San Francisco to Big Sur Road Trip: 20 Best Stops + Tips

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Looking for an unforgettable San Francisco to Big Sur road trip? In this article, we’ll uncover hidden gems along California’s breathtaking Highway 1, from the laid-back Pacifica to the majestic Big Sur. Get ready for scenic views, hikes, and culinary delights!

San Francisco to Big Sur road trip | Pacifica - Mori Point
Mori Point in Pacifica

Written by guest author: Janice Lim

Want to experience California’s famous Highway 1, also known as Pacific Coast Highway, without driving the full length? Here’s a road trip idea from San Francisco to Big Sur, which captures the highlights of California’s coast. 

Most people think of a California coastal road trip as simply driving Highway 1, and often rush through it as a result. Sure – you will see some beautiful ocean views from your car or campervan. However, there are many culturally and historically significant places worth stopping by that will elevate your road trip experience.

Having driven from Los Angeles to San Francisco a couple of times, I’ve found some of my favorite attractions to be between the Northern and Central coast. 

In particular, the section between San Francisco and Big Sur is an incredibly diverse coastal stretch worth taking the road trip for. It promises rugged coastlines and quaint beach towns, each with its own charm and history. 

If you’re looking to focus your road trip within Northern California, this San Francisco to Big Sur guide is for you. In this article, I will be sharing some hidden gem beaches and wildlife sighting spots, where to eat, and of course the classic Highway 1 highlights.

San Francisco to Big Sur Guide

1. Pacifica

San Francisco to Big Sur road trip | Pacifica - Montara Mountain
Views from Montara Mountain

Location: Approximately 20 minutes south of San Francisco

Pacifica sets the tone for your road trip as Highway 1 brings you down a cliff and towards the coast, revealing the pristine beaches. Despite being near San Francisco, it has a laid-back vibe that locals and visitors love. It’s a great spot for hiking, surfing, or simply enjoying the scenic viewpoints. 

For a simple hike, consider checking out Mori Point, a scenic headland with benches for you to rest and admire the Pacific Ocean. This area also has an interesting history of being a hot spot for bootlegging, hence part of the trail is called Bootleggers Steps. From Mori Point, you can see the long stretch of sandy shores including the Pacifica Pier.

San Francisco to Big Sur road trip | Pacifica - Devils Bunker
Devil’s Bunker

Devil’s Bunker is another hidden gem that is just off Highway 1, a graffiti-covered bunker remnant from World War II. Today, it sits atop a coastal cliff overlooking Gray Whale Cove State Beach. It is a quirky attraction with a view, and is worth a quick stop. 

Hiking enthusiasts will also love the nearby trail leading to Montara Mountain North Peak. You’ll enjoy views of Pacifica, San Francisco, and the surrounding peaks like Mount Diablo. 

Lastly, don’t forget to stop by the famous Taco Bell located on Pacifica State Beach, and get caffeinated at Soul Grind Coffee Roasters

2. Half Moon Bay

San Francisco to Big Sur road trip | Half Moon Bay - Fitzgerald Marine Reserve
Fitzgerald Marine Reserve

Location: Approximately 30 minutes south of Pacifica

Half Moon Bay is one of the oldest settlements in the San Mateo county, formerly known as “Spanishtown”. It is accessible via Highway 92 which winds through the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Half Moon Bay is a popular pumpkin festival destination during fall, and the perfect beach hangout during warmer months. It is also steeped in history, which you can learn about at the old Half Moon Bay jail which is now the Coastside History Museum.

J V Fitzgerald Marine Reserve is a local hidden gem with excellent tide pooling opportunities at low tide. If that’s not your thing, try going on a walk along the Bluff Trail which goes through a Eucalyptus grove overlooking the rocky shore. Pillar Point Bluff also has a Bluff Trail leading towards Maverick’s Beach, a hot area for surfing big waves.

San Francisco to Big Sur road trip | Half Moon Bay - Ritz Carlton
Golf course at the Ritz-Carlton

You can also go golfing at the Ritz-Carlton which sits atop a coastal bluff. After that, enjoy a drink or some bar snacks on their outdoor patio as you look out to the ocean. 

