San Francisco to Big Sur: A Highway 1 Itinerary

For my 23rd birthday this year, Ry and I decided to take a day trip down to Big Sur in hopes of finding some peace and quiet. I will preface this post by saying that while we did all of these activities in one day, I would absolutely recommend giving yourself more time if you have it. Here is your ultimate guide to driving Highway 1.

Since we are still new to San Francisco as of June 2016, this was our first time visiting Monterey, Carmel and Big Sur. It was also our first time driving a car since who knows when, so we were a bit nervous! Neither of us have a car in San Francisco because you can get around so easily without one. We were also feeling anxious about driving on the steep, curvy paths of State Route 1 – eep!  I did a ton of research before we left to find out what exactly was worth seeing along the way since we were on such a time crunch. We planned this trip at the last minute with a little help from Blair, blogger at This + That. She just did a day trip to Big Sur, and provided some incredible tips and recommendations. Thanks, Blair!

If you only have one full day like we did and want to know what you should make time for, here’s the itinerary I would recommend. Did I miss your favorite stop along Highway 1? Let me know in the comments below!

Point Montara Lighthouse

Point Montara Lighthouse did not come up in any of  my research for the drive down to Big Sur. However, it was hard to miss as we got on the highway! One of my favorite parts about this trip is that the process of getting there is just as incredible as the final destination. Because there are so many breathtaking views along the way, you never feel like you’re wasting any time or need to pick up the pace. We left our apartment in North Beach around 9 am that morning, and found ourselves wanting to stop countless times. I would suggest waking up even earlier if you can!

The lighthouse sits atop a cliff overlooking the gorgeous Pacific Ocean. Right next to it are a handful of buildings that once served as coastguard housing in the late 1880’s. The buildings have since been turned into hostel accommodations for fellow Route 1 travelers like ourselves.

How phenomenal is that view? We could have stayed for hours with a nice coastal picnic, but it was time to move on!

Lunch at Nepenthe

We decided that we would head straight to Big Sur from there so that our longest leg of the drive was in the morning. It look us about 3.5 hours from San Francisco to Big Sur. If you have a bit more time to spare, I would recommend stopping in Santa Cruz as well to check out their famous boardwalk.

Nepenthe is a restaurant that came highly recommended by Blair, and as soon as I looked it up I knew that it was the perfect spot for my birthday lunch. We were lucky enough to be seated within five minutes because it was MLK Day, and not everyone had the day off. Apparently this is rare at Nepenthe, so if you go on the weekend I would plan to get there right at 11:30 am when they open. You could easily get lost for an hour in the adorable shop just below the restaurant if you do end up having to wait.

As I happily sipped on my glass of rosé and chowed down on the most delicious french fries, I realized how accustomed I had become to the sounds of city life. The nonstop clatter of fire trucks, church bells, night dwellers and creaky pipes outside my window in SF had become so normal that I had forgotten what it felt like to be surrounded by complete and utter silence. It was amazing.

Bixby Bridge

We passed by Bixby Bridge on our way into Big Sur and I couldn’t wait to pull over and take it all in as we headed back towards Carmel and Monterey. Connecting travelers from one side of the mountain to the other, Bixby Bridge provides an incredible photo opportunity as it overlooks the beautiful blues of the Pacific. It is truly a must-see that I refuse to let you miss!

Point Lobos

As we continued along our drive towards Monterey, we stopped at Point Lobos State Reserve to check out the “crown jewel” of the California State Park system. I will warn you that because Point Lobos is property of the state, parking your car here isn’t cheap. Tip: If I could go back, I would have packed a pair of tennis shoes. Although I wasn’t dressed for much physical activity, a lot of people had parked their cars along the road outside of the entrance and hiked their way in.

After making your way into the park, you’ll quickly find that there is a lot to see. We spent over an hour just wandering the trails and admiring the coastal views. There isn’t one path in particular that you should take here. The best part about being at Point Lobos is simply getting lost in nature and breathing in some fresh air. No directions needed!

