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  • Hiker climbs peaceful trail in the Big Basin Redwoods State Park
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    Santa Cruz County: From the Beaches to the Redwoods

  • Native beach plants in bloom along the Carmel coastline right at dusk
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    Monterey County: Iconic California Adventures on Land and Sea

  • Hearst Castle high atop The Enchanted Hill in San Luis Obispo County
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    San Luis Obispo: Jewels by the Water

  • Taking a recreation break in Los Olivos
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    Santa Maria and Santa Ynez: Culturally Unique Experiences

  • Waterside vista at the Deep Sea Tasting Room known for its quality wine selection
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    Santa Barbara: Chic and Charming Coastal Town

  • Afternoon sunshine descends on the marina at Ventura Harbor Village
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    Ventura: Natural Gems and Classic California Cool

Channel Island coastal hiking trail popular for its views of the rocky Pacific Coast
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Visit Ventura

California’s Central Coast: Road Trip through Natural and Cultural Wonders

By Idoia Gkikas

  • Route distance:
    661.00 km
  • Suggested Time:
    1-2 weeks

It’s hard to imagine a more iconic beach road trip than the one along California’s coast.

Cool ocean breezes, beautiful beaches and vibrant towns offer a variety of experiences, from history and culture, to world-class vineyards, shopping and dining. This north-to-south itinerary highlights the central coast portion of Highways 1 and 101, starting in outdoor-loving Santa Cruz, passing through the epic scenery of Monterey and San Luis Obispo, culture-rich Santa Maria, stylish Santa Barbara, and ending with the perfect beach vibe of Ventura.

01
Hiker climbs peaceful trail in the Big Basin Redwoods State Park
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Santa Cruz County: From the Beaches to the Redwoods

Fly into Mineta San Jose International Airport (SJC), where you’ll rent a car for the 45-minute drive to your first destination: Santa Cruz. Home to University of California, Santa Cruz, this destination has a fun, college vibe along with outstanding outdoor activities – and not just at the beach. You’ll also find redwoods, vineyards and farmland to explore, all in a compact area. Enjoy views of migratory birds and whales from the century-old Santa Cruz Wharf, or head to Big Basin Redwoods State Park to see the giant, old-growth redwood trees (some measure more than 90 meters tall) along with waterfalls, wildlife, camping and more than 100 kilometers of hiking trails. When it’s time for refreshment, you have plenty of options: Sip organic wines in a Santa Cruz Mountain tasting room, enjoy a farm-fresh feast in a local eatery, or sip a craft pint from one of the breweries popping up around town. Nearby Gilroy is famous for celebrating all things garlic at the annual Gilroy Garlic Festival in July (garlic ice cream, anyone?). Finish the day with sunset at the beach and a stroll along the vintage-feeling Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Next, you’re off to the historic port city of Monterey.

69 km
0.75 hours by car
02
Native beach plants in bloom along the Carmel coastline right at dusk
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Monterey County: Iconic California Adventures on Land and Sea

It’s a short drive south along Highway 1 to reach Monterey County, a diverse region known for breathtaking coastal views, lush wine country and outdoor adventures. Must-see attractions include Cannery Row, where sardine canneries once dominated the scene and inspired the famous John Steinbeck novel of the same name; shops and seafood restaurants at Old Fisherman’s Wharf; and the outstanding Monterey Bay Aquarium. Visit Point Pinos Lighthouse in quaint Pacific Grove, and look out for breaching humpback whales year-round. Or, head to charming Carmel-by-the-Sea for a delicious meal followed by boutique and art gallery shopping and some time at the beach. Travel inland to Monterey Wine Country, home to dozens of vineyards and tasting rooms in the Salinas Valley, as well as award-winning Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs to sample in Carmel Valley Village. Spend time in the outdoors with redwood forests and waterfalls at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, and watch a breathtaking sunset as sea lions bark in the distance. Or, head inland to Pinnacles National Park, a dramatic volcanic landscape punctuated by immense rock spires, ideal for hiking among wildflowers and rock climbing. Either is an ideal way to soak in the inspiring scenery before driving to your next stop.

