Itineraries: Monterey Bay, Carmel, and Big Sur

In a nutshell, this drive is all about the jaw-dropping scenery of the Pacific Coast. Visitors pressed for time often make the drive from Monterey through Big Sur in one day. However, those who linger will be rewarded with more time to venture off the road and to enjoy the solitude of Big Sur once the day-trippers have gone.

Day 1: Monterey

Monterey, with its federally protected national marine sanctuary and its world-renowned aquarium, is the perfect spot to kick off your tour of the coast. Start the day with a visit to the enthralling Monterey Bay Aquarium. Exhibits such as the dramatic three-story kelp forest near the entrance give you a true sense of the local marine environment. For an even closer encounter, take to the water yourself on a kayak or whale watching tour. While undoubtedly touristy, the shops and galleries of Cannery Row still make for an interesting diversion and it’s fun to watch the colony of sea lions at Fisherman’s Wharf. There are plenty of excellent dining and lodging choices within walking distance of downtown, so enjoy a seafood dinner and an evening stroll before hitting the road the next morning.

Day 2: 17-Mile Drive and Carmel-By-The-Sea

(The 17-Mile Drive’s Pacific Grove entrance gate is 15 minutes by car from Monterey.)

If your visit falls between October and March, begin your drive with a quick detour to visit the migrating monarch butterflies at the Monarch Grove Sanctuary in the charming Victorian town of Pacific Grove.

Enter the scenic 17-Mile Drive through the tollgate off Sunset Drive in Pacific Grove. This scenic road winds its way along the coast through a hushed and refined landscape of stunning homes and the renowned golf links at Pebble Beach. Perhaps the most famous (and photographed) resident is the Lone Cypress, which has come to symbolize the solitude and natural beauty of the coast. Even though the drive is only 17 miles, plan on taking your time. If you stop for lunch or souvenir shopping, enquire about a refund on the entry toll.

Upon exiting the drive, continue south to the charming town of Carmel-by-the-Sea. Spend the afternoon browsing the town’s boutiques and galleries before walking to Carmel Beach for sunset and dinner at one of the many fine restaurants here. Similarly, there is no shortage of stylish, but pricey, lodging. Venture outside of the village for less expensive accommodation.

Day 3: Big Sur

(30 minutes by car.)

The coastal drive through Big Sur is justifiably one of the most famous stretches of road in the world. The winding curves, endless views and scenic waypoints are the stuff of road trip legend. Keep your camera handy, fill up the tank and prepare to be wowed. Traffic can easily back up along the route and drivers should take caution navigating the road’s twists and turns. While you will only drive about 30 miles today, allow several hours for hikes and stops.

Heading into Big Sur you will first come upon the extremely photogenic Bixby Creek Bridge. Pull over in the turnout on the north side of the bridge to get that perfect shot. About 10 miles down the road look for a small cluster of services known as Big Sur Village just before the entrance to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, the perfect place to stop for a hike.

One mile south of the park, watch carefully for the sharp turnout and unmarked road leading to Pfeiffer Beach. Following the unpaved road 2 miles toward the sea you may question whether you are lost, but your perseverance will be rewarded when you reach the secluded beach with its signature rocky arch just offshore. Don’t miss it!

There are several lodging options around this portion of Big Sur, ranging from rustic to luxurious. If room rates at the legendary Post Ranch Inn are not in your budget, consider splurging on the nine-course tasting menu at its spectacular cliff-side Sierra Mar restaurant instead. Alternatively, the terrace at Nepenthe offers decent food and gorgeous views at a lower price point. Be sure to check the time for sunset when making your dinner reservation.

Day 4: Big Sur to Cambria

(About 2 hours by car. Allow ample time for hiking and 2 hours to tour Hearst Castle.)

Start the morning off with a hike in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, popular for its waterfall tumbling dramatically into the sea. Back on the road, several scenic overlooks will beckon as you head through the southern stretch of Big Sur. Treasure hunters should consider a stop at Jade Cove.

As you enter San Simeon, don’t miss the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery. Depending on your timing, you might catch a late afternoon tour at Hearst Castle. If not, you can make a reservation for a tour early the following morning. End the day with a walk at Moonstone Beach in the town of Cambria, 10 miles south of the castle and overnight in one of the reasonably priced lodgings here.

From here, you can continue your travels south through the central coast to Santa Barbara. Or head inland to visit the Paso Robles wine region before returning to Monterey via Highway 101.

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