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Coastal Road Trip – San Francisco to Big Sur, CA

Dazzling coastal views. Giant redwoods. Purple sand. A world-renowned aquarium. These are just a few things you will experience on your trip from San Francisco to Big Sur on the Northern California coast. You’ll soon understand why Big Sur is known as one of the most beautiful places in California. Picture yourself at your beachfront campsite, cooking a meal with your loved ones as you watch the sunset over the Pacific Ocean. This trip is the perfect remedy to a stressful week at work, as nothing puts things in perspective like being surrounded by Redwoods older than the state of California or sea cliffs resulting from thousands of years of coastal erosion. We have put together a 3 to 5-day itinerary to get you started on planning a trip from San Francisco, California. Get ready to create memories that will last a lifetime! Please note this itinerary is structured for a longer trip, but to shorten the trip we recommend removing one day or both, in Santa Cruz. 

Travel Time from San Francisco to Big Sur

This route is a 220-mile out-and-back down the coast of Northern California to Big Sur, starting and ending at our San Francisco Escape Camper Vans location. The driving time, excluding any stops or excursions, is about 4 hours and 31 minutes and is intended to be split over five days, with the option to modify the trip to three days.

Directions Tips:

Distance: 220 miles (354 km)          Time: 4 hours 31 minutes (without stops)

Directions Tips:

Distance: 213 miles (354 km)          Time: 4 hours 4 minutes (without stops)

Escape Tip

You must camp in designated campgrounds in Big Sur. Camping alongside both Highway 1 and Nacimiento-Ferguson Road is illegal. Campfires and BBQs are allowed only in designated campgrounds. You can learn more about camping requirements here and view campground options here.

NOTE: Due to the landslide south of Big Sur, Highway 1 is closed between Lucia and Limekiln State Park. The California State Transportation Agency has been working nonstop since March 2023 to clear the road, but there is currently no estimate for reopening. Make sure to check road closure information before embarking on your trip.

San Francisco, CA

San Francisco, CA


Best Time of Year for a Big Sur Road Trip 

We recommend exploring the California Coast from late spring to early fall. Late springtime tends to be a little chilly and rainy, but if wildflowers and smaller crowds appeal to you, this is the perfect time to visit. December to March is Elephant Seal mating season, so if this is on your bucket list, consider making a detour through Año Nuevo to check them out!

The summer and early fall bring the beautiful beach weather that California is known for. These warmer temperatures mean more crowds, especially on the weekends, which makes finding campsites more difficult. 

Preparation for a Big Sur Camper Van Road Trip

Campsites: Due to Big Sur’s popularity, we recommend booking the maximum time in advance for summer trips to ensure you get the campsites you want. Many campsites accept reservations six months in advance. 

There is more flexibility if you plan to travel in spring or fall, but we still recommend reserving your campsites a few months in advance. Some campsites allow you to sign up for cancellation alerts, which can be perfect for a spontaneous trip. Or, consider choosing dispersed camping, which is limited in availability but is perfect for those planning a last-minute trip. 

Food and Supplies: Layers are the secret to a well-executed Northern California road trip. Temperatures vary widely on the coast; mornings and evenings call for an extra layer, especially in spring and late fall. We want to ensure your trip goes smoothly, and there’s nothing worse than setting up camp and realizing you forgot an essential item, so let us take care of all the camping necessities with our available added extras, such as a kitchen kit, bedding, or camp chairs. Our vans have a built-in stove, sink, and fridge, making cooking a breeze. 

Pro tip: pack extra ice, perishable food items, and beverages of choice snuggly into the solar-powered fridge first to ensure you have everything extra chilled and ready for you by the time you arrive at camp. 

Important navigational tools: Make sure to charge your mobile devices as they can help you navigate the area, and you can never have too many portable chargers. Downloading offline maps is always a good idea before heading out to a new place; you never know if you will have service when needed. 

Which Camper Van is Best For a San Francisco to Big Sur Trip?

Whether traveling with friends, looking for a romantic getaway, or traveling with family, we have the perfect camper van rental for your trip. Our camper vans are ready for whatever you throw at them and offer additional protection and comfort with built-in kitchenettes and queen-size beds. You’ll know you made the right decision when you wake up feeling well-rested and sheltered from the cool ocean breeze or the chilly morning fog. 

