Monterey and Big Sur are two beautiful coastal areas in California with offerings of nature, small-town feels, and cool weather. Monterey is a quaint, small-town with attractions such as Fisherman’s Wharf and Monterey Bay Aquarium. On the other hand, Big Sur is full of nature–beaches, hiking trails, and beautiful cliffside views.
If you are planning a road trip to the coast of California, this Monterey and Big Sur itinerary is a perfect option for you, and it’s so convenient as they are about 30 minutes apart from one another.
Here, you’ll find tips to help plan the perfect road trip for your Monterey and Big Sur itinerary.
Day 1: Big Sur Itinerary
- This Big Sur itinerary runs from north to south as we were leaving from Monterey. If you are driving up from the south, everything will just be in reverse order.
- You can definitely complete this Big Sur itinerary in a day, but if you have more time, you can also spread it out over 2-3 days and spend more time in each place.
On your first morning, wake up early and by 8 a.m. start your Big Sur itinerary by heading south on Highway 1.
This scenic drive is so rewarding with views of cute homes overlooking the never-ending Pacific ocean. There will also be many spots to pull over and take some beautiful pictures on the drive.
1. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
The first stop in your Big Sur itinerary is Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, which is known as the “crown jewel” of all state parks in California, located just south of Carmel-by-the-Sea.
Even more than that, Point Lobos doesn’t classify itself as a state park, but rather as a natural reserve with the highest protection for nature and wildlife found here.
Point Lobos has a long history, dating all the way back to the mid-1800s, and hosted many groups including the Ohlone Native Americans, Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, and Spaniards. There was even a point in our war history where Point Lobos was part of “secret” military operations, too!
In those early days, abalone harvesting became very popular when the Chinese realized the lucrative business of harvesting fish and started commercializing seafood. Word spread and a large Chinese community settled in Point Lobos where today you can go visit one of their homes turned museum, Whaler’s Cabin.
If the history doesn’t draw you in, Point Lobos is also home to abundant wildlife, including 20 species of mammals such as gray foxes and mountain lions, various species of birds like the acorn woodpecker peregrine falcon, and of course, many species of marine life including sea otters, sea lions, and whales.
Many different types of vegetation can be found here as well such as wildflowers, shrubs, and fungi, but most importantly the Monterey Cypress which is local to the area.
When you visit Point Lobos, you’ll be amazed by its natural beauty, but please make sure to stay on trails as erosion is currently harming plants and wildlife in the area.
As you arrive, drive straight to the Sea Lion Point parking lot and you can start on the trail there, Cypress Grove Trail. The trail will take you less than an hour as it’s about 0.8 miles long and will bring you to the beautiful shorelines where you might even spot a sea otter!
There are even more trails to explore such as the South Shore Trail, Cypress Grove Loop Trail, Pine Ridge Trail, and Lace Lichen Trail.
No matter which trail you choose, you’ll be sure to find gorgeous views. Check out the government parks page to check opening/reservation times (only in high season) or the Point Lobos Foundation to help plan your trip.
- Total time spent: about a 15-minute drive from Monterey; 1-2 hours checking out the views
- Point Lobos State Natural Reserve | Address: 62 CA-1, Carmel-By-The-Sea, CA 93923
2. Bixby Bridge
About 30 minutes into your drive is the first quick pull-off in your Big Sur itinerary. You will arrive at Bixby Bridge, one of the most photographed bridges in California.
Bixby Bridge was built in 1932 and is one of the highest suspending bridges sitting at 260 feet above the bottom of the canyon below.
Fun fact: Bixby Bridge was built 5 years before the road was paved to connect Carmel through to San Luis Obispo!
There is a small parking lot off the north end of Bixby Bridge where you can step out and take some iconic photos of it.
The beach down below was beautiful; however, hiking down to the beach is not advisable as the cliffs are unstable and there is no clear path. On the opposite side of the road, there is a dirt road known as Old Coast Road.
It is highly recommended that a car or truck with high clearance would be better to drive through it. If you do not have a high clearance vehicle, you can still cross the street and take pictures from the other side of Bixby Bridge.
You’ll get a really nice view of the beach.
