The Ultimate Pacific Coast Highway Adventure: Santa Barbara to Big Sur

santa barbara to big sur

Unlocking the siren song of a road trip from Santa Barbara to Big Sur isn’t just about miles covered, but lifestyles experienced. This epic Californian route encapsulates the essence of the American West Coast, from the golden-sand beaches of Santa Barbara to the rugged cliffs of Big Sur. Each curve of the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) offers a vista grander than the last, beckoning travelers with the promise of adventure and the allure of the unknown.

This blog post details the enchanting voyage from one iconic California coastal town to another and is tailor-made for the intrepid explorer yearning for a road less traveled, the desert dwellers thirsty for salt air, and the urbanite craving a break from the city grind. Here’s your comprehensive guide to squeezing the most out of this quintessentially Californian experience.

Santa Barbara: Where Spanish Flair Meets Pacific Breeze

The Spanish architecture that frames the beaches and back-roads of Santa Barbara sets the stage for a coastal experience unlike any other. If you’re looking to begin your PCH adventure in a town rich with history, culture, and charm, rest assured Santa Barbara is more than a mere jumping-off point; it’s a destination brimming with its own unique appeal.

Santa Barbara Attractions to Explore

  • The Santa Barbara Harbor & Wharf, where fresh seafood abounds and the sunsets are a feast for the eyes.
  • Stearns Wharf, a historic pier offering shopping, dining, and some of the best views in town.
  • The Santa Barbara Mission, a preserved piece of California’s Spanish colonial history.
  • State Street, a bustling thoroughfare featuring a bevy of boutiques, galleries, and eateries.

Santa Barbara Adventures

  • Santa Barbara Bike Tours beckon the adventurous with scenic ocean views and a laid-back pace that’s perfect for soaking in the sights.
  • Surfing at Rincon Point, a world-renowned surf spot that epitomizes the “California Dream” lifestyle.

Once you’ve indulged in Santa Barbara’s coastal opulence, it’s time to hit the road. The stretch of PCH between Santa Barbara and Big Sur is undoubtedly the crown jewel of California scenic highways — brimming with must-see stops every traveler should carve out time for.

The Drive from Santa Barbara to Gaviota

The PCH from Santa Barbara to Gaviota is a gentle introduction to the coastal highway, marked by rolling hills and glimpses of the Pacific Ocean. It’s also the perfect time to adjust to the leisurely pace of the drive — expect to spend a bit more time, as the vistas will have you pulling over for photo ops more often than not.

Notable Stops Along the Way

  • The Gaviota Wind Caves, a brief hike just off the highway that unveils stone-carved chambers with stunning views.
  • Gaviota State Beach, the quintessential Californian beach for a pre-road trip swim or picnic.

Gaviota to Refugio State Beach: Taste of California’s Best

Leaving Gaviota, you’ll soon find yourself at Refugio State Beach, a hot spot for camping, hiking, and beachcombing. The oil platform that stands sentinel out at sea is a stark reminder of Santa Barbara’s industrial pursuits as well as the region’s natural beauty that coexists with it. This dichotomy is part of what makes the area’s panoramas so compellingly unique.

Must-see Highlights

  • El Capitan State Beach: Renowned for its natural beauty, RV-friendly facilities, and camping beneath the stars.
  • Dos Pueblos Ranch: A preserved piece of local Rancho history with iconic views over the Pacific.

The Gateway to The Gaviota Coast

Beyond Refugio, the highway opens up to the Gaviota Coast, renowned for its scenic vistas, ecological significance, and public accessibility. Here, the distinction between land and sea becomes especially poignant, as inland peaks tumble down to sand beaches, stark and dramatically beautiful.

Discovery Points

  • Vandenberg Space Force Base: Often home to unannounced rocket launches, adding an otherworldly touch to the coastal atmosphere.
  • Point Conception: This prominent headland marks the division between the cold waters of the north and the more temperate south.

Lompoc: Worth a Stop

Lompoc often flies under the radar but is a worthy stop thanks to its renowned flower fields, historic murals, and craft beer scene. It’s a great spot to stretch your legs and sample a taste of local flavor before continuing your coastal odyssey.

Local Gems

  • La Purisima Mission State Park: A fully restored mission that offers a glimpse of early California life.
  • Lompoc Wine Ghetto: A must-visit for wine enthusiasts, offering a slew of tasting rooms in one convenient location.

The Rugged Charm of Jalama Beach

A slight detour from Santa Barbara’s standard PCH route, Jalama Beach is a remote and rugged haven for surfers, campers, and anyone looking to escape from it all. The reward for the extra miles is a pristine coastline and a world-class burger at the famed Jalama Beach Store.

