If you’re thinking of a west coast road trip but aren’t sure where to start, look no further than Big Sur. It’s got incredibly scenic views and is one of the most stunning places to drive. In fact, Highway 1 is listed as a designated American National Scenic Byway and a California Scenic Highway. In this post we talk about our top tips for a road trip through Big Sur, California!
Where is Big Sur?
Big Sur doesn’t really have hard boundaries. Most consider it to encompass the 71 mile portion along Highway 1 (California State Route 1) between Malpaso Creek near Carmel Highlands (north) and San Simeon (south). In addition, the Santa Lucia range in this area is also considered part of Big Sur.
Top Tips for Road Tripping through Big Sur
There’s very little cell phone signal in Big Sur.
Even though when we’re writing this, it’s 2018, there are few places where you can get a signal. As a result, we recommend plugging any destinations into your phone or GPS well ahead of time.
The road winds and curves in many sections. Pay attention to the posted speed limit. It’s usually 55mph but sometimes is 30 mph or lower. Pay attention to the signs, use your turn signals and watch for other cars and bicyclists (please share the road! Mudslides have impacted the area, most recently in 2017 but it was re-opened in July of 2018. There is often road construction so keep your eyes peeled and watch for cones, temporary traffic signals and flaggers.
Fuel up before you go.
There are a handful of gas stations in this stretch of highway but they are really expensive. If you’re in a pinch, look for the Shell near Pfeiffer Beach. It’s next to the bakery and post office.
Parking along the road is prohibited.
Unfortunately for all you van lifers out there, there is no roadside parking. Read on to see where we recommend staying for the night.
Bathrooms are free.
You can find a public bathroom in any of the state parks along the route. The best part is that there aren’t any day use fees to enter those parks. So, you can pee for free!
Where to Stay in Big Sur
Secure your lodging ahead of time. We often like to figure our lodging out on the fly but that can be difficult without a cell phone signal. When traveling through Big Sur, if you plan on staying overnight, be sure to figure out your lodging ahead of time. There are several different campgrounds to choose from, both state park campgrounds, National Forest Campgrounds and private campgrounds.
All of the state park campgrounds were full the day we drove the Big Sur coast. We weren’t really surprised but we were a little bummed to find out that the Kirk Creek Campground in Los Padres National Forest was full. There are some sites there that are absolutely stunning with views that look right down over the water.
Luckily we did find a great spot at the Big Sur Riverside Campground and Cabins. There are 34 sites for tents and RV’s (and vans!) as well as 12 cabins. The entire grounds are set among tall redwoods which gives the place a really beautiful, calm feeling to it. The bathrooms were super clean: three sinks, two showers (coin operated, $.25 for 3 minutes). There’s also laundry facilities on the premises. They’re located 22 miles south of Carmel and 68 miles north of San Simeon (check your odometer before setting out – remember, no cell signal in Big Sur!)
There were picnic tables and fire pits at each campsite as well as access to the river. Some of the sites have water and 20 amp electric hook ups. We stayed at Campsite 19 and it was level and easy to park at.
Best Things to Do in Big Sur
Drive Highway 1!
Driving Highway 1 is easily one of the best things to do in Big Sur. There are numerous places to pull off and enjoy the view. Routes like this are one of the main reasons we are so into van life.
Go for a hike.
There are numerous places to go hiking in the Big Sur area. One of the most rewarding hikes with the least amount of effort is the McWay Falls trail. It’s about .6 of a mile and will give you views of the waterfall without much effort. I did this hike in flip flops and while I wouldn’t recommend that, it’s doable!
(Also check out the trails in Andrew Molera State Park, just north of the campground that we stayed at.)
The most popular place to access the coast is Pfeiffer Beach. Look for the only unpaved, undated road west of Highway 1 between the post office and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. The actual road is called Sycamore Canyon Road but it’s unmarked.
Practice your photography.
Big Sur is a really special place no matter the time of day or even the time of year. If you’re looking to snap some really great photos, however, we recommend going looking for photographs during golden hour and blue hour. (The ‘hour’ part is a bit misleading though. We had about 30 minutes of incredible light).
Though we most often shoot with a 16mm lens, we both found ourselves using the 35mm lens here. To learn more about our photography gear and what we’re taking pictures with, head on over here.
Picnic with a view.
This isn’t just any old meal by the road, this is one of the most incredible places to picnic in the entire United States. You can either buy some food along the way at one of the little camp stores and make it out of the back of your van or you can load up at a grocery store before heading out. (There’s a Whole Foods in Carmel for those of you coming from the North.)
Tour the Historic Point Sur Light Station
Take a tour of the historic Point Sur Light Station! It’s located 19 miles south of Carmel and offers a beautiful view of the coast below. Construction on the lighthouse started in 1887. It took two years to complete but the result is a beautiful reminder of the past. Admission is $15 for adults and kids 6 to 17 are $5. (Kids 5 and under are free). There are also moonlight tours which are a bit more ($25 for adults and $10 for kids).
Look for migrating Gray whales
From December to May it’s possible to spot migrating whales. Post up at an overlook with some binoculars and a long lens on your camera and hope that you get lucky! Worst case scenario, you’ll get to experience the beautiful coast and possibly a sunset.
Road Tripping through Big Sur, California Recap
The van lifestyle that we are living often means traveling without a plan but Big Sur is one of the exceptions to the rule. It requires a little bit of foresight but it’s more than worth it.
Have you traveled to Big Sur? If so, we’d love to know what your favorite things to see and do are in the area? Please leave your comments below!