There’s few places in the world that are as beautiful as the area from Carmel to Big Sur. Located in the central california coast just south of the Monterey Bay, this 70 mile area of coastline offers breathtaking cliffside views, rocky coasts and sandy beaches.
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While you can easily spend multiple days on a Big Sur trip, this guide will cover how to spend a single day exploring from Big Sur to Carmel. Whether you’re coming from San Francisco or nearby Santa Cruz, you’ll find plenty of activities and things to do while visiting Big Sur.
Things to Know Before You Go on a Carmel to Big Sur Day Trip
Driving Big Sur: the stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway that makes up the area between Carmel-by-the-sea to Big Sur is a narrow two laned highway surrounded by mountains on one side and the pacific ocean on the other. There’s no median divider, no street lights, and sometimes no guardrails. Take your time when driving Big Sur, and be careful. With breathtaking views at every turn, you don’t want to rush this drive anyway.
How Far is Big Sur from Carmel? The Big Sur coast starts just a few miles south of Carmel, but you don’t get the dramatic cliffside views until you pass Point Lobos State Park and the Carmel Highlands, about 5 miles from Carmel. Keep an eye out for the changing scenery and the coastal trees give way to sweeping cliffs.
Best Time to Visit Big Sur: Carmel and the Big Sur coast gets tons of visitors every year, especially in the warmer summer months. While the weather is beautiful and fairly mild throughout the year, the summer months will be warmer and have larger crowds. The rainy season in the central coast is in the fall and winter months, so the crowds are thinner. Be prepared for fog any time of year, and try to avoid driving the big sur coast in the dark.
No cell service: one of my favorite things about this part of California is how remote it is. It’s wonderful to be able to unplug, but there’s absolutely no cell service in the area. Because there’s one main way in and out of the area, getting lost isn’t a huge concern. However, I still recommend you download an offline map of the area to your google maps on your cell phone.
Limited gas & facilities: make sure you fill up your gas tank before leaving Carmel, as the gas stations in Big Sur are few and far between. Also, pack snacks or plan to pack remote destination prices! There’s few restaurants past Carmel, but one of my favorites, Nepenthe, is amazing, has breathtaking views, and is on the way down Big Sur by the town of Posts.
Starting Your Trip
While this Big Sur itinerary focuses on stops between Carmel-by-the-sea to Big Sur, if you’re coming from San Francisco you might want to stop in the Monterey Bay area. It’s a short 10 minute drive from the Monterey Bay to Carmel (starting in the town of Monterey), and there’s plenty to do in the area.
Top attractions include the world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium, 17 mile drive in Pebble Beach, and shopping in Cannery Row, immortalized in John Steinbeck’s novels.
Whatever your preference, I recommend you start your day early and start driving the Big Sur coast from Carmel. This way, you’ll avoid the bigger crowds and will get back before it gets dark.
On the drive back, stop in Carmel for dinner, shopping and relaxing. It’s worth it!
Where to Stop on a Big Sur Trip from Carmel
I could write a whole book with a list of Big Sur things to do, but I’ve chosen a handful of beautiful activities and stops for you to do on your day trip. This big sur blog post also includes additional stops you may want to do if you have time.
Keep in mind that some of these attractions are incredibly popular, so if you can’t find any parking on your big sur travel adventure just move on! There’s plenty of other beautiful spots to stop at, and besides, you’ll want to keep coming back here anyway!
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
- Location: 3 miles south of Carmel
- Hours: 8am to 7pm
- Fee: $10 vehicle fee
- Other Info: No dogs allowed, no camping, no drones
One of the most beautiful places in the area, and probably one of the best things to do in Big Sur. Point Lobos is a beautiful place to stop for a hike and take in the rugged California coast. If you’re lucky, you might even spot sea otters, sea lions, and even whales from Point Lobos!
Most of the hikes in Point Lobos aren’t very difficult, and will have you right next to the Pacific Ocean. The cypress grove trail is a 30 minute loop (0.8 mile long) that’ll take you to some amazing ocean views. If you have time, I recommend you also stop at Whalers Cabin (right next to the parking lot) for a quick history lesson of the area.
Keep in mind that Point Lobos is incredibly popular with the locals, and the parking lot in the park fills up really quickly most days (including weekdays). There’s some street parking available, but make sure you read and follow all posted restrictions.
