What is the Central Coast?

Why would I want to go?

How do I get there?

How long is the drive?

What is the Central Coast?

There’s no precise border, but many Californians call the Central Coast the area near the shoreline from Santa Barbara to Monterey, roughly the western or southwestern portions of Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and Monterey counties.  It’s between Southern California (Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego) and Northern California (San Francisco and the Bay Area), hence the name “Central” Coast.

Why would I want to go?

The scenery, the history, the food, and the people.  The Central Coast has endless miles of, well, coast.  Most of the waterfront is backed by dramatic hills and mountains that contribute to amazing views.  The three Central Coast counties are the size of Massachusetts and Rhode Island combined, but with 1.1 million people, have less than one-seventh the population density of those two states.  That means plenty of open space, and almost all of the coast is easily visible while driving on Highway 101 or 1.

The largely agricultural countryside is dotted with laid-back, charming, but sophisticated towns with high quality restaurants, shops, and entertainment such as Santa Barbara, Solvang, San Luis Obispo, Morro Bay, Cambria, Paso Robles, Carmel, and Monterey. Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo are home to major universities that contribute to an energetic, youthful “college town” atmosphere. Hearst Castle, the palatial estate built by legendary newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst in the early 20th century just a few miles north of Cambria, is also a major draw. Big Sur, the 90 miles of coast between Carmel and Cambria, has some of the finest scenery in the United States, as a 5,000 foot (1500 meter) mountain range ascends directly out of the Pacific, traversed by the slender ribbon of Highway 1 and innumerable bridges. Carmel is world famous for its golf courses, the 17 Mile Drive and the annual Concours d’Elegance luxury car show. Monterey’s Aquarium was one of the first, and still one of the best, modern urban aquariums in the world.

The Central Coast has some of the best preserved historical sites in California: Esselen bedrock mortars in Big Sur carved thousands of years ago to grind acorns into flour, Chumash rock paintings near Santa Barbara of similar age, eight of the twenty-one Spanish missions that arose throughout California in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Victorian-era lighthouses, and walkable early 20th century Spanish Revival and Art Deco town centers designed before the rise of California’s car culture.

And there’s the California weather. Even in the dead of winter throughout most of the US, daytime temperatures in January and February are almost always above 60° F (15° C) and often over 70° (21° C). In summer while other places drive people indoors with triple-digit temperatures, near the coast in July or August the thermometer rarely rises above 80° F (27° C). The seasons are highly predictable, with 70% of annual rainfall happening from December through March, and even then, most days are sunny.

How do I get there?

Most travelers reach the Central Coast by driving from Los Angeles, San Francisco, or California’s Central Valley, flying into the Los Angeles (LAX) or San Francisco (SFO) airports and renting a car, or one of the regional airports: Santa Barbara (SBA), Santa Maria (SMX), San Luis Obispo (SBP), or Monterey (MRY).  There is also Amtrak train service from Los Angeles or San Francisco with stops in Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and Salinas.

How long is the drive?

The total driving time from Los Angeles to San Francisco on the coastal roads is about 10-11 hours without stops. Although it’s technically possible to make the journey in a single day, the Traveler does not recommend it.  It’s much better to break the trip into at least two or three days, and it’s possible to spend a week or more without exhausting the possibilities this area has to offer.

Especially near the San Francisco and Los Angeles urban areas, travel times are difficult to predict because of traffic.  The Traveler suggests that you check the California Department of Transportation website before taking to the road, as it displays real-time information about road closures and construction delays.  Just type in the number of the highway you want to check.

These times are averages, without stops:

Los Angeles to Santa Barbara: 2 hours.  From the Los Angeles metropolitan area, get on Highway 101 north, or, as Californians would say it, “the 101.”  Some people prefer to take interstate Highway 10 (“the 10”) all the way west to Santa Monica, then transfer to coastal Highway 1.  However, the Traveler does not like this route, because the 10 is often horribly congested near the Highway 1 interchange.

Santa Barbara to San Luis Obispo: 1.5 hours, all on the 101. Many online mapping services will route a detour on Highway 154 from Santa Barbara, as it’s technically a few miles shorter. However, this way is not really faster, as it’s a narrow, winding two lane road through mountain terrain. After Gaviota north of Santa Barbara, no road travels along the coast for 60 miles until Pismo Beach; Highway 1 is not a coastal route in this area.

San Luis Obispo to Cambria: 1 hour.  In San Luis Obispo on the 101, exit to Highway 1 following the sign “Morro Bay Hearst Castle 1 North.”  The exit briefly deposits you in a residential area, but the signs to Highway 1 north are well marked.

Cambria to Monterey: 3 hours, all on Highway 1.  This stretch is known as Big Sur, a wildly mountainous region.  Although it’s only 100 miles on a map, the road is sharply curved and most drivers average 30 miles per hour until the outskirts of Carmel.  I do not recommend rushing through without stops, as Big Sur is loaded with scenic vista points and parks.

