Ours was an accidental road trip. The question is…are you the kind of person who would take a Big Sur road trip without hesitation if the opportunity presented itself? Apparently, WE are. Because that’s just what happened to us.
I could give you all the details, but they might bore you to tears. Long story short, we were in Los Gatos, CA for family reasons, and that visit was coming to an end just before Memorial Day weekend. My husband realized that if he were to take just one more day off work, we’d have four free days with nowhere to go except back to San Diego. Why not take the scenic route and spread it out over 3 days? It would allow us to drive the coastal Highway 1 and see Morro Bay — a place we’d heard much about from friends, but had never been. So that’s how our accidental 3-day Big Sur road trip happened.
Oh! There’s one more thing you might like to know. We made this road trip during the Covid-19 pandemic, when a few things were starting to open up. We traveled with some restrictions in place, but were pleased at the quality of our experiences despite the lockdowns. At any other time, it actually might be difficult to limit yourself to three days because there will be so much more to do!
Day 1 of our Big Sur Road Trip: Sausalito to Los Gatos
GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE and SAUSALITO
For us, this drive actually began in Los Gatos. We left on a Friday afternoon and drove straight to Sausalito, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge and stopping at the Golden Gate Bridge View Vista Point. There we took several photos of the bridge, San Francisco across the bay, Alcatraz Island, and Angel Island.
We arrived in Sausalito, just in time to enjoy a fish & chips take-out dinner from Fish and Chips of Sausalito. The owner couldn’t have been nicer or more accommodating, even while ensuring we were all keeping a safe distance and wearing face masks. He suggested we take our “picnic” to the sweet little park across the street and enjoy ocean views while we ate. That was Viña del Mar Park, and he was right. We found an empty bench facing the water, basked in the warm sun, and loved that there wasn’t even much of a breeze. The park had eight-foot wide chalk circles drawn on the lawn, at a distance of 6 feet away from each other, and small groups of friends and families were picnicking in the circles. Interesting times, to be sure!
After dinner, we strolled through the marina, admiring the sailboats, yachts, and houseboats, including a houseboat that was a mini replica of the Taj Mahal. We also walked down the main street of Sausalito, Bridgeway, to see the various boutique stores, restaurants, and souvenir shops. A sea lion popped its head above water near Yee Tock Chee Park, where pretty baskets of flowers hung on posts and youth posed for selfies with San Francisco in the background.
We had hoped to drive up to the Marin Headlands above Sausalito for sunset viewing, but the entrance was closed. Instead, we drove back across the Golden Gate Bridge to a Safeway store near Golden Gate Park to buy food for breakfasts and snacking. We were only a block from Ocean Beach, so we walked over to take some photos and watch the kitesurfers.
Pro tip: Driving back into San Francisco across Golden Gate Bridge incurs a toll, which must be paid online within 48 hours or a steep fine is tacked on.
From there we drove down the coast, keeping an eye on the setting sun. Just before the sun slipped beyond the horizon, we stopped to take a few photos at Mussel Rock Park in Daly City.
For reasons too complicated to explain, our hotel for the evening was back in Los Gatos at the Los Gatos Garden Inn, a historic inn right at the heart of Los Gatos. There was plenty of parking, and we could walk right to our room without encountering anyone else. A lovely garden courtyard with lights lit at night welcomed us. If you’re interested in things to do around Los Gatos, see my post, “Enjoy a Weekend in Los Gatos.”
Day 2 of our Big Sur Road Trip: Los Gatos to Morro Bay
PACIFIC GROVE , MONTEREY BAY, POINT PINOS LIGHTHOUSE
Our first aim on Day 2 was Lovers Point Park in Pacific Grove at the south end of Monterey Bay. Since we’d already visited Monterey Bay and Carmel-by-the-Sea on a previous visit, we didn’t want to include them on this trip. But I highly suggest including both in your plans, especially if the Monterey Aquarium is open. It could easily add a day to your itinerary if you do.
We arrived in Pacific Grove, a beautiful seaside-cottage type of town. Knowing that parking might be difficult to find, we grabbed the first open spot on Ocean View Boulevard, and then proceeded to walk about 3/4 mile to Lovers Point. Except Lovers Point was barricaded with caution tape. But we did enjoy the spectacular views of the bay, including a few seals on the beach as we walked. We also found the perfect place to get lunch: the Beach House Restaurant at the park. We savored our take-out sandwiches on a bench overlooking the bay.
Pro Tip: We forgot to use sunscreen, so we got a little sunburnt. Even with the cool ocean breezes, you can still get a sunburn!
I do love a good lighthouse visit. Just a bit further around the point is Point Pinos Lighthouse, but when we arrived there, the gates were closed, so we couldn’t walk around the grounds. It’s actually the oldest existing lighthouse on the west coast, first lit in 1855.