Bixby Creek Bridge
- Location: about 15 miles south of Carmel
- Hours: n/a
- Fee: none
Probably the most famous and photographed bridge in Big Sur, the Bixby Bridge is breathtaking. To photograph the bridge, pull off the road at Castle Rock viewpoint, right before you reach the bridge (coming from Carmel).
This is a super popular stopping point for tourists driving through the area, so be aware that in peak summer season, weekends or holidays parking here can be insane. If you’re not able to snag a spot, please don’t block the road! There’s a ton of other things to do and see in Big Sur, and you can always try to stop at the bridge on your drive back.
Point Sur Lighthouse
- Location: 21 miles south of Carmel
- Hours: tours on select days only.
- Fee: $15-$25 per adult, $5-10 per child
- Other Info: Accessible by tour only, no dogs, and a moderately difficult hike required.
As you drive south on Highway One, you’ll notice a big rock jutting out into the Pacific. This giant rock is actually the location for Point Sur Lighthouse, a historic location along the Big Sur coast with dramatic ocean views.
You can only access the area with a lighthouse tour, offered only on select days and times. Book plenty in advance, especially if you’re coming during the busy summer months.
Tour Info: From October through March tours occur on Saturdays and Sundays at 10am, and on Wednesdays at 1pm. From April through September, tours occur on Sundays at 10am, and Saturdays and Wednesdays at 10am and 2pm. Book directly on the Point Sur website here.
- Location: 31 miles south of Carmel
- Hours: 9am-8pm
- Fee: $12 vehicle day use fee
- Other Info: Pfeiffer beach is NOT the same as Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park!
Pfeiffer beach is a beautiful beach in Big Sur, located at the end of a windy, canyon drive. The beach is best known for Keyhole Rock, a large natural rock formation in the middle of the water. When conditions are right during sunset, you can often see the sun right through the keyhole making for some spectacular photo opportunities!
Also, you can find purple sand on this beach! It’s not a super dramatic purple, but it’s pretty cool nonetheless. This is a good beach to walk around, find tidepools, and enjoy the California seabreeze. Keep in mind it’s pretty windy here, so bring a jacket even during the summer.
Finding this beach is not the easiest though – you have to stay vigilant for the road signs. Even after living in the Monterey Bay for years, it took me forever to find Pfeiffer Beach! To get here you’ll need to take Sycamore Canyon Rd off Highway 1. The road is located between the ranger station and the post office, and is pretty windy and narrow. As always when driving around Big Sur, take your time and drive carefully!!
- Location: 31 miles south of Carmel, right past the town of Posts
- Hours: 11:30am-10pm
The restaurant has outdoor and indoor seating, with the outdoor patio perched cliffside and offering breathtaking views of the Pacific. This is a great spot for a dinner date, but be prepared to spend $25+ per entree at this restaurant.
- Location: 37 miles south of Carmel
- Hours: 8am-sunset
- Fee: $10 vehicle day use fee
- Other Info: There’s no beach or direct falls access.
McWays Falls are located at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, and are some of the most photographed falls in Big Sur. The waterfalls drops almost 80 feet from the cliffside straight into the beach next to the Pacific Ocean, and is absolutely stunning.
Please note that there’s no beach or direct access to the falls here, they can only be viewed from a lookout point that gets fairly crowded. Do not attempt to get down to the falls, there’s hefty fines that apply and you’re likely to get stuck!
To view the falls, park at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and do the short hike by crossing the tunnel under Highway 1 to get to the lookout point. If the parking lots are full, you can also park along highway 1 if you’re able to snag a spot.
Big Creek Bridge
- Location: 56 miles south of Carmel
Another pretty bridge in this Big Sur travel guide is the Big Creek Bridge. Similar in construction to the BIxby bridge, Big Creek stands out because it’s not as crowded, making it an easier stop along the road to get some beautiful shots of the Big Sur coastline.
Limekiln State Park
- Location: 56 miles south of Carmel
- Hours: 8am-sunset
- Fee: none
- Other Info: Camping in the park is allowed with advanced reservations
Limekiln State Park is one of the more underrated parks in the Big Sur area. The park offers direct beach access, hiking trails, a waterfall, and beautiful views of the California redwoods and the Big Sur coast.
You can park inside the park and make the short walk to the beach, directly under Highway 1, or do one of the many hikes in the park. I like this park for the direct beach access it provides that allows you to picnic at the beach, or just lounge around and enjoy the scenery.
