Road Trips and Destinations

Camping Road Trip along the Pacific Coast Highway Big Sur Coast

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Californa Pacific Ocean Coastline from Pacific Coast Highway

If you're going on a road trip for the very first time, you won't do wrong in choosing the Big Sur Coast portion of the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) for your maiden voyage. In fact, this portion of Highway 1 also known as California State Route 1 stretching from Monterey in the north to San Luis Obispo in the south, is the perfect destination for people going on their very first U.S. road trip. Along this coastal road, there are many stops where you can immerse yourself in the rich and diverse history of California, commune in the wilderness, and be awestruck by the breathtaking views of the coastline but without leaving civilization so far behind. These are also the exact reasons why Route 1 is one of the most traveled highways in the entire country.

Whether you are a camping road trip virgin or a well-seasoned traveler, you must include the Big Sur Coast portion of the Pacific Coast Highway in your bucket list of road trip destinations. It is a road trip you will never forget and one you will always want to do again.

When to Go

The best time to hit the road on your journey along PCH's Big Sur Coast is late spring to late fall. This highway is still open from early winter to early spring; however, mudslides are prone to occur during that time of the year, making a road trip on that season riskier. It can be quite hot in this part of California during the summer months, though. So if you're traveling in midsummer, make sure to bring enough water and sun protection to avoid dehydration and heat exhaustion.

How to Get There

There are two ways to approach a road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway on Big Sur Coast: from Monterey and from San Luis Obispo. If you're starting from Monterey, you can also take the US Highway 101, but this time from San Francisco. If you're going to take the Amtrak or the Greyhound, you'll have to stop at Salinas and drive to Monterey from there. You can also fly to Monterey; the Monterey Regional Airport serves direct flights from Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Phoenix and Las Vegas.

If you're starting from San Luis Obispo, you can get there by car via US Highway 101 from Los Angeles. The San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport also receives direct flights from Los Angeles, San Francisco and Phoenix. San Luis Obispo is also served by Amtrak and Greyhound.

How Long Should the Trip Be?

An ideal road trip along PCH Big Sur Coast would take a week if time was no object. However for most of us three or four days is all we can spare. We have set out a leisurely four day itinerary below, however if you only have three or even two days then just pick and choose. Our itinerary follows PCH north to south, from Monterey to San Luis Obispo our preferred direction as you'll be driving the coastal side of the road that offers better views and most of the pull-outs are on that side of the road too. However, if you want to travel from south to north, no biggie, just follow this itinerary in reverse.

What to See and Do

Beyond driving down a scenic stretch of road, there is something for everyone traveling along PCH on Big Sur Coast. Lovers of the great outdoors will have plenty of opportunities to go hiking, horseback riding, swimming and beach-combing here. Art aficionados will find plenty of art galleries to explore. There are also a few stops for history buffs, as well as a number of shopping and dining destinations.

