Monterey, Carmel, and Big Sur have to be three of the most beautiful places in California. Just when I thought that I had seen the best that California has to offer, I took a road trip from San Francisco, south, and two-hours later I found myself exploring the beautiful California coast.
While Monterey and Carmel are laid back, yet fancy, beach towns on the coast of California, Big Sur is a stretch of rugged, coastal land between Carmel and San Simeon. All within 30+ miles of each other, the greatest thing about this part of California is the ease of being able to explore all three places in one or two days.
Exploring Monterey + Carmel + Big Sur
Please note, this road trip can be done by going through Monterey, Carmel, then Big Sur back to San Francisco. Or Big Sur, Carmel, Monterey to San Francisco. If you start at Big Sur, put your location in as San Simeon and then drive north from there. This road trip itinerary is designed to be done in one to two days depending on your timeline and how much you want to get out and see along the way. If you are limited on time and plan to complete this trip in one day, skip Monterey and only visit Carmel and Big Sur. If seeing all of the attractions is a priority for you, then plan on spending the night and giving yourself two days to see everything.
The drive from San Francisco to Monterey is about two-hours. As you take 101 South, you’ll leave behind the city and make your way towards the coast, ending in the beach town of Monterey. When you get to Monterey, make sure to head to Lovers Point Park for views of the rugged coastline. Grab a coffee and stroll through downtown on Alvarado Street. And if you have time, don’t miss the impressive Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Once you’ve finished begin one of the most thrilling parts of the trip – driving the 17-mile drive. The 17-mile drive is a road going through Pebble Beach and leading from Monterey to Carmel. Truth is, to get to Carmel (or vice versa), the drive is only 8.5 miles. However, the road loops around making it 17-miles total.
If you’re going from Monterey to Carmel, the drive begins at Pacific Grove. There you’ll pay $10.50 to enter Pebble Beach and make your way to Carmel. While the road is marked and easy to follow, you’ll also be given a pamphlet showing you 17 different stops along the way. With tons of places to get out and explore, if you have the time, make it a priority to visit as many attractions as you can. However, if you’re short on time make it a priority to stop at Crocker Grove and The Lone Cypress. Both sites are where you’ll see the Monterey Cypress trees. These trees only grow in two places – Pebble Beach and Point Lobos.
If you want the full effect of the drive, make sure to download the “17 Mile Drive” app ahead of time. You can purchase a full tour audio guide on the app for $3.99.
As you exit the 17-Mile Drive and pull into Carmel, you may notice how vastly different the two towns feel. In Monterey, you get a more laid back and beachy vibe, while Carmel exudes European vibes and feels much more magical. If you’re choosing to spend more time in one place than the other, I’d recommend Carmel over Monterey.
In Carmel, get out and stretch your legs by walking Ocean Avenue. Here you’ll find many high-end retail shops, boutiques, restaurants, and wine bars. If it’s time for lunch, make your way to the cozy restaurant of La Bicyclette for French-Italian fusion food and wood-fired pizzas.
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
On your way out of Carmel, before you get to Big Sur, make a pit stop at Point Lobos. Big Sur can be a long drive, so getting out to stretch your legs ahead of time is a good idea. Being a state park, it costs $10 to access Point Lobos and there are many scenic hikes that you can get out and walk. I recommend Bird Island Trail first, and if you have extra time, Whalers Cove. If you have the time, you can walk the entire 6-mile loop around the park.
Tip: Make sure to save your park pass! The pass will be valid for a day and if you go to another state park, you’ll get in for free.
Big Sur is a beautiful, and expansive stretch of coastline that takes you from Carmel to San Simeon. The drive is approximately 80-miles, all down a two-lane highway. There are tons of stops along Big Sur, but if you’re crunched for time, enjoy the coastline from your window!
If you aren’t crunched for time, there are tons of places to stop in Big Sur along the way. Aside from all of the scenic viewpoints, there are other activities you can do like go to the beach, see waterfalls, grab lunch, and more!
The Bixby Bridge is perhaps the most recognized structure in Big Sur and one of the most photographed bridges in California. It was built in 1931 and soars 260-feet above a canyon. Driving from north to south, there is an area to pull off to the side for great views of the bridge and the dramatic coastline.
16-miles south of Bixby Bridge, Pfeiffer Beach is an off the beaten path destination in Big Sur. Known for its keyhole rocks and purple sand, Pfeiffer is a great place to get out of the car and just relax. As you travel down a steep hill, towards the coast, the road opens up at a beautiful sandy beach. To access Pfeifer Beach you will have to pay $12.50, and because it’s a federal park and not a state park, your pass from Point Lobos won’t work here.
Even further south, from Pfeiffer, travel 12-miles to McWay Falls. McWay Falls is an 80-foot waterfall that “falls” all year. A state park, you will have to pay $10 to access if you don’t have your state park pass from earlier. To see McWay Falls, you’ll park in the parking lot and take a short trail to the waterfall. If you’re short on time, I recommend skipping this attraction.
Spending the Night
If you plan to take this road trip slowly and want to see all of the attractions the California coast has to offer, then I highly recommend an overnight stay. Take your time seeing Monterey and Carmel, spending the night in Carmel, before beginning the Big Sur drive the next day.
I stayed at the Comfort Inn Carmel By The Sea, which was affordable (for Carmel), and within walking distance from downtown. I would not only recommend it but also stay there again.
If you’ve made the trip from north to south, you’ll end up in San Simeon. You can choose to continue down the coast, or loop up towards San Francisco by taking the 46 to the 101. In all, if you don’t make stops along the way, this should be about 8+ hours of driving time roundtrip to see Monterey, Carmel, and Big Sur.
ROAD TRIPPING ALONG THE COAST OF CALIFORNIA? DO IT IN STYLE!