The Big Sur stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway, from Carmel to Lucia, is among the most spectacular coastal road trips in the world. Even if you choose to cruise in your little Honda Civic instead of a snazzy red convertible with the top down, this drive offers plenty of clutch-the-edge-of-your-seat excitement. The road is narrow, one lane either way, and winds left to right and up and down, all the while hugging the stunning shore of the Pacific Ocean. And if you drive north to south, you will drive it on the ocean side.
The itinerary below will take you about seven to eight hours, because some of the stops I recommend are not the kind where you do a quick pull over at the turnout, take some photos, and move on. After all, what’s the point of driving along a stunning landscape if you don’t pause to savor it? Although this entire drive is so scenic that you will want to pull over at every turnout you see, you must definitely stop at these five places:
Point Lobos State Reserve
If you drive south along the Pacific Coast Highway, about four miles from the quaint town of Carmel-by-the-Sea you come to your first stop: the Point Lobos State Reserve. A coastal park that could be a day trip destination unto itself, Point Lobos has a network of walking trails that weave through meadows and coastal rock, with wonderful water and coastal landscape views. You can park for free along the side of the road if you arrive early enough, or pay a modest fee for the use of parking lots through the park. Obtain a trail map at the gate or download one on to your phone.
If you budget a couple of hours for this stop, you can park at the Bird Island parking lot at the far south of the park, and then walk Bird Island Trail, which is my favorite trail at this park. Along this trail you will see the blue-green waters of China Cove, with maybe some sea lions or harbor seals lying on the sand, and Gibson Beach with its ink blue water and pristine sandy beach. There are steps to walk down to the beach if you so choose. If you continue along the trail you come to a viewing area from where you can look across to see the hundreds of birds on Bird Island. The trail loops back to Gibson Beach and then you retrace your steps to the parking lot.
Another short trail I recommend is the Cypress Grove Trail, along which you can see the rare Monterey Cypress trees. It was to preserve these rare old trees that the California State Parks system took over the Point Lobos Reserve.
Enjoy wildflowers by the trails in the spring and summer, and watch for gray whales migrating from Alaska to Baja California from late December through early February, or from late March through May, when they are on their way back to Alaska. You can often see them close to shore, and sometimes in pods.
Garrapata State Park
About six miles south of Point Lobos State Reserve is Garrapata State Park, your second stop. There are multiple turnouts for this park off the Pacific Coast Highway, not signposted except for markers. Watch for the sign that says Garrapata State Park. The numbered markers begin after this sign. With numerous walking/hiking trails of varying difficulty, a secret valley that fills up with pristine white Calla lilies in the spring, and a beautiful stretch of sandy beach at the south end, Garrapata is a relatively undiscovered gem along this coast. Spring brings a riot of wildflowers and jewel-green hillsides. You can see migrating whales from here as well.
You can pick one of the turnouts towards the south end of the park, where you can see people walking trails through the meadows, to stop and walk a bit through the rugged coastal landscape.
Turnouts 18 and 19 provide access to Garrapata State Beach. Park at turnout 19 and then go down the steps to the beautiful sandy beach. This is a spectacular beach! Dowd Creek falls over the bluff into this beach and runs into the ocean. You can take a walk along the beach, watching the surf kick up. The surf at the beach is considered too dangerous for wading or swimming, so stay safe on the shore.
Bixby Creek Bridge
The turnout at the iconic Bixby Creek Bridge, about five miles south of Garrapata State Park, is your next stop. This amazing feat of engineering is one of the most recognizable landmarks along this stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway, and one of its most photographed spots. Not surprising, because Bixby Creek Bridge looks handsome from any angle and in any light. It was completed in 1932, and spans the canyon at a height of 260 feet from the bottom. When you see the location of the bridge, you have to respect the engineers and workers that built it, more than eighty years ago.
Park on the north end at the turnout on the right of the road to view the bridge from the ocean side.
Then cross the road to view the bridge from the canyon side. You can walk along the Old Coast Road (the unpaved road on the left of the highway at the south side of the bridge) to see the bridge from different spots.
If the road is open and you are in a high clearance vehicle with all wheel drive, you can drive up this road for a few miles to view the bridge parallel to the horizon. We have not done this, because the road looks too rough to try it in our Honda Civic.
Turnout with a Distant View of Bixby Creek Bridge
If you continue on the Pacific Coast Highway past the Bixby Creek Bridge and up the next hill, there is a turnout at the top of the hill, which is your next stop. This viewpoint is just that: a place to get out of your vehicle and take in the iconic views of Big Sur you see on Instagram, with a series of coastal curves and the bridge looking tiny in the distance.
About twenty miles further south on the Pacific Coast Highway is your final must-stop spot: McWay Falls. The Falls can be seen from a turnout on the highway (that’s where the photos below were taken), but I recommend you pay the modest entry fee to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and walk the stunning Waterfall Overlook trail. The trail goes under the highway and then veers north around the cove to provide a great unobstructed view of the waterfall and the beach, which was created by a landslide that occurred in 1983. The trail ends at a viewpoint looking out over the Pacific Ocean, another good spot to see migrating whales, as well as California Condors. There is no access to the beach below.
So there you have it: my favorite spots on the Big Sur Coast.
You can do this drive as a day trip if you are visiting the Monterey-Carmel area, or you can do it as part of a longer drive along the Pacific Coast Highway, and stay the night at Big Sur after this drive.
Although any time of year is beautiful on the Big Sur Coast, every season has a different charm. Spring brings beautiful green color to the hills and wildflowers along the road and hills. In the summer and early fall, the deep blue of the ocean contrasts with the tans of the coastal landscape, and often the fog rolls in from the ocean. Winters bring brightly colored skies at sunrise and sunset, and opportunities to see whales from the coast.
For more information, park hours, closures and rules, and health and safety information, make sure you visit the California Parks website before you go!
Have you done this drive? Do you have a favorite spot I missed? Comment below to respond!