Monterey to San Francisco: 2 or 3 hours, depending on which of the three routes you choose.  Coastal Highway 1 all the way is the slowest.  The Traveler finds the route pretty, but nothing to compare with the scenery further south.  The Traveler’s preferred route is on the map below, taking Highway 1 to Santa Cruz, then 17 to the outskirts of San Jose, 85 around San Jose, and finally 280 into San Francisco. Highway 280 is surprisingly scenic for a six lane freeway, as it has a stunning mountain backdrop, and it usually has little traffic. The Traveler does not recommend using the 101 to get into San Francisco, which is the default option of most online mapping services. It is usually heavily congested and visually unappealing for long stretches.

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      1. Hi there,
        I’ve absolutely loved reading your blog and info. We are coming over from the UK for a wedding in LA at the end of October and then would like to spend 4 days driving up to San Fran for Halloween. Could you recommend places you think we should stop and stay? Would love to make sure we don’t miss anything. Thanks so much, Laura

  1. Love the info you provide. We start our trip at LAX for family wedding at Malibu. Then on to Yosemite and Sonoma and San Francisco. We are unable to drive North on the coast because of schedule at Yosemite so will be forced to back track .We are traveling from Los Altos to Hearst Castle. Have never traveled the coast north of Santa Barbara. Should we continue on to LAX from San Simeon to return to Chicago or drive back to San Jose to fly back to Chicago and how much time should we allow for this final leg of our journey. Sorry to bother you with this but we are stuck on this last leg. We depart Chicago Sept. 13th. Wedding on the 15th. Party in Pasadena on the 16th. Sonoma 17th thru 21st. Yosemite 9/21-25. San Francisco 25-26th Los Altos 27 0r 28th. Hope to return to Chicago on the 30th or 10/01 at the latest . Is it doable? Can cut SF to 1 night and cut 1 night from Los Altos.

  2. Hi John:

    I wouldn’t backtrack, but instead would press on ahead to the south. San Simeon to LAX is somewhat under 5 hours without stops, depending on traffic.

  3. Another question… we only have 5 nights total. We’re starting out in Santa Barbara, then planned for stops in SLO, Big Sur and Carmel. Do you recommend Napa/Sonoma or is that spreading ourselves too thin? Don’t want to be on the go the entire time… any one of these stops I should save for another trip? Which are not to miss? Thanks so much!!

  4. Great blog! Thanks for putting so much info together in one place.

    Me and a few of my friends (30ish) will be making the trek down Highway 1 in early July. We’re departing from San Francisco early Tuesday and need to be in Los Angeles (Santa Monica actually) by Wednesday afternooon. We had tentatively pencilled in San Luis Obispo as our overnight stop, but were wandering if this is the ideal location? It appears as though most of our “exploring” will be done north of San Luis Obispo, but will this leave us enough time to perhaps check out the vineyards and surrouding areas of San Luis Obispo? We’d like to stay somewhere where we can find moderately priced food and a few drinks before taking off the next morning for L.A. Do you think San Luis Obispo would fit these needs?

    1. Hi Roger: I think SLO would be an excellent base. It has by far the biggest cluster of restaurants and bars between Monterey and Santa Barbara. Most of the action is around Higuera Street, in the middle of downtown. You may want to check out Big Sky Cafe or Eureka!Burger, both reviewed on this blog.

      1. Hi Roger, You must visit the Natural Foods Marketplace in southern SLO,near Costco & Home Depot, south of the Madonna Inn. It is easy to find and has an extremely varied array of fresh fruits, veggies, cheeses, wines, artisan beers and artisan baked goods as well. “All the munchies you would ever need to get you to LA and back. All itens are fresh, many organic, They serve full breakfst and lunch menu with many soups, sandwiches and wraps. They take special orders and will prepare any combination of your choosing, There is a pleasant outdoor patio, and an inside seating area. Its worh a stop.

  5. My wife and I are “doing California” in September, after LV, Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryce we will travel towards San Francisco via Death Valley and Yosemite however we would also like to do some of the coastal route up from Cambria. Not sure what order to do Yosemite and the Coast or indeed whether this is practical. Any advice would be appreciated.

    1. Hello Blu: Thanks for checking in with the Central Coast Traveler! Whether any of this is practical depends on how much time you’ve allotted for your trip, and your tolerance for long drives. If I know how much time you have, I can help with your planning.

  6. Hi central coast traveller, my wife and I, late 40s, are coming from Australia to California from May 15th for two weeks. We are staying in LA for three nights then into a hire car from LA to San Fran. We are planning to drive up the coast for 3 nights before heading across to Fish Creek. We have got accom booked for 21st and 22nd at Fish creek to see Yosemite. We will then have one further night on the road before having 7 nights in San Fran to explore. Any ideas on where to stay and what to see. Regards Glenn

    1. Hi Glenn: Do you have any specific interests or things you’d like to do for the Central Coast portion of your trip? Do you want quiet relaxation near beaches or vineyards, active outdoor sports (bicycling, hiking, surfing), fine dining and shopping, or touring historical sites? All of these are available on the Central Coast, but I’d need to know what appeals to you before offering advice.

  7. Good evening,
    We found your website via Frommers.com. We’d like to ask for your advise since we’re visiting Cambria for 3d/2n this spring break (staying at the Cambria Pines Lodge). We’re driving from LA to Cambria via the “101” as you recommend. We’ll visit moonstone beach, moonstone boardwalk, downtown Cambria, linn bakery, paso robles for wine tasting. Are there other things to see and do in/near Cambria??
    Is the elephant seal rockery close by ?? Are there hiking trails near Cambria ??? (we’ll skip hearst castle). Thank you very much and looking forward to your response.
    Regards, ThuyD.