Four Day Visit - Monterey to San Luis Obispo - About 200 miles

Day One - Monterey to Big Sur - 50 miles

  1. Monterey is one of the oldest cities in California and was once the capital city of Alta California under the Spanish and Mexican rule. This city is home to California's first public library, first theater and first public school. A visit to this city would not be complete without a look-see at Cannery Row, a street named in honor of John Steinbeck's novels Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. At the end of Cannery Row, you'll find Monterey Bay Aquarium. The Aquarium features exhibits on various marine life, including sharks, sea lions, otters and sting rays. Among the most famous attractions of the Aquarium are the great white sharks and the forest of live giant kelps.
  2. Head over to Pacific Grove next door to Monterey, a quaint coastal city known for its many well-preserved Victorian homes. Drive the Ocean View Boulevard for fantastic views of the bay coastline and the Pacific Ocean, stopping off at Lovers Point Park (a great place for a picnic and rock climbing!) and Point Pinos Lighthouse. Continue onto Sunset Drive until you reach the 17-Mile-Drive.
  3. 17-Mile Drive, without stops, it can take you less than an hour to get through the 17-Mile Drive, but why would you, given the many fascinating views you might miss along the way? 17-Mile Drive is, as it name implies, a stretch of roadway extending 17 miles and hugging the Monterey Peninsula. It is one of the most scenic roadways in coastal California. Aside from views of the coastline, you can also see mansions and golf courses along this road. There are many pull-outs here where you can stop to take pictures or watch the birds. You should also stop to see the Lone Cypress, perhaps the most prominent landmark on this drive. Make sure you grab a tour map at the entrance tollgate.
  4. Continue to Carmel-by-the-Sea a well-known artists' colony, having been called home by various luminaries in the worlds of visual art, cinema, music and literature. Clint Eastwood is a former mayor of Carmel and the town boasts of a "Clint Eastwood Trail". If you're not tired of combing beaches yet, Carmel has its very own white-sand beach. And what is a visit to an artists' colony without a look at one of its art galleries? Another must-see in Carmel is San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission aslo known as Carmel mission, founded and headed by Fr. Junipero Serra in 1771. The mission has four museums describing the history of Carmel.
  5. Continue South 4 miles on PCH to Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. A favorite among divers and marine enthusiasts from all over the world, Point Lobos SNR is one of the richest underwater habitats on the planet. There are more than 250 animal species living at the Reserve, including marine and land based animals. If you're a certified diver, you can ask for permission to dive at the Reserve. Sea Lions dot the small islands around the reserve. You can join the guided walks as well as visit the Whalers Cabin Museum, a museum dedicated to the history of Point Lobos and the habitat the Reserve protects.
  6. Contine South 11 miles to the Bixby Creek Bridge, and stop at the north end for a great view of the bridge and it's coastline. The Bixby Creek Bridge is one of the most photographed bridges on the Pacific Coast Highway. That's not surprising, given the sheer beauty of its single arch blending with the ruggedness of the terrain around it. Bixby Creek Bridge has a total length of 714 feet and rises 280 feet up. Don't forget to take pictures when you take a break at the turnout.
  7. If you happen to be there at the right time we would recommend you do a moonlight tour of Point Sur State Historic Park and Lighthouse that runs once a month between April and October. Check their website for the schedule. Point Sur SHP is located 5 miles South of Bixby Creek Bridge. Otherwise from the bridge continue 11 miles to stay at one of the campgrounds in or near Big Sur.

Day Two - Big Sur - 10 miles

  1. If you didn't do the moonlight tour the evening before, retrace your steps 5 miles North of Big Sur to Point Sur Lighthouse at Point Sur State Historic Park. Otherwise head to Andrew Molera State Park, see next stop for details. The Lighthouse is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Big Sur. It stands some 361 feet on volcanic rock above the surf and is the only complete turn-of-the-century lighthouse open to the public. It is also still in operation. Tours to the Lighthouse are on a first-come, first-served basis last 3 hours and involve roughly a two mile walk and two stairways the longer having 61 steps. Between April and October they run on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Make sure you arrive by 9:30 AM to get on the 10 AM tour. Meet at the farm gate along the west side of the Highway 1/4 mile North of the Point Sur Naval Facility. Parking for large RVs or trailers is limited.
  2. Head South a few miles to explore Andrew Molera State Park. This former dairy farm owned by the Cooper-Molera family does not boast of tall and thick redwood groves, but it does offer extraordinary views of the Pacific Ocean above coastal bluffs as well as access to secluded beaches. To get to the beach, you can take the footbridge across Big Sur River from the parking lot and then hike Beach Trail. Making a turn at Creamery Meadow Trail will take you to the beach. Alternatively, you can continue along the Beach Trail and watch for whales at the end of the trail. You can also visit the Discovery Center established at the State Park by the Ventana Wildlife Society. There you can take a look at exhibits on the flora and fauna of the Big Sur area.
  3. Continue South through Big Sur Village onto to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Fondly called "mini-Yosemite" by the locals, Pfeiffer Big Sur SP is one of the most popular state parks in Big Sur. It is a beautiful park where you can traipse across open meadows or underneath canopies of willows, sycamores, oaks, conifers and redwoods. The main feature of this park is the Big Sur River. You can easily spend a couple of days exploring Pfeiffer Big Sur, but if you want to capture the essence of it quickly, you should hike the Pfeiffer Falls and Valley Views Trails, an easy trail through the redwoods that stretches 2.4 miles one way. This trail ends in a fork; one path will lead you to Pfeiffer Falls, one of the prettiest falls in Big Sur, while the other will take you to Valley View Overlook, which offers incredible views of the valley below. When you're at Pfeiffer Big Sur SP, try to visit the Colonial Tree as well. Colonial Tree is an ancient redwood, the tallest of all the redwoods in this State Park.
  4. Spend the night at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park Campground, or stay at one of the other campgrounds in Big Sur.

