Driving Big Sur on the Pacific Coast Highway

Stretching 90 miles (145 km) south of Carmel from Point Lobos all the way to Hearst Castle, Big Sur is one of the most memorable sections of coastline on the planet, with 5,000-foot (1,524-m) tall mountains rising up from the Pacific Ocean. Early Spanish missionaries dubbed it El País Grande del Sur (the Big Country of the South), and the rugged land has resisted development or even much population—the current total of around 1,000 is roughly the same as it was in 1900, and for the 3,000 years before that.

Black and white photograph of the Bixby Creek Bridge under construction
The Bixby Creek Bridge under construction in 1932. Photo courtesy of the NOAA (public domain).

Hwy–1, the breathtaking drive through Big Sur, was finally cut across the steep cliffs in 1937 after 20 years of labor and several fatalities. California’s longest and most popular scenic route, it’s an incredible trip. Like the Grand Canyon and other larger-than-life natural wonders, Big Sur boggles the mind and, in an odd way, can be hard to handle; you have to content yourself with staring in awestruck appreciation, taking pictures, or maybe toasting the natural handiwork with a cold beer or glass of wine at one of the few but unforgettable cafés and restaurants along the way.

view of the two-lane Pacific Coast Highway stretch that zags along the coastline in Big Sur
The Pacific Coast Highway in Big Sur. Photo © Dionigi Pozzi/123rf.

Driving Big Sur

However beautiful the drive along Hwy–1, it’s also narrow, twisting, packed with sluggish RVers on holiday weekends, and every few years is closed by mud slides and washouts after torrential winter storms and the even more destructive wildfires that have plagued the coast in recent summers.

Big Sur is still a wild place, with little or no cell phone reception. There are few services, with access occasionally limited in recent years due to wildfires, flooding, and landslides alongside the highway. Most of the overnight accommodations book up solidly during the peak summer season. Spring brings wildflowers, while fall gets the most reliably good weather.

No matter when you come, even if you just drive through in an afternoon, be sure to stop whenever possible and get out of the car; scenic viewpoints line the roadside, and dozens of trails lead off into the wilds.

For more on stops and sights while driving Big Sur, check out the Central California section of the Pacific Coast road trip route.

Road Trip USA Pacific Coast Highway map through Big Sur

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