California Highway 1 Road Trip from LA to San Francisco
In April, my husband and I decided to put our Southwest Airline Companion Pass to good use. We flew to LA to check off a major bucket list item of mine, the California Highway 1 coastal drive from L.A. to San Francisco. I was about 14 weeks pregnant with our first child. It just so happened that right before we left home, we were able to pick up the results of the gender test from our doctor.
Will and I had both already been to L.A. and San Francisco before. We actually got engaged in San Francisco. So this trip was all about the drive in between (as well as opening the envelope showing either a baby boy or girl Sanders.) Here is our 4-day California Highway 1 Road Trip itinerary with details of each of the stops we made along the way.
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Malibu – Day 1 driving the California Highway 1
Leaving Los Angeles, we headed straight for Malibu. Head out early so you can arrive at the El Matador State Beach Cave before the crowds arrive. This is a must see stop in Malibu! And it was the perfect place for our gender reveal. I couldn’t wait one minute longer! The doctor’s note was burning a hole in my pocket! I, of course, had to record this for our future babe to see one day. So we found a spot with a big rock to place the video camera. See below for a few (ok more than a few) still-shots from this moment. Definitely one of the most exciting and memorable moments of my life. (feel free to skip past them quickly to get to the NEXT CITY. I understand not everyone really cares. haha!)
IT’S A BOY!!!!
After coming down from our baby boy euphoria, we drove north up the California Highway 1 to Santa Barbara (1 hour drive from the beach cave). We were starved so we stopped in at Sambo’s Restaurant for brunch. I highly recommend this place for brunch. The food was amazing and we sat out on the patio overlooking the ocean and boardwalk. Before getting back on the road to head north to Solvang, we went to the Santa Barbara County Courthouse to check out the view from top. Definitely worth the quick stop and walk up the tower to see the 360 views of Santa Barbara.
From Santa Barbara you will have about a 40 minute drive north up the pacific coast highway to Solvang (particularly known for its wineries and danish food). I could have spent days here, but being pregnant, it was just torture for me, so we only stayed for about 4 hours. Red wine is my jam.
During this 4 hours, we opted for renting bikes to explore the quaint little dutch town and its rolling hill surroundings. I did manage to eat an embarrassing amount of danish pastries…..eating for 2 here!
Back in the car with another 2 hour drive to Cambria, our home for the night, we spent that quality husband and wife time arguing over baby boy names. In the end, James William was the winner. We stayed at the Sea Otter Inn in Cambria, which was right off the pacific coast highway and right in front of the Moonstone Beach. If you don’t plan on staying in Cambria (hotels can be pricey), I still highly recommend making this a stop on your road trip. We were lucky enough to watch both the sunset and sunrise on the boardwalk on Moonstone Beach. It was one of my favorite stops of the whole trip! If you stay the night, try dinner at Madelines!
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Hearst Castle and Piedras Blancas – Day 2 driving the California Highway 1
Saturday morning, we got up early with coffee in hand and watched the sunrise on Moonstone Beach. Our first stop of the day was meant to be Hearst Castle, which was just 15 minutes up the road. Learn from our mistake and get tour reservations of the castle in advance. Especially in the Spring! We just showed up and it would have been a 2 hour wait. And then the tour itself can take up to several hours depending on how long you want to explore. Since we still had a lot of miles ahead of us that day, we decided to skip it. Just gives us another reason to come back one day. Without tour reservations, you can still check out the information building. At the back of the building, you can view the castle, from very far away, through coin operated binoculars. Better than nothing I guess. I was glad we skipped the tour, though, because just up the road from the Hearst Castle were the thousands of elephant seals at Piedras Blancas. We spent far more time here than I had anticipated. These creatures were just sooo entertaining. Totally worth the stop to see!
The next 2 hours down the California Highway 1 to Big Sur was my favorite part of the entire drive. The road hangs on the edge of curves, along cliffs, and the views were stunning. Be sure to factor in time to make stops along this road because there are pull-offs every half mile or so.
We stopped in at Nepenthe Restaurant for lunch with a view. This was obviously a popular spot, because it was extremely crowded and parking was limited. After lunch we back-tracked about 15 minutes to go hike McWay Falls Trail. The trail is located in the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and is one of the most popular stops along Highway 1. Do not miss this stop!
McWay Falls Trail:
After our hike , we drove another hour north, and before arriving in Carmel by the Sea, we made a quick stop to take in the view of the famous Bixby Bridge. You might recognize this bridge from the HBO mini series Big Little Lies.
Carmel by the Sea
That night we checked into our hotel room at the Clarion. Warning: Carmel hotels can be quite expensive. The Clarion was one of the more reasonable options and you can’t beat the location for the price. Once checked in, we walked down to the beach to watch the sunset. Nothing beats a west coast sunset. And we weren’t the only ones there who knew it! Afterwards, go have dinner at Dametra Café….so delicious!
Carmel was my favorite town that we stayed in. It’s a quaint little village with fairytale-like cottages. It has this pristine beach that lets dogs off the leash! Seriously my happy place! Sunday morning we grabbed coffee and breakfast from one of the local coffee shops. Then headed back down to the beach to watch the dogs play. I asked the young girl who checked us into our hotel, “what is there to do around here?” She wasn’t wrong when she said, “Nothing!…it’s just a bunch of old people and their dogs!” Will and I laughed because she had such a teenager attitude about it. Technically she was right, but she clearly wasn’t appreciating the beauty of it. As dog lovers ourselves, Will and I can totally see ourselves retiring here one day with fur babies.
After a blissful morning exploring Carmel, we headed to Monterey for lunch at Lou Lou’s Griddle (5 stars). We only had a few hours and I had a few options in mind, including a Whale Watching tour with Blue Ocean Whale Watching Co. There was also the Monterey Aquarium, but we settled on doing the scenic “17-mile drive” through Pebble Beach. This drive was beautiful but will make you envious at the same time. It goes by the famous Pebble Beach Golf course and many celebrity homes. You’ll probably ask yourself how did they get so lucky to be living here! By the end of it, I’m sure Will was tired of hearing my say, “I want to live there….Wait no, I want that house….Ok no, this one is definitely the winner!”
San Francisco – Last stop of our California Highway 1 Road trip
From Monterey we had a 2 hour (turned 3 hour because of traffic) drive to San Francisco. Once in town we stopped by THE bridge to catch the sunset before checking into our hotel on Lombard Street. That night we had dinner @ Burma Superstar on Clement Street…by far the best restaurant we ate at on our trip! A perfect end to our California Highway 1 Road-trip!
We hope you enjoyed this post and find it helpful for planning your next California Highway 1 road trip! As always, feel free to drop me a comment below with any questions you may have!
Happy and Safe Travels!