I’ve done the entire California coastal drive by dividing it into three sections, each completed on separate occasions.
First, I travelled from Los Angeles to San Diego by bus as part of a Contiki tour. This was on my first trip to the US back in 2009.
Then Robert and I drove from San Francisco to Crescent City on our way to Portland. This was on a two-week west coast trip back in 2013.
To finish it all off, Robert and I decided to complete the drive by filling in the gap between San Fran and LA in March.
I absolutely love the Californian coast, and can confirm that it’s one of the most scenic coastal drives in the world. It’s packed end-to-end with beaches, sea cliffs, rock formations, and more marine life than you could imagine.
If any of you are planning to drive the Californian coast, here’s everything you need to know about a Big Sur/California coast road trip!
Big Sur road trip itinerary
This is a relaxed pace 3-day itinerary, with overnight stops in Monterey and Santa Barbara. To cut it down to 2 days, you can stay anywhere along the Big Sur coast (between Monterey and Santa Barbara) instead.
If you need to hire a car, you can get one from the airport or from the city, and do a one-way rental. We ended up going with Sixt from San Francisco Airport.
San Francisco to Monterey
- Be sure to spend some time in San Fran before you leave! I’ve put together an essential activities guide to San Francisco to give you some ideas. When you’re ready to start your road trip, head to Lands End then drive south along the coast.
- Your first stop should be the classic Californian beach town of Santa Cruz. Treat yourself to a gelato then stroll along the pier and boardwalk while taking in the relaxed beachside lifestyle.
- Moss Landing is next on the list. Take the Jetty Road turn off and drive all the way to the end – this is where you’ll see a bunch of lazy sea otters chilling on the beach.
- We stop for the evening in Monterey. If you’ve got time, check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium, then take a walk along Fisherman’s Wharf before grabbing some on Cannery Row.
- We stayed at Americas Best Value Presidents Inn in Monterey.
Scenic coastal drive along Big Sur
Monterey to Santa Barbara
- On your way out of Monterey, check out Point Lobos for some hiking trails with seacliff views.
- The next vista point where you can marvel at the ocean is Rocky Ridge. Park your car on the side of the road and take a short walk to the lookout.
- Bixby Bridge is one of the most photographed spots on Big Sur. There are multiple areas to pull over before and after the scenic bridge which stretches over a valley between the cliffs.
- Take the turn off for Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and drive down the narrow road until you get to Pfeiffer Beach, one of the most scenic beaches on Big Sur (which apparently has purple sand after stormy weather).
- Another highly photographed spot on Big Sur is McWay Falls. Take this short hike to the spot where you can see the waterfall drop directly onto a sandy beach.
- Hearst Castle sits on top of a hill by the highway, and is a great stop if you’d like to learn a little history. To see the interior of the castle, you must book a tour.
- A great spot for an afternoon coffee stop is Morro Bay, which features a rather massive rock that sits just offshore.
- We stayed at Castillo Inn at the Beach in Santa Barbara.
Driving southeast from Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara to Los Angeles
- Before you leave, spend the morning enjoying Santa Barbara. Take a walk along Stearns Wharf, then wander along the east end of State Street through downtown Santa Barbara for some food and/or shopping before heading off on your final leg of the drive.
- Stop in at Malibu to check out the overpriced beach houses where many LA celebrities live (I was a tad excited to discover that Leo DiCaprio owns multiple places there!). If you’re hungry, head to Kristy’s where you can sit on the patio overlooking the ocean with some wine and wood fired pizza.
California coast road trip extensions
If you’ve got some time on your hands and want to attempt more than just Big Sur, here’s the extensions you can do. If you start at Crescent City or San Diego, you should be able to do the entire coastline in about 7-10 days (at a comfortable pace).
California coast road trip in full, from Crescent City to San Diego
Crescent City to San Francisco
We did this drive in 1 day, but you can split it into 2 days for a more relaxed pace.
- The giant Redwood trees of Redwood National and State Park grow right on the edge of the road and tower above you as you drive through. Be sure to stop at one of the many hiking trails for a walk through the forest.
- Stop in at Fort Bragg, where you’ll find Glass Beach – a former dump that now has smooth sea glass pebbles mixed in with the sand.
- Point Reyes features a lighthouse with scenic views, walking tracks, rocky cliffs, and a beach.
- Even though you might have already seen the Redwood trees up north, Muir Woods is another great place to stop and admire nature at its best. The Muir Woods National Monument is an area of forest with hiking trails that will have you swooning over its natural beauty.
Los Angeles to San Diego
Spend some time in LA if you can! Check out my Los Angeles city guide for some ideas on things to do in the city. There’s not a lot of places to stop between Los Angeles and San Diego as the drive is fairly short at around 2.5 hours, but you have a few options:
- If you’re into theme parks then you have some decisions to make – take your pick between Disneyland or Knott’s Berry Farm in Anahiem, or Legoland in Carlsbad. Or do all three. Your choice.
- Stop at Newport along the way (especially if you’re an OC fan like I used to be!).
Other tips for driving the california coast:
- My #1 mistake on this road trip was not anticipating the weather. We visited in March, which is the shoulder season for Big Sur. It’s usually a little rainy at this time of year, and unfortunately for us El Niño was causing it to be even wetter than usual. The drive might be busier during the peak season of April-October, but believe me, it will be worth putting up with additional traffic for nicer weather!
- Don’t rush it. This is an incredibly scenic drive and there are plenty of places to stop along the way. You could do Big Sur in a day or the entire California coast in 2-3 days if you really wanted to, but it will be much more enjoyable if you do it slowly.
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