If you’re planning a trip to California, the San Francisco to Big Sur drive is a must-do! This world-famous coastal drive takes you along the beautiful Pacific Coast Highway, with breathtaking views of the ocean at every turn.
In addition to its beauty, Big Sur is one of the most affordable places to visit in California! With plenty of stops along the way, you’ll be sure to have an amazing experience on your way to Big Sur.
Here are 12 of our favorites stops to make on the San Francisco to Big Sur Drive.
12 Iconic Stops on the San Francisco to Big Sur Drive
1. San Francisco
Since you’ve made it to California and stepped out of the San Francisco International airport, you should take a moment to explore this beautiful city before heading out to see some nature in Big Sur.
There are plenty of things to do in San Francisco, from sightseeing and touring famous landmarks, to shopping and dining in trendy neighborhoods. Some highlights include walking across the Golden Gate Bridge, visiting Pier 39, or exploring Alcatraz Island.
2. Half Moon Bay
Easily one of the coolest hidden gems in the USA in spring, Half Moon Bay is a small town located on the Pacific Coast Highway just outside of San Francisco. It’s known for its beautiful beaches, quaint downtown area, and world-renowned surfing competitions.
Make sure to stop at the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve for some amazing beach views and cozy nature scenes. If you’re looking for a relaxing stop along the way, Half Moon Bay is definitely worth a visit!
3. Pigeon Point Lighthouse
The Pigeon Point Lighthouse is located south of San Francisco in Pescadero. This lighthouse has been standing since 1872 and is the tallest lighthouse on the West Coast.
The lighthouse is still active today and although you can’t view the Fresnal lens anymore, you can still walk around the area and take in the sights of this picturesque lighthouse. If you’d like to stop for the night, there is also a hostel on site!
4. Big Basin Redwoods State Park
If you’re looking for a nature-filled stop on your San Francisco to Big Sur drive, look no further than Big Basin Redwoods State Park. This park is home to some of the tallest redwoods in California and offers plenty of hiking trails for visitors to explore.
One recommended hike is the the half-mile Redwood Loop Trail, which takes you to the biggest and oldest redwoods in the park. There’s also plenty of scenery to take in along the way, so make sure to bring your camera!
There currently is a $6 parking fee and a $2 reservation fee. Make sure to double-check the park website before you go to ensure the park is open.
5. Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz is a city located on the central coast of California, just south of San Francisco. It’s known for its trendy downtown area, hiking areas, and historic boardwalk along the beach.
Some recommended things to do in Santa Cruz include walking along the Boardwalk, exploring the Santa Cruz Wharf, and checking out the Mystery Spot. There are also plenty of great restaurants and shopping areas to check out in downtown Santa Cruz.
For endless views of the coast and some scenic nature walks, head to Wilder Ranch State Park for an easy hike on the Old Cove Landing Trail. From here, you may even see some seals sunbathing on the rocks!
Continue your trek down south and enter Monterey, another city located on the central coast of California. Monterey is one of the best places to see sea life and also offers plenty of great shopping and dining options.
To fill up your Monterey itinerary on the way to Big Sur, one can’t-miss stop is the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium. This aquarium is home to over 35,000 animals and gets over 2 million visitors each year. If you love marine life, this is definitely the place for you!
In addition, walk along Cannery Row for some fun shopping or visit Fisherman’s Wharf to grab yourself some saltwater taffy.
If you’re looking for a charming town to visit on your way down to Big Sur, look no further than Carmel-by-the-Sea. This small town is located just south of Monterey and a few miles from entering Big Sur.
One recommended stop is Carmel Beach, which offers stunning views of the Pacific Coast Highway and some of the most crystal-clear water around. In addition, make sure to check out the downtown area for some cute shops and charming restaurants.
8. 17-Mile Scenic Drive
For an even more breathtaking experience, take a drive along the 17-Mile Scenic Drive in Carmel. This route offers stunning views of the California coastline and some of the most beautiful scenery in the state.
The drive begins in downtown Carmel and winds its way down through Pebble Beach and Pacific Grove before ending in Monterey. Make sure to stop at some of the lookout points along the way for amazing photo ops, and be sure to keep an eye out for any sea creatures swimming in the ocean below!
