The Ultimate California Coast Road Trip Itinerary

The Ultimate California Coast Road Trip Itinerary

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Planning a California coast road trip?! You’re in the right place!  I’ve got loads of info for you!

A road trip down the California Coast on the Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1) is an unforgettable way to see so much of what the state has to offer.  From waterfalls and castles (yes, really), to spectacular beaches and theme parks, there’s absolutely no shortage of things to do on the California Coast.  Whether you’ve got a weekend or a few weeks to travel, you can fill your time with a wide array of California experiences.

Being one of the most scenic drives in the world (and rightfully so), I advise you to take your sweet time to really savor all the charming beauty of California.

Griffith Observatory in LA, California

I mean, just look at that view from Griffith Observatory in LA….

Recommended Route:  Note that you can drive directly from San Francisco to LA in roughly 6 hours, but this route (via Highway 101 and Highway 5) will take you inland, meaning you’ll miss out on so much of the Central Coast.  If you’re planning to drive round trip, I highly recommend that you drive South down the coast via Highway 1 – the Pacific Coast Highway, and then venture back up North via Highway 5 and Highway 101.  You can drive either way (from SF to LA/San Diego -or- LA/San Diego to SF), but I prefer driving South, starting in the SF Bay Area and making my way down to LA/SD.  Pssst: the views are better this way as the car will be closer to the water. 😉

lands end hike san francisco

When to Go: Keep in mind that the summer months (June, July, and August) are usually rather foggy in San Francisco and down the California coast.  Because of this, some mornings will be pretty damp and misty.  For best weather and best chance of sunshine, plan for a road trip in either late September or October.  If summer is your only option, you may get lucky with clear skies, but don’t count on it.  However, with this in mind, the fog usually clears up by mid-morning/afternoon.  Normal summer temps are in the low-60’s to mid-70’s, so bring a jacket and reconsider that convertible!  “May Grey, June Gloom” is a real thing out here.

*All drive times are approximations.  Traffic can be heavy at some points along the drive, and you’ll likely be getting out of your car occasionally to take photos along the way.

Now let’s get this California coast road trip planning on it’s way!

California Coast Road Trip Itinerary:

1) Start in San Francisco

Ahhh, SF, my favorite city; although technically I’m biased because I chose to move to the city by the bay from NYC a few years ago.  😉 A few San Francisco must do’s include either walking or driving over the Golden Gate Bridge, wandering around Fisherman’s Wharf (and stuffing your face with an ice cream sundae at Ghirardelli’s), getting spooked at Alcatraz Island (go on the night tour!), relaxing with some coffee in Union Square, walking down twisty Lombard Street, and riding a cable car.  Get some great views at either Twin Peaks or the top of Coit Tower, check out the Painted Ladies, commonly known as the “Full House” houses, and nosh on some sourdough bread, fresh pasta in North Beach, and a burrito in the Mission District.

Beware, parking is not the greatest, and public transportation is somewhat lacking.  I recommend playing tourist and taking a full tour of the city instead of trying to do everything on your own.  (Find more suggested activities below photos.)  Or rent bikes, electric bikes (!!!), or even a really fun (and kind of cheesy) goCar if you’d prefer to fly solo.

Best Places to See (and Photograph) the Golden Gate Bridge >> a MUST do when visiting San Francisco! | www.apassionandapassport.com

A First Time Visitor's Guide to San Francisco >> what to do + where to eat, PLUS insider travel tips from a local | www.apassionandapassport.com

sea cliff san francisco

Read More about San Francisco:

A First Time Visitors Guide to San Francisco

The Ultimate San Francisco Food Bucket List

Hiking in San Francisco: A Coastal Walk through Lands’ End

Seven Spectacular Day Trips from San Francisco

Best Places to Photograph the Golden Gate Bridge

Recommended Tours in San Francisco

Alcatraz and San Francisco 72-Hour Hop-On Hop-Off

San Francisco 2 Hour Panoramic Night Tour

Half Day Golden Gate Catamaran Cruise + Alcatraz Visit

Champagne Brunch Cruise on San Francisco Bay

Redwoods and Wine Country: Napa and Sonoma Full-Day Tour

Golden Gate Bridge from the Air: Seaplane Tour

Where to Stay in San Francisco

Intercontinental San Francisco (up-scale luxury and fantastic restaurant)

