The Perfect California Coast Road Trip Itinerary

The Perfect California Coast Road Trip Itinerary

A road trip along the California coast on Highway 1 is dreamy. From waterfalls to castles to redwood trees to beaches, there is never a shortage of stunning sights to behold!

We rationed this itinerary to fill a two week span. Depending on your interests, what you choose to fill your itinerary with and for how long may vary. But I feel that if you are wishing to go on an adventurous road trip, your interests should be pretty similar to mine i.e. enjoying nature, wildlife, ocean views, hiking, and let’s not forget wine! What’s not to love?

Wifi along the coast cuts in and out, so it is important to ensure you have hard copies of your maps and directions and are familiarized with your route beforehand. You can travel either direction, (from SF to LA or LA to SF), but I recommend driving south, starting in the SF Bay Area and making your way down to LA. The views are better this way as the car will be closer to the water!

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

When to go: Keep in mind that while San Francisco and the California coast is regularly foggy, the summer months are particularly foggy. Locals have named the fog, “Karl,” and it even has its own Instagram account! For the best chance of sunshine, plan for a road trip in either late September or October.

We traveled to the area in mid October and there were certainly foggy days, but they were balanced nicely with sunny days in between. Besides, do you really get the full San Francisco effect if you don’t embrace the fog?

1) Start in San Francisco

There is certainly an endless amount of things to do while exploring the vibrant city of San Francisco! If looking for inspiration of things to do in the city, please visit my list of recommended activities.

Fisherman’s Wharf

2) San Francisco – Muir Woods (40 min drive)

While traveling north to wine country, please do not miss a visit to Muir Woods. Walking beneath the gorgeous redwood trees is a very special experience, especially if you’re a nature lover like me!

Redwood Trees of Muir Woods

3) Muir Woods – Napa Valley (1 hr 40 min drive)

Napa Valley is obviously an absolute paradise for any wine lover. With countless wineries to choose from, it can become pretty overwhelming trying to narrow down the options. I highly recommend visiting V. Sattui – its relaxed atmosphere is perfect to kickback and enjoy an outdoor picnic! For a different, more regal experience, Castello di Armorosa is sure not to disappoint, especially if you’re a fan of medieval times.

My favourite, V. Sattui Winery

Castles and wine at Castello di Amorosa

4) Napa Valley – Yosemite NP (3 hr 40 min drive)

Hiking in Yosemite National Park was what I was looking forward to most while traveling through California. Unfortunately, weather was unseasonably and uncharacteristically poor, (I’m talking snowfall and ice!) Luck was just not on our side, and our experience was limited to the campsite solely. However, if weather was prime, I have no doubt we would have made some wonderful hiking memories here. I sincerely hope that is the case for you!

Valley of Yosemite National Park

5) Yosemite NP – Carmel & Monterey (3 hr 30 min drive)

Sunny skies and warm weather was such a warm welcome after the disappointing weather we experienced in Yosemite! The sweet little seaside towns of Monterey and Carmel-by-the-sea are only a few miles apart, and I highly suggest spending the night in either of these towns. For things to do in the area, driving the gorgeous 17-mile drive is a must!

Warning: do not place your belongings on the beach in this area, as tragedy may strike!

Beautiful views of the 17-mile drive

6) Monterey – Big Sur (50 min drive)

You’ll be stopping on the side of the highway so many times you’ll lose count – the coastal views are that spectacular! Known for its winding turns, seaside cliffs, and breathtaking views, the amount of scenic beauty is in abundance – an absolute photographer’s dream. I constantly asked my husband to pull over to take in all the stunning views. Luckily he enjoyed driving along the winding, twisting roads on the edge of the cliff . . . I’m happy to have been the passenger, myself.

Big Sur encompasses about 90 miles down the coast, and most people are surprised at how little “civilization” is around here – no traffic lights, malls, banks, etc. Big Sur is more of a state of mind, rather than a specific spot you can pinpoint on a map. 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!

I loved hiking the many trails and visiting the purple sand beach! For more suggestions of things to do in the area, here are the top 10 things I recommend!

Big Sur Coastal Views

7) Big Sur – San Simeon (2-4 hr drive)

The length of this stretch of the drive will vary depending on how many stops you make. If you’re like my husband and me, you will be stopping quite frequently as with each turn there is an incredible scenic viewpoint! Make sure to stop at Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, a popular spot to observe elephant seals. It’s very entertaining listening to the seals hoot and holler, and especially watch them waddle along the beach before face planting into the sand in fatigue. It certainly uses a lot of energy to waddle hundreds of blubbery pounds!

Elephant Seal Rookery

8) San Simeon – Santa Barbara (2 hr drive)

Santa Barbara is referred to as the “American Riviera.” In this town you’ll find widespread beaches and a truly relaxed atmosphere. While driving throughout the city, you’ll cruise past Mediterranean-style white stucco buildings with red-tile roofs, accurately reflecting the city’s Spanish colonial heritage. Santa Barbara was the perfect spot to have a lunch break before continuing on to chaotic Los Angeles traffic.

