The drive from San Francisco to Solvang is 6 hours and 15 minutes with no stop. We probably took about 8+ hours with all the stops we made. My husband is a real trooper for working from 6 AM to 1 PM and then driving the whole way to Solvang. We didn’t get to our hotel until past midnight. I have been to California multiple times before but this was my first time seeing the Big Sur. Here is a list of all the stops we made along the drive down.
Before starting our drive from San Francisco, we grabbed a burrito from La Taqueria which is a must-try spot if you’re in SF. An hour into the drive, we decided to stop for gas and an In-N-Out burger & chocolate milkshake in Morgan Hills. It’s over 300+ miles from San Francisco to Solvang so you want to make sure you have enough gas. We saw some gas stations along the way but it was definitely pricey.
If you start the drive early in the morning unlike us then the first stop I would make is Old Fisherman Wharf. There are a bunch of restaurants and stores by the water. Yelp’s most reviewed restaurant is Old Fisherman’s Grotto which is known for its ‘Monterey Style’ Clam Chowder. You can check out other seafood restaurants like Hula’s Island Grill, Monterey’s Fish House, and Passionfish and brunch places like First Awakenings, Rosine’s Restaurant, and Red House Cafe.
The second stop I would make would be Carmel-by-the-Sea which is a dog-friendly small beach city with fairytale cottages, shops, and galleries. You can find a map and list of fairytale cottages on this blog. If you didn’t grab food at the first stop, Dametra Cafe is a Greek restaurant known for its Baklava, Greek Salad, Greek Style Lamb Shank, and Gyros plate in this town.
The third stop I would make is Point Lobos State Natural Reserve which is a beautiful scenic coastal area. There are multiple trails/lookout points that are worth checking out here including Whaler’s Knoll Lookout, Cypress Grove, Sea Lion Point, and Bird Island Lookout. You may spot seals all year round and whales in the winter if you’re lucky. Point Lobos also has 10 diving spots where you can swim through 70 ft high kelp forests and various coral reefs.
The fourth stop is to see and drive over Rocky Creek Bridge and Bixby Creek Bridge View Point.
If you watched ‘Big Little Lies’ as I did then you will recognize this arch Bixby Creek bridge in the show’s opening credits.
Bixby Creek Bridge, the most photographed bridge in California, was completed in 1932 for just over $200,000. Rocky Creek Bridge is a concrete arch bridge that was also built in 1932.
The fifth stop is the Keyhole Arch at Pfeiffer Beach. This is one of the most beautiful beaches in California because of its unique swirls of purple sand. The famous Keyhole Arch is the main attraction at this beach. The best chance of catching the sun setting through the keyhole rock formation is from mid-December till mid-January. There are also tide pools and sea caves that you can explore during low tide. This beach is not recommended for swimming because of the freezing water, jagged rocks, and strong current.
The sixth stop is a quick half-mile roundtrip trail at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park to see the famous McWay Falls.
The 80 ft tall waterfall that flows year-round into the Pacific Ocean is even more beautiful in person.
The trail can be accessed from the south parking lot and passes under the highway. I was really disappointed that I couldn’t go down and see it up close but this was worth stopping to see it.
The seventh stop is Gamboa Point. We were driving down this beautiful coastal area when the sun started setting.
There was a family set up with chairs and beers that were enjoying the sunset on the cliff. It was absolutely breathtaking and the photo doesn’t do it justice at all.
The eighth stop is Elephant Seal Vista Point where you can see endless elephant seals sleeping, swimming, and some fighting at the beach. This is a short 8-minute drive from Hearst Castle. The beautiful estate has a main house with 38 bedrooms and 42 bathrooms, a private theater, library, billiard room, the famous outdoor Neptune pool, and three guest houses. It’s currently closed but will open again for advanced tickets (Adult: 30 USD & Children: 15 USD).
Our final destination is Solvang which is known for its Danish-style architecture and bakeries offering authentic Danish treats. We stay overnight here so we can explore this cute Danish town during the day. We brought a bucket of their butter cookies. bear claw, kringle, and pistachios square. They were all so good and we wished we had brought more.
Garrapata State Park is known for its beach, waterfalls, wildflowers, and Calla Lily Valley (bloom in early spring).
Limekiln State Park is known for its beach, redwood forest, and 100-foot Limekiln Falls.
Old Fisherman’s Grotto ($$) – This family restaurant that opened in the 1950s is known for its ‘Monterey Style’ Clam Chowder (Cup: 9 USD/ Bread Bowl: 17 USD/ Garlic Butter Toasted Bread Bowl: 19 USD).
Hours: Sun to Thu: 11:00 AM to 9:00 PM/ Fri to Sat: 11:00 AM to 9:30 PM
Dametra Cafe ($$$) – This Greek restaurant is known for its Baklava (8 USD), Greek Salad (14.95 USD), Greek Style Lamb Shank (29.95 USD), and Gyros plate (15.95 USD).
Hours: Sun to Thu: 11:00 AM to 10:00 PM/ Fri to Sat: 11:00 AM to 11:00 PM
Splash Cafe ($$) – This cafe is known for its award-winning and world-famous clam chowder (In Famous Bread bowl: 9.95 USD).
Hours: Mon to Thu: 9:00 AM to 7:00 PM/ Fri to Sun: 9:00 AM to 8:00 PM
Firestone Grill ($$) – The sliced Tri-Tip & BBQ sauce on a toasted butter French roll is a favorite at this BBQ restaurant since 1995.
Hours: Mon to Sun: 11:00 AM to 9:00 PM
What Have I Learned: You want to start early if you plan to drive from San Francisco to Solvang in one day. However, I suggest staying over in Monterey so you have more time to explore all the different stops.
When did you go to Big Sur? Beginning of August 2021 (43 to 97 degrees)
What a fun trip! I loved Big Little Lies! lol
LikeLiked by 2 people
Me too! I can’t wait until next season.
LikeLiked by 2 people
Your post came at the absolute-perfect time, as I’m headed to Big Sur next month for my birthday! Granted, I’ll be going the opposite direction as you (coming from Los Angeles), but I seriously can’t wait! I’ve already bookmarked the big ones like McWay Falls, Pfeiffer Beach, and Bixby Creek Bridge, but thanks to your post, I’ll be tacking on Gamboa and Elephant Seal Vista Points along the way. Glad you had a fun time!
PS Do you by chance see when Hearst Castle will reopen? I checked its website, but it doesn’t give a definite date.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Happy Early Birthday! You’re going to have so much fun with all the different stops!
I only read that Hearst Castle will reopen early 2022/Spring 2022. It said advanced reservations will be required when it reopens. Hopefully it will reopen before you go!
LikeLiked by 2 people
Wow, so many amazing places and scenic lookouts along the way! Big Sur is a majestic stretch of land located off the famous Pacific Coast Highway. Bordered by the Santa Lucia Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, it offers unmatched scenic beauty and an eclectic vibe you can’t find anywhere else and that’s why I can’t wait to explore it one day. Thanks for sharing and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx
LikeLiked by 1 person