Hiring a car and heading south down the Pacific Coast in California is probably the greatest road trip a driver will enjoy in the US. It’s certainly one of the most glamorous; you’ll only be a few yards from the crystal blue ocean at any one moment, winding along stunning coastal architecture through iconic locations such as Big Sur and Santa Barbara.
Firstly, there is a reason why one might decide to travel from San Francisco to LA, and not the other way around; the view. Traveling south, and on the right side of Highway 101, gives you a great view to the side and not one blocked by traffic traveling in the opposite direction. The trip is 383 miles using the inland I-5 – roughly five hours and 40 minutes – but almost certainly more than 500 miles if you travel along the coast wherever possible (some roads are private/restricted use).
The likelihood is that you’ll stop at numerous locations along the way, from beaches that you’d swear have never been touched by mankind to small, stunning little towns, to towering mountain peaks – all of which will enjoyably prolong the experience. On a route taking 10-12 hours, you should stop off overnight at least twice.
Firstly, you’ve got to wrench yourself away from San Francisco, which might prove difficult enough in itself. For starters, the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Prison, Fisherman’s Wharf and Union Square are all essential; the city is always evolving and welcoming visitors, even if some could be hit heavily by President Trump’s travel ban. As a snapshot, the famous Union Square Café has just been renovated by restaurateur Danny Meyer; there’s a three-day comedy festival dubbed the Colossal Clusterfest starring Kevin Hart, Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Burr in June; and in May the annual Acoustic-4-a-Cure concert returns to the Bay Area, featuring Dave Grohl among others.
Most drivers from San Francisco will head towards the coast and Ocean Beach, before embarking on a southward drive towards Santa Cruz. It’s a simple drive with a fabulous coastal view to the right, and a multitude of small villages and farms to the left. The alternative is heading straight to San Jose, where you’ll probably be eager to search for Silicon Valley in the surrounding hills. In the downtown historic district, the Spanish Colonial-style architecture and Oddfellows building are worth a look.
Santa Cruz itself may well be worth a stop off; the quirky beach boardwalk harks back to a time of old-school attractions and amusement rides, including casino arcades, mini games and more in the lavishly-named Neptune’s Kingdom. If you’re taking this journey with little ones, this is a perfect place to have some fun on the 30-plus rides, which include a National Historic Landmark carousel.
Head towards Monterey, perhaps stopping off at the superb Monterey Bay Aquarium, before checking out Carmel-by-the-Sea, which once boasted Clint Eastwood as its mayor, and is beloved by art fans. It’s a beautiful little picture-perfect town with some superb restaurants and bars themed on Californian, Mexican, Italian and Irish food cuisine.
The drive along the coast soon enters Big Sur, and if there’s anywhere that begs you to leave the car behind and get your boots on, this is the spot. You could spend a week here and not scratch the surface, but whatever you do, plan ahead. As Huff Post notes, this is an area that even foxed Spanish explorers at first, and your mobile coverage is likely to resemble technology from that time. Make sure you catch McWay Falls, Pfeiffer Beach, and the other recommended attractions – they’re advised for a reason.
Once you’ve escaped Big Sur’s allure, many guides recommend heading to the small coastal town of Cayucos, which is about 90 miles away straight down the coast or 161 miles via US Route 101, perhaps for a night’s sleep. This quaint village features a classic pier for a stroll above the Pacific, the Brown Butter Cookie Company and its many limited edition flavors such as coconut lime and bourbon, and the many curious shops such as Cayucos Collective and Remember When.
The pier’s a great spot to watch the sunrise, which will be a pleasant way of sending you off towards Santa Barbara. San Luis Obispo is known for its restaurants and museums and is only a few miles down the road. Highway 101 diverts via the coast and then inland, through Santa Maria (complete with its own Canyon wine trail and the very highly-rated Pacific Conservatory Theatre) before rejoining the coastal route at Gaviota State Park.
Santa Barbara is known as the American Riviera so, as one might imagine, the beach and surf scene here are as good as it gets on the west coast. Palm trees embroider the traditional Spanish-style homes, to a backdrop of Los Padres National Forest and impressive mountains. The town’s official website recommends three days here, to include stops on State Street for the shopping, the hipster paradise that is The Funk Zone, and the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. New for 2017 is Takepart/Makeart: arte para todos, a public art initiative centered around a contemporary art pavilion that will move throughout various neighborhoods over a six-month spell.
Your next stay over will probably be LA, but there are several other stop-offs of note. The beach towns of Carpenteria and Ventura both have their appeal, while the city of Oxnard’s activities of note include whale watching and a visit to the tall ships. The Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary is a 90-minute boat ride from the harbor. There’s a strong collection of seafood restaurants on the waterfront dining area, and a superb array of Californian wines for you to taste.
The final stretch of the journey will take you to Los Angeles and its hotels, attractions, food and diversity. You’ll drive there via the Santa Monica Mountains and Malibu; Santa Monica itself is around eight miles from Los Angeles International Airport, with the seaside community of Marina Del Ray offering sunset cruises and the perfect night spot of Sunset Boulevard. Then it’s on to LA, Hollywood, Paramount Pictures and much more…and that’s a whole new story.