229 km
2.25 hours by car
03
Hearst Castle high atop The Enchanted Hill in San Luis Obispo County
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San Luis Obispo: Jewels by the Water

Roll down the windows and soak in the views of the Pacific Ocean along one of the most-photographed sections of the California coast. Highway 1* hugs the edge of towering seaside cliffs as waves crash onto the rocks below. Keep an eye out for the old lighthouse and the elephant seals that gather at the rookery at Piedras Blancas. In San Simeon, take a tour of Hearst Castle, the opulent estate-turned-museum of media mogul, William Randolph Hearst. The views of the San Simeon and the Pacific Ocean are outstanding. If you’ve worked up a thirst, you’re in luck. This region is renowned for its fertile soil and near-ideal weather, contributing to a centuries-old wine-making tradition. Take a short detour inland to Paso Robles and Templeton for a winery tour. Continue further south to go hiking at Morro Bay State Park in the quaint seaside village of Morro Bay. Be sure to snap some photos of Morro Rock, a 23 million-year-old volcanic plug standing 175 meters tall. Browse the downtown shops, then grab lunch and a craft brew in San Luis Obispo, a quirky, beach-loving town that was once named the happiest city in America. If you’re traveling from October to February, stop at the Monarch Butterfly Grove in Pismo Beach on your way to Santa Maria, an overwintering site for thousands of monarch butterflies.

 

*Note: Due to the current closure of Highway 1 just south of Gorda, take the Highway 101 detour inland to explore the San Luis Obispo region. Via Highway 101, you can tour wineries in Paso Robles and Templeton first, then drive back toward the coast to see Hearst Castle in San Simeon and continue on with the remainder of the San Luis Obispo itinerary.

51 km
0.75 hours by car
04
Taking a recreation break in Los Olivos
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Santa Maria and Santa Ynez: Culturally Unique Experiences

Take in the stands of eucalyptus trees and farmland along Highway 1, stopping to pay a visit to the Rancho Guadalupe Dunes Preserve. It’s the second-largest stretch of sand dunes in California; guided hikes are offered via the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center. In Santa Maria, book a round of golf at Blacklake Golf Resort or La Purisima Golf Course to work up an appetite for some Santa Maria-style barbecue: dry-rubbed beef tri-tip grilled over a fire of California coastal red oak, served with beans, salsa, garlic bread and salad. Farther south in Santa Ynez Valley, wine enthusiasts can sip the wares of more than two dozen wineries in nearby Los Olivos, offering tours and tastings with a picturesque backdrop. Don’t miss a visit to Solvang, known as “Little Denmark,” to indulge in a Danish pastry and stroll along Scandinavian-style storefronts housing shops and restaurants. If you’re wiped out from the day’s adventures, check into a funky, updated retro Airstream trailer at Flying Flags RV Resort and Campground in Buellton.

121 km
1.25 hours by car
05
Waterside vista at the Deep Sea Tasting Room known for its quality wine selection
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Santa Barbara: Chic and Charming Coastal Town

Highway 101 out of Buellton turns south at the coastline. You’ll be treated to expansive ocean views as you drive into Santa Barbara, an idyllic beach destination flanked by the towering Santa Ynez Mountains on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other. Settled by Spaniards in the late 1700s, Santa Barbara’s heritage is still apparent in the ubiquitous red-tiled roofs, Spanish architecture and various historic structures including the Old Mission Santa Barbara, founded in 1786 and still an active parish today. Hang out in downtown Santa Barbara to order lunch, sample great wine from dozens of tasting rooms and wineries, or find your next favorite pint at one of the city’s craft breweries. Have your credit card ready for world-class shopping on historic State Street. You’ll find everything from high-end brands to chic local boutiques, not to mention art galleries and fine dining. Of course, don’t forget to work on your tan – beaches at Shoreline Park, Goleta and Carpinteria are sure bets to get that golden California glow before your final stop.

55 km
0.75 hours by car
06
Afternoon sunshine descends on the marina at Ventura Harbor Village
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Ventura: Natural Gems and Classic California Cool

Much of this stretch of Highway 101 merges with the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), offering ocean scenery for parts of the drive to Ventura. This picturesque coastal city is home to Channel Islands National Park and Marine Sanctuary, a meticulously preserved group of five islands known for their astounding biodiversity. It’s just a short boat ride away with Island Packers from Ventura Harbor Village or nearby Oxnard’s Channel Islands Harbor to visit this natural treasure. Go kayaking or diving (guided excursions are recommended) to encounter unique sea life, imposing sea caves, primitive islands and unparalleled views of the ocean. Back on land, go people-watching at Ventura Pier, and take the free Ventura Harbor Trolley to check out the shops, restaurants and attractions in Ventura Harbor Village. For more retail therapy, treat yourself to deals at Camarillo Premium Outlets. If you haven’t filled your camera roll yet, take the scenic route along the PCH to Los Angeles International (LAX) for your return flight home.

Official Central Coast Travel Site