    1. Hi ThuyD: Thank you for asking the Central Coast Traveler! There is so much to do in Cambria; it’s a great base to explore the area. Actually, the 101 doesn’t go to Cambria. Highway 1 splits from 101 in San Luis Obispo: Highway 1 goes along the coast to Cambria, while 101 heads inland to Paso Robles.

      The elephant seal rookery is very popular, and only 12 miles (19 km) north of Cambria. Here’s their website: http://www.elephantseal.org/Rookery/where.htm

      There are many hiking trails around Cambria. It’s in the foothills of the Santa Lucia mountain range, so there are plenty of scenic hills and valleys. For more info, check out: http://www.cambriachamber.org/hiking.php

      In Cambria itself, many people like to stroll along Main Street and visit the shops. There are no national chain stores, only locally-owned businesses; it’s unusual among American towns in that respect.

      For Paso Robles wine tasting, this site may be useful: http://www.pasowine.com/

      You’ll have a great trip!

  8. We both are non drinker’s so the vineyards do not appeal. We are into looking at the sights, history, some shopping and looking into the history along the coast. We thought we would stay the first night in or around Santa Barbara but not sure were to spend the next two. reards Glenn

    1. Hi Glenn: You’re in luck as the whole Central Coast is loaded with sights, history, and shopping. Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Carmel and Monterey are among the oldest towns in California, as they were founded during the original Spanish colonization in the 1770’s. The Spanish missions established during this era are wonderful places to see living history:


      The best places for shopping north of Santa Barbara are San Luis Obispo, Cambria, and Carmel. San Luis Obispo has a large, tree-lined, pedestrian-friendly downtown core with many buildings from the late 19th and early 20th century, all centered around the 18th century mission. You’d exit on Marsh Street from Highway 101.

  9. The part of our journey I am concerned about is after we have visited Death Valley (Stovepipe Wells has been suggested?) we have 8 days before we need to be in San F.
    Yosemite is a must but as I say we would like to do some of the coastal route, e.g.Big Sur.

  10. i have a business meeting in san francisco on monday morning 5/14 and then need to be in santa monica on wed morning. i want to drive to monterey on mon afternoon. should i drive big sur and back on tuesday and then fly to lax from monterey, or should i just drive straight from monterey to santa monica on tuesday? i am not interested in “quaint towns” or restaurants etc.. just want to enjoy the scenerey. i doubt that i will have much time to stop for hikes. thanks so much for your site and your info.

    1. Hi Aaron: I recommend driving through. Although the Monterey airport is small and security is easy to get through, you may be waiting a while for a plane to depart.

  11. Thanks for the great info.
    We’ll be going at the end of the month.
    Unfortunately we’ll be a little rushed. We plan to eat breakfast in Carmel and then drive south and turn inland around Cambria to head to Paso Robles to meet some family. So we need a suggestion on the best place for lunch between Carmel and Cambria. Views while dining are a plus, but we don’t need anything fancy or dress up or too expensive. We are from Texas and always on the look out for the best burger. Any suggestions?

    1. Hi there:

      Californians have a reputation for dressing very casually. Some of the richest people wear fleece and battered hiking boots to expensive restaurants. Big Sur, being remote, is even more laid back.

      You may want to try the Ambrosia Burger at Nepenthe. It’s a wonderful restaurant with incredible views. However, Nepenthe is only an hour south from Carmel; depending on when you leave and where you stop on the way, you may get there soon after breakfast. South of Nepenthe, there aren’t many restaurants I’d recommend until Cambria, which has an abundance of great places. Robin’s is my favorite there.

  12. Hi there,

    We are planning a trip from San Fran to camp with friends in Pismo Beach and then on to LA for a few disney days. We are a young family with a baby and a pre-schooler and will likely rent an rv. How many days would you recommend between the locations and where would you recommend to stop and stay? (travelling in September-October)



  13. Great Blog Traveler! My wife and I are heading to Fresno for a wedding next weekend and thought we’d take a 2 day trip on Monday and Tuesday down the PCH and fly out of LAX instead of returning to Dallas from Fresno. The drive from Fresno to Monterey looks to be about 3 hours all by itself and we were thinking we’d stop in either Cambria or SLO for the night. Does this seem practical if we make it to Monterey by 11:00AM? We fly out of LAX at 5 on Tues, so we’re a little short on time. On a Monday night, do you think we could play it by ear and book a hotel as we go depending on how far we feel like making it?

    Thanks for any suggestions!

    1. By the way….I just saw your Antique Alley post. I’m an Interior Designer for a large architecture firm and my wife and I are both huge Mid-Century fans….are there any other stops like this we should be aware of?

    2. Hi Stephen:

      You’re correct that it’s about 3 hours from Fresno to Monterey. It’s then about another hour to the Big Sur “village,” which I recommend as an excellent stop for lunch. Either Nepenthe or Sierra Mar, which I’ve reviewed on this blog, are excellent restaurants with jaw-dropping views. It’s then a 3 hour drive without stops to Cambria; add another hour for SLO. That gives you plenty of time to meander down the Big Sur coast on Monday afternoon.