Jalama Beach Essentials

  • Camping at Jalama Beach County Park: Unplug in spectacular surroundings and fall asleep to the soothing sound of waves.
  • Surfing: With a remote point break offering some of the best uncrowded waves in the region.

Solvang: A Slice of Denmark in California

Not far from the PCH, the charming town of Solvang offers a slice of Denmark in the Golden State. With its windmills and half-timbered houses, it’s a delightful detour that feels worlds away from your coastal route.

Top Picks

  • Solvang Walking Tour: Take a self-guided stroll through the town’s quaint streets, lined with unique shops and Danish bakeries.
  • Wine Tasting: The area around Solvang is home to some of Central California’s most celebrated wineries, offering a variety of tasting experiences.

Gearing Up for the Big Sur Stretch

The approach to Big Sur is a lesson in contrast. The expansive coastline gradually gives way to soaring cliffs, dark forests, and the untamed beauty for which Big Sur is renowned. This part of the drive offers some of the most dramatic panoramas on the entire trip, and each turn presents a fresh perspective that’s sure to take your breath away.

Notable Milestones

  • Arch Rock at Pfeiffer Beach: Keep an eye out for signs pointing to this hidden gem, where the Pacific shimmers through a natural rock arch.
  • The Bixby Bridge: One of the most iconic structures on the coast, offering an unrivaled vantage point over the Pacific.
  • Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park: Home to the famous McWay Falls and extensive hiking trails, this park encapsulates Big Sur’s majestic allure.

Making Memories in Monterey and Beyond

Your PCH adventure doesn’t end at Big Sur. Carry on to the historic town of Monterey, with its rich marine history, and end your epic road trip by drinking in the picturesque views of the wharf.

Unmissable Monterey Moments

  • Monterey Bay Aquarium: One of the most renowned aquariums in the world, offering an intimate look at the rich marine life of the bay.
  • Cannery Row: Once the center of the West Coast sardine-packing industry, today it’s a bustling waterfront district filled with shops, galleries, and eateries.
  • Whale Watching: Monterey Bay is a premier destination for whale watching, with opportunities to spot various species year-round.

Your Santa Barbara to Big Sur road trip is a snapshot of California’s coastal spirit, an amalgamation of history, nature, and discovery that’s as vast as the Pacific itself. While this post provides a detailed glimpse of what to expect, the true magic of this journey is in the surprises that await at every turn — so buckle up, hit the road, and prepare to be awed by the wild and wondrous offerings of the West Coast.

Overview – Monterey to Santa Barbara via Big Sur Guided Bike Tour

Cycling down the California coast from Monterey to Santa Barbara via Big Sur on a bike tour avoids much of the urban biking and the less scenic agricultural areas of longer bike tours down the California coast. The first part of a Monterey to Santa Barbara bike tour focuses on the hilly, but spectacular Big Sur coast, with its rugged coastline and towering redwoods. South of Big Sur, cycling through San Luis Obispo County and Santa Barbara County offers a diverse palette of marine wildlife viewing, historic missions, winery areas and surfers plying the waves of the Pacific Ocean off sandy beaches.

“Thanks for your thorough planning and support during our recent trip to the Central Coast of CA. As veterans of many, many cycling trips we can certainly attest that your service was top notch. You left nothing to chance and no detail was overlooked… You both were super.” Joyce and Harry Graham Solon, OH

  • Standard Itinerary
  • Alternate Itineraries
  • Adding Layover/Rest Days
  • Traffic, Road Conditions and Terrain
  • Overview Map
  • Start and End Tour Transportation

Standard Itinerary – Monterey to Santa Barbara

6 Days / 288 Total Miles / Daily Average = 48 Miles / Daily Range = 38-61 Miles

Day One – Monterey to Big Sur – 45 miles (elevation +2748/-2530 ft)

The Monterey to Santa Barbara bike tour begins with a side trip out to scenic 17 Mile Drive to experience the storied golf courses of Pebble Beach. You’ll continue through Carmel, enjoying its white sandy beach and beautiful mission. South of Carmel, you’ll enter the fabled Big Sur coastline, home to some of the most spectacular coastal scenery anywhere in the world. Here Highway One is often carved out of cliffs and ridges high above the Pacific Ocean with waves crashing below on rocky sea stacks. After crossing photogenic Bixby Bridge and climbing to Hurricane Point, today’s bike ride finishes a short distance inland among the redwoods in the town of Big Sur.

Day Two – Big Sur to Ragged Point – 49 miles (elevation +5043/-4941 ft)

Get ready for an epic full day of biking the Big Sur coast! Right off the bat you’ll tackle the biggest hill of the Monterey to Santa Barbara bike tour as you cycle above the Big Sur River past colorful cafes and more redwoods before descending back toward the ocean. Rugged and remote coastline dominates the rest of the day, with numerous state parks offering short hikes to waterfalls and panoramic views of the Pacific. After cycling a final set of hills, you’ll enjoy a well earned rest at the Ragged Point Inn, perched on a bluff high above ocean.

