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.
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!
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.
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!
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!
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!
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!
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.
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!
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!