Big Sur Coastline Drive, Monterey to San Simeon

Monterey, CA

The drive on Highway 1 along the Big Sur Coastline is an iconic California adventure. The drive itself is not as difficult as rumor has it, and is definitely worth the beautiful day it will give you! The actual driving is two hours, but with stops along the way it takes about five to six hours. This stretch of highway is between Garrapata State Park in Carmel/Monterey in the north, and Elephant Seal Viewing Point in San Simeon in the south. It's best to start in the north since the lookouts will be on your side of the road. To see the entry for this drive if you take it from the south, click here.  Come in late August to early May to avoid foggy summer days that will make your photos look drab.
If you are starting from Monterey, you might think it's best to wait all morning for the fog to clear so that you can get beautiful light for the sights on your drive, but try driving south into Carmel Meadows to see if the sun has already cleared there. Monterey tends to be the foggiest spot on this coast. If you're lucky, Big Sur might be in sunshine earlier than foggy, grey Monterey.
You can stop at as many pulloffs as you'd like. One of the first you'll probably do is Castle Rock Viewpoint, ten minutes into your drive, to see the famous marvel of engineering, Bixby Bridge. In the morning, the sun is in the wrong spot for photos, but what can you do. You can always return in the afternoon sometime when you are in Monterey, just to see the bridge lit up from the right angle. During the beginning of your drive, you will probably still have cell phone reception, but eventually it will fall off so you will have to pull off at viewing points by the seat of your pants. 
Another lovely place to pull off is after Little Sur River Viewpoint, where you can stand by a fence and look back at Little Sur River Beach and its creamy blue-green lagoon. This is about 16 minutes into your drive.
You will drive past Point Sur Naval Facility, where there is a lighthouse on a big volcanic rock. This secret (the public thought it was for oceanographic research) site was built during the cold war to detect Russian submarines. Long-range acoustic listening was tested at the lighthouse. This station detected the location of a wrecked Soviet submarine, quite an intelligence coup. You can tour the light station on Wednesdays and weekends. 
Andrew Molera is a good spot to stop for clean restrooms, 20 minutes into your drive. The ranger at the gate won't charge you the entry fee if you let him know you are just stopping for the restrooms for less than fifteen minutes. If you don't have $10 cash, it might be a good idea to pay the ranger at this stop anyway, since you can use the receipt at any of the paid parking lots you will visit in the day. Otherwise you need $10 cash at some of the parking lots because they are by honor system (you leave the cash in an envelope and rip off the receipt). 
The geography is quite varied on this drive. You now leave the open meadows, and drive through redwood forest, past some cabins-in-the-woods style hotels with cafes, and campgrounds, such as Big Sur River Inn (with a cafe with a patio over the river, open 8am-9pm), Big Sur Campground and Cabins, Glen Oaks Big Sur (expensive hotel with cafe), Big Sur Roadhouse (a restaurant open 8am-2:30pm) and more. You can buy gas in this part of town. This is the tiny town of Big Sur, which even has an elementary school, Captain Cooper School, with only 49 students. 
Past the forested part of town, you reach open meadows over the sea again. Big Sur Bakery is open most days for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but closed on Tuesdays all day, and closed at dinnertime on Sunday and Monday. 
Nepenthe is a great place to stop for lunch or dinner (they open at 11:30am), 30 minutes into your drive. The restaurant at the top is often full, and expensive, but you can eat at the lower patio which has stunning views of the ocean and many tables with sun umbrellas. It's a blissful spot! You order at the counter, which also saves you an hour of waiting for wait service. They have smoothies, salads, and sandwiches.