Normally, it’s open every day of the week except Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and only costs $5 for adults and $2 for children 7-17 and seniors. Children 6 and younger are free.
17-MILE DRIVE and HWY 1 to NOTLEYS LANDING
This was our second time trying to see the 17-mile Drive in Pebble Beach, but it was closed this time due to Coronavirus. I really hope that if you’re re-creating our road trip, you get to drive it. That’s where you’ll find the Lone Cypress and see some other beautiful views. Here’s a painting inspired by it, by Erin Hanson.
After passing Carmel-by-the-Sea, the highway turns inland for awhile, but soon we saw breathtaking coastal views again. There are lots of turnouts along the highway, primarily for letting faster vehicles pass you. I suggest you use them to get out and enjoy the views and take photos — that’s what we did! It’s probably the best part of a Big Sur road trip.
At the Notleys Landing viewpoint, you’ll see this beautiful little inlet. It made me wish I could hike down and go for a swim!
ROCKY CREEK BRIDGE to POINT SUR
Soon after, we came to a turnout just before the Rocky Creek Bridge. I’d heard about the many beautiful bridges on the Big Sur highway, so I had to see it. The views were pretty spectacular here, too. What do you think? There was another similar bridge just about a mile further — Bixby Creek Bridge.
We couldn’t afford to stop everywhere or we wouldn’t arrive in Morro Bay in time for dinner. Sometimes we had to be content with the views from the car. Passing Point Sur and the Point Sur Lighthouse was one of those times.
PFEIFFER STATE PARKS, MCWAY FALLS, AND LUCIA
This may be a little confusing, but there’s a Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and Campground. Then there’s the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge. And finally, there’s the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. What was so special about Julia Pfeiffer Burns? She was a lifelong Big Sur resident and rancher who used to take childen on joyous excursions to what is now Pfeiffer Beach. The campground has been named by Sunset Magazine as “one of the four best places to pitch a tent on the Pacific Coast.”
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park might be most well-known for McWay Falls, one of very few waterfalls in the world that pours directly into the ocean. There’s a parking lot and trail leading to the beach, but they were closed during the Covid-19 lockdowns. We were still able to see the falls, however, from one of the turnouts on the highway. Tricky, because the last two turnouts before the falls were closed. We had to park three turnouts north of the falls and walk to the last turnout. But hey, it was well worth it to see this view:
After seeing the falls, which was a huge highlight for me, it was now time to find a restroom. Something about water falling? I don’t know. It was just time. Luckily for me, Lucia was only about 13 miles south. Lucia is a tiny historic village/resort nestled into the cliffs overlooking the ocean. It’s operated by the same family that built it in the 1930’s. There are cabins and rooms to rent, a restaurant with a deck for ocean viewing, and a general store with artisan gifts. And a restroom. It looked like a great place to enjoy a picnic, too!
San Simeon, Cayucos, and Morro Bay
As our Big Sur road trip brought us closer to San Simeon (home of the Hearst Castle, which was also closed during the lockdown), we saw a sign for an Elephant Seal Vista Point. Here there was a large open parking lot, so we figured we might as well see what there was to see. Perhaps we’d be able to spot an elephant seal…
Okay, that was an understatement! There were probably nearly 400 elephant seals on this stretch of beach, and it was incredible to have such a good vantage point. They weren’t just lying there, either. They were constantly flipping sand on their backs (to keep them cool?) and they were making all kinds of vocalizations. A few were playfully fighting in the water’s edge. Don’t miss this! It’s mesmerizing to watch them.
Our next stop was Cayucos, also known as “the last of the California beach towns.” We chose to drive through the town but knew we didn’t have time to stay because we wanted to get to Morro Bay in time for dinner. I’d read before arriving that we should stop and pick up some brown butter sea salt cookies at the Brown Butter Cookie Company. We tried, but unfortunately it was closed. I hope it’s open when you go, so you can come back and tell me if they’re as good as they sound. Cayucos was pretty cute; I would have loved to stay longer.
Finally, we arrived at Morro Bay. I recognized the huge volcanic rock sitting at the mouth of the bay immediately. I was disappointed to see a natural gas plant with three large smokestacks blocking some of the view. Thankfully, as we drove further into town, I realized they were on the outskirts and wouldn’t be in any of my photos.
We checked into the Sundown Inn motel and were very happy with our cozy room. Lots of pink, yes. But very comfortable and had everything we needed. Plus we could park our car right outside the room.
Just a few blocks away we found a great place to pick up a take-out dinner. This time, it was a Thai restaurant, Thai Elephant. We took it back to our motel room to dine in comfort. Boy, was it delicious!
