Moon Coastal California


By Stuart Thornton

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From foggy cliffs and towering redwoods to warm sands and legendary surf, explore the best of the golden coast with Moon Coastal California. Inside you’ll find:
  • Flexible itineraries including six days in Central California, five days on the North Coast, and multiple road trip itineraries that can be combined into an epic two-week Pacific Coast road trip
  • Strategic advice for families, adventure seekers, romantic getaways, outdoor enthusiasts, foodies, and more
  • The top beaches for surfing, wildlife viewing, solitude, scuba diving, snorkeling, hiking, and more
  • Unique experiences and can’t-miss highlights: Soak up the solitude and rugged beauty of the North Coast beaches, or opt for sun and sand in San Diego. Explore the world-class museums and plunging city streets of San Francisco, sip your way through Napa and Sonoma, or gaze at skyscraping redwoods in Muir Woods. Catch a wave in a classic surf town, explore sea caves by kayak, or hike winding cliffside trails. Feast on local Dungeness crab, sample stouts at a coastal microbrewery, or find the best tacos in Los Angeles
  • Full-color photos and detailed maps throughout
  • Expert advice from Monterey local and surfer Stuart Thornton on where to stay, where to eat, and how to get around
  • Background information on California’s landscape, plants and animals, history, and culture
  • Handy tips for international visitors, seniors, families with kids, LGBTQ+ travelers, and travelers with disabilities
With Moon Coastal California’s local insight and practical know-how, you can plan your trip your way.

Hitting the road? Try Moon California Road Trip. Headed to the national parks? Check out Moon Death Valley National Park or Moon Yosemite, Sequoia & Kings Canyon.


Discover Coastal California

Planning Your Trip

Explore Coastal California








California exists on the edge of the continent, where land and sea collide. This primal collision is the source of stunning beauty and singular geological phenomena like the volcanic dome of Morro Rock, the honeycombs of sea caves along the La Jolla headlands, and sheer walls of rock falling to the ocean at Big Sur. Waterfalls decorate cliff faces like ribbons and spring wildflowers paint the hillsides above the blue-green ocean.

This land- and seascape can push you to your physical limits. Catch your first wave in the surf at Santa Cruz. Dive into a Monterey kelp forest. Explore deep into a Channel Islands sea cave by kayak. Trek the wild Lost Coast Trail. You might spot condors swirling in the night sky like embers, elk appearing out of the fog on secluded beaches, or migrating gray whales sounding offshore. You’ll never get closer to the natural world than you can here.

Along the more placid sections of the coastline, the crashing surf smooths out into gentle waves lapping soft sands. This is the California coast that people all over the world know through popular culture, where surfers and sun worshippers share the shoreline with movie stars. Warm sunshine, colorful boardwalks, and easy access attract visitors seeking pleasure and relaxation.

California is also on the cutting edge of art, entertainment, and cuisine. Trends are born here before spreading to the rest of the country and the world. It’s where we first heard the music of the Doors, the Grateful Dead, Dr. Dre, and Beck. You can still catch performances of up-and-coming bands of all stripes at venues like The Fillmore in San Francisco or The Troubadour in Los Angeles. Or see the art of the avant-garde at world-class museums and galleries. California gave the United States its first taste of sushi and its first native-born wines, and it still offers one-of-a-kind culinary experiences. Enjoy authentic dim sum in San Francisco, or sample Mexican street tacos topped with kimchi in Los Angeles. Head to Napa, Sonoma, Carmel Valley, or Paso Robles to discover your new favorite wine. Or visit one of the North Coast’s many microbreweries for your first sip of oatmeal stout or tangerine wheat ale.

Drink it all in. You’ll return from your adventures on the edge of the continent with stories at the tip of your tongue.

Planning Your Trip

San Francisco and the Bay Area

The politics, the culture, the food—these are what make San Francisco world famous. Dine on cutting-edge cuisine at high-end restaurants and off-beat food-trucks, tour classical and avant-garde museums, bike through Golden Gate Park and stroll along Fisherman’s Wharf, where barking sea-lions and boisterous street performers compete for attention. The surrounding region is as diverse as the city itself. To the north, Marin offers wilderness seekers a quick reprieve from the city, while ethnic diversity and intellectual curiosity give the East Bay a hip urban edge. Meanwhile, Coastside’s beaches are a quick drive away.

Wine Country

Wine Country is famous for a reason. This is the place to pamper yourself with excellent wines, fantastic food, and luxurious spas. Napa offers all of the above in spades, while Sonoma boasts a bit of history and a mellower atmosphere. The Russian River adds redwoods and river rafting to the mix.

