Taking a Big Sur road trip, and driving along Highway 1 is one of those quintessential, bucket list, must do adventures for anyone visiting California.
I grew up only a few hours away from Big Sur, and have visited countless times.
Even still, taking a Big Sur road trip remains one of my all time favorite things to do. You get unobstructed, scenic views of the Pacific. You are able to explore waterfalls, camp, and hike. All in one magical trip!
Where is Big Sur?
Big Sur is a 90 mile stretch of highway along the Central Coast of California that reaches from San Simeon up to Carmel. Coming up from Los Angeles, the start of Big Sur is about 300 miles north of LA. If you are driving down from San Francisco, the start of Big Sur from the north end is about 145 miles south of SF.
p.s.: This post may contain affiliate links. If you use these links to buy or book something we may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. And, as an Amazon associate I earn a commission from qualifying sales. Thanks for your support of Gathering Waves!
Best Driving Route
The best way to start a Big Sur Road trip is from Carmel and to go north to south. This is because you will be driving on the ocean side of the road, and it will be easier to pull off at all the vista points.
However, I’ve also gone south to north, and had an equally wonderful experience. So I wouldn’t worry too much about direction, it’s an amazing drive either way.
What to do on a Big Sur Road Trip
Taking a Big Sur road trip is awesome because the drive alone is spectacular in and of itself. However, there are also many wonderful things to do on a Big Sur road trip.
There are tons of beautiful hikes to do in Big Sur. Two of the best are:
Salmon Creek Waterfall Trail: The trail to the waterfall is a very short, 0.3 mile walk from the road. It’s an out and back trail, and is moderately difficult only because you have to climb over a few rocks to get to the falls. The trailhead is located 18 miles north of San Simeon, and 72 miles south of Carmel.
McWay falls overlook trail: This 1.1 mile trail leads to a beautiful view of the famous McWay falls, and is a loop. It is located 52 miles north of San Simeon, and is located 38.5 miles south of Carmel.
If surfing is your thing, there is some epic surf in Big Sur.
My personal favorite spot is Sand Dollar Beach. Sand Dollar Beach is about 30 miles north of San Simeon, so if you are driving up Big Sur, it is towards the beginning of the drive. It’s a big U shaped beach break, with a pretty long paddle out when there is any swell.
Another good spot is Willow Creek, about 2 miles south of Sand Dollar. However there are some rocks here so it is more of an intermediate/advanced break. Also, both of these beaches, especially Willow Creek, have been known to have Great White Shark sightings, so proceed with caution.
McWay falls: Located in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, these are the most popular falls in Big Sur, and understandably so. It’s an 80 foot waterfall that drops onto a pristine, white sand beach. The McWay falls are located 52 miles north of San Simeon, and 36 miles south of Carmel. There is no path down to the beach here, you must view it from above- and that is part of what keeps it so beautiful and protected!
Salmon Creek waterfall: This is a waterfall you can actually swim in! The Salmon Creek waterfall is located fairly close to the south entrance, just 18 miles north of San Simeon. It is about 72 miles south of Carmel. To get to the waterfall, it is about a .3 mile walk from the parking lot. Just watch out for poison oak!
Pfeiffer Beach: This beach is very special, and known for its famous and unique rock formations. It is located 60 miles north of San Simeon, and 30.8 miles south of Carmel.
Sand Dollar Beach: This is a big, beautiful U shaped beach with some fun waves for surfing too. It is located 30 miles north of San Simeon, and 60 miles south of Carmel.
With beautiful weather, and beach proximity, Big Sur is a great place to camp. There are a number of camp grounds here, including:
Kirk Creek campground: Sites go for $35 a night, and this campground is in a big, grassy area with beautiful ocean views. This campground is located 35 miles north of San Simeon, and 55 miles south of Carmel.
Limekiln State Park: Sites go for $35 a night, and here you can either camp near the ocean, or nestled in the redwoods. This campground is located 37 miles north of San Simeon, and 53 miles south of Carmel.
Plaskett Creek Campground: Sites go for $35 a night, and the campsite is located in a big grassy area, where wildflowers bloom in the spring time! This campsite is located 30 miles north of San Simeon, and 60 miles south of Carmel.
