California Road Trip: Big Sur

Big Sur california road trip with kids

Today we’re sharing what we did on our California road trip in Carmel, Monterey and Big Sur.

After visiting San Francisco and Santa Cruz in California, we’ve spent the last few days in Central California – Big Sur, to be exact.

Big Sur is a place that forces you to slow down – the winding roads take you along steep coastal cliffs and through redwood forests and several state parks and national forests. It’s truly an epic landscape.

Of course, you can’t really experience the world’s biggest trees from any old hotel, so Flea and I rented a tiny cabin in the middle of the woods through VRBO – it was a studio with a lofted sleeping area, small, but with everything you need.

cabin in big sur redwoodsFrom Flea’s point of view, this was the best place we’ve stayed so far – she spent one happy morning running a roadside lemonade stand with Isobel, the daughter of the woman who owns the cabin, and riding skateboards together, down the hill. And it’ll be a long time before I forget the sound a mighty redwood makes when it suddenly falls – it’s like a thousand firecrackers going off at once.

If you’re visiting Big Sur then there are a few sights you absolutely shouldn’t miss. Pfeiffer State Park is beautiful and easily reached – if you want to camp here, bookings open 7 months in advance (and are often gone within weeks) – but you can drive in and park for the day for $10 per vehicle.

The park has plenty of trails to explore – but our top tip is to cross the bridge into the camping area from the day use car park, and head down to the river bank there – it’s quieter here, and there are plenty of riverbank spots to enjoy a picnic, and big rocks where Flea loved jumping into the river. We even found a rope swing. The day we spent by the Big Sur River here was perfect, just perfect.

big sur river

People will tell you that the shops in Big Sur are a rip-off and perhaps they are, but petrol here isn’t expensive to a British eye – I filled our Sherman tank from empty to full for around $70 – less than the cost of filling my much smaller CR-V at home. If you want to buy food for a picnic then my advice is to definitely wait until you hit the Big Sur Deli, which has a range of sandwiches and hot dishes to go – they’ll also make sandwiches to order, which is perfect when you have a picky child in tow.

pfeiffer falls trail kids

Another day we took the trail here and hiked up to Pfeiffer Falls – this is a manageable 90-minute or so round trip that kids will be able to cope with – make sure you take plenty of water though, because it’s a hot walk! At the top of the hill, Flea and I dunked our heads under the waterfall to cool down, before the easy walk back down to the river.

Carmel is the closest thing Big Sur has to a ‘big’ town and it’s a lovely spot to wander for lunch – unbelievably pretty houses, along with lots of ritzy fashion boutiques and restaurants including ones with dedicated pet menus. Hilarious. But if you’re after good, reasonably priced dinner then we recommend Allegro’s Pizza on the outskirts of town just off Highway 1 – it’s fantastic, with freshly made pizza and a fab, laid back atmosphere.

dog menu carmel

Carmel Beach is also one of the best in the area, and a gorgeous spot to watch the sun set – for my money, it is just as pretty as Pfeiffer Beach, and a lot easier to get to – Pfeiffer Beach is down a single track road with a small parking lot – at busy times, the parking lot operates a “one in, one out” policy, which means you can be waiting a long time to get to the beach. On our final day in Big Sur, we planned to go to Pfeiffer Beach but the road was closed due to an accident – and the detour is a 4-hour drive. We went to the woods, instead 🙂

monterey aquarium

If you’re in this part of the world, it’s definitely also worth a drive up to Monterey to see the aquarium, which is quite rightly world famous. The sea otters and penguins were my favourite exhibits, but Flea loved the sharks (of course) and the touch pools, where kids can meet a variety of gross small things that live in water, and passionate volunteers explain the science stuff. I also loved the auditorium, which runs a series of 15-minute expert talks on various topics – we learned a LOT about sharks and otters during our visit.

It’s very busy here, to be sure, so I’d aim to be there early morning if you can – then head to nearby Cannery Row for some local fish for lunch – although that felt a bit wrong after seeing all the swimming fishes…

From Big Sur, we spent yesterday making the 8-hour drive down Highway One to Santa Barbara and the second half of our summer adventure.

We hope you enjoyed our recommendations of things to do in Big Sur on a California Road Trip. Don’t miss our other posts:

What to do in San Francisco 

What to do in San Diego 

What to do in Santa Barbara 

California Road Trip suggested itinerary 


8 thoughts on “California Road Trip: Big Sur”

  1. I’ve been fascinated by Big Sur since first reading Kerouac years ago and was so disappointed not to have time to visit on a trip to California some years ago. It looks brilliant – that picture perfect cabin in the woods, the rope swing, the being forced to slow down…. It’s still on my list after reading this! Also – Flea looks like she’s somehow growing up before our eyes this summer. What an amazing experience for you both this trip is.

  2. That looks beyond amazing. It’s my dream to take one summer to do an epic American road trip with the kids. What fantastic memories for them.

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