North Coast

For deserted beaches, towering redwoods, and scenic coastal towns, cruise north along the Redwood Coast. Explore Russian history at Fort Ross on the grassy bluffs of the Sonoma Coast, and fall in love with Mendocino’s small-town charm and nearby wineries. Detour west to the Lost Coast to experience coastline barely touched by human development.

Monterey Bay

Butterfly Beach in Santa Barbara

Go surfing and wine-tasting in Santa Cruz. Witness gray whales and sea lions off rugged Monterey Bay, and then explore their environment at the world-class Monterey Bay Aquarium. Wander around in the art galleries of Carmel-by-the-Sea and then take a stroll on the light sands of Carmel Beach. If you are a wine lover, be sure to head out to Carmel Valley to taste some of the region’s best wines.

Big Sur and the Central Coast

Some of the most beautiful and most adventurous coastline in the world is along this section of the Pacific Coast Highway. Camp and hike the unspoiled wilderness of Big Sur, and then tour grandiose Hearst Castle in San Simeon. For a relaxing getaway, head to one of the region’s beach towns: Cambria, Cayucos, Morro Bay or Pismo Beach.

Santa Barbara and Ventura

Take in the picturesque Santa Barbara Mission and then stroll down the city’s State Street, which is lined with shops, restaurants, and bars. Enjoy the lonely coastline of Jalama Beach or, to truly get away from it all, take a boat ride out to Channel Islands National Park. Bask in Santa Barbara’s abundant sunshine at nearby Refugio State Beach on the Gaviota Coast or visit the wine tasting rooms of downtown Santa Barbara and the nearby Santa Maria Valley. Farther south, Ventura offers visitors a historic mission, a vibrant downtown, and a reliable surf break.

Los Angeles and Orange Country

For a taste of the iconic California dream, you can’t beat Los Angeles. From the glitz and glamour of Hollywood and Beverly Hills to the camp and kitsch of Santa Monica’s Pier, L.A. is all California culture, all the time. Kids of all ages come to visit Walt’s original Disneyland, while sun and surf worshippers ride the waves or relax on the sugar-sand beaches.

San Diego

For the sun-drenched, sugar-sand California beach experience portrayed in endless films and TV shows, come to San Diego. Maritime museums ring the downtown harbor, while, across the bay, Coronado’s vibrant and historic Hotel del Coronado creates a centerpiece for visitors to the city. Gorgeous beaches stretch from Point Loma north to La Jolla and the North County coast, begging surfers, swimmers, strollers, and sunbathers to ply their sands.

fog over the Golden Gate Bridge


California’s best feature is its all-season appeal. “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco,” a quote falsely attributed to Mark Twain, still holds true as the wind and fog that blows through the city June-August surprises unsuspecting visitors. Regardless, summer remains the coast’s travel season; expect crowds at popular attractions, wineries, beaches, and campgrounds. In fall, the summer crowds have left but the weather is still warm. It is also the time when some of the best waves occur along the coast for surfers. Winter is the rainy season, with lots more precipitation falling on the northern section of the coastline than in the south.


The easiest airports to fly into are San Francisco (SFO) and Los Angeles (LAX). If you’re flying into San Francisco, you can avoid some of the hassle by flying into nearby Oakland or San Jose. Similarly, Los Angeles offers several suburban airports—Burbank, Long Beach, and Ontario—which are less congested. Visiting the United States from abroad, you’ll need your passport and possibly a visa.

Book hotels early and buy tickets for big-name attractions in advance. Purchase tickets to Alcatraz in San Francisco at least two weeks in advance. Save money buying advance tickets for Disneyland online as well. Make early reservations for big-name restaurants. Lodging and campground reservations are essential in Big Sur.

Summer fog is likely along the coast, and guaranteed in San Francisco. Bring layered clothing, especially a wind-resistant coat and a warm sweater. Expect warm temperatures and even desert heat in Los Angeles and San Diego in the summer. Bring sunscreen; that coastal fog doesn’t stop UV rays.

Explore Coastal California


The ideal way to experience the California coast is to hit the road. Following this legendary road trip will take you through California’s bustling cosmopolitan cities, small beach towns, redwood forests, and lots and lots of sandy beaches.

For the most part, you’ll cover this stunning 850 miles by following the legendary Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1) and U.S. 101. You can switch back and forth between the two routes depending on your pace and your interests. Highway 1 is generally more scenic; U.S. 101 is usually faster. A few diversions onto other routes are necessary to cover the entire coast (for example, you’ll be driving I-5 between San Diego and Los Angeles).

The day-by-day route below begins in San Diego, but you can just as easily start in Los Angeles or San Francisco, or reverse the route from driving north to driving south if that works better for you. You can also break out any section of the coast as its own 2-4 day getaway.

