Pacific Coast Highway – Monterey to Big Sur 1-Day Family Travel Itinerary

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We recently had the pleasure of visiting the Central California Coast in Monterey County and it was absolutely stunning!! It’s a great trip for families with SO much to do in the area. You could stay just within the city of Monterey itself and find a bunch of fabulous things to do. But, when I realized how close we were to the very famous Big Sur area, I couldn’t resist a day trip!

Monterey to Big Sur Family Travel TripSince we were only there for a long weekend, we only had one day to explore the Pacific Coast Highway/Big Sur area. I wasn’t sure how much we’d realistically be able to do. But, we saw A LOT in one day and still felt like we had some time to really experience it. So, if you’re interested in exploring the Big Sur area from Monterey, here’s our itinerary to give you an idea of what’s doable in one day:

Leave Monterey just before 9am, head south on Highway 1. We stopped at one look-out point (there are MANY along the way). And, we also made a quick photo-opp stop for me at the famous Bixby Bridge.Bixby BridgeArrived at Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park just before 10am. We paid for our $10 Big Sur State Park Day pass and parked in the lot. From there, we did the ¼ mile walk (very easy trail) to McWay Falls. I highly HIGHLY recommend this – truly one of the prettiest places I’ve seen in the continental United States. It’s INCREDIBLY gorgeous! Though it’s not super thrilling for the kids, our boys were content to get out, look around a bit, pose for a picture, etc. McWay Falls Big SurThen, on the other side of the parking lot from the McWay Falls trail is the Ewoldsen trail. I do wiish we would have had more time to hike around here a little more, but even the ¼- ½ mile we went in was amazing. It was our first experience hiking among any kind of redwood trees and it was BEAUTIFUL – with a creek running through, GIANT trees – just breathtaking.Ewoldsen Trail Julia Pfeiffer State ParkRight when we started on the trail and the boys really caught their first glimpse, they got SO excited saying that it looked JUST like Endor (where the Ewoks live in Star Wars). Such a cool place! There were picnic tables on the trails on around the parking lot, as well as restrooms in the parking lot. So, it’s a perfect family stop. We spent just over an hour here, then left to head back north. McWay Canyon Big Sur State Park

Headed back North at about 11:15 am (for about 15-20 minutes), to Nepenthe Restaurant.

The restaurant opens at 11:30, so we arrived just about 5-10 minutes after opening (which was REALLY convenient because it gets busy FAST). Nepenthe is a famous Big Sur restaurant with sweeping scenic views, operating in the area since 1949!! It’s got a very cool vibe – sort of modern meets rustic. The outside seating was QUITE popular. But we had an inside window table and were still quite pleased with the beautiful view. The menu was fairly pricey (it’s not a cheap roadside stop). But, they do have a kids menu with kids cups, coloring pages, crayons, etc. So, it really was a nice family dining experience. Nepenthe Restaurant

Left Nepenthe around 1:00pm and headed just about 15-20 minutes up the road (continuing North) to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.

Because we already had the state park pass for the day, we were able to head right in and drove around a bit. We found the Colonial Tree (one of the biggest redwoods in that area at over 1,000 years old), which was really cool to see! Big Sur Colonial TreeThough there was an awesome river there, picnic tables, and hiking trails, it was less forested than we liked in that particular area. So, we headed back up to Big Sur Lodge (just outside of the state park parking area) for a little treat and some exploring there (where there are WAY more redwoods with a much dark, shadey, forest feel). There is a restaurant at the lodge, along with a cafe serving up snacks. By that point, no one could resist an ice cream cone. So, we had some ice cream and did a bit of the nature trail right in that area.Big Sur LodgeWe REALLY liked the area right around the lodge. It did have a different feel than the Ewoldsen trail at Julia Pfeiffer. But both were really cool in their own right. The kids really enjoyed walking around in this area too. All in all, we spent about 1.5 hours here. Pfeiffer Big Sur State ParkLeave Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park (3:00pm), continue north to Point Lobos State Reserve (about 30 minutes). The boys were able to get in a little nap on the way up and then we spent the rest of the day exploring the reserve. It’s HUGE and AMAZING!!! The $10 parks day pass gets you in here again too! So it’s GREAT bang for your buck hitting the 3 parks in one day.  Just know that parking can be an issue, especially in the lots for the popular spots (like Sea Lion Cove/ Cypress hike). Because of parking and timing (and walking distance with little ones, we never made it to the Cypress hike). We ended up finding parking at the south shore area. We hiked around there to Sea Lion Cove – along the way we spotted 5 harbor seals on the rocks and then a sea otter in the cove, plus sea lions on the rock in the distance. Point Lobos State ReserveWe then walked back to the car and the boys were dying for some beach time. The beach area here was VERY rocky – definitely not for playing in the water, but great for tidepooling and exploring! We all LOVED it, so much so that we even drove farther south down in the area and explored some other rocky beach areas – all with great tide pools! Tidepooling at Point LobosWe all LOVED exploring and seeing what creatures we could find! But it was getting late (and the park that day was closing at 7:00), so at about 6:20 we left that area to check out one last spot – Whaler’s Cove. Big Brother thought wanted to see if we could spot whales from there. As soon as we headed down that way though everyone forgot about whales, because from April – June is harbor seal pupping season and the cove is a natural birthing area for them. So, we saw no fewer than 5 mom & baby seal pairings. SO cute!!!!Some were lying on the beach relaxing and others were doing swimming lessons in the water. At one point, one of the baby seals was swimming no further than 5-feet away from us. Whaler's Cove Harbor SealsWhat an incredible experience!!! No one wanted to leave! We left the park right at 7:00 and headed back to our hotel area in Monterey, where we then headed for dinner at Old Fisherman’s Wharf (since Hotel Pacific where we were staying was just 2 blocks away).

It was certainly a busy and full day. But the kids did GREAT and it never felt like too long in the car. I think by breaking up the car time and exploring time, it really kept everyone interested and appeased. And, it even was good for some built-in nap time for the kids. So, we HIGHLY recommend doing this day trip if you’re the Monterey area! The stunning views and different natural wonders really should NOT be missed if you’re in the vicinity!

Have you done a drive on the Pacific Coast Highway? What was your favorite part?

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I’m Sara, a mom to three adorable boys living in the Arizona desert. As a former teacher, I love sharing my passions with others. So, have a look around for creative inspiration about cooking, creating, celebrating, traveling with kids, and more everyday mom endeavors!


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