Last Updated on May 18, 2023 by Sammie
An Epic Drive from San Francisco to Big Sur
An easy day road trip or a weekend getaway with life-changing views. Going from San Francisco to Big Sur is too easy and too beautiful not to do at least once.
Spring 2023 was rough for Big Sur. For Updated Big Sur Road Conditions CLICK HERE
My boyfriend and I had a week off from work and decided to do the world-famous Pacific Coast Highway Road trip. The trip had more gorgeous views than I can dutifully explain but, for you, I will pick out some highlights—one including the drive from San Francisco to Big Sur. Holy Cannoli. Honest to Goodness. Spectacular. The type of views that want to make you cry but you’re not really sure why you’re crying. You’re simply questioning why your morning commute looks more like a concrete box within a Sims game than a utopia of luscious natural landscape.
This is why we travel.
I had no idea Big Sur was so easily accessible from San Francisco. Y’all in San Fran are really lucky, you know that?
Table of Contents
This photo of Bixby Bridge was taken at an overlook with virtually ZERO other people. Keep on the lookout for views that are all your own.
San Francisco to Big Sur Road Trip Stops
CLICK HERE FOR FULL ITINERARY
- Soberanes Canyon
- Calla Lilly Landing
- Rockey Creek Bridge OR The Bixby Creek Bridge
- Nepenthe’s For Lunch
- Phoenix Shop
- Mcway Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
- Purple Sand at Pfeiffer Beach
What is Big Sur?
Big Sur is a 90-mile stretch of rugged California coastline that goes about from Carmel to San Simeon. It runs along the scenic Highway 1 making this a remarkable road trip destination. You have the Santa Lucia Mountains on one side and the majestic Pacific coastline on the other.
Personally? I thought Big Sur was a thing. Something like a literal spot to go to. If you follow google maps to “Big Sur” it will take you to the River Inn. This is not Big Sur. Google lied to you. Big Sur is the whole enchilada. Once you let out your first, “Woah” assume you’re there.
There are plenty of viewpoints to pull over to take in the sites so don’t stress about researching the perfect spot. Between the countless photo opportunities, there are state parks to explore and a world-famous restaurant, Nepenthe’s, to eat at.
Big Sur’s Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park has even earned the nickname “Little Yosemite.”
What is the Distance from San Francisco to Big Sur?
Less than 145 miles.
How to Drive from San Francisco to Big Sur
There are multiple driving routes.
- Quickest Route: Via US 101 S to CA-156 W to CA-1 S (2 hours 44 min)
- Scenic Route: Via CA-1 S the whole way (3 hours 10 min)
- Weave through different highways to your heart’s content.
Is there a Bus Route?
There is no longer a direct bus going from San Francisco to Big Sur.
The only way to get to Big Sur without driving is by taking a bus from San Francisco to Salinas. Then take a taxi from Salinas to Big Sur which will cost you between $150 and $180.
To get to Big Sur we rented this beautiful campervan from Escape Campervans. Read about my Escape Campervans review here!
Pacific Coast Highway Roadtrip Tips
1. Fill up on gas. There aren’t many gas stations along Big Sur. Fill up your tank in Carmel by the Sea before heading further south just to be safe!
2. Plan for extra time. There are dozens of sites that will make you want to stop and admire. Even if you’re strict on your time you will undoubtedly take longer to do this trip than you expect. Enjoy the road and don’t try to rush.
3. Find your own spots to appreciate. I list many of the top spots to see on Highway 1 heading to Big Sur. However, there are many overlooks that are just as beautiful that will not have the crowds.
4. Bring a jacket. Once the sun goes down, it will get much cooler!
5. Bring a portable charger. You will be taking more photos than you could ever expect. And if you like to take videos as well, your battery will drain much quicker!
Day Trip Itinerary From San Fran to Big Sur
This itinerary is made for a day trip but can easily be stretched for longer!
⏰ 8:00 AM Leave San Francisco
⏰ 10:00 AM Coffee in Monterey
Visit Captain & Stoker for a quick pick-me-up on the road. They have great espresso drinks, pastries, and specialty toasts. It’s a popular place (the coffee is strong, delicious, and darn near perfection), so there might be a line. If you feel short on time, check out Plumes Coffee & Tea, Crepes of Brittany, or Old Monterey Café.
⏰ 11:00 AM Soberanes Canyon
Your first stop on the long list of amazing views will be Soberanes Canyon. This gorgeous lookout has remarkable views of the coast and is the perfect introduction to make you fall in love with Big Sur.
Get out and stretch your legs on the walking trails. My only advice is to remember you have a LOT of gorgeous views to take in along the road. You probably need about 30 minutes here.
However, with any itinerary, mold it to how you feel. If you feel like this is the best view of your life and you wish to stare out on the ocean for 8 hours. By golly do you! Screw the rest of this itinerary and enjoy your perfect day :).
⏰ 11:45 AM Calla Lilly Landing [Flowers only in bloom in Spring, Late February-Early May]
Just a hop skip and jump from the highway you can be immersed in hundreds of blooming Calla Lillies. Just time it right to see this valley of flowers in its full amazingness. Your best shot is to go in mid-April.
The best part is you can see this gorgeous flower bed field and Garrapata State Beach all in one! After seeing the Lillies, head down to the beach and go south to pop in to see one of the best beaches of Big Sur.
⏰ 12:30 Rockey Creek Bridge OR The Bixby Creek Bridge
Turns out there are two bridges worthy of pictures. Many happen to stop at Rockey Creek Bridge thinking this is the mighty grand bridge seen in every other car commercial for the last 20 years. While, in fact, the really famous bridge is just a two-minute drive after.
