Many of Big Sur’s visitors have some idea about its lore passed down from their hippie parents, the Beat writers, or Don Draper. They’re often surprised when they see what Big Sur actually is. Before I’d been there myself, I thought of Big Sur as a redwood-forested mountain town sitting quietly on the beach mostly inhabited by yogis on retreat, surf bros, and indie rockers living vanlife while penning new albums.
What is Big Sur, anyway?
It kind of is all that, but Big Sur is not just one town or one park or one beach; it’s a big stretch of the California coast—more than 80 miles of Highway 1 winding between the Pacific Ocean and the peaks that look down on it. “The 1” here is dappled intermittently with eateries, unique shops, hiking trails, state parks, campgrounds, cabin hotels, residential communities, and even a few very fancy resorts that you can’t really see from the road. There’s a lot to cover.
You could happily spend weeks exploring the region’s varied offerings. However, if you have other places to see while you’re in California and you’re not sure Big Sur fits into your itinerary, know that it can! If you still want to experience the Big Sur magic but don’t have tons of time, pick up your Escape Campervan in San Francisco and head south. You’ll experience a lot of the Big Sur allure with these key stops over the course of a day or two.
I got my campervan! Now what?
Depending on when you pick up your campervan in San Francisco, and if you have a night to spare, consider breaking up the drive and stay overnight in the Monterey/Pacific Grove area before heading into Big Sur. If you don’t cook dinner seaside from the van along Sunset Drive, you can stop by Dust Bowl, a family-friendly taproom in an old train depot. Play corn hole while you dine from the permanent on-site taco truck. In Pacific Grove, you can park overnight along the Monterey Bay and drink your coffee from the van with a view of sea otters bobbing along the rocky shore. If you aren’t making your own in the van kitchen, head over to Captain + Stoker for the best coffee in Monterey. They also have an assortment of pastries, yogurt parfaits, and a hearty avocado toast.
A note about Highway 1
It’s a breathtaking, winding drive through Big Sur. Gas up the van, call your loved ones, and send out any pressing emails; gas stations, cell service, and internet access are sparse out there. Make sure to stop at iconic Bixby Bridge and a few of the pull-outs on the highway to take photos and look for whales. Part of Big Sur’s magic is discovering the hidden paths, beaches, and views along the way, so take your time if you have it.
Take a hike
After you’ve fueled up (both your stomach and the van), go for a hike. Big Sur has many hike options. If you want a low-key, easier hike, head to Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. Wander around the relatively flat trails to find sunbathing harbor seals, pebbled beaches, and coves with strikingly turquoise waters (if it’s sunny). Legend has it that Robert Louis Stevenson’s inspiration for Treasure Island was Point Lobos.
If you want to really work up a sweat and get sweeping views of the coastline, go a little further south to Andrew Molera State Park and take the 8.8-mile Bluff-Panorama-Ridge Trails Loop. This trail requires a river crossing, so be careful and bring your water sandals. There are a number of routes in this park that are less difficult and almost as beautiful, but the ocean view from the Bluff trail is outstanding. Plus, if you take a marked side trail, you might even find a hidden beach with waterfalls and patches of purple sand; you never know. You can also walk out to a nice beach after your hike by taking an extra 1-mile path at the end of the trail.
It’s always a debacle to decide whether to eat a sandwich from the Big Sur Deli or a burrito from the Big Sur River Inn General Store. If you’re lucky enough to be in Big Sur for two days, make sure you try both. You might want to stop at the deli either way to load up on campsite supplies for later.
Big Sur River Inn
As you approach Big Sur’s little village of hotels, camping resorts, and a few restaurants strung along the highway, you’ll see Big Sur River Inn. You could eat in the full-service restaurant inside or on the patio. But there’s no reason to do that when excellent made-to-order burritos are offered in the back of the property’s general store. Get yours with Spanish rice. Grab a beverage on your way out and take your burrito past the patio to snag one of the Adirondack chairs in the river.
Big Sur Deli
To get the Turkey and Salami sandwich or the Big Sur Hippie sandwich? That is the question. The Big Sur Deli has a great selection of pre-made sandwiches, and they’ll also build you your own—just please get the Dutch crunch bread. There’s a selection of salads and hot items, cold beverages, and a small grocery store here. It’s attached to a tap house and is just down the hill from Big Sur Bakery. It’s not wrong to eat your sandwich on the stoop of the deli and then get a cookie and an iced latte from the bakery for lunch dessert. Or you could grab a few of their perfectly executed pastries to save for breakfast at the campsite the next day if any are left (they sell out of the best ones early).
Some light reading
The Henry Miller Memorial Library is a little further south on the 1, and it’s not a library. It’s a non-profit bookshop in the former home of Emil White, a friend of the writer, Henry Miller. They sell books, art prints, cards, a few t-shirts, coffee, and tea. It is also used as an event space for small concerts, outdoor movies, and other performances. Check the website for an event schedule. The peaceful outdoor space is a great place to read your new book.
Where to camp
Keep driving south to get to Kirk Creek campground, a campground perched on a bluff over the ocean. This campground is popular, so try to reserve a spot several months ahead of your trip. They do have a few walk-up sites available. If you’re counting on one of those, get there early and then explore Big Sur. Make sure to find the trails from the campground down to the ocean and make some discoveries of your own. If you still have some daylight, you could drive 5 miles south to the famous Sand Dollar Beach. Cook dinner in the campervan kitchen or over the fire ring and take in the sunset.
After you’ve made camp breakfast in your campervan kitchen, head back north to Nepenthe. It includes two restaurants and a gift shop. The views at the restaurants are some of the best in Big Sur, and dining here is a special experience. Brunch, lunch, or dinner at Nepenthe would not be a frowned-upon deviation from the above itinerary if you’re looking for a higher-end meal with a great wine list, but you might need a reservation. If you’d like to experience Nepenthe but keep your dining budget intact, stop by the gift shop. It’s full of hippie knick-knacks, cards made by local artists, jewelry, cookbooks, women’s clothing, and home decor. You can step onto the shop’s balcony in the back, sound a gong, and get some of the restaurant views without the tab.
If you’re headed up north to San Francisco or wine country, stop for a meal or an overnight in Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz is full of great restaurants, superior coffee shops, surf views, and an amusement park with a huge arcade. There are a few nearby state parks with camping and nice trails, too, but that’s a whole other post. I hope this itinerary helps you fit Big Sur into your California campervan road trip. It’s worth the trip!
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