Usually, Limekiln is the place where I’ll turn around and head back to Carmel to avoid driving Big Sur in the dark. Even though 56 miles might not seem like a lot, it can take several hours to get through the Big Sur coast.
If you have more time, below are additional recommendations for what to do in Big Sur.
Other Things to Do in Big Sur
- Sand Dollar Beach: play in the sand at this beautiful, sandy beach located 8 miles south of Limekiln State Park.
- Piedras Blancas Light Station: super adorable lighthouse, with beautiful views of the coast. Tours are usually available Tuesday, Thursdays and Saturdays for $10 per adult ($5/child). Located 33 miles south of Limekiln, near San Simeon.
- Elephant Seal Vista Point: elephant seals are ginormous marine creatures that love to lounge in the sand. This viewpoint will give you an excellent view of the seals, stretched out for what appears to be miles on end. Located 2 miles south of Piedras Blancas Lighthouse, near San Simeon.
- Hearst Castle: if you’re all the way down in San Simeon anyway, you need to stop at Hearst Castle. The views are beautiful and the grounds are incredible. It’s about 2.5 hours from Carmel to Hearst Castle (without any stops), so this one is best viewed as its own day trip.
Things to Do in and Around Carmel
Once you’ve taken in the Big Sur coast, it’s time to head back to Carmel. The drive back is usually quicker since you won’t be stopping in as many places along the way, but if you missed an attraction due to crowded parking lots, check again and try stopping on your way back.
When you finally get to Carmel, take some time to enjoy the town. Carmel by the sea is a beautiful, charming town at the southern end of the Monterey Bay. It’s stunning here!
The downtown area feels like a European village, and is full of cute shops, restaurants and stores. The Carmel Bakery is a local classic and a personal favorite, being the oldest shop in Carmel (it’s been here since 1899!).
For more sweets, stop at the Cottage of Sweets, a candy shop located in a beautiful thatched roof cottage.
Carmel started out as an artist colony back in the day, and there’s plenty of art galleries throughout town. Check them out, and have fun exploring the shops.
17 Mile Drive
- Location: Highway 1 Gate
- Hours: Sunrise to Sunset
- Fee: $10.50 per vehicle
If you’re not tired of driving yet, make sure you check out world famous 17 mile drive. Located in the exclusive Pebble Beach community, 17 mile drive will take you through a beautiful coastal cypress forest and rocky sea coast. The drive is easy, but you’ll want to stop at the different pullouts to take in the scenery.
- Location: 27300 Rancho San Carlos Rd, Carmel, CA 93923
- Hours: 10am-9pm (last entry at 7:30pm)
- Fee: $59+ admission fee
One of the best kept secrets among locals in Carmel is the outdoor plunge pools located at the Refuge. This award-winning spa provides hot and cold plunge pools, saunas, and relaxation areas perfect to unwind. The spa has a policy of silence and no cell phones, and is the perfect place to visit when you need time to let all your stress flow away.
Basic admission to the Refuge costs $52, with a $62 option that includes robe rental and a water bottle. I strongly recommend you book a massage treatment while you’re here. A 50 minute swedish massage costs about $155 and includes admission, robe rental and a water bottle.
This place gets super crowded on weekends, so if you’re able to visit during the week you’re more likely to have the place to yourself.
Other Things to Do in the Monterey Bay
The Monterey Bay is one of my favorite places in the world – it’s full of stunning views that perfectly encapsulate the California spirit. If you have more time than a day, check out some of these other activities to do in the Monterey Bay area.
Monterey Bay Aquarium
- Location: 886 Cannery Row, Monterey, CA 93940
- Hours: 10am-5pm
- Fee: between $34.95 – $49.95 per person
The world renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium is a beautiful research institution that is home to some of the most incredible marine life that call the Monterey Bay home, and is a must visit stop in the area.
The aquarium is incredible! You’ll see sea otters playing and diving, schools of fish, giant kelp forests, jellyfish, and bonus! You can even whale watch from the aquarium decks. The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a truly special place that’s well worth the price of admission.
