For a relaxed road trip with unbeatable scenery, follow Highway 1 south through Big Sur from Monterey to San Luis Obispo, CA.
Highway 1 is known to be one of the most scenic roads in the world, especially the stretch of narrow highway that meanders along the cliffs through Big Sur. Big Sur is beyond picturesque. The Santa Lucia Mountains run down to meet the Pacific Ocean where dark, rugged rocks jut up from milky, turquoise water. It's a wild and remote slice of space on an otherwise bustling coast. Numerous state parks and reserves mean it will, hopefully, stay wild for a very long time. If you're looking for a getaway that will satisfy the soul, this road trip is for you. Read on for a detailed 2-day itinerary for a relaxed road trip down Highway 1 through Big Sur. If you have the time, you can stretch this itinerary out over three days. If you choose to go that route, consider spending one night in Cambria and one night in San Luis Obispo.
"The Santa Lucia Mountains run down to meet the Pacific Ocean where dark, rugged rocks jut up from milky, turquoise water."
When to Visit:
The California coast is just one of those places that makes you stop and stare in wonder. Whether you visit the coast on a grey, blustery winter day or a shimmery late-summer afternoon, you're sure to feel the magic of the Pacific coast. That said, summer tends to be peak travel season, meaning the road will be busier, as will the attractions along the way. If you're looking for a more relaxing road trip experience, try visiting during the off-season from late October through March. Visiting in the off-season not only means that you'll avoid the crowds but the communities along Highway 1 aren't inundated with tourists all at once, meaning less stress on infrastructure and a more steady stream of year-round income.
How to Get There:
This itinerary covers the stretch of coast from Monterey to San Luis Obispo, CA. If you're local, simply scoot on down to Monterey and get started. If you're coming from far away, you have the option of flying into the small Monterey airport or one of the larger Bay Area airports (San Francisco, Oakland, or San Jose).
I'm always looking for ways to reduce my environmental footprint when I travel, but sometimes a car is just the right tool for the job. If you can, try to rent a hybrid vehicle or, if you're traveling with friends, consider getting cozy in one car.
A Relaxed Road Trip Itinerary Along the Big Sur Coast:
Day One: Saturday
Start your day with a steaming cup of coffee or tea from Happy Girl Kitchen in Pacific Grove. Happy Girl is all about sourcing local, organic ingredients and their funky cafe space is full of jars of pickled goodies you can take home as the perfect edible souvenir.
From Pacific Grove, jump on Highway 1 and start your journey south. You'll catch glimpses of the infamous coastline as you wind your way through Carmel-by-the-Sea before the trees and houses peel away to reveal the ocean in its full glory. If you're already in the mood to stretch your legs, pull off at the Soberanes Point Trailhead in Garrapata State Park and take a quick walk along the bluff.
As you continue south, keep a lookout for wildlife. It's not uncommon to see the soft, ephemeral puff of mist on the horizon that means a gray whale has just taken a breath. Sometimes you'll even catch sight of pods of dolphins churning the water as they leap and dive through the waves.
Follow the road across the now iconic Bixby Bridge - if you watched HBO's Big Little Lies you'll recognize this spot. Soon, you'll reach Point Sur State Historic Park with its sweeping beach, historic lighthouse, and unique volcanic, rock formation. Pull off for a look around or continue on to your next stop.
As you make your way into the little village of Loma Vista, pull off to the right at Big Sur Bakery. This cozy restaurant has become a mainstay of the area and serves up coffee, hearty breakfasts, and decadent pastries. Note that the line can be long, so be prepared to wait. Prices are also a bit high, but hey, they seem to be making the only butter croissant for miles around so who can blame them?