- Total time spent: about a 15-minute drive from Point Lobos; 15-minute view
- Bixby Bridge | Address: Mile Marker 60, California 1, Monterey, CA, 93940
3. Big Sur Bakery
Located just a smidge south of Pfieffer beach is Big Sur Bakery, which is actually a 1930’s ranch-style home. If you didn’t have time to pack a snack or breakfast, plan a stop at Big Sur Bakery before u-turning into the Pfeiffer Beach turn-off. Then you can eat something while enjoying the waves!
They currently offer brunch and lunch; however, because they are so small they highly recommend making reservations instead of just showing up. I have yet to try Big Sur Bakery although I’ve heard many good referrals about all the food – from wood-fired sourdough to buttermilk biscuits and gravy. Mmm!
- Big Sur Bakery | Address: 47540 California 1, Big Sur, CA 93920
4. Pfeiffer Beach
When you are ready, continue on your drive towards Pfeiffer Beach. which is a favorite local hotspot and should not be missed when planning your Big Sur itinerary.
Finding it can be a challenge in itself because the turn is not marked. Once you find the right road, there is another very sharp turn down towards the beach*.
- *To find the Pfeiffer Beach Turnout: Follow Highway 1 for 14 miles south from Bixby Bridge for about 20 minutes. As you get closer you’ll see a big yellow sign that says narrow road. Then you’ll notice a couple of turnouts on the right.
- Pfeiffer Beach will be the second turn out, without the gates. Turn right and then make another very sharp right turn. I would recommend marking the address in your GPS before heading out as there is no cell phone service on parts of this drive.
It could be difficult to drive a large vehicle or RV through this area as it is one lane and very narrow. Drive about 2 miles to get to the ticket booth and have cash with you to pay for the $12 entry fee.
For the photographer’s heart, the most beautiful pictures can be taken around sunset when the sun is shining behind this iconic Keyhole Arch.
However, if you are here early, the pictures are still pretty amazing and you’ll miss the 9-10 AM traffic congestion so that’s a win!
Swimming is not recommended at this beach because there are a lot of rock formations that could cause harm if a strong wave pulled a swimmer the wrong way (and there were a lot of waves crashing through the rock formations), but you could also stay near the sandy area and dip your feet in the Pacific Ocean.
Take some time for a walk along the beach as it’s known to have purple sand!
Planning ahead: You can plan to picnic at the beach. Bring a blanket and a cooler with your favorite sandwich to enjoy, which we wish we had done. However, you can also stop at a local restaurant for lunch too! (See that next!)
- Total time spent: 30-minute drive South from Bixby Bridge; 2 hours chilling on the beach
- Pfieffer Beach | Address: 9100 Sycamore Canyon Rd, Big Sur, CA, 93920
5. Nepenthe and Cafe Kevah
A great option for lunch in Big Sur is Nepenthe and Cafe Kevah. With an early head start to your day, you will have plenty of parking spaces to choose from if you stop for lunch here. You’ll know it by seeing cars lined up the hill up into the parking lot or various vehicles parked, waiting to get in.
At an early hour, you might be too early for Nepenthe the restaurant upstairs, but Cafe Kevah down below has a delicious selection for brunch.
If you’re a fan of seafood, Cafe Kevah’s Egg Benedict has Dungeness crab and is delicious; the regular egg benedict is also a top pick. To eat here though, you definitely pay for the cliffside views.
- Total time spent: 10-minute drive from Pfeiffer beach; 1-hour eating
- Cafe Kevah | Address: 48510 Highway 1, Big Sur, California 93920
6. Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park
Continue driving south on Hwy 1 towards your next stop in this Big Sur itinerary: Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, which is not to be confused with Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. One of the greatest attractions to this park is McWay Falls, one of two tidefalls* in California. This park also offers several other hikes depending on how long you would like to spend your afternoon here.
*Tidefall = a waterfall that drops directly into the ocean (I didn’t know either). If you squint really hard, you’ll see the falls between the rocks going directly into the ocean in the photo below.