Hotel Carlton (travel themed and around the block from Mr. Holmes Bakehouse)

2) Half Moon Bay (45 minutes from SF)

Your first official stop on your California coast road trip!  Say goodbye to the city and venture on over to Half Moon Bay, a cozy little seaside village right on the coast.  You could easily plan a full day’s worth of activities here, but I suggest spending either a morning or afternoon, unless you want to take the plunge and stay at the ever-so-beautiful Ritz Carlton.  A few must do’s: go for a stroll on one of the many beaches that dot this area of the coastline (my favorites: Poplar, Mavericks, and Miramar), wander around Half Moon Bay Main Street, walk the coastal trail, and indulge in a lobster roll from Sam’s Chowder House.

ritz carlton half moon bay

half moon bay guide

ritz carlton half moon bay

Read More about Half Moon Bay:

The Weekend Guide to Half Moon Bay

12 Reasons to Love the Ritz Carlton Half Moon Bay

3) Santa Cruz (1 hour from Half Moon Bay)

Drive a bit further on Highway 1 and you’ll reach Santa Cruz, where I suggest stopping for a few hours.  Walk on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, ride the Giant Dipper and/or the Ferris Wheel right on the beach, and stop for a snack or two (churros and funnel cake are my favorites).  Also, don’t miss the Mystery Spot, which I won’t give away for obvious reasons, and make sure you try Marianne’s before heading out (the absolute BEST ice cream in the area).

Santa Cruz California

Read More about Santa Cruz:

15+ Things to do in Santa Cruz

4) Monterey/Carmel-by-the-Sea (45 minutes from Santa Cruz)

California is just full of sweet little seaside towns, and this area, despite being rather touristy, is definitely one to stop at.  Monterey and Carmel are only a few miles apart, and I highly suggest spending the night in either of these towns (Monterey being the more affordable option) while on your California coast road trip.

Carmel California Coast Road Trip

Carmel California Coast Road Trip

Carmel California Coast Road Trip

A few recommended activities and bites: bundle up on a whale watching tour, indulge in clam chowder at Old Fisherman’s wharf, walk around Cannery Row, spend a few hours at the Monterey Bay Aquarium (included in the San Francisco CityPASS if you’ve gotten it previously), walk around the charming little town of Carmel, watch the sunset at Carmel Beach Park, and stop at the viewpoints along the 17 Mile Drive.  On our most recent visit, I couldn’t stop raving about the food, with my favorites being the Monterey Crepe Company, Red’s Donuts, and The Poke Lab.  I really should make an-depth guide to Monterey soon!

Read More about Monterey/Carmel:

Why I Want to Move to Carmel-by-the-Sea, California

Monterey and the 17 Mile Drive

Where to Stay in Monterey:

Hyatt Regency Monterey Hotel and Spa (located on a golf course!)

Holiday Inn Express Monterey-Cannery Row (wonderful location)

The Monterey Tides Hotel (right on the beach!)

5) Big Sur (50 minutes from Monterey)

Most people are surprised at how little “civilization” is around here – no traffic lights, strip malls, or banks.  It’s more of a state of mind rather than a specific point on a map, encompassing about 90 sunny Californian miles down the coast.  With this being said, plan to drive down the coast and consider setting up camp/hotel in another location, unless you want to fork over some big bucks for a luxury hotel.  I recommend everyone spend a bit of time in Big Sur on a California coast road trip (at least half a day)– it’s too remarkable to miss!