San Diego

Easygoing San Diego is a great place to start any vacation. Upon arrival, orientate yourself by driving to the top of Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial, a small mountain that has views of the whole city. After that, head down to La Jolla Cove to go kayaking or snorkeling; or just lie on the beach.

In the afternoon, visit Balboa Park, where you’ll spend most of your time at the San Diego Zoo. End your day with a meal in the Gaslamp Quarter. Try the historic Grant Grill or new favorite Café Chloe.


a seabird in San Diego

Take I-5 out of San Diego a half hour north to the North County beach towns of Encinitas, Carlsbad and Oceanside. The drive from Encinitas to Oceanside is just half an hour along a coastal road that changes names in each city; make sure to stop for a surf or a swim since the ocean temperatures will get cooler and cooler as you head up the coast. Continue on Highway 1 rather than inland U.S. 101 to visit Huntington Beach before turning off towards Long Beach for a nighttime ghost tour on The Queen Mary, an ocean liner that is now home to restaurants, a hotel, shops, and a museum. If you are daring enough, book a room for the night in the haunted ocean liner.

Santa Monica Pier

Los Angeles

Jump on I-405 to save some time and drive about 30 miles north, exiting towards Venice Beach. Park your vehicle and take a stroll along the Venice Beach Boardwalk to take in the local wildlife that includes bodybuilders, street performers, and alternativeculture types. Without getting back on the highway, take the local roads paralleling the beach 10 minutes north to Santa Monica. Enjoy the amusement park rides of the Santa Monica Pier or just take a break on Santa Monica Beach. For dinner, get a taste of the Caribbean at Santa Monica’s causal but popular Cha Cha Chicken or backtrack to Venice for a hearty Italian meal at C&O Trattoria.


Consider heading inland for a day of culture (and pop culture) sights. For aesthetic stimulation, visit the world famous Getty Center or the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Less rigorous on the mind is a walk down the star-studded Hollywood Walk of Fame and a stop at the historic Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, where you can find the handprints of your favorite movie stars. End the day with a cocktail at Sunset Boulevard’s Rainbow Bar & Grill. There might even be a grizzled, past-his-prime rocker sitting in the booth next to you.


Take the Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1) out of Santa Monica west as it heads away from sprawling Los Angeles and into Malibu. Stop at Malibu’s Surfriders Beach to watch the surfers compete for its famously peeling waves (or catch one yourself). After a morning outdoors, feed your mind with ancient art at The Getty Villa in Malibu. (Admission is free, but you’ll need to reserve a ticket in advance.) Finish the day by watching the sun slide into the Pacific from the outdoor deck of Neptune’s Net, while enjoying fresh seafood.

Malibu’s Getty Villa

Santa Cruz Island

If you want to spend more time in the Los Angeles area, you can easily fill a couple of days enjoying Disneyland Resort.

Santa Barbara and Ventura

Wake up early and drive north on the scenic Pacific Coast Highway. Thirty-five miles from Malibu, at Oxnard, merge onto U.S. 101. Once on U.S. 101, take the exit towards Ventura Harbor to catch a boat out to the Channel Islands National Park for a day of hiking, snorkeling, or kayaking on Santa Cruz Island. (Make boat reservations in advance.) Return to Ventura Harbor and eat dinner at one of the harbor’s seafood restaurants, such as Brophy Brothers or Andria’s Seafood Restaurant & Market. Or head to downtown Ventura for a vegan dinner at Mary’s Secret Garden or an Italian meal and cocktail at hip Café Fiore.


Take U.S. 101 north just a half hour (28 miles) to Santa Barbara. Get a history fix at the Santa Barbara Mission, which might be the most beautiful of the 21 Spanish missions in California. Then taste some of Santa Barbara’s wines on the Urban Wine Trail, six tasting rooms on lower State Street, or head north for a day at palm-lined Refugio State Beach, 20 miles west of Santa Barbara on U.S. 101.

If your schedule is flexible, you might consider another full day in Santa Barbara, another day of wine-tasting in nearby Santa Maria Valley, or a day on the Gaviota Coast. Whatever you do, stop at Santa Barbara’s State Street for a fine meal or cocktail at a restaurant like the local favorite Opal. Or head off State Street for superb Mexican food at La Super-Rica Taqueria.

Hang gliders take flight over Morro Bay.

Big Sur and the Central Coast

Drive 1.75 hours (92 miles) north of Santa Barbara on U.S. 101 to San Luis Obispo’s Madonna Inn, where you can take in its kitschy decor during a restroom and stretch-the-legs break.

