9 Best Stops on an LA to Big Sur Road Trip

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by Maggie Turansky


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An LA to Big Sur road trip is one of the most stunning and unforgettable trips you could embark on in your lifetime. Cruising up the Pacific Coast Highway along one of the most stunning stretches of natural scenery in the entirety of the United States is something that is a true joy to experience.

With so many beautiful coastal towns, gorgeous inland vistas and dramatic landscapes, this drive is one of the most spectacular along California’s Highway 1, if not the entirety of the West Coast.

Whether you’re planning a short break or a longer trip in California, this epic road trip from Los Angeles does require some planning. There are so many incredible sights to see that you really need to take the time to properly map out your route and figure out which stops to take.

Planning an LA to Big Sur Drive

Driving from Los Angeles to Big Sur is one of the most popular road trip routes in the state, if not the country, and there are no shortage of resources available on the drive.

You will likely never be in an instance where you are too remote to find a gas station, for instance, and there are lots of opportunities to stop for toilets and food, as well.

It’s worth noting that if you want to get the most out of this drive, it is best to span it out over the course of a few days.

While you certainly can drive from Los Angeles to Big Sur in one day, you won’t be able to properly enjoy all of the amazing stops that are listed in this article or truly enjoy the amazing views of the Pacific Ocean. I would, therefore, recommend planning to spend at least three or four days on this drive, especially if you want to make all of these stops.

Also, if you need to rent a car, then we recommend browsing Rentalcars.com to find deals across many major companies.

Alternatively, if you’re planning on continuing to drive from Big Sur to San Francisco and then further up the coast, you might prefer a campervan or RV. In that case, I suggest browsing on Outdoorsy which offers a huge selection of choices.

The beautiful Big Sur coastline
The beautiful Big Sur coastline

How Far is Los Angeles to Big Sur?

The distance from LA to Big Sur is approximately 315 miles (507 kilometres) with a drive time of about 6 to 8 hours along Highway 1, depending on the traffic conditions. This is why we recommend planning to spend a few days doing this drive rather than taking it on all in one day.

If you spend the first day of this road trip driving from LA to Santa Barbara, spend a day or two exploring Santa Barbara and its surroundings, and then another day driving to the Big Sur area; plan to spend about 3 days or so on this drive.

You could, however, spend a lot longer on this drive and spend nights in a good portion of the stops and end up taking a week or more to experience this spectacular drive.

Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara

9 Stops on a Los Angeles to Big Sur Road Trip

Without further ado, it’s time to talk about all of the fantastic stops on this road trip route from Los Angeles.

Malibu

The first stop on this amazing road trip isn’t too far from Los Angeles proper, and that is Malibu! Located just a bit north of LA, Malibu is known for its gorgeous coastline, beautiful beaches and massive celebrity homes.

An incredibly sought-after area of LA County, there are countless incredible views that you can take in in Malibu that you’re sure to enjoy this lovely oasis just outside of urban Los Angeles.

Along with dramatic scenery, there are also a number of beautiful beaches that you can visit in Malibu, including Zuma Beach, Topanga Beach, Pirates Cove Beach and many more.

And if you’re more interested in culture than in beaches, make sure to make a stop at the Getty Villa just on the edge of Malibu in order to take in countless Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiquities in a beautiful villa setting.

Topanga beach in Malibu
Topanga beach in Malibu

Oxnard

Next up comes the lovely city of Oxnard. Located a bit north of Malibu along the coast in Ventura County, Oxnard is a charming place to spend a bit of time in.

Boasting a beautiful main beach, a laid-back city centre filled with cool cafes, restaurants and shops and a wonderful harbour, Oxnard makes for an excellent stop on the drive up from Big Sur.

Oxnard itself is a wonderful destination with lots to offer including the Channel Island Maritime Museum, Oxnard State Beach and the Channel Islands Harbor, however, it is also known as the jumping-off point to visit Channel Islands National Park.