The San Francisco location offers all five of our vehicles: the Mavericks, Mesa, Del Mar, Santa Cruz, and the Jeep Camper, with the capacity to sleep up to five with the addition of the rooftop sleeper. No matter who you are traveling with, we have the perfect option for you. 

Before you head out, make sure you know what features your rental comes with and stock up on essentials. Take a moment and locate the hazards, headlights, and other safety features in case you need to operate them at any point.

California Ocean View San Francisco to Big Sur road trip

Day 1:  San Francisco to Santa Cruz

Your adventure begins at Escape Camper Vans San Francisco. You are ready to hit the road once you pack everything into your new home on wheels. Get ready to experience the beauty of northern California. With 840 miles of jaw-dropping coastline, there is no shortage of photo opportunities that will make your friends a little jealous. Pick your camper van rental, and we will start by heading 50 miles (1 to 2 hours, depending on traffic) down to Santa Cruz. 

Places to Visit in Santa Cruz

  1. Natural Bridges State Beach: A popular destination for exploring tidepools, birdwatching, and viewing otters and seals playing offshore. Check the tidal charts for the area as low tide reveals sea stars, shore crabs, anemones, and other small ocean life.
  2. The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk: This California classic features the Big Dipper,  a wooden roller coaster built in 1924 and designated as a national landmark. Check out their events page, as they host one-of-a-kind events all year.
  3. The Mystery Spot: Located in the Santa Cruz mountains, the Mystery Spot is an attraction that will spark your curiosity. It’s an area where the laws of gravity and physics don’t seem to apply.
  4. Garden of Eden Swimming Holes: These are Lush, naturally occurring swimming holes along the San Lorenzo River that offer visitors a beautiful place to cool off. Yes, you can count this as your shower for the day (we won’t judge). Check out this local guide for directions to the swimming holes and important information. Please follow ‘Leave no Trace’ to ensure places like this remain open to the public.  

Place to Eat in Santa Cruz

  1. Santa Cruz Diner: The Santa Cruz Diner was featured on Guy Fieri’s show Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, serving classic American meals and international eats such as pho. 
  2. Pono Hawaiian Grill: A tropical-themed restaurant serving poke and plate meals. 
  3. Marianne’s Ice Cream: Don’t skip dessert! This establishment has been around since 1947, offering 105 different flavors. 

Places to Camp in Santa Cruz

  1. Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park: This campground is tucked in the Santa Cruz mountains, where you will get to sleep among the giant Redwoods. The tallest tree in these woods is approximately 277 feet tall and over 1,500 years old. Several hikes with varied difficulty levels will take you through the forest to see all it offers. Amenities include restrooms, drinking water, guided tours, hiking trails, and more. 
  2. Sunset State Beach: A serene campground walking from the beach under the pines. The views from this campground are unparalleled, and it’s hard to find a more convenient campsite than this one. Amenities include restrooms, showers, drinking water, and more. 
  3. New Brighton State Beach: Situated on top of a bluff overlooking Monterey Bay, this is one of California’s most popular beachfront campsites. It’s tough to imagine anything more peaceful than waking up to panoramic views of the California coast. Amenities include summer programs, restrooms, surfing, drinking water, showers, and more. 

Day 2: Santa Cruz to Monterey

Grab some breakfast or coffee in Downtown Santa Cruz, and maybe spend the morning exploring Downtown before heading down to Monterey. Known for its picturesque coastline and incredibly diverse wildlife, which includes whales, dolphins, sea lions, and otters, there is no shortage of activities. The drive is 43 miles and should take you about an hour to complete. 

