I love to take road trips – a nice car, good weather, beautiful scenery all make for a special experience. And one of the best road trips is California’s Highway 1 along the rugged coastline from San Francisco to Los Angeles. During my almost 20 years in San Francisco, I’ve driven that road at least 15 times – and still can’t get enough of it. Check out my photos below to see why!
Millions of people visit San Francisco, the city I fell in love with, every year. But you can only partially understand the attraction by visiting Fisherman’s Wharf, Union Square or the quirky neighborhoods. Part of what makes San Francisco so special are the great getaways from the busy city and Silicon Valley to the Wine Country, Lake Tahoe or Monterey. And driving Highway 1 is not only one of the most beautiful roads in the World, it’s also a great way to see a different side of California.
Starting in San Francisco, Highway 1 will lead you along the Pacifica coast. With its morning (or daytime) fog, it has a cool character, sometimes even mysterious. And on any day, it’s more fun to drive than the busy I-280 or CA101 through Silicon Valley. Along the road South, you will pass plenty of destinations that are worth a weekend getaway on their own, like Half Moon Bay with the best brunch on the planet at the Ritz Carlton, the university beach town of Santa Cruz or quiet Capitola.
The next and very popular destination is Monterey with its great Aquarium, sea lions in the wild and coastal boardwalks (read my detailed review here). It is also the start of what is the most stretch of coast you’ll find in California. On the Monterey Peninsula, you’ll find the 17-Mile-Drive, It is beautifully maintained and offers some of the best photo opportunities you can imagine, with the iconic cypress just one of them. I’m pretty sure, I’ve photographed every rock and flower along the road several times. And do take the time to get out of the car, there are plenty of options to park and go for a nice stroll along the coast.
Just South of Monterey, the beautiful coast continues and offers the most fun drive on the open Highway 1. You are driving high above the ocean, with a cliff into the sea on one side and the mountain going straight up on the other. The road winds around the little bays all the way through the Big Sur National Park, making for interesting driving and stunning views after every corner.
Fortunately, there are plenty of marked viewpoints and parking lots, so you can safely enjoy the views from outside the car! At this point, it’s hard to believe that you are in densely populated California, with mountains, forests and the ocean all around.
When the road straightens out again, you will have reached the Central Coast, with beach towns like Morro Bay or Pismo Beach. They are somewhere in between the Northern and Southern California beach towns – in distance and in character. While best not combined with a road trip, driving South from Pismo Beach will take you into the wine country around Solvang and Ynez Valley. Your views are changing to rolling hills and vineyards, before returning to the coast near Santa Barbara! What Monterey is to Northern California, Santa Barbara is to Southern California: A beautiful seaside town, easy to reach, yet light years away from the crazy life & traffic of Los Angeles. And here the beautiful road trip comes to an end and your drive continues on the busy highways of Los Angeles. Along this drive, you will get many reasons why so many Californians love their home state so fiercely – the natural beauty so close to the cities adds greatly to the quality of life and makes it so attractive to visitors as well!
Travel Tips: If you are planning this road trip, I recommend to start in San Francisco. Most of the view points and parking spots are on the ocean side, making it much easier and safer to stop while driving South! Many of the towns along Highway 1 are popular getaway destinations and are very busy on weekends. That makes the drive harder, longer and stopovers much more expensive. I suggest you take this trip during the week, if you are on a longer visit! And do take your time. While Google says it’ll take about 9 hours to drive from San Francisco to Santa Monica along, I recommend to make at least one overnight stop, better two. With two stops, Monterey in the North is a great first stop. Read my detailed review and travel tips for more information. The wine country around Solvang or the beach near Santa Barbara are great stops to enjoy what the California Coast has to offer.
The Holiday Inn Express in Solvang or the Marriott Santa Ynez Valley are in the heart of the wine country. The Doubletree Fess Parker or Indigo in Santa Barbara are nice options for a stop there. If you want to stop only once, Morro Bay or Pismo Beach are nice beach towns near the midpoint (check my review of the Days Inn Morro Bay). Hotels in the inland towns of Santa Maria and San Luis Obispo are significantly cheaper, especially on weekends. While many of my friends want to skip past Los Angeles, I am a fan of the beach towns – you get beautiful beaches with fun towns right behind them all along the coast. Santa Monica is one of my favorites and the Wyndham Santa Monica a good place to stay. You can find current prices in Santa Monica here!
To make this drive even better, rent a convertible. Feeling the cool ocean breeze in your face and smelling the pine trees around you adds to the experience. And they’ll be a lot more fun to drive than an SUV or mini van, too! Do bring a hat and put on sunscreen – the sun is strong and you’ll have a sunburn faster than you can imagine!
Don’t forget to fill up in Monterey and/or San Luis Obispo on your drive. Gas stations are few and far on Highway 1 between those cities and gas prices suggest that the precious liquid is laced with gold (it isn’t, I checked!).
Above all, drive safely and take your time to enjoy the views – they don’t get much better than this!