If you've come across this blog, you've probably searched a ton of sites looking for guides to traveling the beautiful coast of California and recommendations. I have completed this drive from LA to San Fran several times. I'll detail all the highlights of a 3-4 day trip and recommended stops, lodging, food, sights, and more.
Regardless of what you do, driving the coast of California will forever change your life and will show you a new beauty unlike anything I've seen anywhere else in the world. Its captured my heart and I am confident it will do the same for you. So buckle up, and get ready for a ride of a lifetime along the PCH 1.
"Driving the coast of California
I have family in LA, so I spent the weekend with them up at Big Bear right on the water. For $60 a night, and being right on the lake, our lodge couldn't have been more perfect. We docked the Jet ski right next to the hotel rooms. Spend the afternoon riding and relaxing, while going off-roading in the evening. We spent the majority of the next day mountain biking. My cousins did have all the gear, but Christian (my significant other who joined me on this journey) and I had to rent full suspension bikes and helmets at a very reasonable price.
Start in Santa Monica
If you're not inclined to spend a few days in LA, make your way to Santa Monica to mark the start of your trip north. For some reason, I am always drawn to Santa Monica on all my visits to California as the landmark to the start of my journey. Spend a little bit of time exploring the pier. There's some cool shopping at the 3rd Street Promenade. Its all very typical and touristy, but still nice and beautiful. The beach is amazing, and you'll enjoy stopping in the area for a couple hours. I would recommend hitting the road early enough to have daylight through your trip to Santa Barbara.
The best part of this drive before getting to Santa Barbara is having a tent/RV, or air mattress, because there are a ton of 1st come first serve, cliff side rv/tent camping that's available. We wanted to stay one night, but we didn't have out camping gear yet. (We ended up buying an air mattress and putting it in the back of the Wrangle. It was perfect for the rest of the trip.)
#PROTIP: Pack Warm Layers
It will be colder than you expect. So pack a ton of sweaters and layers. Big bear was in the 80s in July and no rain at all. But as long as you're on the ocean, its going to be much colder than you would expect.
Journey to Santa Barbara
Expect this part of the drive, until you get closer to Big Sur, to be a little duller as far as scenic driving goes. There's not a lot to see on PCH1 in Malibu, so you can breeze right through. I hear there's an awesome restaurant right on the beach where you're served on the sand, you take off your shoes and you eat barefoot.
The best part of this drive overall is if you feel like stopping to take in the beauty, then stop. There's no pressure for time at all.
Once we got into Santa Barbara, it was around 5pm. The beach was beautiful, some clouds but not many. We are notorious for not booking lodging in advanced. Its part of the beauty of the adventure. Its also a big part of the stress. But we were so lucky to find a treasure, at the Inn at East Beach. Its just a block from the water. They serve locally baked pastries for breakfast that's included in your stay. And its also reasonably priced. The rooms are clean and modern. The manager/owner of the place was so kind to give us advice and show us around, and that made the biggest difference for Christian and I.
One big surprise I had was that most of our hotel rooms did not have air condition. I almost freaked out about that, while my husband, a native German, just rolls his eyes. "Stupid Americans". Surprisingly, the temps dropped so much in the night, so an open window is really all you need for a very comfortable night's rest.
We unpacked and strolled about a mile down the beach until we found a Mexican restaurant that was pretty good for atmosphere, average for food. I should also mention, I was in Mexico the month prior at a pretty high-end resort. We had all the Asian fusion and Italian restaurants our appetites could ever dream of. Not what you expect going to Mexico. But in California, I had the best Mexican food I have ever eaten in my life. So eat up while you're here. Its typically authentic and delicious.
Santa Barbara is a very classy town with a ton to see, including the Mission. Its one of the smaller one's I've seen but still worth the visit. And for $5 admission fee, its well worth it for the tour.
Ride the Dunes at Pismo
As you start to travel from Santa Barbara to Pismo, you'll be going inland for a while. Its still really pretty, with rolling hills around you, but you do get on the highway sometimes, so this part of the trip goes pretty quick.
