The Californian coast is one of the most scenic coastal drives in the world. It’s packed end-to-end with beaches, sea cliffs, rock formations, and more marine life than you could imagine. If you start at Crescent City or San Diego, you should be able to do the entire coastline in about 7-10 days (at a comfortable pace). If any of you are planning to drive the Californian coast, here’s everything you need to know about a California coast road trip!
- Crescent City
- San Francisco
- Santa Barbara
- Los Angeles
- San Diego
Crescent City to San Francisco
- The giant Redwood trees of Redwood National and State Park grow right on the edge of the road and tower above you as you drive through. Be sure to stop at one of the many hiking trails for a walk through the forest.
- Stop in at Fort Bragg, where you’ll find Glass Beach – a former dump that now has smooth sea glass pebbles mixed in with the sand.
- Point Reyes features a lighthouse with scenic views, walking tracks, rocky cliffs, and a beach.
- Even though you might have already seen the Redwood trees up north, Muir Woods is another great place to stop and admire nature at its best. The Muir Woods National Monument is an area of forest with hiking trails that will have you swooning over its natural beauty.
San Francisco to Monterey
- Be sure to spend some time in San Fran before you leave! Check out our San Francisco city guide for some great activities. When you’re ready to start your road trip, head to Lands End then drive south along the coast.
- Your first stop should be the classic Californian beach town of Santa Cruz. Treat yourself to a gelato then stroll along the pier and boardwalk while taking in the relaxed beachside lifestyle.
- Moss Landing is next on the list. Take the Jetty Road turn off and drive all the way to the end – this is where you’ll see a bunch of lazy sea otters chilling on the beach.
- We stop for the evening in Monterey. If you’ve got time, check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium, then take a walk along Fisherman’s Wharf before grabbing some on Cannery Row.
Monterey to Santa Barbara
- On your way out of Monterey, check out Point Lobos for some hiking trails with seacliff views.
- The next vista point where you can marvel at the ocean is Rocky Ridge. Park your car on the side of the road and take a short walk to the lookout.
- Bixby Bridge is one of the most photographed spots on Big Sur. There are multiple areas to pull over before and after the scenic bridge which stretches over a valley between the cliffs.
- Take the turn off for Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and drive down the narrow road until you get to Pfeiffer Beach, one of the most scenic beaches on Big Sur (which apparently has purple sand after stormy weather).
- Another highly photographed spot on Big Sur is McWay Falls. Take a short hike to the spot where you can see the waterfall drop directly onto a sandy beach.
- Hearst Castle sits on top of a hill by the highway, and is a great stop if you’d like to learn a little history. To see the interior of the castle, you must book a tour.
- A great spot for an afternoon coffee stop is Morro Bay, which features a rather massive rock that sits just offshore.
Santa Barbara to Los Angeles
- Before you leave, spend the morning enjoying Santa Barbara. Take a walk along Stearns Wharf, then wander along the east end of State Street through downtown Santa Barbara for some food and/or shopping before heading off on your final leg of the drive.
- Stop in at Malibu to check out the overpriced beach houses where many LA celebrities live (I was a tad excited to discover that Leo DiCaprio owns multiple places there!). If you’re hungry, head to Kristy’s where you can sit on the patio overlooking the ocean with some wine and wood fired pizza.
Los Angeles to San Diego
- If you’re into theme parks, then be sure to visit Disneyland in Anaheim. Some other places to get your theme park fix are Universal Studios and Knott’s Berry Farm in Los Angeles (both are included on the Los Angeles GoCard). Further down the coast you’ll find Legoland California in Carlsbad, and SeaWorld in San Diego.
- Stop at Newport Beach along the way.
OTHER TIPS FOR DRIVING THE CALIFORNIA COAST:
- We visited in March, which is the shoulder season for Big Sur. It’s usually a little rainy at this time of year, and unfortunately for us El Niño was causing it to be even wetter than usual. The drive might be busier during the peak season of April-October, but believe me, it will be worth putting up with additional traffic for nicer weather!
- Don’t rush it. This is an incredibly scenic drive and there are plenty of places to stop along the way. You could do Big Sur in a day or the entire California coast in 2-3 days if you really wanted to, but it will be much more enjoyable if you do it slowly.
- If you need to hire a car, you can get one from the airport or from the city, and do a one-way rental. We ended up going with Sixt for our car renal from San Francisco Airport.