Carmel-by-the-Sea is one of the most enchanting towns in all of California. Its candy-colored cottages look like they’ve been lifted from the pages of a European fairytale! As the name suggests, Carmel-by-the-Sea hugs the California coast with a perfect crescent of white sand beach. The area is so captivating you might never want to leave. But a drive along the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) from Carmel to Big Sur is too beautiful to pass up. With mountains on one side and a sheer drop to the brilliant blue ocean on the other, the route offers up one dramatic vista after another. It is abundantly clear why the PCH is considered one of the world’s most scenic driving routes! Thankfully, there are plenty of places to pull over and admire the view. Are you ready to take a Carmel to Big Sur road trip?
Carmel began as a Spanish mission in the 1770s. The mission, which consisted of a basilica and Franciscan monastery, remained relatively unchanged until the late 1880s when real estate developers caught on to the area’s potential. There was a rumor that the Southern Pacific Railroad was planning to build a station in Carmel, but this turned out not to be true. In 1892, a women-owned real estate company coined the name “Carmel-by-the-Sea” in their marketing materials. New homes were built and by the early 1900s a town had begun to take shape.
The idyllic coastal location was a beacon for artists, with bohemian writers and aspiring actors moving there from San Francisco and Los Angeles. Famous residents, past and present, include Clint Eastwood, Doris Day, Bette White, Jack London, Beverly Cleary, and Ansel Adams. Carmel’s storybook village facade dates to the 1920s when a resident built an elaborate Tudor cottage for his wife’s handmade doll business. The whimsical architecture was a hit with the artistic crowd and the cottage style took off.
The Carmel Mission Basilica looks much as it did when it was founded two and a half centuries ago by Saint Junipero Serra. The Catholic priest established nine of the 21 California missions on behalf of the Spanish government. (California didn’t become part of the United States until 1850.) These missions served as religious outposts where Franciscan friars could minister to the Native Americans and attempt to convert them to the Catholic faith. The Carmel mission is among the best preserved and the only one to retain its original bell tower and bell. Saint Junipero Serra is interred within the complex and his living quarters are now a museum.
What to See on a Carmel to Big Sur Road Trip
The Pacific Coast Highway is the longest state route in California. The 72-mile portion that runs through Big Sur is an official American National Scenic Byway. These are the most beautiful and often historically significant routes in the country. A Carmel to Big Sur road trip can take anywhere from one hour to five, depending on how many stops you make. Be sure to park only in the designated lots and follow all posted signs for safety. Here are three attractions you won’t want to miss.
Bixby Creek Bridge
Drive 15 miles south of Carmel and you’ll find one of the iconic sights of the PCH. Bixby Creek Bridge was erected in 1932 and remains one of the highest of its kind in the world. It spans a steep canyon, with pristine forest on one side and craggy cliffs on the other. Note that there is no pedestrian access to the bridge and the parking lot is often full. Turnoffs to the north and south of the bridge offer fantastic photo opportunities.
Point Sur Lighthouse
Continue five miles down the road and you’ll come across the Point Sur Lighthouse. It opened in 1889 and remains in operation to this day, though modern systems have replaced the lighthouse keepers who used to live there full time. The lighthouse sits atop a rocky peninsula that juts into the ocean. Even with the aid of its light, there have been at least 10 shipwrecks in the area. Both the lighthouse and the former Point Sur Naval Facility located nearby are open for guided tours. You can get details here.
The grand finale of a Big Sur road trip is McWay Falls. This natural waterfall drops onto a secluded beach some 80 feet below. During high tide, the waterfall flows directly into the ocean. McWay Falls are located within Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Julia Pfeiffer was an early pioneer of the area and the falls were a favorite spot. It’s an easy walk from the parking lot to a scenic overlook of McWay Falls. If you have more time, the park also features more strenuous hiking trails.
Are you ready to plan a Carmel to Big Sur road trip?
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Want more road trip inspiration? Check out my guide to driving up the coast of Croatia!