8 Foolproof Tips for Driving Big Sur

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.

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1 | Bring lots of snacks

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…

Driving Big Sur - offline maps - what to do in Big Sur; Big Sur road trip tips

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.)

Driving Big Sur - Bixby Bridge - what to do in Big Sur; Big Sur road trip tips

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.)

Driving Big Sur - coastline views - what to do in Big Sur; Big Sur road trip tips

6 | Staying the night in Big Sur is not a must

Overnighting in Big Sur can be really pricy; 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 a cheaper rental in Morro Bay and picking out a hotel in Carmel.

Where to Stay in Carmel: Luxurious: La Playa Carmel. Mid-Range: Hotel Carmel Budget: Carmel Inn & Suites.

Driving Big Sur - McWay Falls; Big Sur road trip tips

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.

Driving Big Sur - seals and sea lions; Big Sur road trip tips


Car Rental: As far as rental cars go, you can’t go wrong with Expedia. They pull from a number of different car companies, and definitely provide good deals. If you’re looking for a luxury rental (imagine cruising Big Sur in a plush convertible, wind whipping through your hair), try Sixt – they provide some legit deals on premium and luxury rentals! 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! For more epic road trip ideas, check out these Top 20 Road Trips to Take Before You Die!

Big, Sur road trip tips

Cheap flights: I’d recommend looking up eDreams.net. They scan tons of different travel discount sites and feature special flight deals.

If you’re looking for an official tour, check out this 3 day tour of California from Los Angeles…you’ll see Santa Barbara, Solvang, Big Sur, Carmel, San Francisco, and Yosemite National Park! For a shorter excursion, there’s also a day tour of Carmel, Monterey, and Big Sur that is a good option.

Big, Sur road trip tips

California Resources:

For further reading on California, make sure to check out the following guides!

  • Venice Beach: For your weekend guide to Venice Beach, look no further!
  • San Francisco: Do you know the top things to do in San Francisco in 3 days?
  • Solvang, California: For a unique mash-up for Dutch culture and California, make sure to check out Solvang!
  • Napa Valley: Explore Napa Valley 101 for all you first time visitors!
  • Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip: For the most epic 8 day PCH road trip guide down the California coast, look no further!

Have you done a road trip down the Pacific Coast Highway? Share your best Big Sur road trip tips!

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  1. One of my all time favorite drives. If you travel during the “off” season… lodging in Carmel is not overly pricey. At least that’s been my experience from the couple times I have traveled through. Great tip on packing your lunch… My hubby and I actually did this and while we were sitting on our chairs in one of those pull out areas, similar to the one you got hit in, my chair broke! It was quite the memory. Thankfully I was not sitting right on the edge of the cliff. I can honestly say that I don’t have views like that while eating a peanut butter sandwich on a daily basis.

    1. Hahaha I can only imagine the breaking chair, would make for an entertaining lunch. And yes, definitely agree with you on off season. We found a cute place in Carmel that was very reasonably priced 🙂

  2. We just returned back to British Columbia camping in our RV and came home up the Coast. Big Sur area is beautiful as well as the entire coastline. Great article and suggestions for travelers! 🙂

  3. Great tips! I actually did this trip back in 2013 and I would love to do it again. Damn, California has so many great places and I had too little time! I really need to come back and I would love to rent a car again and do this trip with my husband, he has never been to the state yet:)
    kind regards, Nana

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