Big Sur, Carmel, And Monterrey: A Scenic Road Trip

how many days to travel through big sur carmel monterrey

The best way to travel through Big Sur, Carmel and Monterrey is by car. The route is about 90 miles long and takes about two hours to drive without stops. The best time to visit is between April and October, but visiting in September or October means fewer crowds and better weather.

There is a lot to see and do in these three places, so it is recommended to spend at least two days exploring. One day in Big Sur and one day in Carmel and Monterrey.

Day 1: Big Sur

- Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

- Bixby Bridge

- Big Sur Bakery

- Pfieffer Beach

- Nepenthe and Cafe Kevah

- Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park

- Sand Dollar Beach

Day 2: Carmel and Monterrey

- Old Downtown Monterrey

- Fisherman's Wharf

- Abalonetti Bar and Grill

- Monterey Peninsula Recreational Trail and State Beach

- Cannery Row

There are also some great added excursions:

- Garrapata State Park

- Andrew Molera State Park

- Pacific Grove

- Carmel-by-the-Sea

Characteristics Values
Location Central California coast
Distance 30+ miles between Monterey, Carmel and Big Sur
Travel time 2 hours from San Francisco to Monterey
Time needed 1-3 days
Best time to visit April to October
Cell service None
Gas stations Few and far between

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Where to stay in Monterey

When it comes to deciding where to stay in Monterey, you'll be spoilt for choice. The city offers a range of accommodations, from cozy inns to larger, waterfront properties. Here are some great options to consider:

Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa

This upscale hotel is a great choice if you want to be close to the water. Half of the hotel sits on stilts directly above the Monterey Bay, offering stunning views of the crystal-clear waters. The warm and inviting lobby will make you feel like you're aboard a cruise ship. Be sure to book one of the renovated ocean-view rooms, which come with binoculars for spotting otters and dolphins. The hotel's restaurant, Schooners Coastal Kitchen & Bar, is especially worth a visit during the day, thanks to its daylight views. The top-floor spa is also a highlight, featuring a fireplace-warmed outdoor deck with hot tubs and sweeping bay vistas.

Portola Hotel & Spa

The Portola Hotel & Spa is conveniently located between the waterfront and downtown Monterey. The rooms are comfortable and well-appointed, and the property features an attractive tree-filled atrium lobby. The on-site restaurant, Jack's, offers a pleasant dining experience, while Peter B's Brewpub is a great spot for a drink. The hotel is also located along the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail, making it a perfect base for biking or walking along the waterfront.

Monterey Bay Inn

Monterey Bay Inn is the only all-suite property in Monterey, offering spacious accommodations with lounge areas, fireplaces, dining areas, and private balconies. It's also within walking distance of many of the city's attractions. Guests can enjoy perks like free Wi-Fi and a continental breakfast, while weekend visitors can indulge in evening wine and cheese. The hotel features three courtyards with fire pits and fountains, creating a relaxing atmosphere.

InterContinental The Clement Monterey Hotel

This modern, waterfront hotel is ideally located in the heart of bustling Cannery Row. The spa-like rooms feature bathrobes, Frette linens, and marble bathrooms with soaking tubs. Ocean-facing rooms offer mesmerizing views of the bay. While the dining room at C restaurant provides water views, the small bar area does not. However, you can take your drinks to the waterfront deck, which features fire pits and stunning vistas of Monterey Bay.

Casa Munras Garden Hotel & Spa

Casa Munras Garden Hotel & Spa is a charming property located near popular attractions. It boasts cozy rooms with fireplaces, fine dining at Esteban, a European-style patio, and a heated pool. It's a great choice if you're looking for a tranquil and cozy atmosphere.

Other Options

  • Hyatt Regency Monterey Hotel and Spa: This picturesque hotel offers stunning golf course views, tranquil rooms, and fantastic amenities like outdoor fire pits, ping pong, and bocce ball.
  • The Monterey Hotel: A historic hotel located on Alvarado Street, offering charming accommodations and easy access to nearby restaurants and shops.
  • Stage Coach Lodge: A quiet and well-located hotel with spacious king suites and cozy beds. It's close to Fisherman's Wharf, the beach, and downtown Monterey.

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Exploring Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is a state park in California, located on the central coast of California in Monterey County. The entrance is three miles south of Carmel-by-the-Sea on Highway 1, 125 miles south of San Francisco, and 325 miles north of Los Angeles.

The reserve is home to a rich marine habitat, with diverse and rare flora and fauna, both on land and in the sea. It is considered one of the best locations for scuba diving on the Monterey Peninsula and along the California coast. The Point Lobos State Marine Reserve and Point Lobos State Marine Conservation Area protect the ocean habitat, which is considered a "no-take zone". The reserve also features several miles of hiking trails, many alongside the ocean, and a smaller number of beaches.

The Whalers Cabin, built by Chinese fishermen in the 1850s, is now a museum. The cabin is the only historic structure left intact by the state park system and is a great spot to learn about the cultural history of the area, including the whaling industry that thrived in the region in the mid-to-late 1800s.

