California’s Highway 1 is one of the most scenic stretches of road anywhere on the planet. If you’re planning a visit, put the epic coastal road trip high on your list. And read on for the most amazing places to stop on a Pacific Coast Highway road trip between San Francisco and San Diego!
WHERE to Stop on YOUR Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip
With vibrant coastal cities, charming little beach towns, and spectacular sights strewn generously all across the length of the California coast, you’ll be spoiled for choice on where to stop and explore.
Of course, the time you’ve allotted to your California coast road trip will dictate the number of stops you can make, but here are some fabulous options from which to pick!
#1 San Francisco
The City by the Bay has much to offer every type of traveler. Walk or bike across the spectacular Golden Gate Bridge, visit the Japanese Tea Garden in the Golden Gate Park, or take a photo of the lovely San Francisco Palace of Fine Arts. Stroll the beautiful Botanical Garden. Tour the infamous Alcatraz Prison in the bay.
Enjoy the art at the Museum of Modern Art, and see the Painted Ladies on Alamo Square. Pose for a photo on the tiled steps on 16th Street. Stroll Union Square, and see the sea lions and street performers at Pier 39. Drive up, or down Lombard Street, the most crooked street in the city.
Take a ride on a San Francisco cable car. Have brunch at one of the city’s hot spots, such as Nopa (reserve ahead). Explore some of San Francisco’s neighborhoods, such as the colorful streets of Chinatown, or the murals of the Mission District. Enjoy artisanal foods at the Ferry Building. Climb to the top of Coit Tower or drive to the top of Twin Peaks for fabulous views over the city.
And if you’ve covered everything you want in the city, take a day trip to the Napa Valley, or spend some time among the redwoods at the Muir Woods National Monument (you’ll need to make a reservation in advance). You have a wide choice of day and weekend trips from San Francisco if you plan to spend a few days here.
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#2 Half Moon Bay
Not too far from San Francisco, Half Moon Bay is too beautiful not to make a brief stop. If you’re traveling north to south, it’s here you will get a good look at the gorgeous coastline. Half Moon Bay has beautiful coastal walks, both along the bluff, and on the beach.
Stroll the quaint Main Street, with its cafes and one-of-a-kind shops. Have a drink at the Ocean Terrace in the Ritz-Carlton, where you can look straight out at the ocean while fire-pits keep you toasty if the day is cool.
A few miles south of Half Moon Bay, stop to view the elephant seals at the Año Nuevo State Park: every winter, thousands of seals converge at the park to breed, but you can also see them other times of the year.
Also along the coast between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz at Pescadero, you’ll find the picturesque Pigeon Point Lighthouse. The historic 115-foot tall lighthouse has been in operation since 1872 and is a great quick stop for photos.
#3 Santa Cruz
A fun California beach town known for its beautiful university campus and surfing culture, Santa Cruz is also enviably close to forests of towering redwoods and the Santa Cruz Mountains. The town is great for strolling.
This stretch of coast is home to some beautiful spots, including the rock arch at the Natural Bridges State Beach, and West Cliff Drive, which is especially gorgeous at sunset.
Visit the historic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, which has been entertaining visitors for over 100 years. A couple of rides here are National Historic Landmarks! You can walk the mile-long boardwalk for free.
The Monterey Peninsula has a cluster of small coastal towns that are a joy to explore: Monterey, Carmel-by-the-Sea, Pacific Grove, and Pebble Beach. All four towns have excellent dining options, with seafood and farm-to-table cuisine showcasing the area’s fresh produce.
In Monterey, visit the aquarium or stroll Cannery Row, with its shops and restaurants. Take a whale watching tour: Monterey Bay is one of the world’s best whale watching areas, and we saw at least 2 dozen whales when we did a tour!
In Pacific Grove, walk the coastal trail, view the old lighthouse, enjoy Asilomar Beach, or go tidepooling. Pebble Beach is home to the famous 17-mile drive: ogle the beautiful homes and take a photo of the famous Lone Cypress tree.