If you’re stopping for a meal, check out Sam’s Chowder House for their classic Lobster Rolls and Clam Chowder. Another local favorite is Dad’s Luncheonette which serves homely gourmet sandwiches from a historic train caboose. 

3. Pescadero

San Francisco to Big Sur road trip | Pescadero - Franklin Point
Franklin Point

Location: Approximately 30 minutes south of Half Moon Bay

If you’re looking for a quieter coastal destination, consider checking out Pescadero. It sits between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz along Highway 1. 

Agriculture and farming is still a way of life in this part of the coast. You’ll find places like Pie Ranch selling their own produce and Harley Farms Goat Dairy providing farm tours.

Consider stopping by Pigeon Point Lighthouse which is one of the tallest in America. You can also book a stay at the Pigeon Point hostel here which even has a hot tub overlooking the ocean. 

Aside from the nearby state beaches, you can also visit lesser known spots like Franklin Point. This part of the beach is slightly hidden and is accessed via a short walk along the sandy beach dunes. 

You can shop for local crafts, treats and souvenirs along Stage Road in Downtown Pescadero. Grab a coffee from Downtown Local, and don’t leave Pescadero without trying the famous artichoke soup at Duarte’s Tavern

4. Santa Cruz

San Francisco to Big Sur road trip | Santa Cruz - Beach Boardwalk
Santa Cruz Boardwalk

Location: Approximately 40 minutes south of Pescadero

Perhaps one of the most distinctive traits about Santa Cruz is its surf culture, with world-class surfing spots and even a Surfing Museum

Even if you’re not into surfing, you can still enjoy the Santa Cruz Wharf and Beach Boardwalk which are the iconic attractions here. As the sun sets over Santa Cruz, the golden hour glow is replaced by the colorful lights of the amusement park.

San Francisco to Big Sur road trip | Santa Cruz - West Cliff Drive
Views along West Cliff Drive

Santa Cruz is also an excellent spot for tide pooling at low tide. Try looking for sea stars, anemone, and octopus at Natural Bridges State Beach. Here, you’ll also see the arch-shaped rock formation which this place is named after. 

If you prefer to just drive by and enjoy the view, West Cliff Drive is a scenic route that passes through iconic surf spots like Steamer Lane. While you’re there, why not stop by Shrine Coffee for a quick break?

5. Capitola

San Francisco to Big Sur road trip | Capitola - Colorful Houses

Location: Approximately 10 minutes south of Santa Cruz

Capitola charms visitors with its Mediterranean-inspired architecture, a pop of color, and relaxed beach vibes. It’s the perfect spot for a leisurely stroll or a quick lunch by the beach. Look out for the multi-colored condos in front of Capitol Venetian Hotel as you stroll along the Esplanade or the beach. 

There are many dining options at the beachfront, ranging from casual pizza diners to lively beach bar concepts. Further inland, you can also find local favorites like Mijo’s Taqueria, which serves amazing fried fish tacos. Enjoy a scoop or two of ice cream from Polar Bear Ice Cream, known for their many innovative flavors.

6. Monterey

San Francisco to Big Sur road trip | Monterey - Old Fisherman's Wharf

Location: Approximately 40 minutes south of Capitola

At the southern end of Monterey Bay lies the city of Monterey. It is home to the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium with various creative exhibitions showcasing the diverse marine life. Since the deepest part of the submarine canyon is just beyond the Monterey shores, it’s common to see other wildlife like whales and dolphins passing through. 

You can also explore the Old Fisherman’s Wharf to indulge in fresh seafood, then take a walk along Cannery Row, a historic waterfront with charming shops and galleries. For coffee, Captain + Stoker provides a relaxing atmosphere with its bicycle-themed decor and plenty of seating spaces. 