      As for your flight Tuesday, I assume you mean 5PM? It’s usually 5 hours from Cambria to LAX (or 4 from SLO), but the traffic is a wildcard. Highway 101 traffic starts in Santa Barbara and gets progressively heavier as you head south. However, on a weekday midday you’ll miss the morning and afternoon rush hour.

      As for hotels, you should book in advance. I grew up in the Metroplex, and I know you’re accustomed to lots of chain hotels and motels at every highway interchange. The Central Coast is nothing like that. The places of accommodation tend to be small, locally owned, and book up quickly in summer. Moreover, some have two night minimums. If you can’t find places to stay in Cambria, you may have more luck in nearby San Simeon, and there are a few chain hotels in SLO that may have availability.

      Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of mid-century furniture and design places on the Central Coast. If you were heading to Palm Springs, you’d be overwhelmed with the choices. If your trip were scheduled just a bit later, I’d recommend stopping by C W Quinn Home in SLO as it’s a modern design showroom opening next month that ships nationally. (Full disclosure; my husband Chuck Quinn owns it.) Chuck also happens to design a trade-only line of furniture (cwquinn.com) that’s sold at the E C Dicken showroom in Dallas.

      In any event, you will have a very scenic trip.

      1. Thanks so much for all the great info. We’re looking forward to the trip. I have a feeling this may be the first of many…. I took a look at your husband’s designs – beautiful work! I especially love the Big Sur table and the San Luis. I’ll have to stop by E C Dicken and take a look in person sometime. Again thanks for the info and for such a great blog. Best wishes!

  14. Hello C.C.Traveler,

    This is our first trip to California’s central coast. We are two couples with three children (15, 14, 9) who are departing San Francisco on Wed. Aug. 8 and plan to make our way to Santa Monica by Sat. Aug. 11. Should we make shorter drives and stay in three towns along the way (e.g. Monterrey, Cambria and Santa Barbara) or stay in just two towns but one of them for two nights? Which towns deserve our attention the most? Also, if you insist due to must-see reasons, I can delay my arrival in Santa Monica by a day and gain an extra day on the central coast. Please advise as I desperately need help from a local (we’re from Toronto). Our focus is natural beauty, outdoor experiences and good food (not shopping). Thank you. 

  15. With three kids, you may be better off staying in Monterey for 2 nights, then Santa Barbara the 3rd night. While Cambria is one of my favorite little towns, it’s extremely quiet, serene, and romantic (in other words, teenagers might get bored). Monterey has one of the best aquariums in the world; well worth a few hours visit, and it’s a wonderful hub for exploring the gorgeous Monterey Peninsula. On the third day, you could have a scenic drive along the Big Sur coast, which begins just 15 minutes to the south, slowly meandering down to Santa Barbara. The total drive from Monterey to Santa Barbara is 5.5 hours without stops; if you’re not into that much driving, you might be better off stopping in San Luis Obispo (an attractive historic town in a valley between two striking ancient volcanic cones), Pismo Beach (kind of a party town in summer, but there are many families with kids) or Avila Beach (a quieter version of Pismo Beach). Santa Barbara is a sliver of stunning coastline backed by the Santa Barbara Mountains, full of scenic ocean and mountain views just a short drive away.

    My only caution is that August is traditionally the height of the summer coastal fog season. It’s impossible to predict more than a few days in advance how thick the fog will be. While fog can happen year round, it’s usually heaviest in June-August and rarely seen in December-February. Some days the fog burns off in the early morning, other days it may linger the entire day, and sometimes the prevailing ocean breezes will stop and the fog dissipates entirely. Moreover, the jagged coastal topography causes many microclimates. Some areas can be shrouded in fog while just a few hundred feet inland the sun will be shining in a cloudless blue sky. While the fog isn’t dangerous-it’s rarely so thick you can’t drive-it has been known to block the views you see in all the photographs. I wouldn’t worry about it, as it’s beyond your control, but I wouldn’t want you to be surprised.

  16. Hi Traveler!
    My husband and I will be celebrating our 10th anniversary with a drive down the PCH in July. We arrive around midnight on 7/15, then plan to start our drive on 7/16, after rush hour (we’ve already been to SF a few times). We want a day or two to explore LA, so we need to be there by 7/20. That gives us 4 days. Do you recommend we stay in one area for a longer period, or just keep moving down the coast, staying at a new place every night? We are interested in photography, wine tasting, and local culture/food. Thanks for your time.

    P.S. Is Hearst Castle worth a visit if we’ve seen actual castles oversees? Or do you think Nit Wit Ridge could be more interesting?

  17. We’re arriving at SFO on a Wednesday around noon and going directly to Carmel for a family wedding. We will be traveling with my parents, who are older. Our flight leaves SFO at 10:45am on Monday morning. Would you suggest a route that you think would be the quickest for both going and coming? I see earlier that you suggest 85 to 280, but what about going? Thank you!

