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Roadtrip LA to SF: 4 Days On The California Coast

Cruising the Pacific Coast Highway

By: Megan McDuffie + Save to a List

In 1910, construction began on what is now one of the most famous stretches of road in the US: Highway 1. Over 100 years later, this route continues to earn its place on many a road tripper’s bucket list.

We’ve enjoyed this drive many times before, so when my boyfriend and I recently left our home in Los Angeles on a cross country road trip, we knew that traveling up Highway 1 would be a great way to kick off our trip.

There are plenty of towns with shopping, hotels, and fancy restaurants along this stretch of road, but we are adventurers at heart, so we've compiled a list of some of the great outdoor adventures along the way to get out of the car, stretch your legs, and explore the coast beyond the highway.

Day 1: LA to Carpinteria

Photo: Kyle Huber

From Los Angeles, head north on Pacific Coast Highway. There are a multitude of state beaches along this stretch of road, my favorite being El Matador State Beach. It may feel too early in the trip to stop and take a break, but it’s well worth the stop to stretch your legs and take a walk on the beach. At low tide, you’ll be able to explore the sea caves on the north end of the beach.

Continue north and enjoy the the winding coastal highway before it cuts inland towards Oxnard and Ventura. Stop in Ventura for lunch; there are several great restaurants, but my favorite is Nature’s Grill & Juice Bar, which offers up plenty of healthy options and is vegetarian friendly.

Once you’ve had your fill of organic goodness, you can head to one of the local beaches and settle into a relaxing food coma (don’t forget the sunscreen!) while you listen to the waves crash, or you can continue on towards Carpinteria State Beach, which has a number of campgrounds to choose from. Pitch your tent and then enjoy a late afternoon walk around the nearby Carpinteria Bluffs Nature Preserve.

Head into town for dinner, or pick up a six pack of one of the local brewery’s offerings and cook dinner at the beach in one of the park’s many fire pits.

Day 2: Carpinteria to San Luis Obispo

Photo: Talia Touboul

15 miles north of Carpinteria you’ll find the Douglas Family Preserve, a 70 acre park located on the bluffs above the shoreline. There is a 1.5 mile trail through the park to help you get your blood moving before today’s drive.

If you happen to be passing through on a Saturday, be sure to swing by the Santa Barbara Certified Farmers Market on the corner of Santa Barbara and Cota streets. This market has just about anything you’d ever need: fresh fruit and veggies, cheeses, meat and seafood, fresh baked bread, nuts, and honey. Pick up some goodies to enjoy as you continue up the coast. The French Press across the street is also a great place to pick up a cup of coffee to fuel you on your drive.

A half hour north of Santa Barbara you’ll pass through Gaviota State Park. Here, you’ll find some hiking opportunities, including a short 2.5 mile hike to the Gaviota Wind Caves. The windy gusts that this area is known for have carved a number of caves into the soft sandstone hills. In addition to exploring the caves, you’ll be rewarded with a great view of the Pacific and the surrounding rolling hills. To get there, just turn left at the Gaviota Beach Road about 30 miles north of Santa Barbara and you'll see the parking area, signs, and trailhead for the Wind Caves hike.

Once you reach San Luis Obispo, throw on your hiking boots and head up to Bishop’s Peak. This three mile, leg busting hike offers a 360 degree view of the area and leads to some great rock climbing spots as well.

Photo: Drew Robinson

There are a few camping options in the area. You can camp at Montana de Oro State Park, and end your day with a casual stroll along the Montana de Oro Bluffs Trail. Or, you can camp at Morro Bay State Beach, which gives you easier access into town for dinner. Local favorites include Wee Shack for burgers, Taco Temple, or Surfside Pizza.

Day 3: SLO to Big Sur

Photo: Talia Toubloul

You’ll want to get an early start today! If you want to get a sunrise hike in, the Park Ridge Trail and Quarry is near the campground at Morro Bay and offers great views.

