Driving one of America’s best road trips: 3 days in Big Sur

May 4, 2022

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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with the latest information. It was originally published on 5/5/21.

There’s no better way to kick off this summer season than with one of America’s most iconic road trips on Highway 1 part of the way between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The cliff-hugging stretch of coastline known as Big Sur is just one of the beautiful places you’ll experience along the way.

Starting in San Luis Obispo and finishing in Monterey, here’s an ideal three-day itinerary for your road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway.

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Day One: Highway 1

We start our trip in San Luis Obispo — SLO to locals. It was once best known for its historic mission and Spanish colonial architecture (think: bougainvillea-draped stucco and red-tiled roofs). However, it’s now known for a happening farm-to-fork food scene and its burgeoning wine industry.

Our guide on this stretch of the coast is the Highway 1 Discovery Route, which offers maps, tips and suggestions for exploring the rich heritage of this idyllic section of the coast.

Our first stop is the bucolic harbor of Morro Bay, where Tognazzini’s Dockside Restaurant serves omelets and buttermilk pancakes in a waterfront setting. The day’s catch comes in before our eyes. The biggest draw, however, is the sea otters, who have made Morro Bay’s harbor their annual nursery. For an hour, we watch, entranced, as mothers clutch tiny babies to their chests or roll them playfully in the water by their sides.

Farther north, we stop to stroll the white sand of Moonstone Beach in the serene seaside village of Cambria. Here, ocean views are easy to come by thanks to a wealth of comfortable beachfront stays. Lodging options on Moonstone Beach include the Fireside Inn and Sea Otter Inn, while the elegant White Water lodge occupies a prime bluff-top setting. Another Cambria claim to fame is Linn’s, which boasts the best olallieberry and blackberry pie on the coast, plus steaks locally sourced from Hearst Ranch beef.

California State Parks announced recently that Hearst Castle will reopen to guests beginning May 11 after a two-year closure. The historic Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument was initially closed due to COVID-19 but remained shut down when storms in early 2021 damaged the access road to the property. Perched atop La Cuesta Encantada (The Enchanted Hill), the sprawling estate offers a stunning view of the Pacific Ocean. The home is the collaboration of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst and architect Julia Morgan. Over the course of three decades, they constructed the 115-room main house, La Casa Grande, 120 acres of pools, buildings, gardens, walkways and more.

Another popular stop in San Simeon is Piedras Blancas. A sheltered stretch of beach next to the historic Piedras Blancas Light Station has become a rookery for northern elephant seals. Wildlife enthusiasts flock to watch the enormous and ungainly seals crowding the beach fall through spring. Docents from Friends of the Elephant Seal are often on hand to offer insight and information. It’s an endlessly entertaining show. The males posture and jockey for territory, while the new mamas nurse their pups and train them for life on their own.

Our stop for the night is Ragged Point, a dramatic promontory of land unofficially known as the gateway to Big Sur. If the view from the Adirondack chairs outside our room at the Ragged Point Inn and Resort weren’t enough, the property includes a gazebo with stunning sunset views and a private cove accessed by a steep zigzagging path. Dinner took place on the restaurant’s ocean-facing patio, where fresh salmon and a perfectly cooked sirloin tasted even better next to the warmth of a flickering fire pit and set to the rhythm of crashing surf.

Picnic Area along Highway 1
The southern end of Big Sur offers picnic-perfect coves and hiking trails. (Photo by Melanie Haiken)

Day Two: Big Sur

From here, it’s one dizzying view after another. As Highway 1 winds its sinuous way up California’s most stunning stretch of coastline, clinging to clifftops high above crashing waves and dipping into deep canyons, you’ll see drivers pull over every five minutes for another perfect shot. Choosing which beach to picnic at along Big Sur’s southern end is almost impossible. For those with canine companions, Willow Creek and Sand Dollar Beach are dog-friendly options, and Limekiln State Park offers a driftwood-strewn cove and a developed picnic area and campground.

McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park from the Overlook Trail
See McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park from the Overlook Trail. (Photo by Melanie Haiken)

Historic Bixby Bridge soars 260 feet above its famed canyon. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park offers the shelter of its deep forests while Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park boasts the trail to Partington Cove which goes through a century-old train tunnel. McWay Falls, also located within the park, plunges into the cove below and has become Big Sur’s top photo op. The nearby Henry Miller Memorial Library features quirky literary displays and an outdoor picnic area. It’s an excellent introduction to the general rebelliousness that first brought the literary and artistic set to Big Sur.

What makes the Big Sur experience so special, though, are its retreats. Seclusion from the world in the fullest sense of the word, Big Sur has drawn those in search of solitude and serenity since visitors first came to hide away in its riverside cabins and seek spiritual fulfillment at Esalen Institute and Tassajara Zen Mountain Center.

Pool area at Ventana Big Sur, a Hyatt resort
Visitors feel high above the world at Ventana Big Sur, a Hyatt resort. (Photo by Melanie Haiken)

Travelers will find ultimate relaxation with a stay at Ventana Big Sur. Visitors can spend their days wandering between two clifftop pools, and enjoying numerous spa and hot springs options. Guests can take advantage of yoga and nature walks, all set in 160 acres of high mountain meadows and deep redwood forests crisscrossed by hiking paths. At Spa Alila, outdoor tents offer couples the option of private treatments just steps from the pool, while the upper mountain pool features a traditional Japanese-style bathhouse. This Category 8 Hyatt property is eligible for award nights, and standard rooms (which are limited) can be found from 35,000 points per night on off-peak dates (but 45,000 on peak ones).

Dinner and breakfast are served at The Sur House, where tables line an expansive patio seemingly suspended over the Pacific. For lunch and an evening cocktail hour, go poolside where a wide lawn showcases the sunset. Ventana is also among the most dog-friendly resorts imaginable. Pups are allowed to be with their owners and offered special pet menus featuring arctic char and grass-fed beef patties.

Seafood and other locally sourced bounty are another part of the Big Sur story, one in which seaside restaurant Nepenthe plays a starring role, and not just for its unparalleled views (though those are mind-blowing, too). Since its founding in 1949 by the Fassett family, Nepenthe has fed and feted a roster of celebrities in a storied history of bohemian culture and food.

Sunset at Nepenthe restaurant
Sunset at Nepenthe, which is known for its clifftop perch and trend-setting cuisine. (Photo by Melanie Haiken)

The central section of Big Sur offers so much to experience you’ll need at least two days to hit all the highlights. Photographers and Instagrammers seek Pfeiffer Beach in Los Padres National Forest for its rock “windows” and arches. To get away from the crowd, head to the beach or to the Creamery Meadow trails, located in Andrew Molera State Park. The park offers excellent wildflower viewing and an introduction to the region’s farming history.

Day Three: Monterey

On the way to Monterey, we opt for a stay at Glen Oaks Bug Sur, a modernized retro roadside motel with a woodsy vibe. Baskets filled with wine and s’mores ingredients await us; we toast the marshmallows around our private fire pit to the gurgle of the river. (The lounge chairs scattered along the river’s edge were a nice touch, too.)

The property includes the Big Sur Roadhouse, one of the area’s best-loved eateries. It’s known for its creative takes on road-trip classics like burgers, salads and to-die-for pulled pork sandwiches. More mealtime tips: Don’t bypass the tacos at the Big Sur River Inn or the muffins at Big Sur Bakery, where an art-filled garden area makes for a welcome break from the road.

For those seeking points-friendly accommodations less luxurious than Ventana, it’s necessary to go outside the Big Sur area, but I was happy to earn miles on my Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card and support Big Sur’s local establishments. However, if you would rather stay at a familiar hotel chain, the town of Monterey at the northernmost end of Big Sur offers excellent loyalty program options, such as the Monterey Marriott and the Hilton Garden Inn Monterey.

The bustling waterfront village of Monterey is the perfect place to end your trip. After a visit to the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium, take a walk down Cannery Row, where the fishing industry — and the John Steinbeck book that documented its history — first planted this region in America’s imagination.

Featured photo by Melanie Haiken for The Points Guy. 

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