Looking for ideas on what to do in Big Sur? Find some of the most stunning places to explore on your Big Sur day trip and make the most of your California coast road trip.
I had a day-dream of road tripping along one of the worlds most iconic ocean roads, The Big Sur in California, USA driving a convertible Mustang. Wind blowing through my hair as I breathed in the amazing turquoise waters and stunning views.
Reality may have hit when trying to figure out the logistics of exploring the Big Sur with kids and fitting in all our luggage ( I will get the hang of packing light one day).
Cue a mum bus.
Then the weather, in true coast style was overcast and misty.
We couldn’t have had more of a great time visiting Big Sur.
Big Sur California
Where is Big Sur?
Big Sur is in California and on the Central Coast.
The Big Sur drive lies between Carmel and San Simeon on Highway 1 and is around 90 miles.
You can choose to explore with a few different routes. Because GPS can be poor, we suggest planning your Bug Sur road trip before you leave.
Big Sur map
How long is Big Sur drive?
It is possible to do a Big Sur day trip. A few things to realize are:
- Traffic can be crazy during the peak season of April to October, so you may not drive as quickly as you plan to.
- There is so much to do in this amazing part of the world. Be prepared to only pick a few must do Big Sur attractions and accept you will miss lots of sites.
- Big Sur can often have fog well into the mid-morning. If you only have one day, you may miss some of the great lookouts.
If we were not as restricted with time, we definitely would have loved to make our Big Sur vacation a 3-day long trip.
What is there to do in Big Sur for kids?
If a road trip with kids doesn’t seem like your idea of a good time then let Big Sur change your mind. There are so many things to stop and explore that you really don’t have to drive in long stretches. Some of our children’s favorite Big Sur things to do were:
- Collecting sand dollars on the Big Sur beaches like Sand Dollar beach.
- Seeing the Elephant seals at Piers Blancas
- Playing with purple sand at Pfeiffer beach
- Spotting wildlife like eagles and Coyote
- Enjoying spectacular views on some of the easier, child-friendly hiking trails on Big Sur
So, what is there to do in Big Sur for a day? Keep reading to find out what we managed to fit into our Big Sur day trip.
Big Sur Drive
Most images we see of this stretch of Highway One between San Simeon and Carmel-by-the-sea called the Big Sur, are of deep blue skies and striking turquoise waters.
Which is a little bit ironic considering I have been told you are guaranteed to have some mist during your visit, especially in the early morning.
We took our Big Sur road trip in late August which is a little outside of the recommended best visiting times of Spring and Autumn.
I was disappointed when I first saw the clouds and mist but soon realized that these amazing moody skies added such a great atmosphere to our drive and made those deep aqua’s of the Pacific ocean shine even brighter.
Where To Stop On Big Sur
Our first stop was to see the Elephant Seals at Piedras Blancas, near San Simeon.
These things are HUGE, noisy and rather smelly. The kids loved them and it was one of their favorite Big Sur attractions.
Depending on what time of year you visit the colony you might be lucky enough to see the massive blubbery males fighting to impress the ladies of their harem or pups being born.
Just seeing these immense creatures move is something else.
There is easy signage for this site and parking is very close to the walkway area. You can stroll up and down the wooden promenade taking in the views while watching the seals go about their business.
If you are visiting Big Sur with kids then we think this is a must stop destination.
For more on the elephant seals find some great information here.
This wasn’t the only sea life we encountered on our trip. We saw sea otters rafting amongst kelp beds and seals bathing on rocks. If you are there at the right time of year you might also be lucky enough to see whales as they migrate past.
If you would love to see more wildlife in Big Sur, check out this great guide. It also shows some great Big Sur hiking trails.
Best Hikes In Big Sur
Have you ever been somewhere that just seemed like it couldn’t be real?
McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is one of those places.
As you enter the park ( There is a fee, but we felt it was much safer to park inside the park then save on a few dollars and park at the edge of the highway. For details check here ) and enter in the South parking lot you are immediately in a different environment from the breathtaking coastal views.
Tall trees surround you and the air is cooler.
The falls are along a short, easy access 1km (.6mile) trail. You walk into a tunnel that cuts under the highway then come out to find a view you will treasure forever.
Water cascades year round nearly 25 meters (80ft) down to the beach below. Magically for us, the sun seemed to come out just as we visited the falls before disappearing again as we left. This was my personal favorite of our Big Sur activities.
If you are lucky enough you can also see whales and condors from this beautiful spot.
There are many other trails to explore in the park which we, unfortunately, didn’t get to try out as we only had one day to enjoy the area. It is also worth noting you will not be able to get to the beach from taking the short trail we took.
Big Sur Beach
Our next stop took a little finding.
Pfeiffer Beach is not well signposted, but if that keeps it secluded that’s okay by us.
To get there take a left onto Sycamore Canyon Road. As this is not signposted the name’s not going to help much. Instead, look for a sealed road between the Big Sur Station and the Post Office.
We managed to find it with only one drive by and turn around. It is well worth heading off the beaten track for, trust me.
The road down to the beach is small and windy which helps build up the suspense until you hit the car park. Spaces are limited so fingers crossed you hit a quiet time.
One of the first things that we saw when we got to the beach was the famous arch rock formation. This landmark is just stunning and a popular spot to take some great photographs.
On the initial view of the beach, I was thinking we had been a little duped as I couldn’t spot any purple sand!
It only took a little walk along this rugged stretch of sand to find some though. And it really is purple. All those images haven’t been photoshopped.
The purple is from the manganese garnet that is on the surrounding rocks. This washes up on the beach and you can discover it on various parts of the beach not far from the water’s edge.
Our kids had a great time playing in the sand and dragging washed up kelp around. The ocean is rough here though and I wouldn’t recommend letting children swim.
On the upside, there are bathroom facilities near the car park!
There are a few Big Sur beaches but we think this purple sand beach is worth a visit.
A note to those traveling in Rv’s and Trailers, unfortunately, the road to Pfeiffer Big Sur is not for you guys.
Big Sur Bridge
If you have seen images of Big Sur, chances are they were of Bixby bridge.
This marvel is one of the worlds highest single-span bridges and stretches over Rainbow Canyon and no Big Sur itinerary is complete without seeing it.
You can stop on either side of crossing this bridge and get the iconic shot.
We also stopped at lots of small lookouts to get amazing photographs and check out the wildlife.
My son was even lucky enough to get up close with a coyote. Around every bend, there will be a new view that will take your breath away.
Of course, these are only some of the attractions to see. There are lots more places to explore and amazing walks to take. Why not get planning your trip now?
If you don’t want your road trip to end, why not drive up to San Francisco?. You can find over 60 awesome things to do in San Francisco here or Learning Escapes has some great ideas for 24 hours in this amazing city here.
Are you planning an adventure to the Big Sur? What stops are you planning on taking? Make sure you share with our readers below if you have an awesome location.
When should I visit Big Sur?
The best time to visit Big Sur between mid-September and mid-October.
Peak season is April to October and it can draw big crowds. Making accommodation and parking more difficult.
Locals say Fall is a great time to visit as there is less likely to be fog and it hardly rains at that time of year.
If you want to see the Gray whales they pass the coastline from December to April.
A point to remember before planning your trip is that a lot of the Big Sur businesses will close during the off-season.
Is Big Sur closed?
Big Sur can often have road closures so make sure you check BEFORE you leave on your road trip.
A great place to check for Big Sur closures is here.
National Parks and other attractions can also close so be sure to research before you leave.
Best Places To Stay In Big Sur
To make the most of your day trip we suggest staying in Big Sur or close by. Here are some great places to stay in Big Sur
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