Post Summary: How To Plan A Day Trip To Big Sur, California
Best driven with the car windows down on a sunny summer day. Just kidding – it’s actually great all year round!
This 90-mile stretch of rugged California coastline has something to offer everyone. Backpackers, campers and road trippers alike will find something special to take away from this place.
In this post, we’re sharing what we saw on our day trip to Big Sur from San Francisco, and what you can appreciate on your own adventure too. Enjoy!
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How To Pull Off A Day Trip To Big Sur, California
For started, A day trip to Big Sur is completely doable from the Bay Area of California. Berty and I went as far as we pleased, then turned around to make our return back to San Francisco. There is no wrong way to enjoy Big Sur!
In this post, we wanted to share our story (with pictures, of course!) to let you know what to expect on your picturesque trip down this beautiful section of the California Coast.
What You Will Need For A Day Trip To Big Sur:
- A reliable car and plenty of gas
- Raincoat – see our favorite PNW picks here
- Camera – your phone will work just fine!
- California Park Pass or cash for day-use area entrance fees
- Light jacket for the morning and evening
Our alarms were set for 4 am.
There was a brief moment when Berty and I looked at each other, perhaps suggesting another day to go so we could just fall back to sleep instead. By some miracle we insisted today was definitely the day, and before long we were on the road leaving San Francisco.
I pretty much don’t remember anything until after coffee – which means I’m thankful for Berty driving the entire way.
We drove 3 hours in the dark before reaching Big Sur. After passing Bixby Creek Bridge (which we’ll get to shortly) the sun started to peek above the mountains.
We ended up pulling over at a random stop to capture the fog burning off the ridge and seeing the sky light up…
Honestly, we didn’t get far into Big Sur without feeling like we had to pull over around every corner!
The California coastline is incredible and there was something new and beautiful every turn of the road.
The sun was rising above the mountains so we ended up stopping at a random pullout. We couldn’t believe how the coastline just lit up!
After the sunrise, we took some time to shoot portraits. The morning light gave everything a soft feel, and we took advantage of this golden hour.
We packed a lot of clothing options because the weather looked a little unpredictable that day. I started off wearing my Stutterheim rain jacket, but the sun quickly warmed up the coast.
It’s surprising how California weather can change so fast, even in the winter!
Read More: Our Complete Travel Photography Gear List
If you’ve researched pictures of Big Sur, chances are that this falls will be on the top of your searched images.
McWay Falls is an 80-foot falls that cascades onto the sandy beach below. This is also a unique point along the Big Sur highway that allows you to enjoy views both from the south and from the north via the well-maintained boardwalks.
There is a parking lot nearby with a trail that leads directly to the falls. This particular parking lot located in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park costs $8, so remember to bring cash, or buy an annual California State Park Pass.
We walked along the very short trail and boardwalk to get several perspectives of McWay Falls.
*Make sure to stay on the trail because there are signs that warn of poison oak!! There is also no beach access for safety reasons so don’t attempt it without expecting a huge fine!
Read More: Our Complete Travel Photography Gear List
We drove down a narrow winding road for 20 minutes before reaching Pfeiffer Beach.
This beach is definitely not the easiest to get to, but worth the drive nonetheless. We paid $10 to park the car and receive a “day use” pass before getting to the water.
Berty and I wandered around the beach for quite some time exploring the purple-marbled sand and jagged rock formations.
The most famous rock here is called Keyhole rock, which has a natural arch at the base. We spent a long time watching the waves blast through it, trying to get a good photo of the water blasting through the hole!
We also met some really cool people on the beach who had been camping around Big Sur. Berty and I love encountering fellow adventure lovers!
They showed us some really cool spots to check out as we drove north and we exchanged social media accounts to keep up with each other’s adventures!
BIXBY CREEK (CANYON) BRIDGE
I definitely was looking forward to seeing this bridge, all thanks to the band Death Cab For Cutie. I’ve always wanted to find out the meaning of the lyrics of this song and why it was so special.
After some digging, I found this article online and this reddit thread about different interpretations that people have made for themselves. Here’s an excerpt from the Reddit thread that sums up a really good interpretation:
“So in the song, Ben Gibbard and his band are going to Bixby Canyon/Big Sur to stay in a rented cabin to record Narrow Stairs. This location is special to Ben because an author he respects, Jack Kerouac, wrote a book, Big Sur, about going to this area of California. Jack is a notorious alcoholic and his life is a bit of a wreck, and I’ve wondered if Ben identifies with him due to being a recovering alcoholic himself. So the band goes to this place, and this song is about him getting to the infamous Bixby Canyon Bridge and expecting to have an epiphany, a spiritual awakening, something like that, and it doesn’t happen…[and it continues] Ben didn’t get his answers, just like Jack never beat his alcoholism. It’s a song about disappointment. It’s a song about expectation and being let down by yourself. It’s so beautiful and so sad, it gets me every time.”
As far as viewpoints go, you can park on either side of the bridge on the coastal side to get a fantastic picture of the bridge.
Berty and I decided to park in the overflow lot, which is on the north side of the bridge closest to the mountains.
We found a short trail with a great view, so we spent a lot of time taking portraits and enjoying the solitude of this iconic bridge!
After just a few minutes of being outside the car, we were caught in a flash rainstorm.
Luckily our car was right up the hill and we ran up and grabbed our Stutterheim rain gear. One piece of advice we would give is to bring a raincoat, especially if you are visiting in the winter and spring months!
DRIVING HOME FROM A DAY TRIP TO BIG SUR
The drive home from a day trip to Big Sur was just as beautiful as the drive there! Now, we had time to slowly make our way back, exploring fun things to do in Santa Cruz, visiting small towns like Davenport, and rolling the windows down to feel the salty air breeze.
We took a long way home, along the rest of Highway 1 heading north. We saw more beautiful coastal formations and even pulled over to watch the sunset over the Pacific Ocean.
We’ll share more about this “northern” Highway 1 journey, but for now, let’s leave it at this.
It was a long but beautiful journey, and we are so glad we didn’t hit the snooze button.
Continue To Read Here:
- 10 Stunning Coastal Views On California’s Highway 1 (coming soon)
- What To Expect At Shark Fin Cove (pictured below)
- The Ultimate Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Route (Washington To Southern California!)
Not Ready To Leave Big Sur?
Consider making it a weekend trip! There are plenty of beautiful places to stay in Big Sur, from campgrounds to luxury stays near the ocean.
Here are some of our suggestions for your Big Sur accommodations for a weekend trip:
Camp Sites In Big Sur, California:
- Read Our Guide To Finding Free Campsites Here.
- Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground
- Lime Kiln Campground
- Plaskett Creek Campground
- See More Big Sur Camping Options Here.
Have you ever been on a day trip to Big Sur? What was your favorite part and why? We’d love it if you’d share your experience in the comments for other readers to enjoy too!
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