Photography Guide to Big Sur Coastal Drive, California

At the end of 2012 as I was planning my first Big Sur coastal drive along California State Route 1 I was surprised at how little information I could find related to travel photography. I found plenty of reviews and recommendations on wine tasting tours or how to spend 3 days at Hearst Castle, but not much on how to plan a photography trip. So I decided to make my own photography guide. 

Photography Guide to Big Sur

On my first trip to Big Sur had to make all the discoveries on my own, and as result I missed many must-see destinations.

California Road Trip Bixby Bridge

California Road Trip: The Bixby Creek Bridge of Big Sur

What I realized after my first trip is that it requires serious planning to capture those iconic Big Sur photos.

The Big Sur coastal drive is unique in that for 300-350km you are presented with amazing views and photography opportunities every few hundred meters, and if you keep stopping at every vista point and every state park you will need a week to complete the trip.

After completing the coastal drive 3 times now I am confident I can create a visual guide listing the key places to visit and to photograph, with many of them hidden or not too obvious, and some just too beautiful to omit.

1. Montaña Oro State Park

big sur coast

Montaña Oro State Park

Location: 35.2974, -120.8688

One of the largest state parks in California, and as a result it offers an extensive variety of natural attractions, with rugged cliffs, endless sandy beaches, coastal plains, canyons, mountains, and breathtaking views of Morro Rock.

2. Spooner’s Cove

big surprise photography guide cliff

Spooner's Cove – Montana de Oro State Park,

Location: 35.27488, -120.8883

This spot, located just a few kilometers off the California Route 1, is one of those unexpected discoveries along the way. You make the wrong turn, or you get lost, and you have the chance to uncover some new, not very well known locations.

Going to Big Sur? Check out these 10 Best California Beaches You've Never Heard of

3. Morro Bay

morro creek beach

Morro Creek

Location: 35.3862, -120.8639

I love to visit the town of Morro Bay because of its main attraction, the 180-meter tall volcanic plug Morro Rock. The Rock is an amazing subject for your travel photos, and makes any composition distinctive and unique.

My favorite spot in Morro Bay is the Morro Creek beach. This beach is the perfect place for a picnic, where you can spend hours watching surfers riding the waves with the Rock serving as the backdrop.

4. Moonstone Beach

moonstone beach sunset

Sunset at Moonstone Beach

Location: 35.355, -121.721

This is where I normally stay for the night. I plan my schedule so I can check in to the motel an hour before sunset, and then I take only my tripod and camera and walk along Moonstone Drive as the sun sets. This spot serves as the final point of my sunset hike, and where I stay until the sun completely submerges into the ocean.

Going on a California Road Trip? You'll want to read: 10 Best Places to Camp in California


5. From Plains to the Mountains

California State Route 1 big sur photos

The California State Route 1 coastal drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco has 2 distinctive parts: one is flat with beautiful dune beaches and wide coastal plains; the other is mountainous with twisted roads and a picturesque shoreline.

Location: 35.7300, -121.3144

The Big Sur coastal drive has 2 distinctive parts: one is flat with beautiful dune beaches and wide coastal plains; the other is mountainous with twisted roads and a picturesque shoreline. This is the last stretch of the flat section just before entering the mountains, and the view serves as a preview to what awaits you over the next few hours. A perfect spot for taking pictures.

6. Ragged Point

big sur photography guide ragged point

Ragged Point, Big Sur

Location: 35.775716, -121.32746

This is the first vista point in the mountainous part of the coastal drive. After driving for hours on flat roads, enjoying views of open plains and endless dunes and beaches, the road finally hits the mountains. A few twists and turns later you reach Ragged Point. At this spot the view to the north is still obstructed by mountains and trees, but you can enjoy an open view to the south. Also, this is a great spot to observe whales and dolphins in the open ocean.

7. McWay Falls

Location: 36.15775, -121.67209

McWay Creek is located in the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, and is one of those places you MUST visit while driving along California State Route 1. The creek is famous for its 80-foot waterfall and beautiful sandy beach, which makes it an ideal place for travel photography.

An interesting fact: the beach itself is only few decades old. Before, it was a rocky shore, but after a massive landslide in 1985 that rendered State Route 1 unusable for a year the sand beach was born.

8. Pfeiffer Beach

big sur photography guide beach

Pfeiffer Beach

Location: 36.23815, -121.81489

This is a very special place. Probably the most beautiful beach of the drive, but at the same time its most secluded. To get to the beach you have to drive 5km through mountains on a one-lane road. If you drive during the high season it can be a long and challenging adventure. This is a good place to spend some extra time and have a picnic with a breathtaking view.

9. Bixby Bridge

big sur photography guide fog

Bixy Bridge

Location: 36.35747, -121.90265

It is impossible to miss the iconic Bixby Bridge since there is no way around it. You will find a decent size parking lot next to the bridge, but it does not look that impressive at close distance. The best view of the bridge is from a vista point that is around 2km south of the bridge.

10. Little Sur River Beach

Little Sur River Beach

Little Sur River Beach

Location: 36.331944, -121.889722

This is one of my favorite spots of the drive. It’s located where the Little Sur River empties into the Pacific Ocean, just a few miles from Carmel and Monterey. Even though it is a fenced private beach and there is no parking around it is worth stopping on the side of the road even if only for a few minutes.

11. Garrapata State Park

big sur photography guide waves

Garappata State Park, Big Sur

Location: 36.45381, -121.92597

Garrapata is located only 10km from the end of the drive (as you drive from south to north) and this is another don’t-miss destination along the drive. Due to the undeveloped nature of the coastal part of the park, most of the tourists just drive past it without realizing that they missed one of the most beautiful coastal hikes.

You will need at least an hour at the park to complete the 3 km hike on top of the rugged coastal cliffs.

12. Point Lobos State Reserve

big sur photography guide trail

Point Lobos State Park

Location: 36.52185, -121.95099

If I had to choose only one location to visit between Los Angeles and San Francisco along the scenic coastal Highway 1 I would not hesitate with my choice: it would definitely be Point Lobos. It is like the crown jewel of the entire drive.

Point Lobos has several sections spread across a large area of the coast. On my first drive, due to my poor planning, I had only 2 hours to spend in the park and as result I missed most of it.

My advice for when you plan your Big Sur coastal drive; ideally, dedicate an entire day for exploring Point Lobos. It has an extensive network of hiking trails with most of them next to the ocean.

And if you are interested in photography, Point Lobos is the ultimate destination for seascapes.

Author Bio:

Viktor Elizarov is travel and landscape photographer based in Montreal (Canada).

Viktor runs blog dedicated to travel photography with the goal to discover and share the best travel photography destinations around the globe.

Be sure to sign up for his free newsletter for free tutorials and in-depth photo tips.

Connect with Viktor on social media to follow his adventures: Google Plus, Facebook and Twitter.

Read More:

The Ultimate San Francisco Photography Guide

72 Hours in San Francisco – A Local’s Guide to the City

Top 10 Best Places to Camp in California

10 of the Best Beaches in California You’ve Never Heard Of

USA Parks, Iconic Landscape Photos

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