Day Three – Ragged Point to San Luis Obispo (SLO) – 61 miles (elevation +2228/-2313 ft)

After descending from Ragged Point the Monterey to Santa Barbara bike tour route features more forgiving terrain, but still encompasses expansive ocean views as you pass by historic Hearst Ranch and Hearst Castle and a colony of decidedly odd looking elephant seals (a must see stop!). South of Hearst Castle, you’ll bike through a series of small coastal towns, each with its own unique character. Cambria features numerous art galleries and restaurants, while Cayucos is focused its extensive beach and pier area as well as being a popular surfing location. Our bike tour route hugs the coast from Cayucos to Morro Bay, which is a fishing village with a scenic harbor area. The route from Morro Bay to SLO skirts the edge of Morro Bay National Estuary before cutting inland for some hilly, but very scenic cycling. San Luis Obispo (voted happiest town in North America!) features an historic mission and a vibrant, walkable downtown area

bicucle tour

Day Four – SLO to Santa Maria – 43 miles (elevation +1101/-1131 ft)

From SLO the Monterey to Santa Barbara bike tour route heads back to the coast. A short detour along a creekside bike path to the small resort town of Avila Beach beckons before cycling through Pismo Beach, another classic beach town. From Pismo Beach the route veers inland through rich farmland. Watch for artichokes and strawberries! The terrain south of Pismo Beach has some rolling hills, but levels out as you cycle through the sleepy town of Guadalupe before the short spin to Santa Maria.

Day Five – Santa Maria to Solvang – 38 miles (elevation +1931/-1662 ft)

Leaving Santa Maria on this Monterey to Santa Barbara bike tour, you’ll quickly find yourself in the idyllic vineyards of the Santa Ynez winery region. This is where the movie “Sideways” was filmed, often with actual staff from the winery tasting rooms. Tackling the hills at the south end of Foxen Canyon Road brings you to the tiny hamlet of Los Olivos and its numerous tasting rooms. From Los Olivos it’s a short spin along Alamo Pintado Road (or a rollicking climb and descent on Ballard Canyon Road) to the Danish-themed town of Solvang in the heart of the Santa Ynez wine country.

Day Six – Solvang to Santa Barbara – 52 miles (elevation +2472/-2965 ft)

The last day of this Monterey to Santa Barbara bike tour starts with a pleasing spin and climb through isolated country behind Solvang past Nojoqui Falls Park before you gain US 101 and bike over Gaviota Pass to get back to the coast. The coastal approach to Santa Barbara on US 101 is actually quite pleasant for cycling on a freeway and features expansive ocean views. As you near Santa Barbara, you’ll take the traditional Coast Bike Route through Hope Ranch and bike along the waterfront before ending the day among the palm trees and sandy beaches of Santa Barbara.

Alternate Itineraries

See below for ways to do the tour in fewer or more cycling days instead of the standard 6 day itinerary. It is also possible to add layovers days to make for an even more leisurely experience.


288 Total Miles / Daily Average = 58 miles / Daily Range = 45-71 miles

This is a somewhat more aggressive itinerary than the 6 day itinerary above. It feaures a ‘queen stage’ day of 71 gorgeous miles down the Big Sur coast from the town of Big Sur all the way to seaside village of Cambria. You also skip an overnight stay in the town of Santa Maria.


288 Total Miles / Daily Average = 41 miles / Daily Range = 30-52 miles

A more relaxed version of the standard 6 day itinerary. Slows down the pace for a really nice night at the classic beach town of Cayucos on the northern SLO County coast.

Adding Layover/Rest Days

Interesting layover days on our Monterey to Santa Barbara via Big Sur bike tour can be made in the following locations:

  • Big Sur. This is the best layover spot for hiking. Amazing coastal hikes as well as hikes into the redwoods are available at Andrew Molera State Park and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park;
  • Cambria. There is quite a selection of art galleries, fine restaurants and wine tasting available in Cambria. Hearst Castle is just a few miles north. Try kayaking in San Simeon Cove with Sea For Yourself. There are also numerous hiking trails in and around Cambria, including Hearst San Simeon State Park. To encompass a layover day in Cambria, you would either lengthen Day Two or cut Day Three in half;
  • San Luis Obispo (SLO). This diverse town offers plenty of galleries and restaurants in its award winning downtown area. The Edna Valley stretches south of town and offers numerous winery tasting rooms and great cycling;
  • Solvang. Located in the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley Wine Country, Solvang (or one of the towns close by) is the best place for a layover day if you want to experience wine country and/or do some cycling to wineries.

