Central California, often called the Big Sur Coast, stretches between beautiful Monterey and San Luis Obispo. Wave-battered cliffs, shady forests, sandy beaches, and rich history make up this portion of the Pacific Coast Highway.
How long? 158 miles, about 5 or more hours without traffic or stopping for much. Roundtrip? It is around 313 miles, or 7 hours without traffic (coming back up 101 rather than Rte 1). Traffic is key—this stretch can get CROWDED during the summer months.
When to go? Optimal all year long. Be sure to watch out during the rainy season of mudslides. Summers are also really foggy going down the coast, and hotel and flight costs are also highest during this season. Offseason is considered December to March, although April and September can also offer great prices. Be sure to bring a sweater or jacket as the weather can be changeable and windy along the shore.
This itinerary will start in Monterey. The closest airport is Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport (SJC), but flights from Oakland (OAK) or San Francisco International (SJC) may be slightly cheaper. This Pacific Coast Highway Central California style starts up north and heads south along the highway so that you are driving closer to the ocean. Either way, have fun!
Start this section of the Pacific Coast Highway in Monterey, a beautiful seaside community south of San Francisco. Festivals can be found year-round, and most of the city can be tracked by foot. Cannery Row is a picturesque street that offers restaurants, shops, waterfront hotels, a wax museum, and the top-notch Monterey Bay Aquarium. The seaside marine park is full of over 35,000 animals in 2.3 million gallons of water. Parking can be tricky, so the afternoon is a good time as there are usually more spaces than first thing in the morning.
Follow Ocean View Boulevard along the shores of Monterey Beach, where you’ll see Lovers Point Park and Point Pinos Lighthouse in what has been called Butterfly Town USA, Pacific Grove. Next, go to Asilomar State Beach, a narrow, one-mile strip where you can go for scenic walks along the beach and through the Asilomar Dunes Natural Preserve. The preserve has several boardwalks that provide panoramic views of the beach and the Pacific Ocean.
17 Mile Dr, Pacific Grove, CA 93950
After Asilomar State Beach, Sunset drive intersections with 17-Mile Drive, a scenic road which hugs the Pacific coastline. Going down this short road, you can see 1920s mansions, rocky headlines, and the Pacific Ocean. There is an admission fee of $10.50 per vehicle, and the drive is open to the public from sunset to sunrise. You can find tour maps online or at the entrance tollgates. This route helps you avoid some of the traffic that occurs on the Pacific Coast Highway as you head into Carmel-by-the-Sea.
Once in Carmel-by-the-Sea, follow Scenic Road down to Carmel River State Beach, one of the less crowded sandy beaches. The beach features a 1-mile-long protected beach with a lagoon. Monastery Beach is popular with scuba divers. History lovers should also stop at the Mission San Carlos Borromeo del río Carmelo or Misión de San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, first built in 1797.
62 CA-1, Carmel-By-The-Sea, CA 93923
Continue down the Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1) toward Point Lobos State Reserve, a scenic coastal area with trails that wind around steep paths to land’s end. You can see down to the inlets and watch the surging waves crash onto the inlet and sea lines on the small island that fringe the mainland. Walk down to Whalers Cove, a small cabin from the turn of the century.
Garrapata State Park, Soberanes Point
Whale Peak Trail, Carmel-By-The-Sea, CA 93923
In the southern portion of Carmel-By-The-Sea lies Garrapata State Park, a 2,939-acre park with rocky headlands in the north and sandier beaches to the south. Highway 1 passes for four miles through the borders of the park. If you’re interested in pulling over, gates 13, 15, and 16 offer some of the best scenery in the park and cross Soberanes Point. This is a 1.8-mile loop trail with wildflowers and a rocky shoreline. You can pull over into any of the other trailheads (such as Soberanes Canyon Trailhead) in the
The Pacific Coast Highway continues down the coast across the famed Bixby Bridge, and you’ll find turnouts for dramatic overlooks. Five miles to the south of the bridge, the drive nears the 92-acre Point Sur State Historic Park, with an 1889 Point Sur lighthouse (which is currently closed for tours).
Heading down Highway 1, the road then navigates through Andrew Molera State Park, with wind-sheltered beaches, stark cliffs, meadows and rivers, and a 3,450-foot mountain. This park is officially in Big Sur and is still relatively undeveloped. Pull over and go hiking on the Andrew Molera Loop (ridge/coast loop) and beachcombing in this beautiful park. You do have to pay $10 to park, but you can use the receipt at the next stop, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.
The Pacific Coast Highway then curves inland a little and passes through the town of Big Sur and along the valley of the Big Sur River. On this river lies Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, which covers approximately 1,006 acres of land on the western slope of the Santa Lucia Mountains. Trails lead through a redwood grove to waterfalls and up to pools edge with smooth boulders. The trails are fantastic, with lots of wildflowers and trees. Just be sure to check the trails as they have seasonal hours and may be closed. About a mile south of the entrance, you can also take Canyon Road for Pfeiffer Beach. It’s a small privately-owned beach, which charges a separate entrance fee, where small batches of the beach can be found among caved rocks. While heading through the parking area down Route 1, you’ll also find a couple of gas stations on the side of the highway to buy gas and snacks.
