The Ultimate Big Sur Day Trip Itinerary

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by Michael Rozenblit

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One of the most iconic stops when embarking on a California road trip is a stop at Big Sur. However, even if you don’t have the luxury of a long road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway, it’s possible to do a Big Sur day trip if enjoying a weekend in nearby cities.

Spending a day in Big Sur will undoubtedly be one of the highlights of any trip as the dramatic landscapes, beautiful coastlines and lush redwoods will surely take your breath away.

Getting to Big Sur

All of Big Sur’s attractions are located along the famous Highway 1 on the Pacific coast of California. While there are plenty of things to do and see all along Highway 1 if undertaking a San Francisco to Los Angeles drive, in my opinion, the best parts are located in Big Sur.

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The best place to stay if embarking upon a Big Sur day trip is Carmel or Monterey. Monterey, which is further north of Big Sur than Carmel, is located no more than 1-1.5 hours away from most of the attractions that we recommend seeing when visiting the area.

Both these towns also have several attractions to offer themselves, meaning there is plenty to occupy travellers who are spending a weekend in Big Sur.

If you’re coming from the Bay Area, driving from San Francisco to Big Sur will take approximately 3-3.5 hours one way. While this makes a day trip technically possible, it will lead to a long day of driving and might make you feel rushed between stops – something you don’t want to happen when enjoying the beauty of this region!

I, therefore, recommend travellers who want to visit from San Francisco to spend one night in in the Monterey Bay area so they don’t need to rush through all the attractions in this region and also get time to explore these two towns.

If you insist on only spending one day in Big Sur, then there is an option to take a guided tour from San Francisco. This guided day tour includes transport from your hotel and covers a number of the best attractions.

Cannery Row in Monterey
Cannery Row in Monterey

One Day in Big Sur Itinerary

One of the advantages of visiting Big Sur is that all of the attractions you want to see are located along the one coastal road. That means that if you’re driving down from Monterey or Carmel and are then planning on spending the night back in one of those towns, you can visit all of the Big Sur stops in any number of ways!

Bixby Creek Bridge

The Bixby Creek Bridge is one of the most popular stops when embarking on a Big Sur road trip itinerary, as the beautiful landscape surrounding the bridge lends itself to some amazing photographs!

The bridge was built in 1932 as a way to connect these two regions of Big Sur as the in-land road would often become unpassable due to snowfall in the winter months. It is one of the tallest concrete span bridges of its kind in the world and there are multiple places to pull over and enjoy different viewpoints of the bridge.

It is located about a 30-minute drive from Monterey and is a great stop on your either at the start of the day as you drive down to the other attractions or when you’re driving back as the sun begins to set.

Bixby Creek Bridge
Bixby Creek Bridge

McWay Waterfall

McWay Falls is another iconic site that is a must-see on any Big Sur itinerary! Located in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, the McWay Waterfall is quite a thin waterfall that is famous for the way the water hits the sandy beach down below.

You can actually see the waterfall from the side of Highway 1, however, for better views, it’s worth taking the short paved walk from inside the State Park. You used to be able to hike down all the way to the beach however that trail, along with a number of other trails in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, has been closed due to damage on the trails.

McWay Waterfall is located approximately 40 miles from Monterey and is the furthest south of the stops we recommend.

McWay Waterfall
McWay Waterfall

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

If you want to enjoy a long hike during your day trip to Big Sur, you should visit Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.

The State Park is located approximately 12 miles north of McWay Falls and offers a number of hikes of varying lengths that travellers can enjoy.

We opted to hike Buzzard’s Roost trail which is a 3.2-mile loop (plus an additional 1.3 miles to get to the trailhead from the car park) which has a moderate difficulty that takes you through beautiful redwoods before zig-zagging up a hill until you reach a fantastic view of the ocean – a great spot to enjoy a packed lunch! Expect this trail to take about 2-3 hours depending on your pace.

Some of the other more popular trails in the State Park, such as the Pfeiffer Falls Trail, are currently closed due to damage in the area. You can check which trails are open online or at the entrance of the park. Other trails to hike include to the Big Sur River Gorge (quite a short one) or, if you’re looking for a long trail, consider the Mt Manuel Trail.

This state park is also home to the iconic Pfeiffer Beach, which is absolutely beautiful and noted for its purple sand.

Entrance to the park costs $10 per vehicle, however, this also allows you to visit all of the other state parks in the area for the day. There are toilets and drinking water taps at the park.

Buzzard's Roost Trail sign
Buzzard’s Roost Trail

Coastal walks

One of the highlights of visiting Big Sur is undoubtedly the magnificent short coastal walks that you can take by pulling off Highway 1.

Keep an eye out for places to park your car particularly when you’re driving between Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and Carmel or Monterey. You can also download this region’s map on Maps.Me (one of our favourite travel apps for offline maps!) which will show you all of these trails marked.

Walking along these coastal routes was undoubtedly one of the highlights of our Big Sur trip as watching the waves crash against the dramatic cliffs can be absolutely mesmerising. You should also keep an eye out for large groups of otters that congregate close to the coast!

Viewpoint from a coastal walk in Big Sur
Viewpoint from a coastal walk in Big Sur

Point Lobos State Reserve

While technically not a part of Big Sur, Point Lobos State Reserve makes an excellent final stop on your day trip.