- Location: Sunset Dr, Pacific Grove, CA 93950
- Hours: 8am-sunset
- Fee: none
One of the best beaches in the Monterey Bay and a local favorite, Asilomar State Beach is a beautiful one mile long stretch of sandy white beach that’s a perfect location to watch the sunset over the ocean. There’s a 0.75 long walking trail that’ll allow you to take in the scenic view, and you may even spot some sea otters and other marine life if you’re lucky!
To see some native California coastal plants and sand dunes, check out the Asilomar Dunes Preserve right across from Asilomar beach. Sand dunes in this part of the Monterey are gentle rolling hills, beautiful in their own right.
- Location: 631 Ocean View Blvd, Pacific Grove, CA 93950
- Hours: 10am-5pm
- Fee: none
Lovers Point is a beautiful 4.4 acre park in the city of Pacific Grove. The park is famous for a rock outcropping (the lovers point), and is a great place to lounge around and see surfers.
You can hang out at the beach at Lovers Point, bring a picnic, or play some beach volleyball. The rocky California coast is in full display here. There’s a reason this place is a local favorite!
Kayaking in Moss Landing
- Location: 2370 CA-1, Moss Landing, CA 95039
- Hours: 9am-4pm
- Fee: $40+
I drove past Moss Landing every day for years on my way to work, and I can’t even begin to describe just how beautiful this part of California is. While Moss Landing itself isn’t much of a town, the crown jewel of this tiny area is the beautiful Elkhorn Slough.
The slough is protected from the ocean, and provides the perfect conditions for marine animals to call this home. This is where you need to head to for an almost guaranteed shot at viewing sea otters, sea lions, and seals.
The best way to see all of this biodiversity is to rent a kayak from Kayak Connection,located right at the slough. The water in the slough is pretty calm most of the year, but especially in the early fall months. Go in the morning for calmer waters if you’re not as comfortable doing water sports. And please don’t harass the wildlife!
Explore Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz, California is a small, college surf town located at the northernmost end of the Monterey Bay. This a fun quirky beach town with plenty of beaches, surfing spots, and a cute small downtown area. Highlights include the Santa Cruz beach boardwalk, a historic spot perfect for all-American summer fun.
There’s many things to do in Santa Cruz, and you can easily spend several days exploring the area. For the top things to do in Santa Cruz (from a local!) check out this post.
To get to Santa Cruz, make the drive up the coast on Highway 1 from Carmel Cruz – it’s a beautiful scenic drive along the coast!
What to Pack and Wear for One Day in Big Sur
Important tip: dress in layers!!
When deciding what to pack for one day in Big Sur, you need to keep in mind the time of year you’re visiting, and the general weather in the California central coast.
Temperatures in this part of the state are usually pretty mild, usually hovering around 60 degrees fahrenheit most days, but dropping as low as 40 degrees fahrenheit. The rainy season is usually from November through early March.
To ensure the best trip, make sure you pack and/or wear the following:
- Comfortable pants like jeans or yoga pants;
- Base layer (t-shirt, tank top, or long sleeve);
- Rain jacket or windbreaker;
- Comfortable shoes (sneakers or hiking shoes);
- Wool socks;
- Reusable water bottle;
- Portable charger;
For a comprehensive California packing list, check out this post.
Where to Stay When Visiting Big Sur
If you’re planning to stay longer than a day, check out the following hotels in Carmel, Monterey and Big Sur.
- Hyatt Regency Monterey: beautiful hotel and grounds in a golf course setting with easy access to Highway 1 to kickstart your road trip adventures. Book here.
- Portola Hotel & Spa: located near downtown Monterey, this beautiful hotel will put you close to the Monterey Wharf and Monterey Bay Aquarium. Book here.
- La Playa Carmel: beautiful luxy boutique hotel with lots of charm and easy access to the beach. Book here.
- Ventana Big Sur: adults only resort located in the heart of Big Sur near the town of Posts. This is a breathtaking, luxury hotel perfect for a honeymoon. Book here.
Alternatively, search AirBnb for cute rentals with more room to spread out!
I love camping, especially if it’s a beautiful campground with a view! There’s several camping options in Big Sur but most of them fill up FAST. Campgrounds generally open six months in advance, so set a reminder to ensure you snag a good spot. Below are some of the public campgrounds to check out:
- Andrew Molera State Park
- Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
- Limekiln State Park
- Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
Big Sur -> Carmel, California
Whether you’re planning a trip from Big Sur to Carmel or Carmel to Big Sur, bookmark this Big Sur guide so you have all the information you need for your trip!