An Unforgettable Road Trip To Big Sur
If you live anywhere in California (or even if you don’t) I hope that by the end of this post I will have convinced you to grab a couple days off work and make the trip to Big Sur as soon as you possibly can. It will be so good for you, promise.
Big Sur is one of those places that you know is stunning before you go, but then you get there and you literally can’t stop vocalizing how beautiful the area truly is as you pass each stop along Highway 1.
Our group set off on a Friday morning to make our way up the coast, fueled by the essentials: coffee, playlists, and In-N-Out, which I swear tastes even better when it’s consumed during a road trip. Highway 1 consistently faces periodic closures due to weather and construction, so you’ll always want to check highway conditions here around the time you head out to make sure your route is clear. During our trip in mid-February we dealt with a closure at Mud Creek, which meant we were unable to take Highway 1 while driving up from the south, so we just stayed on the 101 all the way north to Salinas and approached Big Sur from the north.
WHERE TO STAY
If you want to camp in Big Sur you’ll need to book your campsite 6-12 months in advance -- something I would love to do on a return trip. But if you’re wanting to make plans quickly, staying in an Airbnb in Carmel, Monterey, or Seaside puts you closeby to everything and offers more affordable options than if you were to stay at any of the hotels or inns throughout Big Sur (maybe one day though!). We stayed in Seaside (Airbnb listing) and it was a short 15-20 minutes to get to our activities each day.
WHAT TO BRING
Aside from all the essentials you’d take on a road trip like cash (for those state park fees), snacks, cameras, and whatnot, I want to make two more recommendations. First, make a massive playlist of songs that make you nostalgic. I made one with a bunch of songs from college, high school, and middle school and oh my goodness it hit the feels. Music transports us back in a special way that nothing else can. Do you ever feel like you’re literally living in a music video because it’s so beautiful all around you and you know this story you’re writing right in that space and time is one worthy of an epic soundtrack? These days overflowed with those moments. Some artists to get you started: Switchfoot, Semisonic, The Fray, Jason Mraz, Snow Patrol, Sixpence None the Richer, Weezer, Shania Twain, Yellowcard, Destiny’s Child, N*SYNC, Backstreet Boys, Britney, Alicia Keys, Gavin Degraw, and the entire soundtrack to A Walk to Remember...because, obviously. Second, have a list of intentional questions on hand to take turns answering. I came across the article “The 36 Questions That Lead to Love” by way of one of my favorite blogs and it describes a study that “tested how mutual vulnerability fosters closeness" and "whether intimacy between two strangers can be accelerated by having them ask each other a specific series of personal questions.” For this trip, I was clearly traveling with close friends, not strangers, but fortunately, they were down to humor me and go along with this exercise. We adapted the structure of the questions to accommodate four people and answered the questions over the course of four days… and it was awesome. I learned so much, I said things aloud I’ve never said to anyone before, I cried more than once, I received help and insightful advice, I laughed a ton, and yes, my love for my friends grew because they just have some of the best hearts and souls. Do it with your crew, and thank me later.
WHAT TO SEE + DO + EAT
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park - (Not to be confused with Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park) This was the first place we headed on Highway 1 as it was our southernmost stop and we wanted to get there early and then spend the day making our way back up the coast. There are gorgeous trails inland, but most people head straight through a short tunnel under the highway to get to the coastal views and McWay Falls.
McWay Falls - Located within Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, you’ll find the iconic Big Sur view you’re looking for. McWay Falls is one of only two waterfalls in California that empties directly into the Pacific Ocean and it's easy to see why we're all obsessed with the view. I love this spot because the beach remains mostly inaccessible (except by boat) so it keeps swarms of people from disrupting the scene and forces us all to take it in like a real-life postcard.
Big Sur Bakery - After spending most of the morning and midday exploring, we were super hungry and headed out to this bakery to grab a late lunch. One thing we learned the hard way -- their daily bakery items run out and then they have a very limited menu (like, two things) until dinner service starts up at 5:30pm. We grabbed a couple bites that were left (delicious ginger scones and soups by the way) to tide us over here, but I’d highly recommend coming in the morning to grab the best baked goods or stopping by later for dinner. Fortunately, we stocked some pretty delicious road trip snacks in the car to always have a fallback.
Pfeiffer Beach - There is so much to love about this beach: the purple sand, the sun portal, and the overall uniqueness of the rocky landscape. The road to get to Pfeiffer Beach is easily missed. When heading southbound, take the second right after Big Sur Station, and turn at the yellow sign that says "Narrow Road.” It was super windy and overcast when we arrived so the whole crew started napping on me, but I just knew (or hoped hard) that eventually the sun was going to break through and we’d get to see the light cover everything and give us a sparkling sunset.
