The Ultimate Itinerary for an Epic California Highway 1 Road Trip

Do you enjoy long car rides? Me neither! Would I endure it for spectacular views of the California coastline and a road trip of a lifetime? You bet!

A California road trip down the coast is one of the most scenic and relaxing drives.  It will require you to make multiple stops just to pull over and enjoy the view.

Highway 1 runs along the California coastline from Orange County all the way to Northern California cities like San Francisco.  At a total of just over 655.8 miles (1,055.4 km), it is the longest state route in California.  So, buckle up and get ready because with this itinerary and travel tips you’re on the path to the best Highway 1 road trip yet!

The California Road Trip Highway 1 Itinerary:

The Beginning

San Diego

Although Highway 1 doesn’t begin until it reaches Capistrano Beach in Orange County, I recommend beginning your journey in San Diego.  San Diego is home to many amazing attractions such as Balboa Park, sunny beaches and the San Diego Zoo, which is actually the largest zoo in the world with over 3,700+ animals. One of my favorite stops is the beautiful La Jolla area for delicious fish tacos and a sunset stroll along the ocean. 

Read more: 24 Hours in San Diego, California

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Balboa Park is unreal, I love sunny days in San Diego**

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Laguna Beach

Driving time from San Diego: 1hr 15min

Famous for providing visitors with relaxing weekend getaway, Laguna Beach is great for those who enjoy surfing or lounging at the beach, hiking, or simply just enjoying a beautiful Southern California sunny day.  This city has spectacular beaches including 1000 Steps Beach, Victoria Beach, and Crescent Bay.

Tip #1: Laguna Beach is known for being a more expensive destination in Southern California, so for those who want to stay more than a night on a budget we suggest searching through Airbnb for great deals without loosing the luxury -feel of the city.  

Tip #2: Beach parking is often scarce and expensive, especially in the summer.  I would suggest taking the Laguna Beach Trolley, which is a free weekend transportation system that begins at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in the city of Dana Point and ends on Cajon Street in North Laguna Beach.

Other Cities Worth Visiting: Newport Beach & San Clemente

Read more: The Ultimate Guide to Laguna Beach, CA

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Santa Monica & Venice

Driving time from Laguna Beach: 1hr

Admire the beautiful views of the water from the Santa Monica boardwalk and enjoy rides from the famous Santa Monica pier.  On the opposite side of the boardwalk is where you can reach Venice Beach.  Come here to people-watch, shop the many unique vendors and stores, and of course, enjoy the views of the ocean. This is a place where you will truly discover in the flesh the large and wide range of people and personalities that Los Angeles has uncovered.

Also worth stopping for: Long Beach, Malibu or Los Angeles

Read more: The Ultimate Guide to Los Angeles, California

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The Middle

Santa Barbara

Driving time from Santa Monica: 1hr 40min

Ocean views, enchanting Spanish style architecture at every turn, and trendy art-filled neighborhoods and museums help make up the beautiful town of Santa Barbara.  There are museums and landmarks for every type of art and architecture lover including Old Mission, Casa del Herrero, and the Museum of Natural History.  The bustling downtown area of this city is also full delicious meals and cuisines that will make you never want to leave.

Also worth stopping for: Solvang

San Luis Obispo

Driving time from Santa Barbara: 1hr 40min

This upbeat city is perfect for enjoying the many trendy Californian style shops and stopping for great dining options. Spend your day SLO style by walking through Bubblegum Alley and hiking to the Serenity Swing.  Wake up early to watch the sunrise from Prefumo Canyon and catch the sunset from Avila Beach.  Truly magical.

Also consider stopping by: Pismo Beach

Big Sur

Driving time from SLO: 2 hr

This is by far my favorite stop of the Highway 1 road trip.  I promise driving along the Big Sur coast will be the first time you ever enjoyed the driving part of a road trip.  Big Sur is full of amazing views, which is why we made the decision to camp rather than stay in a hotel or hostel.  There are many outdoor activities that you can do in Big Sur, such as hiking through many of the state parks, visiting McWay Falls, or admiring the views of the ocean and the Bixby Bridge (pictured below).

Also worth stopping for: Monterey (amazing aquarium), Pfeiffer Beach, Carmel-By-The-Sea

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one of my favorite places in the world// this spot was magic ✨

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The End..?

Santa Cruz

Driving time from Big Sur: 1hr 20min

Famous for its surfing spots and Redwood trees, Santa Cruz is amazing change of scenery from Southern California.  This city includes many options for hikes that lead to spectacular natural views, including our personal favorite Henry Cowell State Park, which was full of the huge California Redwood trees.  One of our local friends told us that if we were lucky enough to find a yellow Banana Slug that the city is known for, to kiss it for good luck.  When we were on the trail I saw our first and only Banana Slug so of course I had to kiss it!   

Also worth stopping by: James Franco’s beautiful hometown, Palo Alto

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// my happy place is with these big guys //

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San Francisco

Driving time from Santa Cruz: 1hr

San Francisco is a city full of vibrant colors and bustling streets.  There is something for everyone in this city whether it is eating delicious Mexican food in the Mission District, admiring the views of the Golden Gate Bridge, or spending the day wandering the many museums.  There is a reason many people flock to this largely populated city- it has a type of spirit that is hard to find and that you won’t be able to resist.

Also worth stopping for: Half Moon Bay

Read more: The Great Northern California Road Trip Pt. 2: San Francisco

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** found my new favorite spot in San Francisco **

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Although Highway 1 runs all the way up to around Fort Bragg, I would suggest ending your California road trip in San Francisco.  For those who want to continue on, hop on Highway 101 which will take you all the way up to Oregon and is full of scenic views of giant Redwood trees.

