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San Francisco to Big Sur

A California Coast Day Trip by Campervan

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.

Getting There

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.

Rules of the Road: Highway 1 to Big Sur

  • Fill your gas tank BEFORE you head into Big Sur
  • If you’re prone to car sickness, be prepared for some windy roads
  • Bring warm clothes — it does get cold in California!
  • Watch out for bikers — some stretches attract lots of cyclists

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 allowed only in designated campgrounds. You can learn more about camping requirements here, and view campground options here.


Directions Tips:

Distance: 120 miles (193 km)

Time: 3 hours (without stops)

San Francisco, CA

San Francisco, CA

Half Moon Bay

First, 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.

Best Camping

Francis Beach Campground – the best place to watch the sunset over Half Moon Bay (even better from a van!)

Best Hike

The Coastside Trail to Pillar Point

Best Side Trip

The Filoli Gardens – a nice, manicured country estate with beautiful gardens

Best Eats/Drinks
  • Thomas Fogarty Winery – Skip the tasting room and buy a bottle. Then, chill on the grassy spot with the view facing the bay. (Remember, drink responsibly!)
  • Alice’s Restaurant – Cool vibes, patio beers. Right in the middle of the redwoods.
  • Apple Jack’s – Awesome historic dive bar off the 84 towards the coast from Alice’s.
  • Sam’s Chowder House – Bomb chowder/lobster rolls right on the 1.

Año Nuevo State Park

Año Nuevo is an Escape favorite to check out for wildlife viewing. It’s home to the largest mainland breeding colony of Northern Elephant Seals in the world! Because of this, 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. 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.

Best Camping

Huckleberry Campground, Big Basin Redwoods State Park

Best Hike

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.

Best Side Trip

Swanton Berry Farm —  a refreshing nearby stop along Highway 1 to pick your own berries and grab a bite to eat.

Santa Cruz

Sunrise in Santa Cruz, California, from the back of a campervan on the beach

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. Then, peruse Pacific Avenue’s vintage clothing stores, cafes, and galleries downtown. Next, 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.

Best Camping

New Brighton Campground

Best Hike

Old Cove Landing Trail, Wilder Ranch State Park

Best Side Trip

Natural Bridges State Beach

Monterey

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.

Best Camping

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.

Best Hike

Andrew Molera State Park

Best Side Trip

Fort Ord Dunes State Park

Big Sur

McWay Falls Big Sur California road trip

First off, 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. As such, 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.

Highlights

  • Bixby Bridge, a landmark that towers nearly 270 ft across a canyon floor
  • McWay Falls, an 80-ft. cascade over granite cliffs into the ocean reached by a short hike through Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
  • Pfeiffer Beach, distinguished by its purple sand
  • Redwood groves on the headlands and in the foothills that offer hiking, horseback trails, and rustic campgrounds
Best Camping
Kirk Creek Campground

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 prefer not to pay the $20, cross Highway 1 and head directly up Nacimiento Fergusson Drive. It’s paved, liberally dotted with car pullouts, and free. Even if you’re just driving through, head up this road anyway because 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.

Plaskett Creek Campground

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).

Fernwood Campground

Last, but not least! 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.

Best Hike

Ewoldsen Trail

Best Side Trip

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.

Best Eats/Drinks
  • Nepenthe Restaurant – We’ve road tested this restaurant with several Escapees and the feedback has been 100% positive. A major dining destination for the jet set, this converted house (that used to be owned by Orson Welles) is a great spot to park it for a while, enjoy a beer or two and catch a sunset…or two. Splurge on a fancy dinner or hang a left at the fire pit and wander out to the viewing area below the restaurant for free.
  • Big Sur Bakery – Located just north of the town of Big Sur is a bakery that is a ‘must-do’ for any person in the know along this stretch of highway.

Side Trip: Pinnacles National Park

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.

Best Camping

Pinnacles Campground

Best Hike

Old Pinnacles Trail Loop

Best Side Trip

Bear Gulch Day Use Area

Tips from Escape West Coast Hub Manager, Will

  • Fioli Gardens — super nice, manicured country estate with beautiful gardens.
  • Thomas Fogarty Winery – Skip the tasting room, buy a bottle and chill on the grassy spot with the view facing the bay.
  • Alice’s Restaurant – Cool vibes, patio beers. Right in the middle of the redwoods.
  • Apple Jack’s – Awesome historic dive bar off the 84 towards the coast from Alice’s.
  • Sam’s Chowder House (Half Moon Bay) – Chowder/lobster rolls right on the 1.

Learn More

Read about a past renter’s trip to Big Sur and Yosemite here.

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!

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