In Carmel-by-the-Sea, enjoy a picnic on the sandy beach, stroll the quaint streets of the village, tour the Hugh Comstock fairytale cottages, enjoy wine tastings at one of many tasting rooms, or browse art galleries and boutique stores. Carmel also boasts one of the prettiest California missions.
Read more: What to Do in Point Lobos State Reserve
#5 Big Sur
Arguably the most scenic stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway, the 60+ miles between Carmel and Ragged Point offer spectacular views of the water and the wild coastline. With few visible signs of development, and plenty of pullouts to park, you can savor the beauty and take zillions of photos.
This is not a part of the drive you want to rush, and I highly recommend spending the better part of a day at Big Sur. While there are at least 5 must-stop spots along the Big Sur Coast, you’ll likely want to stop at every pullout you come across, because the views are so stunning.
If you like lighthouses, you may want to take the tour of the Point Sur Light Station. Or stop for a drink or a meal at the Nepenthe Restaurant, with its fabulous views. Or check out the purple sand at Pfeiffer Beach.
The Big Sur Coast is so spectacular that it is a must-stop spot on any West Coast road trip. With several state parks, beaches, and coastal areas to explore, there’s something at Big Sur for every visitor!
And if you plan to spend a couple of nights here, Ventana Glamping is a unique Big Sur experience you must check out.
#6 San Simeon
Just before you hit San Simeon, make a stop at the Piedras Blancas Rookery to take a look at the elephant seals. Some elephant seal bulls are enormous. If you visit during mating season, you may see a fight for mating rights happen during your visit!
While San Simeon has gorgeous beaches (you can swim at the W. R. Hearst Memorial State Beach), the main draw here is Hearst Castle, built by San Francisco architect Julia Morgan for publisher William Randolph Hearst in the early 1900s, and now a California State Park.
The castle can only be visited as part of a guided tour and you can pick from several tour options. We have done the Grand Rooms Tour, and the Cottages & Kitchens Tour, and I enjoyed both. The outdoor Neptune pool and the indoor Roman pool are both spectacular.
The central California coast is dotted with many small beach towns, and Cambria is one of the most charming. Browse the art galleries and boutique stores along the main street. Try a slice of lingonberry pie.
Walking the Moonstone Beach Boardwalk is one of the best things to do in Cambria. Or do the bluff trail at the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve. Both walks offer beautiful ocean views. You’ll see lots of wildflowers along the trails in season: Cambria is one of the nicest places to visit in California in the spring.
If you enjoy wine and have the time for a detour, take State Route 46 inland from Cambria to Paso Robles. The 30-mile drive is beautiful, and you will find many wineries (with tasting rooms and great restaurants) along the road as you approach Paso Robles.
Read more: Top Things to Do in Cambria
#8 Morro Bay
You can tell you’re approaching Morro Bay when you see the looming hulk of Morro Rock sitting in the water just off the coast. Walk along the sand at Morro Strand State Beach, or try a trail in Morro Bay State Park. Look for sea otters frolicking in the water.
If you enjoy walking in nature, do the small detour to Montaña de Oro State Park, just 10 miles away. Walk the Bluff Trail, a nice easy walk with sensational views of the Pacific Ocean and the rugged coastline. If you visit in the spring, you’ll see the golden wildflowers that give the place its name.
Get out onto the water: take a boat cruise to spot whales and other wildlife. You may be able to spot one of the peregrine falcons that nest in Morro Rock, or other birds. If you want a more active experience, go kayaking in the bay. Eat at a waterfront restaurant.
#9 San Luis Obispo
SLO, as San Luis Obispo is also known, has a vibrant downtown that is fun to stroll. Visit Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, founded by Franciscan friar Junipero Serra in 1772. Browse the many boutique shops, where you’ll find clothing, jewelry, and artisanal foods and wine.