- Time Spent: 10-minute drive from Cafe Kevah, about 30 minutes of hiking to McWay Falls
- Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park | Address: 52801 CA-1, Big Sur, CA 93920
7. Sand Dollar Beach
Known as one of Big Sur’s largest and most accessible beaches and last stop on your Big Sur itinerary is Sand Dollar Beach, located about 30 minutes south of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.
Once here, you can hike down to this spectacular crescent-shaped beach and relax. This beach is known to be the most consistent wave producer for surfers, so if you are one of these talented people, bring your surfboard and have at it!
Did you know?: Sand dollar beach does indeed have… sand dollars!
- Time spent: about a 30-minute drive south of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, 1-2 hours of sun tanning
End of Big Sur Itinerary – Turnaround: On your way back, you can choose to pull off and snap a few pictures of the beautiful ocean down below. Since you are now past the influx of traffic, you won’t be in a rush to get into any of the popular sites.
Monterey Itinerary – Day 2
1. Paris Bakery
Start off your morning by heading over to Paris Bakery in Monterey to get some breakfast. If you want a taste of France in sweet Monterey, Paris Bakery is your go-to spot!
Jackie Jegat, the owner and founder, moved from his home in France to open his own restaurant on the California Coast when he was about 30 years old.
Today, he has a wholesale warehouse where he provides his delicious fresh-baked pastries to hotels and restaurants around the area. In his restaurant, you’ll see rows of pastries lining the front of his shop and cafe au lait to go, too!
I got pain au chocolat, yum!
- Total time spent: 15 minutes
- Paris Bakery | Address: 271 Bonifacio Pl, Monterey, CA 93940
2. Old Downtown Monterey
Next up on your Monterey itinerary is Old Downtown Monterey located on Alvarado street and named after Juan Bautista Alvarado who was the former governor of Alta California.
Here you’ll find multiple historic buildings including California’s First Theater, Colton Hall, the Stevenson House, and many more! To find all these buildings, be like the yellow brick road and follow the Path of History’s yellow tiles on the sidewalk.
There is also the Old Downtown Marketplace every Tuesday from 4 PM-7 PM in the fall and 4 PM-8 PM in the summer. The marketplace is a certified farmer’s market so you’ll find local bakeries, craft vendors, and organic produce.
In Old Downtown Monterey, you’ll find over 400 shops and restaurants lining the main streets as well.
- Time Spent: 1-2 hours of walking and browsing
- Old Downtown Monterey/Marketplace | Address: Located on Alvarado Street between Del Monte and Pearl
3. Fisherman’s Wharf
Monterey’s Fisherman’s Wharf is an iconic stop for your Monterey itinerary. Walking on the wharf doesn’t take any more than 30 minutes if you just want to do a walk-through, but you’d be missing out!
There are souvenir shops, where I bought a super cute Monterey boat picture frame, there’s a clam chowder stand, a cafe spot that I love and forget its name, and my favorite the Monterey Bay Creamery where there’s a huge cow statue selling ice cream.
Another favorite thing we like to do here is to stop at the first shop on the right (also didn’t pay attention to its name), grab a little red basket, and have a go at the saltwater taffy. There are BARRELS of salt water taffy with flavors ranging from caramel apple to blueberry cheesecake – it’s amazing!
If seeing a whale is on your bucket list, Fisherman’s Wharf is where you need to be. You can book a tour right on the wharf, but it’s possible that tickets might sell out.
I recommend booking your whale watching tickets in advance and just show up to get on the cruise. Cruises currently run for 4 hours at 10 AM or 3 hours at 2:3o PM (morning tours are recommended) so you’ll need to plan your time wisely if you are wanting to include this activity into your itinerary.
- Time spent: 1 hour without the whale watching tour (but we did watch all the cute puppies on the wharf!)
- Fisherman’s Wharf | Address: 1 Old Fisherman’s Wharf, Monterey, CA 93940
4. Abalonetti Bar and Grill
Ablonetti Bar and Grill is located on Fisherman’s Wharf and is our all-time favorite restaurant. It is located towards the end of the wharf, so beware that you may be tempted to stop at one of the restaurants before it.
Some staple orders for us here are the steak and shrimp scampi, gnocchi with two sauces, and the grilled salmon filet. The clam chowder here is also amazing! We also think the service is really good, so you can’t go wrong with this restaurant!