    1. There are two highways to SFO, 101 and 280. Highway 280 is faster by far in both directions because it doesn’t pass through any large cities. Highway 101 transits directly through San Jose and can get horribly congested on weekday mornings. I know from personal experience as we recently tried to reach SFO by traveling on 101 and nearly missed our flight. By all means take Highway 280 in each direction.

  18. Hi,
    My wife and two grown up kids are travelling from San Francisco to LA at the end of June and have booked stays in Santa Cruz and Carmel. We plan to do another night around Morro Bay/ Cambia/ San Luis Obisto for a night (and then another in Santa Barbara). Is it better to stay in any of these particular towns – are some more chilly due to the coastal fog? any better for an evening meal/ stroll?
    Thanks, Great Blog by the way.


    1. Hi Neil:

      San Luis Obispo is ten miles inland, Morro Bay is on the ocean, while Cambria has two sections: the old town is inland behind a range of hills and the new section is on oceanfront Moonstone Drive. The climate of each place is quite different. Cambria and Morro Bay are extremely quiet after dark, while San Luis Obispo is a larger college town with more nightlife.

  19. Hi – we’re planning a 2-week visit to California & Nevada in 2013 with our children who will be 17 and 14 when we travel. We’re visiting from the UK and would like to see SF, Yosemite, Monterey and Las Vegas at the very least … is Sequoia worth a visit too? We appreciate that driving is a necessity but we’d like to keep long distance drives to a minimum (sorry – sounds ridiculous based upon our chosen sites to visit … I drive a great deal with work and need a holiday too!!!) I think shorter drives would suit us better (3-4 hours max per day rather than 5-10 hours on any given day). U.S. arrival and departure airports are not important. We enjoy seeing the sights, good eating and hospitality, nature, walking, history, entertainment and relaxation – quite a mix. We’d love your input and recommendations for a memorable visit!!!! Many thanks indeed. Regards, Leman & Angie Harris.

    1. Hi Leman and Angie:

      Thanks for reading my blog. To be honest, I don’t have much experience with California outside of the coast between San Francisco and LA. California is about the size of Greece and Italy combined, and your itinerary goes to many places I’ve never seen. I will say that the trip to Vegas takes nearly a day each way, and you will probably just want to drive the whole way. You might have better luck on a general travel website like TripAdvisor.com, either on the general California forum, or its Road Trip forum. Here’s the link: http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowForum-g1-i12567-Road_Trips.html

  20. My wife and I are going to be in Yosemite on July 23rd and 24th, Morro Bay–Anderson Inn on July 25th and 26th and Carmel–Pine Inn on July 27th and 28th. We are interested inplaces to eat with the best views, the Hearst Castle, sea lions, unusual shopping… I would welcome any comments on our plans and suggestions.

    1. Hi Mark:

      For restaurants with an oceanfront view on your route:
      Morro Bay: Galley Seafood (in same building as Anderson Inn)
      Big Sur: Nepenthe and Sierra Mar at the Post Ranch Inn

      There’s unusual shopping (many locally-made, non-cookie cutter items) along Cambria’s main street and the store attached to Nepenthe.

      Definitely see the Elephant Seal Rookery just a few miles north of Hearst Castle.

  21. Hi, my husband & I will be in California late Sept. My husband will be 50 while we are away and I was hoping to book some golf for him as he is a keen golfer. There are so many golf courses in California and, not being a golfer myself, I am a little overwhelmed. We will be around the Santa Barbara area on the date of his birthday and I have narrowed things down to 2 choices – a stay at the Ojai Resort which has its own course and which looks really beautiful; or a stay & play package at the Montecito Inn in SB. The Montecity has a minimum 2 night stay so it is more expensive than the Ojai (where you can book 1 night) but it will organise golf at the Sandpiper course, which I understand is a top course. Although it’s a 2 night stay, it is only the 1 round of golf. Do you have any recommendations/advice? I’d be grateful for any help. Thanks

    1. I’ve heard many wonderful things about Ojai, but I have no personal experience of the town. It’s not really part of the Central Coast, but I will have to make a side trip and blog about it soon. Santa Barbara is one of the oldest cities in California, the third largest city on the Central Coast (behind Salinas and Santa Maria), with a gorgeous oceanfront situation and tons of shops, restaurants, and history. I would vote for SB.

  22. Hi traveler! 🙂 I am taking my parents to a road trip along the central coast from San Francisco to Los Angeles in July. We have about 10 days and I’d love to include Yosemite park in our trip. Could you give me some advice on the itinerary? Will I miss anything if I leave from San Francisco to Yosemite park and then come back to the Highway 1 Big Sur area and then continue heading south? What are the towns on HIghway 1 that are worthy staying for a night or two? Thank you!! Have a good day!Look forward to hearing back from you!

  23. Hi Yvonne:

    Thanks for reading the Central Coast Traveler! I have no personal experience of the loop from San Francisco to Yosemite back to Big Sur, but it’s 460 miles and at least 9 hours of driving. I think you’d have to book accommodation in or near Yosemite to make the trip tenable, and it’s my understanding that by now there’s nothing available. (People tend to book the few hotels there a year in advance.)