7. Pacific Grove

San Francisco to Big Sur road trip | Pacific Grove - 17 Mile Drive
Views on the 17-Mile Drive

Location: Adjacent to Monterey, approximately 10 minutes away

Right next to Monterey is Pacific Grove, with picture-perfect Victorian houses and beaches. Check out the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary where migrating Monarchs spend their overwintering months starting from late fall through winter. 

It’s a unique phenomenon where thousands of Monarch butterflies cluster on the Eucalyptus trees when it’s cold, and fly around during the warmer afternoon hours. 

Don’t miss the 17-Mile Drive, which is an easy detour along your Highway 1 road trip. It winds through the coast with plenty of viewpoints to enjoy various parts of this rugged landscape. Here, you’ll find the iconic Lone Cypress. It’s a symbol of resilience amidst hardship as it stands alone on the rocky outcrop. 

Golden hour truly brings out the beauty of the beaches and cliffs here. Even if you don’t have time for the full 17-Mile Drive, Moss Beach and China Rock Vista Point are also excellent spots to linger for sunset. 

After an adventure-filled day, indulge in a meal at Passionfish with their innovative seafood menu. You may have to make a reservation here as it’s quite popular.

8. Carmel-by-the-Sea

San Francisco to Big Sur road trip | Carmel - Ocean Avenue
Ocean Avenue

Location: Approximately 20 minutes south of Pacific Grove

At the other end of 17-Mile Drive is Carmel-by-the-Sea, which is unlike any of the other destinations in this list. 

In some ways, it reminds me of a European town with a fairytale-like character. From its historic cottages and secret passageways, there is so much to explore as you walk around this town. For example, the Tuck Box cottage is a popular photo spot.

San Francisco to Big Sur road trip | Carmel - La Bicyclette
Seafood at La Bicyclette

You’ll also find art galleries, boutique shops, tasting rooms, and award-winning restaurants. My favorite restaurant here is La Bicyclette, a French-Italian restaurant with amazing pasta, pizza, and seasonal seafood. 

I recommend staying overnight in Carmel for a more relaxed experience. However, if you’re looking for a quick way to see Carmel, check out the main area along Ocean Avenue. You’ll pass by Carmel Bakery and Carmel Valley Coffee Roasting Co where you can pick up a tea time snack to enjoy at Carmel Beach

9. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

San Francisco to Big Sur road trip | Point Lobos - China Cove
China Cove

Location: Approximately 10 minutes south of Carmel-by-the-Sea

As you continue towards Point Lobos, the coast gradually becomes more rugged. This area was once rich in biodiversity but was exploited for abalone harvesting. It also had a history of whale harpooning as they harvested their blubber for oil before kerosene was introduced. 

Today, there is huge emphasis on protecting this Natural Reserve, in hopes that marine life will recover. To learn more about the history of Point Lobos, stop by Whalers Cabin to check out the exhibits. 

Nature enthusiasts will enjoy hiking around the perimeter of Point Lobos. It’s a great way to see the turquoise ocean and watch the waves crash against the rocks up close. You can also climb up to Whalers Knoll which people used as a lookout, and see if you can spot any whale activity in the distance. 

San Francisco to Big Sur road trip | Point Lobos - Cypress Grove
Cypress Grove

For a short hike, I recommend checking out Cypress Grove to admire the trees that have endured the harsh coastal environment here for years. Amidst the bent and twisted tree branches, you’ll also find hardy succulents growing on the rocks. 

Aside from the stunning coastal views, Point Lobos is also home to sea lions which you can see and hear from Sea Lion Point and China Cove

10. Big Sur

San Francisco to Big Sur road trip | Big Sur - Garrapata State Park

Location: Approximately 10-50 minutes south of Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

Now the highlight you have been waiting for – Big Sur. It is truly the crown jewel of the California coast, a rugged paradise with towering cliffs and redwood forests. 

There are very few amenities here, so make sure you have enough food, water and gas for peace of mind. People sometimes take a one-day road trip from San Francisco to Big Sur, but I recommend allocating more time here.

