This post may contain affiliate links. If you click them, I could earn a small commission at no cost to you. Thank you!
Table of Contents
- 1. Choose a Home Base Near Carmel
- 2. Explore Pfeiffer Beach
- 3. Eat Lunch at Nepenthe
- 4. Make Time for the Scenic Overlooks
- 5. Visit McWay Falls
- 6. Eat Dinner in Carmel-By-The-Sea
- Final Thoughts
One day in Big Sur
Big Sur is rugged, irresistible. Explosive nature stretches out before and below you, actively evolving with every wave that rushes to the rocks.
Spanning 100 miles along California’s Pacific coast, Big Sur extends from Carmel (just south of Monterey) to Hearst Castle in San Simeon.
One day in Big Sur probably won’t seem like enough, but if one day is all you have, this guide is here to help you make the most of your time.
One day in Big Sur
1. Choose a Home Base Near Carmel
It’s approximately 146 miles between San Francisco and Big Sur which takes around 3 hours to drive.
While you could drive from San Francisco to Big Sur and then make a day of it, my suggestion is to base yourself somewhere near Carmel, so you can begin your one day in Big Sur exploration of the coast with a fresh perspective. You’ll also begin your day by driving south along the highway offering you unobstructed views of the Pacific to your right.
My hotel recommendation is the Hyatt Carmel Highlands. Formerly the Highlands Inn (which offered travelers lodging dating back to 1917), the property is now owned by Hyatt and offers 48 renovated guest rooms (32 of which feature ocean views).
The restaurant, Pacific’s Edge, offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner served on the large deck with panoramic views of the Pacific. For light bites and cocktails, check out the Sunset Lounge open from 4 – 10 daily with live music offered on certain evenings.
If you only have one day in Big Sur, then get started early so you can enjoy the rocky ocean vistas with minimal traffic. I also suggest renting a convertible if possible so you can experience the panoramic views more vividly. Depending on the time of year, the temperature and wind might be chilly, so carry a blanket or jacket to provide an extra layer if needed.
No matter what vehicle you’re driving, get ready to be amazed as you drive along this brink of the world. It’s a thrilling ride, hugging the curves along the Pacific Coast Hwy.
*Note: Your internet and GPS may fail. Don’t worry about it. You can’t really get lost on this road.
2. Explore Pfeiffer Beach
Located 26 miles south of Carmel (approximately a 46-minute drive), Pfeiffer Beach is stunning, which explains its #2 ranking of 41 things to do in Big Sur on Trip Advisor. I got stung by a random yellow jacket on Pfeiffer Beach that burrowed out of the sand and into my foot, and I still love my experience in this beautiful place.
The Pfeiffer Beach turnoff via Sycamore Canyon Road can be easy to miss, so keep your eyes peeled for the sign leading you down a narrow, winding road (RVs & trailers not advised). There is also a fee to park (10.00 when I visited), and from there it’s a short walk along a sandy path to Pfeiffer Beach.
The beach is framed by rough, towering rocks and driftwood. Huge, icy waves crash against the rocks, and in the middle of it all is the Keyhole–a doorway in the central rock formation where the water cascades through.
Walk to your right along the beach and you’ll discover a sheen of purple sand and stacked rock formations, created by previous beachgoers.
3. Eat Lunch at Nepenthe
After you’ve spent some time exploring Pfeiffer Beach, if you’re hungry for lunch then you’re in luck. Nepenthe is only a 15-minute drive away.
If you’ve ever wanted to eat lunch in a cliff treehouse overlooking the ocean, then definitely, go to Nepenthe. Whether you opt for an early lunch here or hit it up on the way back to Carmel, stopping for a bite here is part of the Big Sur experience.
Open 365 days a year, Nepenthe serves breakfast from 9:00 – 3:00 at Cafe Kevah with lunch service starting at 11:30 and continuing until 4:30. Dinner is served from 5:00 – 10:00.
Nepenthe is most famous for its Ambrosia Burger, but vegetarians need not worry, there’s a meatless version as well. For the complete menu, click here.
"NEPENTHE stands 808 feet above sea level...Out of the feeling that the site and its magnificent vistas were too vast, too wonderful to keep to themselves – 'no individual can own it, it belongs to everyone...' grew the idea of Nepenthe, an isle of no-care. Nepenthe is a word derived from the Greek, meaning “no sorrow.” It is also known as the mythical Egyptian drug that the wife of Thonis, King of Egypt, gave to Helen, daughter of Jove, to induce forgetfulness and surcease from sorrow..." -Nepenthe.com
4. Make Time for the Scenic Overlooks
Grimes Point Scenic Overlook is located a mere 5-minute drive away from Nepenthe. There’s nothing to do here exactly but just get out and enjoy the views, but oh what views. If you’ve been driving for a while, it’s a great place to pull off the road and stretch your legs.
The Seals Beach Overlook (where, as the name suggests you can see seals) is located .5 miles further down the road.
This stretch of road is also home to COAST, a unique destination housed in historic redwood water towers, featuring a cafe, art gallery, and boutique.
5. Visit McWay Falls
One of Big Sur’s more popular scenic destinations is McWay Falls, a 10-minute drive south of COAST. This 80-foot waterfall is actually categorized as a “tidefall” because it flows directly into the ocean. While there’s not much to do here other than take pictures, capturing this natural gem is well worth the visit on your one day in Big Sur.
. . .
At this point, you could continue on along the Pacific Coast Highway to San Simeon, located approximately 50 miles further south (1 hour and 20 minute drive time).
The primary attraction in San Simeon is the Hearst Castle and with good reason.
William Randolph Hearst’s “La Cuesta Encantada” (The Enchanted Hill) is grand, opulent, and truly remarkable. But, it might be best to save that tour for another day so you don’t feel rushed or overwhelmed trying to cram in all the sights along Big Sur.
6. Eat Dinner in Carmel-By-The-Sea
Carmel-by-the-Sea is picture-perfect—a modern embodiment of an English storybook village.
Dotted throughout its charming streets are art galleries, bookshops, coffee shops, cafes, and excellent restaurants. Strolling its avenues and side streets is the perfect way to close out your one day in Big Sur. Choose from over 40+ restaurants where you can unwind over dinner while re-living the day’s adventures.
PortaBella Restaurant is always a favorite not only because of its picturesque atmosphere but also because the food is fantastic. The restaurant offers a blend of specialties from Italy, France, and Spain.
If you (like me) can’t resist a traditional Italian restaurant, then check out Carmel’s Bistro Giovanni–classic Italian dishes in a romantic setting.
For additional restaurants that offer reservations in Carmel-by-the Sea, click here.
No matter how you choose to spend your one day in Big Sur, I’m fairly certain you won’t be disappointed. I hope this travel guide for a day spent in this beautiful region of California is helpful, and I would love to hear about your experience there plus suggestions!
"This is the way life goes in Big Sur. Waiting for the mail, watching the sea-lions in the surf or the freighters on the horizon, sitting in the tubs at Hot Springs, once in a while a bit of drink - and, most of the time, working at what ever it is that you came here to work on, whether it be painting, writing, gardening or the simple art of living your own life." | Hunter S. Thompson
One Day in Big Sur
Looking for more California Travel? Check out: