Cliffs that drop straight into the deep blue ocean.
Vistas that quite literally take your breath away.
Bridges careening over deep canyons.
Crowds of people.
None of these things have much in common. Whales and squirrels? Crowds of people and empty forests? But along the Pacific Coast highway they do.
All of these elements of nature blend together to make up one of the most incredible drives in the world.
You could take your sweet time driving down the coast from Monterey to Big Sur, there is no shortage of things to see. Unfortunately, many people have limited time and want to see as much of this rocky coastline as they can.
I had a decent amount of time to thoroughly explore this area over the summer. Here is an itinerary for a full day of sightseeing.
From Monterey, head to the northernmost entrance in Pacific Grove. The start of your trip will be through Pebble Beach and the very famous 17 mile drive. It costs $10 to bring your car through 17 mile drive, but if you stop and eat or golf at any of the restaurants you can get that $10 back.
Here is a little tip: My family was renting a house in Pebble Beach, which meant we were constantly coming in and out of the gates. We had to stop every time and tell them that we were staying in the community which meant we didn’t need to pay. Not once were we questioned or asked for proof that we were renting a house. So what I’m saying is, if you want to trick the system you could say you are staying at Pebble Beach and no one would ever look twice. I am not promoting this! Just saying.
Pick up a map at the entrance and spend an hour or so driving down 17 mile drive. There are 21 stops along the way and they are clearly marked. Drive through the various golf courses (Spyglass, Spanish Bay, Pebble Beach), see (and smell) lots of seals at Seal Rock, feed squirrels at Bird Rock, marvel over the famous Lone Tree and most likely spot whales in the distance as you make your way down the road.
Tip: Motorcycles are not allowed on 17 mile drive, but bicycles are free
Detour: Eat a meal at Pebble Beach Lodge
Time: 1-2 hours
Once you leave 17 mile drive, head down Highway 1 into Carmel.
Driving South down Highway 1, turn onto Ocean Avenue. Here you will see the town that Clint Eastwood made famous: Carmel-by-the-Sea. A town worth exploring if you have the time, but not today. Go straight to Carmel Beach on Scenic Ave. The sprawling, dog friendly beach is the perfect sight of bright blue ocean meeting pure white sand. From Carmel Beach you can see Pebble Beach golf course to the north and Point Lobos State Park (your next stop) to the South. Take a minute here to dip your toes in the deep blue ocean for the first time (something you could not do along 17 mile drive).
Tip: Dogs are welcome all over Carmel-by-the-Sea, so if you are traveling with your BFF, this is the place to come!
Detour: Check out Clint Eastwood’s restaurant, Hog’s Breath, the Mission House, and all of the wineries.
Time: 30 minutes
Hop back in the car, head out the way you came, and turn back onto Highway 1 South. Drive for another 4 miles and you will reach Point Lobos State Park.
Point Lobos State Park
This park has been heralded as the “greatest meeting of land and sea” and they could possibly be right. The park is filled with nature trails through the forest that suddenly pop out onto a cliff on the ocean. You could spend the entire day exploring Point Lobos, but with the short amount of time you have, head straight down the road to the Sea Lion Point or Cypress Grove trail. Both of these loops are about 1 mile. From here head onto the North Shore trail which winds its way along an inlet on the coast. At any point along the North Shore Trail you can pop out and be back on the main road out of the park. Point Lobos is easy hiking and beautiful. We were in and out in about an hour.
Tip: Park on the road and walk in to avoid the fees. It will take about 15-20 minutes to walk from the road to the start of Sea Lion or Cypress Hill trails.
Detour: Bring a picnic and spend the day exploring all of the trails. Here is a map of the park.
Time: 90 minutes
From here it is time to head into Big Sur. Seven miles after Point Lobos you come upon the very famous Bixby Bridge.
As you drive down the coast toward Big Sur you will want to stop a bazillion times to take pictures. See the sapphire toned water contrasting with the craggy cliffs and green trees, and gasp as you wind your way around each bend. I was constantly being yelled at by my companions that if we kept stopping we would never get to everything we wanted. But I was driving, so HA! You will know when you get to the Bixby Bridge. It sits 250 feet above a canyon.
Tip: When you come to the Bixby Bridge there will undoubtedly be a huge crowd of people. Do yourself a favor and drive over the bridge and then pull off at the vista directly after it. You get a view of the bridge from a bit higher up and it is a bit less crowded.
Time: 15 minutes
When you are finally able to pull yourself away from staring at the incredible coastline, keep heading South. As you get further and further into Big Sur you will pass the Point Sur Lightstation, Andrew Molera State Park, the village of Big Sur, and Pfieffer Big Sur State Park. All excellent places to stop and explore if you have the time.
About 2 miles after Pfieffer Big Sur State Park you will come to Nepenthe Restaurant situated on a sharp bend in the road. Here is your lunch destination.
This has got to be one of the best views I have ever experienced while eating. The restaurant is perched atop a cliff and has an almost 180 degree view of the ocean and coastline. There is a bar and restaurant upstairs and a cafe downstairs. We ate at the cafe and had a delicious meal of sandwiches and beer as we stared in awe at the amazing scenery before us.
Tip: The parking lot is tiny and often gets jammed as cars just stop and wait for a spot to open up. Save yourself the headache and park on the road.
Time- 1 hour
Back in the car you go, headed for your last stop before its time to turn around.
Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park
Massive redwoods that practically touch the ocean is what makes this park special. Park on the road and follow the path to the Overlook Trail where you will find an 80 foot waterfall that you have, no doubt, seen pictures of before. You cannot actually get near the waterfall or the beach for that matter, but it is an easy 10 minute walk and a beautiful view. Keep walking along the trail for some more views of the coastline.
Time- 30 minutes
This is the southernmost point of your Highway 1 drive. If you have the time, or are not making the return trip, keep heading South and eventually get to Hearst Castle. If you are returning to Monterey, lucky you, you get to see Highway 1 all over again!
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Once you get back into Carmel, shortly after Point Lobos State Park, you will come to Monastery Beach. It will be on your left hand side and is directly across from a huge monastery…hence the name! This is the perfect place to end your day on the road. Grab some beers and snacks, dig your feet in the sand, watch the sea otters play and the sun set. A great place to reflect on the amazing day you just had.
Tip: Monastery Beach isn’t good for swimming, an undertow and strong waves make it better for dipping your toes.
A day spent driving down Highway 1 has got it all: breathtaking views, good food, exercise, culture, and history. A perfect day in my books!