One of the most iconic stops when embarking on a California road trip itinerary 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 such as Monterey or Carmel or even if you’re in San Francisco at a stretch!
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.
Wondering how to get the most of your Big Sur day trip? We spent 2 days in Big Sur exploring everything this beautiful region has to offer and are here to help you with everything you need to know for planning your ultimate Big Sur itinerary!
How to Get 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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Monterey or Carmel to Big Sur
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, is located no more than 1-1.5 hours away from most of the attractions that we recommend seeing on a Big Sur itinerary. Both these towns also have a number of attractions to offer themselves, meaning there is plenty to occupy travellers who are spending a weekend in Big Sur.
San Francisco to Big Sur
Driving from San Francisco to Big Sur will take approximately 3-3.5 hours one way. While this makes a Big Sur 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 drive down to Big Sur from San Francisco, spend one night in Monterey or Carmel 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 tour available on Viator includes transport from your hotel and covers a number of the best attractions in Big Sur and Monterey.
Things to do in Big Sur for One Day
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 Big Sur day trip 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.
The McWay Waterfall is another iconic site that is a must-see on any Big Sur itinerary! Located in Julia Pfieffer 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 the majority of trails in Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park has been closed in recent months 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 when spending one day in Big Sur.
Pfieffer Big Sur State Park
Due to the closures in Julia Pfieffer Burns, if you want to enjoy a long hike during your Big Sur day trip you should visit Pfieffer Big Sur State Park.
The State Park is located approximately 12 miles north of McWay Waterfall 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 Pfieffer Falls Trail, have also been closed for some months due to damage in the area. You can check which trails are open online or at the entrance of the park. 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.
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 Pfieffer 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 itinerary 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!
Point Lobos State Reserve
While technically not a part of Big Sur, Point Lobos State Reserve, located just south of Carmel, makes an excellent final stop on a Big Sur day trip if heading back north to Monterey or Carmel for the evening.
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 less compared to other stops along this Big Sur itinerary. There are also a number of tide pools in the state reserve making this a great place to go looking for sea animals!
Entrance to the park is included if you already visited Pfieffer Big Sur State Park earlier in the day.
If you are visiting Big Sur, as a part of a scenic San Francisco to LA drive, then you’ll want to ensure you leave enough time to get to your next overnight destination and therefore visit these attractions from north to south. Your Big Sur itinerary should, therefore, start at Point Lobos State Reserve, before crossing Bixby Creek Bridge and heading to Pfieffer Big Sur State Park and McWay Waterfall.
What to do for a weekend in Big Sur
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.
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.
Walk down Cannery Row in Monterey
While it’s certainly a bit kitschy and touristy, a walk down Cannery Row in Monterey is a great way to spend an hour or two in the morning. Cannery Row was historically called Ocean View Avenue before it was renamed in 1958 to honour John Steinbeck – a famous resident of the area.
The street used to be the site for many sardine packing factories but has now long been transformed into a commercial street with restaurants, cafes and small shops. The most famous attraction is undoubtedly Monterey Bay Aquarium which is consistently rated as one of the best aquariums in the world where you can see a plethora of different sea life.
Entrance fees start are on the pricier side and cost $50 for an adult ticket however can be a great way to spend a few hours, particularly if travelling with kids. Click here to pre-book tickets and skip the line when visiting!
Street parking around Cannery Row costs about $1.50 per hour or you can park in a garage for $10 if you plan on spending the majority of the day here.
If you’re looking for a spot for lunch close to Cannery Row, I recommend driving a bit further away from the main street towards Pacific Grove where prices are cheaper and the restaurants are less catered towards tourists. We had lunch at Vivolo’s Chowder House which serves a range of seafood dishes and is well known for its clam chowder in a bread bowl which is absolutely delicious, particularly on a rainy day. Clam chowders in a bread bowl are $11 each and undoubtedly worth every penny – we were still talking about this meal for weeks to come!
Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary
A great lesser-known attraction that you should visit when driving from Monterey to Carmel is Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary when the Monarch butterflies migrate here between the months of October to February.
The sanctuary is a small path located just outside of downtown Pacific Grove and you can see thousands of butterflies either flying around in clusters around the trees or stopping on the colourful plants in the sanctuary.
Entrance to the sanctuary is free and there is also a lot of information in the area for visitors to learn more about the butterflies and how the population has grown over the years.
Go wine tasting in Carmel
A great way to cap off your Big Sur weekend trip is to go wine tasting in Carmel. There are a number of tasting rooms to choose from in the area and we ended up enjoying a flight of wines at Scratch and Albatross Ridge.
We found these tasting rooms to complement each other well as their wines use different grapes from each other and offer you to the chance to compare and contrast different types of wine that are produced in California. They also have quite contrasting styles with Scratch creating unique and hip labels from edgy artwork and basing themselves in a rented corridor of an art gallery while Albatross Ridge is a located in a more classical wine tasting room.
A flight of five wines costs $20 from Scratch and you can choose to sample either 3 wines for $15 or 5 wines for $25 from Albatross Ridge. A point of differentiation for Albatross Ridge is that you get to choose which wines to sample rather than it being a fixed menu.
A great way to end your weekend in Big Sur is to then go for a short stroll through the town before driving back to your accommodation. There are a lot of interesting shops to browse, including unique art galleries and artesian crafts. Visiting Carmel Beach is also a great spot to enjoy a sunset and reminisce about your Big Sur weekend trip!
Where to stay in Monterey or Carmel
If you’re on a weekend trip to Big Sur and looking to spend a romantic couple of days away then I recommend staying in Carmel rather than Monterey. You are also slightly closer to the Big Sur attractions which means you can make the most of your day! Our top choices in Carmel or Monterey are:
Carmel Green Lantern Inn – located only a couple of minutes walk from Carmel Beach, their guest rooms have private entrance making this a great option for a weekend escape. Breakfast is included in the room rate. Click here to see their latest prices
Airbnb – there are some private rooms and apartments to rent in Monterey or Carmel which can be a great option if visiting on a budget or looking for a unique place to stay (you can even stay in John Steinbeck’s old studio!). If you find one within the 17-mile drive then you also save on entrance fees! Click here to see the best Airbnbs along Highway 1!
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. Click here to see their latest prices
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse other hotels close to Carmel or Monterey!
Big Sur is undoubtedly one of the best places to visit on any trip through California. Combined with a day in Monterey and Carmel makes a Big Sur weekend trip a fantastic option for travellers.
When travelling in the USA, it’s always a good idea to make sure you have a travel insurance policy so you’re covered for any unfortunate events! We like WorldNomads and always use them for our trips – click here to get a quote from WorldNomads
Are you planning a Big Sur day trip or weekend trip? Have you visited Big Sur before? Let us know in the comments below!