No journey to the west coast is complete without an epic road trip adventure along California’s beautiful coast.
Assuming you’re in this for the adventure (you are taking a California coast road trip after all), you should plan on spending at least a week exploring to see what the different destinations California’s Northern, Central and Southern regions have to offer and get the full experience.
Get ready for an exhilarating, cliff hugging, windows down, music loud California road trip!
See also: Interesting Facts About California
Most commonly asked questions about California coast road trips
Is it better to drive up or down the California coast?
Personally, we think it’s best to start North and head South. This blog is arranged in order of towns you will hit driving on Route 1.
How many miles is California’s coast?
California’s coast spans over 800 miles!
How long does it take to drive California’s coast?
Without stopping, it’ll take you between 10 – 12 hours to drive the entire California coast from start to finish. However, this road trip is about making those amazing stops! So, plan accordingly.
Northern California coast road trip itinerary
Your California adventure begins on Pacific Coast Highway, better known as “PCH”.
The ocean views from above are so gorgeous that you’ll have to pull over to take it all in. You don’t want to drive off the cliff. 😉
Along the road, driving on the California Hwy 1, you’ll also encounter the beautiful Navarro River Redwoods State Park which has a unique, prehistoric feel, almost like a scene from Jurassic Park, with ferns peaking through the thick, stalky Redwoods.
See also: Best Beaches in Northern California
Humboldt County: “The Redwood Forest”
Humboldt Redwoods State Park
The Redwood Forest is every bit as epic as the photos you see in magazines and Instagram, only 10x better. You have to see it in person. You’ll see the Redwoods pretty much until you reach San Francisco. Have your camera ready!
Avenue of the Giants
This is where some of the biggest and tallest Redwood trees in the world are.
From Avenue of the Giants, you’ll drive on California Hwy 1 which eventually turns into PCH. These are some of the most incredible views you’ll see on your California coast road trip.
You’ll also want to stop in these towns for the full experience:
Cooler in theory than in real life. Max size is 7’ x 7’. I watched as a Tesla barely made it through. On the other hand, my SUV didn’t stand a chance.
If you really want to drive through a tree, you can try the “Chandelier Tree” in Leggett whose opening has fit SUVs.
This is an adorable treasure. It felt so realistic, at any given moment, I was expecting to see an elf pop out of the door.
Enter to the left of Dyerville Overlook for secluded views of the water. It’s a nice place to park your car and collect your thoughts or have a snack.
Check out the Victorian style architecture in this 19th c. seaport town.
- Carson mansion
- Explore Old Town Eureka & waterfront
- Drive across bridge to Woody Island
Where to eat
In this unassuming little town known for its backdrop in some big Hollywood movies, you’ll get to enjoy some odd curiosities like a shop housed inside a former bank and California’s oldest pharmacy.
- Rings Pharmacy (Rexall Drugs)
California’s oldest, continuously operating drug store
- Humboldt’s Hometown Store
You can even step inside the bank’s vault which is pretty awesome. Then, walk through the room that’s dedicated to Food Network Star, Guy Fieri, who was born right in town.
Beautifully kept fairytale-like garden with a life-sized doll house and a hidden garden walkway made of plants.
You don’t want to miss this beautiful seaside town overlooking Goat Island and Cypress. It gives the vibes of a Mediterranean coastal town.
- Mendocino Headlands State Park
Standing on the bluffs looking out to sea is the most calming feeling as the waves are crashing and wind blows all around you.
Where to eat
Insider Tip: On the drive down, you’ll inevitably be passing famous sites like Big Sur’s Bixby Bridge. It’s all part of the California coastal road trip! Pull over to the side to snap some epic shots. But, whatever you do, do not stop in the middle of the road. Yes, I have seen this done. It’s a safety hazard to yourself but also, everyone around you.
If you enjoy wine, take a tour through wine country and try different Californian wines. You’ll find a lot of fun, interactive experiences at different vineyards and wineries along the way.
We’re going a little inland here, going from Route 1 to the 128, but with many wine producers located just a short drive off the coast, you can hop from winery to winery and see what different wine growing regions have to offer.
If you haven’t seen the movie “Bottle Shock”, you’ll want to before heading to wine country. This is where California wine turned heads worldwide and started being taken seriously.
Good Read: Read the book the film was (loosely) based on explaining the big California win that changed wine forever: Judgment of Paris: California Vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine.
Napa is the most famous of the wine regions. Prepare for a Disneyland chaos kind of vibe. At least that’s what it felt like at Domaine Carneros. There are also other spots worth checking out.
Here are a few great Napa experiences to try out:
Explore the beautiful grounds which includes a garden whose fresh produce is used in many of the dishes served on property. You can also dine here, enjoy a self-wine tasting experience and explore their museums and learn more about wine and cooking inside.
A few more places to check out in Napa:
- Napa Mill
- Shops, restaurants. Stop into Vintage Sweet Shoppe for some wine and decadent truffles.
- Napa Welcome Sign
Where to eat
CIA at Copia has some amazing restaurants.
