California Coast Road Trip

UPDATE: Sections of HWY 1 are closed due to landslides and bridge construction — make sure to check conditions before you set out on your road trip! Read More

A stay in California wouldn’t be complete without a road trip on the Pacific Coast Highway. The iconic Hwy 1 continues along most of the California coast through to Oregon and Washington and can be enjoyed at any pace… whether it’s over the course of 1 day or 2 weeks.

Road trips are one of my favorite ways to travel, and of course I love my Southern California home, so I couldn’t think of a better girl’s getaway than taking this coastal road trip!

Here’s the ultimate girls guide to the California Coast road trip!

Venice Beach Sign

Stop 1: Los Angeles

Depending on where you start your road trip, you may want to get through LA quickly to avoid traffic during rush hours, however if you want to spend some time in the city I recommend checking out Santa Monica and Venice Beach!

With its manmade canals, strewn about with imported gondolas straight from Italy, Venice Beach evokes a classy yet laid-back vibe.

Venice is the ultimate place to chill with the “in-crowd,” whether you’re sunbathing, shopping, or sightseeing- and you’ll find everything from an amusement pier, miniature steam railroad, boutiques, coffee bars, art galleries and more.

Santa Barbara

Stop 2: Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara is California’s answer to the Riviera. This is where you’ll find stylish Spanish colonial buildings and upscale boutiques set against the dramatic Santa Ynez Mountains.

Be sure to stop by Seven Bar & Kitchen, a tasty roadside bar. Early plates include succulent buttermilk fried chicken, house waffles, fresh egg scrambles, and sausage gravy-stuffed biscuits.

Afterward, the simple, level roads and coastal breezes invite you to explore the town a la bicyclette. Find a retailer on the beachfront and cycle down the Cabrillo Bike Path on the Waterfront.

You’ll find your way to historical State Street, a charming walkway in the heart of Santa Barbara with eclectic adobes and red-tiled roofs. This is the perfect place for a stroll or window-shopping with your girlfriends among unique boutiques, showrooms, souvenir places, cafés, bars, and restaurants.

Solvang Bakeries

Stop 3: Solvang

Solvang was settled by Danish farmers, and all of downtown has a sort of faux-Danish vibe—this means lots of cute bakeries and gift shops! Be sure to stop by Mortensen’s Danish Bakery for the freshest pastries and cookies around.

At the Old Danish Fudge Kitchen you can grab goodies to your heart’s delight—caramels, caramel apples, homemade soft pretzels, and fudge in a variety of flavors: Oreo, chocolate with pecans, rocky road, vanilla pecan, and more.

Solvang is also home to several fine wineries, such as the popular Sevtap Winery Tasting Room. Even the locals go here, so you know it’s top notch! Try a sample of merlot, chardonnay, or petit verdot—or take a few bottles home as gifts!

One of my favorite tasting rooms was Sort This Out, with its vintage, pin up theme throughout the shop and wines. Be sure to check it out and chat with the friendly winemakers!

Stop 4: Pismo Beach

Next, drive down to Pismo Beach, self-dubbed “Clam Capital of the World” because of the Pismo clams, which once were abundant here. You’ll find the heritage of clamming still strong with the annual Clam Festival and the gigantic concrete clam statue on the end of Price Street.

Stop by local landmark Splash Café Pismo Beach for its award-winning clam chowder (so yummy!). More than 30,000 gallons are served at the café per year!

San Luis Obispo Gum Wall

Stop 5: San Luis Obispo

Next up, it’s San Luis Obispo—dreamy, eclectic, trendy SLO. Stop here for the night at Madonna Inn, a whimsical resort with a fairy-tale exterior and modern furnishings, such as a hilltop terrace, heated infinity pool, spa, and 45-foot waterfall.

Downtown SLO is coastal California’s favorite place to shop for artisan creations, art galleries, and specialty wines.

Every Thursday night, six blocks of Higuera Street are closed off for the second largest farmers’ market on the West Coast. With many vineyards and wineries in the county, the number of tasting rooms in downtown SLO is no surprise.