Nepenthe - I will remember this as one of the best dinners I’ve ever had in my life. You know those days where you’re out driving, walking, hiking, looking, talking, singing, all that, and you've been out in the sun and the cold and the dirt and it just catches up to you and hits you hard late in the day? You’ve been going at it without really resting because it’s all just been so much fun. That was this day, and walking into this cozy, inviting restaurant had a similar feeling to when you climb back into a warm car on a breezy day and it feels like a hug all over. The whole place is enveloped by superb ocean and redwood views and features great indoor and outdoor spaces to enjoy depending on the weather and time of day.
Once inside and seated, I opened the menu and experienced a bit of sticker shock as dinner here is a three-dollar-sign situation and I’m a two-dollar-sign person. And then something incredible happened. The too-good-to-us Kphil announced she was covering dinner for our group, and she nudged us into ordering that good $$$ food, and the YOLO spirit (that’s still a thing right?) took over our bodies, and we ordered all the filet mignon and stupid good garlic mashed potatoes and red wine we could possibly want. Thank you for spoiling us, my sweet friend!
And one of the best parts about the night was hitting question number #11 on our questions list, which was actually an exercise: “Take four minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible.” Except that no, we did not do it in four minutes each -- we took our time, asked good follow-up questions, and it was such a gift to laugh with these women and learn some new and surprising details about my closest friends. From the food to the conversation to the staff that chimed in about the overheard stories, this is what magic around the table looks and feels like.
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve - This beautiful area is filled with trails and great views of the Pacific. We spent some time walking over these rocks and spotting starfish in the tide pools. This photo of Yvonne in the ocean spray is one of my favorites. She was shooting some video near the edge and the waves were rolling in at a consistent pace until a rogue wave snuck up on her and turned it into a splash zone. She was soaked but such a champ about it -- and fortunately, we headed to Gibson Beach shortly after to warm up.
Highway 1 Vistas - You’ll find some of the best sights in Big Sur along the highway at vista points up and down the coast. No amount of selfie sticks can ruin these views to me. Get out there. See all the things! Take all the photos!
Bixby Creek Bridge - Death Cab for Cutie was right to create a song that’s inspired by this picturesque bridge. I’m listening to Narrow Stairs for the first time in a billion years as I write this and I urge you to go rediscover this gem. We rolled up early to find a great parking spot and waited a short thirty minutes before golden hour lit the place up and made us all glow. When I look at the sunset silhouette below I think about how many photos I have of strangers and how many photos strangers might have of me out there. Like can we create a database of missing photos tagged with the location and date for people to find??? Nope. But hey, glad I shared this moment with these people on February 12th at 5pm because it felt like a little community of sunset chasers finding gold and experiencing it all together.
Monterey Bay Aquarium - Loved making a return trip to this spot. This was one of the first aquariums I ever went to and I later learned it set the bar for aquariums a bit too high once I went to others -- it’s just so good and packed with a bunch of amazing creatures. We visited on my birthday, and they gave me a birthday button to wear that had a waving otter on it and this made me about ten times happier than the average aquarium goer that day because otters are my favorite!!! It’s the little things ya know. You can easily spend a few hours here checking out the jellies, admiring the colorful coral, finding Nemo, and more.
Old Fisherman’s Grotto - After our morning at the aquarium, we walked back through Cannery Row, headed over to the Fisherman’s Wharf, and found ourselves in the land of clam chowder. This restaurant is the best place to get it -- creamy, flavorful, rich, but not too heavy. It was the perfect meal before getting back on the 101 and making our way home to Los Angeles.
This trip was so life-giving to me. While planning it and anticipating it, I knew that we all had some big changes on the horizon and all I wanted to do was soak up every ounce of time and sunshine with people who see me. It completely exceeded my expectations and grateful barely covers it. There are too many other moments from this trip that I just want to drop them here for my own memory, so yep, that's how I'm ending this: getting out of the car on a turnout at night when it was pitch black to see if we could spot the bioluminescent phytoplankton (spolier: we didn't), me tripping in the sand on Gibson Beach in such a weird way and laughing about it with Kphil, watching Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping back at our Airbnb while drinking wine and crying from laughing, birthday morning cinnamon rolls, the dogs playing frisbee at Pfeiffer Beach, the McDonald's chocolate chip cookies and pulling over to witness the most ridiculous purple and gold sunset of my life, watching them feed and train the otters at the aquarium, and spending three hours of our drive home answering question #36 and being so inspired by my friends' wisdom, and every other honest, hard, revealing, brave, smart, kind, and compassionate thing they shared.