Day Three - Big Sur to Lucia - 25 miles

  1. Spend most of your morning at Pfeiffer Beach, one of the best-kept secrets of Big Sur. Pfeiffer Beach is an isolated strip of unusually purple sand. The rock formations at this beach, including a giant boulder with a gaping hole at the end of the beach, are a photographer's dream. Entrance to the beach is only $5, but the rangers limit the entry only up to a certain number of visitors at a time. You won't be allowed in if the number of visitors is currently at the limit. Once you do get in and you find the tide to be low, head to the end where the rocks meet the beach to enjoy some privacy.
  2. Make a stop at the Henry Miller Memorial Library. Big Sur attracted many artists and writers. Among them was none other than Henry Miller, one of the most brilliant writers and artists of the 20th century. The Henry Miller Memorial Library was founded by Emil White, one of Miller's longtime friends. The Library houses many of Miller's works, including a gallery of Miller's watercolors. It is also a live music venue where the likes of Philip Glass, Band of Horses, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Al Jardine and Gillian Welch have performed.
  3. Retrace your steps 0.5 miles North for lunch at Nepenthe. This indoor-outdoor restaurant is a must for any person doing a road trip of PCH on the Big Sur Coast. The food here is marvelous, but most people come here for the experience of dining while enjoying the majestic views of the endless-seeming Pacific Ocean. If you're not up to eating lunch just yet, you can hang out at Café Kevah just below Nepenthe, where you can enjoy a cup of coffee with a light snack while gazing at the ocean.
  4. After lunch head six miles South to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Named after one of the most respected pioneer women who lived in the area in the 1900s, Julia Pfeiffer Burns SP is one of the most beautiful State Parks in California. It is a place where the steadfast granite mountains clash with the ever-changing sea. Among the highlights of the State Park is the 80-foot McWay Falls, one of those rare waterfalls that empty directly into the ocean. To see the McWay Falls, you'll have to do an easy, hour-long hike along the Overlook Trail. There is also a bench at the end of the trail where you can sit down and watch for whales. The State Park also features 300-foot-tall redwoods that are at least 3,500 years old. You should also visit the remains of Waterfall House, the home of Lathrop and Helen Hooper Brown, the couple who originally owned the land making up the State Park.
  5. Drive eight miles South and stay at a campground near Lucia.