There are more amazing overlooks and trails to stop at as you continue on your drive. Grimes Point Overlook (which looks down on a beach), Coast Big Sur (a coffee shop in a water tank, open Friday to Monday), Boronda Trailhead, Partington Cove Trail, to name a few. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, specifically McWay Cove, is one you have seen on many postcards, with a cove of bright turquoise water, a promontary with cypress trees, and a thin waterfall falling onto the beach. The path is in disrepair so you can't continue far along it, and you can't go down to the beach. If you choose to stop here, know that it is a tourist trap. It is packed with visitors clamoring to stand at the far end of the path where it has been barricaded for repair, trying to get a glimpse of the waterfall. It costs $10 by the honor system (I only had $20 and felt a bit gypped when I left it in the envelope in the metal box at the front gate). There is a traffic jam at the gate while everyone fills out their envelopes. You park in a parking lot full of people frantically looking for a spot. Do not walk on the path at the end of the parking lot. This just leads to Highway 1, a waste of time. Instead, walk back to the front gate and take the stairs which lead to the pedestrian tunnel which takes you to the viewing point for McWay Cove. You can also just park along the highway, but it will be on the mountain side of the road, if you want to avoid the parking lot. There are many much nicer, secluded trails, beaches, and overlooks to stop at, that will leave you feeling happier. 
You pass some fantastic cliff faces covered abundantly in fluffy pampas grass. We stopped at a stunning overlook next, Big Creek Cove Vista Point (you can tell it by its row of square rocks outlining the dirt parking lot), with views of a bridge similar to Bixby Bridge, called Big Creek Bridge. Bright plants framed each photo and I was in heaven! Travelers from Europe, mostly Germany, sat on the sandstone rocks at the overlook, eating picnics.
Limekiln State Park is currently closed due to a landslide (2023). The beach there was one of my favorite stops, leaving magical memories. To stop there costs $10, paid to the ranger at the gate (this is a private ranger station so your receipt from parking at other stations does not count). The hike to the falls has lovely moss-covered rocks and forest. The beach is even more wonderful. From the parking lot, we walked through forest, on a footbridge over a crystal clear stream, then under a giant concrete overpass to the beach. Strewn on the sand, beside the river, are sparkling white rocks. We dipped our toes in the river, sat on the smooth rocks, peered up at the huge bridge, and listened to the ocean. It was a wonderful stop! There are clean restrooms at this stop.
Mill Creek Picnic Area is next, on a rugged beach where a creek meets the ocean. Mill Creek Trail leads through redwood forest with views of the ocean.
You pass some meadows that are covered in poppies, vibrant purple ice plant, and yellow flowers in late April and May. Pacific Valley Bluff Trailhead provides a walk through the poppies, past cows, to two overlooks where you can see rocks jutting out of the ocean, periodically swooshed with sea spray. Watch out for muddy spots along the path, and don't let any grasses with ticks touch your skin.
You can walk down 100 steps to beautiful Sand Dollar Beach, with its clean sand, happy surfers, giant rock formations, and cliffs of dark green granite. The parking lot has restrooms, and you pay $10 by the honor system. If you already paid for another parking lot on this drive, you can just show that receipt on your dash. This beach is beautiful at sunset. It is 42 minutes from the end of the drive. 
Treebones Resort has food at Wild Coast Restaurant, a sushi restaurant open for lunch and dinner, with views of the sea.
Ragged Point Inn is a great place to stop and take a rest. Here you will find a lovely garden with a cypress tree forest over the sea. There are flowers and a round sculpture that frames the coast view. Use the indoor restrooms to avoid the disgusting outdoor ones. They have several eating areas open 8am-8pm, a coffee shop, and a gift shop. My banana bread wasn't very fresh but my lemongrass tea was amazing.
Your last stop on the drive is Elephant Seal Vista Point. This is definitely worth it even though you are tired! Depending on the time of year, there will be big aggressive male elephant seals, harems of mommy seals, or baby seals. You can watch them from the wooden boardwalk, very close up! It is fascinating. 
You are now in San Simeon. I heard that Motel 6 in San Simeon is very nice for an inexpensive hotel right on the water. You can do a romantic and beautiful tour of Hearst Castle the next day, and eat lunch at the food truck at Hearst Ranch Winery San Simeon. Or stay the night in Morro Bay, a magical place to spend a few days. Make sure you visit Spooner's Cove while there.

