Big Sur is no doubt one of California’s most famous destinations and if you love white sandy beaches, jagged coastlines, turquoise waters, and collecting seashells, you will love a Big Sur Road Trip.
10-day Big Sur road trip: San Diego to Highway 1. Experience diverse coastlines, surf towns, and oceanfront camping along the way.
Our RV journey from San Diego to Big Sur kickstarted our nomadic life in 2015, igniting our passion for travel blogging.
Since then, we’ve taken many road trips through California and beyond and have created a lot of new content for planning a California road trip.
This San Diego to Big Sur trip focuses more on camping on the road trip. I’d skim this as your preliminary research, but when it comes time to work out more of the details of your trip, especially for accommodations, then you should read our California Coast Road Trip blog.
Table of Contents
Tips for a Big Sur Road Trip
Hiking + Surfing
There are a lot of great hikes in Big Sur and a few decent ones on the way like in Malibu and San Luis Obispo. Be sure to pack a pair of hiking shoes for this trip (These are our favorite hiking shoes).
Also, there are plenty of opportunities to surf along the way but you’ll want a wetsuit (even in the summer). These are the best women’s wetsuits. If you are more interested in surfing, check out our guide to the best surf spots in California.
If you love camping, the California State Parks have amazing beachfront campgrounds to make this road trip a very memorable experience. I’ve included our favorite campgrounds in this San Diego to Big Sur itinerary.
You can make reservations for all the California State parks here. Keep in mind they fill up fast, especially on the weekends.
Arriving by 8 a.m. increases chances for last-minute campground openings. Weekdays usually offer available sites, but weekends may require early lining up.
Road-tripping the Big Sur coast in an RV is so much fun. Check out these RV rentals from popular cities along this itinerary:
Road Trip Tips
And if this is your very first road trip, check out all these great road-tripping resources we have for you:
- 14 Tips for Planning Your First Road Trip
- How To Road Trip on a Budget
- How To Make Sure Your Road Trip Is Successful
San Diego to Big Sur Road Trip
With perfect weather and the best breweries in the world, it’s easy to make San Diego a great starting destination for your adventure road trip to Big Sur.
There are 2 great spots to stay in San Diego: Pacific Beach or Cardiff
We used to try and camp at San Elijo State Beach as often as possible but it’s hard to get reservations for so now we stay in Pacific Beach most of the time.
The surfing vibe is strong in Pacific Beach and it permeates into everything you do. Plus, this is one of the best beach breaks in the world!
That’s saying something because we’ve spent a lot of time surfing epic spots around the world like:
- Pavones, Costa Rica
- Caribbean side of Costa Rica
- Raglan, New Zealand
- Canggu, Bali
- Medewi, Bali
- Hossegor, France
There are so many great options for food right across the street including my favorites: VeeGees donuts; Sambazon, for açaí bowls; Lost Abbey brewery; New York-style pizza at Best Pizza & Brew; and Seaside Market, a health food store.
With days filled with surfing, eating, yoga, and cold brews, how could you not love it here!
Check out Encinitas, just a few miles north, for other great stores, surf shops, and restaurants.
Pacific Beach used to be more of a party scene and while you certainly can have a good time at The Local or Mavericks, there is so much more to PB that I promise to get a complete guide to Pacific Beach up on the blog soon.
If you can’t reserve San Elijo, look at staying at Campland on the Bay. It has a pool, beach, swimming area, bar/restaurant, boat docks, and activities for the kids. If you want a quieter campground, we stay at Mission Bay RV Park, which is just around the corner. We like that it gives us quicker access to run the many miles of sidewalks that go all around the bay and Fiesta Island. However, they don’t take tents or RVs over 15 years old.
Both these campgrounds are centrally located to the beach, parks, restaurants, Sea World, San Diego Zoo, Gaslamp, Little Italy, and Mesa Rim in Mission Valley, where we go climb and do yoga every day.
2 of my favorite San Diego outings:
- Ride your bike to Ocean Beach, following the signs along the bike path around Mission Bay and Sea World. Don’t forget to grab a beer at Wonderland. Time it so you can watch the sunset from the end of the OB Pier, which has by far the best sunsets in the San Diego Area. Choose to stop by People’s Organic Food Market and grab food for a picnic on Sunset Cliffs. Or, Have a bonfire on Fiesta Island and watch the Sea World fireworks (summer nights at 9:50 p.m.).
- You can also do the same thing, but ride to Pacific Beach and stop by Trader Joe’s to grab a bottle of wine (pour it into a HydroFlask since you can’t have glass or alcohol on the beach), cheese and crackers. Then have a picnic and watch the sunset from the beach.
Other fun ideas:
- Learn to surf at Tourmaline Surf Park.
- Try rock climbing at Mesa Rim Indoor Climbing Center.
- Rent a surrey, walk, or bike the waterfront of Downtown or along Mission Beach.
- Rent a boat or paddle boards and play in Mission Bay.
- Go play on the playgrounds at Balboa Park and while you are there check out the museums and the San Diego Zoo.
- Explore the Gaslamp district and grab a pint at Resident Brewery.
- Check out the tidepools at Cabrillo National Monument at low tide.
- Hike the mountains on the outskirts of San Diego and wander into the Anza Borrego Desert.