- Time spent: About 1 hour
- Abalonetti Bar and Grill | Address: 57 Fisherman’s Wharf, Monterey, CA 93940
5. Monterey Peninsula Recreational Trail & State Beach
Monterey Peninsula Recreational Trail is an 18-mile trail that runs from Pacific Grove up north to Castroville and alongside the old Southern Pacific Railway.
A trailhead can be found from Monterey State Beach and from there heading south, it will take you to Fisherman’s Wharf, Cannery Row, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. You can walk, jog, or bike on this trail.
Since the trail has a turn out to Monterey State Beach, you can stake your spot and head out for a swim, a surf, or a picnic. This area is gorgeous where you can easily spend a couple of hours hanging out.
- Time spent: 1-2 hours of chilling and walking on the path
6. Cannery Row
Next up on your Monterey itinerary is Cannery Row, a waterfront area with old buildings filled with shopping, restaurants, and fun activities such as escape rooms, arcades, and the world-class Monterey Bay Aquarium.
This is a popular street located in the heart of Monterey. You can read all about how this area came to be here.
Parking is open all along the street and a parking lot is also located on the south side of Cannery Row. One of our favorite spots here is the Pepper Palace where we buy dry rubs and sauces to make our legendary wings.
- Time spent: About 2 hours walking through the shops – without stopping for escape rooms, arcades, or the aquarium
- Cannery Row | Address: 700 Cannery Row, Monterey, CA, 93940
7. Options for Dinner on Your Monterey Itinerary
There are so many places in this area to pick for dinner. From here, you can make a decision on what you’re feeling – but here are some recommendations!
- Scales: This is one of the first restaurants you come upon on Fisherman’s Wharf. Something that’s unique about Scales is that it sits directly on the water. You really have a prime ocean view when you get seated. Sometimes they might even have deals on their appetizers, too!
- Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.: If you are a big fan of Forest Gump and shrimp, this might be the restaurant for you! Located in Cannery Row, you can order shrimp po’boy, fried calamari, or dumb luck coconut shrimp! So many good options.
Added Excursions for Your Monterey and Big Sur Itinerary
Pacific Grove is a small area right on the edge of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary about a 10-minute drive from Fisherman’s Wharf. Once you get to Pacific Grove, everything is accessible by foot or bike.
Check out Lover’s Point Beach where you can do all the water activities like surfing and kayaking. In the months of October-February, you will also be in time to see the Monarch butterflies clustering at Monarch Grove Butterly Sanctuary.
Not to be missed, you’ll need to visit the Point Pinos Lighthouse, which is the oldest operating lighthouse on the West Coast. There isn’t an entrance fee, but they do ask for a $2 donation.
- Time spent: 1-2 hours of walking and exploring
As one of the top 20 best places to retire in California, Carmel-by-the-Sea is a charming small town you need to check out.
There is a scenic 17-mile drive you can pay to drive and see iconic spots such as the Lone Cypress and Pescadero Point. Besides the gorgeous views, the houses in Carmel are also some to steal your breath away with their eccentricities and quaint vibes.
If you’ve had enough of driving on your road trip, you can park near Carmel beach and walk the scenic path. On one side, you’ll see the quaint houses up close and on the other side, you’ll have a clear view of the iconic Carmel beach down below.
Garrapata State Park
A beautiful state park, Garrapata State Park has views of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and the Soberanes Canyon.
It is the foggiest park even when some of the other parks are clear, you’ll want to make sure to check the weather as you won’t be able to see much with the fog.
Some of the overgrown trails are known to have poison oak to get to the beach views, so make sure to protect yourself if you want to get to the water.
When visiting, you’ll want to hike the Soberanes Canyon Trail as it’s restored and in great condition.
- Garrapata State Park | Address: about a 17-minute drive from Monterey, 34500 CA-1, Carmel-By-The-Sea, CA 93923
Andrew Molera State Park
The Andrew Molera State Park is located in Big Sur and is a relatively undeveloped park in the area. Located at the mouth of the Big Sur River, the park has gorgeous panoramic views of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
There are also hiking trails you can check out here, too, and if you’re wanting a more rugged experience, camp out at the park. Check the website for openings and reservations.
