Right in the heart of California’s Pacific Coast Highway is a section of road that includes all of the thrills of the iconic route but involves less than one-third the driving distance. The Central Coast — known for its jaw-droppingly gorgeous sea cliffs, premier wine country, and mellow vibe — might just be the perfect spot for an abbreviated Highway 1 road trip.
Considered one of the top road trips in the United States, the Pacific Coast Highway is undoubtedly on bucket lists of travelers around the world. But at more than 600 miles long, the road that follows the coastline from Orange County to Mendocino County requires a major time commitment.
One of the beauties of road trips, though, is that you can pick and choose. For a shorter trip, I love the stretch along the California Central Coast, which offers many of the spectacular views and cool culture of the longer route, but in less than 200 miles.
And, considering that the route passes through some of California’s prime wildflower territory, springtime is arguably the best time to make the trip. Not only do the hills and cliffs erupt in a rainbow of colors in the spring, but March, April, May, and June bring average high temperatures in the 70-degree-Fahrenheit range — surely the perfect climate for rolling down your car windows and breathing in the salty sea air.
Although you could drive the Central Coast in three to four hours, this is definitely stop-and-take-in-the-views country. In order to savor the spectacular sights, the world-class wine, and the delicious dining, it’s best to plan for at least three or four days.
1. Pismo Beach
Known for its distinctive stretch of white sandy coastline, the pretty town of Pismo Beach is the perfect spot to begin a road trip north along the Central Coast (or to end it on a north-to-south trip). You will find a lively downtown that features a host of seafood restaurants, a picturesque 1,200-foot-long pier, and an abundance of seaside hotels.
After parking in one of the plentiful spaces in downtown Pismo Beach, I found the area to be wonderfully walkable. Start at the pier, where you can get a selfie in front of the large town sign, and then wander along the narrow streets until one of the excellent restaurants calls your name. You can’t go wrong with clam chowder at the colorful Splash Café or a “big bucket” seafood boil at the Cracked Crab.
If you decide to spend a night in Pismo Beach, the Seacrest Oceanfront Hotel offers rooms with an ocean view and family-friend atmosphere. Or, for a scenic camping option, check out the Pismo Beach State Park Campground. Just down the street from the campground, you will find the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, in season from November to February.
Pro Tip: For a unique lodging experience, consider driving inland for about 15 minutes from Pismo Beach to the Madonna Inn, a Highway 101 landmark resort known for its themed rooms, pink dining room, and lavish design features.
2. Morro Bay
Just a half-hour or so north of Pismo Beach, drivers will come to the coastal gem of Morro Bay, distinguished by the 576-foot-tall volcanic plug Morro Rock that stands out prominently in the bay.
Sometimes referred to as the “Gibraltar of the Pacific,” Morro Rock is reason enough to stop in the Pacific Coast Highway community. Add in the fun beach-and-surf scene, and Morro Bay makes for a great spot for exploring and a scenic breakfast or lunch.
There are many restaurants and cafés in town that serve up delicious seafood with a stellar sea view. Some of the best include Dorn’s Breakers Café for brunch and Tognazzini’s Dockside for lunch or dinner. Plan to spend at least a half-day strolling the Morro Bay Embarcadero and taking in views of “the rock” from one of the restaurant patios.
Pro Tip: About 10 miles south of Morro Bay, Montana de Oro State Park makes for an unbeatable seaside excursion. Plan to stop for a spectacular hike on the park’s Bluff Trail, an easy 3.4-mile out-and-back trail that follows the coastline and offers access to tidepools, secluded beaches, and overlooks for whale watching.
For a peek into the thriving Pacific Coast shipping days of the 1870s, the tiny beach town of Cayucos makes a fascinating stop on a Central Coast road trip.