Outdoor enthusiasts will want to head off the highway and go west on Los Osos Valley Road just 20 minutes (12 miles) to Montana de Oro State Park, one of the state’s best coastal parks. Picnic at Spooner’s Cove or hike to the top of 1,347-foot-high Valencia Peak. Then head back to U.S. 101 North, but be sure to turn onto Highway 1 north to take in sunset over Morro Rock, known as the “Gibraltar of the Pacific.”

Another option is to drive an hour north (44 miles) to opulent Hearst Castle. Tours of this “ranch” built for newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst offer insight into the lifestyle of the rich and infamous.

However you spend your day, end it with a meal in one of the Central Coast’s unassuming beach towns: Morro Bay, Cayucos or Cambria.


Head north on Highway 1 for what might be the most scenic day of driving on your whole trip. The two-lane highway here winds along the mountains of Big Sur with plentiful views of the ocean. From Cambria to the heart of Big Sur is 75 miles, but the scenery, winding roadway, and frequent road construction can make the drive last well over two hours. Be sure to make multiple stops to take in the scenery at places like Salmon Creek Falls, Sand Dollar Beach, and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Catch sunset at Pfeiffer Beach before spending the night camping in the redwoods of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park or in the meadow at Andrew Molera State Park. Or splurge with a once-in-a-lifetime stay at the Post Ranch Inn or Ventana resort.

Monterey Bay
DAY 10

Continue up Highway 1 for 45 minutes (less than 30 miles) through the northern section of Big Sur to the Monterey Peninsula. Take a walk in Carmel’s Point Lobos State Reserve or head to scenic Carmel Beach. Then drive a few miles north into Monterey to spend the afternoon at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Point Lobos State Reserve

Dine on fresh seafood at Pacific Grove’s Passionfish, Monterey’s Fish House in Monterey, or Phil’s Fish Market up Highway 1 in Moss Landing.

If you want to spend another day in this area, consider heading inland to Carmel Valley for wine-tasting, wandering the galleries in Carmel-by-the-Sea, or golfing at Pebble Beach.

DAY 11

Getting to Santa Cruz is an easy 50-minute drive (44 miles) up Highway 1 from the Monterey Peninsula. The eclectic beach city is an ideal place for recreation whether you are surfing, stand up paddleboarding, or hiking redwood-filled Forest of Nisene Marks State Park or the coastal bluffs of Wilder Ranch State Park. End the day with thrill rides at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

If your adrenaline is still racing from the Boardwalk rides, calm down with a drink at Red Restaurant & Bar or The Crepe Place.

San Francisco
DAY 12

Wake up early for a drive on Highway 1 from Santa Cruz less than two hours (80 miles) to San Francisco. In the city, spend a few hours in the hands-on science museum The Exploratorium. As the sun goes down, make sure to head out for dinner, whether it’s seafood at the Tadich Grill, modern Vietnamese at The Slanted Door, or pizza at Tony’s Pizza Napoletena. If you still have energy, make sure to check out some of San Francisco’s vibrant nightlife or a concert at a venue like The Fillmore.

DAY 13

Head out on the San Francisco Bay to take a fascinating tour of the island prison Alcatraz. Or secure passage on a ferry to Angel Island, which has hiking trails that offer up some of the finest views of the city.

In the afternoon, shop the used clothing stores of Haight-Ashbury or the department stores of Union Square. Or browse the books at North Beach’s City Lights.


On Sale
Nov 13, 2018
Page Count
500 pages
Moon Travel

Stuart Thornton

About the Author

Stuart Thornton fell in love with California while working the Big Sur Ranger Station after college. At work, he provided visitors with all sorts of information about the region, from the best places to camp to the best meal in the area. On his days off, he took his own advice and regularly sought out the top spots for hiking, backpacking, surfing, and snorkeling along that striking coastal region.
Stuart later moved to nearby Monterey to become a staff writer for the Monterey County Weekly, where he is still a contributor. He is the proud author of Moon Coastal California, Moon Santa Barbara & the Central Coast, and Moon California Road Trips. In addition, Stuart has contributed to National Geographic Education, and Relix Magazine.
Stuart spends his time off searching for the next secluded beach, uncrowded wave, or mountaintop vista. Learn more about his adventures and projects by visiting
Kayla Anderson is a freelance writer based in Northern California. She grew up in Redding, received a journalism degree from California State University-Chico, and now lives in North Lake Tahoe. For the last 10 years, she has been writing press kits for ski resorts and golf courses as well as articles about businesses, people, and places in Lake Tahoe and Northern California.
Currently, she contributes to Enjoy Northern California Living magazine, Tahoe Weekly, the Sparks Tribune, and the Nevada Travel Network. She continues to be impressed by what she discovers in Redding, Humboldt County, Yosemite, Sacramento, and the lesser-known places like Weaverville and Mono Lake. You can find her work at

Learn more about this author