Things to Do in Monterey

  1. Monterey Bay Aquarium: A world-renowned marine research institute with over 200 spectacular exhibits and 80,000 plants and animals such as octopi, jellyfish, otters, and some really bizarre deep sea creatures. The aquarium can get pretty crowded on summer weekends, so we recommend trying to go on a weekday if possible. 
  2. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve: Being known as “the greatest meeting of land and water in the world” is pretty high praise, and Point Lobos lives up to the hype. This is a very popular destination year-round, so plan accordingly. If you want to spend the morning or afternoon here, you should arrive by opening time as the parking lots fill quickly. Spots tend to open up around 3 p.m. for those wishing to spend the late afternoon at Point Lobos. Bird Island Trail, Sea Lion Point Trail, Cypress Grove Trail, and South Shore Trail are excellent choices for some highly rewarding views. 
  3. 17-mile Drive: Take the scenic route along Monterey Bay for breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean. This road is home to Pebble Beach Golf Links–a prestigious golf course and the famous Lone Cypress tree. 
  4. Año Nuevo State Park: A must-stop during the elephant seal mating season. This is a perfect side trip located just a few miles north of Santa Cruz.

Places to Eat in Monterey

  1. Compagno’s Market & Deli: Known for their massive sandwiches, this is a great choice for a satisfying on-the-go lunch. Their portions are so large you might even end up with two lunches! 
  2. Yama Sushi Bar & Restaurant: Specializing in Japanese cuisine, this is an excellent choice for sushi lovers. If raw fish isn’t your thing, don’t worry; Yama offers a wide selection of noodle soups and bento boxes. 
  3. Dametra Fresh Mediterranean: Generous portions, great food, and impeccable service. What more could you ask for? 

Places to Camp in Monterey

  1. Saddle Mountain Ranch: Located on 89 acres of forest land and surrounded by lush forests and rolling hills, this campsite is perfect for nature enthusiasts looking for a site with modern amenities. Amenities include showers, restrooms, a pool, internet, drinking water, and more. 
  2. Laguna Seca Recreation Area Campground: Situated on a hillside overlooking the Salinas Valley, this is a popular destination for hikers and mountain bikers on a hillside overlooking the Salinas Valley.

NOTE – If you are looking for a shorter trip or just want a little extra time in Big Sur, consider making Monterey a stop rather than a destination.

McWay Falls San Francisco to Big Sur California road trip

Day 3: Monterey Bay to Big Sur

Once you’ve packed up camp, it’s time to hit the road again. Your 30-mile, hour-long drive will take you over the famed Bixby Bridge, one of the most photographed features on the West Coast. This area is prone to mudslides during heavy rain, so check local closures before deciding on your stops. 

Things to Do in Big Sur

  1. Pfeiffer Beach: Just two miles off Highway 1 is Pfeiffer Beach. If you visit the beach after a rainfall, you may be lucky to encounter the famous purple sand. While the purple sand is not always there, Pfeiffer Beach is still a worthwhile visit, especially at sunset, when the rays beam through Keyhole Arch, a spectacular natural arch. The north end of the beach also has an extensive tidepool network, making it easy to spend hours looking for little tidal critters. The tidepools are only accessible during low tide, so plan your visit around the tidal schedule found here
  2. Point Sur Lighthouse: A former Naval Facility, the Point Sur Lighthouse still guides ships along the rocky Central California shore. First-come, first-serve walking tours are available on the weekend. There are guided tours available on the weekends. 
  3. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park: This park’s main attraction is McWay Falls, an 80-foot waterfall that cascades down into Monterey Bay. It is less than a mile to the McWay Falls overlook; if you wish to continue hiking, Partington Cove is another hike with stunning views. 

Places to Eat in Big Sur

It’s important to note that the further you get from Monterey, the more expensive food gets. Packing a lunch to enjoy on the beach is a memorable experience and will allow you to fit as many experiences into your itinerary. 

  1. Cafe Kevah & Nepenthe: We highly recommend stopping here on your trip, whether for a full meal or just a coffee or evening drink. There are few restaurants in the world with a view this beautiful. The excellent food, incredible views, and the crisp ocean air make this an unforgettable dining experience. Cafe Kevah and Nepenthe are two restaurants in the same building, so pick whichever restaurant suits your needs.
  2. Big Sur Tap House: Known for its craft beer selection and delicious food, this is a great stop for those looking for downtime on its massive patio. They also have a small convenience store if you are missing some cooking essentials or if you need to restock beer and wine. 