There are some short walking trails here as well as a number of scenic drives through the park. We found this to be a fantastic stop to enjoy the sunset as visitors here are a lot fewer compared to other stops along this route. There are also a number of tide pools in the state reserve making this a great place to go looking for sea animals!

The entrance fee to the park is included if you already visited Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park earlier in the day.

Sunset at Point Lobos State Reserve
Sunset at Point Lobos State Reserve

Have More time

If you are planning a Big Sur weekend trip then there are a number of great things to do on your second day near Big Sur. I recommend spending the night in Monterey or Carmel and then enjoying some of the great attractions in both of these towns.

For instance, you can take the time to enjoy the scenery on the iconic 17-mile drive you can even you can enjoy a self-guided audio tour while on the road.

It’s also very much worth visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium and exploring Cannery Row or even – depending in the time of year you’re visiting – head to the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in Pacific Grove.

It’s also worth exploring the charming town of Carmel-by-the-Sea. Take the time to visit the beach, wander the cobbled streets and even pop into a wine tasting room (or two or three!). If you’d rather have someone guide you through all of the great tasting rooms in Carmel, then consider this food and wine tasting tour.

17-mile drive

One of the most famous attractions that draw people to Monterey and Carmel is the 17-mile drive that connects these two towns. This coastal drive has a number of lookout points with beautiful scenery to enjoy.

In our opinion, this drive isn’t as spectacular as Big Sur and as you have to pay $10.25 to enter, you might consider skipping this attraction if you visited Big Sur on the first day of your itinerary and are trying to minimise your California trip cost.

If you do end up driving the 17-mile drive then I highly recommend you go first thing in the morning to try and avoid the tour buses!

The drive becomes extremely busy throughout the day and the crowds can definitely take away from the experience. Another advantage of getting there early is that the wildlife of the area is more active and you have the opportunity to see a plethora of deer that inhabit the region.

If you want to learn more about the drive, you can enjoy a self-guided audio tour while on the road.

Viewpoint at the 17-mile drive
Viewpoint at the 17-mile drive

Where to Stay near Big Sur

Carmel Green Lantern Inn – Located only a couple of minutes’ walk from Carmel Beach, their guest rooms have private entrances making this a great option for a weekend escape. Breakfast is included in the room rate.

The Stevenson Monterey – If you prefer to stay in Monterey, then this motel is an affordable option and located just off Highway 1 meaning you can be on the road to Big Sur straight away!  Rooms have all the basic amenities and breakfast is included.

Private Rental – There are private rentals in the Big Sur area which can be a great option if you’re looking for your own space such as this peaceful cottage in Carmel. If you find one within the 17-mile drive then you also save on entrance fees!

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse other hotels close to Carmel or Monterey!

big sur day trip
Sunset in Carmel

Big Sur is undoubtedly one of the best places to visit on any trip through California. Even if you only have time to visit for a day, there is no denying that this is one of the most beautiful places in the entire country. 

Are you planning to spend a day in Big Sur? Have any questions? Let us know in the comments!

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Michael is a co-founder and writer for The World Was Here First. Both solo and with his partner, Maggie, he has travelled to over 50 countries across the globe and has a particular affinity for the Balkans and Eastern Europe. He’s lived in numerous countries worldwide but currently resides in his hometown of Melbourne, Australia. Read more about Michael


  1. We are traveling from LA to SF and only want to stop one night along the way. Where do you recommend we stay. We are a family of four–2 parents and 2 teens. Thank you!

  2. We are traveling from Coronado to San Francisco so I guess we just look at your itinerary in reverse. Any suggestions?

  3. I am traveling from San Diego and want to stop at several sights off Hwy 1 for 4 days, taking off from San Francisco. I would like to stay over night in Santa Barbara, then travel to Hearst castle the next day. Where should we stay if we would like to take in Big Sur the next day. If we were traveling from north to south, it is recommended to stay in Carmel or Monterey, which we could after seeing the Big Sur area. Please advise.

  4. We are traveling North from Ragged Point Inn in San Simeon in the AM on 6/9. It looks like the Big Sur coastline requires 2 days. We are also going to stay in Carmel or Monterey and the last night in Santa Cruz on 6/12 but we don’t want to do any North to South driving on US 1. Should we stay one night in Big Sur town, 2 in Carmel, and 1 in Santa Cruz? Would love an itinerary idea for that breakdown. We are seniors who walk a lot but no big hikes. PS I’m afraid of heights but trying to deal with it!!

    • Hi Joanne, If you don’t want to drive North to South then I think your itinerary makes sense. You can then spend one full day in Big Sur, one full day in Monterey & Carmel and then continue to Santa Cruz. Hope you have a great trip!

  5. Michael, we are traveling from Sonoma to San Diego in 7 days. Your thoughts please on segmentation ..specifically on Big Sur time allocation ….
    2 days Sonoma
    1 day Carmel and Monterey
    1 day departing from Carmel , Big Sur , Pfifier state park, falls , lighthouse and end in San Simeon ..stay overnight
    1 day Hearst castle , travel to Santa Barbara and end in Santa Monica
    1 day Getty Center.. maybe Malibu
    1 day la jolle and San Diego

    We are going in May…

    Thx for your feedback.

    • Hi Craig! Sounds like you have a great trip planned! If visiting Malibu, it might also be worth stopping by at the Getty Villa.


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