Big Sur Classic Drive Guide

big sur drive details

Big Sur: a dramatic, larger-than-life landscaping stretching along 90 miles of rugged coastline, one of those mythical places that has inspired generations of artists, poets, and musicians. It’s on a million bucket lists, but not everyone knows what Big Sur really is, or how best to experience it, so we thought we’d make this handy guide from the perspective of local lovers of scenic drives.



It’s important to know that Big Sur isn’t just one place, and so there isn’t just one way to enjoy it. Some people might want a couple of days here, camping and hiking. Some folks use it as a one-way experience as part of a longer road trip.

Since Monterey Touring Vehicles’ warehouse is located just fifteen minutes from the start of Big Sur we have a lot of visitors who want to do a day trip from Monterey. It’s the perfect way to fit a classic car into your Big Sur Journey, and this guide is written with that in mind. 

big sur drive on highway1

Details of the Big Sur Drive

Start & End Point of the Drive

Big Sur starts in the Carmel Highlands near Monterey and ends at San Simeon near Cambria.  

Admission Fees:

Driving through Big Sur is free, although admission to state parks has a fee. 

Total Drive Time:

2-3 hours one way.

Can You Stop? 

You can and should stop at any pullouts that look attractive. You won’t really find any stores or fuel between Carmel and Big Sur town.

Type of Drive:  

There and back, or one way if you’re doing it as part of a long road trip.

Time of Year to Head to Big Sur

Big Sur is accessible all year round, but weather can be highly variable on the Central Coast so we always suggest layering up. Here’s our take on what to expect for each season: 

Spring

Early spring can have intermittently rainy days, late spring tends to be drier. Conditions are often beautiful but can be windy and chilly so layer up. Usually not very crowded.

Summer

Early summer tends to be foggy and can be chilly, with temperatures ranging from 60 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit, sometimes within a 10-minute drive. Late summer tends to be warmer, but is peak season for tourists so popular spots can be packed. Try to do a weekday drive if you can.

Fall

Some of the best weather in the central coast happens in the early fall. Conditions tend to be warm and calm, although morning fog is still common. Weekends are still busy but weekdays see few crowds. Chilly weather sets in later in the fall but mid-day conditions are often beautiful, and there are a lot fewer people on the road.

Winter

Generally colder temperatures are in the 50s and 60s, but with occasional heat waves in the 70s and 80s. Rain is much more common. Seldom crowded, winter trips can be very beautiful but be sure to bundle up.


woman sitting on thunderbird along big sur coast

Big Sur’s Scenic Stops

This is by no means a complete list. Big Sur is huge, and you could spend hours (or days) at each of the state parks along the way. Our suggestion: take your time, and stop at anything that catches your interest. There are so many unnamed pullouts and bridges with beautiful views that you won’t want to miss. Listed below are some great spots that have quick walks or hikes that really capture the essence of Big Sur without cutting into your scenic drive time.

Drive Stops

  1. Soberanes Point
  2. Garrapata Beach and Cala Lilly Valley
  3. Bixby Creek Bridge
  4. The Town of Big Sur
  5. The Redwoods at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
  6. McWay Falls
cars driving on big sur scenic drive

Soberanes Point 

  • Description: On the coastal side of the road you’ll find walking paths to a picturesque bridge over Soberanes creek as it cascades into several pools before reaching the ocean. Just south is a bluff that rewards a short steep hike with an elevated view of the Pacific Ocean.
  • Parking Details: Stop at any of the dirt turnouts between Garrapata State Park Bluff trail and Soberanes Point. They’re all linked by coastal walking trails.
  • Distance from Carmel: 15 minutes south of Carmel
garrapata beach at sunset

Garrapata Beach and Cala Lilly Valley

  • Description: Garrapata Beach is probably the most accessible beach on this list with just a short walk to get down to the sandy shore. At the northern end of the beach is a ravine called Cala Lilly Valley that is full of these striking white flowers between January and April.
  • Parking Details: There are two long dirt turnouts to park at. The northern turnout is closest to the Cala Lillies, while the southern turnout has a set of wooden stairs down to the beach, as well as toilets.
  • Distance from Carmel: 20 minutes south of Carmel
bixby creek bridge along monterey coast

Bixby Creek Bridge

  • Description: Bixby Creek Bridge is one of the most photographed bridges in the world, this iconic California landmark spans Bixby canyon as it meets the ocean. Tons of people stop to take pictures here but be aware there is little parking and people tend to pull out or stop unpredictably. Feel free to just cruise over the bridge and enjoy the sights on the move.
  • Parking Details: Dirt turnouts on either side of the road with limited parking. Often full, if you see a spot grab it. Be cautious and avoid blocking the road.
  • Distance from Carmel: 30-45 minutes south of Carmel

