Big Sur is one of my favorite things about California, and possibly even the entire United States. It has been called “the greatest meeting of land and sea,” and from my experience, I have yet to find a meeting of land and sea that is more spectacular. An unbelievably pristine coastline on one side, and a barely touched ancient redwood forest on the other side make a Big Sur road trip coastal drive a sensory treat. It is so beautiful, so magical, that you can not believe you are still in California, or that you have not seen it before.
I have a few must-see Big Sur drive stops that I always recommend to friends driving up the California coast, and today I’m sharing my tried-and-true Big Sur itinerary for you to experience for yourself. This road trip route is done from Los Angeles to Monterey, so if you are doing this from the north (from San Francisco headed south, for example), you just need to reverse the bullets. You may want to print a map too so that you can gage how far you might be between the Big Sur stops. I like this map here for a quick guide.
New to road tripping? Check out our Family Road Trip Packing List and our tips for having the best, low-stress family road trip (including lots of car activities for toddlers and young kids).
Big Sur road trip itinerary (from LA to Monterey):
- Eat fish n’ chips at Malibu Seafood Fresh Fish Market in Malibu (25653 Pacific Coast Hwy, 1.5 miles north of Pepperdine University). This has become our traditional first stop on our Big Sur road trip heading out of Los Angeles. Not only the best fish n’ chips in LA, but possibly some of the best you’ve ever had. Just trust me on this, and try it. You will NOT regret it. If you are not in the mood for fish n’ chips, I have also sampled and loved some of their other fried seafood options, an especially good choice being their fried Seafood Combination. It includes the must-have fish n’ chips, as well as fried oysters and scallops. Definitely can’t go wrong. But if you are not as adventurous or are on a budget, go with the staple fish n’ chips, available in 1, 2 or 3 piece options.
- The outlet mall in Camarillo has some great designer outlets, including the new Neiman Marcus Last Call, so stop for a quick shopping trip if time allows.
- You’ll drive through Santa Barbara on your way north. Enjoy the beautiful ocean views during this part of the drive, and if you want to stop, check out some of the boutiques on State Street, and finish off with a snack or meal at Longboard’s on the pier. I recommend sitting on the patio.
- If you have time in your Big Sur itinerary and are interested, around Buellton you’ll see a turn-off to head towards Solvang (3-5 miles east from the freeway). Drive around Solvang for a bit, it is an old Dutch style town with old style buildings and windmills. Kind of a random piece of California to check out since you are in the area. The Hitching Post restaurant here has some special memories for my husband and me, and will also be familiar to fans of the movie Sideways.
- This part of the central coast is wine country (my beloved Sideways was filmed all around this area)!! Feel free to stop off at any of the wineries you see around here. For a full Sideways wine map, click here.
- At this point, you won’t be driving right on the coast, as the 101 has cut inland a bit. I highly recommend you stop in Santa Maria for the BEST BURGERS EVER (and where they filmed part of Sideways), go to Orcutt Burgers: 1785 S Broadway, Santa Maria, CA 93454, (805) 928-0811. Trust me, you will not be disappointed. We always include a visit to Orcutt Burgers in our Big Sur itinerary. The burgers are huge, BTW, so it doesn’t hurt to share, and FYI, they only take cash.
- Just south of Pismo Beach, right off the freeway, you’ll see a sign for Laetitia/Barnwood Vineyards. Their tastings are FREE so stop off for a quickie tasting.
- Some cute towns around here are Cambria and Morro Bay. If you see signs for these towns and you need a bathroom break or snack, this is one of your last chances to see civilization before hitting Big Sur.
- Next stop, San Simeon – you can see Hearst Castle up in the hills. If you have time, the tour is cheap and it’s a cool thing to see, but make sure you make note of the tour timing first (as the tour hours are limited).
- Just north of San Simeon you’ll see a pull-off for the Elephant Seals. Definitely stop and take a look at them, they are amazing and right on the beach right off the road.
- Next Big Sur drive stop, Ragged Point. YOU MUST check out the view from Ragged Point. You can also get gas here if you need. Walk their little trail to the edge of the cliff to see the view of Big Sur. The pictures don’t do it justice – you have to see these with your owneyes.
- On the right side of the road (if heading north) you will see a sign to pull off for Salmon Creek. I highly recommend stopping here and taking the hike. It is an easy hike (no incline), but you may find yourself crossing a log, so wear appropriate shoes. The reason this hike it so worth it is because it ends at a hidden lagoon with a waterfall. Amazing, and something you won’t want to miss on your list of Big Sur drive stops.
- Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (not to be confused with Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park which is farther north). Park here and walk to the ocean view of McWay Falls and McKay Cove. This gorgeous hidden waterfall spilling onto the beach in an untouched cove is absolutely breathtaking, and one of the most photographed spots in Big Sur. This is not to be missed during a Big Sur road trip.
- Monterey, which is the last stop in our Big Sur itinerary (though you can continue the drive all the way to San Francisco). Monterey is not only scenic and serene, it is part of California and literary history, with a lot of familiar Steinbeck locations. Stop for some great seafood and check out Fisherman’s Wharf and Cannery Row. If you want to spend more time in this area, check out this post for lots more details on what to do in Monterey and Carmel, California.
Enjoy! If you try this Big Sur road trip itinerary and check out any of our must-see Big Sur stops, I’d love to hear your stories and feedback!
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