    You will miss the coast between SF and Monterey. While it’s pretty, the best scenery is south of Monterey, so you’ll be fine. As for towns worth staying in along the route, I recommend choosing from Monterey, Carmel, Pacific Grove, Cambria, Morro Bay, San Luis Obispo, Avila Beach, Pismo Beach, Solvang, and Santa Barbara. Big Sur is my favorite, but it’s not really a town, and you may have difficulty finding lodging next month; there are only 300 hotel rooms along a 90 mile stretch of coast. In any event, book right now: this is the height of the summer travel season, many hotels have two night minimums, and there are very few places to stay, especially on the thinly-populated stretch between Monterey and Morro Bay.

    1. Hi! 🙂 Thank you so much for writing back! I made a detailed schedule based your suggestion! Day 1 San Fran to Yosemite. Camp 2 nights. Day 3 Leave Yosemite and head to Monterey. Stay in Monterey for one night. Day 4 walk around Pacific Grove and Monterey, stay in Carmel. Day 5 leave Carmel and head to San simeon through 17 mile drive and big sur. Stay in san simeon. Day 6 visit Hearst castle, elephant rookery and stay in San Luis Obispo. Day 7 visit Aliva beach and Pismo beach and head to santa barbara stay in santa barbara. Day 8 head to Los Angeles. What do you think about my plan in terms of practicality and time allocation in each area? Thank you so much, traveler! You blog has been helping a lot on my planning! 🙂

  24. Hi CC Traveler,
    Thanks for your helpful comments and your kind disposition. I have been hestitant about my questions before on some forums for various reasons,so thanks ahead of time for your time,and for just being nice. Let me run this itenerary by you and get your input. We are a family of 4( kids 18 and 20) traveling from sat. to sat. July28 to Aug4. We fly into SFO late and fly out of SFO mid day. We have been to California before, and went from San Diego to Yosemite to San Francisco, down Hwy 1 back to San Diego. We like adventure(ie; kayaking, rafting,hiking,) on our vacations and don’t mind some long days or travel days in the mix. This trip we are looking for beautiful places for our son to try out his new camera. We also want to take more time in the Central Coast area. We love to include some fresh fruit,veggies stands along the way as we try to eat healthy. We are also interested in history,some local good restuarants to get a true “feel” for the town and some shopping.
    Day 1- arrive late SFO,
    Day2 -explore SF area including tour of Alcatraz. Cable car museum, Ghiradelli, Lombard street and Golden Gate Bridge. We may try to squeeze in Muir woods but I’m not sure if Redwoods furthur south would be just as great to see.
    Day 3-Drive south to Santa Barbara, maybe 280 to 101. anything interesting along that route to break up the drive? Also would welcome suggestions for lodging for 2 nights here.( price range 150.00 if that is reasonable for a clean,and comfortable but not fancy place.)
    Day 4- Kayaking the Channel Island National Park. Really excited about seeing the sea caves.
    Day 5-Leave Santa Barbara and stop at Solvang to get a pastry and get a quick glimpse of the architecture,stop at Pismo beach to see the dunes and explore Guadalupe-Nipom Dunes Preserve. (short hike here?)We want to tour Hearst Castle this day,and currently have a tour set for 2:30. We can move it later if we are rushing our time in this area. Should we try to spend some time exploring Morro Bay ( Morro Rock), Cambria (I know there is the Rookery close,not sure of what else to see in this area).Thought of seeing the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse and /or Ragged Point on our way to have a late supper at Nepenthe? I can’t tell if this is way to much to do. This is all a bit muddled to me as you can probably tell.I am considering staying this night and the next in the Monterey area even though it will require some back tracking.
    Day 6- this day is mostly devoted to exploring the Big Sur area with hikes and some evening time in Carmel or on Cannery row in Monterey.I am referrring to your trip advisor entry to get good ideas here. It will include Pfieffer beach, Mcway falls,Pt. Lobos State Reserve-possibly pontoon boat ride here.
    Day 7- this day we will take our time in the morning to enjoy Carmel shops and make our way through Santa Cruz and back into SF.
    Day 8- return rental car and fly home.

    I’m open to suggestions.Days 5,6,and 7 are less settled for me. I’ve read some information that suggests hiring a guide for the Big Sur area. Obviously a guide would be really nice,but I hate to spend the money if we will be able to see the highlights on our own.Thanks again for any hekp you can offer.

    1. Hi Lisa:

      Thank you for reading the Central Coast Traveler! Like many visitors, I think you’re trying to squeeze too much in for an enjoyable, relaxing vacation.

      Day 2: I recommend staying in San Francisco itself and not attempting to visit Marin County (where Muir is located). You might even want to consider skipping Alcatraz, as getting to Fisherman’s Wharf and waiting for the ferry will take time away from other activities in the City.

      Day 5: You may feel rushed here. I recommend moving your Hearst Castle reservation to later in the day. Many people love the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes area, but in the summer it can be very crowded. It depends on your tolerance for other tourists with kids. Cambria is one of my favorite little towns, but kids might get bored. It’s a secluded, quiet place that seems to appeal to older couples. Main Street is full of shops and restaurants, and ocean front Moonstone Beach drive is gorgeous. The Piedras Blancas lighthouse can be seen from Highway 1, but you can only visit the structure as part of a scheduled, reserved in advance tour.

      The rest of your trip plans seem sensible. I’m sure you’ll have a great time!

