There is nothing like a California Coast road trip. That California life is so awesome with all that nature and sunshine. What better way to experience it than by doing a California coast road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway? This California road trip itinerary begins at the northern border, but reverse this travel plan and you’ll have just as amazing of a time by starting in San Diego.
These are our best ideas for a CA coast road trip. Lots of things to do along the coastal drive including California lighthouses, hikes in state parks, beach stops along Highway 1 and even awesome foodie finds along the coast.
So you’ve just crossed the border from Oregon into California on the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), aka Highway 1 (and sometimes 101). Get ready because your California coast road trip is going to be totally different than what you experienced in Washington and Oregon. This road trip itinerary visits Big Sur and Monterey as you drive from San Francisco to LA. You’ll visit the Redwoods, California missions and more along the PCH.
Get my book, The Road Trip Survival Guide, for great tips and tricks for a successful road trip!
Is it better to drive up or down the California Coast?
Is it better to drive up or down the California Coast? Your starting point for a California Coast road trip also determines your ending point. So if you want to do the Pacific Coast Highway from San Diego and enjoy the LA to San Francisco drive, you could do a 7 day trip itinerary and end in SF without doing the northern coast.
If you’re more interested in spending the majority of your time on the Pacific Coast Highway in Monterey and Big Sur, then you could begin in San Francisco for a drive to Los Angeles or San Diego.
As you make your itinerary, at least 7 days is ideal for a California Coast road trip. You’ll have warmer, sunnier weather in SoCal, no doubt, but getting time up on the rugged northern coasts of Sonoma County and Redwoods National Park is amazing. For a 7 day California road trip itinerary split your time like this:
- 2 days on Northern California Coast
- 3 days from San Francisco to Los Angeles
- 2 day from LA to San Diego
- add single days for extra time in San Francisco, San Luis Obispo, LA or San Diego
So what do we pick? We vote to drive the California Coast from North to South, so that you end in San Diego with a relaxing California coast vacation at the beach.
Northern California Coast Road Trip
The Northern California coast has such wonderful stops to make and roadside attractions. So does SoCal, but they’re totally different and Northern California embraces their uniqueness. These stops can easily be added to your itinerary on the drive down the California Coast and don’t require much planning at all.
California Lighthouses not to Miss
The prettiest lighthouse in Northern California is without question the Battery Point Lighthouse in Crescent City. You’ll need to get your feet wet to get out to it, but it’s worth it. The view, the lighthouse itself, and the wildlife you’ll see are all amazing! Battery Point is one of the best stops on your California Coast road trip.
If you want a funny lighthouse hunt, be sure to stop into Trinidad, California and find the light…because it’s a hike and is hilariously fun. A highlight of getting off Highway 1 at Trinidad is to get a mashed potato cone before or after visiting the lighthouse. It’s too good to not get and you’ll have to drive past the Lighthouse Grill if you’re in Trinidad.
The Point Arena Lighthouse is another fun stop on your road trip. It’s about 8 miles off the beaten path, but it’s worth it. The Point Arena Lighthouse is very tall and set at the end of a point surrounded by coves and crashing waves. It’s the perfectly iconic lighthouse.
Note: the Point Arena Lighthouse does have an admission fee if you want to check out the little museum and climb up the tower. If you’re into it, totally do it. Also, lots of great space for kids to run around at Point Arena, but keep an eye that they don’t get near the cliffs.
Visiting Eureka and California’s Victorian Mansions
The town of Eureka, California is the gateway to Redwoods National and State Parks, but it’s also the home of a beautiful historic neighborhood. Old Town Eureka is awesome!
With more than 150 homes and business buildings from the Victorian era, it’s full of color and worth a stop, if for nothing else, to take pictures. If you love Victorian mansions, Eureka is the town for you! It’s more Victorian than Victoria BC!!
Stay: we loved spending several days at the Carter House Inn in Old Town Eureka. The accommodations were perfect for a family of four and it had the feel of a genuinely antique hotel. This is a great home base for exploring the coast and Redwoods National Park. Book the Carter House Inns here!