Carmel-by-the-sea

Carmel-by-the-sea is a picturesque seaside town on California’s Monterey Peninsula known for its fairytale cottages and village-like charm. I felt like I had been transported to Europe as we strolled down the famous Ocean Avenue. Carmel is one of those places you can walk around for hours without getting bored. Each and every shop, home and business looks completely different than the next. It is so incredibly quaint!

We ducked into Carmel Bakery in search of something sweet around 3 pm. If we had an extra day and wanted to stay the night nearby, we would have done so in Carmel because of all the adorable bed & breakfasts.

Monterey

Onto our final destination to catch the sunset… Monterey! Ryley grew up in a military family and was born in Monterey. He only lived there for about a year and didn’t remember a thing, so we were both looking forward to seeing it. We quickly found that Monterey had changed a lot since his parents lived there 20+ years ago. The city’s main attraction is the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The aquarium is really special because fresh ocean water pumps in through the pipes all day long. It was even voted best aquarium in the world by Trip Advisor in 2014.

Unfortunately we didn’t get a chance to go to the aquarium because we got to Monterey around closing time. This sort of left us clueless as to what we should do next! We ended up just strolling down Cannery Row – an adorable waterfront street with plenty of bars and restaurants to choose from. It kind of reminded me of the San Francisco Fisherman’s Wharf, and not in the best way. Everything was just a tad bit too touristy and overpriced for my liking.

Based on all of the above, we decided that the next time we take this trip, we’ll stop at the aquarium in Monterey. After that, we’ll head straight to Big Sur. Our favorite part of the trip was enjoying the views and the nature, so Big Sur by far our favorite stop on the drive. It really depends what you’re looking for. Part of the fun is simply the drive itself! I also would love to go back to Carmel with someone like my mom. I think she would have appreciated the shopping more than Ryley did! Have you been to Big Sur, Carmel and Monterey? Which was your favorite?

Thanks for reading!

XO,

Natalie

6 Comments

  1. Natalie Venuto
    01.27.2017 / 12:49 pm

    Love! I recommend stopping in Half Moon Bay and Pescadero next time, staying for a weekend getaway in Carmel, doing the 17-Mile Drive and walking Pebble Beach (it’s free!)! Let me know if you want to know more about any of those places, especially hikes and food/wine/beer in those spots!

  2. 02.03.2017 / 11:57 am

    O wow, I love your post about California and amazing images of motorway and light house and beautiful scenery and the whole story. I was fortunate enough to come across your great blog.
    Thank you so much for sharing this awesome post and making me more curious and interested in visiting California one day.I would love to drive through this bridge myself.

    love
    Chloe
    http://newstyleinfashion.blogspot.co.uk

    • Natalie
      02.09.2017 / 11:31 am

      Thank you so much for reading, Chloe! I hope you can make it out to California someday soon! xo

  3. 02.09.2017 / 2:34 pm

    Welcomed the New Year in SF and mostly spent our 3 days there in the touristy areas – Fisherman’s Wharf, Lombard St., Union Square, Chinatown, Golden Gate Bridge, Japanese Tea Garden, Haight-Ashbury, etc. So we’ve never been to this part outside of the Bay area – worth checking if we have the time to visit again.

  4. 02.21.2017 / 3:43 pm

    I remember doing this drive when I moved from SF to LA and I have been dying to do the drive again since! I’m having serious Nepenthe withdrawals right now, haha! We also felt a bit rushed because there is so much to see. You could literally spend a weekend in either Monterey, Carmel or Big Sur. Next time if you have more time, I would even recommend trying to go all the way down to Hearst Castle!

    xo, Taylor
    http://www.taylorashleyblog.com

    • Natalie
      03.02.2017 / 11:37 am

      Hey Taylor! Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. I added Hearst Castle to my list – it looks incredible. Isn’t Nepenthe the best?

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