After leaving the Big Sur State Park, you’ll follow Pacific Coast Highway as it descends nearly 1,000 feet above the sea into the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Due to severe storm damage, the park has been closed during the week but is still open on the weekends. Otherwise, I’d highly recommend taking the Overlook Trail that navigates cliffs high above the ocean. These ragged cliffs here are incredibly high and hazardous; there is also no beach access. Redwood trees grace the park’s interior. You can still see the McWay Cove Waterfall near mile marker 36, which is an 80-foot waterfall.
Heading further south on Highway 1, you’ll pass through Limekiln State Park, a 711-park with a sandy beach, redwood forest, and 100-foot Limekiln Falls. Four historic kilns, used in the making of mortar and cement in the late 1880s, can be reached by an easy 0.5-mile trail through the redwoods and footbridges. None of the trails are too long or difficult. After finishing the inland trails, take the road that goes under Highway 1 and out to the beach.
Sand Dollar Beach (plus Jade Cove)
Continuing on the Pacific Coast Highway south, you’ll meander past Sand Dollar Beach in San Padres National Forest. It’s a great stopping point if you want picnics, viewing the ocean, or looking for Jade-filled rocks along the beach. Look for the Jade Cove Parking Lot signs and park there and follow the trail down to Jade Cove. The beaches themselves are hemmed in by cliffs, with semiprecious bits of jade rocks. Here’s the trick. The beach itself is down a steep escarpment (and you’ll need to take the bottom half via rope), so I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for a day trip. If you decide to walk down the side, be sure to wear hiking boots and sturdy footwear as the worn paths can get slippery. However, the views from the top of the bluff are stunning. (I’m afraid of heights so I stay “upstairs.” LOL) Here is a great blog from Monterey Farmgirl called Sand Dollar Beach & Jade Cove in Big Sur with a lot of extremely useful information from someone more local (it was extremely helpful for the trip).
Built between 1919 and 1947, Hearst Castle San Simeon State Historical Monument is a palatial estate holding a treasure trove of paintings, mosaics, tapestries, and statues. The 250,000-acre spread was conceived by William Randolph Hearst and architect Julia Morgan as La Cuesta Encantada—Spanish for “Enchanted Hill.” The estate, which includes the gardens, terraces, pools, and walkways encompass 123 acres. Choose from one of the different types of tours at the Hearst Castle Visitor Center, where you can also grab a bite to eat. Prices start at $25 for adults, $12 for children ages five through twelve, and free for children five and under. Nearby, take a tour of San Simeon’s 70-foot, 1874-era Piedras Blancas Light Station or visit one of the area beaches, including the William R. Hearst Memorial Beach or Hearst San Simeon State Park.
60 State Park Rd, Morro Bay, CA 93442
Morro Bay State Park on the Morro Bay lagoon features a marina, natural bay habitat, lagoon, and the Morro Rock landmark. A saltwater marsh can be found on the northeast edge of the park. You’ll find ample opportunity for hiking, sailing, fishing and bird watching. A museum features the ecological and cultural history of the area. While in Morro Bay, feel free to take the time to visit Morro Rock, the Museum of Natural History, and the Morro Bay National Estuary. Interested in visiting the beach? The Morro Strand State Beach is a protected beach that is not as busy as many of the other state beaches.
Perched atop oceanfront bluffs sits Dinosaur Caves Park in Pismo Beach. This 11-acre park includes a grassy area for picnics, an amphitheater, and a large play area with a dinosaur-based theme. You can also see the caves in the cliff-faces once you move beyond the playground and start walking through the gardens. It sits at the end of Shell Beach and is just a little fun distraction just right off the freeway. Nearby are Pismo State Beach (399 S Dolliver St, Pismo Beach, CA 93449), Margo Dodd Park (Shell Beach), Eldwayen Ocean Park, and the Monarch Butterfly Grove (400 S Dolliver St, Pismo Beach, CA 93449).
That’s it for this stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway Itinerary!
Ready to go back to Monterey? Once you’re finished, take Highway 101 back up through San Luis Obispo, San Miguel, and it will take you up to outside of Salinas, CA. Highway 68 will take you back east into Monterey or you can continue north into San Francisco and go up the coast for the Northern portion of the Pacific Coast Highway.
Keep going south? If you want to continue on with the Southern California portion of the highway, follow Highway 1 down through Santa Maria and down into Santa Barbara.
Finally, What to Pack?
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Ready to hit the road? Be sure to pack along some must needed items for your trip.
Road Trip Essentials - Cooler Weather
Looking for national and state parks in California? Click here
Going hiking (or during the rainy season)? Check out some ideas for rain gear