**and the best camping- free camping! Which I will get to at the end of this post.
What to Pack for a Big Sur Road Trip
What to pack for a Big Sur road trip largely depends on what sort of activities you plan on doing during your trip. If you plan on doing some camping, a couple of hikes, and having some beach time, this is what I recommend packing:
- layers! Central California weather is notorious for being 75 and sunny, and then cold and rainy just a few hours later, especially at the coast.
- surfboards! If you want to try to catch some fun, uncrowded waves at either Sand Dollar or Willow Creek, I recommend bringing your own boards (and wetsuit, at least a 3/2 mm thickness) as there is nowhere nearby to rent.
- beach supplies! towels, swimsuits, sunscreen, etc. If you are visiting Big Sur, especially in the summer months, then you’ll want to bring beach stuff, as Big Sur has some beautiful beaches.
- Camping supplies: tent, flashlights/lanterns, sleeping bag, toilet paper (if you stay at a free campsite, there are no facilities!), bug spray (there are lots of mosquitoes by the Salmon Creek waterfall)
- extras: camera, hammock, speaker to respectfully play music
How to Camp for Free in Big Sur
Free camping is maybe my absolute favorite thing to do on a Big Sur Road Trip. And what’s great is that it is completely legal! The way it works, is you can park overnight and camp for free off the side of Forest Service Roads, and Big Sur has two main ones:
- Nacimiento-Fergusson Road: If driving north from San Simeon, the right turn for Nacimiento-Fergusson Road is 35 miles north of San Simeon, before Kirk Creek Campground. If you pass Kirk Creek Campground, you just missed it! If driving south from Carmel, the left turn will be 55.3 miles south of Carmel, and after Kirk Creek Campground.
- Once you turn onto this road, you are going to drive up a mostly paved steep road for 15 miles. You cannot camp for free here, but once the road turns to dirt, after about 40 minutes/ 15 miles, you will see a sign indicating you’re on forest service land. After this sign, you can pull off anywhere along the side of the road and camp! I recommend going almost to the end of the road and you will find some spectacular ocean views.
- You will need AWD to drive along this road. I have seen cars do it without AWD, I have also seen cars get stuck, and have to get out and push. It’s a windy, unpaved road and in many places is single car only. You do not want to get stuck here, so I strongly advise you take a car with AWD or 4WD. It’s definitely a difficult drive, but trust me, VERY worth it, and will probably be the highlight of your Big Sur Road Trip!
- Plaskett Ridge Road: This road is just a little south of Nacimiento-Fergusson, doesn’t go quite as high, but is a much easier drive. So if you’re looking to camp for free with a view, but don’t want to deal with driving up too difficult of a road, I recommend camping here! Do keep in mind though that you will still need AWD/4WD for this road. If driving north from San Simeon, the right turn for Plaskett Ridge Road is after the Jade Cove Beach Parking, about 30 miles north of San Simeon. If driving south from Carmel, you’ll hit the left turn for Plasket Ridge road in about 61 miles, before the Jade Cove beach parking.
- Once you turn onto Plaskett Ridge road, you will pass some private properties and drive up until the road flattens out and you’ll see plenty of turnouts where you can camp. I recommend driving almost to the end of the road, and you’ll be able to score an ocean view spot, and have plenty of open space to yourself!
Free camping tips:
- Leave no trace! This is a really special place, in that it is so wild, and untouched. Let’s keep it that way! Anything you bring in, bring out with you.
- No fires, including stoves. California has had some absolutely devastating wildfires the past few years, and these campsites are very dry and have a high fire hazard. Bring lanterns/flashlights for light, and food that doesn’t need to be heated!
- Try to get to the top of the forest service roads to camp a few hours before sunset. Then, you will have top pick of campsite, not have to set up camp in the dark, AND get a killer sunset view.
- Bring lots of water. Even if it’s cold on Highway 1 by the sea, it gets pretty hot and dry up on the forest service roads, and there are no facilities.
- There is no phone service anywhere in Big Sur, including along the forest service roads, so plan accordingly.
- Try to wake up early for a spectacular view of the morning fog over the ocean before it burns off.
Big Sur road trip guide final thoughts
That’s a wrap on my Big Sur road trip guide. Big Sur is one of the most magical places in California, and well worth the trip.
I hope this guide has left you feeling excited and inspired to embark on your own Big Sur road trip. Happy travels!