There are over a dozen hiking trails in the reserve, ranging in length and difficulty. The Bird Island Trail is a popular trail that takes visitors on a lollypop loop of less than a mile, offering magnificent views of China Cove and abundant wildlife. The Cypress Grove Trail is another family-friendly hike of just under a mile, showcasing the rare Monterey cypress trees. The Point Lobos Loop Trail combines several trails into a five-mile journey with over 700 feet in elevation.

The reserve is open year-round from 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., with the last visitor entry at 6:30 p.m. There is a vehicle entrance fee, and parking is limited to 75 vehicles, so it is recommended to arrive early or later in the day to secure a parking spot. Visitors are expected to protect this landmark for future generations by staying on marked trails, not removing or collecting natural objects, and avoiding disturbing animals.

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Where to eat in Big Sur

Big Sur offers a variety of dining options, from 5-star restaurants to local pubs and cafes, with most restaurants offering unique views of the mountains or coastline. Here is a list of places to eat in Big Sur:

Sierra Mar at Post Ranch Inn

Sierra Mar, located at the Post Ranch Inn, offers breathtaking views and an exceptional dining experience. The restaurant features a glass dining room perched on a cliff, showcasing the region's beauty while diners enjoy their meal. The menu showcases local ingredients such as seafood, cheeses, and vegetables, with luxurious additions like caviar and truffle. It offers multicourse tasting menus for lunch and dinner, as well as the region's most extensive wine list. Reservations are highly recommended.

Nepenthe & Cafe Kevah

Nepenthe is a well-known institution in Big Sur, offering panoramic views, a comforting menu, a laid-back ambiance, and friendly service. The cuisine is more rustic, but still showcases impeccable freshness. It is recommended to dine on the terrace to fully enjoy the views and the restaurant's signature cocktails. Nepenthe only takes reservations for parties larger than five. Cafe Kevah, located just upstairs, is a more casual option for breakfast or lunch, with a beautiful view and reasonably priced food.

Big Sur Roadhouse

Big Sur Roadhouse is a design-forward restaurant with a modern dining room. It serves sophisticated and beautifully plated meats and fish with global inspirations. The "Small Bites" menu allows diners to sample a variety of the chef's creations. It is a great option for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and their outdoor terrace with comfortable sofas and a central fireplace is perfect for cocktails and bites.

Big Sur Bakery

The Big Sur Bakery is a popular spot that rivals the best artisanal bakeries in Brooklyn and San Francisco. Set in an unassuming ranch house under the giant trees, it serves fresh, vegetable-driven cuisine. They offer expertly crafted espresso drinks, delightful scones, colourful salads, and wood-fired pizzas. It is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with brunch on weekends.

Deetjen's Big Sur Inn Restaurant

Deetjen's is a historic home and inn, offering fine dining in a cozy and rustic setting. The restaurant serves creative and tasty food in a unique location. It is open for breakfast from 8 am to noon and dinner from 6 pm to 9 pm. Reservations are recommended.

Lucia Lodge Restaurant

Lucia Lodge Restaurant offers spectacular deck dining and a charming, historic dining room. Their coastal cuisine is known for its great quality and generous portions. Their Fish & Chips were judged as one of the Top 10 in the United States by Coastal Living Magazine. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner, with continental breakfast available for cabin guests.

The Sur House at Ventana Big Sur

The Sur House offers elegant lodge-inspired interiors, with dimmed lighting, auburn wooden beams, and a copper fireplace. There is also a vast terrace with lounge and dining areas, boasting beautiful views over the land and sea. The lunch menu is unfussy, and for a unique dinner experience, you can request a table in their beautiful wine cellar.

Big Sur Deli & General Store

A family-owned and operated full-service deli located in the centre of Big Sur. They serve good food at affordable prices and have been a staple in the community for over 25 years. The menu includes made-to-order and specialty sandwiches, burritos, tamales, calzones, salads, baked potatoes, BBQ chicken, and more. They also offer a wide selection of micro-brews and wine, as well as Big Sur souvenirs. Open daily from 7:00 AM to 9:00 PM.

Fernwood Bar & Grill

Fernwood Bar & Grill offers a family-friendly atmosphere and homestyle food. They feature house-cured and smoked meats, hand-tossed pizzas, and hearty soups made from scratch, with plenty of vegetarian options. The restaurant is built around towering redwoods, creating a unique dining experience. They also offer a great selection of microbrews and live music on weekend nights.

Whale Watcher Cafe at Gorda Springs Resort

The Whale Watcher Cafe offers ocean-side, patio dining with a selection of imported and local wines and beers. It is open seven days a week from 7:30 AM to 9:00 PM, and take-out is available. The cafe provides breathtaking ocean views and is a great place to watch whales during the season.

Big Sur River Inn

The Big Sur River Inn is a great option for dinner, with a unique setting right on the river. They offer a deli/convenience store next door that sells sandwiches, snacks, and beer.

