EXPLORE CALIFORNIA’S CENTRAL COAST FROM LOS ANGELES TO SAN FRANCISCO.
The Central Coast of California is 13,000 square miles. We’ve divided it into four distinct regions offering you a myriad of experiences like outdoor adventures, shopping, amazing food, wine and beer, and cultural events. And with over 43,000 hotel rooms, you’ll always find a place to stay.
This itinerary is for a northbound road trip starting from Los Angeles International Aiport (LAX). If you’re starting from San Francisco International Airport (SFO), check out this southbound version of The Original Road Trip.
From Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), drive north on 405 freeway to Highway 101 (78 miles; 126 km; 90 minutes)
As you leave Los Angeles behind and head into the VENTURA REGION, the Channel Islands seem to float in the offshore mists. The areas of Ventura County offer endless, inspiring choices where your senses will be invigorated. Rich farmland spreads across the Oxnard Plain, with mountains rising to the northeast. It is a memorable panorama—a California classic—and hints at what lies ahead. Wild and untamed, the California of centuries ago awaits only an hour offshore at Channel Islands National Park, accessible from Ventura Harbor. Then again, the contemporary boutiques and restaurants of Ventura’s vibrant downtown are a few minutes up the highway. Take a restful pause in Port Hueneme (the name derives from the Spanish spelling of the Chumash wene me, meaning “resting place”). Or take an easy side-trip, and escape into citrus groves and Old California landscapes in Ojai Valley.
Tip: There are so many things to see and do in the Ventura Region so we suggest spending two or three nights here. Also, parking is free is many parts of Ventura, isn’t that nice?
From Ventura, drive north on Highway 101 toward Santa Barbara (34 miles; 55 km; 30 minutes)
It’s amazing how quickly moods and landscapes change along the Central Coast as you approach the SANTA BARBARA REGION. On your way, you’ll see Carpinteria—home to “the world’s safest beach”, and the communities of Summerland and Montecito. Just beyond the red-tiled, Mediterranean perfection of Santa Barbara, the graceful city that has been dubbed The American Riviera, Highway 101 reaches beaches and golden cliffs that positively glow under the California sun.
When you’re ready to leave Santa Barbara, you will have a choice.
You can remain on Highway 101 and visit Goleta, home to the University of California at Santa Barbara, and further north, Lompoc—known as “the Valley of the Flowers” and home to La Purísima Concepcion Mission; or head inland on State Highway 154, and climb high into the Santa Ynez Mountains. Soon you reach the rolling vineyards and small towns of Santa Ynez Valley, Los Olivos, Buellton and Solvang—affectionately known as “Little Denmark”. Back roads wind beneath canopies of oak trees to hidden wineries. You sample a memorable Pinot Noir, then discover the person doing the pouring—still dusty from hours among the vines—is the actual vintner who guided the wine’s creation from bud break to barreling.
The northernmost part of the Santa Barbara Region is the Santa Maria Valley. Foodies know this town for its barbecue specialty, tri-tip, as well as its strawberries. Santa Maria Style Barbecue is so popular, it is copyrighted – now that’s saying something.
Tips: You can easily spend one or two nights in Santa Barbara, Goleta or Lompoc, and then another one or two nights in Santa Ynez or Santa Maria Valley. One of the most fascinating ways to gain an appreciation for Santa Barbara’s unique architecture is to walk the self-guided Red Tile Walk Tour through downtown. And get a real taste of Santa Ynez Valley by visiting the tasting rooms just like they did in the movie, “Sideways”.
You can also access this region through the Santa Barbara Airport (SBA). Fly direct from airports including Los Angeles (LAX), San Francisco (SFO), Phoenix (PHX), Seattle (SEA), Portland (PDX,) Denver (DEN), and Dallas (DFW). Another option is the Santa Maria Airport (SMX).
From Santa Maria, drive north on Highway 101 toward San Luis Obispo (32 miles; 51 km; 30 minutes)
The SAN LUIS OBISPO REGION is roughly halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, and lets visitors experience everything from vintage beach towns to world-renowned wine regions. There are more than 16 different cities and towns to discover in San Luis Obispo County. On your way, take some time in Arroyo Grande where beautifully restored buildings date back over one hundred years. Highway 101 swoops by the classic beach town of Pismo Beach before cutting back inland toward San Luis Obispo.
San Luis Obispo has long drawn visitors from these metropolitan areas looking for close-to-home weekend escapes due to the range of its scenery, the quality of its wines, and the grandeur of its most famous destination—Hearst Castle.
