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.
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.
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.
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.