This well-traveled section of California’s Highway 1 thrills visitors with turquoise waters lapping at white sand beaches, towering redwood groves, and quiet expanses of wilderness. As you make your way south from Santa Cruz, the charming, house-lined streets and cozy downtowns around the Monterey Bay and Peninsula are replaced with rugged cliffs and vistas of the Santa Lucia Mountains. The Big Sur region stretches roughly 90 miles between Carmel and San Simeon, and it lacks a central town or singular highlight. Instead, it rewards with the chance to spread out and seek what calls to you, be it solitude, a chance to unplug, sea-to-table cuisine, or the natural wonders that stood long before the Spanish began their colonization of the Central Coast.
Total Distance: 120 miles to the southern end of Big Sur
Estimated drive time: 3 hours if you drive straight through; a full day or two if you linger along the way.
When to go: Spring and fall are the best times to avoid the summer crowds and enjoy clear weather. Mild temperatures last into September or October most years, and dry days in November extend the hiking and camping season.
In the height of summer, leaving earlier in the day can help you avoid traffic, but it also might mean the views are obscured by a thick marine layer that will dissipate by the afternoon. Weekdays around mid-morning are a good time to start out most of the year to get the best of both the weather and the road.
Drive tips: No matter when you go, be aware that this serpentine stretch of highway can have limited visibility due to weather, sharp corners, and trees that hug the road. Don’t feel pressured to keep up with traffic—there are frequent turnouts to pull off and let locals pass—and always look ahead to prepare for sharp curves that approach quickly. Another good reason to take it slow: must-see gems and unbelievable views pop up unexpectedly.
You’ll want to load your GPS or pick up a paper map at the AAA branch in Capitola (or one near you) before leaving Santa Cruz. Cell service drops for much of the coast, including nearly all of Big Sur. You will need to have your itinerary planned and directions at the ready, or embrace the unplugged vacation being handed to you and simply stop and ask for directions and advice along the way.
Finally, gas stations can be up to 35 miles apart along the remote, undeveloped stretches of coastline. Plot gas stations and scout the cheapest prices before leaving with AAA Mobile app.