9. Bixby Creek Bridge
This iconic bridge spans more than 700 feet and is one of the most photographed spots on the Pacific Coast Highway. Be sure to stop here for a few pictures of your own!
You can pull off right before crossing the bridge to take your own photos of Bixby Bridge. Beach access is not permitted here as the cliffs are too unstable. You can, however, cross the road to the other side and snap a picture of the bridge while looking out to the ocean.
10. Pfeiffer Beach
Pfeiffer Beach is a local hotspot and is so secluded, that you may even miss the turn! The beach is known for its unique purple sand and iconic Keyhole Arch.
One of the best times to visit Pfeiffer Beach is during the golden hour right before sunset so you can see the beautiful arch in its glory.
There is a $12 entrance fee and the parking lot does fill up quickly. It’s highly recommended to either arrive early or later in the afternoon.
11. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is just a few miles south of Pfeiffer Beach. This state park is home to McWay Falls, an 80-foot waterfall that flows directly into the ocean. It’s an absolutely stunning sight!
Although there isn’t any beach access directly McWay Falls, you can still see it from the Waterfall Overlook Trail.
12. Sand Dollar Beach
South of Big Sur is Sand Dollar Beach, which gets its name from all the sand dollars that can be found in the tidepools here.
After a long drive from San Francisco to Big Sur, head to Sand Dollar Beach for some sun, relaxation, and swimming.
Important Tips for Driving from San Francisco to Big Sur
Drive North to South from San Francisco to Big Sur
The Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) is a scenic route that runs along the west coast of the United States. It spans from San Francisco, California all the way down to Dana Point, California, and is a popular tourist destination.
The best way to drive the PCH is from north to south, as this will give you the most scenic views. The drive from San Francisco to Big Sur is approximately 150 miles and can take up to 5 hours to complete.
Get Your Points of Interest Lined Up Beforehand
There are a few areas of Big Sur where you can lose cell reception, which can be frustrating if you’re trying to use your map app or upload photos to social media.
One spot that is particularly known for its lack of service is just past Bixby Creek Bridge. If you’re planning on driving over the bridge, it’s best to have your directions already mapped out, or you may end up lost.
The Coast of California is Warm by Day and Cold by Night
Visiting Big Sur can be a bit tricky when it comes to dressing appropriately. The weather can be warm and sunny during the day, but it can get cold and windy at night.
Pack a light jacket or sweater for the evening, as the temperature can drop significantly when the sun goes down. You’ll also want to have sunscreen available and a hat for protection against the sun. While you’re out and about in nature, keep a full water bottle with you for safety.
FAQs about San Francisco to Big Sur
Is the drive to Big Sur scary?
The drive from San Francisco to Big Sur can be a bit tricky, as you’ll be dealing with traffic, closed areas, cliff views, and possible weather. Take your time driving the Pacific Coast Highway and keep yourself alert. If you are interested in seeing the views, make sure to pull over or switch drivers for parts of the drive.
Is Big Sur worth the drive?
Big Sur is one of the most iconic areas along the Pacific Coast Highway. It is definitely worth the drive to see nature’s beauty spread out.
How many days do you need to spend in Big Sur?
Although you can see everything in Big Sur in a day, I would recommend spending 2 days exploring the nature of the area. You’ll be able to spend some time hiking, chilling on the beach, and taking in all the views without a time crunch.
Where can I stay when visiting Big Sur?
If you are camping, you can stay at Pfeiffer Big Sur Campgrounds. However, you can also choose to stay in Monterey or Carmel-by-the-Sea as these two charming towns are very close to Big Sur and have many accommodations.
When is the best time to visit Big Sur?
The best time to visit Big Sur is in the early fall during the months of September through November. You’ll miss the crowds coming in over the summer and the weather will be cooler for your travels.
Is there more to see after Big Sur?
After exploring the Big Sur area, you can continue your road trip south to San Simeon and the San Luis Obispo area. There are charming towns such as Cambria and Cayucos you can explore. Make sure to check the road closures as you may encounter this south on Highway 1.
Final Thoughts: San Francisco to Big Sur
There are so many amazing stops along the San Francisco to Big Sur drive! These are only twelve of our favorites—but there is plenty more to explore on the West Coast.
What are your favorite places to visit along the Pacific Coast Highway? Let us know in the comments!