The Ultimate California Coast Road Trip

The Ultimate California Coast Road Trip

Carly Williams

Updated January 17, 2020 Updated January 17

A trip down the California Coast via the Pacific Coast Highway is guaranteed to boast breathtaking views, an amazingly chilled-out vibe, and overall an unforgettable experience. From stunning coastal views, lush forests and waterfalls, to spectacular beaches, there’s no shortage of amazing destinations to visit.

You may find yourself in the bustling city of San Francisco and an hour later in the most secluded spot with no one around. Or perhaps you want to venture on a wine tour at some of the world’s highest rated wineries? California truly has it all.

It’s no surprise that the Californian coast is known as one of the most scenic drives in the world, with countless opportunities to pull over and snap a photo or two (and maybe stay a while). The entire drive takes around ten hours, but of course you’ll want to spend a heck of a lot more time than that. Here are a few of the must-do stops between San Francisco and San Diego that will be sure to blow your mind.

San Francisco

San Francisco

You’ll begin your journey at the city home to the famous Golden Gate Bridge and the Full House strip of houses, where you will roam the steep streets of San Fran (or take the street car instead), take a trip the popular Fisherman’s Wharf for some yummy seafood, or grab a coffee at one of the many bustling cafes.

Santa Jose and Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz

After leaving San Fran, your first stops along the coast include Santa Jose and Santa Cruz, which, while similar in name, are quite different and are both deserving of a visit.

Santa Jose is full of galleries and museums, as well as Facebook and Google HQs. As you make your way out of town be sure to pull over for a photo op at picturesque Half Moon Bay before heading to Santa Cruz. Here you will find the Santa Cruz Boardwalk where you will step right back into the 1960s, with old school rides and games along the beach. If you are staying for the night, head to Pacific Avenue for vintage shops, great nightlife and restaurants, and live music. This is also a great place to go whale watching in the right season.

Monterey Bay

Monterey Bay


An hour after leaving Santa Cruz you will arrive in Monterey Bay, a spot with stunning nature reserves and a cute seaside village with shops and cafes. This is the best place along the coast to throw yourself into water activities, with sailing, kayaking, and whale watching being must-do activities. It’s also a great place to rent a bike for a day to explore the scenic ‘17 Mile Drive’.

Big Sur

Bixby Bridge


Now comes the good stuff! To get to Big Sur, a mountain community with a chilled-out, hippy vibe to it, you’ll travel over the Bixby Bridge—one of the tallest single span concrete bridges in the world. It’s also one of the most photographed spots on the West Coast, which means you will have plenty of opportunities for photos.

The number of spectacular spots along the Big Sur are endless, with a few being McWay Falls, Ragged Point, and Pfeiffer Beach. You’ll probably find yourself wanting to stop and take in the view around every corner, so block off a generous amount of time here in order to take it all in.

San Simeon and San Luis Obispo 

San Luis Obispo


After all that driving, you will probably want a pit stop to rest up. San Simeon is home to Hearst Castle, the number one attraction in the area, welcoming more than 1 million people each year. The castle boasts 250,000 acres of land, with different rooms, cottages, and stunning gardens. You’ll feel like you’re traveling back in time as you make your way through the grounds.

San Luis Obispo is home to a 15-foot high, 70-foot long gum wall where you can leave your (sticky) mark on the world. There are also plenty of hikes in the area, as well as Pismo Beach which boasts coastal restaurants, wine tasting, surfing, and mineral springs to dip into.

Santa Barbara and Ventura

Santa Barbara


If you’re an animal and flora lover, you will definitely want to make a stop in Santa Barbara to pay a visit to the Santa Barbara Zoo and Botanical Garden. There are also various theatres and museums if you wanted to catch a show or learn more about the history of the area.

The next stop on your journey will be Ventura Beach, which is the spot to grab a surfboard if you’re keen. If not, it’s still a great place to spend a day on the beach or to check out all of the vintage shops in town.




Malibu: where the rich and famous of Hollywood can find solitude outside of the city with a vibe like no other. It’s the perfect spot to spend a day or two walking along the piers, check out one of the many amazing seafood restaurants, or simply lust over the amazing homes right on the water. If you’re lucky, you may even be able to stay the night in one of them.

On your way out of Malibu (if you ever leave), be sure to stop at the stunning Topanga Canyon and take in the view from the lookout.

Los Angeles

Los Angeles

Most visitors have a love/hate relationship with Los Angeles. It’s a spot that you pretty much have to stop at to check out places like the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the Santa Monica Pier, but it’s not exactly a place you would want to stay in for too long.

A couple of days in LA is enough to take in the famous views of the Hollywood sign, visit some TV sets at Universal Studios, and take a stroll down Rodeo Drive. However, if you are in for some celeb sightings, you may want to stick around to go on a star’s home tour.

Long and Laguna Beaches 

Laguna Beach

After experiencing the bright lights of LA, take a detour towards Long Beach, where you will drive by spots like Laguna Beach, Newport Beach, and Huntington Beach (basically a bunch of cute little beach towns). It will definitely be a nice break after the hecticness of the city and may be worth your while to stop and relax on the beach for a few days.

San Diego

San Diego


Unfortunately, you have reached the end of your road trip! Make the most of the famous city of San Diego, a bustling city with a small-town vibe. You can relax at Balboa Park, explore the downtown core, or visit Cabrillo National Monument where you will be welcomed with picturesque views of the skyline.

This article was originally published in November 2019 . It was last updated in January 2020

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