7 Best Stops on the San Francisco to Big Sur Road Trip

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by Maggie Turansky


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Heading out for a San Francisco to Big Sur road trip is one of the most popular trips to take from the city, cascading down the coast to some of the most charming towns that Northern California has to offer before ending up in one of the most beautiful natural areas in the entirety of the United States.

And while the destination is certainly worth its salt and can be enjoyed immensely, there is no reason not to take your time and enjoy the journey there, as well.

There are countless amazing stops that one can make that are sure to impress. Much like the LA to Big Sur drive, this road trip along the California coast offers everything from beautiful natural areas to charming towns to historic cities to gastronomic gems.

Planning a San Francisco to Big Sur Road Trip

The SF to Big Sur drive isn’t a long one, but there are a few things that are worth considering before you head out.

Namely, you need to decide which route you plan to take. There are two main routes: the marginally quicker inland drive along the CA-101 S or the scenic and beautiful drive along with CA-1 S, the latter more commonly being referred to as the Pacific Coast Highway or PCH.

There are actually a couple of stops on this list that lie along the inland route, however, if you want to truly enjoy this drive and have amazing scenery and views of the Pacific Ocean to enjoy, then make sure to take the PCH — I promise you won’t regret it. And if you’re interested in making an inland stop, they are all relatively easy detours that won’t add too much to your drive time.

If you need to rent a car prior to driving to Big Sur then I recommend searching on Rentalcars.com to find a great deal for car hire.

Alternatively, if you’re embarking on a long trip such as from San Francisco to San Diego or LA and prefer a campervan or RV, then I suggest browsing on Outdoorsy which offers a huge selection of choices.

Viewpoint from a coastal walk at Big Sur
Viewpoint from a coastal walk at Big Sur

How Far is San Francisco to Big Sur?

The distance from San Francisco to Big Sur is approximately 140-150 miles (225 to 241 kilometres) depending on your route and it will take about two and a half hours to drive it — provided that there is no traffic (unlikely) and you don’t make any of the amazing stops outlined in this article.

All in all, driving to Big Sur can be done relatively quickly and it’s short enough for a weekend trip, but a bit too far if you want to make a day trip out of it.

Bixby Creek Bridge in Big Sur
Bixby Creek Bridge in Big Sur

7 Best San Francisco to Big Sur Drive Stops

Daly City

The first stop out of San Francisco en route to Big Sur is going to be Daly City, often referred to as the “gateway to the peninsula” — the peninsula referring to the San Francisco Bay Area — as it is San Francisco’s closest neighbour.

Daly City may simply seem like it’s just a continuation of the city itself or a large suburb, but it isn’t to be ignored. While there may not seem like there is much of interest, this gateway to the peninsula is home to a number of beautiful beaches and outdoor activities worth taking in.

For instance, you can enjoy the beautiful Pacific views at Thornton State Beach or even go for a hike on San Bruno Mountain.

So if you want to start your drive down to Big Sur out with a bang, make sure to make a stop in Daly City!

View of San Francisco from San Bruno Mountain
View of San Francisco from San Bruno Mountain

Half Moon Bay

If you’re heading down the Pacific Coast Highway, the first major town outside of the San Francisco Bay Area that you’re going to hit will be the lovely Half Moon Bay. Located about thirty miles south of San Francisco, this small city is worth a stop if you want to experience some of the culture of Northern California’s coast.

Half Moon Bay has a lovely city centre with a walkable main street and many cute shops, cafes, galleries and boutiques to explore.

If you’re looking for a unique and locally made souvenir from your trip, popping into a local artisan’s shop in Half Moon Bay is an excellent choice. The city also boasts a beautiful beach, Moss Beach, which is a great place to stop if you can’t get enough sea views.

Half Moon Bay has a cosy, small-town feel despite the fact that it is so close to the urban jungle that is San Francisco and makes for the absolutely perfect stop on any road trip to Big Sur!

Beautiful Half Moon Bay
Beautiful Half Moon Bay

Gilroy

If you’re interested in making a detour inland on your road trip from San Francisco, then consider heading to the city of Gilroy in Santa Clara county. Known for its famous Gilroy Garlic Festival, the city claims to be the garlic capital of the USA but there is far more to it than the pungent allium.