Views from Santa Barbara Boardwalk

9) Santa Barbara – LA/Santa Monica (2 hr drive)

We decided to stay in Santa Monica during our stay in Los Angeles. We were within steps from Santa Monica Beach. Our favourite excursion was visiting Griffith Park Observatory and biking along the boardwalk to Venice Beach. If you’re feeling adventurous, book a ferry and experience the interesting vibes of Catalina Island.

Due to the overwhelming amount of things to do in the area, please check out my list of recommended things to do in Los Angeles for first timers!

Biking in Santa Monica

There are so many route options you can embark upon for a road trip in California. This itinerary worked really well for us based on our interests: nature, hiking and wine! I hope this post has given you some inspiration and information of things that are not to be missed during your California coast road trip!

Author

My passion for capturing memories through the lens of my camera, my love for food and the joy I find in reflecting on my travel memories using a pen and paper results in a series of blog entries filled with warmth, pure happiness and inspiration. I hope to share a little bit of myself and my adventure of life with you.

32 comments

  • I have visited both San Francisco and Los Angeles, but I’ve never driven between the two cities. It sounds heavenly. Also, I didn’t realize how beautiful the coast is in Big Sur (I also thought it was a place, though!)

    Santa Monica is an amazing area and I want to return to there and Griffith Observatory. It’s been a really long time since I’ve visited.

    I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how much I also wan to go to see the redwoods. Beautiful photography, by the way!

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  • We were in San Francisco last month but we didnt really get the chance to get out of the city for the week (only to San Jose) but we are planning another trip and this time it will be stuff for outside the city. Love this post and giving me a few ideas, like the Muir Woods.

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  • When I lived in San Diego, I would often take weekends where I would drive up the PCH all the way to Orange county and even occassionally hitting Santa Barbara. However, I never made it past Ojai.
    The drive between Santa Barbara to San Fran looks perfect. I would love to see Yosemite, Big Sur, the Castello di Armorosa, & John Muir Forest areas. Love the contrast of the Northern California versus SoCal Pacific Coast Highways.

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  • I think dedicating two weeks to this route makes total sense, there’s so much to stop and enjoy, it would be a shame to rush it! San Francisco is one of my favourite US cities and I’d like to return some time to see the current food and drink scene in particular. The natural attractions (such as the state’s redwoods) are also a firm favourite for me and who could not love Yosemite? Your photos of the coast and towns along it remind me of my first trip as a teenager, lots of windswept photos of the beautiful shore and driftwood!

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  • Thank you for the walk down memory lane. A few years ago we did a 4 week down the Pacific coast. We started in Vancouver, Canada and finished in San Diego. But saw so many of the same spots. While we loved the sea lions in San Fran and Monterrey, the elephant seals on the way to San Sirmion provided hours of entertainment for us.

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  • I love this post because I know this coast so well. I’ve spent many, many summers in San Francisco when I was a kid. Reading this just brought back so many heartwarming memories.

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  • What a lovely setting for a road trip. The landscapes are simply breathtaking along the way. Walking beneath the huge Redwood trees must be in itself an experience to cherish. For nature lovers like us, this itself would be a fulfillment and everything else a bonus. The Big Sur is another aspect that immediately caught our attention.

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  • I love the drive down the coast of California and am lucky to have done it many times! I’ve been to most of the places you mentioned, but have never done the trip as slowly as I would like to. This is such an ideal itinerary to see the best of what the state has to offer. The Castello di Amorosa winery in Napa looks beautiful! I would love to stop there for a glass. I would also love to stay a night in Carmel-by-the-sea. Such a beautiful place! Big Sur is absolutely incredible too. Great advice!

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  • Great road trip itinerary route! I’ve started further north and finished in San Francisco instead of began there. Definitely head south. The water on the right-hand side makes it easier to see the views. Yosemite would be great to visit and who doesn’t love a bellowing sea lion?! 2 weeks is such a great amount of time for a trip like this. 1 week is never enough!

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  • That is definitely the perfect California coastal road trip itinerary! I have been to San Francisco, and we went to Muir Woods and Napa Valley but that’s it. I wish we could have extended our trip to Big Sur and seen Monterey and Yosemite on the way because they look absolutely breathtaking!

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  • Fabulous itinerary – it’s brought back so many memories – we loved this drive! We did it in revers, and then kept going – we went from San Diego to Alaska over 3 months, and such inspiring and incredible nature, cities, culture, there’s a really cool mix of things in this region. We totally stopped at Castello di Armorosa too – great minds must think alike! I think the Elephant Seals at the rookery were probably my favorite highlight though – such a unique experience to watch them … could have done without smelling them though LOL :D

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  • I only got a small taste of California when I took a coastal cruise there on the Ruby Princess! I was there for a friend’s wedding. We went to San Francisco, Monterey, San Diego, and LA. I can’t wait to go back to explore all the places in between. Beautiful!!

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  • We loved this road trip even if the weather wasn’t that good when we toured the highway 1! We did the same itinerary, included the Muir Woods, you’re so right when you say it’s a stop you can’t miss, such a beautiful forest!

    Reply

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