California Coast Road Trip

Driving up the coast of southern California is a great road trip idea in the summer as you get all that “fun-in-the-sun” that southern California is known for. In keeping with the location, make sure your road trip is laid back and mellow and don’t plan too much each day. Also, stop as often as possible along the way at every beach you see and have a picnic or take a walk along the shoreline. You want to take advantage of all those beaches!

What should you do besides hitting every beach? This list of items is arranged assuming that you will be on a week-long road trip starting in San Diego and ending in Monterey, CA.

Sea World, San Diego

You may wonder why I don’t list the famous zoo. Unfortunately, most people agree that just doesn’t live up to the hype. If you want to see a great zoo, go to the National Zoo in Washington, DC – the best in the country and the admission is free, too. Sea World, though, is a great place to visit for an entire day. Go on a weekday and you won’t have to deal with crowds. There are rides (Journey to Atlantis is the best), an aquarium, and great shows (Shamu is the top show to see).

San Diego Sea World
Sea World, San Diego CA

Torrey Pines State Reserve, San Diego

Hike the easy trails at this great park and see spectacular views everywhere you look. Bottlenose dolphins swim close to the shore most of the time so you can easily sight them. Make your dinner a picnic nearby at the Torrey Pines State Beach and catch the beautiful sunset.

Torrey Pines
Torrey Pines State Reserve, CA; photo by flickr/clnlnz

J. Paul Getty Center, Los Angeles

If you enjoy art at all, this is a must-see museum with its incredible art collection. Even if you don’t go for art, you may just want to go for the beautiful grounds and views of LA sprawled below (the museum is located at the summit of a mountain).

Getty Center, Los Angeles
J. Paul Getty Center, Los Angeles CA

Grauman’s Chinese Theater, Los Angeles

It may be kitschy and touristy but that’s the fun of it! It’s really about checking out the outside of the theater, the stars’ footprints/handprints in front, and watching the various entertainers dressed up as famous stars and imitating them. The visit will last you no longer than 45 minutes, so this will be a brief stop along the way.

Grauman’s Chinese Theater
Grauman’s Chinese Theater

Venice Beach Boardwalk, Los Angeles

Talk about characters! You will see every type of get-up and the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen. It’s extremely colorful and fun to take a walk and check out the action – especially on the weekends when it’s like a circus. There are lots of cheap good eats to be had, too – so plan on hitting it when you’ll need a bite.

Venice Beach
Venice Beach Boardwalk

Stearns Wharf, Santa Barbara

Stop here for great views of the marina, the water, and this beautiful town. There are lots of shops to explore and great restaurants, like Brophy Bros. Clam Bar and Restaurant, for fresh seafood. We watched sea otters playing in the water here.

Stearns Wharf
Stearns Wharf, Santa Barbara, CA

Route 1 (the Pacific Coast Highway)

This route winds along the coastline of California. It’s a great drive with spectacular views and lots of picturesque bridges – the quintessential road trip.

PCH California


Stay in Cambria overnight at one of the many oceanfront hotels and take a walk along Moonstone Beach in the morning. There are well-tended footpaths here that wind along the shore’s edge. There are also many great wineries only fifteen minutes away in Paso Robles – take a quick drive to check out their vineyards if you like wine. I recommend doing this the afternoon you arrive so that you don’t have to drive (far) afterward.

Cambria California
Cambria, CA

Hearst Castle, San Simeon

For a peek into the over-the-top lifestyle of William Randolph Hearst, take a tour of his massive estate (165 rooms and it still wasn’t considered finished) in San Simeon. When you’re heading here you will be convinced you’re going the wrong way as it is in the middle of a very bleak isolated area that doesn’t fit your expectations. When you arrive, it’s like a mirage on top of the mountain where it is built. It’s well-worth the Twilight Zone experience of driving there, though, in order to see all the splendor of this lavish home. Take Tour One if you only have one day and not a lot of money to spend. The guides are extremely knowledgeable and entertaining. Keep an eye peeled driving to and from the castle – zebras from Hearst’s zoo run wild here and can be spotted from the road.

Hearst Castle gardens

Nepenthe, Big Sur

Located right off of Route 1, this Big Sur restaurant is more than a restaurant; it’s a destination unto itself with its shop and its patio that hangs suspended high above the crashing waves of the Pacific below, offering stunning views of the Pacific Ocean. The same family has been running the place since the late 40’s – both my mother and I visited it as young women! The food and the wines are excellent, as well.

Nepenthe, Big Sur
Nepenthe restaurant, Big Sur, CA

Point Lobos State Reserve

This gorgeous park is heaven for nature lovers with its many trails and vistas. The majority of the park is composed of beautiful tree-topped rocky outcroppings and the water here is an unreal-looking aquamarine blue. Throughout the park, you can hear the barking calls of the large population of sea lions that live on the offshore rocks nearby.

Point Lobos
Point Lobos State Reserve, Monterey, CA

Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey

This is the best aquarium I’ve ever seen. Instead of a few fish in a tank, you had entire underwater environments with predators swimming with prey, live coral, and underwater forests of sea kelp. The sea otters were my favorite with their own area where you could watch them dive and twist in the water. There are over 200 galleries and exhibits at this aquarium – easily a full day of entertainment. I recommend you go in the morning, break for lunch (they stamp your hand so you can return) at one of the walking-distance downtown restaurants and then return for the afternoon. Try to eat at one of the restaurants near the water and you’ll see more otters and other sea creatures from your table.

Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seahorses for

Asilomar, Pacific Grove

This resort (also a conference center) used to be an old YWCA campground/retreat and has a very unique flavor. Located right on the water with gorgeous grounds with many footpaths to the beach, plan to spend some time exploring the many buildings and the property itself if you stay here. Fishwife Seafood Restaurant is walking distance and offers outstanding seafood that is all sustainable, preventing over-fishing/species extinction.

Asilomar Beach, Pacific Grove
Asilomar Beach, Pacific Grove, CA
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