The Town of Big Sur

  • Description: Calling it a downtown might be a bit of exaggeration but nestled in the redwoods are a number of roadside general stores, campgrounds, and restaurants that make up the town of Big Sur. Stop by the River Inn to lounge on a deck chair sunk in the shallows of Big Sur River or grab an ice cream cone from the Fernwood General Store.
  • Parking Details: Paved parking lots are available just off the highway at both these campgrounds.
  • Distance from Carmel: 45-60 minutes south of Carmel
pfeiffer big sur state park between redwoods

The Redwoods at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

  • Description: Majestic redwoods abound in Big Sur but you can stop by the visitors center at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park to find out a bit more about our local landscape and wildlife.
  • Parking Details: Paved parking is available in the park. There is a $10 admission fee that counts towards any state park in California for 24 hours.
  • Distance from Carmel: 55-75 minutes south of Carmel
person standing by mcway falls

McWay Falls

  • Description: A short (half mile round trip) hike takes you to an overlook of McWay falls, an 80-foot waterfall that pours from the cliffside onto an inaccessible beach.
  • Parking Details: Park at the lot on the east side of the road. A trail takes you through a tunnel under Highway 1 to the falls viewpoint.
  • Distance from Carmel: 75-90 minutes south of Carmel
woman standing infront of classic car in big sur

Recommended Vehicles For a Stylish Cruise

 

1955 Ford Thunderbird

This bright yellow two-seater drips classic Ameran style and is an excellent accessory for some amazing pictures. An automatic transmission and V8 engine will get you up the hill and around the curves to the next photo op.

1968 Chevy Camaro

There’s plenty of reasons this is one of our most popular cars. A powerful 350 V8 under the hood combined with disc brakes up front and an automatic transmission inspires confidence as you navigate the twists and turns of Big Sur.

64 corvette along big sur drive

Recommended Vehicles For a Sportier Ride

 

1964 Corvette

Combine a lightweight fiberglass body with the original 4-speed manual transmission and a 327 V8 and you have the perfect classic for an epic drive.

1975 Corvette

This sleek and powerful automatic convertible is perfect if you want the fun of America’s Sports Car without dealing without the hassle of a stick shift.


Planning Meals on Your Big Sur Drive

Big Sur is the perfect place for a picnic near a rocky cliffside, meandering river, or redwood grove. If you’d rather someone else did the cooking though, there are some amazing restaurants to experience.  

Big Sur River Inn

Though there is a restaurant here, our favorite thing to do is get a burrito from the General Store & Burrito Bar. Chairs have been set up on in the shallows of the river, so you can dip your feet in on a hot day and have lunch surrounded by the redwoods.

Fernwood Tavern

If pub-style fare served on a shaded deck in a redwood ravine sounds good to you then Fernwood Tavern is the place to be. Gourmet burgers, pizzas, salads and sandwiches make for a hearty stop in a beautiful location.

Nepenthe

Perched atop a cliff this restaurant features incredible ocean views and is a killer spot for a sunset. Be aware that Nepenthe can get very busy and does not accept reservations.

Big Sur Bakery

Featuring delicious gourmet baked goods and meals focused on local ingredients. Breakfast and lunch are first come first served at Big Sur Bakery, but reservations are recommended for dinner.


Alternatives to this Drive

Maybe you want to avoid the crowds, maybe you’re not a fan of heights or cliffside driving, or maybe you just want to avoid the fog. Whatever your reason, we’ve got you covered with some amazing Big Sur alternatives in the area.

For a coastal cruise – Ocean View Boulevard/ 17 Mile Drive

This drive gives a great view of the Monterey Peninsula’s rocky coastline. Cypress forests run right up to the ocean and beautiful scenery lines the entire drive. Plus, you’re never far from a great restaurant on the 17 Mile Drive.

Forest Views – Carmel Valley Road & Village

Follow the Carmel River as it winds through an oak-filled forest to the picturesque Carmel Valley Village. Excellent food and wine tasting abounds, and finishing the trip on Laurales Grade road gives an amazing view of the Carmel and Salinas valleys as you travel over the ridge.

We hope this guide has given you a bit of insight into your Big Sur adventure. Since we’re located just fifteen minutes from the entrance of Big Sur a four-hour rental is perfect if you’re just planning on dipping down to the town of Big Sur for lunch. If you really want to seize the day, however, we suggest doing a 6 or 8-hour rental. That gives you plenty of time for pictures, short hikes, and really luxuriating in the crown jewel of the California coast.