One of the most beautiful drives in the country! It's possible to visit Big Sur in a single day from Orange County although it will take the entire day and likely require two drivers. A better way is to take this route on your way to/from Monterey/San Francisco. This is something that absolutely has to be done by everyone who enjoys road trips and seeing the outdoors. Please note that there is no cell phone signal between San Simeon and Monterey and not many gas stations.
Up the coast
Gaviota State Park
An easy stop along the route that offers a relaxing, uncrowded beach and a cool train trestle. This state park features hiking trails and a natural hot springs which are great if you have the time for it. If you don't have that much time along this drive, it's still worth at least stopping by the beach to check it out. It's also a great place to star gaze since there's not much light pollution around.
This is a very unique hotel along your drive that is worth checking out. It's very cool to stay the night here as every room has a different theme. Even if you don't stay the night, you can stop by and check out the inside! Even the bathrooms are cool!
The town of Morro Bay makes for a great stop along the route and is great to stretch your legs. Drive to Morro Rock and take a walk to alone the harbor there and keep an eye out for sea otters which are typically seen right around there. This 581 ft tall rock is a volcanic plug, 1 of several in the area, it is home to many nesting birds like gulls, cormorants, and peregrine falcons.
Feel like having ice cream? Stop by Fosters Freeze!
Unofficially, the start of the beautiful Big Sur drive, many people drive right through here without stopping. To many people, it might seem that there's not much here, however, there are a few spots that are all worth checking out. As you drive through this area, you may spot Tule elk or zebras (yes, you read that right). If you take this drive during spring or early summer, everything will be very green and vibrant with flowers as well.
Stop by the elephant seal vista point which is right off the highway. Depending on the time of year, you may see thousands of elephant seals basking in the sun or you may even see males fighting for dominance. This is free but they do accept donations which help with conservation efforts. There is good signage for info and there are typically naturalists on site to answer questions.
Hearst Castle is an amazing museum that's worth checking out if you can spare a few hours to take a tour. Reservations are recommended.
San Simeon Pier is a great spot for a walk to stretch your legs. You can also walk out to San Simeon Point which offers a great view of the ocean and San Simeon Bay. If you're hungry for lunch, Hearst Ranch Winery is a great spot for sandwiches.
A prominent feature along the route, Piedras Blancas is not just a lighthouse, but a light station. This location was so remote when it began service in 1875 that living quarters needed to be on the property. A few families lived onsite to maintain and operate the light. The lighthouse was originally 100 ft. tall but earthquakes destroyed the upper half. In 1949, the damaged parts were removed and the lighthouse now sits at 70 ft. tall. This light station still operates for navigation but is automated. Now days, the only people there are docents who provide tours. It is worth doing a tour but they are only on certain days you must make reservations ahead of time. You can make a reservation here.
Salmon Creek Falls
A short hike to a 120 ft. multi-tiered waterfall. This doesn't take much time out of your drive since the trailhead is right along the road and it's only about a 1/4 mile hike. It's definitely worth checking out as there's not typically many people there and it's very peaceful. It can be tricky to find the trail so watch for a very small trailhead sign on the inland side of a large horseshoe bend.
Easily the most iconic sight along this entire route, McWay Falls is a must see! There are many people that drive right by it and not realize since you have to get out of your car and take a short walk to see the falls. This seems like something from a fairy tale but it's the real deal! While there is no access onto the beach (that would be amazing!), it's just as amazing to take in the view from the viewing area along the bluff. This waterfall flows year-round thanks to the moisture in the fog that waters the trees daily here. Check the sky while you're here too, you might see a California Condor fly over!
Of course there are many viewpoints all along the route and you've probably stopped at several before reaching this one, but this one offers a little more. This view point which is part of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park offers the chance to see California Condors soaring by and gray whales migrating by. Condors can be seen really anywhere in this area of Big Sur but this viewpoint has the best view looking up and down the coast along with a clear view of the sky. California Condors were on the verge of extinction until humans intervened and saved captive-bred and released them. The main rehab and release site is in the hills near here and you are likely to see them in this general area although you may have to be patient. They are the largest birds in North America and it takes a lot of energy for them to fly so most of the day, they just sit around. You might also see turkey vultures at this location so the way to differentiate them is by the white underneath the wings which vultures don't have. Condors are also tagged so you will likely notice the colored tag on both wings. If you stop by January through May, look down into the kelp beds below and you might see a gray whale swimming by. Gray whales will travel right up along the coast, sometimes just a few feet from shore so this vantage point offers a truly stunning view of them.
A hidden gem, this is a location that goes unnoticed by almost everyone passing by, this unmarked trail to Partington Cove takes you to a bench in a secluded cove. A pretty easy 1 mile total hike will get you away from the crowds that exist at some of the other more-known spots.
Built in 1932, this is one of the most photographed bridges in California. Bixby Bridge crosses over Bixby Creek and was the highest single-span arch bridge when it was constructed. You can stop and the small turnout adjacent to the bridge or drive up the dirt road to get a different vantage point.
Rocky Point Restaurant has the ultimate view while dining along the Big Sur Coast. Even if you're not dining, it's a great spot to stop and snap some photos looking down the coast towards Rocky Creek Bridge.
17 Mile Drive
A scenic 17 mile drive through a private community in Pebble Beach. This drive has a toll for non-residents and will take you along golf courses, mansions, and nice coastal views. The most notable sight is the Lone Cypress which makes a great photo spot.
While not considered a big city, Monterey is the first city you get to during this drive and marks the end of the Big Sur drive. Monterey has everything you'd want, grocery stores, gas stations, restaurants, beaches, hotels, and amazing whale watching. There is lots to see and do and you'll probably want to spend at least a day or two here. Monterey is most known for its amazing whale watching, the best in California. Take a trip with Monterey Bay Whale Watch. Also check out Monterey Bay Aquarium and Fishermans Wharf.