Now, when someone talks about driving the Pacific Coast Highway, for the most part, driving Big Sur is what they are talking about. Breathtaking cliffs on windy roads with beautiful beaches. Whether you want to see a variety of wildlife, hike into redwoods or down onto the sand or stay at some of the most luxurious places in California, you’ll find it. The stretch is loosely defined as Cambria to Carmel and while it is only 100 miles, can take a whole, or longer, day to explore.
This portion is all about the drive itself while being bookended by two picturesque towns. Stay in one, or even both, and take your time doing the drive. You’ll want to savor it, and the last thing you’ll want is to be racing against the sun.
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Note: Some tours, passes, stays and meals were provided at no cost to the author. All opinions remain my own. You’ll find affiliate links in this post which allow me to continue to improve Traveling Nine to Fiver. I hope this article is useful for you.
Tips For This Leg Of The Drive
Stop anywhere and everywhere. While true along the entire drive, this is where you’ll really want to stop at every turn. There isn’t one perfect spot so stop and take in the view wherever you’d like. There are high points to visit but even just a simple lookout is worth the view.
Give yourself four hours to do the drive, not including any hiking or meals. People drive slow, and you’ll go slower than you think. Plus you’ll want stop and spend time in a variety of places. You’ll want to walk where you didn’t know you would and hang out longer than you planned. Ignore Google and plan to hit the road, at least, four hours before sunset or the time you need to be somewhere.
Be patient. This is a slow dry and that’s a good thing. That doesn’t mean we are good at it. People will drive like idiots, there might be construction, there will be traffic. It’s all a part of the experience so if you stop take in the view and just enjoy.
Drive at your own comfort level. You will be driving windy roads and along cliff sides. Do not drive any faster or aggressive than you’re comfortable. Don’t worry about being the slow one on the road. Do pull over for cars to pass if they are stacking up, but between turnouts don’t push yourself (FYI – it’s CA law to pull over in the next turnout if five cars or more backed up behind you). If you’re trying to drive at everyone else’s pace you won’t enjoy the trip.
Get carsick? You should drive. It’s a windy road and you’ll miss out if you’re trying to stare at the white line in the middle of the road. Even if you don’t love to drive this is a good time to get behind the wheel since it should help steady your stomach. Also, do consider packing some seasickness drugs/tricks if you know this is a problem.
Pack up the car with snacks, water and gas. Big Sur doesn’t have a lot of options and the ones it has are expensive. While there are places worth stopping to eat at, it’s best to be prepared. Make sure you fill up your tank and water bottles before you hit the road.
You will loose service so be prepared. If you want to stop somewhere specific plan ahead. Know how many miles up it is or landmarks. Your phone will not be able to help you for a good portion of this stretch.
Don’t drive at sunset, wait it out. First off, you want to enjoy the sunset and not drive through it. While I recommend trying to get to your destination before sunset, if you’re running behind don’t force it. To avoid what can be dangerous glare find a place to stop. Then once it’s fallen below the horizon hop back in and finish the drive.
Cambria & San Simeon
Before you head into Big Sur there are two must-do stops. Just north of Cambria, you’ll find San Simeon. Plan a visit to Hearst Castle as you head out of town. This magnificent property is built far up on the hilltops of San Simeon and a unique architectural feat. It is filled with history from Hollywood to California’s early conservation efforts.
The other place you can’t miss before you really get into the drive is the Elephant Seal lookout. These majestic creatures spend a good portion of the year taking over the coastline whether it is to grow up, be born or find a mate. It’s enthralling to see them take over the beach.
I’ve said it before but the real point of this stretch is to just enjoy the drive. Take it all in, stop everywhere you want and take your time. There are a couple places you shouldn’t miss. As for sites, as you head up you will first run into the “Not Bixby Bridge”. I have to say we stopped just south of this one and loved the view and got in a good shot. Once we’d stopped we realized it was the wrong one but we didn’t care once we saw the view.
Stopping at Pfeiffer Beach and checking out Mc Way Falls is a must. You can hike down through the state park, or you can park just north of it and get a great angle of the falls. This is also one of the great spots to get in a good hike along the route.
A little further North, you’ll come across the actually Bixby Bridge and it’s worth getting out and taking a quintessential photo.
If you’re looking for a place to relax while you take in a view and some good food Nepenthe Restaurant is well known for a reason. One of the best views along the drive and delicious food to go along with it. For something a little more casual stop by Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant. It doesn’t have the cliffside views but it makes you feel tucked into the forest and you grab a tasty snack.
If you plan on staying in Big Sur there are a couple once in a lifetime splurge type of stays. Post Ranch Inn tops many lists of epic hotels in the United States and even the world. There are few places where you have this type of luxury let alone the views. If you’ve got a budget to really splurge it’s worth it, even though rooms rarely fall under $1000 a night. Still amazing, but closer to an affordable splurge is the Ventana Inn & Spa, in the off season, you’ll find rooms under $500 and almost as much luxury and still some exceptionally good views.
If you’re looking for a more common budget place to stay, you best option is to stay in one of the border towns or camp at one of the many campsites in the area. Some of which have just as good views as the pricey hotels.
As you wind out of Big Sur you’ll stumble upon a quaint city, Carmel-By-The-Sea. The perfect place to spend an evening, or much more, before you take off on your next part of the drive. There are so many charming bed and breakfasts in this town that it’s hard to pick just one, but the Edgemere Cottages are the perfect place to rest your head.
Relax right on the white sand beach along Scenic Drive, and even spend the evening with your own campfire right on the sand.
If you’re looking to explore wander around downtown through the cute shops, galleries and wineries. If you’re looking to dig into the wineries try the Carmel Wine Walk where you can get 9 tastings for $65. Two of my favorite spots were Caraccioli Cellars for the sparkling and Silvestri Vineyards for their reds.
For a bite grab something casual at Carmel Belle. Here you’ll find farm-fresh food with sandwiches, soups and more to enjoy. Another great spot to try is Forge in the Forest where you can enjoy a wide range of cuisine in their cute bar or patio. Enjoy a relaxing evening and after the home cooked breakfast at the Edgemere Cottages you’ll be ready to head along the Peninsula and continue up the PCH.
Did I miss any of your favorite spots on this stretch of the drive? If so, let me know in the comments below. If you’re looking for more tips on driving the Pacific Coast Highway head over to the series homepage. And sign up for the Traveling Nine to Fiver newsletter to follow the series as it comes out! Next week we’ll cover heading in the Monterey Peninsula and up to San Francisco.