visit big sur california

What to see when you visit Big Sur and Monterey

One of the most incredible roads in America is the Pacific Coast Highway, specifically the Big Sur Drive. The stunning views along the coast are unlike any in this country. Stretching from Morro Bay to Monterey, this 123-mile Big Sur drive will make you want to double back and do it again! So as you visit Big Sur, take your time and soak in the views.

Remember, the Big Sur drive is slow as it’s only one lane both ways. However, this will allow you time to soak it all up. Below you’ll find the best Big Sur photography spots to visit.

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Big Sur

A Guide to Your Big Sur Drive

Planning your trip to Big Sur

Preparing for your Big Sur Drive

  1. Download all maps offline. Cell service is notoriously terrible on this stretch of the coast.
  2. Keep an eye on your gas tank. There are only a few places to fill up once you start. I’d recommend filling it up in Monterey or Morro Bay. Plus, prices will be much more reasonable.
  3. Make sure you have what you need supply-wise when you leave Monterey or Morro Bay too. Again, not a lot of stores on the coast.

How long does it take to drive around Big Sur?

That depends on what you want to do! It can take an afternoon, or you can spend a week and explore every nook and cranny. I usually tell people about 2-3 days around Big Sur. The downside is unless you score camping reservations at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park or can reach the free camping spots in the mountains, you’ll have to drive back and forth from Monterey, which adds up fast.

Is the Big Sur drive hard?

The Big Sur Drive is pretty standard, but it has some narrow and winding areas that require your utmost attention. However, most of it is easy to drive. Just go slow and don’t get caught gazing at the sights.

Where does the Big Sur drive start and end?

The northernmost part of Big Sur is in Carmel by the Sea, while the southern part is Morro Bay. This stretch is heavenly, and you’ll be sad when you complete the Big Sur Drive.

the best Big Sur photography spots
Photographing Big Sur

How to get to Big Sur?

From the South

You’re going to make your way to Morro Bay on California’s 101 and then look for directions to Highway 1 (The Pacific Coast Highway). From here, it’s a straight shot on the Big Sur drive. From Los Angeles, it’s a 4.25-hour drive to Morro Bay.

From the North

If you’re heading from the Bay area, you have a shorter and easier drive than Los Angeles. From San Francisco, it’s a 2.5-hour drive to Monterey.

Where to stay while visiting Big Sur

There are not a lot of lodging options between Morro Bay and Monterey. There are a handful of campgrounds, but those are full almost immediately after being posted. Additionally, there are a few ultra-luxury places, but most readers cannot afford those rates. (Sorry!)

I’d suggest sticking with Monterey or Carmel-By-The-Sea and sucking it up by driving all around.

Expected Hiking Temperatures

For hiking, the best time to visit Big Sur is year-round. However, with temperatures that hover between 55-70, you can get out and hike whenever. The best places to hike are Big Pfeiffer State Park and Garrapata State Park.

When should I visit Big Sur?

One of the beauties of Big Sur is how amazing the weather is year-round. Unfortunately, you will have to contend with fog during the summer months, as the warm valleys inland draw in the fog and limit the views. This typically burns off by mid-day, but your morning may be a bit muted.

So when deciding the best time to visit Big Sur, I’d recommend spring or fall when the fog is less severe and crowds are minimal. Here you’ll have excellent conditions for your Big Sur drive.

The best Big Sur destinations

Elephant Seal Vista

elephant seal vista california the best big sur photography spots
places to visit in big sur

One of the first stops as you head north. You should see a couple of hundred Elephant Seals lounging on the sand. It’s quite the sight and one that all ages will enjoy.

McWay Falls

The iconic waterfalls into the ocean, McWay Falls, is a must-see spot on the PCH. It’s easily one of the best Big Sur photography spots.

Keyhole Arch and Pfeiffer Beach

pfeiffer beach big sur california
places to visit in big sur

pfeiffer beach big sur californiaThe purple sand of Pfeiffer Beach is beautiful, and Keyhole Arch is a fantastic place to view the sunset. If you go in December, you can get the sun setting through the keyhole. Keep in mind this is not a state park or public land. There is a fee, and no passes cover it. Even so, this is an incredible spot and one of my favorite places for photographing Big Sur.

Any pull-off on the PCH

visit big sur california the best Big Sur photography spots
places to visit in big sur

This might sound like hyperbole, but you’ll love it wherever you stop on the PCH. There are dozens and dozens of pull-offs to take in the views and grab a bite to eat. This makes Big Sur photography incredibly abundant, and you won’t be disappointed!

Bixby Bridge

bixby bridge big sur

One of the most famous bridges in California, Bixby Bridge, has an official turnout spot, but that’s insanely crazy. I’d recommend driving behind it and getting away from the crowds. Or visit early in the morning. Either way, it’s one of the places to visit in Big Sur, and you’ll love the views.

Great Sur Overlook

great sur overlook  photographing big sur
photographing big sur

A quick pull-off on the side of the view offers an expansive view of the coastline and the Pacific Ocean. Unfortunately, you can’t go further than the pull-off as it’s private land, but it’s a great spot when you visit Big Sur.

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

big sur redwoods photographing big sur
pfeiffer big sur state park falls the best Big Sur photography spots

A half-day is all you need for the state park. Pfeiffer Falls is a short hike amongst redwoods to a waterfall. Overall, it’s about 2 miles round trip. There are longer hikes above the tree line, which will give you views of the ocean.

Garrapata State Park

the best big sur photography spots
Photographing Big Sur
the best Big Sur photography spots china lookout
Big Sur Drive

In my opinion, this is the best part of the Big Sur drive. It allows you to hike around and explore the coast without being directly on the road. The places to check out are:

  • Soberanes Point
  • China Lookout
  • Painters Point

17-Mile Drive

lone cyprus 17 mile drive monterey
Big Sur Drive
17-mile drive pebble beach 18 hole photographing big sur

Want to feel poor and see some beauty? Do the 17-mile drive! This drive costs $10 and gives you access to the beautiful Pebble Beach community. You’ll drive through some of the nation’s most magical houses and properties and see stunning coastal views.

Point Lobos State Reserve

Point lobos state reserve monterey best time to visit Big Sur
Big Sur Drive

Another great half-day excursion when you visit Big Sur and Monterey is Point Lobos! I didn’t know much about it when I arrived and was underwhelmed, but walking around was still a fun time, and it’s beautiful. However, I did love photographing Big Sur elephant seals here.

Extra day? See Pinnacles National Park (70-minute drive)

pinnacles national park

Pinnacles National Park is a worthy destination if you want to venture further. There’s not much there, but it’s worth it for a quick day’s adventure.

3 Day Itinerary for Big Sur and the California Coast

I usually come from LA, so that’s how I’ll structure it. Flip it around if you want!

Day 1

  • Stretch your legs and visit the Elephant Seals
  • Take a break for lunch and check out McWay Falls
  • Also, do the pull-off for Bixby Bridge
  • Hike around Big Pfeiffer State Park
  • Dinner and hotel in Monterey
garapata state park photographing big sur

Day 2

  • Up early for a Big Sur drive at sunrise to Garraptata State Park
  • Enjoy walking around Point Lobos State Park
  • Go down Keyhole Arch and Pfeiffer Beach

Day 3

  • Do a whale-watching trip out of Monterey
  • Do the 17-Mile Drive near Pebble Beach
  • Check out the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park near Santa Cruz
  • Head inland to Pinnacles National Park

The Big Sur Drive – Wrapping up

Thanks for taking the time to read and learn about visiting Big Sur. Remember, please Leave No Trace and leave the place better than you found it!

Until next time adventurers, take care and be safe.

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