- Andrew Molera State Park | Address: about a 35-minute drive from Monterey near mile marker 51.2, 45500 CA-1, Big Sur, CA 93920
Map of Places for Your Monterey and Big Sur Road Trip
Key: Purple – Big Sur Itinerary | Blue – Monterey Itinerary | Orange – Other excursions | Yellow – Places to stay
Where to Stay on Your Monterey and Big Sur Road Trip
We booked our rooms through Airbnb and decided to stay in Monterey. The Arbor Inn was in a great location with 5-minute access to both Monterey and Hwy 1 to head towards Big Sur. The Inn itself was quaint, clean, and hospitable.
We have also stayed at Colton Inn, which was in a great location, just about a 6-minute walk from Old Monterey. There are many more options for Monterey ranging from the Hyatt Regency to Monterey Bay Inn right on the oceanfront.
If you’d like to stay in Big Sur, there is the Big Sur Lodge, which is more like a hotel where you can book a room and stay the night with amenities. For a more nature-y experience, reserve a campsite in Pfieffer Big Sur Campgrounds with access to the Big Sur River, wildlife and vegetation, and hiking trails.
More Places to Eat on Your Monterey and Big Sur Itinerary
Monterey Bay Creamery
Hang out on Fisherman’s Wharf a little longer after dinner and grab a dessert at the Monterey Bay Creamery (right next door to Abalonetti’s).
They have ice cream, churros, and sundaes, which is the best option! I would advise sharing a sundae with your BFF as the portions are huge, but it’s delicious nonetheless.
Enjoy your ice cream on the wharf and enjoy watching all the puppies greet each other as their owners walk them up and down the pier. You can also head to the water where you might be able to spot some marine life.
- Time spent: about 5-10 minutes in line
- Monterey Bay Creamery | Address: 43 Old Fisherman’s Wharf, Monterey, CA 93940
Phil’s Fish Market & Eatery in Moss Landing
Besides Abalonetti’s another one of our favorite restaurants in this area is Phil’s Fish Market & Eatery. It is about a 20-minute drive from the Monterey area, but it’s named one of the Best Beach restaurants named by BBC Travel.
There is usually a very long line before the opening hour (10 AM) and no reservations, so plan ahead!
The eatery has indoor and outdoor seating, but if you would like to sit on the beach and enjoy the waves while you eat, bring a blanket or some lawn chairs with you as you get beach access from the restaurant.
I ordered the Dungeness crab and N got fish and chips–always so good.
- Total time spent: 20-minute drive North on Cabrillo Hwy, 2 hours at Phil’s
- Phil’s Fish Markert & Eatery | Address: 7600 Sandholdt Rd, Moss Landing, CA 95039
Packing Guide for Your Monterey and Big Sur Road Trip
If you’re planning on hanging out on the beach, pack your swimsuit or a wetsuit to surf. While you’re hiking, you’ll want to have closed-toe shoes with a good grip to keep yourself safe, literally speaking from experience.
I have a packing guide page of my favorite items to pack on my trips, however, listed below is a tailored guide for a Monterey and Big Sur itinerary. Make sure to have these essentials on your list:
- Water bottle with plenty of water
- Sunscreen for beach days (or just being out in general)
- Blanket or lawn chairs for hanging out at the beach
- Swimsuit if you plan to swim
- Hiking boots (or closed-toe shoes with good grip)
- A good pair of walking shoes
- Jacket (sometimes the weather at the coast can be colder than expected! Think 60s and windy)
- Bike if you’d like to explore Monterey by bike
- Cooler full of snacks and picnic foods (for a day at the beach)
FAQs About Your Monterey and Big Sur Itinerary
1. When is the Best Time to Visit Monterey and Big Sur?
The best time to visit Monterey and Big Sur is in the fall during the months of September to November or in the spring during the months of April to May.
The high season in this area is during the summer months, just after May and through August, so you may want to avoid these months if you don’t want to be around the crowds.
The hottest month in Monterey is September when high temperatures are around 67°F and lows are 55°F. The rest of the year is considered “cool temperature,” but Monterey does boast of 300 days of sunshine.
