EXPLORE CALIFORNIA’S CENTRAL COAST FROM SAN FRANCISCO TO LOS ANGELES.
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 southbound road trip starting from San Francisco International Airport (SFO). If you’re starting from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), check out this northbound version of The Original Road Trip.
VIA HIGHWAY 1
From San Francisco International Airport (SFO), drive south on Highway 101 to merge onto CA-92. Then merge onto 280 south. From there, take Highway 17 south to Santa Cruz (67 miles; 107km; 60 minutes)
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. Step back im 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.
From Santa Cruz, drive south on Highway 1 to Monterey (43 miles; 69 km; 48 minutes)
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. Be sure to visit the charming seaside town of Carmel, and stunning Pebble Beach.
South of Monterey lies Big Sur, and this is where you should absolutely slow down and soak it all in. 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.
From Monterey, continue south on Highway 1 toward San Luis Obispo Region (40 miles; 64 km; 60 minutes)
VIA 152 AND HIGHWAY 101
From San Francisco International Airport (SFO), drive south on Highway 101. Then merge on Leavesly Rd/CA-152 toward Gilroy (67 miles; 107km; 60 minutes)
This area is home to Morgan Hill where there’s an abundance of fresh air, rolling hills and award-winning wineries, Gilroy – the Garlic Capital of the World, Gilroy Gardens Family Theme Park, the mission in San Juan Bautista, and Salinas. Make a stop in Salinas and the fabulous National John Steinbeck Center where you can discover Steinbeck’s world through interactive, multi-sensory exhibits and rare artifacts.
Worth the drive (approx. 50 miles south of Salinas) is Pinnacles National Park in San Benito County. Comprising 26,000 acres, it is an otherworldly landscape of stone spires and crags formed by the collapse of an acient 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.
You can either return to Salinas and turn toward the coast via Highway 68, or you can continue south on Highway 101 toward Paso Robles.
The drive west on Highway 68 takes you through the wine-taster’s paradise of Carmel Valley and leads you to Carmel, where today’s poets and painters are inspired just as it inspired Robert Louis Stevenson when he wrote Treasure Island. And finally, to Monterey (20 miles; 32 km; 30 mins). From Monterey, continue south on Highway 1 toward San Luis Obispo Region (40 miles; 64 km; 60 mins).
The drive south on Highway 101 takes you along the Salinas River, paralleling train tracks through King City, and ultimately toward San Luis Obispo Region (99 miles; 159 km; 1 hr+40 mins).
OVERNIGHT: MONTEREY BAY REGION
If you are continuing south to San Luis Obispo on Highway 1, allow yourself plenty of time – you will likely pull over and admire the incredible views along this iconic stretch of road.
Tips: This region encompasses several counties so you can easily spend three to four nights in this region alone. Keep your eye open for so many things to do like 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).
The San Luis Obispo Region is roughly halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and has everything from vintage beach towns to world-renowned wine regions.
VIA HIGHWAY 1
From Monterey, drive south on Highway 1 (40 miles; 64 km; 60 mins).
San Simeon is home to one of the most famous attractions – Hearst Castle. Tour the early 1900s newspaper mogul’s mansion on a hill and see art ranging from ancient Egyptian times to the ancient Greek era, and even to the Renaissance.
Just north of San Simeon is an observation area at Piedras Blancas where you can view an Elephant Seals Rookery. South of San Simeon, you’ll come across the artistic hamlet of Cambria, known for its dramatic coastal landscape. Stroll the Moonstone Beach pathways at sunset, or ride the hills on horseback.
Be sure to stop by the unique town of Harmony (population 18), and find a hand-made treasure. Discover classic beach towns of Cayucos, and seaside Morro Bay where you can kayak around its famous Morro Rock or fish from the dock. From there, it’s a short drive to San Luis Obispo.
VIA HIGHWAY 101
From Salinas, drive south on Highway 101 (97 miles; 156 km; 90 mins).
Take some time in the incredible wine and food destination of Paso Robles and the charming town of Atascadero on your way to San Luis Obispo. Many restaurants in the Paso Robles area are led by James Beared Award-nomated chefs. It is also known for its wine country. Wine tours allow you to “hop-on, hop-off” – a great way to try everything while going at your own pace.
San Luis Obispo has long drawn visitors from metropolitan areas looking for close-to-home weekend escapes due to the range of its scenery, the quality of wines, and its proximity to the coast.
With historic missions and a bustling college town, the San Luis Obispo region includes irresistible beach communities and an international reputation for winemaking.
Blessed with numerous state parks and beaches, this is a region for escapes into nature, including hiking the coastal bluffs north of Cayucos, or the inland hills of San Luis Obispo or Atascadero.
OVERNIGHT: SAN LUIS OBISPO REGION
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 here, 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).
From San Luis Obispo, drive south on Highway 101 toward Santa Maria (32 miles; 51 km; 34 minutes).
