It is one of the dream road trips. Driving the coastal Highway One in California. It can be done anytime of the year, but I recommend doing it in April or May as it is the greenest and you have the best chance to see beautiful wild flowers as well. Many people fly from all over the world to drive highway one and make one of two mistakes. They either get a gigantic camper which makes the winding road less enjoyable for yourself and other cars on the road, or they rent a convertible thinking that they are in sunny California, and are freezing. This last time I drove highway one, I had never seen so many convertible mustangs in my life, it must be a thing. You need at least week to do it properly, flying into either Los Angeles and out of San Francisco, or the other direction. I like to go north because I like a little pavement to my left when I am driving the really curvy parts of the road. So here we go!
a note about this plan, this trip will not take five days. You will want to stop and stay a day or two at some of the stops so plan a week if not two weeks to do this drive properly.
Day One: Start in Santa Monica and end in Santa Barbara
Where the traditional route 66 hits highway 1, it makes a perfect start to your road trip. Enjoy the scenery of Malibu and enjoy one of its beaches. Driving through Malibu is a really neat experience. First, you will see many supercars around you. If you stop a grocery store or coffee shop and look around the at the cars, you will see more European cars and cars over $50,000 than I have ever seen in my life. If you have time, check out the Getty Villa with its beautiful gardens and Greek and Roman statues, it is free but you have to make reservations. Stop at a beach and continue on highway 1 until you reach the 101 and drive up to Santa Barbara.
Day Two: Santa Barbara to San Simeon
If you have not read my tips on visiting Santa Barbara, I recommend doing this so that you can fully enjoy your time there. If you have time, stay for a day or two because there is a lot to see. Head out of Santa Barbara going north on Highway 101. Drive a beautiful section of Highway 101, going by a couple of state beaches and heading into wine country. Once you hit San Luis Obispo head over to Highway 1. You can stop in any of the little towns here, Morro Bay is very popular, but the big stop is Hearst Castle. Hearst Castle is a national historic landmark and is worth a half day visit. Built by William Randolph Hearst starting in 1919, it was a place that A List people would visit in the 1920s and 30s. Hearst used is vast fortune to bring art and parts including doors and ceilings from places all over Europe. There are many tours that you can take, but if you have not been there before, make sure you take the Grand Rooms Tour. San Simeon is small but there are plenty of hotels or campgrounds. Head to the Hearst Castle Beach and pier and go wine tasting and get some food at Hearst Ranch Winery
Day Three: San Simeon to Carmel including Big Sur
Get up bright and early for one of the greatest drives of your life. Make sure you have a full tank of gas! Right after leaving San Simeon, stop at the Elephant Seal Reserve. This is only about ten minutes north of San Simeon, and is a pretty amazing sight.
After leaving this you will start to driving the winding part of highway 1 into Big Sur. Big Sur is not one town but an area. There are plenty of places to pull over and take pictures so don’t worry and don’t hold up traffic as that can be very dangerous. Cell phone service is pretty limited so make sure you have a map and a plan before going here. The first stop if you have time is Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.
As you keep driving, you will notice a lot of cars pulling over into parking lots and scenic overlooks. This is for Bixby Bridge which is a single-span concrete arch more than 260 feet (80 meters) high and 700 feet (200 meters) long. There are turn outs at both ends, so if you accidentally miss it, you can stop at the other end.
You will then pass by Garrapata State Park and then head towards Carmel. If you have time head to Point Lobos State Reserve which I think is a must stop, but I recommend staying the night in Carmel and heading back there as it is only about 4 miles south of Carmel.
Day Four: Carmel to Santa Cruz
If you have time, I would spend a couple of days here. First starting back at Point Lobos and spending at least the morning there. Carmel is a wonderful town and has a beautiful mission. Take the 17 Mile Drive which takes you by some of the most beautiful homes and golf courses including the famed Pebble Beach. There is a fee, but you can get it back if you eat at Pebble Beach. There is a fancy restaurant and a grill that has some of the best views ever.
Leaving the 17 Mile Drive, head into Monterrey passing by Pacific Grove which is worth a walk. The big sights in Monterey are Fisherman’s Wharf, Cannery Row and Monterey Bay Aquarium. If you have not been to the Monterey Bay Aquarium then you are really missing out and should make the time on this trip to do so. After you have seen these things, head on into Santa Cruz.
Day Five: Santa Cruz to San Francisco
This drive is a rugged coastline road and you can also see redwood trees. I have some tips on what to see in Santa Cruz on my day trip section of three days in San Francisco but the big things are the Boardwalk and beach and the redwood trees. I like to take a train into the mountains about Santa Cruz but you can drive up there as well. A good place to see redwoods is at Henry Cowell Redwood State Park which is in the mountains above Santa Cruz.
After spending time in Santa Cruz, head up highway 1 through Half Moon Bay and head into San Francisco. I have plenty of tips on San Francisco in a different post so take a look at it for your time there.
Have fun and remember to plan at least a week if not two for this trip.