After dinner, we headed to the harbor (Embarcadero) to take photos and stroll by all the fun shops and restaurants. Signs on the sidewalks directed us to walk one-way only on each side of the street. Many businesses were open, and all of the restaurants were serving take-out. A few were open for patio dining. But we were there primarily to photograph the sunset!
Day 3 of our Big Sur Road Trip: Morro Bay to Ventura
San Luis Obispo and SHELL Beach
After Morro Bay, Highway SR1 no longer hugs the coast. It turns inland for awhile. We stopped in San Luis Obispo to see the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. California hosts 21 historic missions, built between 1769 and 1833, and they are all worth a visit! During the pandemic, however, only the gardens are open to the public, so we were unable to see inside the church itself.
As this was a Highway 1 Big Sur road trip, we followed Hwy 1 even when it went inland. After San Luis Obispo we found ourselves back on the coast for a short while. Just long enough to explore Dinosaur Caves Park in Shell Beach and drive past Pismo Beach. The park had a great playground for kids and a public restroom, as well as beautiful statice growing right to the edge of the cliffs. And from the edge you could see several sea caves and arches. This would be a great park for picnicking, too.
Now we were back on an inland span, driving through the Vandenberg AFB and eventually coming back out to the coast at Gaviota, where we stopped to take a few photos only. If you were to head inland on Highway 101 at this point, it would take you to Solvang, another lovely town with a Danish theme. See my post Roadtrip to Solvang from San Diego for more details on this area.
We didn’t want to completely bypass Santa Barbara because it’s such a beautiful area, so we set our sights on a park near the beach called Shoreline Park. It was challenging to find a parking space but nearby neighborhoods proved fruitful. Shoreline Park sits atop a bluff above the beach. From here you can view sunbathers on the beach plus lots of surfers and kite surfers. In fact, the kite surfers were particularly entertaining, speeding across the water like speedskaters!
FINAL LEG of our Big Sur Road Trip: Ventura
Arriving in Ventura, we checked into Amanzi Hotel, which is close to the beach and pier as well as within walking distance of the Santa Barbara Mission. We had a nice room with a very comfortable bed on the front side of the hotel. Had it been on the back side, I think it might have been noisy, as the freeway was on that side. It was nice to see they had taken precautions to avoid the spread of Covid-19 with protections for both staff and guests. I appreciated the pre-bagged breakfast provided upon check-out the next morning, too.
Curious to see a little bit of downtown Ventura, we headed out on foot towards the San Buenaventura Mission, founded in 1782. Again, the church was closed due to Covid-19 but the gardens and exterior were worth exploring.
Ventura also boasts a lot of art, in the form of murals, tiles, and fountains, even on bike racks and bus stops. The beautiful fountain and tile art were right across the street from the Mission.
For our dinner take-out, we opted for a popular Ventura pizza place called PizzaMan Dan’s. It might be considered average by a pizza connoisseur, but I thought it was fantastic!
And then of course, you can’t go to Ventura without visiting the pier…
But we were more interested in taking photos of the sunset on the beach. As we walked along the beach, there were lots of flags for Memorial Day, and I glimpsed this pretty view of the Ventura Harbor and pier gently curving away from us.
Our best view of the setting sun was over the Ventura River Estuary. It was a beautiful close to the day AND to our three-day Big Sur road trip.
You can continue down Highway 1 through Malibu, Santa Monica, and Manhattan Beach, Long Beach and Huntington Beach, to Dana Point, where Highway 1 ends and gives up the course to Interstate 5. These were all places we’ve been before, so we didn’t repeat. But again, there is a lot to do along Highway 1 and you may enjoy fantastic stops along this portion of the route, too.
I hope our road trip has inspired you to travel, even during the pandemic. Road trips may well be the best way to get out and explore new areas right now, and staying closer to home is your best bet until more countries open for international travel. In any case, a Big Sur road trip will always be a great option for anyone who loves spectacular views and coastal attractions!
What a great itinerary! I’m glad you could still find enjoyable things to see amidst the pandemic closures. Way to think outside the box when it came to parking and getting to the viewpoints you wanted to see!
I would love to see McWay Falls and those elephant seals!!!
Best seaside drive since Ireland and so much easier to get to!
This is one of our favorite road trips. I think with so much to see and do outdoors, it is probably not too terrible that some things are still closed. Thanks for sharing your journey.
Tara, you are so right. If more had been open, I don’t know how I would have narrowed down my choices!
I love a good old road trip! Looks like you had fun despite the restrictions and those seals! Loved the pictures!
Oh I definitely had fun. The seals were awesome!
This is such a great guide! We were just in Big Sur last summer and are already itching to go back.
This is so timely! My daughter is going to Berkeley U this fall and we’ll be spending some time driving between LA and SF. Usually we’ve been just taking the 5, but this post makes me wanna take it slow along the coast.
Do it at least once — it’s so beautiful!