Some say that the West Coast is the best coast, and after a road trip down the California Coast on the Pacific Coast Highway, you’ll have to agree! It’s an incredible way to see so much of what California has to offer, and a trip down California Highway 1 is one of the most scenic drives in the world. From fantastic beaches to iconic boardwalks and fabulous cities, there is no shortage of great things to see and do. So, let’s hit the road and take the definitive California Coast Highway road trip.
Here are options that would suit a California Coast itinerary. Pick and choose the stops that suit your tastes and budget, and then figure out how much time you’ll spend at each along the way. If you have a week to devote to your trip, then this awesome selection will be sure to please any West Coast fan:
- San Francisco
- Santa Cruz
- Big Sur
- San Simeon
- Pismo Beach
- Santa Barbara
- Los Angeles/Santa Monica
- San Diego
When to go
If you plan your trip for June, July, or August then be prepared for damp, foggy mornings pretty much the whole way down the coast. The fog will clear by mid-morning/early afternoon, so you’ll still get plenty of chances to take in the beautiful scenery along the drive. For the best weather, aim for September or October. Even in the summer, temps are in the low-60’s to mid-’70s and also breezy, so bring a jacket!
The California Coast route
There’s no better place to start your road trip than San Francisco and the beautiful Golden Gate Park. A few must do’s include a drive over the Golden Gate Bridge, a seafood dinner at Fisherman’s Wharf, a spooky night trip to Alcatraz Island, walking down twisty Lombard Street, and a ride on San Fran’s iconic cable cars.
Drive 90 minutes south on Highway 1, and you’ll find the gorgeous city of Santa Cruz. This is a great pit stop, where you can walk the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, a spot that has an old-school American vibe. After a ride on the giant Ferris Wheel, you’ll feel like a kid again. Check out The Mystery Spot to see a collection of strange phenomena from the last 70 years and then head to the wharf for a great meal and some fantastic shopping. If you have time, you can go on a whale-watching cruise.
The next stop on our California Coast road trip is Monterey, an approx 60-minute drive from Santa Cruz. Here you can enjoy the Monterey Bay Aquarium, check out the stunning Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, have some clam chowder at the Old Fisherman’s Wharf, or head out on a whale-watching tour. You shouldn’t complete your California Coast road trip without driving the scenic “17 Mile Drive” where you can grab a snack at Carmel-by-the-Sea, a cute seaside village with shops, cafes, and restaurants.
A 50-minute drive from Monterey takes you out to Big Sur. Once you have crossed Bixby Bridge (one of the most photographed bridges on the West Coast, you’ll see why that Big Sur is a favourite. It’s a quaint small town that doesn’t have the hustle and bustle of malls, crowds, or traffic lights. After seeing the sights like Pfeiffer Beach and McWay Falls, stay the night at one of the small hotel cottages like the Big Sur River Inn, one of the first lodges in Big Sur.
After you have recharged your batteries in Bug Sur, head 2 hours south to the Hearst Castle in San Simeon. A tour of the castle is an unforgettable experience and if you sign up for the Grand Rooms tour of this Historic Landmark, you’ll see some of the most ornate rooms ever designed. Don’t forget to stroll the beautiful castle grounds. A quick stop at Moonstone Beach and the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery will round out a great day in San Simeon.
A one hour drive from San Simeon will get you to Pismo Beach and if you a wine lover, this is the stop for you. You’ll have dozens of wineries to choose from so deciding which one to visit is the hardest part! That’s why a full-day wine tasting tour is the answer. You can choose your own route in fabulous Paso Robles Wine Country. Stay a day or two, and enjoy all the great restaurants, and do some surfing and skydiving.
Santa Barbara (aka America’s Riviera) is next on our Cali Coast itinerary. You’ll find amazing beaches, Mediterranean-style white stucco buildings with red-tile roofs, and a laid-back feeling that will make you never want to leave. The food is nothing to sneeze at either. Check out the historic Santa Barbara Food Tasting Tour to get an authentic feel for Italian dishes, gourmet cheese, local wine, and handcrafted chocolates. Beer lovers can also get in on the action with the self-guided Santa Barbara Lagoon Loop Craft Beer Trail.
An hour down the road from Santa Barbara is Malibu, the perfect beach town. You’ll find vast stretches of pristine shoreline and of course, celebrity homes. But there’s more than beaches to enjoy during your stay in Malibu. You can explore spectacular canyons, visit expansive horse ranches, and set out on some incredible hiking trails. If you want to see dolphins frolicking in the surf then check out Point Dume Beach.
Los Angeles/Santa Monica
It’s worth staying 2 or 3 days in the greater LA area. There are so many fantastic things to do in Los Angles that you can easily run out of time before it’s time to get back on the road. A few highlights include the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Rodeo Drive, the Griffith Observatory, and Universal Studios Hollywood. You’ll want to save time to visit Santa Monica while you’re in the area. The Santa Monica Pier is a must-see as well the Venice Canals, and the Venice Beach Boardwalk.
Although not technically on the Pacific Coast Highway, Disney lovers should make a detour to Anaheim. Disneyland is magical and will not disappoint as you indulge in all things Mickey.
Around two hours drive from Anaheim will put you right in the middle of San Diego, the perfect place to end your California Coast road trip. Check out Balboa Park, explore the bustling downtown, and see the charm of Old Town for a whirlwind tour of this classic SoCal city. Then make your way up to the Cabrillo National Monument for incredible views of San Diego and the Bay.
Use the map below to find great places to stay for your trip. Use the top box to change your destination.
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- Hotels: Tripadvisor or booking.com
- Activities and Tours: GetYourGuide or Viator
- Flights: Search via KIWI
- Transport: RentalCars (Car Rental)
- Airport Transfers: HolidayTaxis or WelcomePickups
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