No mater how many times I pack the car with my favorite snacks (popcorn and dark chocolate) and create a playlist of road-worthy tunes for a California Coast road trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles, Highway 1 near gets old.
Driving down the California coast is not only easy on the eyes, but it reminds me what a large and diverse landscape it has. From the farmland in the middle of the state to the small towns that hug the coast, I feel like I’m always discovering some place new within my beloved home state.
Thinking of going on a trip down California’s most scenic highway? Here are some tried and true things I have learned over acquiring many miles on this road.
Start your trip as early as humanly possible.
You do not want to be driving along Highway 1 at night for numerous reasons. First and foremost you will see nothing. Trust me, you’re better off on Highway 5 with all the truckers.
It takes around 7+ hours to go down from SF to LA, and can easily be done in one day, but to get the most out of this trip it’s much better to break up the trip over 5 days to truly soak in all this road has to offer.
Half Moon Bay
Stop for the scenic ocean views at Half Moon Bay State Beach, including the spot where the Mavericks surf competition takes place. For strong coffee and breakfast, Granola’s Coffee House is a solid choice. If you’re looking for something more along the lines of lunch or dinner, Barbara’s Fish Trap offers all the fresh seafood you could dream of.
Make a stop at Pescadero State Beach to admire this gorgeous stretch of coastline and drip your feet into the freezing water if you dare. Take advantage of this town’s location in the heart of a farming community by stopping at Pie Ranch, a place that provides food education, farmer training, and regional partnerships as well as a food stand for visitors to pick up fresh produce and home baked pies. Eat your pie with a view at nearby Ano Nuevo State Park, that boosts the Pacific Ocean as a stunning backdrop and elephant seals if you’re lucky.
This college town is perfect for fueling up on coffee alongside all the local UCSC students and surfers. For breakfast options, The Buttery for delicious pastries or Cafe Brasil for acai bowls never disappoint. A great place to stretch your legs is the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and the adjacent beach (which is a lot calmer than the boardwalk and is a great break from the sensory overload). If you’re staying the night, Lillan’s Italian Kitchen is excellent for delicious pasta dishes.
Where To Stay: Holiday Inn Express & Suites Santa Cruz
One of my favorite places to get out of the car, stretch my legs and breathe in that salty ocean air along Cannery Row. If time permits, I love taking a detour on the 17-Mile Drive, where the often fog-shrouded coastal scenery always makes it worth it. Keep an eye out for The Ghost Tree, a gnarled, white cypress tree that looks like it came right from a Brother’s Grimm fairytale.
Monterey’s swanky neighbor is known for its rich artistic community, where writers and artists live and work. This might explain why director/actor Clint Eastwood was the mayor of Carmel at one point. Dogs are revered in this town, and there are plenty of places to cater to any pups in tow, including Diggidy Dog. For human food the Carmel Coffee & Cocoa Bar in downtown Carmel is worth stopping by for hot chocolate and hearty sandwiches.
Where To Stay: The Carmel Mission Inn
This stretch of Highway 1 may be one of the most scenic routes, but make sure to take your motion sickness meds if you are prone to carsickness (those windy roads are no joke). The narrow double lane road provides some of the most breathtaking views of Highway 1, with rugged cliffs that drop sharply into the surf below. Along Highway 1 is the Bixby Creek Bridge that is a well-recognized bridge and as stunning in real life as it is in photographs. For excellent comfort food and equally good views, Nepenthe is a good place to stop.
San Luis Obispo
I used to dismiss this college town as a place that was not worth stopping for, but then I spent a night in San Luis Obispo and realized I had seriously been missing out. There was a surprising number of delicious meal options and the town was compact enough that you could easily walk everywhere. Consider me converted. Definitely worth a stop for a gyro at Petra or a tri-tip sandwich at Old San Luis BBQ Company and a quick stroll around the scenic downtown, including Bubblegum Alley.
Where To Stay: Avenue Inn Downtown San Luis Obispo
This town was formed by a group of Danish settlers who were tired of Midwest winters and were looking for sunnier prospects out west, hence the name Solvang (sunny field). Stoll down Alisai Road to admire the Danish architecture and make sure to pick up aebelskivers (Danish pancakes puffs) at Solvang Restaurant’s to-go window.
This beach city is a must-stop along Highway 1, if only to swoon over the Monterey-style adobe on State Street and dream about living in one of the Mediterranean-style homes near the ocean. There are plenty of good dining options, but Mexican should be high on your list at a place like Los Agaves. The Funk Zone is a revitalized part of town that’s a great spot to get a glass of wine from a local vineyard.
Where to stay: Avania Inn
This small beach city is a great alternative for those that want to avoid the tourists or the college student crowds of Santa Barbara. Take a walk on Carpentaria State Beach, and later head over to The Spot, a Carpentaria institution for hamburgers and fries. If you want to stay inland, Seaside Gardens, a nursery/botanical garden hybrid boasts an extensive and unusual plant selection.
A coastal city that has plenty to see and do, including wandering along San Buenaventura State Beach and the long wooden Ventura Pier, and if you’re staying longer take the boat out from Ventura Harbor to the Channel Islands. If you’re spending the night, the Ventiki Tiki Lounge and Lanai is not a bad place to spend a few hours sipping on Mai Tais.
Where to stay: Amanzi Hotel
Next-door neighbor to Ventura, Oxnard has its own share of beautiful beaches including the Oxnard Beach Park. Mrs. Olson’s Coffee Hut is a great spot to grab brunch on the water or head over to The Collection Riverpark’s upscale food court The Annex, where you can get everything from pho to Dutch-style pancakes.
This stunning stretch of coast is one of my favorite places to slowly make my way down. Favorite spots to stop at are Point Dume Beach, Vintage Grocers for snacks (and people watching), and Malibu Seafood for fish and chips (just be prepared for a line) and ocean views from the provided picnic tables. For a more leisurely sit down meal, Malibu Farm Cafe is a good choice with sandwiches, and salads. Though technically in Pacific Palisades, the Getty Villa is worth stopping at for the beautiful art, rich architecture, and panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean.
Seeing that iconic Santa Monica Pier always feels like a small triumph every time. We made it! A perfect place to grab dinner in the form of delicious Italian is Milo and Olive and then a pot of tea to share at The Urth Caffe, to drink on the back patio. Then an early bedtime, since I need to rest up for tomorrow’s LA adventures, a whole different beast..
Where to stay: Gateway Hotel
Have you driven down California’s Highway 1 before? Where are your favorite places to stop?