7 Best Stops on the San Francisco to Big Sur Drive


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Hitting the road for a San Francisco to Big Sur drive 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 take on a San Francisco to Big Sur road trip that are sure to impress. Much like the LA to Big Sur drive, this road trip offers everything from beautiful natural areas to charming towns to historic cities to gastronomic gems. If you’re planning on heading down that way any time soon, then you should make sure to budget the time to enjoy all of the spoils of the journey instead of simply the splendours of Big Sur!

So if you’re wondering where to stop on the San Francisco to Big Sur drive, then look no further. These great stops are sure to make your coastal California road trip one to remember!

Planning a San Francisco to Big Sur Drive

Before getting into all of the San Francisco to Big Sur drive stops, we should talk a bit about some logistical considerations you need to take into account before hitting the road. 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 along this drive that you can take: 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 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 to 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 the best deal for car hire as they aggregate prices across all the major providers.

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.

California packing list
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 from San Francisco 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

Stops on the San Francisco to Big Sur Drive

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 Highway 1, also referred to as 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 San Francisco to Big Sur drive, popping into a local’s 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 out of 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 is a great place to stop between San Francisco & Big Sur
Beautiful Half Moon Bay

Gilroy

If you’re interested in making a detour inland on your drive to Big Sur from San Francisco, then consider heading to the city of Gilroy in Santa Clara county. Known for it’s 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.

Santa Cruz

Looping back to the Highway 1 and the Pacific Coast, the next stop on this San Francisco to Big Sur road trip 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 it’s 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 Big Sur 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 an 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 and make this a San Francisco to Monterey drive, 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 San Francisco to Big Sur drive.

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. So if you’re looking for the perfect place to stay before visiting Big Sur or simply wanted to embark on a San Francisco to Carmel drive, this town is worth the stop.

California packing list
Carmel, California

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

The final stop on this San Francisco to Big Sur drive 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. Entry into the park is $9 per vehicle with an additional $1 per person.

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

Where to Stay on the San Francisco to Big Sur Drive

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 Lodge — If you’re looking for a great, romantic stay in Carmel, then this is a fantastic option. There are a number of rooms to choose from and both breakfast and free parking are included in the nightly price. Click here to see their latest prices

Carmel Green Lantern Inn — This quaint inn is another spectacular option in Carmel, located just a stone’s throw from lovely Carmel Beach. They have a range of comfortable rooms available (all with their own private entrance) and breakfast is included in the rate. Click here to see their latest prices

The Stevenson Monterey – If you’re looking for a great and convenient place to stay in Monterey, then this motel is a fantastic option. Situated just off Highway 1 (perfect for hitting the road early to make it to Big Sur!), they have a number of rooms on offer and are great for those looking for a more budget-friendly option. Click here to see their latest prices

Private Rental – A private holiday rental is also an excellent option if you’re looking for a cool place to stay near Big Sur. There are countless properties to choose from, whether you’re looking for an entire place like this peaceful cottage in Carmel or this beachside house in Monterey. Click here to browse the best private rentals in Monterey!

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

San Francisco

Orchard Hotel —  If you’re searching for a charming boutique hotel located within easy reach of San Francisco’s top attractions, then you can’t go wrong with this great place. Situated a stone’s throw away from Union Square, it makes for a perfect base in the city and they even include breakfast in the room rate. Click here to see their latest prices

Found San Francisco — If you’re travelling on a budget or are simply looking for the camaraderie of other like-minded travellers, then make sure to check out this hostel. Centrally located close to Union Square, this is one of the top-rated hostels in San Francisco, offers both dorm and private rooms, and has great facilities. Click here to see their latest prices

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

Golden Gate Bridge: first stop on San Francisco to Seattle drive
The beautiful Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco

Planning a San Francisco to Big Sur road trip 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 an SF to Big Sur drive? Have you visited any of these places before? Let us know in the comments!

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Maggie is a co-founder and writer for The World Was Here First. When she’s not dreaming of far-away lands, Maggie enjoys drinking copious amounts of coffee, Harry Potter, and coaxing stray cats into her home.

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