  25. Thanks for the very helpful article. Our family of 5 from Singapore is planning a tour of the Central Coast in the 1st 2 weeks of Dec, just a couple of questions which I hope you can help us with:
    1. Is there any difference between driving from San Francisco to LA and LA to SF. Most forums seems to talk about driving from LA to SF. The reason for us to start with SF is that we can do SF with public transport allowing ourselves a few days to get over the jet lag before driving.
    2. If we want to stop overnight at 2 places for about 3 nights each and do day trips around the area – which 2 towns would you recommend. We enjoy hikes, sceneries, nature, quaint towns and of course food! We are considering Cambria and Monterey. What do you think?


  26. Hi Low:

    1. I think your SF to LA itinerary makes sense, as a car is a hindrance in SF and you should take some time to adjust before hitting the road. The only difference in the northbound and southbound itineraries is that you’ll hit LA traffic at the end, instead of getting it over with in the beginning. The traffic starts in Santa Barbara and only gets heavier the further south you go. It tends to thin out on weekdays around lunch time and late evening, but otherwise there will be lots of cars.

    2. I think Monterey and Cambria are excellent stopping points. It’s a three hour drive without stops between the towns, which will give you plenty of time to enjoy the wonders of Big Sur in between.

    3. Keep in mind that the sunset is around 5PM in December. Outside of LA and SF there are no lights on the highways and none of the sweeping views will be visible. Plan accordingly.

    1. Thank you so much for your comments and advise. This gives us something to work on with regards to our itinerary. At this stage of planning, the itinerary is changing frequently! Will certainly keep in mind the daylight hours, we would certainly be wary of driving in the dark. Thanks. May come back to you again when our schedule is firmer and ask your opinion on it.


  27. Great blog and tips! Perfect for planning a drive to Big Sur.

    Can you suggest a weekend itinerary for one weekend from Los Angeles to Big Sur?
    One weekend would be leave LA Saturday morning, spend the night and drive back Sunday.

    Do you think it is at all possible?

  28. HI CC Traveler,

    I have so enjoyed reading yur blog. We are planning a Big Sur/SBA trip 10/6/12 – 10/14-12.
    Hi CC Traveler ~
    We have already made reservations (which we could still change), but I am curious on your take on this trip. We are two very active adults in our late 50s and will be flying from Boston to LAX on the 6th and meeting up with our son (30). On the 7th we will drive from LAX to Cambria and spend the night at Moonstone Landing. On the 8th we drive to Big Sur and spend 2 nights at Glen Oaks Inn. We will take in the many sights along the way to and while in the heart of Big Sur. We have a list of the many places to visit; thank you for contributing to that. On the 10th we will drive to Monterey, taking in the Highlands and visiting Point Lobos along the way. We are booked for two nights at Monterey Bay Inn. We will take in the sights of that area. On the 12th we will drive from Monterey to SBA. I know that, that is a long drive, but we can take our time and once we get there we have 2 nights (Harborview Inn) and one full day to enjoy SBA (including the farmer’s market on Sat morning). We will fly out of SBA in the evening to LAX and home on the 14th.

  29. Hello! Just found your site. So much great info! My husband and I want to go up the coast in the spring of next year. We don’t travel the interstates any longer (including the 101) – both drove for a living and don’t care to go 70mph. I went to Rand McNally and they suggested taking SR 33 but then I read a horror story about that road – mountainous and curvy. I plan on doing all the driving and want to be able to take in some scenery. Any suggestions? We’ll be leaving from Rancho Cucamonga, 40 miles east of L.A. and want to go as far as Castroville. Thank you.

  30. Hi CC Traveller,

    We are planning a drive from San Fransisco to LAX on 17-18 July 2013. Our plan is to leave SF around noon on the 17th and then travel the most scenic route to LAX hoping to take in Hearst Castle en route. We will also have an overnight stop on the 17th July. The plan would then be to leave the halfway spot about noon on the 18th July and continue on to LAX were we drop the car before spending five days in LA. We don’t need to drop the car at LAX until 23:00 on the 18th July and so we have the day to get from the half way point to LAX.

    I’d be grateful for your advice on the best route to take for the most scenic views and also the best place to stay for the over night. I’ve seen lots of blogs suggesting SLO, but any other suggestions would be most welcome.



  31. Hi—great blog and tips. My husband and I are thinking of driving from LA to San Francisco in April this year. We love sightseeing and this road trip looks fantastic. Would 5 days be long enough to cover it? Then we could spend 3 nights in San Francisco before flying onto Vegas for another 4/5 nights. Had hoped to drive to vegas via Yosemite but understand the pass would be closed and so would be easier to fly across! However, I would rather spend more time along the west coast if necessary and then do Vegas on a separate visit! Any suggestions on places to stay in Monterey/Cambria? Also, would we need to book accomodation or are there usually vacancies in April? Any help would be greatly apppreciated. Thanks – Tracy

  32. Hello CC Traveler,
    First of all let me just echo what so many others have already said – you run a really good and helpful blog.
    We are going to California for our honeymoon in June. The plan so far is to land in LA and eventually make our way up to SF, and the current route includes stopping at Santa Barbara, Cambria, Monterey, and Santa Cruz.
    We were wondering, though, whether it would make more sense to choose one of those destinations and spend the bulk of our stay there, using it as a hub to explore.
    The things we’re interested in, apart from general exploring, are some beach time, a visit to some nice vineyards, a bit of horse-riding (If we can arrange it) and great views. We’d like a place with a fair choice of restaurants etc. and things to do in the evening too, though relaxation is the name of the game.
    We are planning landing June 23 and plan to stay 10 – 12 days, spending the last two nights in SF.
    May I ask the one place where you would pick, between LA and SF, to base yourself and which would still give you access lots of options?
    Thanks so much.