So, if you have a bit longer to spend on your Big Sur road trip, then make sure to hop on a ferry to visit this unique national park off the California coast!

Potato Harbor in Channel Islands National Park
Potato Harbor in Channel Islands National Park

Ventura

Just a stone’s throw north of Oxnard and a very logical next stop on the drive is Ventura.

A well-known California surfer town, Ventura is famous for its expansive beach, iconic pier and general laid-back vibe. It makes for an absolutely wonderful place to break up your drive and it’s perfect if you want to explore a quintessential Southern California beach city.

Situated about thirty miles south of Santa Barbara, Ventura makes for a great place to get out and explore.

Take a stroll along the beautiful main beach, walk along the pier, watch the surfers catch some waves or take a surfing lesson yourself. The town itself is filled with interesting shops and eateries and there are even some interesting historic sites to visit, like the Spanish Mission Basilica Buenaventura.

If you don’t want to enjoy the beach, there is also the lovely Ventura Botanical Gardens that you could explore and enjoy. All in all, Ventura makes for a truly wonderful stop.

Sunset in Ventura
Sunset in Ventura

Ojai

If you’re interested in venturing a bit inland from the coast on this road trip, then you’re sure to enjoy a stop in the charming city of Ojai.

Known for being a bit of an artist’s refuge and the perfect place for fans of local gastronomy, Ojai is an excellent place to explore a little bit of inland California on this mostly coastal road trip.

In Ojai, you can enjoy the products of the lovely Mediterranean climate and bask in the laid-back vibes of the town. Sample locally produced olive oil, sip fantastic wine from nearby vineyards or wander through lavender fields.

You can also take in the unique Spanish architecture that is illustrative of California or even learn a bit about the history of this city at a local museum.

All in all, if you’re looking for a stop that’s just a little bit different, then Ojai is a great option for you.

Thomas Aquinas Chapel in Ojai
Thomas Aquinas Chapel in Ojai

Santa Barbara

Situated on the cusp of Southern California and the Central Coast, this lovely city makes for one of the best stops along the Pacific Coast Highway.

Known for its lively energy (due to being home to a major university) and beautiful seaside setting, this city has a number of interesting sites to see and things to do. You can take the time to stroll down State Street and pop into the countless shops and eateries along this thoroughfare.

Or, you can stroll along the main beach, catch a glimpse of the Channel Islands on a clear day or simply enjoy some people-watching.

Make sure to explore the iconic Stearns Wharf, Santa Barbara’s pier that is home to a number of shops, eateries and even a wine tasting room.

In fact, if you’re interested in sampling local wine, the city is home to countless tasting rooms as part of their Urban Wine Trails initiative where you can easily sip on a number of locally produced reds, whites and rosés.

Lovely Santa Barbara
Lovely Santa Barbara

Solvang

Although it is a slight detour from the coast, another fantastic stop to make ois the charming and unique town of Solvang.

Located in the beautiful Santa Ynez Valley, Solvang is known for being home to a significant Danish immigrant population and, climate aside, you would be forgiven for thinking that you’ve stepped out into a small town in Denmark rather than in California.

Solvang is a popular weekend retreat for Southern Californians and it has a lot to offer visitors. Because of its location, there are lots of places where you can taste local wine and other produce, for instance. There are also countless cute shops and eateries that you can pop into to pass the time.

The architecture is also quite unique and distinctly Northern European, a far cry from the more Spanish-influenced buildings of Southern California. To further cement its Danish-ness, there is even a replica of Copenhagen’s famous Little Mermaid statue (it’s about as underwhelming as the original).

Danish Windmills in Solvang
Danish Windmills in Solvang

Pismo Beach

Looping back to the coast, the next best stop on this road trip is the charming town of Pismo Beach. This lovely city along California’s Central Coast just south of San Luis Obispo is the quintessential surf town and it is very much worth exploring for a little bit.

Take the time to browse the shops along the beachfront, enjoying classic seaside energy and fare. The beach itself is also beautiful and expansive and very worth walking along.