Just past the bakery, watch for the left turn that will take you to the top of the hill where you'll find Ventana Big Sur. With unmatched natural beauty, exquisite design, and a strong commitment to sustainability, Ventana is a one-of-a-kind resort. Accommodations are very pricey but you stop for a moment in their Glass House Gallery where you'll find local creations, art, and, of course, jaw-dropping views. If you're not ready to tear yourself away, grab a bite to eat at the Sur House. From here, continue at your own pace, stopping off to take in the views, snap a photograph, or stretch your legs on the trail as needed.
Make one final stop at Ragged Point Inn and Resort. Perched on the southern edge of Big Sur, Ragged Point is the perfect spot to stop off for one final glimpse of that breathtaking coastline. Then, drive about 20 minutes south to San Simeon. This teensy coastal village is home to two of the areas most impressive spectacles: 1) Hearst Castle (more on that later) and 2) elephant seals.
The Piedras Blancas elephant seal rookery stretches along approximately 6 miles of coast where the elephant seals haul out on beaches to molt, mate, give birth, and rest. They are incredible mammals that, while clumsy and bumbling on land, spend up to ten months of the year in the open ocean, diving up to 5,800 feet in search of food. Peak viewing in San Simeon occurs between October and March and is truly not to be missed. Parking is free at the viewing areas (they can be busy!); be sure to bring a camera, stay behind fences and barriers, and keep an eye out for the volunteer docents who are available to answer questions.
After you’ve had your fill of elephant seal viewing continue on to San Simeon’s other landmark, Hearst Castle. Perched atop the rolling hills above San Simeon, Hearst Castle glimmers white against the greens and browns of the coast. Starting in 1919, media mogul William Randolph Hearst and architect Julia Morgan began constructing what is today one of California’s most remarkable and unusual estates. The castle is a jaw-dropping creation - a sprawling collection of guest cottages, grand rooms, and pools made up of countless architectural styles and boasting 165 rooms and 123 acres of gardens, terraces, and winding pathways. It truly overwhelms the senses.
If you’d like, you can purchase your tour tickets in advance online. Tickets are $25 plus a service fee, but do include admission to an informative and entertaining film about Hearst’s life and the construction of the castle. I recommend taking your tour before watching the film in the visitor’s center so as not to ruin any of the surprises that await in the castle itself.
From Hearst Castle, continue onward to San Luis Obispo. After a long drive, it’s time for some drinks and dinner. For exceptional craft cocktails, head directly to Sidecar. Cozy up to the bar and browse the very long list of very complex cocktail offerings. The drinks look pretty and taste better. I dare you to just have one.
For dinner, stroll through downtown and stop in at the Granada Hotel & Bistro. The bistro is dimly lit, giving it an intimate, romantic vibe. You can’t go wrong with a glass of local wine and their perfectly plated cheese board. If you’re looking for something a bit more hearty, order the brussels sprouts to share - they come laden with dried cherries, creamy goat cheese, and tangy mustard.
Day Two: Sunday
Start your day with an invigorating hike or trail run along the Lemon Grove Loop Trail in the Charles A. and Mary R. Maino Open Space Preserve on the edge of town. Then, walk back into town for breakfast at the sweet Joliene Bakery. Try a build-your-own breakfast sandwich and a cup of French Truck Coffee.
Once you’re stretched out and fueled up, it’s time to hit the road again. This time, head north on Highway 101 towards Paso Robles.
Paso Robles is a wine lover’s dream, so if that’s you, plan to spend a couple of hours in town. Swing by Vivant Fine Cheese where you can sample cheeses, local and international, and pull together a picnic lunch. There are countless wineries to choose from, as well as a number of tasting rooms located right in downtown Paso Robles. One great option is Halter Ranch. With a picture-perfect setting, a commitment to sustainable farming, and award-winning wine, you really can’t go wrong.
After a bit of wine tasting, be sure to fill up on cheese and bread and bask in the natural beauty of the region. Once you’re safely sobered up, hit the road for the final stretch of your road trip. From Halter Ranch, you can expect to be on the road for about 2 hours 15 minutes before arriving in Monterey.