The only downside to visiting in the summertime is that July and August are the foggiest months. Fog usually disappears around 9 AM even though that sounds like a disappointing fact.
2. How many days do you need in Monterey and Big Sur?
The perfect amount of time to see Monterey and Big Sur is 2-3 days.
You can do a day trip to Big Sur or Monterey, but it takes at least 2 days to explore both Monterey and Big Sur properly. Three days would be even better so you can really relax and take your time.
3. What is there to see between Monterey and Big Sur?
When driving from Monterey to Big Sur, you’ll pass the small seaside town of Carmel-by-the Sea. It’s a cute town, and there is a long sandy beach. You could spend 1-2 hours here and then continue on to Big Sur.
If you aren’t pressed for time I recommend spending the night in Carmel-by-the-Sea or at least exploring it for a few hours. It has an awesome art community, and it’s one of the most beautiful places in California–try the 17-mile scenic drive!
4.. Can You Start from San Francisco to Big Sur on the Road Trip Itinerary?
Yes, you can leave from San Francisco to head south down the Central Coast on Highway 101. I’ve structured this itinerary so it is possible to start in San Francisco and have a whole Monterey and Big Sur itinerary without backtracking at all.
It will take you about 2 hours to drive right into Monterey.
5. Can You Stop by Santa Cruz on the Way to Monterey?
Yes, definitely! You can stop in Santa Cruz if you’d like. It’s about an hour north of Monterey, and it’s a great place to get lunch or do some shopping. Maybe even take a walk on the Santa Cruz boardwalk!
6. What Can I Do After My Monterey and Big Sur Itinerary?
You can extend your road trip and continue driving south on the Pacific Coast Highway to see even more small California Coastal towns! You’ll drive into places like San Simeon, Cambria, Cayucos, San Luis Obispo, Pismo, and more!
Wrap Up Your Perfect Monterey and Big Sur Itinerary
There is so much nature and the small city feels to explore in Monterey and Big Sur! This area is one of my favorite places in California to visit.
I personally love #doingallthethings at the beginning of my trips and then slowing down as I stay longer, but you can puzzle this Monterey and Big Sur itinerary out to best fit your weekend and travel style.
We so enjoyed our time on our Monterey and Big Sur road trip. Have you been? What’s your favorite local spot? Comment below.
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My Favorite Travel Tips + Resources
Here is a quick glance at all my go-to travel tips and resources that I use to plan every trip! For more information, check out my travel resources page.
- Booking flights: I use Google Flights to check all routes and find the best flights. Then I compare them with Expedia (for reward points) and Skyscanner (for the lowest prices) before I book.
- Accommodations: I love budget-friendly rentals or booking at a hotel where I can earn points. For hotels, I go through Booking.com or book directly with Marriott (for points + rewards). When I travel internationally, I’ll book through Hostelworld for very budget-friendly stays. For vacation rentals, I usually look through Airbnb, but you could also use Vrbo. Expedia also has some great bundles for hotels, flights, and car rentals altogether.
- Transportation: For travel in the United States, I love renting through Expedia with Enterprise or Thrifty. They have been consistent and provide the best customer service. For international travel, I’ll book through Rome2Rio or Eurail for trains or bus fares.
- Travel Credit Card: I book all my travel (flights, hotels, car rentals) through my favorite travel credit card. I also use this card for everything on my trip including dining, excursions, and souvenirs. Apart from earning 5x more points towards free travel, there are amazing benefits: no foreign transaction fees, trip cancellation/interruption insurance, trip delay reimbursement (so I can book worry-free), fraud protection, emergency assistance – it’s really a great deal! Check it out here!
- Vaccines and Medications: Check the CDC website for updates on necessary vaccines to enter a country, including updates on Covid-19 and recommended places to visit. I recommend getting all the vaccines you need before you go!
- Tours + Experiences: I absolutely love my tours! Everything from eerie walking ghost tours to food tours, I’ll usually book something every trip either through Viator or GetYourGuide. I also love LastMinute.com for very affordable tickets to theaters and other experiences in Europe.
- What to Pack: I almost always travel by backpack. For products I like, check out my packing guide page for all the things I take with me on different trips.