The 25 BEST Long Weekend Trips from San Francisco >> super helpful when planning weekend getaways! | www.apassionandapassport.com

big sur california winter

Big Sur California Coast Road Trip

You’ll be stopping on the side of the highway so many times you’ll lose count – the coast line is just that spectacular!  It’s known for its winding turns, seaside cliffs, and breathtaking views of the often misty coastline.  A few must-do’s here in Big Sur: see McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, wiggle your toes in purple sand at Pfeiffer Beach (yes, parts of it really are purple, I was surprised too…), marvel at the Bixby Creek Bridge, and check out all the views from Point Lobos.

Where to Stay in Big Sur (Super Duper Beautiful Luxury Spots)

Post Ranch Inn (cliff-top hotel with a gorgeous spa)

Ventana Inn (luxe wilderness resort, with lots of privacy)

Hyatt Carmel Highlands (overlooking Big Sur)

6) San Simeon (2 – 4 hours drive, depending on how many stops you make in Big Sur)

Did you think you’d be stopping at a castle on your California coast road trip?  When I first learned about Hearst Castle, I was mesmerized.  Being a historic landmark on the coast, tours do fill up in advance, so be sure to book your spot ahead of time.  First time visiting?  Sign up for the Grand Rooms Tour – and that’s exactly what you’ll see – plenty of spectacularly ornate rooms, plus lots of time to explore the absolutely stunning grounds.  Non-negotiable on any California Coast road trip, in my opinion.  Be sure to look out for the zebra on the side of the highway as you enter/leave.  Bizarre, opulent, and oddly satisfying.

California Coast Road Trip Itinerary! Everything you could ever wonder! Super informative post! Re-pinning for later - hope to get to California this summer!

California Coast Road Trip Itinerary! Everything you could ever wonder! Super informative post! Re-pinning for later - hope to get to California this summer!

California Coast Road Trip Itinerary! Everything you could ever wonder! Super informative post! Re-pinning for later - hope to get to California this summer!

And while you’re in the area, make sure to stop at Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, a popular spot to observe elephant seals with its own boardwalk and viewing areas.  The best times to visit the rookery are in late January, late April, and late October, but visits are encouraged year round.  Have you seen an elephant seal use their large, inflatable noses to make noise?  It’s pretty wild!

Recommended Tours in San Simeon

Hearst Castle Tour: First Time Visitors

7) San Luis Obispo/Pismo Beach (45 minutes from San Simeon)

Winos – you’re in luck.  This part of your California coast road trip (in Paso Robles) features over 100 wineries, and deciding which to visit is the hardest part!  The DAOU Vineyards gets constant praise, and with it’s wonderful wine, olive oil, and views, it’s hard to beat!  Looking to stretch your legs?  Opt for the Bluff Trail at Montaña de Oro State Park, a 3.4 mile round trip relatively flat path with (better-than-okay) ocean views.

Paso Robles California Coast Road Trip

Madonna Inn SLO California

If you’re thinking of stopping here for the night (or have had too much to drink…), consider staying at no other than the wildly famous Madonna Inn.  But be sure to save your breakfast appetite for SLO’s legendary Big Sky Café.  Oh, and there’s always beach time as well if the weather cooperates.

8) Solvang (1 hour from San Luis Obispo)

A bit in-land, but well worth the few miles off the highway.  This cute little area will feel as if you’ve been transplanted to a Danish village, with authentic Dutch bakeries and international cuisine.  Worth a quick pit stop, for the pastries alone (try the aebleskiver – pancake puffs). :-)   Stroll the village to spot Danish icons including the Little Mermaid Fountain, a handful of historic windmills, the giant red clog, and Round Tower.  There’s also two historic churches to check out, Old Mission Santa Ines and Bethania Lutheran.

Solvang California Coast Road Trip

9) Santa Barbara (45 minutes from Solvang)

An absolute must-stop on any California coast road trip!  Here in Santa Barbara – dubbed the American Riviera – you’ll find widespread beaches and a truly relaxed atmosphere.  Downtown you’ll find Mediterranean-style white stucco buildings with red-tile roofs, which accurately reflect the city’s Spanish colonial heritage.

