Anyone visiting California should make a point of driving down Highway 1 to Big Sur. It is such a special stretch of coastline, and the route couldn’t be easier – a single road snaking part of the way from San Francisco to Los Angeles, with some of the greatest vistas you will ever lay eyes on. And scenery like that deserves a perfectly planned road trip to match – so I’ve compiled my tried and tested hotspots along the route.
If you only stay one night in Big Sur, make it here. Ventana has accommodation options to suit every budget, from super luxe $900+ per night suites to a bring-your-own-tent campsite – but I recommend you settle somewhere in the middle, with glamping.
The glampsite is in the redwood canyon, and the tents are just perfect. Each comes with two campfires (a real log one, and a gas one if you’re feeling lazy) plus a s’mores kit, hot water bottles and electric blankets (it was honestly the cosiest night I’ve ever spent!), a gorgeous bathhouse (shared bathrooms have never looked so glam!), and taps for both ready-boiled and potable water. There’s even an Airstream bar serving with beer, wine and cocktails in the evening, and a breakfast of coffee and pastries is served in the morning.
It was so relaxing – so peaceful and tranquil, and I definitely plan to return when I’m next in need of some quiet R&R.
If you’re on a tighter budget, however, Ventana’s campsite is also a great option – sites are well-spaced and picturesque. I recommend the sites marked as “walk in” or “hike in”, as this just means they’re a bit more remote.
Further south down the coast you’ll find Lucia Lodge – you can’t miss it, as it sits right on Highway 1. Here, there are ten rooms to choose from – four cliff-edge cabins, and six other rooms set slightly further back. Splashing out for a cliff-edge cabin is totally worth it, I promise! You can see the sea from the bed, and hear the waves as you drift off to sleep – I set my alarm for 5:30am to watch the sun rise and the mist roll in. It’s an ideal spot for stargazing, with no light pollution – and you may see seals down on the rocks below, or whales out on the horizon, if you’re lucky!
Even further south you’ll find Treebones. The narrow winding road up to the top of the hill (flanked with wild flowers and cacti) is worth all the effort when you reach the top and see the uninterrupted ocean views.
Accommodation comes in many forms – from treehouses to yurts in the glamping category – but plenty of BYO Tent campsites too; there’s a pool, restaurant and yoga coach on site too – plus a human nest for whale watching!
Deetjen’s Historic Inn
Deetjen’s Inn is right on Highway 1 and is relatively reasonably priced. It is totally off-grid – no phone signal, no TVs, etc – but it is quite magical. A bride and groom were checking into the Honeymoon Suite on their wedding night last time we visited!
The Wild Coast Restaurant @ Treebones
Even if you’re not staying at Treebones, you must must must pop in for a burger! The lunch menu here is insane, and best enjoyed at the balcony bar looking out to sea. They also have a sushi restaurant but really… it’s all about the burgers!
For a special occasion meal, head to The Sur House, the restaurant within the Ventana resort. Perched on the top of a hill, opt for a table on the terrace (there are heaters and blankets if gets chilly) to enjoy inventive and high class dishes (four-course prix fixe from $80), fine wines and cocktails.
Deetjen’s is famed for its hearty brunches – although dinner is fab too, in one of the candlelit dining rooms. A country inn-style spot, eclectically decorated and very much old school, with a focus on locally-sourced, organic ingredients. We went for dinner and loved it so much we returned for brunch in the morning…! (Dinner reservations recommended.)
Point Lobos Natural Reserve
Best for: Wildlife – sea lions, sea otters, pelicans and seals – and well-marked scenic walking trails.
Info: $10 parking fee (cash only).
Best for: Wildflowers and rocky views.
Info: Not well signposted from the road – just pull up in a nearby layby.
Best for: Hikes through the redwoods, with tree trunk river crossings, waterfalls, and river-side trails.
Info: $10 parking fee (cash only – there’s an ATM at Lucia Lodge). Keep your eyes peeled for mountain lions and rattlesnakes!! (We didn’t see any though, so don’t be put off!)
More hiking trails
Although there are lots of short hikes along Highway 1, out to viewpoints and back, we also found a couple of longer hikes – and as soon as you add a bit of incline into the route, the tourist crowds drop off, so they tend to be blissfully quiet!
We loved this 13km loop in Andrew Molera State Park, along the bluffs and ridge, with amazing wildflowers and coastal views…
…and also this 10km loop along the Tanbark Trail in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, through redwood forests and up switchbacks until we emerged above the clouds.
Monterey is north of Big Sur itself, but it’s a great stop to start or finish a highway 1 road trip.
Book whale watching here. Take snacks and seasickness tablets. We saw blue whales, humpbacks, fin whales and dolphins, plus seals, sea lions and sea otters!
Sample itinerary for a long weekend
Suggested: Friday evening to Monday evening
Drive from San Francisco to reach Monterey in the late afternoon/evening.
Grab dinner at Schooner’s in Monterey, and stay the night at any of the nondescript hotels (the choice in Monterey is slim…).
Wake up early and head out whale watching at 9am.
Once you’re back on dry land, grab a quick coffee and lunch at Captain + Stoker then hit the road to head south to Big Sur.
Make photo stops at Bixby Creek Bridge and McWay Falls along the way, and stay the night in a tent at Ventana’s glampsite amongst the redwoods.
Get breakfast in the glampsite, then head out to explore Big Sur.
Pfeiffer Beach is super close, but gets busy – so head there early to see the rock formations and purple sand.
Check in to Lucia Lodge and watch the sun set with a bottle of Californian wine from the on-site grocery store; have dinner at the Lucia restaurant and get an early night, to the sound of waves crashing against the cliffs down below.
Wake up for sunrise – open the curtains in your cabin and watch the misty morning unfold from beneath the duvet!
Eat breakfast at Lucia Lodge before setting off north again.
Keep driving homewards 🙁 to San Francisco – with a late lunch from In-N-Out Burger 🙂
Let me know if you go to Big Sur and try out any of my recommendations – would love to know what people think!