One of the first attractions you’ll come across is Garrapata State Park. It has a rocky shoreline with scenic hikes like the Bluff Trail and Soberanes Trail that offer an alternate perspective of the coast. 

Next up, we have Pfeiffer Beach which is famous for the purple sand that is more prominent after rain. If you’re into photography, look out for specific days when the sunset shines through the Keyhole Arch rock. 

San Francisco to Big Sur road trip | Big Sur - McWay Falls
McWay Falls at Big Sur

Another must-see is McWay Falls, which is accessed via a short walk along an easy trail and through a tunnel. Here, you’ll find the 80-foot-tall waterfall cascading into the turquoise ocean. The best time to come here is probably during golden hour.

Since there aren’t many dining options here, I recommend packing a picnic that you can enjoy after a hike. For example, you can sit on the rocks at Partington Cove as you have your lunch with a view. 

Alternatively, indulge in a meal at the famous Nepenthe which overlooks the ocean. You can also go cafe-hopping, with Big Sur Bakery and Coast Big Sur standing out as crowd favorites. 

Round up of stops from San Francisco to Big Sur

Here’s a recap of all the stops on a San Francisco to Big Sur road trip so you can see everything in one place.

  1. Pacifica
  2. Half Moon Bay
  3. Pescadero
  4. Santa Cruz
  5. Capitola
  6. Monterey
  7. Pacific Grove
  8. Carmel-by-the-Sea
  9. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
  10. Big Sur

Map of San Francisco to Big Sur road trip

San Francisco to Big Sur road trip map

Click on the map above to be taken to the interactive Google Maps version.

Additional tips for a San Francisco to Big Sur road trip

  • Check road conditions: Coastal routes like Highway 1 can be subject to closures and detours due to weather damage or maintenance works. Do check websites like Caltrans for up-to-date information.
  • Prepare layered clothing: The weather along the California coast can be unpredictable, so it’s a good idea to dress in layers.
  • Respect wildlife: Keep a safe distance from wildlife, and take note of drone restrictions. They are usually not allowed at most of the coastal areas as they can cause stress to marine birds. This ends up disrupting the fragile ecosystems.
  • Cell service: Consider downloading offline maps and music playlists before hitting the road.

Guest Author Janice Lim

About the guest author

Janice, a California-based travel writer from Singapore, discovered her love for hiking and camping during her studies in Los Angeles. Through wheresjanice.com, she shares informative guides on California itineraries, gear recommendations, and adventures in Asia. She also documents her adventures and learnings along the way through her Instagram @wheresjanice, hoping to inspire others to explore the great outdoors with confidence.

More Road Trip Planning Resources

As you can probably tell, we are HUGE fans of road tripping, and we have learned a lot along the way. We are stoked for you to plan your very own epic road trip, and so we’ve created some more resources that we think will be helpful for you.

  • Best USA Road Trips: This MASSIVE list is packed with routes recommended by travel bloggers all around the US sharing tips about their favorite American road trip.
  • How to Plan a Road Trip (in 5 simple steps!): In this article, we’ll help you get your route plotted out, plus we’ll share our top tips, and the biggest road trip mistakes to avoid.
  • Cheap Road Trip TipsTraveling on a budget? These tips will help you save money on your road trip!
  • Eco-Friendly Road Trip Tips: Reduce your footprint while road tripping or living in a campervan with these easy and practical tips!
  • Daily Costs of Vanlife: We kept track of everything we spent during our 3-month USA road trip, so you can see how much to budget for your own campervan or RV road trip.
  • Free Camping Guide: Tips and Apps to Find Free Campsites in the USA: We’ve rounded up our top tips and advice for finding free camping across the US, as well as the best free camping apps out there. Plus, we’re sharing the no-BS truth about what free campsites are really like…
  • The Ultimate Road Trip Packing ListWhether you are staying in a hotel, living in a campervan or RV, or you’re trekking in the backcountry, you won’t want to miss the items on this list — including a few you should definitely leave behind.

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San Francisco to Big Sur | Two Wandering Soles
San Francisco to Big Sur | Two Wandering Soles

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