Monterey to Big Sur: The Perfect Day Along the Mid-California Coast
By Allison Fitts & Lillian Robinson
When planning for a California trip, most people think of either the northern or southern reasons of the state. And for good reason, too – there are Escape Campervans depots in San Francisco to the north and Los Angeles to the south. But whether you start your trip in the north or south, you absolutely cannot miss the state’s middle coast from Monterey to Big Sur.
The gems of this middle coast region are the town of Monterey and the nearby Big Sur stretch of Highway 101. When we took our trip here, we were coming from the east and Yosemite National Park, so we hit Monterey first. The town has a nice, quaint beachy feel, with plenty of little shops and restaurants to check out, especially in the Cannery Row and wharf districts. Our favorite brunch spot is Crema. Don’t miss their huevos rancheros and espresso bar. A post-brunch walk around the historic coastal neighborhoods to see the homes of famous authors, including John Steinbeck and Robert Louis Stevenson, is a relaxing way to spend the afternoon.
Highway 1 Highlights
After you have taken in all the sites in Monterey, hit the road for the true treasure of the area – the stretch of highway along the coast between Monterey and Big Sur. From Monterey heading south, the first big site you will see is Rocky Creek Bridge. While it is one of the many historic bridges along the 101, this is not the iconic bridge people think of when they think of Big Sur. For that, you’ll want to drive a few more minutes and see Bixby Creek Bridge. Both are beautiful, with Rocky Creek being the better one to get out and walk around at and Bixby Creek yielding better photo opportunities.
Point Sur Lighthouse
A few more miles south from the pair of bridges is the Point Sur Lighthouse. This over-a-century-old compound rises up out of the sea on a peninsula and is home to the lighthouse and its accompanying community. Our trip sadly did align with the regular tour times, but there are guided tours on Sundays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays at varying times throughout the year. Find more info on the lighthouse and the tours at pointsur.org.
From the lighthouse, drive another 30 minutes or so and you will finally reach “Big Sur”. We put that in quotes because there is a bit of confusion about what is considered Big Sur – at least there was for us. Let us explain. You will see a sign on the left side of the road for Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. This is a beautiful park with lots of trails and a place to camp, but it does NOT have beach access. They make that very clear at the entrance to the park. For us, we were picturing the beaches and sea caves of the “Big Sur” that we knew, so this realization was a bit confusing.
However, we quickly rerouted to Pfeiffer Beach, the location that many think of as Big Sur. After a slow drive down from the highway to the beach on a narrow, windy road (plus a small entrance fee), you will find yourself in your own little paradise in the middle of the California coast. This serene beach is ideally enjoyed during the golden hour of sunset when there are not a ton of folks around and you can be mesmerized by the waves crashing into the sea caves.
Don’t Miss This Stop!
Whether you are continuing your journey southward on Highway 101, or turning around and spending more time up in Monterey, definitely do not miss Big Sur Bakery. This adorable spot has a cafe, Shell gas station, expansive succulent garden and the cutest roadside restroom we have ever seen – plus it is only a few minutes from the entrance to Pfeiffer Beach. Fill up the van or stop for a nice meal, but either way, do not miss it!
Bonus Side Trip!
When you are in the Monterey-area and want a good laugh and a goofy photo, head to the little town of Castroville. It is the artichoke capital of the world and they have the world’s largest artichoke to prove it. Find it in front of the aptly named “Giant Artichoke Restaurant” on Merritt Street.