raffic, Road Conditions and Terrain

Traffic along the Monterey to Santa Barbara via Big Sur bike tour route is highly variable. Some stretches are on remote roads that have little to no traffic. Much of the cycling route is on Highway One, which has differing traffic volumes on different portions. Highway One also has highly variable shoulders with some stretches (especially through Big Sur coast) that have little to no shoulder. Summer tends to see the heaviest traffic on Highway One. Inexperienced cyclists or cyclists who have a low tolerance for riding with traffic have commented that the busier sections of Highway One during summer seemed hectic to them. More experienced cyclists seem less impacted by the traffic on Highway One. A small portion of the cycling tour is actually on freeways, but these sections always have a large shoulder, except for two very short stretches on the approach to Santa Barbara. However, motorists are used to seeing lots of cyclists along the route and are normally courteous. Cyclists doing the Monterey to Santa Barbara bike tour should be comfortable riding with traffic for portions of the tour.

The terrain for the Monterey to Santa Barbara via Big Sur bike tour route is also highly variable. Most days will have some combination of relatively level riding and some hill climbing. Most of the sustained climbs (i.e. 1/2 mile or longer) are of moderate steepness (5-8%) and there are no sustained climbs that average over 10%. The hilliest section for cyclists doing the Monterey to Santa Barbara bike tour is the 75 miles of Big Sur coast between Carmel and Ragged Point. There is very little level riding on this stretch of coast and the vast majority of the route is either climbing or descending. There are two climbs on the Big Sur coast that are just over 2 miles long and gain almost 1000 feet. Each day of the Monterey to Santa Barbara bike tour itinerary has the elevation gain and loss (in feet) listed. Cyclists contemplating doing the Monterey to Santa Barbara bike tour should be comfortable with riding hilly terrain.

Overview Map


Start and End Transportation

Monterey Peninsula

The Monterey Regional Airport (MRY) is very close to Monterey and is served by several major airlines. There are flights to Monterey from San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Denver. The nearest major airport to Monterey is San Jose (SJC). Monterey Airbus picks up at the San Jose airport (SJC) and drops off in downtown Monterey. Shuttle time is usually 1.5 hours. If you are flying into San Francisco (SFO), Monterey Airbus also picks up there and drops off in downtown Monterey. Shuttle time is usually 2-2.5 hours.

While it is possible take Amtrak to Monterey, the Amtrak route to Monterey usually involves a transfer to a bus in nearby Salinas.

If you are coming from southern California to Monterey before the bike tour, we can often offer a complimentary shuttle from SLO to Monterey the day the tour starts. It is often easier and cheaper to get to SLO from Los Angeles or Santa Barbara via Amtrak than it is to fly or take Amtrak from either Los Angeles or Santa Barbara to Monterey.

Santa Barbara Area

Similar to Monterey, Santa Barbara has a regional airport (SBA) served by several major airlines. There are non-stop flights to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, Seattle, Portland and Phoenix. The Santa Barbara Airbus offers transportation from several Santa Barbara area locations to Los Angeles International (LAX) as well. Shuttle time is usually 2-2.5 hours. Amtrak also offers train service from Santa Barbara to the Los Angeles area.

5 Captivating Facts About The Santa Barbara to Big Sur Journey

  1. Architectural Marvels: The drive from Santa Barbara to Big Sur showcases some of California’s most stunning architectural feats, including the iconic Bixby Bridge. Constructed in 1932, it’s one of the tallest single-span concrete bridges in the world and offers breathtaking views of the Pacific.
  2. Ecological Diversity: This coastal route traverses a range of ecosystems, from sandy beaches to rugged cliffs, dense forests, and kelp-laden waters, reflecting California’s rich biodiversity. The area is a habitat for numerous wildlife species, including sea otters, elephant seals, and monarch butterflies during their migration periods.
  3. Historical Richness: Along the way, travelers can explore California’s historical heritage, from Spanish missions like La Purisima Mission State Park in Lompoc to the Danish-American charm of Solvang, each telling a unique story of the region’s past.
  4. Astronomical Surprises: The drive offers unexpected encounters with the cosmos, notably near Vandenberg Space Force Base, where rocket launches light up the sky, providing a unique spectacle not commonly associated with a coastal road trip.
  5. Culinary Delights: The region is famous for its culinary diversity, offering everything from wine tasting in the Lompoc Wine Ghetto to the iconic Jalama Burger at Jalama Beach. These local flavors add a delicious dimension to the scenic voyage.

This stretch from Santa Barbara to Big Sur is not just a drive through coastal California; it’s an immersive experience into the heart of the state’s natural beauty, architectural ingenuity, historical depth, and gastronomic richness.