Northern California Coast Redwoods
One of the best stops along the Pacific Coast Highway is Redwoods National and State Parks. The Redwoods of Northern California are epic and awesome. This is where your California coast road trip heads away from the Pacific Ocean for your activities.
You’ll find that the epicness of these huge trees is very much capitalized on through the many California roadside attractions, but it’s cool. There are lots of really great conservation efforts at play to counteract the impact tourism may have on the forests. You choose if you’re going to do a drive-thru tree or not.
Tip: the Chandelier Tree in Leggett, California is easy to get to and the opening is large enough for most vehicles. We took our minivan through it just fine.
Redwoods National and State Parks are scattered along the coast of Northern California, so if you miss one entrance, drive another few minutes and find another. We loved hiking in the Lady Bird Johnson Grove within Redwoods National Park. It’s perfect to do with kids.
If you’re unable to make time in the Northern forests, stop into Muir Woods National Monument just before you arrive in San Francisco. You’ll have to drive past them anyway and the Park isn’t huge, so it makes for an easy stop and you’ll still get to enjoy the huge redwoods.
There are a few more state parks on the San Francisco to LA drive where you can find redwoods, but there are other things to see in those areas too, so we recommend making the stop BEFORE you get to SF.
Tip: in the summer or on a weekend, watch for the signs for the Muir Woods shuttle from overflow parking. Muir Woods National Monument is very close to San Francisco and the whole Bay Area, so everybody heads there when they can. If you can plan a stop here mid-week, do it!
Pacific Coast Highway on the Sonoma Coast
This part of the Pacific Coast Highway is often overlooked in favor of the most direct route down the coast on Highway 101. While it’s nice to go through the California wine countries of Napa and Sonoma, the Sonoma Coast is also beautiful and interesting.
Salt Point State Park and Sonoma Coast State Park both offer gorgeous Northern California views with beaches and even protected sand dune areas. The highlight here is the hiking, one of the best things to do on the north coast.
Continuing south you come to Jenner, a sleepy town on a winding river. Enjoy some kayaking on the river or just chill out before you get to Bodega Bay and Bodega Head for sunset. We enjoyed staying at the Bodega Bay Lodge and sampling Sonoma County wines each night. Perfect last stop before getting to San Francisco.
Visiting San Francisco: one day itinerary
The City by the Bay, San Francisco, is amazing for more reasons than we can say. You cannot do a California Coast road trip without driving through SF, so embrace it and fall in love with the city. If you only have a little time and want a truly unique San Francisco experience, head directly to Telegraph Hill to get a great view of the city, to visit Coit Tower and watch for the flock of urban parrots!
Visiting the Golden Gate Bridge
Do we need to even explain this? You’re going to have to cross the Golden Gate Bridge on your Pacific Coast Highway road trip, so be sure that you’ve carved out appropriate time to make a stop at either end of the Bridge.
The south end of the Golden Gate Bridge has the Welcome Center and a fair amount of parking, but the north side offers a totally different view and includes the skyline of San Francisco. It’s your call, but for sure this is one of the best stops along the California Coast.
Tip: if you want to breeze through the Bay Area, stop on the north side of the Bridge and maybe do lunch down in Sausalito. The town is cute, the view of San Francisco is beautiful and you’ll find amazing food. This will also minimize your time in San Francisco traffic.
Ride a San Francisco Cable Car
This is so easy to do with a 1 day itinerary in San Francisco. Our recommended line is the Powell-Mason Cable Car because there is parking at the Pier 39 end of it. You get to see the North Beach neighborhood, buzz past Telegraph Hill and through Chinatown and end in Union Square. It’s perfect.
The Powell-Hyde cable car line is our second choice simply because parking is a pain. It starts/ends at Ghirardelli Square, takes you up to the top of Lombard Street, across Nob Hill and down to Union Square. Both lines are iconic San Francisco and totally worth the wait to do (there’s often a line to board).
Tip: if you’re comfortable with it, try to be on the outside standing up. You’ll love the San Francisco experience of it and it’s just like you’re in a movie. Kids can’t do it, but adults can. Check out the actual cable car site for details.
