Three Highway 1 beach pit stops from Monterey to San Simeon, CA

Some of the most beautiful coastline in the world exists on California’s Highway 1 between Monterey, CA and San Simeon, CA. Directly after Point Lobos State Natural Reserve in Monterey (definitely stop there before beginning your day), the way is windy and slow, but never fear: the California Highway 1 road trip is made to be savored with frequent pit stops, so even young passengers can handle the hours of car time. After making the drive with our three school-aged kids (ages 7, 10, and 12), I’ve compiled our favorite three beach pit stops on Highway 1.

pfeiffer beach

Pfeiffer Beach:

Shhh. This first beach, run by the national forest system, is a secret. Directly after the tiny town of Big Sur, CA, families have the opportunity to visit one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Ok, Pfeiffer may not quite be a secret, but it’s certainly not well known…or well advertised from the road or online. Here’s how you find it: right after Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, you’ll see a yellow ‘No RVs’ road sign on the right-hand side, next to a row of mailboxes. Turn right here onto a narrow, one-lane road. Almost immediately, you’ll see a sign that reads, ‘Pfeiffer Beach, 2 miles’. Continue two miles (you may have to stop occassionally to allow opposite traffic through) to a national forest booth, where you’ll pay a $5 per car fee. Parking is adjacent.

pfeiffer beach caves

Pfeiffer Beach is nestled between huge crags of cliffside past a lush grove of Cypress trees, and features several rock arches amid the crashing surf, a gentle stream through the sand into the water, and most interestingly, big patches of the world’s only (so they say) purple sand. The famed Pfeiffer Beach purple sand is made from erosion from the nearby cliffsides, and is quite cool to see. Also fun is the stream and climbing on the large rocks on the beach. Reserve at least an hour here!

purple sand at pfeiffer beach

Of important note: Very strong undertows exist at Pfieffer. The water is quite cold, so your kids probably won’t be tempted to swim, but even wading can be dangerous. It’s best to enjoy the beach but avoid swimming. If you’re still dubious, read the memorial displayed at the parking lot, and take heed to be safe!

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park:

Not to be confused with Pfieffer Beach, JPB State Park is located further south, at 47555 Highway 1. The state park offers a lovely cliffside trail from the parking lot through a tunnel under the highway to the site of Julia Pfeiffer Burn’s dear friend Helen Hooper Brown’s beachside home (which she later dedicated to Pfeiffer). From the terrace (all that remains of the home), families are rewarded with beautiful views of the beach below, including a waterfall to the sand. Though there’s no beach access here, a stop is definitely warranted. A side trail leads to a working water wheel, and kids enjoy going over the bridge to the Brown terrace. You probably won’t need more than 1/2 an hour here unless you also decide to picnic.

JPB state park waterfall

Elephant Seal Rookery:

After JPB State Park, the highway becomes even windier, but just when kids can’t stand it anymore, the way straightens out before San Simeon, CA. Right before the town proper is the Elephant Seal Rookery. Signs are well posted along Highway 1, but trust me, you couldn’t miss it if you tried: even from the car, kids can spot the hundreds upon hundreds of elephant seals on the sandy beach. There’s a large parking area and a path that spans the beach, but visitors cannot step onto the sand…this is the seals’ territory! Posted signs explain the rookery (seal nursery), and let visitors know what the seals are up to in various seasons. For instance, when we visited in May, the babies were juveniles, whereas March visitors would have seen newborns. While still at home, check out what’s happening via the elephant rookery live cam!

san simeon tide pools

Note: there are no bathrooms at the rookery! Luckily, San Simeon is only a few miles away.

Have you found a great Highway 1 stop between Monterey and San Simeon? Please share in the comments!