Anyone familiar with the California Coast has heard of Big Sur. It’s one of the most iconic, picturesque spots along California’s Route 1. From dramatic cliffs lining the turquoise-blue Pacific Ocean to dense forests of Douglas firs and redwoods to the abundant marine wildlife, there’s a reason Big Sur is so special.
From Escape Camper Vans location just south of San Francisco in Milpitas, Big Sur is a two-hour and ten-minute drive, 107 miles one way. Without stops the round-trip route is two hours and twenty minutes or 214 miles.
Of course, with so many highlights to see along the way, you’ll want to break up the drive. It’s best to spend at least 24 hours road-tripping from San Francisco to Big Sur but if you have the time, a weekend trip will allow for more exploring!
Best Time of Year for a San Francisco to Big Sur Road Trip
The best time to road trip from San Francisco to Big Sur is from the spring to the fall when temperatures are comfortable. However, from the end of May through early September expect larger crowds.
Spring can be a little rainy but wildflowers begin to bloom along the coast. The fall months of September and October actually bring some of the sunniest, warmest days of the whole year!
There’s always a chance of running into fog along the Northern California coast, which helps the redwood trees grow so tall, but fog is most common in the winter and early spring. Winter also brings more rain to the coast.
Preparation for a San Francisco to Big Sur Road Trip
Before you head out on your San Francisco to Big Sur road trip there are a few things to consider and research. From staying up to date about road and weather conditions to things to be aware of on the coast, here are some tips to help your trip run smoothly.
Check Road Conditions
With the steep terrain lining California’s coast, the area is prone to flooding, rockslides, and landslides which means road closures. Sometimes it’s possible to detour these closures but other times roads close for months. Check current Route 1 road conditions online before you head out in case you need to alter your plans.
Stick to Trails and Obey Closures
Just as road conditions are affected by the weather, so are trails and beaches. These closures are in effect for your safety. As the California coastline constantly erodes, cliff edges give out where they are weak. This is very dangerous. Even if it looks fine to cross over a closed trail sign, don’t.
Avoid Driving the Coast at Night
Route 1 from San Francisco to Big Sur is very exposed, curvy, and narrow in some spots. The drive can make people feel weary during the day, and it’s even more nerve-racking to drive at night. Try to get to camp before it’s dark; then you won’t miss any of the views either!
Pack a Rechargeable Battery
You can charge your devices while your camper van is running but when it’s off at night you cannot. Bring a rechargeable battery pack to keep your devices going because you’ll want to use your camera quite a bit!
There are stretches along this route with minimal to no cell coverage so download offline maps before you set out on your San Francisco to Big Sur road trip. Also, it’s always good to carry a paper map so pick one up before you head out.
San Francisco to Big Sur Road Trip Itinerary
Even though the distance from San Francisco to Big Sur isn’t very far, there’s A LOT to see and explore along this stretch of the California coast. This San Francisco to Big Sur itinerary has many suggestions from exploring towns and viewing wildlife to wandering along beaches and through redwood forests.
Whether your road trip is 24 hours or a weekend getaway don’t rush yourself and pack in too many stops. Choose a few activities that you’re most interested in so you feel relaxed while exploring!
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Day 1: Santa Cruz
After picking up your Escape Camper Van head southwest, up and over the Santa Cruz mountains, and out to the coast. Surrounded by state parks and a fun downtown, there’s plenty to explore in this coastal city.
Things To Do in Santa Cruz
Natural Bridges State Park: Natural Bridges State Park is a beach area in Santa Cruz, famous for a large natural rock bridge standing prominently in the ocean. The park is also protected for its eucalyptus grove, the home for monarch butterflies and other wildlife.
While visiting, look out for seals, otters, and whales. At low tide look for sea stars, sea anemones, crabs, and other marine life in the tide pools.
Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park: Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is located right off Highway 9, along the route you take into Santa Cruz. The state park preserves a large grove of old-growth California coastal redwoods reaching over 1,500 years old, and over 270 feet tall. While visiting the California coast, wandering through a redwood grove is a must if you have the time!