Continue to pictures...

The colors of the water.

Cypress tree and wild ocean.

Cypress trees along the headland at Kasler Point.

Teal-colored water at Kasler Point.

Cypress trees and cliffs at Kasler Point.

Kasler Point is a pretty cove.

Explorers head south on the Big Sur drive.

The wonderful water!

Looking at Bixby Bridge from Castle Rock Viewpoint.

View of coves from Bixby Bridge area.

Bixby Bridge is a marvel!

Visitors see Bixby Bridge.

Little Sur River Beach and its creamy blue-green lagoon.

Point Sur Naval Facility, where there is a lighthouse on a large volcanic rock.

Strange landscape.

Rock face along the road.

Driving through redwood forest.

Views at Nepenthe.

Stairs going up to the deck at Nepenthe.

The deck at Nepenthe.

Top of the world views at Nepenthe.

Tables with umbrellas at Nepenthe.

A blissful lunch at Nepenthe.

Pine tree views from Nepenthe.

High up over the ocean at Nepenthe.

Mountain views.

Pampas grass by the curving road.

Pampas grass catching the light, and gorgeous high cliffs.

Pampas grass and the multi-colored sea.

Taking in the spectacular views together.

House with a view!

Thick dark green trees and promontory like an island, at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.

Pampas grass and the amazing colors of the water, at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.

Like an island, a promontory at at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.

The swirling turquoise water.

People crowd in on the only open area of the path, 2022.

I can't get enough of the color of the water!

Stream along the path, at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.

The road.

A perfect drive!

Bright colors- sky, plants, sea. Big Creek Cove Vista Point (you can tell it by its row of square rocks).

The popping color of the water and plants, Big Creek Cove Vista Point.

Big Creek Bridge, as seen from Big Creek Cove Vista Point.

Big Creek Bridge and headland.

Flowers and sparkling sea.

An amazing drive!

Driving under a strange structure.

Looking down at a beach.

Hiking along the stream at Limekiln State Park.

Crystal clear stream at Limekiln State Park.

Picnic at Limekiln Beach.

Limekiln Beach is stunning.

Playing with rock at the clear river that leads down to the beach, in Limekiln State Park.

The road leads over the beach in Limekiln State Park.

Huge driftwood and rocks at the beach in Limekiln State Park.

River rocks in Limekiln State Park.

Huge white rocks on the beach in Limekiln State Park.

The clear river at the beach in Limekiln State Park.

I love the many colors of the rocks at the beach in Limekiln State Park.

Walking through the forest along a stream as you walk to the beach in Limekiln State Park.

Clear stream as you walk down to the beach in Limekiln State Park.

Views of the mountains and headlands at Mill Creek Picnic Area.

Pointy rock on the coast, as seen from Mill Creek Picnic Area.

Looking down at the beach in Limekiln State Park.

Mill Creek Picnic Area, as seen from above.

Driving downhill along the coast.

Arriving at Ragged Point.

Picnic tables at Ragged Point.

Green lawn and flowers at Ragged Point.

Views of the endless blue at Ragged Point.

Views of the road hugging the cliffs, at Ragged Point.

Looking down at the rocky coastline from Ragged Point.

Lawn and hills- a colorful sight at Ragged Point.

Circle sculpture at Ragged Point.

Looking through the circle sculpture you see a perfect picture of the coast at Ragged Point.

Hills and flowers at Ragged Point.

Pine cones and hills.

Walking down to the ocean view at Ragged Point.

A cute scene at Ragged Point.

Flowers, hills, and path.

Ragged Point's circle sculpture.

The drive on Highway 1 along the Big Sur Coastline is 78 miles long. It is winding in some parts but not bad. The actual driving is two hours, but with stops along the way it takes about five hours. This stretch of highway is between Garrapata State Park in Carmel/Monterey in the north, and Elephant Seal Viewing Point in San Simeon in the south. It's best to start in the north since the lookouts will be on your side of the road.
You only need to pay the $10 once, to park in any of the paid parking lots along the Big Sur Coastline. Just display your receipt. Some of the parking lots have a ranger at the gate (such as Andrew Molera State Park), and some are paid by honor system (such as Julia Pfeiffer State Park)- you rip off the receipt from the envelope. The only parking lot that is private and therefore must be paid extra, is Limekiln State Park.

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Last Updated: Mon, 18 Sep 2023 18:01:27 GMT

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