McWay Falls on a Big Sur road trip
California, USA

The Big Sur Road Trip : Ticking off the California Bucket List

Ever since I took the Coast Starlight train from LA to Oakland, it was one of my ultimate number one goals in life to go on a Big Sur road trip. For those non-USA folk, Big Sur is renowned as one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world, and the Pacific Coast Highway runs the length of it.

Part of Amtrak’s Coast Starlight route runs right next to the Pacific Ocean, giving insane views of rugged cliffs, frothing blue waves and pelicans flying parallel with the land- but I was sure that to go on a road trip to Big Sur would take me even closer to that stunning scenery, for an even longer amount of time. And I’ll tell you this for free: I was not mistaken. If you’re the type who loves incredible landscapes and the open road, then pull up a pew and stick around. Here for your reading pleasure is the story of our road trip all the way from Sacramento, through the idyllic beach town of Carmel, and past giant redwoods to a waterfall tumbling straight into the actual ocean.

The lush green hills of California

We set off from Sacramento fairly early in the morning, after a surprisingly heavy day before featuring several Lodi wineries and one of the worst renditions of Proud Mary I have ever graced an audience with. (That’s what you get when you forget that you’re not supposed to actually finish all of the wine samples.) My pal Tayler-Beth and I were feeling a little worse for wear, truth be told, but her wonderful mum Diane took pity on us and declared that it was of utmost importance that we get to a Mcdonalds ON THE DOUBLE. What a brilliant human being.

McDonalds in hand, the journey could truly begin. And pals- once I’d wolfed down an egg McMuffin meal and soaked in the fact that the sky was the most vivid shade of blue that I’d seen in a long old while, I was fresh as a daisy once again. Praise the lord.

Check this out: Getting to Know Sacramento

We were heading directly South from the city of Sacramento, keeping the verdant hills of the Coe State Park to our left, and the regimented patchwork farms of America’s ‘farm to fork’ capital to our right. Every now and again an agricultural plane would swoop low over patches of crops to the side of the road, gracefully dusting them with a dose of pesticides to ward off any hungry bugs. Classic. But I’ll be honest- the pesticide planes only added to the beauty of the whole picture, even if they were full of chemicals. Northern California had recently experienced an unprecedented amount of rain, with severe flooding in some areas. Although the floods had devastated the lives of many, the silver lining in the whole scenario was that the land was the brightest shade of green that I think I’ve ever seen; the colours were so vivid that I felt a bit as if we were driving through a TV set.

Eventually we began to work our way through the hills and mountains of Pacheco State Park, past a ginormous reservoir towards the town of Hollister. This winding road through the hills just added to my awe of the beauty of California, and Diane exclaimed that despite the fact that she’d taken the trip many times before, she had never seen these hills looking so luscious in all her life.

green hills of Central California
a Sacramento to Big Sur road trip
McDonalds, a classic road trip stop off

A stop-off at Casa de Fruta

Now don’t get me wrong here guys. I have seen a roadside fruit stand before. In England it’s quite normal to see signs advertising punnets of cherries or strawberries for sale out the back of a van in a lay-by, and I’d stopped at a few little fruit stands in mainland Europe or on other road trips in the US. And I’d call myself not just a fruit fan, but a fruit stand fan. So naturally when Diane informed us that the Casa de Fruta fruit stand would be one of the highlights and most important stopping points on our Big Sur road trip, I was truly and completely up for it.

But I’ll tell you this for free: that is the most colossal example of a fruit stand I have ever seen. Also, somehow still the cutest, thanks to the vintage advertising posters and lack of plastic packaging. And I would recommend it to anyone who happens to be in the Pacheco Valley area.

Get a load of this: The Casa de Fruta Fruitstand

Casa de Fruta began life as a tiny roadside cherry stand back in 1940, although its first orchards were planted in 1908 by three brothers originally from Italy. And over the next decades this little fruit stand grew and grew and grew to a mammoth operation which sells fresh produce, wine, gifts and sweets galore.

(If you ever find yourself here, try the dried chilli mangos- you can thank me later pals.)

vintage cherry advertising
artichokes in California
Dr Pepper sign on a Big Sur road trip
Casa de Fruta on a road trip

Carmel-by-the-Sea: the cutest beach town in California

Oh my god you guys. The little town of Carmel-by-the-Sea is like something out of a 1920s California fairytale, and I am SO GLAD we stopped here on our Big Sur road trip. Carmel is full of pastel coloured cottages, tiny seaside inns and quaint coffee shops and boutiques. It is basically a PICTURESQUE DREAM.

Read my in-depth guide to spending a weekend in Carmel-by-the-Sea

The first stop in town was a beaut little Italian restaurant on a corner. We sat down in Little Napoli, ordered all the Italian food (also grilled artichoke, which is a California classic and was one of the best things I ate in this entire USA trip), and prepared for a delicious meal. The restaurant was rather on the busy side, and there was one waiter in particular who was bustling back and forth in front of our table.