California Coast Road Trip Itinerary! Everything you could ever wonder! Super informative post! Re-pinning for later - hope to get to California this summer!

California Coast Road Trip Itinerary! Everything you could ever wonder! Super informative post! Re-pinning for later - hope to get to California this summer!

California Coast Road Trip Itinerary! Everything you could ever wonder! Super informative post! Re-pinning for later - hope to get to California this summer!

Don’t miss Old Mission Santa Barbara, a historic church known for its beauty, a panoramic view of the city from the Clock Tower observation deck of the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, and the Santa Barbara Public Market.  Save some time for Stearn’s Wharf and then beach it up, you deserve it!  If you haven’t noticed by now, I’m all about that ice cream – satisfy your sweet tooth at McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams (worth the wait and then some).

Where to Stay in Santa Barbara:

Inn by the Harbor (romantic and Mediterranean two blocks from the waterfront)

Recommended Tours in Santa Barbara:

El Paseo Wine and Photo Tour

Santa Barbara Amazing Scavenger Hunt Adventure

Santa Barbara Funk Zone: Food and Photo Tour

10) Ventura for Channel Islands National Park (40 minutes from Santa Barbara)

Usually not very common on a ‘traditional’ California coast road trip, but I couldn’t leave this destination off the list.  In Ventura, be sure to check out Mission San Buenaventura, Olivas Adoble, and Oxnard Beach Part.  This vibrant town is the unexpected spot to make your way to Channel Islands National Park, located just off the coast via ferry, plane, or private boat.

Channel Islands National Park California Coast Road Trip

Take a break from the crazy urban life and go for a hike on the Channel Islands, literally!  The park is comprised of 5 islands and their surrounding mile of ocean, so it’s best to decide beforehand where and what to go/do.  Head to Inspiration Point on Anacapa Island for some of the best views of the National Park, and/or you can snorkel/dive/kayak in Landing Cove (Anacapa Island) or at Scorpion Anchorage (Santa Cruz Island).  If you’re on Santa Cruz Island, be sure to check out Cavern Point, which provides a spectacular view after a short hike.  You can even go whale watching around here!

FYI – there is NO transportation available on the islands – you have to either walk, kayak, or cruise around via private boat.  Bicycles are not allowed.  Plan a day trip here from Ventura to get your nature fix.

Recommended Channel Islands Tours

Channel Islands Full-Day Private Sailing Trip

11) Malibu (50 minutes from Ventura)

Just the name “Malibu” sounds exotic and beachy to me.  Here on your California coast road trip you’ll find wide stretches of beaches, celebrity homes, and The Getty Villa (which is said to be absolutely stunning).  But Malibu is more than just that, including stunning canyons, horse ranches, waterfront restaurants, acres of land, and lots and lots of hiking trails.

Getty Villa Malibu California Coast Road Trip

Malibu Pier California Coast Road Trip

A few spots not to miss: Paradise Cove (the only restaurant you can actually drink on the beach), Geoffrey’s Malibu for a wonderful lunch view (get some fresh seafood here!), Point Dume Beach (you’ll always see dolphins!), Malibu Pier, and wide and sandy Zuma Beach, known for its excellent surf.  Don’t leave without some gelato from Grom Gelateria, the absolute best of the best!

Recommended Tours in Malibu

Malibu Scenic Airplane Tour

12) Los Angeles/ Santa Monica (50 minutes from Malibu)

I highly suggest you spend at least 2-3 days here as there is just SO much to do.  You’ll want to divide your time between Downtown LA (DTLA) and Santa Monica/Venice Beach, with possible other stops to make as well.  In DTLA, I highly suggest the Broad Museum (FREE, but usually a long wait time), getting an egg sandwich at Eggslut, The Last Bookstore, macaroons at Bouttega Louie, and culture and snacks in Little Tokyo.

