Taking a road trip through Big Sur is one of the most iconic and jaw-dropping drives in America. Each twist and turn will be more beautiful than the last, and you’ll wonder how somewhere this beautiful actually exists. It is an easy day trip from the Bay Area, and can be a great weekend getaway from Southern California as well.
However, there are some things to be aware of before you start your road trip. Here are my top 10 tips for road tripping through California’s central coast!
Big Sur is not a secret. People flock to this coastline for day trips all the time, and crowds are inevitable. As with most places, arriving as early in the morning will be key. Depending on where you are coming from, plan ahead to be arriving (or at least close) by sunrise. The fog over the cliffs and sea will start to burn off and the massive coastline will open out in front of you like the curtain at the beginning of a play. Plus, at that time of day you will only encounter a small number of other cars and will feel like you have the place to yourself. It’ll be fantastic.
There are long stretches of Highway 1 with exactly zero gas stations. Make sure you have a full tank, and keep an eye on the meter during your drive to make sure you’ll have enough to get back. You’ll be driving up and down cliffs, which can also hurt your gas mileage. If you’re renting a car, try to get an economy or one that is otherwise known to be good on gas. This isn’t the best time for a large SUV. Plus, a smaller car will be much easier to park and maneuver through tight turns.
Service drops off pretty suddenly, and is virtually non-existent through the drive. Of course you’ll need to bring it to plug in your road trip playlist and to take thousands of pictures, but don’t rely on needing it for anything more. Play it safe by letting friends and family know where you will be before you lose service, and approximately when they can expect you to be back “online.”
Tip: Before your trip, download the area in Google Maps. This will allow you to access it offline and zoom in to see details and points of interest. These take up a lot of room on your phone though, so the less “area” you download, the better.
When in doubt, a paper map requires no satellite connection and has no battery to charge I found that navigating through Big Sur with a paper map was a blast, and made us feel like we were in the good ole days. We snagged a folded paper map from a gas station in Monterey and highlighted all of our points of interest. It was amusing to be able to trace your finger down the paper as we drove.
Plus, it makes for a great souvenir!
While you will find the occasional General Store along the route, they are very few and far between. Prices will be high too, since the area is so remote. Do yourself (and your wallet) a favor and stock up at a grocery store before you hit the road. We snagged a cheap foam cooler from Safeway, filled it with ice, and were able to pack fresh food for the ride. Around lunch time, we pulled the car over and grabbed some snacks for a picnic. Sitting on top of boulders while looking out at the sea and eating Lunchables was the best part of the day.
I’m sure it’ll come as no surprise when I tell you that bathrooms are also virtually non-existent. Again, you will pass facilities from time to time, but don’t rely on them. Isn’t the general rule about bathrooms that they are never there when you need them?
Plan ahead by packing a roll of toilet paper or biodegradable wipes in your car. When you gotta go, you gotta go and the last thing you want to do is have to use a leaf for clean up. Also (and not to sound like your mother), take advantage of bathrooms when you can. Staring out at the rippling waves all day will never make it better.
As the day progresses on and the roads start to fill up, you’ll see many cars parked along side the road. Take it from them and do the same. Parking lots will cost you anywhere from $5-$20 to park your car, and you’ll only have a marginally closer walk. Just pull off to the side, make sure your car is as far off the road as possible, and go the rest of the way by foot. As with any time you are parking on the road, pay attention to signs. There are some sections (specifically around bends) where there is no parking allowed. Take the extra minute to make sure you’re parking legally.
If you do end up paying to park in a lot, hold on to your receipt. Since Pfeiffer Big Sur is part of the California State Parks system, that receipt will allow you to park in any lot on their property for the entire day. Display the ticket on your dash or show the attendant with the date side up, and you’re good to go. If you’re traveling with someone with limited mobility, this would definitely be a worthy investment for the day as most of the lots are paved and easy to walk on.
There is so much to see and do in Big Sur, but a day trip is more than enough to take in the highlights. Lodging is available, but certainly comes at a price. Do your wallet a favor and maximize the hours in daylight and see it all! If you wanted to see the entire coast, the drive between Carmel and Cambria is only slightly over 2 hours (without stopping). The amount of time you choose to spend at each stop is up to you. but it’s certainly doable.
If you feel like you’ll be crunched on time, plan your stops ahead of time. You’ll for sure want to visit the iconic McWay Falls, get a shot of Bixby Creek Bridge, and see the Keyhole Arch. Be on the lookout for signs so you don’t miss a thing!
In Big Sur it is all about the journey, not the destination! The pace here is slow, and it’s that way for a reason. Rushing past these indescribable coastlines would be an absolute waste. Slow down, park your car, step outside, and take it all in.
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