The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park:If you’re looking to get off the beaten path when passing through Santa Cruz then The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park is the perfect option for you. The park has 30 miles of hiking and biking trails that span from sea level up to 2,600 feet high in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Santa Cruz Wharf:The Santa Cruz Wharf is the longest wooden pier in the US spanning 2,745 feet long. It’s the perfect spot for wildlife spotting, fishing, dining, and shopping while taking in the stunning views of the Golden Coast.
Places to Eat in Santa Cruz
Makai Island Kitchen & Groggery 49A Municipal Wharf, Santa Cruz, CA 95060 Whether you’re feeling seafood, pasta, or steak, Makai Island Kitchen & Groggery offers it all. It’s located on the Santa Cruz Wharf and the center of the restaurant is actually a rotating bar where you can dine while enjoying 360-degree views of the ocean.
Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing 402 Ingalls St #27, Santa Cruz, CA 95060 Grab some local beers and bites at Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing. The microbrewery serves beers, hard kombucha, local hard ciders, and non-alcoholic drinks. You can also grab taproom food ranging from salads, tacos, dips, and other snacks.
Woodstock’s Pizza 710 Front St, Santa Cruz, CA 95060 Woodstock’s Pizza is known for its legendary pizza, sandwiches, and casual fare. Create a custom pizza or go with a classic combo. If pizza isn’t your thing then order pasta, salad, wings, or other tasty dish.
Camping in Santa Cruz
Sunset State Beach Campground: Just 20 minutes south of downtown Santa Cruz is Sunset State Beach Campground sitting right on the coast. Snag a site for $35 a night and reserve your spot a few months in advance because these ocean-view campsites book up quickly.
Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park Campground: Camp among the trees at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park Campground located just a few miles north of Santa Cruz. The campground is accessible via a separate entrance from the day-use area of the park. Campgrounds cost $7 – $35 a night.
Day 2: Monterey
Previously a sardine packing town, today Monterey is a lovely stop on the California coast where factories have been converted into bars and where golf courses and restaurants line the coast. Monterey is one of the best spots along the coast for wildlife watching and luxury dining experiences.
Things To Do in Monterey
17 Mile Drive: Carmel-By-The-Sea’s 17 Mile Drive is a spectacular stretch of coastline showcasing sandy white beaches, lush forests, and striking coastal cliffs, and is home to many acclaimed golf courses.
17 Mile Drive costs $11.75 per vehicle which includes access to Pebble Beach, a legendary golf area, with lodging and dining.
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve: If you’re a wildlife lover then you sure don’t want to miss Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. Get up close to marine wildlife while walking the dramatic cliffs that drop into the Pacific Ocean. See the waves rush in while sea lions, seals, and sea turtles swim to shore. Watch for whales, dolphins, and sea otters in the distance.
Whale Watching: Monterey offers some of the best whale watching opportunities along the California Coast. Depending on the season you might see Humpback, Gray, Blue, Sperm, Fin, Minke, or Beaked whales as well as other marine wildlife. Multiple outfitters offer whale watching tours with morning, afternoon, and sunset departures.
Places to Eat in Monterey
Schooners Monterey 400 Cannery Road, Monterey, CA 93940 If you’re hoping for some seafood then reserve a table at Schooners Monterey for an elegant modern American dining experience. With oceanfront views, diverse seafood options, and even vegan and gluten-free options, all will enjoy their dining experience here.
Alvarado Street Brewery 426 Alvarado St, Monterey, CA 93940 Craft beer and local eats make Alvarado Street Brewery in Monterey the perfect option for casual dining. Rotating beers on tap, fancy cocktails, and local California wine make up the drink menu. Enjoy a classic Alvarado bar pie, a burger, paella, tacos, ribs, or calamari for food. The menu has many options with both vegan and gluten-free meals available.