Weirdly, my pal Tayler-Beth was convinced she knew him.

From when she lived almost 3000 miles away in New York.

That girl clearly has a brilliant memory for faces; they had indeed worked together for a grand total of a few days in a restaurant in NYC, years and years and years before. I LOVE IT WHEN STUFF LIKE THAT HAPPENS!!

Italian food stop off on a Big Sur road trip

Artichokes and other Italian treats consumed, we headed out for a walk around the pretty little streets of Carmel, where I decided there and then that I will stay in a Carmel-by-the-Sea inn at some point before I die. For sure. There are no big chain hotels in the town, all just individually owned ‘inns.’ Honestly the fact that they’re called ‘inns’ is as much of a draw for me as the cuteness of their exteriors.

Who wouldn’t want to stay in an inn, for goodness’ sake!?

Before we left we made our way down to Carmel Beach, which is just as idyllic as the town. With white sand, turquoise waves and a rugged coach stretching out into the distance, this is definitely the type of beach which you’d think of as being classically Californian.

a pink doorway in Carmel California
stop at Carmel on a Big Sur road trip
beautiful beach at Carmel-by-the-Sea California
cottages in Carmel California
quaint inns in Carmel California

On a Big Sur road trip, the journey is the destination

‘The journey is the destination’ is totes a wishy-washy instaquote but I fully believe this to be true about the whole of life, let alone Highway 1. But truly guys, there’s no real ‘final destination’ on a Big Sur road trip- it’s all abut the experience of taking in the scenery and fresh sea air.

And there is SO MUCH TO SEE HERE. (Also a lot of sea air to inhale, let’s face it.)

The Pacific Coast Highway- Highway 1- actually runs the length of California, but the 71 mile stretch through the Big Sur area of central California is considered to be one of the most beautiful drives in the world. I am SO GRATEFUL that I got to see it with my pals.

Driving south from Carmel-by-the-Sea, we stopped every now and then at little lay-bys to check out the view and have a little look around. It was all rather breathtaking if I’m honest. There are no built up areas around here, so on one side are cliffs plunging into the Pacific Ocean, and on the other are vivid green mountains. Down below in the water, we spotted sea otters splashing around and sliding off of rocks. Good lads.

Another Northern California destination: Exploring the Mission San Juan Bautista

(FYI, it’s pretty normal to spot whales off the Big Sur coastline as well. Blue whales, grey whales and humpbacks are all regularly spotted during migrating season, and they tend to stay close to the coast to protect their young’uns from sharks.)

The Bixby Creek Bridge is one of the most photographed bridges in the world thanks to its graceful look and stunning surroundings, (also the fact that it’s featured in the opening credits of Big Little Lies). So even if you’ve never heard of Big Sur before, chances are that you’ll have spotted this bad boy. We continued on our Big Sur road trip across the famous bridge and onwards down the coast.

stunning scenery on a Big Sur road trip
looking for otters on the Big Sur coast
near the Bixby Creek Bridge
the beautiful central California coast
rugged Californian coast

Giant redwood trees in Big Sur

Everything in the USA is so blooming’ big, isn’t it!? The land is BIG, the roads are BIG, the portion sizes are absolutely GIGANTIC. Enter: the giant redwood tree.

In classic slightly dumb haven’t-done-my-research style, I had legitimately thought that giant redwood trees only grow in one part of Northern California. Not really sure why I thought that, to be honest. Maybe I saw it on Blue Peter when I was a young-un!? But in actual fact there are loads of places along the coast of California to see giant redwoods (as well as their cousins, giant sequoia trees).

As we left the wide open spaces and sea air, the road took us into alleyways of thick forest, including the GIANT REDWOODS THAT I’D BEEN SO DESPERATE TO SEE. They were there, just chilling in a strong and sturdy and gigantic fashion, right next to the road. It doesn’t take a lot to impress me, pals, and I was increasingly flabbergasted by all of the things we were seeing on this one journey.

These redwoods are actually located in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (the entrance of which is on the very road that we were driving on). The picture below is obv not of redwood trees, but I hope you like it anyway. Good one.

the trees of Julia Pfeiffer Burns park

McWay Falls and Ranger Dan

One of the ‘must-see’ points on a Big Sur road trip is McWay Falls, a beautiful waterfall cascading straight off of the Big Sur bluffs and onto the sandy beach below (and at high tide, directly into the sea).

We pulled up into a lay-by and followed a few people who were heading in the direction of where Tayler Beth’s map was telling us the falls are located. Passing us in the opposite direction was the odd group clearly on their way back from somewhere, so we asked one of them if we were going in the right direction, and they explained the route to us- go right past the gate and follow the path round. Go through the tunnel under the road and you’ll be able to see McWay Falls from the viewpoint. (It’s not actually possible to go down to McWay Falls from the beach-based angle, ya see. You have to view it from above, at a distance)

Can you go down to McWay Falls?