If you’re travelling with children, then make sure to stop at Gilroy Gardens Family Theme Park for some family-friendly fun.

If this doesn’t interest you, then consider heading to one of the nearby wineries in the city to sample some local vintages — that is, if you’re not the one driving! Beyond garlic, Gilroy is known for its gastronomy and there are lots of great restaurants to eat or even local produce to sample.

So whether you’re looking for an interactive stop that’s great for the whole family or are interested in sampling wines from regions that aren’t Napa Valley or Sonoma, then Gilroy makes for an excellent stop on the San Francisco to Big Sur drive, even if it’s a slight detour from the coast.

Alternatively, if you want to see some of the most beautiful forested regions not too far from the coast, then consider making a stop at Bug Basin Redwoods State Park instead. Here you can view some incredible giant California Redwood trees in a beautiful environment.

Santa Cruz

Looping back to the Highway 1 and the Pacific Coast, the next stop should be the chilled-out city of Santa Cruz. Known for being an iconic coastal surf town, Santa Cruz is the perfect place to stop if you want to take in a cool city with wonderful seaside vibes and watch some of the best surfers in California.

Known for its iconic Santa Cruz Boardwalk which boasts classic carnival games, an old wooden roller coaster, a Ferris wheel, various adrenaline-pumping rides and arcades galore, this is a perfect place for kids and nostalgia-seeking adults alike.

If you’re not feeling like spending time at the boardwalk, take the time to stroll along the wonderful seaside promenade and watch the surfers try to catch that perfect wave.

If you’re interested in taking in some natural beauty, then make sure to stop at Natural Bridges State Beach and admire the beautiful rock formations. Alternatively, if you have the time, you could go for a hike at Wilder Ranch State Park.

All in all, Santa Cruz makes for an excellent destination in and of itself and it is absolutely perfect for a stop on a drive to Big Sur from San Francisco.

Beach Boardwalk in Santa Cruz
Beach Boardwalk in Santa Cruz

Monterey

Just a bit north of the Big Sur coast lies the lovely city of Monterey. Situated on its eponymous bay, Monterey is a favourite weekend retreat for San Franciscans looking for a laid-back place to visit as the city has a lot to offer visitors.

Known for the incredible Monterey Bay Aquarium, there is a lot of history in this seaside city and a lot to see and do, so it makes for an excellent base for exploring Big Sur, as well.

Take the time to walk down Cannery Row and enjoy all of the kitschy shops and sites to see here. If you want to, tour the aquarium and admire the incredible ecosystems of Monterey Bay.

If you want to stretch your legs, take a stroll along the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail. This trail spans for a total of 18 miles (roughly 29 kilometres), however, you can walk however much or little of it as you desire.

If you’re a literary fan, you will rejoice in the sights that are present in many a John Steinbeck novel, himself a native to Monterey.

And if you venture a bit further south from the city before you hit Carmel, you can enjoy the splendours of the 17-mile drive — a coastal route that is considered to be one of the most scenic drives in the entirety of the US.

Even if you decide to end here, you won’t be missing out. Visiting Monterey from San Francisco is never a bad idea as the city has so much to offer!

Cannery Row in Monterey
Cannery Row in Monterey

Carmel-by-the-Sea

If you’re looking for Monterey’s more posh and high-end cousin, then you would find yourself in charming Carmel-by-the-Sea. Known for its famous former mayor (Clint Eastwood), cobbled streets and ultra-quaint city centre, Carmel is oozing with character and charm and is an unmissable stop on the drive to Big Sur.

Carmel is filled with upmarket shops, quaint cafes, artist’s studios and galleries, fantastic restaurants and countless tasting rooms for local wineries.

In fact, if you’re interested in sampling some local vintages, Carmel is a great place to do it as you can easily walk from one tasting room to another and not have to worry about driving (provided you’ve stopped here for the night before continuing on to Big Sur!).