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Exploring Bixby Bridge

The Bixby Bridge is one of the most famous structures in Big Sur and is one of the most photographed bridges in California. Completed in 1932, the bridge soars 260 feet above a canyon, providing panoramic views of the Pacific coastline. The bridge is a testament to human ingenuity, harmonising with the surrounding natural landscape and offering an immersive experience for travellers.

History of the Bixby Bridge

The Bixby Bridge takes its name from Charles Henry Bixby, who arrived on the Monterey Peninsula in 1868 and purchased large tracts of land in the Big Sur area for lumber harvesting. Before the bridge was built, residents of Big Sur were virtually cut off during winter due to the often impassable Old Coast Road. The construction of the bridge was a challenging feat, requiring 45,000 sacks of cement to be hauled up a massive wooden framework. The bridge was completed before the road, and it would be another five years before the route linking Carmel to San Luis Obispo was opened.

What to Know Before Visiting

Big Sur's weather can be unpredictable, so checking the forecast and dressing in layers is recommended. The bridge is a popular attraction, and parking can be limited, especially during peak times. It is advisable to arrive early or visit during off-peak hours and exercise caution when parking along the highway. Due to its fame, the bridge can attract a large number of visitors, so visitors seeking a quieter experience should plan their visit during weekdays or off-peak seasons.

Photography Tips

For photography enthusiasts, it is important to familiarise themselves with the best angles and lighting conditions. The north side of the bridge is recommended for photography, with paths on both sides of the bridge offering different perspectives. Sunset is an ideal time for photos, as the sun is not directly behind the bridge, creating a magical glow over the surroundings. Night photography can also be rewarding, with the lights of cars making for interesting long exposure shots.

Activities at Bixby Bridge

  • Scenic picnic: Pack a picnic basket and enjoy it at one of the designated viewpoints near the bridge. The combination of breathtaking views and the soothing sounds of the Pacific creates an unforgettable dining experience.
  • Hiking the Bixby Creek Trail: The trail offers a moderate hike along the coastal bluffs, providing stunning perspectives of the bridge and the coastline. It allows adventurers to capture different angles of the bridge and relish the tranquility of the surroundings.
  • Sunset viewing: Plan your visit to coincide with sunset, when the warm hues of the setting sun cast a magical glow over the bridge and the Pacific, creating a captivating scene.
  • Bird watching: Bring a pair of binoculars to spot seabirds soaring over the ocean or perched on the cliffs. The diverse coastal ecosystem adds to the natural beauty of the area.
  • Historical exploration: Interpretive panels near the bridge provide insights into its construction and significance, adding a layer of historical context to your visit.

The Bixby Bridge is more than just a bridge; it is a gateway to a sensory journey and an icon that encapsulates the beauty of Big Sur. It is a destination that leaves an indelible mark on travellers, offering a range of activities and unforgettable views.

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Exploring McWay Falls

McWay Falls is a must-see when exploring Big Sur. The majestic 80-foot waterfall is one of the most photographed falls in California and is arguably the single most popular image of Big Sur. It is one of only eight waterfalls in the United States that flow directly into the ocean, making it a rare attraction.

The McWay Falls trail is located in the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and provides both southern and northern coastal views. The trail is easy to manage and short, taking only about 30 minutes to complete. It is a wide, flat path with only 50 feet of elevation gain, so it is suitable for all experience levels. The parking lot for the trail is located about 37 miles south of Carmel or 12 miles south of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. There is a $10 vehicle entrance fee for the state park, and the trail typically gets crowded, especially at sunset, so consider visiting early in the morning or during sunrise.

The waterfall cascades onto a pristine beach below, and during high tide, the water appears to cascade directly into the ocean. This phenomenon makes McWay Falls a "tidefall". The beach below the falls was created by a landslide in 1983, which deposited sand at the base of the waterfall and expanded the bay. Prior to this, the waterfall poured directly into the ocean.

The McWay Falls and the nearby creek are named after Christopher McWay, a farmer who settled in the area in 1874 with his son, Christopher Junior. The state park, on the other hand, is named after Julia Pfeiffer Burns, a famous pioneer and local resident who ran a successful ranch in McWay Canyon with her husband, John B. Burns.

The area surrounding McWay Falls is known for its rich history, and there are several museums in Big Sur that collect historic artifacts and stories, including those of Julia Pfeiffer Burns and Christopher McWay. The trail also passes by the ruins of the old "Waterfall House", built by Lathrop and Helen Brown. Lathrop Brown was a Congressman from New York and a friend of President Roosevelt. He was a generally influential person in the region in the 1930s and also constructed the iconic "Tin House" further north, which visitors can stop by.

In addition to the main trail, there are some alternative routes that visitors can take. One path leads to the area above the falls, offering a different perspective. Another option is the walk to the Pelton Wheel, which was once used to generate power for local homes and a railway.

Frequently asked questions

You can travel through Big Sur, Carmel, and Monterrey in one day, but it is recommended to spend at least two days in the area to see everything.

The best way to get from Monterrey to Big Sur is by car. The drive is about 30 minutes.

There are many things to do in Big Sur, including visiting Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, Bixby Bridge, Nepenthe and Cafe Kevah, Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park, and Sand Dollar Beach.

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