Helpful Tip: I’d recommend filling up your gas tank here so you don’t have to worry about getting stranded for the next leg of the drive!

Morro Bay Rock

Stop 6: Morro Bay

Morro Bay is one of the coolest natural landmarks I’ve seen in my travels. The quaint seaside town and surrounding beaches have year-round activities like boating, kayaking, surfing, golfing, hiking and biking. There are tons of cute shops, delicious dining options and many accommodation options.

Don’t miss out on the saltwater taffy!

My favorite California-inspired styles!

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McWay Falls Big Sur

Stop 7: Big Sur

Continuing along the coastline will take you to Big Sur, roughly 85 miles of stunning Pacific Ocean scenery. If I could stop at every turnout I would have… be sure to leave yourself a day to cruise up the coast because you WILL want to stop for some photo opps!

For literature buffs out there, stop to browse at the Henry Miller Memorial Library, an “arts center, bookstore, and performance venue” dedicated to literary legend Henry Miller.

You’ll also drive through iconic Big Sur landmarks, like Bixby Bridge!

Lastly, be sure to stop off at the Big Sur Bakery, a rustic restaurant that serves beef brisket, banana bread, and wood-fired pizza.

Helpful Tip: Big Sur Bakery has the only gas station for the next 40 miles north, so be sure to fill up if you’re getting low!

Stop 8: Carmel by the Sea

Carmel is an artist-friendly town famous for its beautiful beach and slice of eccentricity—for example, local law declares that you can’t wear high heels without a permit.

Then hit the 17-Mile Drive, a scenic road past golf courses, mansions, cypress trees, interesting rock formations, and landmarks that sound like they came out of a children’s novel—Lone Cypress, China Rock, Huckleberry Hill, Spanish Bay, and Spyglass Hill.

The ocean views are truly photogenic—go in the afternoon for the clearest horizons.

Monterey Bay Aquarium

Stop 9: Monterey

Not far from Carmel, Cannery Row is Monterey’s waterfront shopping and restaurant street. It was made famous in Steinbeck’s eponymous novel in which he described the road as “a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.”

Originally lined with sardine canning factories, the road is now a tourist hub that is home to cinemas, billiards pubs, live music venues, and the fantastic Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Stop 10: Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk stretches along the coast of the Monterey Bay, a fun place to stop for the afternoon. You can play video games at the arcade, go mini-golfing, play laser tag, and bet at the Casino Fun Center.

There’s also a ton of history here. The famous Giant Dipper rollercoaster and the Looff Carousel are official historical landmarks both worth a ride. You’ll also find the Boardwalk’s Cocoanut Grove events venue, which was featured in the Marx Brothers movie The Cocoanuts and live shows of Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton.

For good eats, catch a cinnamon morning bun or apple slipper at Kelly’s French Bakery or an avocado-heavy quinoa burger with sweet potato tots at Surfrider Cafe.

San Francisco Painted Ladies

Stop 11: San Francisco

It’s down to the last stop—San Francisco! No trip would be complete without a visit to Fisherman’s Wharf, the waterfront tourist attraction where you’ll find Ghirardelli Square, Ripley’s Believe it or Not! museum, Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., and the floating Forbes Island seafood restaurant.

Just south of the Wharf is the Golden Gate Park, were you’ll find the beautiful Conservatory of Flowers, a Victorian-era greenhouse with more than 2,000 species of plants.

Hop on the streetcar to Mission District, the working-class neighborhood that’s gradually built up a reputation as the artist and hipster quarter. It is home to the trendiest restaurants in town and murals that are several blocks long.

If you’ll be staying in the city for a few days, plan to take a trip out of the city to the Marin Headlands for some incredible views of the Golden Gate Bridge. I explored and came across the hidden Point Bonita Lighthouse, which I would recommend to anyone looking for a little getaway from the speed of the city.

READ NEXT: 3-Day California Coast Road Trip

 

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Kiersten Rich
Kiersten Rich is the bikini-obsessed author of award-winning solo female travel and lifestyle blog, The Blonde Abroad, featuring travel tips, fashion, food, festivals and photography from around the world.