The Pacific Coast’s Highway 1 is a stunning coastline drive that should be done once in your life. From San Francisco to San Diego, there are many incredible places to stop that make what could be a 12 hour dive into a 12 day adventure.
Budgeting Note: To save time and experience more, we chose to rent our car in San Francisco and drop off in San Diego. This will cost you more money than picking up and dropping off in the same location.
Start out by taking a thrilling tour of Alcatraz. ‘The rock’ is very unique and has so much rich history. I highly recommend visiting! Remember to book your tickets in advance!
A short walk from the Alcatraz dock is Pier 39, San Fran’s Fisherman’s Warf. You can find street entertainers, museums, restaurants and elephant seals lounging in the sun. It’s a fun place to go, and you can find a pretty good bowl of clam chowder.
In the Russian Hill neighborhood between Hyde & Leavenworth you’ll find the famous Lombard St. It’s a scenic steep and winding street that rewards you with a great view at the top of the hill.
Spend some time walking around Presidio Park as you make your way to the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. There is a pretty lake with ducks and a gazebo, and lovely green space to hang out in.
Enjoy an afternoon in Golden Gate Park. It is huge and great to walk through and explore. You’ll find water features, green space and tons of trees. There is a pretty awesome kid’s area too with multiple different playgrounds.
On your way out, stop and visit the Tanner’s at the Painted Ladies if you have a place in your heart for the 90’s sitcom Full House. (This can be skipped if not).
Drive time to Santa Cruz – 1h 12min*
*On the way there are quite a few places you could choose to stop – Half Moon Bay, Año Nuevo State Park or Arroyo de los Frijoles Trail near Bean Hollow State Beach are all good options.
Take a step back into the 60’s and visit the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. See the oldest wooden rollercoaster and have fun playing games or hanging at the beach.
Watch surfers catch the waves at the Lighthouse Field State Beach. There is a path for you to take a nice scenic walk or bike ride. You can also get off the path a bit and hike over rocks to get some excellent pictures of the sunset.
A nearby town, Capitola, just a bit south of Santa Cruz is where I prefer to spend time. I love the small town feel, and this one has a lot to offer. Walk the main strip to see the local shops, and stop by Mr. Toots Coffee House for a relaxing afternoon and a good ‘cup of joe’. Then, head to the beach for some fun, and get a good view of the colorful houses that make up the village.
Drive time to Monterey 41 min
Monterey/Carmel by the Sea
In Monterey, walk around Cannery Row (called that because it used to be a sardine canning town), do some window shopping and have a bite to eat. After, there is a hidden spot just under the pier that is a good place to watch the waves crash in.
The main draw of Monterey/Carmel is to take the 17 mile scenic tour through Pebble beach. As of right now, the cost is $10.25 per vehicle (no motorcycles), and is worth every penny. We stopped about every 5 minutes to jump out of the car and take pictures because it is all so pretty. You get a map when you pay your admission which gives you a little bit of information about some of the sights along the way. One of my favorites was toward the end, The Lone Cypress. It’s over 250 years old and is so peaceful and beautiful.
Carmel is another small town, and another beautiful place to be. The Carmel Beach is a great place to hang out, and there are many places around town to get a bite to eat. We really enjoyed Bistro Beaujolais. I would also recommend staying at The Colonial Terrace.
If interested, about 7 miles south of Carmel you’ll come across Garrapata St Park which has some great hiking. I’d recommend Soberanes Point (gates 8-10). You’ll get a great view of the Pacific Ocean, and you just might see some sea lions, seals, and otters.
Drive time to Big Sur: 49 minutes*
*On your way, the Bixby Creek Bridge draws you in for a stop.
This is without a doubt one stop that you should not miss – it is a true treasure. You will get some of the most photogenic views and an impressive look at the St. Lucia Mountain Range. If you only have a little time, one of the best sights is in the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Here you’ll find the McWay Cove and Falls showcasing a swirl of turquoise blue water and an 80 ft. waterfall plunging into the Pacific. To get a true experience, it is definitely worth it to do some hiking. Staying for sunset is an absolutely breathtaking experience.
Drive time to San Simeon varies depending on where you leave Big Sur, roughly 1hr*
*Just before you hit San Simeon there is a good Elephant Seal Viewing Point
There is really not much to see in San Simeon except for the Hearst Castle, but it is undeniably worth it! The castle is so enchanting and offers luxury that I could only dream of. That being said, I would spend the whole day in Big Sur and drive into town for the castle tour at dusk, then head to Pismo in the morning.
*Note: We were lucky enough to go at Christmas time when the castle is ornately decorated. I would highly recommend going at this time!
Drive time to Pismo – 1h 4min
Enjoy a fun filled day at the beach and take part in some outdoor activities. You can do some hiking, swimming, surfing, fishing and more, but I would recommend renting an ATV at BJ’s and going to the Oceano Dunes. It is exhilarating and brings out your inner child.
Drive time to Santa Barbara the scenic route will take you about 2h 51min – we stopped in Lompoc to break the drive up a little bit
Start in the center of the action at Stern’s Warf. There is a lot to do, and it’s even fun just to walk the pier. There is a TI kiosk across the busy street that is very helpful and they can provide a map for you.
The Urban Wine Trail is a lot of fun and something I would recommend for wine lovers. You get to try all kinds of different wine at different and unique establishments. I’d plan to on parking your car and walking through the tour so that you don’t worry about how many drinks you’ve had.
Drive time to Santa Barbara: 1h 48 min
The iconic Santa Monica Pier does not disappoint (except for the parking fee). It is full of entertainment and has something fun for everyone. Rent a tandem bike (or just regular ones) and follow the path past a skate park, Muscle Beach all the way down to Venice Beach.
Drive time to LA: 29 minutes, but really depends on traffic
Walking the stars, seeing the Dolby Theater and getting a glimpse at the Hollywood Sign are all tourist attractions that after having done are not really worth doing (in my opinion). The hype and awe is better than the actual attraction. But, if you’re into that, and have a thing for the movies and celebrities, go for it. Instead, I’d take a hike to see the Hollywood sign up close. It can be a tough trek, but the view is worth it.
If you are into art, LA has some top notch museum – or so I hear. I did not experience these first hand, but I heard from others at our amazing B&B that the LACMA and Getty are worth your time.
LA is very diverse with a lot of culture, walk around downtown and explore the different neighborhoods. You’ll be enthralled by the different cultures you find. For a good bite to eat, or a sweet treat, I’d recommend Botegga Louie.
Drive time to Huntington Beach: 50 minutes
The draw here as the name states is the beach – hang out all day until sunset. If you’re going to splurge one night, the Hyatt was one of my favorite places to stay. We had an excellent dinner at their outdoor dining room by the fire pit. For a good breakfast, head to the Sugar Shack.
Drive time to San Diego: 1hr 39 min
A huge park and great place to spend an entire day is Balboa Park. It offers an enormous green space, beautiful gardens, a great zoo, restaurants, museums, and more. It is a great place to spend an entire day.
In the evening, stroll through the historic Gaslamp Quarter for 16 blocks of restaurants, bars, and entertainment. Be sure to try some local craft beer.
Unfortunately, I can’t recommend much more in San Diego due to a run in with a stomach bug for my husband. However, due to the queasy stomach, we found The Mixologie Juice Bar which was delicious!
And there you have it, a full itinerary for your Highway 1 road trip.
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Tags: California, Highway 1, Road Trip