For many people, driving along the coast of Big Sur - with its many hairpin turns, wide open coastal views and glowing blue water - is a highly ranked bucket list item. I know it was for me when I moved out to California back in 2018.
By the time we left the Bay - fast forward to 2020 - we had ventured to Big Sur and the surrounding areas many times (even running a half marathon there). So while the road through Big Sur was by no means new to us, we knew that it would feel totally different on a motorcycle. And man were we right!
The first thing we realized upon crossing over from the “metropolitan” area of Carmel to the natural area of Big Sur (which actually starts at Garrapata State Park), is that we would have to take the road a looooot slower. The bike is heavy, the turns are sharp and the wind is strong. Plus the drop off to the ocean far below was a bit too intimidating to push it. Similarly, it was only our second day on the road and we were still feeling like awkward newborns cruising along.
But going slow is not a bad thing; we believe it is actually the best way to see the sites and get a “real” feel for the surroundings.
Below our some of the can’t-miss stops along the coast, from Carmel in the north all the way to Cayucos in the south.
Get a backwoods view of Bixby Bridge and the Redwoods along the Coast Road
We only know about this gorgeous road because of the half-marathon we ran there (if you are at all into running we HIGHLY recommend checking out this trail race). You can start either right next to the famous, and very Instagram-ed Bixby Creek Bridge or down in Andrew Molera State Park. Either way, take the dirt road called COAST ROAD.
The road winds its way back through beautiful redwood forests, old school ranch lands and up along ridges that will give you stellar views of the ocean and the surrounding mountains. One thing to remember though, is this road is dirt and can be rough in places, especially after rain. It also is a single lane, and though it is not heavily trafficked, people do live off of it so you may have to do a bit of a dance with a farm truck or something along the way. But it is totally worth it for the views and the peacefulness.
Take a tour of coastal history at Point Sur Historic Park
This station, which was operational from 1958 to 1984, includes the naval station and historic lighthouse. In its prime, the Point Sur Naval Facility (NAVFAC) was part of a global network of defensive listening stations that tracked the movement of Soviet submarines. Today it is one of only a handful of remaining Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) facilities and is the only one on the West Coast open to public interpretation. Most other SOSUS facilities were incorporated into larger military complexes, while Point Sur was established as a stand-alone, self-sufficient base.
To see the historic grounds you have to take a tour - to join, simply meet at the park gate off of Highway 1 thirty minutes before the start of the tour (usually at 10 am). Currently the light station is closed due to repairs, but you can still tour the old naval station and learn about its interesting history. Tours usually take 1.5 hours and are available on the weekends throughout the year.
Grab a coffee and see some amazing art at the COAST Big Sur
After a long morning taking in the scenery you might be needing a pick-me-up, especially if you plan on conquering a couple awesome hikes in the area. Luckily, COAST Big Sur has everything you’re looking for: great coffee, nice sweet baked treats and fantastic artwork. Even the building itself is pretty cool (and not a bad place to relax and take in the views).
Once you grab your coffee, venture a little further down the road to either the Boronda Trailhead, the De Angulo Trailhead or a personal favorite, the Partington Cove Trailhead - where you can take a quick one mile trail down to the water and through a tunnel to an old landing dock, where it is rumored alcohol was smuggled in during Prohibition.
Stop at a gorgeous, and quiet, beach for a relaxing picnic
You can’t drive through Big Sur and not stop at at least one beach. That would be sacrilegious. And while the list of beaches is long, a great one to check out, especially if you are looking for some peace and quiet, is Sand Dollar Beach. Because it is located a bit further south (in the grand scheme of things), it is often way less busy than the beaches further north near Carmel.
What Sand Dollar Beach lacks in people it makes up in beauty. Bright blue water, sometimes dotted with surfers or seals, a long sandy beach and many large rocks that ocean birds like to roost on, the beach is a serene place to get some sun or eat your packed lunch.
Another great thing is its proximity to Plaskett Campground. So if you are looking to spend more time in the area, and maybe even a moonlit stroll on the beach, you can! But even better is if you are okay camping outside an established campground, you can drive up a mile or two on PLASKETT RIDGE ROAD and have the area all to yourself. And the views of the sunset are some of the best in the park.
Look at one of Big Sur’s larger residents
No trip to Big Sur is complete without looking at the resident Elephant Seals. While there are many places to see them, if you want to take the guesswork out of it, then head all the way south through Big Sur to the Elephant Seal viewpoint. Sandwiched between Piedras Blancas and Hearst Castle, you can’t miss this turnoff (there will be waaaay too many cars parked).
Once parked, grab your camera and walk along the beach until you start to hear them (or smell them). There will usually be a whole herd(?) of them laying out on the beach.
Take a quick pit-stop in Harmony for wine (and ice cream!)
A true blink-and-you-miss-it town, Harmony is a cute little pit-stop right past the larger town of Cambria (and smack dab in the middle of rolling hills and farm country). Craving a nice sweet treat? Head to Harmony Valley Creamery* for their homemade ice cream. Or looking for something a bit more… relaxing? Then drive on up to Harmony Cellars for a nice big glass of red wine. *take note that the Creamery is only open on the weekends.
Finish your day with some delicious food
Once back on Highway 1, head just a bit further south until you get to the quaint beach town of Cayucos. Down its main drag, OCEAN AVENUE, you will see a number of quintessential shops: pirate themed bars, gift shops and a few boutique beach motels. But the place you are looking for is Ruddell’s Smokehouse. Located on the corner of Ocean Front Ave. and D Street, the unassuming building is easy to pass by - but that would be a mistake. It has some of the best smoked fish tacos on the Central Coast, not to mention other smoked meats (but the fish is really the star). Grab a couple and head out to their outdoor tables for a nice sunset dinner.
After filling up on fish tacos, if you are looking for a nice dessert (and still actually have room) then head just up the street to the Brown Butter Cookie Company for a variety of delicious cookie flavors (the chocolate chip one is pretty much a-mazing).
Big Sur is full of so many things to do, from hikes, to restaurants to just stopping off to get a good look at the ocean. These 7 things are by no means the only things to do - we’ve been there three times and still haven’t seen it all - but they are definitely good start to getting a good feel of the amazing place that is Big Sur.
Follow along on our off the beaten path adventures on Instagram at @backroad_packers