Visit the Castro of San Francisco
Some people don’t know the term “the Castro.” Well, if you’re a part of the LGBTQ community you probably have heard it. The Castro neighborhood of San Francisco is where gay rights on the West Coast got a foothold and where Harvey Milk brought the people together.
Today, there are several memorial sites dedicated to the LGBTQ struggle, to those who have lost their lives in the fight for rights or against AIDS, and to the future of the LGBTQ community.
Taking kids to the Castro is an interesting adventure. If you’re visiting the Castro with kids, be prepared for some interesting questions. Nothing is off limits in this awesome neighborhood and kids might see some sights that they don’t understand, including very sex-positive imagery. Yes, there are shops with hilarious, stereotypical gay window displays, but what’s so wonderful are the people. In the Castro there are loads of other families like ours. If you’re visiting the Castro with kids maybe it’ll open a conversation about the struggles of the LGBTQ community and how far we’ve come.
Tip: the Castro is also the primary place to “go out” in San Francisco, so know that if you’re looking for beverages and dancing, this is a great spot to start. This also makes it a busy neighborhood any time of day.
Finding a San Francisco Hotel
San Francisco is a costly city to visit or to live in. Book your SF hotel as soon as you know you’ll be visiting. Unlike most cities, SF books out far in advance at very high room rates. It’s possible to just drive through or stay south of the city, but due to traffic, if you’re on a California Coast road trip, you probably won’t want to head north to the city again if you’ve already passed through.
AirBNBs and short term vacation rentals are few and far between in SF, so if that’s your travel style, you’ll want to look just north or just south of the city.
Santa Cruz and Driving the Big Sur Coast
From this point in our California coast road trip plan you need to decide what your travel goals are and how much time you want to invest: full coastal experience or just the highlights. Read up, research, decide. Take the 101 or go the coast the whole way? The Pacific Coast Highway will ALWAYS get out vote.
The San Francisco to Monterey drive is beautiful, and then driving the Big Sur Coast is epic (PCH). If you choose to go via Highway 101 you’ll head inland at Monterey and go past Pinnacles National Park, joining back up with the PCH in San Luis Obispo. So many choices!
Road Trip Stops in Half Moon Bay, Santa Cruz and Capitola
When you leave San Francisco, you can head down the Pacific Coast Highway or pop down through San Jose and over the Santa Cruz mountains to the coast. Either way is fine, but the coastal route will take you by the Pigeon Point Lighthouse. There are lots of beaches you can visit and great picnic spots near the lighthouse, so enjoy!
Half Moon Bay and Pacifica are great stops for enjoying the cold waters of the Pacific beaches, or if you want to do some coastal hiking, that’s an option here too.
Santa Cruz and Capitola are both adorable towns on the San Francisco to LA drive. You can have an afternoon out on the vintage Santa Cruz boardwalk (complete with roller coaster) as well as beach time. Even though you could plot a whole trip around lounging on the beach and trying to surf, if you’re on a California coast road trip you’ve got a lot of ground to cover and a few better places to have a home base for a few days.
Monterey and the Bay
Continuing south on our Pacific Coast Highway road trip, the city of Monterey is next. Famous for its Cannery Row and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey is full of great road trip stops, especially with kids.
There is so much to do and see in this small and peaceful city, and it is the perfect destination for a relaxing weekend away or a stopping point on your California Coast road trip. The stunning beaches, charming drives, and of course, the enchanting aquarium, make Monterey a true must-visit city in Central California.
Top things to do in the Monterey area include:
- Pinnacles National Park (#FindYourPark!!) – caves and hiking – PS: adding a visit to Pinnacles is easy on this trip!
- Cannery Row – truly vintage California coast
- Monterey Bay Aquarium – one of the largest and most acclaimed for its conservation efforts
- Beaches – duh. Actually, Asilomar State Beach and Pacific Park both get high marks
Stay: between Monterey and Carmel you’ll find lots of B&Bs for a fun California coast road trip break… but then camping is an option if you want to head south to Big Sur (reserve in advance anywhere!!) If you choose to stay overnight in Monterey, be sure you book a whale watching tour also. Can’t miss it!