Brunch: The Grove
Dinner: Le Petit Chef 3D Experience
A whirlwind of an experience! Definitely not to be missed. This is a truly magical evening. It’ll literally transport you to a different world.
Napa is famous for its wine but also a bit crowded and overdone if you ask me. Try some of the lesser known regions here in Sonoma, the real deal.
Join a guided winery tour with picnic lunch in the area!
- Alexander Valley Vineyard
If riding through a vineyard on a bar bike while sampling grapes off the vine and sipping on different varietals sounds like a fun California afternoon to you, you’ll love St. Francis whose history is just as interesting as its lucky escape from the California fire that tried to take them down.
San Francisco & Sausalito
Take Highway 101 North across the Golden Gate Bridge till you’ve entered San Francisco, the land that needs no introduction.
We’re all aware of the things that made SF famously down to earth and cool. But, if you want something a little more special, be original and spend some time in Sausalito, SF’s adorable little sister. She’s just as great and…you won’t have to fight tourists for a good photo.
For the adventurers, start in SF & ride across the bridge all the way to Sausalito. Take the ferry or bike back. I will warn you, it is a bit of a distance. I was exhausted after going 1 way.
Where to eat
Now you’ll get back on Route 1 and continue down the coast entering the center of California which is a perfect blend of the Northern and Southern regions its sandwiched between. You’ll get a little bit of everything… nature, adventure, ocean, city, culinary delights and more.
- Amusement Park
- Pizza & drink sail to see the seals, Chardonnay Charters is a great company
- Walk the pier and watch seals
Monterey & Pacific Grove
Where to eat
Not only does this restaurant have incredible views, it has delicious seafood! Grab a table outside and take it all in. You can even watch kayakers, birds and seals from above.
Carmel by the Sea
This is a little storybook coastal village if I ever saw one! Here, you’ll enjoy the one of a kind feel that is uniquely Carmel. Explore quaint shops and fairytale-like homes then, hit the beach and go for some lunch at one of the town’s bistros with old world charm.
- Carmel Beach
- Get your golf on at one of Carmel’s many state of the art golf courses
- Do the 17 mi. drive, stop at Pebble Beach
- See the storybook houses which have different names instead of numbers
- Stroll the boardwalk of Moonstone Beach and dip your feet in the ocean
- Main Street shops, restaurants & history
- Hearst Castle
For another fun stop further inland, visit a charming village named Solvang, better known as the Danish capital of America and the town where the wino movie Sideways was filmed.
Then, you’ll get onto Highway 101! This is when you’ll really start to feel those surfer, beach vibes that are quintessential to SoCal.
Here, you’ll find gorgeous artist colonies, surf spots and beaches made famous on TV series like The OC, Laguna Beach, The Hills and every Beach Boys song.
Here, we enter the Northernmost point of SoCal.
- Take a surfing lesson
- Visit Old Mission Santa Barbara built in 1786
- Walk down one of the longest deep-water piers between LA & SF – Stearns Wharf
Where to eat
- In-N-Out of Course! It’s a Californian staple.
Welcome to “Surf City, USA”!
- Rent a surrey bike at Zack’s Rental. It’s a lot of fun to ride past the beach! Just watch out for the pedestrians.
- Visit the surf shops for some great beachwear
- Stroll the Boardwalk
Where to eat
While Laguna Beach is of course known for its beach, I encourage you to skip it (not the prettiest, I know, I grew up here) and instead, check out these other spots…
- Stroll to Hesler Park gazebo, look out to the ocean, see an artist painting the scene
See Paegaent of the Masters which is a great show! Walk around and see different art galleries. You can even paint a vase and take it home with you.
- See St. Francis by the Sea- Guiness Book of World Record’s smallest cathedral in the world
Where to eat
Sit outside for gorgeous ocean views. The seafood was fresh and tasty.
Talk about a fun spot! This is a classic Cali beachtown with a mix of upscale and lowkey shops and restaurants with the beach as the center focus. You’ll know you’re in the right place when you hear the seals!
- Stroll Avendida de la Playa
- Beach sunset
- Go kayaking at La Jolly Cove
- Birch Aquarium
Where to eat
If you want a taste of glamour and gorgeous beaches, head to Malibu.
- Stroll Malibu Pier, lots of shops & restaurants
- Point Dume
- Matador Beach
- Surf at Zuma Beach
Where to eat
Don’t leave without checking out this amazing restaurant! Reservations are highly recommended. I watched the giant waves do their own little show and got sprayed with sea mist while sipping cocktails before diving into an amazing 8 course seafood & sushi meal.
This is a beautiful location away from the rest of the city.
- Walk around (or stay at) Historic Hotel de Coronado
- Have a drink and listen to live music on the beach
- Sea World
- Balboa Park
- Point Loma
- Old Town San Diego
Some great spots to hit are Old Town San Diego Historic Park and Whaley House.
- Woflie’s Carousel Bar
- Breakfast & Bubbles
- Rockin Baja Lobster
And there you have it! Where to stop along a California coast road trip! Hopefully you get some ideas for your upcoming road trip!
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