The Ultimate Guide to a Road Trip Along California Highway 1

Do you enjoy driving/sitting in a car for long periods of time? Me neither! Would I put up with it for spectacular views of the California coastline and a journey of a lifetime? You bet!  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 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.  Stop by the beautiful La Jolla area for delicious fish tacos and to have a sunset stroll along the ocean.  It is definitely worth another day or two to start your road trip a little early in this beachside city.

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

This beautiful tower located at Victoria Beach (next to a picturesque tide pool).

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

Shop my Southern California style favorites:

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

 

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.

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 relaxing in one of the many parks, 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

 

Although Highway 1 runs all the way up to around Fort Bragg, I would suggest ending your 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.

Have you ever taken the great Highway 1 road trip or are planning to? Let me know in the comments!

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

Like my post? Pin on Pinterest!

 

19 Comment

  1. The picture with Gorilla is adorable! 😀

  2. 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 😉

  3. 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!

  4. 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.

  5. This is a really useful itinerary for those who want to visit California! So many things to do! We will keep that in mind when we visit this part of USA.

  6. 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!

  7. 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!

  8. 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.

  9. Amazing photos! Definitely beautiful place for road trips. 😊

  10. 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?

  11. Looks like I’m going to have to take a road trip now!! Looks great and love all your photos 🙂

  12. 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.

  13. Those are some amazing photos you have! I totally believed that this is the best place for road trips.

  14. 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…

  15. I cannot wait to explore more of Cali! We are heading there this fall on Route 66 from Chicago and thinking about doing this drive. Thanks for sharing!

  16. The pictures are mind blowing! A fantastic documentation and very adequate tips. Thanks 🙂

  17. Andrew Brown says:

    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

  18. California seems like an awesome idea for a road trip. Thanks a bunch for the recommendations!

  19. 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!

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