Things to Consider for Driving the Big Sur Coast
This is what California coast road trip dreams are made of…
So here’s a big disclaimer: this stretch of land will take you the longest of any we’ve covered, so think about if this is right for your West Coast road trip. It’s INCREDIBLE, but it’s a long winding highway that can be trimmed off by taking Highway 101 instead of Highway 1, the PCH. Just a thought.
BEFORE YOU PLAN: due to the rugged, coastal nature of the highway along the Big Sur Coast there are frequent wash outs and landslide. During winter and spring it’s not uncommon for parts of the highway to be closed for safety or construction. This can mean either a HUGE detour inland, or being turned around completely to get onto Highway 101. Check road conditions before starting this stretch of the California Coast road trip.
Quick Stop in Carmel, California
If you want to spend some time catching the incredible aquamarine waters and rocks of the Pacific, out of Monterey head to 17 Mile Drive and jaunt down the coast past Pebble Beach to Carmel by the Sea. Yes, it’s fancy-pants when it comes to restaurants, golf, and expensive houses. It’s all very beautiful, but not a budget friendly destination and it doesn’t have to be included on your California coast road trip itinerary.
Tip: just south of Carmel is a beautiful Carmelite monastery right off the highway. You can easily stop in or pull over to appreciate the beautiful compound. Respect the residents… and then think about taking your vows to get to commune in this amazing place.
Road Trip Stops on the Big Sur Coast
Okay, we’re here now: the Big Sur Coast! Hiking in the hills, hiking to the beaches, hiking to waterfalls is what you’ll want to do in Big Sur. From Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park to the south, the coast and mountains make for the most striking sights. And you have to stop for one of the most iconic California Coast sights, the Bixby Bridge.
Great hikes/photo ops (north to south):
- Bixby Bridge – photo op of one of the most iconic bridges on the west coast, pull over in a designated area
- Pfeiffer Falls – trailhead on Pfeiffer Big Sur Rd, about 2 miles, forest hiking with waterfalls
- Big Sur River Gorge – trailhead on Pfeiffer Big Sur Rd – short, river access
- McWay Falls – trailhead is clearly marked off the highway – short, all about the view
Note: the State Parks website says in regards to McWay Falls “There is no beach access here. Any attempt to get down to the beach is a citable and arrestable offense.”
Of course there are more stops, but these are easy to do and worth the time. None of these will put a hitch in your driving day. If you want to stop overnight, there are lots of great places to stay in Big Sur.
Wondering about lighthouses on this rocky coast? Unfortunately the Point Sur Lighthouse suffers from the woes of the coast and may or may not be open for visiting or tours when you’re doing your California coast road trip, but it’s worth a shot. Check their website for updates, as closures vary due to weather, road conditions and operational issues.
Bonus: if you didn’t get to see the Point Sur Lighthouse, make a stop at Piedras Blanca Light. It’s suffered damage over the years, but it’s really cool and odd with its missing lantern room.
Stay: Julie Pfeiffer Burns State Park has camping, so you’ll be able to do more hikes than the small ones we’ve suggested. Check out Reserve America for camping availability.
Visiting Hearst Castle
Hearst Castle is one of the most famous road side attractions in California. It’s phenomenal and is even one of the best things to do on a California coast road trip WITH KIDS!
Plan your time here accordingly as the last tour each day is around 3:30 pm and you don’t want to miss touring Hearst Castle. We recommend either doing the Grand Rooms or the Upstairs Suites tours. You’ll get to see many of the common areas with each tour, but the level of detail with each is different.
Tip: inquire with the visitors center about which is best with kids or for photography (many restrictions)… or for which takes you to the indoor pool (so cool!)
Road Trip Down California’s Central Coast
As you continue south on the California coast road trip, you’ll start to pass through really cool towns along the Pacific Coast Highway. This is a section of the coast that could be its own destination from San Francisco or Los Angeles because there are so many wonderful things to do and see.
Peaceful, Quiet Cambria, California
First up is Cambria, which is great for wine, watching elephant seals on the beach or hiking the beaches and bluffs (our favorite beach activity). There are several wineries in Cambria because you’re in that lovely wine region called the Central Coast.