Campsites in Big Sur

  1. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park: The campground is on the banks of the Big Sur River. This is a very popular campsite, and reservations open six months in advance. This campsite’s amenities include a fire pit, picnic table, drinking water, hot showers, and toilets.
  2. Big Sur Campgrounds and Cabins: A riverside campground that features a playground, laundry facilities, a sports court, and the use of inner tubes for floating down the river on top of basic campground amenities.
  3. Fernwood Campground and Resort: Close enough to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park that you can hike right into the car. The road getting here is pretty curvy, but it’s nothing our vans can’t handle! Amenities: toilets, water, general store and more. 
  4. Additional Campsites: There are several campsites located south of the landslide that are open but only accessible through Cambria. While the drive normally takes less than an hour, while Highway 1 remains closed, the detour is approximately 3 hours. These campgrounds include Limekiln State Park Campground, Kirk Creek Campground, and Hearst San Simeon State Park.

Day 4: Big Sur to Santa Cruz

Now, you have two options. If you wish to end the trip today, get an early start and enjoy the sunrise over the Santa Lucia Mountains, or head to McWay Falls if you didn’t do it yesterday. Then start your trek back to our hub in time for your drop-off time. The drive up Highway 101 is 105 miles and can take between 2 and 3 hours, so plan accordingly. Vehicle dropoff is between 8:30 a.m. and 10 a.m. to avoid being charged for a full day.

If you would rather take your time and drive back up the coast, consider stopping in Santa Cruz. Now is the perfect time to stop at all the places you wanted to visit but didn’t have enough time. Or, spend some time in Carmel-By-The-Sea; its long-standing history and gorgeous views will impress you. If you decide to take the scenic route, we recommend spending the night in Santa Cruz to make your drive back to our hub as easy as possible.

Destinations On The Way Back to Santa Cruz

  1. Mission Carmel is a historic Spanish mission in Carmel-By-The-Sea dating back to 1770. The mission is a must-stop for those eager to learn about California’s rich history. The mission is open Wednesday – Sunday, and guided and unguided tours are available.
  2. Garrapata State Park: With two miles of beach, plenty of coastal hiking, and a 50-ft climb to unobstructed views of Monterey Bay. If you happen to be traveling from mid-February to mid-March, you’re in luck! Calla Lily Valley should be in full bloom; it is just a short 0.5-mile walk, but you will see thousands and thousands of Calla lilies. If your trip falls outside this window, Soberanes Canyon Trail is popular. 

Places to Camp in Santa Cruz

    1. Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park: This campground is tucked in the Santa Cruz mountains, where you will get to sleep among the giant Redwoods. The tallest tree in these woods is approximately 277 feet tall and over 1,500 years old. Several hikes with varied difficulty levels will take you through the forest to see all it offers. Amenities include restrooms, drinking water, guided tours, hiking trails, and more. 
    2. Sunset State Beach: A serene campground walking from the beach under the pines. The views from this campground are unparalleled, and it’s hard to find a more convenient campsite than this one. Amenities include restrooms, showers, drinking water, and more. 
    3. New Brighton State Beach: Situated on top of a bluff overlooking Monterey Bay, this is one of California’s most popular beachfront campsites. It’s tough to imagine anything more peaceful than waking up to panoramic views of the California coast. Amenities include summer programs, restrooms, surfing, drinking water, and showers. 
    4. Eucalyptus Forest & Mountains is 300 acres of locally owned land with 30 RV/tent sites. There are no campfires allowed or electrical hookups. There are toilets and drinking water available. 

Day 5: Time to Return the Van

  • The dropoff window for our rentals is between 8:30 a.m. and 10:00 a.m. Many people commute from Santa Cruz to the Bay Area, so if you leave on a weekday, expect rush-hour traffic. During normal traffic conditions, the drive typically takes 45 minutes to 1.5 hours. Please plan accordingly to avoid any late fees. 

Planning on Spending a Day in San Francisco?

Our hub is 50 miles south of San Francisco, so you have a few options for getting into San Francisco. 

  1. Public Transportation: The Bay Area has a fantastic light rail system that can have you in downtown San Francisco for about $11 per person in just over an hour; a great option if you hope to avoid the infamous Bay Area traffic. The BART trip planner can be found here for current routes and schedules. Once you are in San Francisco, there is no need for a rental car as there is a great public transit system, shared e-bikes, and even autonomous taxis (yep, really). 
  2. Rideshare: Uber and Lyft can bring you right into the city.

