With its cliff-hugging views of crashing waves and mind-boggling opportunities to explore outdoors, a road trip down California’s Big Sur Coast Highway and San Luis Obispo North Coast Byway to Morro Bay is an adventure-lover’s dream drive. National Geographic photographer Keith Ladzinski covered the 116-mile route in an all-new 2020 Subaru Outback, stopping frequently to capture images of adrenaline-pumping ways to play along the way.
Making the trip in the Outback—with its standard 32.5 cubic feet of cargo space and foldable rear seats (adding another 43.2 cubic feet)—gave Ladzinski ample room to stow all his gear inside. If you get inspired to follow his lead, prepare for any adventure by hauling bigger equipment like bikes, kayaks, and surfboards up top using the Outback’s standard roof rails with integrated crossbars.
The road trip kicks off on the northern end of the Big Sur coast at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. Hike to wave-carved coves and crevices to see seals basking on the rocks and watch for whales (from December to May). Make reservations in advance to go SCUBA diving, snorkeling, kayaking, or stand-up paddleboarding in the brisk Pacific waters.
South of Point Lobos is Big Sur’s famed Bixby Creek Bridge, one of the world’s highest single-span bridges at 260 feet. Drive across the span and back again for the jaw-dropping canyon and Pacific Ocean views. Then, if the weather is dry, rev up the adventure level by detouring inland on the less-traveled Old Coast Road.
Although the dirt road—the main route through Big Sur before the bridge opened in 1932—is rutted in places, the Outback’s 8.7 inches of ground clearance and Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive capability can handle the roughly 10-mile, rumbling ride. If the day’s weather and road conditions warrant even more rugged capability, engage X-MODE® (available only on Subaru vehicles) with a simple push of a button for maximum traction, stability, and control. Rejoin paved Highway 1 at Andrew Molera State Park, a local-favorite surf spot thanks to the offshore winds at the mouth of the Big Sur River. Hike down to the driftwood-dotted beach at low tide with your board or to scan the skies for the critically endangered California condor.
Next up is Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park where you can swim in the Big Sur River, bike on paved roads, and hike through redwoods to panoramic canyon and ocean views. For a backcountry trek, follow the park’s paved Big Sur River Gorge trail to the end, and then, wade in the river and scramble over the rocks. Extend the fun by pulling the roomy Outback into a tent site to camp overnight on or near the river. Or, go big and bunk in a cushy canyon or redwood glamping site at the nearby Ventana Big Sur resort.
Continue south into the heart of Big Sur for a short stop long on views: Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. The park’s easy Partington Cove Trail leads through a historic tunnel to a rocky overlook and the partially closed McWay Falls Overlook Trail gets you within sight of an 80-foot-tall waterfall.
At the southern end of the Big Sur Coast Highway, pull off at Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery. Located seven miles north of San Simeon, the rookery is one of the best places in the world to see northern elephant seals onshore. Peak viewing season is December to March when thousands of the ginormous creatures—some weighing up to 5,000 pounds—cover the beach.
From here continue south along the San Luis Obispo North Coast Byway for an action-packed grand finale in and around Morro Bay. Between its protected harbor waters, multiple state parks, and windswept beaches—including off-leash Toro Creek Dog Beach—Morro Bay is a natural launching pad for all sorts of outdoor sports.
Go mountain biking, hiking, and kayaking at unspoiled Morro Bay State Park. Rent kayaks and SUPs to paddle around the idyllic bay, watching for playful sea otters and sea lions as you go. Surf the sky on a tandem paragliding ride, or pull on a wetsuit to catch the cold, consistent waves at Morro Rock Beach, Cayucos State Beach, and Morro Strand State Beach. Before packing up the Outback to head home, gather around one of the fire pits near volcanic Morro Rock to watch the sunset over the Pacific.