Road Trip California: Take a Coastal Drive Up Highway 1

Road Trip California: Take a Coastal Drive Up Highway 1

Written by Caila Ball-Dionne on

Caila Ball-Dionne is a freelance writer and full-time travel enthusiast. You can find more of her writing at

Road Trip California: Take a Coastal Drive Up Highway 1

Heading on a California road trip? Here’s what you need to do and see—from stand-up paddleboarding in Orange County to soaking up the foodie paradise in San Francisco—on your drive up the coast.

A road trip is one of the best ways to get an in-depth look at a piece of America, and the coastal State Route 1 in California provides one of the most scenic routes of them all. This designated All-American Road may not be the quickest way to get from Orange County in Southern California up to San Francisco, but it’s certainly the most beautiful. And California’s year-round pleasant climate means that you can follow this road trip itinerary any time of year, though try to avoid the summer months, if possible, as there can be fog along the coast. (And if you must visit during June, July, or August, try to drive in the afternoons because the fog tends to peak in the mornings.)

Though this 655-mile (1,055-kilometer) stretch of road could be covered in a (long) day, where’s the fun in that? Highway 1 is best enjoyed on a weeklong road trip with stops planned out about every 100 miles (161 kilometers). Fill up your packing organizers with clothes for hiking, ocean-based activities, museum exploring, nice restaurant meals, and a hint of wine tasting. Then put them in your bag and hit the road for this epic adventure. These are some excellent places to stop along your journey.

Surf’s Up in Orange County

Before you settle in for some long stretches of sitting in the car, start your trip with an active day in beautiful Orange County. Rent a stand-up paddleboard (SUP) from Newport Beach’s Pirate Coast Paddle—which also offers lessons—and explore the waters. Don’t leave the area without enjoying some sea-to-table dining, like a fish taco or ceviche from Bear Flag Fish Co.

Art and Foodie Culture in Los Angeles

Your second stop is in Santa Monica—right after the road emerges from an underground tunnel, you'll be treated to a stunning view of the ocean. You can enjoy both beach time and city life without the notorious traffic of Los Angeles by shuttling between Santa Monica and Downtown L.A. on the newly opened Expo Line. Reserve free tickets in advance for The Broad, Downtown L.A.’s new modern art museum that features works from Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, and Roy Lichtenstein, along with the selfie haven of Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Room.

Central Coast Wine Tasting

Next up is Santa Barbara, the bustling seaside city that has a penchant for wine. Enjoy an afternoon wandering through the Santa Barbara Funk Zone, sampling wine from the region, or go slightly off the beaten track to the up-and-coming Lompoc Wine Ghetto. History buffs will also love visiting the Old Mission, which was established by Spanish Franciscan friars in 1786.

Xanadu on the Coast

It’s real life Citizen Kane at Hearst Castle, the famed estate of William Randolph Hearst that is now a National Historic Landmark in San Simeon. The eccentric publishing magnate filled this property with imported, 15th-century Spanish ceilings, ancient Egyptian artifacts, and a colony of wild zebras. After visiting the castle, stop by the Elephant Seal rookery five miles (eight kilometers) down the road to view these cute sea creatures flopping about en masse.

Beautiful Big Sur

After taking in the overwhelming extravagance of Hearst Castle, it’s time to get back to nature in Big Sur. Relax amongst in the idyllic surroundings, or stretch your legs on a hike past waterfalls, redwood groves, and ocean views. Refuel after your hike with a lunch and a gorgeous view at Nepenthe, which offers casual meals al fresco.

Beach Time in Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz is home to some of California’s most beautiful state beaches and parks, including Natural Bridges State Marine Reserve and the Monarch Butterfly Natural Preserve. Spend your day in the sun exploring these natural treasures, before popping by the Venus Distillery. This craft distillery is a hidden gem and produces organic, small-batch whiskey, gin, aquavit, and blue agave spirits.

The San Francisco Finish Line

As sad as it is when a California road trip comes to a close, visiting San Francisco is the ultimate silver lining. Get ready to hike up an urban hill on San Francisco’s famed Lombard Street or during a visit to the Painted Ladies. And be prepared to take in the hippie culture—which is still very much alive—in the Haight-Ashbury district. However you work up your appetite, take time for lunch at the James Beard Award-winning dim sum restaurant Yank Sing. Yank Sing’s Shanghai dumplings are an excellent way to cap off the trip before repacking your bag for the journey home.


Related Links (from Eagle Creek blog):

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The Desert Path: Finding Inspiration

5 National Park Landmark Sites You Don’t Want to Miss