Day Four - Lucia to San Luis Obispo - 115 miles

  1. Drive 40 miles South along the PCH to San Simeon and Hearst Castle. If you've seen the classic Orson Welles film Citizen Kane, you'll know that Xanadu in that movie is none other than Hearst Castle, once the home of powerful newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. The castle is a Medieval Revival building with 165 rooms as well as gardens, walkways, terraces and pools covering all of 127 acres. These rooms and these open areas are home to numerous works of art, including authentic Roman mosaics, marble statues, medieval paintings and sculptures and other artifacts. You shouldn't miss this if you're a student of art and history. You can easily take half the day to get lost in Hearst Castle. But for a quick trip, you can take one of the three 45-minute tours offered at the Castle - choose the Grand Rooms Museum Tour, the Upstairs Suites Museum Tour, or the Cottages and Kitchens Tour - and then watch the 45-minute film Hearst Castle - Building the Dream at the Hearst Castle Theater.
  2. Continue 35 miles to Morro Bay State Park. If you love bird watching, you'll especially enjoy Morro Bay State Park. The saltwater marshes in the park are home to numerous species of birds. Morro Bay SP is also a popular spot for hikers, anglers and sailors. Aside from its natural bay habitat, Morro Bay SP also features two of the nine volcanic plugs collectively known as the Nine Sisters: Morro Rock and Black Hill. Don't miss the chance to hike the easy, three-mile Black Hill Trail, which will take you to the summit of Black Hill. Also not to be missed is the Museum of Natural History, which features various exhibits on the natural and cultural history of the Morro Bay area.
  3. Head on to nearby Montaña de Oro State Park. This "Mountain of Gold" is so named not because there is gold to be mined here but because golden wildflowers fill the landscape in springtime. The State Park is a dramatic mix of different terrains, with forests and cliffs rising from rocky beaches. Montaña de Oro is a favorite among hikers and bikers for its great, bike-friendly trails. Spelunkers often go cave exploring here when the tide is low. For those who just want to relax and have a quiet time to themselves, there are many secluded coves on the beach. If you can, hike the two-mile Valencia Peak Trail or walk to Spooner's Cove, the most popular beach in the State Park.
  4. End the last day of your camping road trip at Mission San Luis Obispo De Tolosaw. This Spanish church dates back to 1772 and was founded by Fr. Junipero Serra, often called the Father of California, in honor of St. Louis of Anjou. The church is unique in that it's the only L-shaped mission church in California. A registered historical landmark, the church also has an adjoining plaza with grassy lawns, gardens and a fountain. The plaza is a popular place for picnics among the locals.

Tips for Driving the Big Sur Coast of the Pacific Coast Highway

Here are a few tips that will make your Big Sur Coast camping road trip more enjoyable:

  • Plan your trip carefully before you head for Monterey or San Luis Obispo to start your journey. Find out where you can stop for food, gas and supplies. Gas stations are infrequent on the PCH and gas costs a lot more. Make sure you have a full tank went you leave Monterey or Morro Bay.
  • Bring plenty of water with you. It can get hot on this part of the Pacific Coast Highway, and drinking water will keep you away from heat exhaustion and dehydration.
  • PCH is known by many names: Highway One, Route One, Cabrillo Highway and Coast Highway. Try not to be confused when you talk to locals and they refer to PCH by other names.
  • Don't be in a hurry to see all the sights. Although we have delineated a four-day itinerary, allow yourself the time to enjoy the stops on this itinerary. Your road trip won't be a memorable experience if you just zip in and out of these suggested stop points.
  • Some State Parks are dog-friendly while others are not. Find out which places allow dogs if you're traveling with your pooch.

A road trip along the Big Sur Coast of the Pacific Coast Highway is an experience that cannot be missed. You will never be able to forget the beauty you'll see along this byway. So plan your next camping road trip on this majestic stretch of coastal highway today. Remember to take pictures of your road trip!

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Photos

Point Pinos Lighthouse, Pacific Grove, CA
* Point Pinos Lighthouse
Lone Cypress, 17-mile Drive, Pebble Beach, CA
** Lone Cypress, 17-mile Drive
Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo
*** Carmel Mission
Seals bathing on a rock island at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Seals sunbathing at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Bixby Bridge on Pacific Coast Highway
Bixby Bridge
Point Sur State Historic Park
Point Sur State Historic Park
Beach and coastline at Andrew Molera State Park
Andew Molera State Park
Rock hole at Pfeiffer Beach
Rock hole at Pfeiffer Beach
Waterfall and beach at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, CA
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
Outside pool at Hearst Castle
Luxurious Hearst Castle
Pacific Coast from beach
Beautiful Pacific Coast
Morro Rock, Morro Bay State Park, CA
Morro Rock, Morro Bay State Park
Coastline at Montaña de Oro State Park
Montaña de Oro State Park
* Photo courtesy of Michael from San Jose, California via Wikimedia Commons
** Photo courtesy of Alexey Potov via Wikimedia Commons
*** Photo courtesy of Didier B via Wikimedia Commons
 

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