If you’ve been doing the California Coast road trip all the way from the Oregon border, no doubt you’re tired and want to relax in one place for a few days. Choose Cambria for a peaceful break in this last stretch of the drive to LA. We LOVED staying at the Cambria Pines Lodge, dining in the cute downtown and walking the boardwalks at Moonstone Beach.
Visiting Morro Bay
Next stop on the Central Coast is Morro Bay, which has our hearts for a funny reason: this is where the original Pete’s Dragon was filmed (not in Maine). The lighthouse from the film is gone, but this was the place with the beautiful coastline and fog. Rent kayaks at Morrow Bay State Park and paddle out to the dunes. Watch for sea otters and seals, as this protect area is teeming with life!
Stop in Quirky San Luis Obispo
Next to the south is San Luis Obispo. A college town on the California coast, it’s rather large, so it’s an easy place to find accommodations if you didn’t plan anything. This is where you hit the coast if you opted to take the 101 instead of Highway 1.
In San Luis Obispo, visit the beautiful mission, walk through the cute downtown area and just enjoy the laid-back California lifestyle. There’s lots to do in San Luis Obispo, including a great children’s museum if you’re visiting with kids.
Stay: bwah ha ha. You have to try to stay at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo. It’s awesomely hilarious and fun. Every room is different, the bar/lounge is exceptionally gaudy, and the men’s restroom has a waterfall. If you want to keep it close to the coast though, Morrow Bay has some camping options and less expensive lodging choices.
Butterflies in Pismo Beach
Pismo Beach really is a beach town. Beachfront parks, kite shops, seafood, you name it. Pismo Beach is a great stop to put on your Pacific Coast Highway road trip, particularly if you’ve got kids with you. The Avila Valley Farm is really fun to visit, as well as Dinosaur Caves on the water.
A highlight in Pismo Beach if you’re visiting October through February, is the Monarch Butterfly Grove. Thousands upon thousands of monarchs take refuge here during the fall and winter, so if you want to be wowed by nature, plan a stop at the butterfly grove.
Santa Maria Valley Wine Country
Continuing on our California coast road trip we head through the Santa Maria Valley (more wine!), Buellton (small town relaxation) and Las Cruces, which is where we find our next lighthouse at Point Conception. You cannot go in the old lighthouse, but you can trek to some great views of it. We recommend spending at least two days in the Santa Maria Valley region because there is so much to do, including lots of California agritourism, the adorable town of Guadalupe, and unlimited outdoor experiences.
Some of our favorite wineries in the Santa Maria Valley include Cottonwood Canyon, J Wilkes Wines, C Nagy Winery, Ca Del Grevino… I could go on and on. It’s a wonderful region to enjoy local wine and really explore the outdoors of the Central Coast.
Visiting Mission Santa Barbara
The city of Santa Barbara comes up quickly as you head down the coast. Known for its arts and beautiful landscapes, you can make a stop on your drive for lunch or stay overnight. We recommend a stop as Los Angeles is really close and it’ll be more budget friendly to continue south. Check out this article for the best things to do in Santa Barbara! Also, Santa Barbara is along El Camino Real, which is the California missions route. Mission Santa Barbara is a beautiful place to visit as you pass through.
Road Trip Through Los Angeles to San Diego
We love to visit Los Angeles and Orange County. Yes, they are two different places and no, Disneyland isn’t in LA. Depending on your time, spending a few days exploring LA and the OC will give you a blast of SoCal culture and fun.
Fun in Santa Monica and Los Angeles
At this point in your epic California coast road trip you’ve seen a lot of small beaches and done some great hiking. How about you take a day to visit the Santa Monica Pier and beach. Enjoy the vintage fun of Pacific Park and do some rides. Bring a towell and lay on the beach and go for a swim. You’re now truly in Southern California and you need to do the SoCal thing. If you want to keep driving south, go for it. You can’t escape the beach though.
