The best kind of road trip features great scenery, and the road trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles on Highway 1 (also known as the Pacific Coast Highway) certainly fits the bill -- it boasts fantastic coastal views, wine country, quaint towns, and much more.
Although California’s balmy weather makes it a great place for a road trip at any time, the very best time for this trip in terms of weather is July through August. This is peak season, so expect more crowds and higher hotel rates. If you prefer to skip the peak season, late spring and early fall are also lovely.
Here are some stops to consider along the way.
What better place to start your road trip than San Francisco? Plan on spending several days to fully take in this vibrant city.
Then head to Fisherman’s Wharf to grab some San Francisco sourdough sandwiches at Boudin Bakery or sit down for some fresh seafood at Cioppino’s. If you’re really hungry, try the signature dish, the Cioppino, a seafood extravaganza with Dungeness crab legs, clams, mussels, snapper, calamari, and shrimp, all stewed in a savory tomato broth and topped with toasted sourdough bread.
Take Highway 1 70 miles south of San Francisco, and you’ll find the sandy beaches, redwood-covered mountains, and burgeoning beer and wine scene of Santa Cruz.
While there, visit the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, which chronicles 100 years of local surf history, and learn about the birthplace of mainland surfing in the United States. Or if you’ve always wanted to try surfing, take a surf lesson with a local school like Club Ed and pay homage to surfing pioneer Jack O’Neill.
Another 40 miles along Highway 1 will bring you to the city of Monterey. Monterey County includes the towns of Salinas, Carmel, Big Sur, and Monterey, among others, so plan to spend at least a couple of nights in the area to take in the variety of sights.
The Monterey area was the home of novelist John Steinbeck and inspired many of his most famous works. Consider learning more about his life and legacy at one of these stops.
To better appreciate the area’s natural beauty, visit the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and walk along the banks of the river or hike one of the many scenic trails. If you spend the night there, you can stay at the Big Sur Lodge, located at the park.
Spend a day (or weekend) in Carmel visiting the white sand beaches and enjoying fine dining, wine tastings, and plenty of shopping. Take a 2-hour guided walk through the secret pathways, hidden courtyards, award-winning gardens, and storybook cottages with Gael Gallagher's Carmel Walks. If you want to spend the night, consider The Hotel Carmel, a cottage-style hotel with a luxury feel.
In Monterey, visit the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium, take in Cannery Row, dine at Fisherman’s Wharf, and take a walking tour of the historic downtown, among other activities. If you plan on staying overnight, consider the Hotel Pacific, an upscale Spanish Colonial-style hotel.
Biking is a great way to get around. Mad Dogs & Englishmen Bike Shop is the only e-bike shop on the Monterey Peninsula. They sell -- and rent -- high-end e-bikes. Experience the scenic coastal paths and take on some of the hills throughout the towns. All e-bikes come with a Garmin for easy navigation, and the owners will program it depending on where you want to go.
Hearst Castle, the unbelievably opulent home of the publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst, is 90 miles south of Monterey on Highway 1. On a tour of this mountaintop Mediterranean estate designed by architect Julia Morgan, you’ll see a collection of priceless art and antiques. To learn more, see this piece.
On your way from Hearst Castle to San Luis Obispo, be sure to stop at Morro Bay. The volcanic Morro Rock is where the city got its name. Just offshore is a massive, ancient volcanic plug that rises 576 feet from the ocean. Watch for nesting peregrine falcons there.
San Luis Obispo
About 14 miles from Morro Bay is San Luis Obispo. The area has a rich food and wine scene; plenty of art, history, and culture; and a laid-back California vibe.
While there, visit the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, which was constructed in 1792. The mission, which is still an active church, lies at the center of modern-day downtown San Luis Obispo.
To experience the area’s natural beauty, hike or kayak to the Point San Luis Lighthouse. The lighthouse is a hidden gem on the Central Coast, located on the north side of Port San Luis Harbor near Avila Beach. The 30-acre nature preserve can be reached by a docent-led hike of the Pecho Coast Trail, by classic trolley ride, or by kayak.
Wineries and beaches are abundant in Pismo Beach. Visit the Monarch Butterfly Grove, one of only five sites in the state that have counts of more than 10,000 butterflies annually. Or go horseback riding on private trails at the Oceano Dunes SVRA, which also offers extensive coastal dunes for off-roading. See this piece for more things to see and do in the area.
Make it a day trip, or spend the night at the Inn at the Pier, a luxury oceanfront hotel.
Santa Ynez Valley Wine Country
Just north of Santa Barbara, you’ll find Santa Ynez Valley, one of five distinct American Viticultural Areas located in Santa Barbara County’s vast wine country. It’s home to more than 50 varietals that thrive in the area's diverse microclimates. More than 120 wineries are located nearby, many of them small family-owned operations where you can taste world-class wines in an unpretentious atmosphere.
Start by buying a pass from the Santa Ynez Valley Wine Country Association. After a day of wine tastings, check in at the ForFriends Inn, the only boutique bed and breakfast in Santa Ynez. It’s within walking distance of plenty of dining options, and guests enjoy a Friendship Pass with more than $200 in free wine tastings and food in the Santa Ynez Valley Wine Country.
In Santa Barbara, you can enjoy more wine tastings -- just grab a map and check out Santa Barbara’s Urban Wine Trail. Then relax at the largest underground salt cave in the U.S., located in downtown Santa Barbara.
Check out the artsy side of Santa Barbara and explore the Funk Zone, full of colorful murals, great restaurants, and lively nightlife.
In Ventura, you can spend a day exploring the Ventura Harbor Village or enjoying water activities in the harbor. Then visit the Channel Islands National Park Visitor Center to book a trip to the nearby Channel Islands.
When you’re in Ventura, you simply must go whale watching. Blue whales and humpback whales were once a rare sight in the waters off Ventura, but now, from roughly June through mid-September, they can often be seen feeding on floods of nutrient-rich krill, brought up from the depths by the currents. Orca whale pods can be seen in any season.
For unique lodging, stay at the Waypoint Ventura, a hotel featuring luxuriously restored vintage trailers.
End your California road trip in Los Angeles. The second-most-populous city in the country offers a multitude of activities for every type of traveler. Whether you’re interested in show business, arts and culture, nightlife, ethnic cuisine, or unique shopping, you’ll find plenty to love in Los Angeles.
Stay in four-star luxury at Petit Ermitage, where the saltwater pool, rooftop bar and restaurant, and hummingbird sanctuary will help you relax and rejuvenate after your long trip.