Driving down California’s Pacific Coast Highway is one of the world’s most iconic road trips and one that we set our sights on including in our big west coast adventure. Specifically, we wanted to see the breathtaking beauty of Big Sur. This magnificently rugged and pristine 90-mile stretch of the California coast, nestled between Monterey and San Simeon is everything we’d imagined and more. Deep blue waters crashing against the coastline, sweeping vistas, hidden hiking trails, dramatic waterfalls, sheer cliffs and secluded beaches.
This entire wilderness region was basically inaccessible until the 1937 opening of State Route 1, also referred to as California Highway 1 and the “PCH” or Pacific Coast Highway. Today the two-lane road snakes along the Big Sur coast in a seemingly endless series of sinuous S-curves, rarely out of sight of the ocean.
There’s an almost complete absence of man-made distractions. No billboards, no strip malls, no fast food chains, no gas stations –nothing to get in the way of spending family time with nature’s glory. What we did find were numerous strategically located pull-out parking areas all beckoning us to put on the breaks and soak in the amazing views. It is a truly spectacular place!
We’ve created this post to share our perfect day in Big Sur with you and highlight some of the must-see sights and some “good to know” tips we picked up along the way.
Must See Stops on the the Pacific Coast Highway
After two days in San Francisco we started our drive along the Pacific Coast Highway heading south. I highly recommend this approach as the ocean will be on your side of the road with nothing to block your views.
Bixby Creek Bridge
Our first major stop was the Bixby Creek Bridge. Even if you’ve never been to this bridge, you know this bridge. It’s one of the most iconic and dramatic views along the Big Sur coast and one of the most photographed spots in California. You’ve likely seen it featured in movies, television shows and commercials. Arching above a steep canyon with crashing waves against the beach below it’s easy to see why.
Among the tallest single span concrete bridges in the world at a soaring 260 feet, the Depression era public works project opened to the public in 1932 at a cost of just under $200,000. Curiously, the bridge was completed five years before the highway it connected to.
As far as viewpoints go, you can park on either side of the bridge. We chose the northern coastal side along Highway 1 but I’m glad we took the time to cross over to the north side of the bridge closest to the mountains and the entrance to the Old Coast Road –what was once the way in to Big Sur –to enjoy that vantage point as well.
Since it was early in the day when we arrived the coastal fog was still in full force. Fog is a frequent feature of the Big Sur area, even in the summer. Far from ruining photos the fog tends to erase everything in the background and highlights things in a special, almost ethereal way.
McWay Falls has long served as a picturesque poster-child for Big Sur’s beauty and an absolute must-see sight on your road trip. What makes this scene so special is the way a slender ribbon of water plunges 80 feet down to a tree lined cliff into a pristine rocky cove and golden beach below. This beach is simultaneously lapped by the crashing white surf of a stunningly turquoise pool of water which itself is surrounded by the Pacific Ocean. I promise no photo does it justice!
Since the waterfall is fed by underground springs it flows year-round, though thinning considerably during times of drought. Access to the sandy beach below is illegal since the cliffs are unstable and dangerous but the view from the elevated vista point above is picture perfect. Even more-so while we were there in the Spring when the hillside tumbling down to the cove is blanketed with blooming wildflowers.
The falls are technically located inside Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park where you will find ample parking and bathrooms along with access to a trail that leads to a viewing platform for the falls. However, should the trail be blocked due to erosion or the park be closed, as it was on the day of our visit, you can simply park in the designated pull-out area along the main highway and walk down to the viewing spot for the falls.
Parking inside the park costs $10 cash per vehicle and gives you access to all California state parks until sundown! This fee also provides much-needed support for the state parks system in maintaining the beauty of this area.
Pfieffer Beach is a little trickier to find than our other Big Sur stops but well worth the effort. Afterall, its not just any beach that offers purple-marbled sand flanked by big arched rock formations. To get to this secluded haven we took Sycamore Canyon Road, a poorly marked and narrow unpaved road that winds for about 15 minutes until reaching the park entrance. Look for a for a big yellow sign that says, “Narrow Road” and you’ll know that’s where you need to turn. Also note that the road gets flooded. Signs will mark how deep the water is. The beach is open from sunrise to sunset and cost $10 cash per vehicle to enter. State park passes don’t work here. Only a limited number of cars are allowed down to the beach parking area, but we got lucky and found it quite uncrowded in the afternoon when we arrived.
All that effort and limitation to access makes it feel almost untouched. We practically had the stunning beach to ourselves. How often does that happen today?
This stop was easily our kid’s favorite of the day. While the water is way too cold for swimming and the rip tides are too dangerous, they enjoyed skirting the edge of the shoreline and feeling of the wind blow on their faces while they smushed their toes into the purple sand.
I can’t get over that purple sand. The unique color results from manganese garnet particles washing down from nearby hills.
You also won’t be able to miss the beach’s most famous feature. Keyhole rock sits front and center, waves blasting through the natural arch at its base.
Accommodation along the Big Sur coastline is scarce and much of what is available is either wildly expensive or adults-only, so we decided to stay in Monterey. It was the perfect place to end our day. This charming coastal town is known for its world-class aquarium. The kelp forest, giant open water tank and jelly fish are among the many highlights. We took the opportunity to have dinner in the charming Cannery Row area with family who also happened to be staying in Monterrey.
There are dozens of enticing eateries to choose from but our kids begged us for Bubba Gump. Though it’s a chain and not particularly exclusive it is a fantastic choice for families. Especially if your kids are older and have seen the 1994 movie Forrest Gump from which the restaurant gets its inspiration. Unsurprisingly you can enjoy shrimp served in just about every way possible as well as southern and Cajun-centric cuisine. We split a couple shrimp platters and enjoyed every bite!
Practical Tips For Big Sur:
So now that you have an idea of some of the incredible sights in Big Sur we wanted to share some really useful info we picked up along the way:
-First and foremost you’ll want to rent (or have) a car. That’s really the only way to see the splendor of Big Sur. Convertibles are particularly popular. We have never seen so many in one day, but we like to think we looked equally cool in our rented min-van that had plenty of space for our crew.
-Speaking of vehicles –Make sure to fill up your gas tank before taking on this drive. Gas stations in Big Sur are scarce and extremely expensive. It’s easily 40 miles between stations along some stretches.
–Download offline maps in advance so you can see where exactly you are going. We lost cell service almost immediately, which is cool, that’s all part of connecting with nature and going off the grid but we were really glad to have a good idea of where we were going beforehand. Especially when it came to finding tricky places like Pfieffer Beach.
-You can do Big Sur in a day, but spending the night will give you a chance to take your time and enjoy it. If you are traveling with kids especially, consider making Monterrey your home base for this excursion. Make your reservations as far in advance as you can since accommodations tend to book up fast!
-Safely stop to enjoy the views by utilizing the pull outs along the highway. And make sure your cameras are fully charged! These are images you will want to look back on.
-Pack some snacks and drinks ahead of time to avoid paying the astronomical prices at the convenience stores and restaurants in Big Sur. We didn’t have nearly enough on hand for our ravenous children.
-Have cash handy as the state parks require a small entrance fee before you head in.
-Check the weather ahead of time so you know what to expect but go ahead and bring a wind-blocking jacket and some sandals for the beach along with your sneakers for hikes.
-Our last suggestion is to slow down, roll down the windows, and take it all in. This will be a once in a lifetime kind of trip, so really absorb everything. It is an amazing ride, and one we will always remember.
Hopefully this itinerary has inspired you to take your kids to the beautiful city by the bay too. If you enjoyed this article, please save it to Pinterest by clicking the ‘P’ button on any image.
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