Imagine a place where rugged cliffs meet deserted beaches, soaring redwoods shadow a winding road, and elephant seals frolic in the Pacific. No, this is not in a coloring book…I’m talking about Big Sur, California, one of the most naturally beautiful places I’ve ever visited. I wanted to pass along a few things that I hope will help you when you plan your time in the area. And you should, because really, it’s a pretty special spot.
1. Bring PB&J sandwiches (or your favorite munchies)
For those of you out there that get downright hangry like myself, be prepared with plenty of snacks and drinks! Restaurants are few and far between in Big Sur, and if you aren’t prepared to drop $24 on a turkey sandwich, you’d be better off packing your lunch. I cannot stress this one enough—I had to settle for some gas station Cheez-its and Sunny-D to hold me over…not satisfying at all!
2. Download offline maps
Nowadays, most of us just hop in the car, plug the destination into a smart phone, and go. **Warning: this is not the case in Big Sur** All of a sudden, you’ll see that dreaded “No Service” signal pop up on your phone. I would strongly recommend downloading offline maps ahead of time and marking the locations you’d like to stop. My go-to is maps.me, free in the iTunes store, and incredibly easy to use, even for directionally challenged people like myself (but really—does anyone else have that issue where you don’t know which way of the map is up?? *crickets* Nope, just me, I guess…)
3. Plan your stops
Plan ahead of time where you’d like to stop (and tag on your offline map!) While I love getting off the beaten track, some of the go-to destinations are popular for a reason. McWay Falls and the Bixby Bridge are can’t miss locations. Both stops are downright gorgeous, and I would highly recommend taking advantage of the photo ops there. However, it can be just as fun pulling off to see some lesser known sights. If you’re adventurous, pick a side hike ahead of time; if you’re a casual cruiser, many of the pull-offs on the side of the road make for spontaneous photo ops/snack breaks (you can eat those PB&Js you brought along.)
4. In a hurry? Take the freeway
When you’re racing against the clock, avoid the PCH along the Big Sur stretch. It is filled with gawking tourists, sharp curves, and beautiful scenery. (I was definitely one of those tourists taking in the beautiful sights, driving extra slowly around the curves.) As a disclaimer, I’m a true Florida driver; Florida is known for its straight roads that are as flat as a pancake—a far cry from the Californian cliffs with a formidable drop to the Pacific. If you’re just trying to make it from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible, I’d recommend hopping on the freeway, and cutting a couple hours off your trip. If you have the time, the Big Sur drive is 100% worth it—I would love to do it again!
5. Pay attention in the parking lots
This may seem like an odd tip, but I do have a concrete reason behind this. As we were backing out of our parking spot in one of the pull-offs along the PCH (very slowly & safely I might add), all of a sudden, we felt a little bump. With a quick peek out of the back window, we caught sight of another rental car with a family that was so distracted by getting a last photo of the beautiful scenery, that they ran bang smack into our car. In the future, I will definitely give all tourists a wide berth on this road. But hey, with scenery like this, I can sympathize (sort of…if there had actually been any damage to the car, you can be sure my sympathy would have evaporated in a second.)
6. Staying the night in Big Sur is not a must
Overnighting in Big Sur can be pricey; since I didn’t want to break the bank on lodging, I ended up choosing to bookend Big Sur with two other beautiful locations – Morro Bay and Carmel. There are definitely some beautiful options within the realm of Big Sur, but my recommendation would be grabbing some cheaper accommodations at either end.
7. Check that gas gauge
Keep an eye on your gas tank. It’s easily 40 miles between stations along some stretches, and gas sells for a premium. Filling up in San Luis Obispo before you hop on the PCH will make your life a whole lot easier and keep your wallet a little heavier. However, if you think you might run out of gas along the drive, stop at the next station you see. I’m all about saving my pennies, but Big Sur is not a location where I’d like to break down…don’t be that person pushing their car down the road.
8. Slow down
My last suggestion is to slow down, roll down the windows, and take it all in. This will be a once in a lifetime kind of trip, so really absorb everything. Along the way, I saw beautiful rocky vistas, sea lions playing in the surf, and breathtaking waterfalls. It is a truly picturesque ride, and one I will always remember.
So there you have it—my best tips for an idyllic drive in Big Sur. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did, and safe travels!Check out our ultimate California coast road trip itinerary
Author: I’m Melissa, a wine-loving whirlwind wanderer and also a full-time corporate risk analyst/ mastermind behind Maps & Merlot travel blog. The goal of my blog is to show people that it’s 100% possible to juggle an insane bucket list with adulting in the real world and climbing the corporate ladder.