Be sure to visit Lompoc, known as “The Valley of Flowers” and home to La Purisima Concepcion Mission. Then, take your time to enjoy the back roads that wine beneath canopies of oak trees to hidden wineries throughout the Santa Ynez Valley. It encompasses five communities clustered closely together like wine grapes. From the vintage western town of Los Alamos, the wine-infused town of Los Olivos, the bustling gateway city of Buellton, the tiny gem of rural Ballard, the northern European atmosphere of Solvang founded by Danish-Americans in 1911, to the turn-of-the-20th-century township of Santa Ynez, it is relaxing and refreshing to meander and experience them all.
The coastal stretch of Highway 101 leads you to Goleta, home to the University of California at Santa Barbara. Hundreds upon hundreds of the butterflies stop in Goleta from mid-November through mid-February. Take in the scenery at Lake Los Caneros and enjoy a peaceful stroll along its walking trail.
It’s easy to see why the graceful city of Santa Barbara has been dubbed The American Riviera. Breathtaking ocean views are just minutes from wherever you’re standing, and you’re surrounded by red-tiled Mediterranean architecture, and lush gardens.
Even the Santa Barbara Zoo overlooks the ocean, mountains, and downtown. A great place for families, this zoo offers a climbing wall, live stage shows, and a zoo train.
Known as the “Queen of the Missions” with gorgeous views and beautiful gardens, Mission Santa Barbara is a place of workshop, a museum, a Franciscan Friary, and a retreat house with self-guided tours offered daily.
On the surface there are hundreds of reasons to explore the Channel Islands—and thousands more beneath it. Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, offshore of Santa Barbara is comprised of five islands: Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, Santa Barbara, and San Miguel. The sanctuary is a special place for species close to extinction, sensitive habitats, shipwrecks and maritime heritage artifacts. Many valuable commercial and recreational activities, such as fishing, shipping, and tourism occur in the sanctuary.
OVERNIGHT: SANTA BARBARA REGION
Tips: Because there are so many things to do here, you can easily spend one or two nights in Santa Barbara, Goleta, or Lompoc, and then another one or two nights in Santa Ynez Valley 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”.
From Santa Barbara, drive south on Highway 101 toward Ventura (34 miles; 55 km; 30 minutes).
The Ventura Region is home to amazing surfing and beaches. This region exudes the classic Californian laidback energy, so take your time to relax and enjoy being here.
Away from the coast, but worth the drive is Ojai—an artsy, restful, rural area known for what the locals call “the pink moment”. At dusk, as the sun sets, its light bounces off the Topa Topa Mountains, and the Ojai Valley is bathed in muted tones of pink, red, and every peachy shade in between. Get a feel for the area at the Ojai Valley Museum. Most Saturdays, the museum offers a historic walking tour.
Other inland escapes include the citrus groves and Old California landscapes of Heritage Valley, where twenty-six scenic miles of historical, cultural and agricultural beauty nestled along the banks of the Santa Clara River are waiting for you in Santa Paula, Fillmore, and Piru.
Conejo Valley is a bucolic, picturesque valley just 10-15 miles from the Pacific Ocean. Camarillo is nestled at the base of the Conejo foothills surrounded by green fields with a steady sea breeze. Camarillo has both small town charm and a rich history. Visit the historical sites and museums during the day, and walk along Old Town for dinner and drinks at night.
Not too far from Conejo Valley is rugged mountain terrain of Simi Valley, home of Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Perched atop a hill with sweeping views of the southland, the Reagan Library is one of California’s most beautiful and unique destinations.
Other coastal cities of Ventura County include Ventura, Oxnard, and Port Hueneme. Ventura is an artsy surf town. Kick back and look for sea glass at Surfer’s Knoll, or throw on your hiking boots to explore Arroyo Verde Park. Eat at a local cafe and spend a few hours strolling through the boutique shops in Ventura’s downtown; you might come across some antique treasures! Explore artifacts and curios at the Museum of Ventura County and then unwind with a glass of wine or craft beer at one of the area’s renowned wineries and breweries.
Great outdoor and family adventures can be found at Ventura Harbor. From here, you have access to Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary where you can hike, kayak, snorkel or tidepool on these islands, “the Galapagos of California,” and get an up-close look at untouched marine life.
When you reach Oxnard, grab a beach towel and some sunscreen because days here are to be spent lounging in the sun at one of its many beaches. Indulge in delicious treats at its annual California Strawberry Festival, Oxnard Salsa Festival, and others. Water-related activities can be found at Channel Islands Harbor, a working harbor featuring beaches, parks, surfing, biking, shops and restaurants. Enjoy sport fishing from the harbor too or discover the natural treasures of Channel Islands National Park on a nature discovery tour.
Port Hueneme is a small beach city whose name derives from the Spanish spelling of the Chumash wene me, meaning, “resting place”. Its south-facing sand beach makes it ideal for surfing. Visit the Maritime Museum and discover the only deep-water harbor between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
OVERNIGHT: VENTURA REGION
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?
To reach Los Angeles Airport (LAX) from Ventura, drive south on Highway 101 to 405 freeway south (78 miles; 126 km; 90 minutes).
Or better yet…retrace your route and see California’s Central Coast from an entirely new perspective.