How to Plan a Trip to California's Big Sur
In the Big Sur region of California, the Pacific Coast Highway seems made for a daring road trip: its winding roads hug the curves of the coast, and the highway is set on massive cliffs that plunge straight into the Pacific. Golden sunlight streaks through patches of fog; frothing waves ravage the shore below.
If that sounds dramatic, it’s because the drive truly is. In fact, it’s precisely why nature-loving travelers often build the longer and more challenging PCH route into itineraries between Los Angeles and San Francisco (over the shorter U.S. 101). Without any stops, the 90-mile stretch takes roughly two and a half hours to traverse, meaning it’s entirely possible to experience the highlights in a just day. But Big Sur’s elevated vistas, lush hikes, and wild beaches entice many to linger for a night or two—and make the trip a once-in-a-lifetime ambition for many. Whether you have 24 hours or a weekend, here’s how to do it right.
1. Plan ahead
Mobile service is rare in most of Big Sur (and when you can find it, it’s pretty spotty). You can’t count on hotels and restaurants for Wi-Fi, either. You’re unlikely to get lost during the drive, given that it’s a straightforward one-lane drive, but using a GPS system with offline map access means easier navigation. And without reliable connection to Google or Yelp, researching and flagging points of interest beforehand is a must.
2. Know your navigational apps
3. Don’t skip the popular spots
There’s a reason why visitors flock to certain destinations time and time again. At the top of our can’t-miss list is Pfeiffer Beach, known for its purple-tinged sand and the way huge waves crash dramatically through the sea caves. It’s easy to spend hours watching the sea spray crowning the beach’s many boulders and arches—though there’s plenty of active climbing and cave-exploring to be had too. McWay Falls, surrounded by turquoise waters and all manners of fragrant greenery, is also worth a stop for the photo ops.
4. Prepare for the crowds
Access to popular sites can be limited by available parking, so aim to arrive early or build wait time into your itinerary. Take Pfeiffer Beach for one example; once the beachside lots are filled, rangers off the highway will only let in additional cars as others exit. But don’t despair: parking space might open up in 20, 10, or even two minutes—all depending on when visitors come and go. Luckily, there’s a ranger station just a few minutes away, which is a convenient place to wait.
5. Go north if you’re a first-timer
It's generally agreed upon that heading north is easier for those who may be feeling nervous about the near-constant twists and turns. The northbound lane situates you next to the Santa Lucia mountain range rather than the side of the cliffs, so it’s a less nerve-wracking experience. On the other hand, if you’d like to get as close to the water as possible and are comfortable with mountain driving, go south.
6. The single-lane roads require extra alert
Be on the lookout for cyclists that often share the road and exercise caution while passing them—again, much of the highway is just one lane in either direction. Along the way, don’t feel shy about pulling over into the shoulders when cars around you are driving more quickly than you want to go, or if you simply need a short break.
7. Check your headlights
The highway cuts into various stretches of fog year-round, so be sure those headlights are working before you hit the road—even if you’re only driving during the day.
8. Keep seasonal conditions in mind
The Big Sur is a year-round destination, but dry weather can cause or spread fire breakouts in the summer, while rain can bring mud and rock slides in spring and winter. To stay abreast of what’s happening: see current road conditions on the DOT website; check for alerts on individual park and beach websites; get updates from California’s Department of Forestry and Fire; and, of course, do a quick news search for fires or slides.
9. Staying overnight? Book hotels smartly
Popular hotels sell out months in advance, especially for weekends. The good news is that, contrary to popular belief, there are hotels for every budget. On the very high end, the iconic 39-room Post Ranch Inn easily tops $1,200 to $1,700 per night during the summer. Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn, which runs $185 to $290 for rooms with private baths, is a budget favorite, while Glen Oaks Big Sur falls somewhere in the middle with $275 to $600 summer rates. If it’s too late to snag a room, try Cambria to the south of Big Sur (we like Fogcatcher Inn on the main road) or Monterey to the north (the general area is good for more savings).
10. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to fuel up
We never say no to snacks in the car, but tasty meals are an important part of travel, too. Thankfully, Big Sur offers a range of establishments for all types of hungry road-trippers. For a casual lunch, Big Sur Bakery serves up fresh, healthy fare (plus pastries and cookies for the road). Over at Glen Oaks, Big Sur Roadhouse goes modern with a New American menu and a contemporary mountain look. Celebrating a special occasion? Sierra Mar, Post Ranch Inn’s cliff-top restaurant, has unparalleled ocean views to go with its fine prix-fixe tastings.
11. Safety comes first
Safety guidelines are taken very seriously in Big Sur, and violations can have severe consequences. With warnings against wandering posted in many locations, off-trail rescues may come with a hefty fine. On my trip, we saw a group banned from the McWay Falls area for 72 hours for horsing around at a crowded cliff vista point.
12. Give yourself some extra time
It may be common sense, but it’s worth repeating as an essential factor to a successful road trip. After all, the whole point of driving is to have the flexibility to stop at will—whether you want to follow a sign directing you to a scenic point, or if a particular spot along the drive simply calls to you. Our recent trip wouldn’t have been the same without a photo of the striking San Martin Rock or the elephant seal herds at the Piedras Blancas rookery, both of which we stumbled upon by accident.