Good one, friendly sir! That’s exactly what we did. There was, however a small ‘Closed’ sign hanging on one side of the gate. It was fairly inconspicuous and the footpath actually led directly around the gate. Plus, there were enough people coming and going for us to not even consider whether the sign was actually there for a reason.

Once we got through the tunnel, the view of McWay Falls in the early evening golden sunshine was just downright beautiful. Although there were other people there it didn’t feel overwhelmed with tourists and the area still felt ‘wild.’ The Californian coast really is stunning.

Speaking of stunning scenery: The Coast Starlight train through the mountains of Oregon

When we decided to head back to the car, things got mildly awkward. Gathered up ahead of us at the exit of the tunnel was a little cluster of people, all getting a very stern talking-to. From a park ranger.

(We decided afterwards that his name is ‘Ranger Dan,’ although there’s no actually evidence to suggest that we were correct in the naming.)

It turned out, the tiny ‘closed’ sign really was there for a reason, and he was very angrily explaining those reasons to our little cluster in the style of a school teacher who had lost control of his classroom. He was pointing wildly to a small cabin near where we were standing which had clearly been crushed by a tree, whilst yelling that the path is unsafe and by ignoring the ‘closed’ sign we were actually trespassing and therefore BREAKING THE ACTUAL LAW.

There finally followed an awkward silence.

Eventually Tayler Beth’s legend of a mum gave a firm nod- ‘Understood.’ And marched right on past Ranger Dan up the path to the road. Swiftly followed by me, Tayler Beth and the entire small congregation of visitors.

More from the USA trip: Goat Yoga in North Carolina. (Yep, you read that correctly)

I did feel really bad. Although in our defence with the fairly steady stream of responsible-looking families coming and going we’d pretty much just gone with the flow- and barely even registered that the tiny sign was an actual thing. (Also, soz but Ranger Dan was really mean about the whole thing.)

So whilst I’d still say McWay Falls is a must-see if you’re looking for places to stop on a Big Sur road trip, I’m also definitely not condoning visiting if it involves trespassing and running into a Ranger Dan. Check online before you go, or at the very least keep your eyes peeled for very small ‘closed’ signs. And bear in mind that they’re probably there for your safety.

how to see McWay Falls in California
beautiful McWay Falls
mist at McWay Falls

Sunset at the Tickle Pink Inn

Awkward park ranger confrontation over and done with, we began to drive back along the same beautiful stretch of coastline that we’d arrived on. The sun was getting lower over the sea, and as the sky began to really glow pink we pulled into the car park of the Tickle Pink Inn.

Now if that’s not a memorable name for a hotel, I don’t know what is.

The Tinkle Pink Inn is a luxury hotel in the hills just outside of Carmel, with some of the most brilliant Big Sur views you will find. Also, a lot of their rooms have fireplaces in them which I am ALL ABOUT. We sat in the bar with giant windows looking directly out to Big Sur and the Pacific Ocean and watched the sun set; it really was a beautiful way to end the day.

Californian sunset

A Lucky Carmel Beach House

A beautiful way to end the day. But also a way to realise that we were all really tired (especially Diane, who was the designated driver. She had basically been driving ALL DAY). It was still a massive distance to drive from Carmel to Sacramento.

Amazingly, a family friend of my pals had a little beach house in Carmel which she wasn’t currently in, and she offered us to stay in it for the night. What an amazing lass!! We made our way back into town and to possibly one of the cutest little cottages I have ever stepped foot inside, ready for a spontaneous overnight in this beachfront paradise.

Big Sur road trip scenery

You guys. I just LOVE California. The landscape holds surprise after surprise, and I had such an amazing time exploring more of it with Tayler Beth and her mum. This Big Sur road trip was undoubtedly one of the most beautiful journeys I’ve ever been on and I’ll definitely be going back one day to explore more of Big Sur and beyond.

It’s just too beautiful not to.

Logistical Statisticals

  • The Pacific Coast Highway (particularly the Big Sur portion of it), is not something to be rushed! Not just for safety’s sake, but also to get the most out of the journey. You want to actually see it, not rush through it at the speed of lightening.
  • That being said- if there’s something you want to stop and look at, obviously STOP in a lay-by to look at it. Don’t drive too slow whilst drooling out the window, that would be downright silly.
  • Gas stations are few and far between, so make sure your tank is prepared.
  • Likewise, you might want to stock up on snacks and water beforehand.
  • This is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the US. When we visited Big Sur (on a weekday in Spring) there were very few other cars and it was brilliant- but I know this isn’t always the case. Plan in advance and go at a quieter time if you can.
  • Parking near McWay Falls is free. Although like I said. It might not actually be open, so do double check.
  • There is no cell phone coverage in Big Sur! So if you’re using GPS, you might want to save the route before you start your journey. (Or be old school and use a paper map)
  • Like gas stations, public bathrooms are few and far between. Here’s a handy list of public bathrooms in Big Sur.