it takes roughly an hour to reach them as it is a slow road. The view itself is great though. If you are looking for a quick stop, I recommend driving to the top and turning around as the road continues on all the way inland and stops at a military installation. You can continue inland to reach highway 101 through here if you need to.
Another few miles south is Sand-dollar beach—a great place to take in the sunset! It is a massive crescent-shaped cove that has a flat beach where you can watch the tide come in for what seems like a full mile. It’s amazing how far the ocean will move and how small it makes you feel. The sound of the waves is incredible! It’s a real concert, especially at high tide. There are several campgrounds nearby, worth the small fee if you need a place to camp out overnight. The highway continues further still, with a small rest area in a town called Gorda coming up next. It has a gas station and a small convenience store attached to a restaurant, and is a great place to resupply on snacks. The homemade candies are expensive, but they are tasty and locally made. Continuing along the road will eventually bring you back to cell reception and civilization, with the Saint Luis Obispo area eventually coming along to greet the highway. Once you reach it, the Big Sur experience is at an end, but you can continue down Highway 1 even further as it hugs the edge of the state, country and continent all at the same time.
I remember my first trip down this road. I was alone, during a time of great conflict and change in my life. Breathing in the ocean air and watching the sun set from the cliffs was everything I needed. Having no contact with the outside world and being along with the road and the mountains and the ocean is therapeutic no matter who you are. Whether you are here to find good time, escape a bad time, or maybe just to stop time altogether, everyone who comes to this place takes a piece of it with them and leaves a piece of themselves here. Just remember to know where you are headed, have a plan, and have an open mind. You will be glad you did.
Contact us today to have us plan an incredible Big Sur Elopement for you and your partner!
If you are looking for another amazing destination, check out our post on Oahu!