In Santa Monica and Venice, be sure to check out the Santa Monica Boardwalk (ride the ferris wheel and/or the coaster during sunset), Abbot Kinney Boulevard, Venice Canals, and the Venice Beach Boardwalk.  In addition, you can’t miss the Urban Lights exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)!  You’ll find pretty cool murals all around the area as well if that’s your type of thing (it most definitely is mine)!

Heading to Southern California soon? Make sure to check out these hot spots in LA, Santa Monica, and Venice, including the best food, murals, and museums! LA and Santa Monica are full of character and are super trendy!

Heading to Southern California soon? Make sure to check out these hot spots in LA, Santa Monica, and Venice, including the best food, murals, and museums! LA and Santa Monica are full of character and are super trendy!

Heading to Southern California soon? Make sure to check out these hot spots in LA, Santa Monica, and Venice, including the best food, murals, and museums! LA and Santa Monica are full of character and are super trendy!

Read More about Los Angeles/Santa Monica:

The Ultimate SoCal Guide: 25 “Very LA” Things to do in Los Angeles, California

The Perfect Way to Spend A Day (or Two) in LA

The Cool Girl’s Guide to LA: What to See, Do, Eat, and Enjoy

Where to Stay in Los Angeles/Santa Monica

The Orlando Hotel (middle of West Hollywood and lots of great Mexican nearby!)

HI Hostel (perfect for solo travelers, and around the block from the beach)

Recommended Tours in Los Angeles and Santa Monica

Malibu and Santa Monica Coast Airplane Tour

Los Angeles Sightseeing Hop-On-Hop-Off Bus Ticket

Hollywood Hills Hike

Los Angeles Luxury: Movie Stars’ Homes Tour

Los Angeles in One Day with All Sights

Los Angeles Hollywood Studio Tour: Warner Bros

LA Overview: Hollywood, Beverly Hills, and More

Downtown LA 2-Hour Segway Tour

13) Anaheim for Disneyland (45 minutes from LA)

Disney lovers will enjoy this spot for sure, but just for the record, Disneyland is not as large and/or “wow!!!!” as Disney World.  I had a Disney-fanatic-friend visit Disneyland a few months back and she was not impressed to say the least.  Save this stop if you’ve never been to the location in Florida, or if you can’t stand not to check it out for yourself.  Regardless, you’ll have a grand ol’ time on the rollercoasters and indulging in all things Mickey.

Mickey Balloons at Disneyland California Coast Road Trip

Recommended Attractions/Theme Parks in Anaheim:

*** I definitely recommend getting these tickets in advance

to by-pass any super-long lines + spend more time in the parks

Universal Studios Hollywood 1-Day Ticket with Options

Anaheim: Disneyland Resort 1-Day Entrance Ticket

14) Orange County: Huntington Beach/Newport Beach/Laguna Beach (35 minutes from Anaheim)

This stretch of coast is absolutely BEAUTIFUL and should not be missed if your itinerary has you driving down to San Diego (or even as an extra stop from the LA/Ahaheim area).  Here you’ll find manicured beach towns, a hell of a lot of beautiful people, and even more beautiful stretches of sand with mesmerizing sunsets.  The beaches are plentiful, but my favorites include Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, and Laguna Beach, all within a few miles of each other.  Don’t miss gelato at Gelato Paradiso and the views from Heisler Park and Dana Point.

laguna beach in february

laguna beach pier

You won’t want to skip “The OC” on your California coast road trip – I can promise you that!

Read More about Orange County/Southern California

My Birthday in Sunny Southern California

You could choose to venture even further south to San Diego, as theres lots and lots to do! Watch this space for updates and more information on California, including best things to do in San Diego as well!

Have you ever take a California coast road trip?!  Is taking a road trip down the Pacific Coast Highway on your bucket list?!

Photos via | Santa Cruz | Big Sur | Paso RoblesMadonna Inn | Solvang | Channel Islands NP | Getty VillaMalibu Pier | Disneyland |

// *THIS POST MAY CONTAIN AFFILIATE LINKS. This means that if you make a booking after clicking on one of these links, I may make a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks for the support and help keeping the site free of charge for everyone to enjoy!

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