Scenic Big Sur: top sights on your Highway 1 road trip
An epic road trip is one of America’s favorite pastimes, and few drives are more iconic than Highway 1 through Big Sur. Tight turns hug the rugged coastline while mile after mile of stunning vistas inspire awe in even the most seasoned traveler.
Blooming purple flowers sway in the breeze backed by a steep cliff coastline
The best season for wildflowers is spring, but any time is right for a drive down Highway 1 © Allard Schager / Getty Images
We like to start to the north of Big Sur and drive south, which keeps the vistas to the right, but don’t forget to switch up stints behind the wheel. While gawking out the window is amazing, the chance to drive this epic road is pretty spectacular as well. Driving the full 76 miles from Bixby Bridge to Hearst Castle with no stops will take about two hours. But you should make stops. Here are a few to get you started.
Rolling hills end in cliffs that border the ocean, a single span bridge stretches across the hills.
You can’t take a bad photo of the Bixby Bridge © Jay Chen / Getty Images
One of Big Sur’s most recognizable landmarks, Bixby Bridge is one of the world’s highest single-span bridges. To get the best photos of the bridge, stop on the south side instead of the north. You have to find a small dirt road to the right and drive a little ways up, but it’s totally worth it.
Point Sur Historic Park
Around six miles south of Bixby Bridge is Point Sur State Historic Park. It looks like an island, but is actually connected to land by a sandbar. A 1889 lighthouse is perched atop the volcanic rock. Visitors can book a tour in advance.
Andrew Molera State Park
Some of the best hiking in Big Sur is found at Andrew Molera State Park, which features a few scenic trails of varying lengths for all kinds of hikers. Stop in at the Big Sur Discovery Center for information about the endangered California condors that are making a comeback in the region.
A little girl in a pink coat plays on a rocky coast line with a stone cave behind her
Pfieffer Beach is one of the many stops along Highway 1 that perfectly captures the power and beauty of the Big Sur coastline © Kennan Harvey / Getty Images
Dip your toes into the Pacific at the crescent-shaped Pfeiffer Beach.The surf is too powerful for swimming or surfing, but this beach is a stunning place to watch the sheer power of the ocean. Your four-legged companion is also welcome to check out the purple-hued sand and photo-ready rock formations here.
Jump out of your car to stretch your legs at Partington Cove. The steep half-mile walk down through the rock tunnel to emerge onto a rocky beach is well worth the trip. The surf beats against the rock formations here, sending sea spray dramatically skywards.
Trees grow on cliffs where a waterfall drops onto the beach near the Pacific Ocean
Once you’ve snapped your pic of the waterfall dropping into the ocean, explore a little to find a spot to have a snack and enjoy the stunning view © Kevin Schafer / Getty Images
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
For that iconic photo of waterfalls cascading into the ocean framed by lush palm trees, make a stop at McWay Falls. The trailhead for the viewing point is across from the parking lot for Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. This short jaunt yields incredible vistas and postcard perfect photo ops. On the south side of McWay falls there is a seasonal campground and some picnic tables. On the inland side of Highway 1 in the park, you’ll find more trailheads that lead up the bluff.
The tides at Jade Cove are known for washing bits of the dark green or black gemstone onto the beach. The best time to find a souvenir of your own is at low tide or after a big storm, but it’s probably best not to get your hopes up. While folks do still comb the beach for treasure, this might be a good moment to remember to take only pictures and leave only footprints. There is a gorgeous bluff trail that starts near the southern pullout, directly opposite the Jade Cove sign.
A mother whale and her calf swim in the kelp off the coast of Big Sur
Find a spot on the cliff and stare out to sea – you will most likely spot a whale spout or two © Doug Steakley / Getty Images
Whales migrate along the Pacific Coast, either heading south to Mexico for warm waters or north to Alaska for cooler ones. It’s possible to see the telltale sprays from the highway and sometimes, if you find a good spot and sit for a while, you may even catch them doing their whale acrobatics. There are also dolphins, otters, seals among the kelp.
Hearst Castle sits on the top of a grassy hill where cows graze at the base
If you make it through the cliffs of Big Sur all the way to San Simeon, check out Hearst Castle, or have a glass of wine at Sebastian’s © Liangwei / Getty Images
Crossing the finish line
If you’ve got the time to make it all the way to San Simeon, check out the elephant seals at Piedras Blancas before hitting up Hearst Castle. Take a tour of the Julia Morgan-designed edifice, or stop for a glass of wine at the Hearst Ranch Winery’s tasting room, Sebastian’s. This remodeled general store has some food choices as well.
You’re going to be hungry along the way. Might as well stop at one of the fantastic places in Big Sur to fuel up. Big Sur Road House has breakfast and lunch choices on the river nestled among the redwoods. Stop here if you’re looking for a morning pick-me-up. Big Sur Deli & General Store has sandwiches and snacks you can take away. If you’re looking for sweeping views with your burger and wine, try Nepenthe.
A cabin in the woods with two chairs in front
With a choice of a cozy cabin in the redwoods or a stylish motel room, Glen Oaks Big Sur makes a great landing spot for your Highway 1 drive © Sarah Stocking / Lonely Planet
Where to stay
Check out Glen Oaks Big Sur for a cozy cabin in the redwoods. Outside bathtubs on the patios of the private cabins are the perfect place to soak after a long day on the road, and the stylish motel rooms are so comfortable you may never venture out your door. You can also camp at a variety of campgrounds along Highway 1, but book in advance at www.reservecalifornia.com.
Big Sur dos and don’ts
This is a fragile and wild land. There are a lot of people who visit here, live here and love it here. Please be courteous on the road. Pack out everything that you bring in, and plan your bathroom breaks along the route. To avoid overcrowding, think about alternative times to visit. In the winter, the whales are more active. Early spring is when the sea otters have their pups and later in the spring, the wildflowers are in full bloom. The views are always stunning, so there is no reason not to try and come during an off-peak season.