Iconic California Coastal Road Trip from LA to San Francisco

Best road trip in California

The scenic coastal drive between Los Angeles and San Francisco is famous for its natural, rugged beauty and historic landmarks. The sparkling ocean, sandy beaches, rocky shorelines, cliffs, and redwood forests make this a top American road trip. While there are shorter (inland) routes bridging LA and SF, the approximately 400-mile coastal route is simply stunning.

You can make the drive in one or two days but why rush. Allow at least three days to park the car and explore charming coastal towns and sights along the way. While this family-friendly road trip is pleasant year-round, fall is especially nice when the weather is still warm but most people have returned to their jobs and schools.

Big Sur on the Pacific Coast Highway
Big Sur on the Pacific Coast Highway (Flickr: Don Graham)

This road trip starts (inland) on US Highway 101 North in LA and offers side trips for those who have more time to explore on their way to the Bay Area.

Tip: Keep cash on hand for cash-only places. Central and Northern California have cooler temps, so bring a light jacket.

Starting Point

From LA, take Highway 101 North to Santa Barbara, about a 90-minute drive.

Worth a stop: Carpinteria (12 miles south of Santa Barbara), a small beach town with wide, sandy beaches. The Spot is a beach shack that serves yummy burgers and shakes. An Avocado Festival happens every October.

Santa Barbara

Park at Stearns Wharf for lunch (Longboard’s Beach Bar & Grill) and to spend a couple of hours in this posh city.

Walk to State Street — lined with boutiques, restaurants and yogurt shops — or ride a waterfront shuttle (nominal fee) for a quick look. Enjoy smoothies at Backyard Bowls (331 Motor Way; 805/845-5379).

Wharf in Santa Barbara
Wharf in Santa Barbara (Flickr: MamaOT)

More time? Take a 90-minute tour on a trolley (hop on/off throughout the day) and see city highlights, including historic Old Mission and the Museum of Natural History. Tour tickets: $22 adults (13 and older); Kids ages 12 and younger ride free with paid adult ticket. Visit the Santa Barbara Zoo and ride a miniature train.

San Luis Obispo County

San Luis Obispo (SLO), a good place to wet your toes at Pismo or Avila beaches. Downtown SLO has many restaurants, art galleries, shops and Bubblegum Alley (if not too grossed out, add your chewing gum to the wall. There’s a sweet shop next door).

Surfers and waves in Pismo Beach
Surfers and waves in Pismo Beach near San Luis Obispo (Flickr: Josiah Mackenzie)

California State Highway 1 (the coastal route)

Catch this highway in SLO for miles of dramatic scenery as you navigate 123 miles of coastline designated an All American Road — among the nation’s most scenic. Explore charming towns along the way.

Morro Bay is a small fishing village known for a huge rock jutting from the ocean. Look for sand dollars on the beach.

Drive 20 miles to Cambria, where the forest meets the ocean. Walk along Moonstone Beach (notice sea lions draped on rocks) and grab a bite to eat at Moonstone Bar & Grill (6550 Moonstone Beach Dr.; 805/927-3859). Numerous hotels and inns face the beach.

San Simeon is about 10 miles north. Tour Hearst Castle (750 Hearst Castle Rd.; 800/444-4445), the former residence of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Reservations are recommended for this National and California Historic Landmark. Several tours offered. The 45-minute Grand Rooms Tour is ideal for first-time visitors. Highlights include several opulent rooms, the Neptune Pool and lush gardens. Tickets: $25 adults; $12 children (ages 5 – 12).

Hearst Castle and grounds
Hearst Castle and grounds (Flickr: Rie H)

Worth a stop (about four miles north of Hearst Castle): The Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery is home to about 20,000 seals, which can be seen year-round on the beach. Free.

Monterey County

Highway 1 hugs the fabled Big Sur coastline, winding along cliffs and through redwood forests and pretty coastal towns, such as Carmel, Pebble Beach and Monterey.

Best Kid-Friendly Side Trips

  • Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. There are several trails: the .64-mile McWay Waterfall Trail is a classic. Campsites and lodging are available (reserve in advance).
  • Point Sur Lighthouse, built in 1889, sits on a volcanic rock 361 feet above the Pacific. Tours available.
  • Point Lobos State Reserve is a 550-acre park with tide pools, granite bluffs and sandy beaches.
  • 17-Mile Drive is a coastal landmark recognized as among the most scenic drives in the world. Take time to get out of the car and enjoy the many scenic points. Note: This is a toll road (about $10).

Best Kid-Friendly Town

Monterey. Kayaking, whale watching and bike riding are among the many family activities. Visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Cannery Row (made famous by writer John Steinbeck). The district is filled with restaurants, shops and hotels. Rent a surrey and peddle to Fisherman’s Wharf. Look for harbor seals, sea otters and pelicans along the way.

Bay Area

Santa Cruz is a quirky Northern California beach town popular for surfing and waterfront activities. The classic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk features rides, games, an arcade, a Ferris wheel and the 1911 Looff Carousel, a National Historic Landmark.

Lighthouse in Santa Cruz
Lighthouse in Santa Cruz (Flickr: Richard Masoner)

Half Moon Bay’s close proximity to San Francisco makes it an ideal home base for visiting the city. Hotels and restaurants cost substantially less and parking is free. Fun, kid-friendly activities include horseback riding on the beach with Sea Horse Ranch, and scouting out sea life in tide pools at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve.

Worth a stop: Devil’s Slide Trail, a 1.3-mile, paved path along cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Pacifica, just outside of San Francisco, has hiking trails, fishing and crabbing. This coastal gem also makes a good home base for visiting San Francisco.

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