No matter where you’re from, but especially if you grew up in America, road tripping the Pacific Coast Highway has been ingrained in the trenches of your subconscious since you were at least an early teenager.
It’s one of the world’s most beautiful drives and needs to introduction, but the great question when you *do* get to make the windy trip down US 1 — is where to take your pitstops.
There are lots of ways to divide the drive, but for this post I spent 5 days hitting the top spots from San Francisco to San Luis Obispo — and digging into the nooks and crannies — to make some judgement calls on what’s worth seeing, and what’s worth passing by.
1- Should I drive North or South?
Depends on when you want your trip to “peak.”
Using Big Sur as the divide, north has more variety, south is more relaxed.
2- How many days do I need?
Under no circumstances should you squeeze this into any less than 3 days, if you plan to make stops and enjoy things along the way.
If you’re looking for a means to an end for transportation, take I-5. It’s not polite to tease.
3- Where should I sleep?
What I say next may come as a surprise.
I love a good luxe hotel, and splurge to be catered to far more often than I should. But if you have the right setup, at least in the central Big Sur area, car camping is the way to go.
These campgrounds are booked months in advance and packed with people, and the hotels, while lovely, are charging for *location.* You know where the most prime *location* is?
Waking up to the sun peeking over jagged cliffs next to roaring the Pacific Ocean and stepping right out onto one of the world’s most famous highways. (If you insist, Kirk Creek Campground achieves these things.) And there are no mosquitos at night.
If you’re ever going to car camp, do it here.
4- What will I eat?
San Francisco, Carmel and San Luis Obispo have tons of amazing restaurants and awesome food.
In Big Sur, expect to pay $20 for a mediocre meal. (I paid $8 for a coffee, and not the fair trade organic kind either. It was gross.) There’s always Taco Bell, but I’d pack groceries for in between.
OK, now on to the fun stuff — where to stop!
Starting from San Francisco southbound:
1- Ritz Carlton Half Moon Bay – Lucky for most of us, the Ritz graciously allows coastal access for non-hotel guests who check in at valet. Stick around for the bagpipe player at sunset if your schedule allows.
2- Santa Cruz Boardwalk – Kitschy, quirky, America’s best seaside amusement park. You have to at least see it.
3- Capitola Wharf – Skip the crowds at Natural Bridges State Beach and head to this vibrant little beach town nearby. It’s about time for a drink, so take in the colors from The Sand Bar and let Matt make you a blended coconut mojito.
4- Monterey Bay Aquarium – If you’re traveling with kids, have the extra time or are just really into aquariums, this is the country’s largest aquarium, and they have penguins. If not, stroll along Seaside Beach nearby instead.
5- 17-Mile Drive – I’ll probably get cut for saying this, but there’s nothing along the 17-mile drive you won’t see if you keep driving.
6- Carmel-by-the-Sea – Eat Mediterranean food! Browse the galleries! Drive through the adorable little neighborhood along Carmel Beach and daydream about owning that Snow White cottage! It’s the best food you’ll have for a while.
7- Point Lobos – Loads of great trails and hiking are just around the riverbend, but if you want a more “established” spot to get up close and personal with the coastline (or have a group with accessibility needs), this your stop. Skip if you’re into off-roading.
8- Soberanes Canyon Trail – Although I didn’t do it, this is a super popular trail among locals. Consensus says hike early in the day to beat the heat.
9- Calla Lily Valley – Valley of wild calla lilies leads to private beach oasis completely hidden from the highway. Hello, little paradise. (Please use the trail steps to preserve these beauties.)
10- Bixby Bridge – TURN LEFT. Resist the urge to follow the crowds and head up that windy, dirt road (Old Coast Road) for a view through the valley. If you’re equipped in a truck or 4-wheel drive SUV, follow it all 10 miles back through some *amazing* terrain. (Thx sras67 for the tip, I only went back 4 mi!) Your Camry will make it safely to where you’re parallel to the bridge.
11- Big Sur River Restautant + Inn – Strongest WI-FI in Big Sur and an adorable setup out back with wooden chairs in the river. Adorbs.
12- Partington Cove – So many thanks to California Through My Lens for sharing this gem with the interweb! Unmarked trail leads to crystal clear stream leads to mysterious cave tunnel leads to super aggressive hidden cove with 90 foot sea kelps. Just, stop it. One of my favorite adventures of the whole trip.
13- Hearst Castle – Yes, this is a tourist trap and a half but it is SO ornate and worth every bit of $25 and 45 minutes. Shoutout if you caught my tour on Snapchat (crntlyexploring)!
14 – Montana de Oro State Park – If you’re driving in spring, this is one of the largest wildflower spots in all of CA.
15 – Downtown San Luis Obispo – Eat! Shop! Shop! Drink coffee! SHOP! Seriously, so many cute boutiques here.
Overall, you’re in for the time of your life — this was the most scenic drive I’ve taken yet, all the windy, cliffside roads, sandy beaches, flowers and views for DAYS! Now to drum up a killer soundtrack…