Carmel also boasts a lovely state beach that is absolutely beautiful. There is a reason that this town is so popular for romantic getaways because it has an undeniable mystique that is sure to instantly charm any who visit.

Carmel Beach after sunset
Carmel, California

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

The final stop on this road trip lies just north of Big Sur itself and is an area of absolutely outstanding natural beauty, enough to rival Big Sur proper. That is Point Lobos State Natural Reserve.

Though it doesn’t get nearly the attention that Big Sur does (and Big Sur really does live up to the hype, don’t get me wrong), Point Lobos is one of the most beautiful areas in this region and this state park is well-maintained with countless walking trails and viewpoints to take in the stunning vistas and dramatic coastal scenery.

Whether you’re looking for a longer hike or a gentle stroll with a fabulous view of the jagged coastline and playful otters riding the surf, Point Lobos can offer it to you.

From here, you can continue onto all of the highlights of Big Sur, including the Bixby Creek Bridge, McWay Falls, the purple sand of Pfeiffer Beach and more.

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

Where to Stay on the Drive From San Francisco to Big Sur

Monterey or Carmel are great places to rest your head if you’re looking for a great jumping-off place for exploring Big Sur. If you’re wondering where to stay in these cities or in San Francisco itself, then check out these suggestions.

Monterey/Carmel

Carmel Green Lantern Inn – A quaint and cosy inn in Carmel, this is a comfortable base. They offer several queen rooms and family suites (some providing ocean views) and there is a breakfast buffet available each morning.

The Stevenson Monterey – Conveniently located off Highway 1 in Monterey, this hotel has a great outdoor swimming pool, free parking and plenty of rooms of varying sizes to choose from.

Private Rental – A private holiday rental like this peaceful cottage in Carmel is a great option for those wanting the convenience of their own space while travelling to Big Sur.

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

San Francisco

Orchard Hotel – A 4-star boutique hotel next to Union Square, this is a great luxe option in the centre of San Francisco. There are countless plush rooms to choose from, a restaurant, bar, terrace and room service available along with plenty of other amenities.

Axiom Hotel – Another upmarket option while in San Francisco, this modern hotel is centrally located on a few hundred metres from Union Square. There are a range of rooms on offer and perks like room service. private parking, a fitness centre and more are available.

Green Tortoise Hostel – A good, central budget option, this hostel offers dorms and private rooms along with amenities like a free sauna and a free daily breakfast for guests.

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

Golden Gate Bridge on a foggy day
The beautiful Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco

Planning a road trip to Big Sur doesn’t take a lot of work when you consider how many incredible places there are to stop and explore along the way. The hardest part of it all is deciding where you have the time to visit and what you may have to skip!

Are you planning to visit 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. Planning to travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles in Sept 2024 via Big Sur. Where would be
    the best stop over for one night? On google maps it keeps on taking me on a different route inland…. reason being?

    Reply
    • Hi Linda, spending the night Monterey/Carmel may be a good idea if you want to ensure that you get the most out of Big Sur. Otherwise, consider a night on the Central Coast somewhere like Pismo Beach or even further south like Santa Barbara. The reason Google Maps is showing an inland route is that is the quickest way to get from LA to San Francisco. You will need to re route the map in order to drive along the highway 1/101.

      Reply
  2. Husband and I are going to San Francisco and then driving down PCH to San Luis Obispo, in one day. stopping periodically for some sites. Then stating the night, the driving back up to San Fran, stopping more and staying half way between, maybe Carmel for one night. then driving back to Dan Fean to fly home. So 3 days fir driving and visiting….doable, worth it?

    Reply
    • If you get early starts and prioritise what you want to see and do, I don’t see why this trip isn’t doable 🙂 Have a great time!

      Reply
  3. Me and my husband visited SF on my 60th birthday, this was a place on my bucket list. We had a big to do list while in San Francisco and go to Carmel was one. So we drove down to Carmel by the sea and I feel in love! I didnt want to leave but we had our hotel in SF so we had to go back for our return flight to St. Louis. That was 5 years ago and I still long for San Francisco and Carmel. That song is true I left my heart in San Francisco.

    Reply

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