How to Plan the Ultimate Coastal California Road Trip-1

How to Plan the Ultimate Coastal California Road Trip

Let Los Angeles and San Francisco serve as bookends for a leisurely drive on the Golden State's famous Pacific Coast Highway.

Few experiences are as quintessential of California as a drive along the Pacific Coast Highway. Iconic Highway 1 winds along atop stunning bluffs with panoramic ocean views, passes by several wine regions, famous beaches, and charming towns, plus there’s dozens of worthy detours if you want to extend your trip. And while a massive mudslide closed part of the route for more than a year, it’s newly reopened and more than ready for travelers.  

Ready to hit the road? Set aside 7-10 days, and you’ll have plenty of time to make your way up or down Cali’s beautiful coast. We suggest starting your California road trip in either Los Angeles or San Francisco, as either are convenient spots to book flights and cars, plus make lively destinations themselves. And should you drive north to south, or south to north? There’s benefits to either—for example, the north to south route puts your car on the ocean side of the road with an unobstructed view—but we actually prefer starting in LA and then spending a few relaxing days in Napa Valley post-trip. No matter which direction you choose, here’s where to stop, eat, shop, and gawk along the way.

Start Your Trip in Los Angeles

The only trick to starting your trip from LA is that you may not want to leave. If you have extra time, explore the city before you hit the road. Check out interior designer Leura Fine of Laurel & Wolf’s excellent guide to a perfect weekend in the city, nibble your way through the gourmet sweet shops of Beverly Hills, or find out what’s new in Malibu’s shopping scene. And on your way out of town, make sure to stop by Malibu Farm, one of the area’s best farm-to-table restaurants, located on the iconic Malibu Pier. And if you’re looking for a place to stay, celebrity interior designer Kelly Wearstler’s stunning new beach home on Malibu’s Carbon Beach is one of the finest.

Downtown Los Angeles, seen from the hills as you head north out of the city.

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Make Santa Barbara Your First Stop

Just a few hours north of Los Angeles lies the historic Spanish colonial-lined city of Santa Barbara, known for white sand beaches that are so beautiful that they’ve earned the area’s the nickname of “the American Riviera.” Do spend some time lingering along the flawless shorelines, but there’s plenty more to do in this West Coast gem. Spend an afternoon walking (and imbibing) on S.B.’s famous Urban Wine Trail, a consortium of 28 local vineyards’ tasting rooms all within walking distance of each other. Pick a restaurant within the city’s happenin’ arts district “The Funk Zone”—you can’t go wrong at spots like Lucky Penny or The Lark. For shopping, walkable State Street is the place to be. And of course, pull out your camera at Sterns Wharf, the city’s most visited landmark.

Picturesque Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara is the city’s most-visited landmark.

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Explore the towns of the Santa Ynez Valley

Solvang, known as “Little Denmark” boasts a downtown filled with windmills and Danish-style buildings.

Six charming towns are closely clustered together in the picturesque Santa Ynez Valley, and it’s well-worth at least a day of your trip (or more) to wander them all. There’s teeny, rural Ballard, bustling Buellton, the vintage western town of Los Alamos, artsy Los Olivos, historic Santa Ynez, and the unique little Denmark of America, Solvang. If you’re short on time or would rather spend more of your day outside your car than in, center your explorations around Los Alamos and Solvang, and—depending on which route you take—stop by Buellton or Los Olivos as you pass through. In Solveng, after gawking at the quaint windmills and vintage Scandinavian buildings, make your way to casual Bacon & Brine, an eatery operating out of an adorable cottage that serves sandwiches and salads made with local produce and pork from heritage pigs on nearby farms. In Los Alamos, navigate to Bob’s Well Bread, an artisanal bakery located in a renovated gas station that’s headed up a onetime Sony Pictures Television marketing exec.