If Santa Barbara is classy and quiet, Pismo is....well .... rugged, down to earth let's say, and dirty! In the best sense possible. You see lots of tattoos, dirt bikes, and off roading vehicles everywhere. You have more of the tattoo shops, and claims for "the world's best clam chowder." I tend to disagree with that statement, but hey, that's just me and I like my chowder a little soupier. Their stuff is more like a stew.
Since I admittedly, have a finer taste for food, we found a diamond in the roof on Yelp, that offered ocean side dining. This place was quite expensive but an amazing Latin American inspired menu with delicious martinis. Ventana Grill was perfect for a sunset dinner. Christian has their Asada, and he says its the best he ever had, even those he had in Mexico. I had several martinis that rocked my world (in addition to dinner that was also very tasty).
We were here on the eve of 4th of July. All the hotels were sold out, the campgrounds were packed and pretty much sold out too. We lucked out and got in at a campground for $30 a night. We set up our air mattress and we were good to go for the night. I slept really well. Christian got a little cold. But its because I had the sleeping bag. Otherwise, it was so comfortable.
In the morning, we went up on the Sand Dunes in the Wrangler, almost getting stuck a million times. These dunes are a MUST SEE on this trip. Its a natural phenomenon. The sand is so soft. And because its a holiday, it was totally packed with people on every off-roading vehicle you can imagine. Keep in mind, that you need to have a flag, so if you don't own one, they sell them right on the beach. And there's a ton of vehicle rentals too.
#PROTIP: Camp in Pismo
Save a ton of money! We found a last minute camp site for less than $10 for the night, roughing it in the back of our Wrangler.
Pack a Picnic
Christian and I went grocery shopping before leaving Santa Barbara, so we had food for breakfast and lunch. After leaving Pismo, and coming back towards the coast, we found this beautiful wild spot for lunch. We walked at least a half mile to the cliff side. We only saw one person walking by who was fishing further by the water. There were birds all around us, flying in groups and getting so close to us. It was majestic and peaceful. Its moment like that, which make this drive so amazing. Its a very popular drive, so you do see many people on PCH1, but there's a sense of isolation as well. You can easily find quiet stops where its just you and nature.
Hearst Castle, and the Sea Lions
As you continue to drive north, the ride will just get more breath taking with each passing mile. There are a few things you should do, if you've never been before.
You'll see signs to see the Sea Lions before getting to Hearst Castle. Its worth the stop. The sea lions are so cool to watch. The way they move, lay there, throw sand to keep cool, and wobble around. You'll probably spend about a half hour here before realizing you've seen all you need to see and you move on.
By the time Christian and I reached Hearst Castle, it was getting a little later in our day. If you've never done this, I would totally recommend taking a tour of the castle. There's a ton of people everywhere, but the bus ride up to the castle is very pretty. Since the next available tour was not until 4pm, we decided to opt out of taking the tour, and continuing our drive. Christian has never done this drive, so he had no idea how close we were to the best part of the whole trip.
We are so glad we did skip out on the castle tour, because we started to see the tiny winding road around the mountain, the smell of the crisp fresh air, the cliff side getting higher from the ocean, and evening fog setting in. I knew, we were finally making our way to the grandest part of the whole trip, Big Sur. We loved it so much here, we stayed for almost 3 days, part camping, and in part staying in the state lodges.
Photos will only do so much to describe the beauty and majesty that's found in Big Sur. This place will forever change you and will instantly renew your heart. At least, that's what it does to me every time. But I'm a sucker for beautiful nature.
Lodging and Things to See
If you're at all able to, you should pack a tent and make this a camping trip. There are so many beautiful cliff side options to camp on. And nothing beats waking up to the sound of the ocean, wind on your face, and the view looking out into the horizon. You'll be able to find first come first serve, cliff side option along PCH1.
Other great options are staying at the Big Sur Lodge. We learned that if you come later in the evening, they negotiate a better deal. One night, we drove in pretty late and asked for a room. All they had was a 2 bedroom cottage which typically goes for almost $500. We got it for $120.