What is your favorite stop on the California road trip along Highway 1? Let me know in the comments!

Thanks for reading,

Leslie x

Check out my post The Great Northern California Road Trip Pt. 1: Santa Cruz and Humboldt County

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40 thoughts on “The Ultimate Itinerary for an Epic California Highway 1 Road Trip

  1. I love this post! I live in California and am very familiar with these places. The only suggestion I have is that people stop in Malibu to maybe try and find some celebrities 😉

  2. The tower at Victoria Beach is beautiful, I agree! Doing a road trip like this is one of my “dream American ambitions” (or at least seeing more of Cali, have only been to San Fran). Great pics!

  3. I’ve never visited California, but I’ve always longed to do a US roadtrip and this guide makes me really really book today! I’ve heard good things about San Diego zoo too, so yep, you’ve definitely convinced me! Thanks for sharing.

  4. I think articles talking about Highway 1 road trips end just as it starts to get really good! The San Francisco-Oregon section is the best part and so under-represented. That being said you picked some fantastic spots!

  5. Great post! We live in San Francisco and spend many weekends driving up and down the gorgeous highway 1. Although I’ve never managed to stomach taking it down much further past SLO – it gets soooo ugly in LA! I’d also suggest re-considering your advice to end the trip in SF, the view is just as incredible north of the Bay up until the 1 ends at the 101 as they are in Big Sur. My favorite stretch is from very start of the 1 way up north all the way down to Morro Bay – which also happens to be my husbands hometown! I don’t know if there is a road on earth as beautiful as the 1, I’m so obsessed with it. By the way, did you stop in San Simean near SLO to see the elephant seal rookery? That’s my favorite stop!

  6. My best friend and her husband just shifted to California. She was really very nervous. They’ve settled in now but I’m going to share this with them. Think they would really enjoy it.

  7. Ive done the 1st half of this road trip, I had no idea there was so much more to see & do haha! How long did this take you or how long would you recommend?

  8. I am coming to California this year and this was a very insightful guide loved it, I will be bookmarking your post for future reference. Love the photo’s especially the Gorilla one.

  9. I did that exact same roadtrip a few years ago! IT WAS FUN! The only big difference is that we stop halfway in LA to go 6 days to Hawaii, which i also recommend doing…

  10. CA highway 1 and 101 are jaw dropping! Your descriptions of these places urge me to venture out with this cute girl I know (hint hint) and road trip from the top of California all the way down. You’re the best person to ride shotgun on our road trips. Love you xoxo

  11. I’m so happy you included San Diego in this!! So many people just finish in LA and I always feel sorry for them. Lovely post and recommendations!

  12. Love this post, takes me back to last year when I drove the route! The small towns like Santa Barbra and Monterey were my favourite stopping points… And San Fransico of course! What a city 🙂

  13. I was just in San Francisco a few weeks ago and fell in love with California. I was actually thinking of returning for a road trip soon and you have given me some great ideas! Also you are so brave to have kissed a banana slug, we get lots of them up here in British Columbia but I have never been brave enough to kiss them. Although now I know it will bring me luck maybe I will 🙂

  14. Definitely bookmarking this for the next time I spend an extended period in California. I visited San Francisco, Monterey, Big Sur and Napa Valley for the first time last year and am dying to go back and explore other parts of Highway 1.

  15. Headed to San Francisco next year AND this is already in the plans! I’ve wanted to take this road trip for a while now and I’m excited that I finally have the time to do it. Thanks for drawing the map!

  16. Your post makes me miss CA so much! I’ve visited twice, only in the Santa Monica and San Diego area mostly. I’d love to go back and take this road trip. Looks like a ton of fun!

  17. This is great! Thanks for the info! I’m planning a West cost road trip for next year and I’ll be adding some one this stops on my list!

  18. That drive is so amazing. I’m a big surfer and that coast line has some of the most amazing break (& Mexican food), in the world!! It was cool to read your version of stops. How good are road trips! Have fun x

  19. I am saving this for when I finally make this trip happen. I’ve been to many of these locations but still haven’t hit up Big Sure, which is a big one on my road trip list 🙂

  20. Last year I did a California Coast road trip too. I went LA to Sonoma and had the best time. I have never been to that old lighthouse in Laguna though. I might have to check that out. I will add to your list Point Reyes Lighthouse too just north of San Fran.

  21. Lovely post! Road tripping in the USA is a wonderful and unmatched experience. Imagine a person who detests road trips suddenly falls in love with the open roads. Yes! This happened to me after the beautiful American cross-country road trip I took in the spring of 2016.

    Santa Barbara looks postcard-pretty here. I’d love to take a road trip along California highway 1 next time I’m in the USA.

  22. I have never been in California but planning to head to San Francisco soon so might explore doing a road trip. I have never heard of Big Sur before so I’m intrigued. Will definitely had to my itinerary! Thanks for sharing!

  23. This road trip has been on bucket list for a year or two. I was so worried that my hubby would spend his whole driving so I am so happy to see that driving times are so short. Santa Barbara sounds like my kind of place and I can’t wait to visit. Are there any foody spots that we mustn’t miss!?

  24. I absolutely love road trips and this look like a fun trio to do.
    Btw, we have an area in Mumbai called Santa Cruz lol.

  25. GROWING UP IN CALIFORNIA, I’ve never fully driven the 1 highway. but these places are quite familiar and will always feel like home, even though I’m now in Spain for nearly 3 years. gorgeous indeed.

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