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Day Trips to Monterey and Big Sur

Many of California’s most famous destinations are within a short drive of San Francisco. Doable in a day, these trips also make excellent overnight stays or weekend getaways.

One Day in Monterey Bay

112 Miles, 2 Hours from San Francisco

Attractions in Santa Cruz and Monterey, plus charming Carmel, can easily fill your itinerary. From San Francisco, take U.S. 101 south to Highway 17 through the redwoods to the laid-back town of Santa Cruz. Ride the rides on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, then rest on the beach.

Once you’ve had your fill of sun, continue an hour south to Monterey and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Jump over to charming Carmel-by-the-Sea and dig your toes into the white sand at Carmel Beach as the sun goes down. Splurge on dinner at Casanova.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is known for integrating inside and outside spaces. Photo © Elizabeth Linhart Veneman.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is known for integrating inside and outside spaces. Photo © Elizabeth Linhart Veneman.

Overnight: The delightful La Playa Hotel in Carmel provides a quick launch to the coastal wonders of Big Sur the next day.

Two Days in Big Sur

140 Miles, 3 Hours from San Francisco

Big Sur captures the best qualities of the Northern California coast: windswept beaches and pounding surf, verdant state parks with majestic redwoods, and the literary solitude of the Beat writers. Although possible as a day trip, this region is best done with two days.

Part of Big Sur’s appeal is the drive along the Pacific Coast Highway, lined with historic bridges, pastures of grazing sheep, and breathtaking cliffs. The Bixby Bridge marks the official entrance to Big Sur. Stop at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park to hike through the redwoods to Pfeiffer Falls.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Photo © luckyphotographer/
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Photo © luckyphotographer/

The next day, don’t miss breakfast at Deetjens. Thumb through the books at Henry Miller Memorial Library, then make your way south and walk the short trail to McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Toward Big Sur’s southern end, Limekiln State Park offers another waterfall hike.

Overnight: Experience high-end camping at Treebones Resort, or book a budget-friendly ocean-view room at Ragged Point Inn. Make reservations in advance for both on summer weekends. If you have a third day, it’s easy to make your way to Hearst Castle from here.

Return Option via Highway 1

70 Miles, 1.5 Hours from Pescadero to San Francisco

Add some variety to your return route by following coastal Highway 1 north of Santa Cruz. Turn east in Pescadero onto Pescadero Creek Road and follow it to the town’s sole stop sign. Enjoy lunch at Duarte’s paired with one of their famous bloody marys. Continue east on Pescadero Creek Road until it meets Highway 84 in La Honda. Follow gorgeous Highway 84 east as it twists and turns through coastal redwoods, eventually coming to a crossroads in Woodside. Stop at Alice’s Restaurant for biker-themed burgers and a beer, then roll north along Skyline Boulevard (Hwy. 35) through more scenic redwoods and past numerous county parks before returning to the urban landscape of I-280 north to San Francisco.

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