Eating in Big Sur
As far as dining goes, you'll probably hear a lot of people say they ate at Nepenthe. The food is pretty good, and it does not get any better in terms of a spectacular view. They have both indoor and outdoor dining options. They also have a fire pit overlooking the ocean and cliffs, so its a great spot for just having a few drinks and hanging out. Pack a sweater, because it does tend to get chilly as the night goes on, depending on the time of year you're there.
There's a lot of hiking trails and beaches you can check out when you're there. Just ask anyone in the city, and they'll point you in the right direction. In particular, I want to make mention of Pfeiffer Beach. The road is unmarked so you have to pay attention to the side street to go down. Larger trailers can't get through, but most cars will have no problem. You will thank me for this later. I've posted photo above. It was really one of the most beautiful beaches I've seen the whole trip.
Carmel, Monterrey and Santa Cruz
The charming town of Carmel, once led by Mayor Clint Eastwood, is an upscale town, with quaint shopping and boutiques all over downtown, and a beautiful view of the water. Save yourself the money, and opt out of taking the 17-Mile drive. Its totally over rated. What you will find though, is a ton of cute shopping, beautiful hilly streets, and good eats. I did not stay the night here, but you can certainly find ways to spend your time.
We had a late lunch and kept driving up to the crazy town of Santa Cruz, where you won't have a shortage of people-watching along the board walk. Its a city that reminds me of Wildwood, New Jersey (A town I used to live in for one summer in college). Its got a few small carnival rides and roller coasters and a boardwalk that's filled with people on any given day. Its not my kind of town, but Christian was most excited about visiting this place. He mentioned something about a childhood dream of Santa Cruz, and just had to see it: the logo, surfing, and women in little bikinis (my assumptions of course). I guess German TV really sensationalized this place in the 80s. I did enjoy walking around downtown and doing some surfer girl shopping. I picked up a few cool board shorts, water wear, wetsuit, and more.
Home stretch to San Francisco
To my surprise, the drive between Santa Cruz and San Francisco was absolutely stunning. You're much closer to the water, height wise. (Not as cliffy as Big Sur), the stretch of beaches and sand dunes were amazing and very unique to anything we saw south. It was more magical, because the sun was beginning to set, and added this beautiful glow to the surrounding landscape in addition to the fog rolling in. We stopped off to watch the sun set along the way. The ocean was fierce here, with signs everywhere warning of shark attacks, rip tides and danger. In spite of that, there were many surfers waiting for that perfect wave. We considered staying the night in the lighthouse hostel, but opted for the Day's Inn at Half moon bay. It was nothing fancy, but a comfortable warm room, after several night's of sleeping in the back of the Wrangler.
The next morning, we hit the road to San Francisco and found a great deal on hot-wire.com at almost 70% off the published rate at the Omni in the financial district. The finance district is a great place to stay, if you want to be near Union Square without paying the premium prices of the area. Just know, that after 6 or 7 pm, the finance district is pretty much empty, but you won't find cleaner street than you do here (they're power washed every night!).
Things to note: You would typically thing you could walk everywhere in San Fran, but be careful, as some of the streets, not far from Union Square, get pretty sketchy. Christian and I decided to take a 1/2 mile walk to dinner, and found that to be a big mistake.
Also, get ready for the workout of your life. We went for a walk on our first evening, and I was sweating profusely by the time we made it up just a couple street. The walk down, however, was a lot of fun! I'm not quite sure how anyone in a wheel chair can realistically get around the city, or anyone with a physical disability of any sort. It just doesn't seem possible. But it could be a great way to build some strong upper body strength. Still, it just seems difficult to get around. It could as well be my personal issue (Coming from the plains of Michigan and not used to that terrain at all!)
There's so much to see and do so I'll start listing some recommendations:
We even considered going to Yosemite National Park, which is about 4 hours from the city; very do-able if you have a couple days to spare. I hear its amazing. We decided we did enough driving and stayed put in the city until we flew home.
In summary, regardless of what you do, make sure you go into your PCH1 road trip with an open mind and agenda. If you over-plan, you'll likely miss some of the true gems waiting right around the next curvy road. I'm confident you'll find your way and will enjoy this trip just as much as I have!
We are explorers.
Thrill Seekers. Foodies.