The town’s most distinctive feature is the Cayucos Pier that stretches more than 950 feet into the Pacific. The pier stands out for its history that dates back to 1872 when town founder Captain James Cass built it to serve as a wharf to ship farm goods from the Cayucos area to Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Pro Tip: Located about six miles north of Cayucos is a region of steep cliffs and sea stacks known as Estero Bluffs State Park. Parking is available alongside the highway, and the stunning seaside is an easy half-mile walk away. It is definitely worth a stop of an hour or two to stretch your legs and watch the tide roll in.
4. Paso Robles
After experiencing a day or two of sea air along Highway 1, the inland town of Paso Robles is the perfect detour destination for an opportunity to sample one of California’s other famous features — its renowned wines. Heading northeast on Highway 46, drivers will soon be in the rolling hills and green-and-brown patchwork that make up the vineyards of Paso Robles wine country.
Featuring more than 200 wineries, a lively downtown, and a handful of olive groves, Paso Robles warrants a one-or-two-day stop along a Central Coast road trip.
For endless vineyard views, check out DAOU Vineyards and Winery or Sculpterra Winery & Sculpture Garden. And for a fabulous lunch or dinner in downtown Paso Robles, stop by the popular Fish Gaucho or Basil Thai. For accommodations just steps from the downtown square, check out the luxury boutique experience at Hotel Cheval, or for a classic in the heart of town, head to the Paso Robles Inn.
Pro Tip: Visitors to Paso Robles should not miss the stunning Light at Sensorio, an outdoor light show by artist Bruce Munro that includes the Field of Light and the new Light Towers. A chance to wander through the glowing lights set amidst the region’s rolling hills dotted with gnarled oak trees makes Paso Robles a worthy destination in and of itself.
5. Hearst Castle State Park
A road trip through the Central Coast would hardly be complete without a stop at the region’s jewel — Hearst Castle, an opulent estate that sits high on a hill above the coast near San Simeon. The castle was designed by architect Julia Morgan for newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst and was built between 1919 and 1947.
Officially known as La Cuesta Encantada (The Enchanted Hill), the castle is famous for its grand swimming pools, lavish gardens, and countless works of art, as well as its movie-star past and sweeping views.
Today, the Hearst Castle is a California State Park that typically is open for tours by the public. Note: Be sure to check on availability before heading to Hearst Castle. In early 2022, the park remained closed to the public because of emergency repairs that were underway on the road into the castle. Updates are available here.
Pro Tip: Just north of San Simeon, drivers will come to the Elephant Seal Vista Point at the Piedras Blancas Rookery. The area has plenty of parking, and it is a wonderful place to watch the seals lolling on the beach. April is known to be one of the prime viewing months for the elephant seals, along with January and October.
6. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Big Sur
With its magnificently rugged cliffs and crashing waves, the Big Sur area hardly needs an introduction. The Visit California website calls the region “one of the world’s most unforgettable stretches of coastline,” and describes it as a “roughly 90-mile-long stretch of redwood-and-fog-trimmed waterfront between Carmel-by-the-Sea and Hearst Castle.”
For the perfect place to experience it, head to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, an area that stretches from the Big Sur coastline into nearby 3,000-foot ridges that feature redwood, oak trees, and chaparral. The main feature is the 80-foot McWay Falls waterfall that drops from granite cliffs into the Pacific Ocean.
Pro Tip: Other worthwhile state parks in the area include the nearby Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, and Garrapata State Park, known for its two miles of beautiful beachfront, a variety of sea life that frequents the coastal waters, and the wildflowers that bloom in the spring.
7. Pacific Grove
Located at the tip of the Monterey Bay peninsula, the historic town of Pacific Grove is the ideal spot to relax at the end or beginning of a Central Coast road trip. Along with its lovely setting on the rocky shores of Monterey Bay, the town is also known for its quaint 19th-century cottages and charming streets.
A few of the not-to-be-missed features include the beach scene at Lovers Point, the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail, and the historic downtown where spots such as Passionfish and Vivolo’s Chowder House offer stellar seafood cuisine.
Pro Tip: For more ideas on things to do in Pacific Grove, see How To Spend A Fantastic Weekend In Beautiful Pacific Grove, CA.