After your morning hike, head north towards today’s highlight: Big Sur! Along the way, you can pull off the highway at the Elephant Seal Vista Point in San Simeon to check out the massive, and incredibly loud, elephant seals that hang out here. Keep your eyes peeled as you drive past Hearst Castle; this used to be the site of the world’s largest private zoo, which still has a zeal of zebras (yes, that’s really what they’re called!) that roam the grounds and can sometimes be spotted from the highway.

As you leave the San Simeon area, you’ll enter the 90 mile stretch of road that makes up the Big Sur coastline.

In Limekiln State Park, you can find some short, scenic hikes, including one to a waterfall as well as beach access.

Photo: Stephen Bellrichard

Further north, you’ll find the iconic McWay Falls, an 80-foot waterfall that cascades down a cliff face right onto the sand of a unbelievably turquoise cove. It is perhaps the most photographed feature of the Big Sur coastline, so be warned that you will have plenty of company enjoying the view with you, but it is definitely worth the stop. Park on the side of Highway 1, or use the parking lot at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park for a fee, and take the short trail to the right down to the viewpoint on the edge of a bluff.

The Henry Miller Memorial Library is a hidden gem off Highway 1 where surprisingly few tourists go, so it’s a nice place to escape the crowds. The quirky interior is worth stopping in to check out, or stay longer to relax on the library’s grounds. The library is one of Big Sur’s cultural arts centers, so they often have live music and performance events, so check out their events calendar before you plan your trip.

Photo: Blake Maitoza

Swing by the Big Sur Bakery, a lovely spot to grab some delicious baked goods before heading out to the Big Sur River Gorge. Here you’ll find a short hike to a waterfall and swimming hole; a great spot to hang out for the afternoon and recharge.

Big Sur is a wildly popular destination, and with limited camping options, sites fill up fast. If you’re able, reserve a site well in advance at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Bonus, if you camp here you’ll be close to Pfeiffer Beach where you’ll be able to catch an epic sunset.

Photo: Katch Silva

If you’re not able to snag a reservation, Andrew Molera State Park has campsites that are all first-come, first-served. The parking lot is a short walk to the actual campground. While you’re there, there is plenty of hiking to be done. There’s a trail that leads from the campground to the beach where you can watch the sun set over the Pacific.

Day 4: Big Sur to San Francisco

Photo: Moe Lauchert

The final leg of the trip takes you from Big Sur to San Francisco. Along the way, there are ozens of turnouts and vistas offering great views. Most notable is Bixby Bridge, an oft Instagrammed feature along Highway 1, which at 714 feet makes it the longest bridge along the route.

Photo: Nick Tort

About a half hour north, stop at the Point Lobos State Natural Preserve to enjoy a four mile loop. Hopefully you aren’t tired of views of the rugged northern California coast just yet, because this state preserve boasts plenty of them. Grab your camera because this spot has plenty of opportunities to capture the dramatic landscape.

Continue north to Santa Cruz and grab lunch to go (we hear that Point Market and Cafe has some killer burritos) before heading slightly off course to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park for a picnic lunch and an afternoon swim at The Garden of Eden.

Photo: Mitchell Phun

After your swim and perhaps a brief stroll to check out the grove of old-growth coastal redwoods, head back to Highway 1 for the home stretch into San Francisco. There are plenty of beaches to stop at if you don’t want the trip to end just yet, but be sure to budget in enough time to make the short hike to the top of Bernal Heights Park to catch the sunset over the city.

For ideas on how to get the most out of your time in San Francisco, check out these adventures on The Outbound!

Photo: Megan McDuffie

Megan McDuffie is one half of the team at Fresh Off the Grid, a camp cooking blog featuring recipes specifically designed for cooking in the outdoors, written on the road as she and her boyfriend travel the United States. Find us online at freshoffthegrid.com or on Instagram at @freshoffthegrid.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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