Don’t Miss San Luis Obispo

As you pick back up on driving the Pacific Coast Highway, you’ll notice is veers away from the coast as you head north, winding around the mountains and Montaña de Oro State Park (an excellent detour if you can spare the time). Otherwise, your next stop should be eclectic city of San Luis Obispo, a.k.a., SLO town. If you happen to roll into town on a Thursday evening, get ready to party. Each Thursday is SLO’s weekly farmer’s market downtown on Higuera Street, rich with food, culture, music and people. And any day, there’s plenty of outdoor activities—hiking and biking especially—plus restaurants, coffee shops, wineries and breweries year-round. Stop into only-in-SLO local favorites like SLO Brew for exceptional beers, nachos, and burgers; Scout Coffee for excellent java; Sidecar Cocktail Co for sophisticated craft cocktails; and Novo Restaurant Lounge for dinner (be sure to request a table outside on the expansive deck).

Just outside of the vibrant town of San Luis Obispo lies a beautiful countryside of rolling hills.

Spend Plenty of Time in Big Sur

Ahh, Big Sur. This wild, windswept, and rugged coastline is at the heart of most California coastal road trips, and widely considered one of the most beautiful places on California’s coastline. The drive becomes ultra-dramatic here, snaking around cliffs with views that go deep into the surrounding ravines and out to the Pacific. Keep your camera firmly in your hand—you’ll need it regularly, trust us—and prepare to pull over a lot to simply gawk at the incredible scenery. Make one of your destinations Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, and strap on hiking boots for any of its superb hikes. Or, at least stroll the easy path to an overlook for McWay Falls, an 80-foot waterfall that gushes directly into the ocean. Hungry? Stop at longtime favorite Nepenthe restaurant, when you can down a burger while perched at a dizzying height overlooking the stunning landscape. And as you continue north, stop to take a photo of the iconic Bixby Bridge, the open-spandrel arch bridge you may have seen in a thousand car commercials. You won’t be the only one snapping away, but that’s okay—it’s a sight that’s famous for a reason, and a view that’s truly magnificent.

The drive alongside Big Sur’s rugged coastline is one of the most dramatic parts of a California road trip.

Be Charmed in Carmel-by-the-Sea and Monterey

At just one-square-mile, Carmel-by-the-Sea is Monterey County’s teeniest village. But you’ll be surprised at what this European-style town packs in. Make a stroll down the town’s nerve center of Ocean Avenue your first move, and pop into the dozens of specialty boutiques plus designer shops like Tiffany’s. From there, wander down to tranquil Carmel Beach. The other must in the area? Be sure to experience some of the town’s wine tasting rooms–there’s been a recent boom that’s resulted in dozens opening all nearby. We say, start at Wrath Wines or Hahn Family Wines both located in Carmel Plaza. And just 12 minutes away lies the lively city of Monterey, home to the famed Monterey Bay Aquarium. It’s one of the largest of its kind anywhere in the world, and should definitely be on your road trip hit list. Another for the list? Taking a whale-watching cruise. Humpback, blue whale, and orca season runs from around April 1st through mid–December, and sometimes these amazing marine creature get very close to boats. Wrap up a visit to the area with a Parisian-worthy cannelé from Parker Lusseau Pastries, a beloved town bakery helmed by a French expat.

A humpback whale flips its tail in Monterey Bay, a city known for frequent whale sightings

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End Your Trip in San Francisco—or Better Yet, the Napa Valley

Continue to hug the coastline on Highway 1 as you motor toward San Francisco. You’ll pass dozens of cute coastal towns during the drive (definitely give yourself permission to pause your trip to explore at will!) but don’t miss stopping at lovely Half Moon Bay, just shy of Frisco’s city limits. Make your way to the sea-creature-rich tide pools of the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, or take a romantic horseback ride right onto the beach courtesy of the aptly named Sea Horse Ranch. If you’re hungry, head to Sam’s Chowder House to try their lobster roll, which The Today Show once declared one of the five best sandwiches in America. Then, finally, head north to San Francisco proper. While the vibrant city itself is well-worth lingering in, we say, keep driving. End your trip clinking glasses of wine in nearby Napa Valley, about 40 minutes from the city. And once there, how do you choose exactly where to start tasting your way through the area’s 800-odd vineyards? Check out our must-visit Napa and Sonoma Valley winery guide for inspiration.

Finish your trip in the famous wine region of Napa Valley, sipping some of the region’s finest wine straight from the source.

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