If you enjoy wine, the Edna Valley in San Luis Obispo has lots of tasting rooms. The cool-climate grapes grown in the area produce wines with complex flavors, and the chardonnay and pinot noir produced here have won awards. Plus, the vineyards are really picturesque!
If you visit on a Thursday evening, visit the farmers’ market in downtown SLO. Apart from fresh fruit, nuts, and veggies, you’ll find lots of prepared foods to try and street performers to watch.
Read more: Spectacular California Weekend Getaways
#10 Pismo Beach
Want to drive an ATV on the sand? Head to Oceano Dunes, just south of Pismo Beach, where you can enjoy the thrill of driving an offroad vehicle over the sand dunes!
Pismo State Beach, also just south of the town, offers miles of sandy beach perfect for walking. You can also swim or surf, or explore the sand dunes. In town, walk the Pismo Beach Pier for stunning photo ops, especially at sunrise or sunset.
And if you visit in the winter, be sure to check out the Monarch Butterfly Grove, on the north end of Pismo State Beach, close to town. You’ll see thousands of the orange-and-black butterflies resting on the branches of eucalyptus trees in the grove. It’s an amazing sight!
#11 Santa Ynez Valley
Between Pismo Beach and Gaviota, CA State Route 1 goes inland, mainly through farmland, so you might instead want to take US 101S to Los Olivos and explore the towns of the Santa Ynez Valley before taking the very scenic CA State Route 154 to Santa Barbara.
Los Olivos is a historic small town in the valley, surrounded by pretty vineyards and orchards. You can stroll the town, with its many wine tasting rooms and boutique stores, and enjoy a meal at one of the fine dining restaurants.
In Ballard, snap a photo of the little red schoolhouse, dating back to the 1880s. Sample moonshine at one of the distilleries in Buellton. In Santa Ynez, visit the Spanish mission. And in Danish-American Solvang, photograph the colorful facades and windmills, and taste Danish sweet treats at one of the bakeries in town.
The roads of the valley make for a beautiful drive, with rolling farmland and ranches, vineyards, olive groves, orchards, and period architecture. California countryside at its scenic best!
#12 Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara has everything you’d look for in a California coastal city: a lovely downtown, a gorgeous waterfront, scenic beaches, and that undefinable vibe that spells active fun and relaxation all at once. And with its pretty Mediterranean red rooftops, it looks picture perfect!
Stroll State Street in downtown Santa Barbara, with its numerous upscale stores, art galleries, cafes and restaurants. Shop or browse at the vibrant El Paseo shopping district. Enjoy fine dining and wine tasting.
Head to the top of the clock tower at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse for beautiful rooftop views. Then tour the beautiful interior of the courthouse. For more history, visit the Santa Barbara Mission, called the “Queen of the Missions” for its beauty.
Make your way to Montecito, where you can drive around the tony area before visiting the gardens at Lotusland. Then head to Butterfly Beach for an evening walk and to take in a beautiful West Coast sunset.
Read more: 5 Instagrammable Places in Santa Barbara
The Ventura Pier features in thousands of photos on Instagram. It is super scenic, especially at sunset, so stop and get your own photos of the historic pier, dating back to the 19th century! Also admire the views of the Channel Islands from the pier.
Ventura Harbor offers fun activities and the opportunity to relax over a meal at a waterfront restaurant. You can go paddleboarding or kayaking, do a pedal boat tour, or browse the boutiques in the Ventura Harbor Village.
Head a few miles inland to Ojai, a famous wellness destination in southern California, for a short side trip. Enjoy a pampering spa treatment (reserve ahead of time!). Drive around the citrus orchards, and sample the delightful Ojai Pixie tangerine if you visit during the spring harvest season.
Malibu is known for its ritzy homes and its beaches. Visit Surfrider Beach to watch the surfers. Stroll the nearby Malibu Pier. Tour the historic Adamson House. Located on a bluff, the Spanish Colonial Revival home showcases beautiful decorative tile and historical artifacts.
