I grew up along the sea. Open water bodies overlooking the horizon is my comfort zone. I can get lost in thinking about the unknown and watch the sunset every day of the week and never feel repetitive. This is what makes the Pacific Coast Highway one of my favorite drives of all time!
Starting off from San Francisco, we drove all the way to Santa Barbara and trust me when I say that this is one road trip you have to go on! It took us 3 days and multiple pitstops to reach Santa Barbara. Since we were on a vacation, we were in no rush to reach our destination. This post can get a little descriptive but I didn’t want to miss anything out! Here is my 12 stop road trip along Highway 1- South from San Francisco!
Things you will need: Great road trip music, trashy car food, lots of water, sunscreen, sunglasses, your best swimwear, a cap, slippers for the beach, beach mats, a frisbee maybe? Carry cash as some of the locations accept only cash.
Stop 1: SANTA CRUZ
From San Francisco, we first headed towards Monterey Bay taking a small stop at Santa Cruz (which is about a 1.5-hour drive from San Francisco).
Santa Cruz is easily my most visited beach along the coast. I end up coming here when I leave for long drives. There are so many festivities around the pier and it is a great distraction from the vast blue. There is always something fun happening at the beach and its great to sit back with a cold beverage on a warm day and soak in the sun.
Stop 2: MONTEREY BAY
The drive leading up to highway one is exciting as the roads give you slight peaks of the ocean without revealing its beauty too much. Monterey is about a 1.5-hour drive from Santa Cruz. This is a great place to stay for the night and enjoy the good food and wonderful beaches.
If you have the time, the aquarium in Monterey is really worth a visit. There are so many beaches on the highway and every beach has a bunch of people just having the time of their lives!
Stop 3: 17-MILE DRIVE
The 17-mile drive is.. you guessed it –> A 17-mile stretch of dramatic coastal cliffs, sandy white beaches, and mesmerizing forest land. To enter the drive, there is a small fee of $10.25 per vehicle. On an average people spend anywhere from 2-4 hours driving along this stretch.
There are about 21 points that you can cover within the park. I recommend crossing of at least these: 1. The Spanish Bay 2. Bird Rock 3. Cypress point lookout 4. The lone cypress and 5. Pebble Beach.
None of the photos I put up have any photoshop so you can imagine the raw beauty of nature. The 17-mile drive almost looks like a canvas painting by a renowned artist!
My favorite part of the drive is unquestionably the lone cypress tree point. The tree along with the rocks and the vast variation in the color of the ocean makes this too picturesque to be real.
Stop 4: CARMEL BY-THE-SEA
Start the day off early by heading over to Carmel by-the-sea. As you drive south, you slowly start driving closer to the ocean and the view just starts getting better by the mile.
If there is one beach you should spend hours on, its Carmel! The warm green-blue water is just the icing on the cake. There are hundreds of people with families and friends just soaking in the sun and having a great time.
The white sands you see in the photo above does no justice to just how irresistible and soft-to-touch sandy this beach really is!
If it’s as good a day as it was when we went, you won’t be able to find a parking spot for miles! If you plan on spending a few hours here (which I urge that you do) be sure to get here early to catch the best spot!
Stop 5: BIG SUR and BIXBY CREEK BRIDGE
Known for its graceful design and breathtaking placement, the Bixby Creek Bridge is one of the most popular unpopular bridges on Highway 1. The bridge acts as a gateway to the Pfeiffer Beach State Park.
Located about 30 min from Carmel, the Big Sur stretch of Highway 1 is the most pristine view of the west coast. It takes the word ‘artistic’ to another level. Being a global tourist destination, you will find people even in the most remote beaches trying to catch a wave or just enjoying the day with their kids. This can sometimes lead to traffic so be cautious of that.
(Quick Note: You might face connectivity issues on the highway so all the snapchat images won’t go up instantly.)
One of the most popular beaches on this stretch is the Pfeiffer Beach. The road to reach the beach is narrow and slightly hidden but the prize at the end of the tunnel is well worth it. It costs $10.00 to enter.
Stop 6: HEARST CASTLE
The Hearst Castle is a 3-hour drive from Big Sur. This national historic landmark was home to newspaper magnate Will Hearst. This castle is known for its grandeur and gorgeous sea facing view. The multiple indoor and outdoor swimming pools, the huge dining areas, the many and excessively large living rooms, the obnoxious bedrooms and garden areas are surreal. When you comprehend the fact that someone actually lived here, you wonder how extravagant their lifestyle must have been!
We spent about 2 hours exploring the vast lands and taking a tour of the castle.
Stop 7: LEFFINGWELL COVE
Leffingwell cove is a great place to take a night’s break. The cove has mesmerizing blue and green water and the calm waves are extremely therapeutic. I adore sunsets and watching the sunset over the Pacific was tranquil and serene!
Stop 8: MORRO BAY
Known for the famous Morro Rock, the Morro Bay is full of lagoons, birds and any number of hiking trails.
Stop 9: SAN LOUIS OBISPO
After driving along the coast for about 5 or 6 hours throughout the day, we took a 2-night halt at an Airbnb in San Louis Obispo. Rated one of the best places to live in the US, this place is great for complete relaxation and just going to the beach, cracking open a couple of beer bottles and having a good time with the company you are with.
Many hotels have ocean facing view and nothing screams vacation like waking up to the voice of birds chirping and the waves gushing.
Stop 10: PISMO BEACH
ATV riding on Pismo beach has become like a right of passage for tourists passing through here. Although it sounds a bit touristy, it is a lot of fun! Riding along the sand dunes in one of the buggies going as fast as you can and sometimes even tipping over will surely get your blood pumping.
We choose Sun Buggie Fun Rental (LINK) and they charged us $90.00 per person for 2 hours. Racing through the sand and getting kind of lost in the “desert” was a great way to spend the afternoon.
Stop 11: SOLVANG
The next day, we started our journey towards Santa Barbara taking a brief afternoon stop at Solvang.
If I had to describe this town, I’d call it the cutest little town along the west coast. It is known for its Danish-style architecture and wineries. There are a bunch of tiny mom and pop shops selling trinkets and artifacts here. I couldn’t resist but buy a bunch of souvenirs. It’s a great place to take a quick stop for lunch and get some amazing desserts! I highly recommend going to the Danish Mill Bakery and having the Aebleskiver. It will blow your mind!
Stop 12: SANTA BARBARA
Although Santa Barbara was our last stop and we were positively exhausted by the time we got here, we did save the best for the last! The calm waters, the blue infinite ocean, the gorgeous sunsets, the people, the food seems like an illusion. It feels like you are on a Hollywood movie set. There are great, affordable and wonderful hotels and Airbnb available here and I do recommend getting Mexican food.
There are so many more hikes and coves you can hit up throughout the drive like McWay falls and Point Lobos but I did my best to cover the top locations. I hope this serves as a good tool to organize your next trip to along the coast! Happy Traveling!