In need of a short but scenic adventure? It only takes around three hours to cruise down US Highway 1 during a San Francisco to Big Sur road trip, making it the perfect itinerary for those in search of an easy escape from the city. Whether you fit it into a weekend or slow it down and make it a longer campervan trip, this route offers minimal driving time with maximum opportunities to hop out of the van and explore. We have listed several attractions along this route, but this is just a taste of what you’re about to see – sometimes the best stops are the ones you don’t plan. Just make sure you share your insider knowledge with future Escapees upon your return. Let’s start at the San Francisco Escape Depot and head south.
Due to the fact that Big Sur is part of the Los Padres National Forest, it is legal to car camp along Highway 1 in any of the pullouts that don’t have “No Overnight Camping” signs posted. No fires are allowed. Be conscious of leaving trash along the road.
Distance: 120 miles (193 km)
Time: 3 hours (without stops)
A short drive from our San Francisco office is the friendly, charming community of Half Moon Bay. Nestled on the Pacific Coast, you’ll find miles of beaches and hiking trails, not to mention the legendary Mavericks surf break. Highlights include Half Moon Bay State Beach, Montara Mountain, and the Purisima Creek Redwoods Preserve.
Francis Beach Campground – the best place to watch the sunset over Half Moon Bay (even better from a van!)
The Coastside Trail to Pillar Point
The Filoli Gardens – nice, manicured country estate with beautiful gardens
Año Nuevo is an Escape favorite to check out for wildlife viewing. Just a few miles north of Santa Cruz or 30 minutes south of Half Moon Bay, this state park really gets hopping between December and March when the resident elephant seals come to mate, as it’s home to the largest mainland breeding colony of Northern Elephant Seals in the world. During the slow season, this place is still a worthy stop because there’s always lots of wildlife to check out, and you can take unguided tours around the sand dunes along the point.
Huckleberry Campground, Big Basin Redwoods State Park
Año Nuevo only offers guided walks to check out the rookery. It’s about a 2-mile hike, it’s in the sand, and the weather can become pretty harsh. It’s worth the effort, though, because you get right into the middle of all the elephant seal action. Tours cost $7 per person and reservations may be needed. Call 800-444-4445 or book online.
Swanton Berry Farm — a refreshing nearby stop along Highway 1 to pick your own berries and grab a bite to eat.
If you’re looking for boardwalk surf town vibes, this is the place! A long wharf boasts eateries and shops all the way into Monterey Bay. Take a ride on the iconic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk’s 1911 Looff Carousel and Giant Dipper roller coaster. Peruse Pacific Avenue’s vintage clothing stores, cafes, and galleries downtown. Read up on the area’s history as a surfing hub at the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum in the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse overlooking famed surf site Steamer Lane.
New Brighton Campground
Old Cove Landing Trail, Wilder Ranch State Park
Natural Bridges State Beach
As one of the earliest US cities established after the Mexican-American war, Monterey offered California’s first theater, public building, public library, publicly funded school, printing press, and newspaper. The area is known for attracting artists since the late 19th century and many celebrated painters and writers have called it home. Today, popular things to see and do include the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Cannery Row, Fisherman’s Wharf, and the annual Monterey Jazz Festival.
The best camping is about an hour down Highway 1 near Big Sur. It’s worth the extra miles, and we have several great options listed below.
Andrew Molera State Park
Fort Ord Dunes State Park
Big Sur is both a place and a state of mind. The famous Highway 1 takes a turn for the spectacular once you head south from Monterey Bay. Make sure you carve out several days to spend here or you’ll miss a lot of what Big Sur has to offer. Bordered to the east by the Santa Lucia Mountains and to the west by the Pacific Ocean, California’s central coast provides numerous state parks for hiking, camping, and beachcombing.
A few miles north of Plaskett Creek are a couple of first-come-first-serve campsites that are tailor made for Escape Campervans. Kirk Creek is the ONLY campground along this stretch situated on the western side of the highway. Bring your own water as there are no amenities, but it’s a fantastic place to watch the sunset over a roaring, legal campfire and fall asleep listening to the waves crash below you for $20. If you’d prefer not to pay the $20, cross Highway 1 and head directly up Nacimiento Fergusson Drive. It’s paved, liberally dotted with car pull outs and free. Even if you’re just driving through, head up this road anyway – the views are spectacular. Alternatively, Lime Kiln is located in a steep ravine just south of there and, if you’re lucky, you can snag one of the few campsites located right by the ocean.
This campground has some of the friendliest campers you’ll encounter on your entire trip. It’s right across the road from the often-missed Sand Dollar Beach, perfect for an afternoon walk. Access to the parking area at Sand Dollar will run you $5 but you can park on the road and walk in for free. (There is free camping up Plaskett Ridge Road, but remember, your insurance isn’t covered when driving on bumpy dirt roads).
Nestled among the redwoods with the Big Sur river running through the middle, this is an idyllic place to take a breather from the road for a couple of days. There is a great little hike just behind the stage that takes you into a large stand of redwood trees to the north. It’ll be tourist-free and a nice breather from driving the crowded roads of Highway 1. Directions: West side of the road 1 mile (2 km) north of Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground. It’s just south the Fernwood General Store and Cabins. Tell Diana we said to take care of you.
Hearst Castle — It took 28 years to complete William Randolph Hearst’s lavish estate, which includes 165 rooms on 125 acres. There are a variety of tours available.
Location: Can’t miss the entrance on the right up Highway 1 outside the town of San Simeon.
Want to tack one more breathtaking side trip onto your Big Sur adventure? As one of America’s newest National Parks, Pinnacles has yet to gain the attention it deserves. The giant rock needles and vertical canyons are all that remains of an ancient volcano that was literally sheared in two by tectonic plates (have we captured your interest yet?). This area attracts hikers, rock climbers, and a whole lot of bats. There’s also a small rookery of endangered California Condors that make Pinnacles home.
Old Pinnacles Trail Loop
Bear Gulch Day Use Area
> Read about a past renter’s trip to Big Sur and Yosemite here.
Bonus tip submission from Will: Day trip near Burlingame (San Francisco Escape depot location)
Looking for the best surf spots on Highway 1? Check out this Highway 1 Road Trip itinerary in an Escape Campervan from our friends at LushPalm!