Enjoy a wide variety of water activities. Swim, sunbathe, surf or take a surfing lesson, go kayaking, tidepooling, scuba diving, or paddleboarding, or relax on a whale watching cruise. Take a guided tour of the wetlands at the Malibu Lagoon Beach. Enjoy a colorful Malibu sunset with a drink at an outside patio.
#15 Santa Monica
The Santa Monica Pier is a must visit. Even if you do not enjoy amusement park rides, the pier is a great place to walk, especially at sunset and after the lights come on. Take a photo of the famous Ferris wheel, and view the Looff Hippodrome Carousel, a National Historic Landmark.
Shop at the high end stores in Santa Monica Place. Enjoy the street music performances at the Third Street Promenade. Do an organized day tour to take in all the iconic Los Angeles sightseeing attractions, including Hollywood and Beverly Hills.
Do the short trip inland to tour the Getty Villa: it’s a must-visit if you enjoy art, architecture, and gardens. The structure itself is modeled after an ancient Roman villa, and the gorgeous gardens feature Mediterranean plants, sculptures, and water features.
#16 Long Beach
At Long Beach, you must definitely visit the historic Queen Mary, a former ocean liner and now a museum. If you enjoy art museums, visit the Long Beach Museum of Art, which houses European and American art, or the Museum of Latin American Art, which contains works from every Latin American country.
Stroll the colorful East Village, with its many shops, galleries, and restaurants: the murals are beautiful. Take a tour of Rancho los Cerritos, an adobe stucture from the middle of the 19th century, and its gardens.
If you didn’t see the aquarium in Monterey, Long Beach has the Aquarium of the Pacific. And if you enjoy gardens, the Earl Burns Japanese Garden makes for a lovely serene stroll.
Just a few miles north of San Diego is Carlsbad, with tons of attractions. If you are traveling with kids, or you enjoy theme parks, Legoland California makes for a fun break.
Carlsbad has several miles of stunning coastline, with beautiful beaches. You can kayak in Carlsbad lagoon or walk the trail by the wetlands at Batiquitos Lagoon.
If you visit between March and early May, visit the Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch to see acres and acres of ranunculus in different colors in bloom. It’s a stunning sight!
#18 San Diego
If you have the time, drive on and end your California coast road trip at San Diego. America’s Finest City is home to Balboa Park, an urban cultural oasis that boasts several museums and gardens in one big complex.
Stroll the historic Gas Lamp Quarter and the fun Little Italy neighborhood in downtown San Diego. You’ll find stores to browse and fabulous dining options. Take a harbor cruise or drive across to Coronado Island for some quality beach time.
Just north of San Diego, walk the trails at the Torrey Pines State Reserve or watch the paragliders float over the water. View waterbirds and sea lions along the waterfront at La Jolla.
Spend a few hours at the historic Cabrillo National Monument, perched on a hilltop at the tip of the Point Loma peninsula. You’ll enjoy fabulous views of the bay and the downtown San Diego skyline, and get a peek at Ballast Point, where the first European expedition landed in 1542.
Here’s a map with all the places marked for easy reference:
TOURS AND EXPERIENCES ON THE CALIFORNIA COAST
San Francisco: Half-Day Tour of Muir Woods and Sausalito
San Francisco: Jail and Sail Alcatraz Tour Plus Bay Cruise
Monterey: Half-Day Whale Watching Tour
Santa Barbara: Downtown Santa Barbara Food Tour
San Diego: Dinner Harbor Cruise with Window Seating and Champagne
So there you have it: my suggestions for the best stops on a California coast road trip between San Francisco and San Diego. Have you done this trip? Which was your favorite stop on the route? Comment below to respond!
If you haven’t yet done this trip, I hope I have inspired you to put it on your list for California! It’s truly an iconic road trip and a wonderful way to explore the beautiful California coast.
And if you are planning a visit to the Golden State, check out the other article in our California guide. We have explored the state on many weekend jaunts and longer trips, and it’s one of of our most favorite places on earth.
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