Things to Do in San Francisco

  1. Mission District: A vibrant neighborhood with many local shops and eateries. Check out Clarion Alley murals for constantly changing murals done by local street artists. 
  2. Fisherman’s Wharf: A bustling waterfront with plenty of restaurants and attractions, including Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, Pier 39, Ghirardelli Square, and Musee Mecanique, an arcade with games dating back to the early 19th century. 
  3. Golden Gate Bridge: It’s not a visit to San Francisco if you haven’t seen the Golden Gate Bridge. If you plan to walk the bridge, dress in layers because it can get chilly. Head over to Battery Spencer for some truly magnificent views of the bridge and San Francisco
  4. Alcatraz Island: A historic maximum security prison island once home to Al Capone, is a popular destination. Book your tickets in advance. 
  5. The Painted Ladies: These colorful Victorians are famous for their appearance in many films and TV shows, including Full House. Please remember that people live in these homes and be respectful. 
  6. Haight-Ashbury: Calling all Grateful Dead fans! This neighborhood was a big part of the 1960s counterculture and is now a trendy area with unique shops, tons of curated vintage stores, and vibrant street art. 
  7. Catch a game: San Francisco is home to the SF Giants, who play at Oracle Park, a waterfront stadium. You may even see a “Splash Hit” if you’re lucky. If you are a basketball fan, the newly built Chase Center is the home of the Golden State Warriors.
  8. Chinatown: One of San Francisco’s oldest neighborhoods, this is a great place to grab authentic Chinese food. Just off the beaten path is the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, a working factory that warmly welcomes visitors. This is a unique stop as it is one of the only places in the US where you can see fortune cookies being made. 

Neighborhoods to Stay in

  1. Haight-Ashbury
  2. The Castro
  3. Hayes Valley
  4. Marina District
  5. North Beach
  6. Fishermans Wharf

Why Rent a Camper Van for a Big Sur Road Trip?

There are many benefits to renting an Escape Campervan over a traditional RV for your road trip down the coast. Here are a few reasons why a camper van is the ideal rental option. 

  1. Compact and More Mobile: Escape Camper Vans are much smaller than RVs, making navigating the curvy coastal and mountain roads easier. If you plan on staying in dispersed campsites, reaching the more remote and secluded area in a camper van is much easier than in a large and cumbersome RV.
  2. Easy to Drive: Driving an RV can be nerve-racking for someone who doesn’t regularly drive large vehicles. Escape Camper Vans are similar to driving a minivan or other large family vehicle. The compact size means parking is much easier, and you don’t need a special license, better handling on windy roads, and better fuel economy. 
  3. Cozy and Convenient: We firmly believe that the only thing you should think about when planning your trip is which stops to make, and you shouldn’t worry about bringing the right gear. That’s why our camper vans are designed to be fully contained. All camper van rentals from Escape Camper Vans are outfitted with a kitchenette featuring a sink, refrigerator, stove, and all the essential camping gear. This means you can focus on exploring the natural beauty of your trip from San Francisco to Big Sur without dealing with difficult-to-set-up tents (we’ve all been there), searching for hotels, or trying to figure out complex RV systems. 
  4. No need for electric or sewer hookups: Renting a camper van means you don’t need to search for campsites with electric or sewer hookups. Our Del Mar, Mesa, Santa Cruz, and Mavericks all come equipped with a solar panel and a dual battery system. 
  5. Versatile and Adventure-Ready: Escape Camper Vans are crafted with adventure in mind. Explore our available additional features, such as solar showers, rooftop tents, and canopies, which can significantly enhance your trip experience. 

Choosing a camper van for your San Francisco to Big Sur road trip offers a user-friendly and convenient way to experience the beauty of this area without compromising on comfort. Escape Camper Vans allow you to fully immerse yourself in the experience without the stresses of renting a larger vehicle like an RV. 

Reserve with Escape Camper Vans for your Big Sur Road Trip

Now that you’ve learned about the famous views and destinations a trip down to Big Sur offers, it’s time to see it yourself. Enough reading. It’s time to take the next step in turning your trip to Big Sur from a dream to a reality and reserving a camper van with Escape Camper Vans will give you the keys to an unforgettable voyage. So, what are you waiting for?

Book My Big Sur Trip

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