Day 3: Big Sur
Few places on California’s coast are more iconic than Big Sur. Non-stop picturesque views make up the landscape while you drive the striking coastline. From hiking among redwoods to waterfall viewpoints, you don’t want to miss visiting Big Sur.
Things To Do in Big Sur
McWay Falls: Located in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, McWay Falls isn’t just a normal waterfall, it’s a “tidefall” or a waterfall that flows right into the ocean. Dropping 80 feet, you can’t miss this rare and mystical waterfall when visiting Big Sur.
A short 0.4-mile trail right off Highway 1 leads you out to the overlook to McWay Falls. Part of the trail is closed due to erosion along the cliffs but you can still get a nice view of the waterfall before the closure. There is no way to access the waterfalls from the bottom.
Bixby Creek Bridge: Bixby Bridge is an iconic bridge along California’s coast, famously photographed because of its aesthetic design. The concrete single-span arch bridge is one of the highest bridges of its kind, rising 260 feet above the steep canyon carved out by Bixby Creek.
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park: Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is known for its hiking, biking, swimming, and camping. Waterfalls flow through the lush forests of redwoods, oaks, conifers, willows, sycamores, and other trees. The campground here is one of the best options in the Big Sur area.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park: Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is a ten-minute drive down Highway 1 from Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. It’s a much smaller park than Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Julia Pfeiffer is most famous for McWay Falls, scuba diving access, and a couple of short hiking trails.
Places to Eat in Big Sur
Nepenthe 48510 CA-1, Big Sur, CA 93920 Nepenthe sits right on the cliffside offering spectacular views and classic California cuisine. Lunch consists of burgers, sandwiches, and salads then dinner steps it up with steaks and seafood entrees. Enjoy cocktails, beers, ciders, wines, or non-alcoholic beverages while you dine.
The Sur House48123 CA-1, Big Sur, CA 93920 Enjoy upscale dining with oceanfront views and locally sourced American eats at The Sur House. Reserve your spot early as this elegant, rustic restaurant books up quickly. For breakfast and dinner, it’s 18+, but all ages are welcome for lunch.
Big Sur Bakery 47540 CA-1, Big Sur, CA 93920 Big Sur Bakery is more than a bakery. They even serve brunch and dinner Wednesday through Sunday. From fresh pastries and desserts to wood-fired pizza and American comfort food there are plenty of options at this premium bakery.
Camping in Big Sur
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park Campground: There are 189 campsites at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Campground. Sites are located right on or next to the Big Sur River. This popular campground books up quickly, as far as six months in advance so try to reserve a site as early as possible. The campground has water, hot showers, and toilets.
Ventana Campground: Ventana Campground is located among the Big Sur redwoods. Campsites have picnic tables, fire rings, water faucets, and bathrooms. Ventana Campground is located near general stores, cafes, restaurants, and gift shops.
Riverside Campground & Cabins: Riverside Campground & Cabins has 34 campsites that sit among the mixed forest of redwoods, oaks, laurels, poplars, and maples. Campsites have water, firepits, picnic tables, and bathrooms.
Why Rent a Camper Van for a San Francisco to Big Sur Road Trip?
Travel in style in a well-furnished camper van on your San Francisco to Big Sur road trip. With a camper van you’ll have everything you need; a comfortable bed, a space to cook, transportation, and the option to add on extra accessories catered toward your trip.
Camper vans are easy to drive, compact, and mobile, unlike a bulky RV that requires specific campsites and sewer and electric hookups. When you’re driving the narrow, windy roads along the California coast, you’ll definitely prefer to be in a vehicle the size of a camper van rather than an RV!
Reserve with Escape Camper Vans for your San Francisco to Big Sur Road Trip
From striking cliff lines to dense mystical forests, California’s coast features some of the state’s most bucket list destinations! Now, you have all the details to plan your San Francisco to Big Sur road trip, from what to do to where to camp. So it’s your turn to book your flight and reserve your Escape Camper Van in San Francisco today!