Here again, you will have a choice.
You can either remain on Highway 101 north toward Atascadero and Paso Robles, an incredible California wine and food destination; or take Pacific Coast Highway 1 north toward the quintessential coastal towns of Morro Bay, Cayucos, Cambria, and San Simeon – with a stop at the unique town of Harmony, known for its population of 18, before heading to Big Sur.
Tips: We recommend spending one or two nights in the San Luis Obispo area or Paso Robles, and another night or two in one of the coastal towns. Among many things to do, you can visit the Woodland Auto Display – filled with unique artifacts from the world of automobile history and racing.
You can also access this region through the San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport (SBP). Fly direct from airports including Los Angeles (LAX), San Francisco (SFO), Phoenix (PHX), Seattle (SEA), and Denver (DEN).
The most northerly of the Central Coast regions—MONTEREY BAY REGION—encompasses a wide area of coastal and inland destinations.
From the San Luis Obispo Region, you can either proceed north along the coastal Highway 1 or along Highway 101. Here are directions for both options:
From San Simeon, continue north on Highway 1 to Big Sur (45 miles; 72km; 45 mins). When visiting Big Sur, the main thing to keep in mind, is to slow down. Why rush along a 70-mile stretch considered by many to be the world’s most dramatic meeting of land and ocean? Take your time; savor the advance and retreat of fogs into redwood canyons and a changing light that seems to reinvent the coast almost by the second.
After Big Sur, you’ll come across the charming seaside town of Carmel, Pebble Beach, and world-famous Monterey. Set along the curving sweep of its namesake bay and rising into pine-covered hills, Monterey combines natural beauty with reminders of its heyday as a bustling fishing port. The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a window into the life and ecology of one of the world’s richest ocean environments. This celebrated facility, which helped spur the revival of Cannery Row when it opened in 1984, focuses on the marine life waiting beyond its decks in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
From Monterey, continue north on Highway 1 toward Santa Cruz (43 miles; 69 km; 52 mins.)
With its spectacular beaches and unique urban mix, Santa Cruz is a city shaped equally by a distinctive local culture and the refreshing bay breezes that serve as a reminder of the natural wonders and beach scene waiting just minutes from the heart of town. Step back in time at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk with a ride on The Giant Dipper, the park’s vintage wooden roller coaster. Or take a walk on the half-mile-long Municipal Wharf, home to fish markets, restaurants, and gift shops.
From Paso Robles to Pinnacles National Park, continue north on Highway 101 toward King City; Highway G-15 to Highway G-13 to Highway/CA-25 to Pinnacles Highway/CA-146 (86 miles; 138 km; 1 hour 40 mins.)
Comprising 26,000 acres, Pinnacles National Park in San Benito County is an otherworldly landscape of stone spires and crags formed by the collapse of an ancient volcano. There are over 30 miles of trails, rock climbing, caves, and all sorts of wildlife—including California condors. The park’s western entrance is easily accessible from the Salinas Valley.
Or, from Paso Robles to Salinas, continue on Highway 101 north (99 miles; 159 km; 1 hr 40 mins.)
Stop in Salinas and the fabulous National Steinbeck Center where you can discover Steinbeck’s world through interactive, multi-sensory exhibits and rare artifacts. As you drive along Highway 68, you will notice giant farmers standing 20 feet high in the fields. These larger-than-life statues are a tribute to hard-working men and women by local artist John Cerney.
From Salinas, you can either continue north on Highway 101 to visit the mission in San Juan Bautista, Hollister, Gilroy—the garlic capital of the world, or Morgan Hill where you’ll find an abundance of rolling hills, fresh air, and award-winning wineries. (28 miles; 45 km; 35 mins).
Or you can head west on Highway 68 through the wine-taster’s paradise of Carmel Valley, toward Carmel, which inspires today’s poets and painters, just as it inspired Robert Louis Stevenson when he wrote Treasure Island, and finally to Monterey (30 miles; 48 km; 19 mins).
From Monterey, continue north on Highway 1 toward Santa Cruz (43 miles; 69 km; 52 mins.)
Tips: This region encompasses several counties so you can easily spend three to four nights in this region alone. Keep an eye open for free movies and outdoor concerts on the beach near the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Or try something entirely new, like garlic ice cream at Gilroy’s Garlic Festival.
You can access this region through the Monterey Regional Airport (MRY). It is located just 16 miles from Salinas. Fly direct from airports including Los Angeles (LAX), San Francisco (SFO), Phoenix (PHX), San Diego (SAN), and Las Vegas (LAS).