It’s always fun to spend a few days in Los Angeles, and you can totally do it on the cheap leveraging all kinds of free activities and touring neighborhoods. Hollywood is, of course, fun to visit because it’s so family, but break away from Hollywood Blvd for some other fun stuff, like the markets, LACMA and the La Brea Tar Pits, the Getty… Los Angeles has lots to explore and most for free (except for parking). Oh, and just for the entertainment factor, visit Venice Beach on your way out of town. It’s a barrel of laughs.
Stay: AirBNB or even a standard hotel booking site will do fine for your Los Angeles hotel needs. If you’ve been camping the whole way, you need to head south to Orange County or San Diego County for some State Park options.
If the Los Angeles area is what you’ve been looking forward to on your California Coast road trip, spend a few days exploring. There are some great weekend trips from LA or overnights that can be added easily. Top picks include Long Beach, Catalina Island, Joshua Tree National Park and Palm Springs (great hiking in Palm Springs!). Any of these are easy to add onto your road trip and make for a totally different SoCal experience.
Breezing through Orange County
Unfortunately the OC isn’t awesome when you’re away from the beach. True, Disneyland is more fun than anything ever (totally biased on this) but Seal and Huntington Beaches are where you’ll find relaxation, perfect waves for swimming and bodysurfing, and that awesome SoCal culture you’ve done this whole California coast road trip to get to.
Exploring San Diego County
As a bonus stop, get off the freeway between Orange County and San Diego and hit up the Mission at San Juan Capistrano. It’s beautiful from the chapel to the bells to the gardens. And if you’re lucky you’ll get to see some of the famous swallows (birds) in their mud nests. It’s worth the time and will be a nice break from driving.
Oceanside is another town worth spending some time in. With an adorable harbor and great restaurants surrounding the waterfront, this is a great place to spend a night. For a really cool experience, check out moonlight kayaking through the City of Oceanside Parks and Rec!
Visiting San Diego: last stop on the California Coast Road Trip
The city of San Diego is a nice one. It has great neighborhoods, just like Los Angeles or San Francisco. Pacific Beach, Mission Beach, Ocean Beach, Coronado… no matter where you go there’s the beach. Mission Beach is fun for the roller coaster (because why not hit one more on this trip), but Pacific Beach is the best one for having a fun neighborhood to walk through AND plenty of space to play in the sand and surf.
If you need to get swanky, spend some time on Coronado Island and have drinks at the Hotel Del Coronado… because if you packed fancy pants you should get to wear them at least once.
Balboa Park really is the gem of San Diego though. It’s where you’ll find the San Diego Zoo (we’re NOT telling you to go there), you’ll find some really cool museums, and our favorite, the Conservatory. The Balboa Park Conservatory is very different from the one in Seattle or San Francisco. It’s huge and has a very different, nearly open-air construction. It’s a must-visit.
Balboa Park is also where the San Diego Pride Festival happens. Holding their Pride events in July, this celebration is the most family friendly of all Pride festivals and parades we’ve been to. Take a look at our complete guide to the San Diego Pride Festival!
Cabrillo National Monument
We have to finish off the trip by ending at a National Park of some sort. The last place we’re going to make you visit is Cabrillo National Monument. Located at the end of Point Loma (not the naval base), you’ll find bluff for hiking, tide pools for exploring and two lighthouses. Cabrillo National Monument is a great place for a picnic during your San Diego visit.
Note: your National Parks Pass can get you into Cabrillo National Monument, so be sure you have it when you start your California coast road trip.
Stay: northern San Diego county has a few State Park campgrounds that you can enjoy, or seek out cheap lodging in one of the neighborhood. Hillcrest, the gay-borhood, is a fun place to stay with loads of good food choices.
Wow! We made it all of the way down the California coast! Covering nearly 1000 miles of roads, the California coast road trip is amazing. Pair it up with our road trip plan for Washington and Oregon and you’ve got the vacation of a lifetime!
If you’d like to do a more detailed trip, check out our other itineraries for specific travel plans focusing on smaller sections of the West Coast states:
- West Coast Road Trip – Washington and Oregon
- West Coast National Parks – the mountains
- West Coast National Parks and lighthouses
- Puget Sound Family Travel Plan
Do you have a favorite route to travel the coast? We are always looking for new stops, new towns and new hiking destinations. Tell us where to go next!