Kenon and I spent our winter break driving all around California, including as much of Highway 1 as we could fit into the timeframe. Big Sur has been on both of our bucket lists and this was the perfect opportunity to get to see it. The coast of California is one of our top favorite places – make it a great experience for yourself by following these tips! This blog post covers our experience from Santa Barbara, CA heading north to San Francisco.
Get Up Early
The Big Sur Highway is packed with cars. Every famous viewpoint and destination is going to be overrun with other tourists. However, if you rise with the sun and get a move-on you can get to a lot of these spots before anyone else has finished their hotel breakfast. Kenon and I were up and driving by 7 am and we got the top of McWay Falls all to ourselves.
It is not just the viewpoints that get busy. Pfeiffer Beach, for example, only has enough parking for 60 cars. According to the man at the visitor’s center, by 10 am the lot is already full and the rangers will “turn away thousands of cars.” The upside for those that can actually get in is that the beach is not overly crowded. It is also the perfect place to find some of that famous purple sand.
Check for closures
The coast of California is basically unstable ocean floor that has been uplifted into towering cliffs. This creates a landscape that is easily subject to weather patterns. We were pumped to get to hike to the top of McWay Falls via Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park but when we arrived the park was closed. An extremely nice police officer patrolling the entrance took the time to explain that there was a massive rockslide due to rain that had caused unstable trail conditions. This rockslide was the final straw to close the park. Other rockslides were already dispersed throughout the park, keeping certain trails closed for months and even years. His advice was to always check the official California State Parks website before and during your trip to get the most up-to-date closures and conditions on all the parks.
Book Reservations waaay in advance
We booked our camping reservations for December at the beginning of the summer. The customer service agent at the Pfeiffer Beach visitor center told us that people who were trying to get private, primitive campsites last minute were being charged $120 for a CAMPING spot. Everything is reserved along the Big Sur Highway.
Gas up in bigger cities
Think of Highway 1 the same way you would as visiting remote mountain towns in California. There is only one way in and one way out. There are very limited resources along this stretch. Gas gets expensive about part way through. Plan ahead and always gas up in the bigger cities if you do not want to pay an outrageous price per gallon.
Bring water and snacks with you
This falls under the same reason as gassing up in big cities. This stretch of highway can get very expensive. Remote. Limited resources. Even the water is expensive.
There will not be cell reception
There are long stretches of the Big Sur Highway that do not have any cell phone reception. Going through the towns you can usually pick up a little but campgrounds, parks, and most of the drive does not have any. Download offline maps ahead of time. I also used Google Maps to drop pins and make our own labels. This helped me in two ways: 1. The labels remained visible after we lost cell reception, as well as the GPS tracker. We always knew where we were due to the tracker and knew where our next stop was due to the labels. 2. A LOT of the stops are poorly marked or unmarked. Do not try to rely on roadside signs to make sure you hit all your bucket-list items. Plan ahead with a reliable map.
Stop at a fruit stand
I almost feel like this one goes without saying, but not enough to not say it. Delicious fresh fruit stands are scattered all along the drive. Going north, stop before Cambria or after Monterey, because the stretch in the middle is either more cliffside and remote or more developed and resort-style.
Dress in layers
Weather on the coast of California is, for the most part, predictable. It is going to be breezy, misty, and sunny. It is going to be colder in the morning and warm up throughout the afternoon. We went in December which changed it up slightly to VERY COLD in the morning and mild in the afternoon. If you are planning on taking the first piece of advice of “get up early”, also dress in layers. You will want to dress warm in the morning for sight-seeing and hiking. Then in the afternoon be beach-ready, or at least ready for strong rays of sunshine. When we were there in December, beach-ready meant bare feet, tennis-shoes in hand, light pants, and a t-shirt with a light jacket. Layers, layers, layers.
Comment, email, or reach out on Instagram if you have any questions while planning your trip to Big Sur!