  33. Hi CC Traveller

    Really useful blog.

    We ‘re over from England in September. We’re staying in SF for 4 nights and then heading down to Los Angeles on the Pacific Coat Highway. Can you advise how long we should take for this drive? We like dramatic scenery, the sea and a good night life, ie restaurants and bars. After LA we plan to get the Amtrak train to Flagstaff and drive up to Monument Valley. We then have to make our way back to Vegas for our flight.

    We’ve allowed 2 weeks for this trip but finding it difficult to plan ahead due to the fact there are so many places to see.

  34. Great Blog! Fun and kind, full of good ideas.
    Traveling to SF from Mexico early in August, wife and two kids 13 and 10. Planning to stay in SF 5 days (friday – thrusday) and drive to Monterey thursday morning. 1 day at Monterey for the Aquarium. Would you recomend to stay that night in Monterey (The Clement) or at Carmel? Do you have any time schedules for the big sur driving and places to see? I am unsure of how long will it take by driving trough so many places to see. How much time to spend in between? Leaving Monterey/Carmel in the morning. I am unsure of how long will it take by driving trough so many places to see. Planning Point Lobos, Garrapata, Pfeifer state park. How much time to spend in between? planning to stay at Cambria or Pismo. Which wuld you consider the best option? Next day to Santa Barbara and to Anaheim at the saturday afternoon.
    Thanks in advance ans sorry for so many questions.

  35. Fantastic blog and sooo useful! We (family of 4 all adults from Australia) will be visiting California in May 2013. Intend to spend 4 days in LA/Annaheim and then hire a car to travel to SF. Currently looking at 2 nights on this route and would love some advise on which 2 spots to choose? Pismo/San Luis Obispo and Carmel? Santa barbara and San Simeon? Love natural scenery. We’re also stopping in SF for 3 nights and hope to go for 1 day to Nappa. Then onto Yosemite for 2 nights, 1 night in Seq National Park, 1 night in Death Valley and onto Las Vegas for 4 nights and 1 night in Grand canyon south rim. Fly into LA on 17th May and fly out of Las Vegas on 5th June. Would love some advise/thoughts on whether this is doable or what we should should not do time permitting.
    Thank you so much

  36. We are driving from SLO to Monterey in September and will probably only have time to stop at one coastal national Park, which is best? Thanks, great blog!

    1. HI CC traveler,
      Amazing blog! My family and I live in LA. I’m 27 sisters are 23 and 19 and we are doing a road trip with my cousins age .. parents and siblings alike.. We want to do a 4 night trip from LA to San Fran and back. I’m thinking one night between LA and San Fran and then 2 nights in San Fran and then one night in between again from San Fran to LA. We life beautiful scenery, delicious food, nature, shopping.. u name it all. Where would you recommend we stop on the way up and then on the way down.. and things to do please.. Should we take the fast route up and down or the scenic view. Thanks for all your help!

  37. Can you give me an idea of definate places to stop with my kids, boys ages 8 & 11. We are flying into San Fran and heading north for a nite to Santa Rosa (Safari West). From there planning on stopping at Muir Woods to see the Redwoods. Then South. Not sure where exactly we should stop, for how long and where to fly out of. My original plan was SF and drive to LA but not sure we can do all of that within 8 days. Suggestions for Itinerarys are very welcome. We like the beach and the boys love to ‘treasure hunt’. Thank you! Oh flying from Philly.

  38. Very helpful blog.
    We are driving (family with 13 & 11 year olds) from LA to San Fran in a couple of weeks and driving to make the most of the drive up. We are going to stop for 1 night along the way. What would be our suggestions for must do’s and best place to stop for the night.
    We are hoping to a do a combination of sight seeing (e.g. Hearst Castle) and adventure/enjoying the beauty of the coast.


    1. Thanks to everyone for the continuing comments. I’m delighted that people are still reading this blog. As I mentioned in my last post on February 8, 2013, I’m no longer updating or maintaining the blog. Happy travels!

  39. Great blog!!! I’ve been doing some research as I plan on doing this roadtrip flying from Mexico, but haven’t decided wheather arriving to LA and drive to SFO or viceversa! Only have one week can you please give me some recomendations

    1. Thank you for the continuing comments. I’m delighted that people are still reading this blog. As I mentioned in my last post on February 8, 2013, I’m no longer updating or maintaining the blog. Happy travels!

    1. Hi Gisele,

      I began The Central Coast Traveler while looking for a new career. Blogging is a serious time commitment: coming up with new story ideas, research, travel and writing, especially with no compensation in return. I now have a full time job and don’t have much time for blogging.

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