It’s also a great idea to stroll down the pier, which makes for the perfect vantage point for watching the surfers catch what are some of the best waves along the California coast. Just a little bit further north, you could also visit Morro Bay State Park, which is known for the iconic Morro Rock.

If you’re looking for some sleepy California vibes, then Pismo Beach makes for an excellent stop on your road trip up to Big Sur.

Laidback Pismo Beach
Laid-back Pismo Beach

Hearst Castle

If you’re looking for something truly bizarre and different to visit on route to your trip to Big ur, then you’re going to need to stop at Hearst Castle.

The former home of publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst, this “castle” is formally known as La Cuesta Encantada (the enchanted hill) and it is truly a testament to its golden age in the 1920s and ’30s. It is located north of San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay outside of the town of San Simeon.

The whole estate is massive and a bit like Disneyland, complete with its own private zoo. In fact, even if you don’t stop at the “castle” itself, you will indeed drive by some zebras from the estate along the highway.

You can tour this National Historic Landmark for an entry fee or you can simply see its grandeur from the road and save yourself a bit of money.

Elephant Seal Vista Point

At this point, you will have almost made it to the iconic Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park with its imposing redwood trees and sites like McWay Falls, but there are still a few stops to make in order to have a truly interesting journey.

And if you’ve kind of had it with cities and towns and would rather experience some wildlife, then make sure to check out the Elephant Seal Vista Point just outside of the town of San Simeon along the Central Coast.

Throughout the year, massive elephant seals come to this area to bask in the sunlight and find a mate. There are lots of viewing platforms here where you can observe these creatures in their natural habitat and really take in just how fascinating this ecosystem really is. Entry into the vista point is free, as well!

Elephant Seals relaxing on the beach!
Elephant Seals relaxing on the beach!

Where to Stay Between LA & Big Sur

Santa Barbara

The Presidio Hotel – If you’re looking for a comfortable boutique hotel, then make sure to check out this gem. Located within easy walking distance of all of the city’s top sites and sounds, they have a number of great rooms to choose from.

Cheshire Cat Inn – If you’re after a quaint bed and breakfast on your road trip up to Big Sur, then you can’t go wrong with this inn. A perfect place to stay for a charming weekend getaway, they have a wonderful staff, a range of cosy and clean rooms available, and a fantastic breakfast is included in the room rate.

Private Rental – A private holiday rental is a wonderful option on the entirety of the drive. There are numerous properties available in the city that can suit any taste or budget such as this beachside cottage or this modern condo.

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse other hotels in Santa Barbara!

Monterey & Carmel

Hofsas House Hotel – A fantastic option for couples seeking a mid-range stay charming town of Carmel-by-the-Sea, this bed and breakfast is a winner. There are several rooms to choose from and breakfast and parking are included in the room rate.  

Carmel Green Lantern Inn – Situated directly next to Carmel Beach, this inn is perfect for those looking for another option when they visit Big Sur. Their guest rooms have a private entrance making this a great option for people looking for an intimate and secluded stay.

The Stevenson Monterey – This motel, situated just off Highway 1, is a great budget-friendly option. They have a range of rooms available and their location is ideal for those that are looking for easy driving access to Big Sur. 

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse other hotels close to Big Sur!

Cannery Row
Cannery Row

As you can see, there are countless amazing places to stop and enjoy when you’re on a road trip from LA to Big Sur. As always, if you try to enjoy the journey as much as the destination, you’re sure to have a myriad of unforgettable memories from your trip!

Are you looking for the best stops on the drive to Big Sur? Have any questions? Let us know in the comments!

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Maggie is a co-founder and writer for The World Was Here First. Originally from the US, she has lived in five different countries and has travelled to dozens more, both solo and with her partner, Michael. She particularly loves exploring Spain and spending time in the Caucasus and the Baltics. Read more about Maggie

Comments

  1. Love your Abundant amount of information to help get me and my two young adult girls on a great coastal excursion!

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