- Hike Torrey Pines Preserve
- Bike Ride Torrey Pines Road
- Hike El Cajon Mountain
A charming beach town with Doheny State Beach campground adjacent to a park, offering ample space, volleyball courts, and safe waters for kids. Gentle surf is ideal for learning to surf.
My favorite thing to do while camping here is to hop on my bike and ride ten minutes to the harbor to grab a cup of coffee or green juice. It is also easily within walking distance if you don’t have a bike.
There are plenty of stores and restaurants close by in Dana Point and the Harbor is within biking distance to grab a bite to eat. You might also want to check out Laguna Beach just a few miles north of Dana Point. You may also want to enjoy a short hike at Crystal Cove State Park or stop at the pier in Huntington Beach.
Here are some of the top accommodation options nearby:
Just like Dana Point, this is a great location that makes you feel like you are away from the hustle and bustle of the city without going very far.
The campground, Leo Carrillo State Park, is tucked under large sycamore trees in the Santa Monica mountains, which you can hike through right from your campsite.
The campground itself is a bit larger so there is plenty of room for the kids to ride bikes around the campground. It’s a short walk to get to the beach where you can swim, surf, windsurf, and explore tide pools and caves. You aren’t close to many amenities, but there is a camp store for some supplies and food.
Want to add some culture to your active vacation? Stop at The Getty along the way.
Accommodation: Hotels in Malibu
Pismo Beach + San Luis Obispo
Pismo Beach is one of those places that surprised me. A lot of what I loved about here started with the great campground that had spacious sites, great roads for skateboarding, beautiful dunes that block the wind from the campground, and the butterfly garden next to it.
If you get to the campground early, they give you a free pass to drive onto Oceano State Beach (and how often do you get to drive on the beach right up to the ocean?!). If you want more adventure you can rent dune buggies or quads and go explore the dunes. We had our surfboards and caught some waves, but be prepared for cold water (find the right wetsuit here). I also enjoyed riding my bike on the sand at low tide to the shops by the pier.
Stop for lunch in San Luis Obispo and take a photo in front of bubble gum alley or check out the famous Madonna Hotel.
Accommodation: Hotels in San Luis Obispo
From upscale shopping to artisan shops, Santa Barbara has a lot to offer. I like parking down by the water so I can walk, run, or bike along the Cabrillo Bike Path, which goes from East Beach to Stearns Wharf. It’s easy to grab food or just wander around Stearns Wharf.
My favorite thing in Santa Barbara is to stop at Goleta Butterfly Preserve and see the thousands of monarch butterflies covering the eucalyptus trees here. Both El Capitan and Gaviota State Parks have access to playing on the beach, swimming, surfing, hiking, and biking, but like most California State Beaches, the campgrounds fill up fast so make your reservations early.
For another detour, check out the wine town of Los Olivos. The surrounding Santa Ynez Valley is a huge producer of wine. It might be a perfect opportunity to sign up for a wine tour of the area.
Accommodation: Hotels in Santa Barbara
It’s 200 miles from Santa Barbara to Big Sur so if you want to break up the drive by stopping in San Luis Obispo, Morro Bay, Cambria, or Plaskett Creek, then click over to California Coast Road Trip for details on what to do and where to stay in those towns.
We broke up this section of the road trip by camping at San Simeon State Park. It’s another amazing California Campground and since there are very few city lights nearby, on a clear night, you can see so many stars!
If your budget allows, stop by Hearst Castle and pay to take a tour of this famous mansion. Also, keep an eye out for the herds of zebras roaming outside of Hearst Castle. You can often see them from the Highway.
When you leave San Simeon, stop at Piedras Blancas to see the rookery of elephant seals. If you arrive in the wintertime, you will see them mating (aka fighting for attention).
Yeah! You made it to Big Sur!
Don’t forget to stop at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park to take the iconic picture of the McWay waterfall.
The coffee and pastries at Big Sur Bakery are great and it’s fun to eat at the Big Sur Taphouse next door because they have a ton of board games to play while you enjoy your meal.
3 of our favorite hikes in the Big Sur area are:
- Buzzard’s Roost at Pfeiffer Big Sur
- Andrew Molera Loop at Andrew Molera State Park
- Cypress Grove Trail at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
All three of those State Parks/Reserves are worth checking out. If you want to continue your road trip past Big Sur, head over to this blog and get all the beta on Santa Cruz to the Oregon border.
Recommended San Diego to Big Sur Itinerary
When we drove this road trip back in 2015, we stopped at half the cities on the way up and the other half on the way down so our itinerary looked like this:
- Day 1- San Diego to Dana Point: 65 Miles, camped at Doheny SB
- Day 2- Dana Point to Malibu: 100 miles, camped at Leo Carrillo SB
- Day 3- Malibu to Pismo: 80 miles, camped at North Beach
- Day 4- Pismo to Cambria: 150 miles, camped at San Simeon SB
- Day 6 to 8- Cambria to Big Sur: 70 miles, camped at Big Sur Cabins + Campground
- Day 9- Big Sur to Santa Barbara: 180 miles, camped at Gaviota SP
- Day 10- Santa Barbara to Carpinteria: 45 miles, camped at Carpinteria SB
- Day 10- Carpinteria to Cardiff: 185 miles, camped at San Elijo (we also added a detour to Ojai this day that is not included in this mileage)
Hope this helps you plan an epic road trip. If you have any questions please ask in the comments and if this blog helped you, pin it to your Pinterest board and follow us on Pinterest.