In my humble opinion, both are beautiful and worthy of a snapshot. But if you’re looking for the famous Big Sur bridge, Bixby Creek Bridge, keep driving past Rockey Creek Bridge and you won’t miss it.
⏰ 1:00 Nepenthe’s For Lunch
If you came to Big Sur you’re looking for amazing views. And that shouldn’t stop at lunchtime. And I mean WOW. The view from Nepenthe’s doesn’t look real. Make sure you grab a table on the terrace to enjoy a glass of wine, their famous Ambrosia burger, and a view that will make you say “This is insane”, at least 6 times before dessert. But if you can’t snag a table outside, enjoy the incredible design of the interior, designed by a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright, Rowen Maiden.
⏰ 3:00 Phoenix Shop
If you stop at Nepenthe’s for lunch you have to stop at the Phoenix Shop on your way out. It’s too convenient to miss! Located right below Nepenthe’s Restaurant, you can practically trip into the store accidentally upon leaving lunch.
The shop is a colorful wonderland of art, books, clothes, and jewelry made by local and international artists. The merchandise is constantly changing so you can be sure you’ll find some unique gems here. Every collection features one-of-a-kind items or small limited edition stock.
You don’t have to buy anything. Just pop your head in for a second ;).
⏰ 3:30 McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
Mcway Falls is one of the most impressive waterfalls on the west coast. It stands pretty darn tall at 80 feet (24 meters) and at high tide it empties right into the ocean. However, it is not possible to hike down to the beach (there have been fatalities by some who have tried). But you can get close enough for some stunning pictures by taking the Mcway Waterfall Trail. The hike is a super easy .6-mile hike so it’s a very easy stop to add to the itinerary.
It’s possible to park at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park for $10 or be the rebel you’ve always wanted to be and park off the side of the road. As long as you’re entirely pulled off the pavement, you’ll be fine. For another viewpoint, head to the pull-off just north of Mcway Falls to see it from another angle.
🛑 3:30 ALTERNATIVE STOP at Henry Miller Memorial Library
This forest library is whimsical and wonderful. It was a recommendation from a local and I’m very happy we stopped here. This unassuming spot on the side of the road is home to a bizarre assortment of lawn art that greets you as you walk along a path to the library’s entrance.
The Henry Miller Memorial Library is a not-for-profit organization made in honor of the once-banned Big Sur resident, Henry Miller. Now it serves as a cultural resource center with a hefty calendar of events once the summer arrives. They use their outdoor stage for regular guest speakers and lots of live music. At one point the Red Hot Chili Peppers played on their stage so it might be worth a gander.
⏰ 4:30 PM Purple Sand at Pfeiffer Beach
As of Spring 2023, Pfeiffer Beach is temporarily closed.
If there was a Big Sur Bingo Card, seeing the Purple Sand at Pfeiffer Beach would be the middle spot. As in you have to do it to check it off your bucket list bingo card. It’s one of the top attractions to see in Big Sur.
Pfeiffer Beach is famous for two reasons. One being its purple sand. Don’t get your hopes up, the whole beach is not purple. You can find sand with a purple hue by the tide pools and on the north side of the beach. To answer the age-old question, why is the sand purple? Because of the manganese garnet runoff from nearby mountains. What is Manganese Garnet? I do not know.
The second reason Pfeiffer Beach is famous is for its Keyhole Arch which is a beautiful rock formation with a hole in the middle. The arch is gorgeous and extremely photogenic so don’t be shy to get your shot.
♥️ INSIDER’S TIP: Check out the Keyhole Arch during the winter solstice. It’s a breathtaking display of a natural light show where the sun sets directly in the middle of the arch.
🛑 4:30 ALTERNATIVE STOP Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
If the beach doesn’t work out try this beautiful state park instead. Don’t think for a second you’ll be disappointed if this is your plan B. By entering this state park you’ll be spoiled by towering redwoods along the Big Sur River. Keep an eye out for the abundance of wildlife you might see as well. There are black-tailed deer, raccoons, wild turkeys, belted kingfishers, skunks, and bobcats. Make sure you check out the Pfieffer Falls Trail for great views of the Big Sur River Valley, Pt. Sur, and Pfeiffer Falls.
⏰ Sunset at an Overlook
Imagine. It’s golden hour and you are fussing about where to set up to capture the magnificent Big Sur sunset. And my answer to you is to pick an overlook and walk.
There are lots of tiny trails fishermen have carved into the dirt to find their way to the rocks or beach. USE THEM. Find your own trail and find your own sunset viewpoint. It will be special, I promise. Most likely it will require a bit of climbing as these aren’t touristed trails but they will lead to some stunning locations to watch the sun go down over the ocean.
♥️ INSIDER’S TIP: Be careful about spending too long on any trail after sunset. You don’t want to be doing the trail in complete darkness.
☀️ Other Sunset Locations
- Pfeiffer Beach
- Mcway Falls
- Pardington Cove
- Carmel by the Sea [See Insider’s Tip Below!]
♥️ INSIDER’S TIP: If driving back along the coast in the dark is not your thing, plan to leave a few hours earlier to catch the sunset in Carmel by the Sea. A few great spots include Carmel Beach, Seal Beach, or Asilomar State Beach just north in Monterey
Bonus Stops From San Francisco to Big Sur
Slates Hot Springs (only open for guests from 1 AM to 3 AM (nope not kidding))
Elephant Seal Vista Point
Point Lobos (last visitor entrance at 4:30 PM)
If you have a bit more time, check out my Pacific Coast Highway Roadtrip Itinerary from Oregon to California. There are plenty of things to do and see along this epic Highway, Big Sur included!
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