Trip Planning: California’s Central Coast

On California’s central coast, rolling green hillsides and towering redwoods descend to hidden coves, and sea arches and the far-reaching coastline seems to extend into infinity.

CA-1 twists along the wild, rugged coast from the boardwalk and bohemia hub of Santa Cruz to Monterey, with its rich marinelife and renowned aquarium. The stunning stretch from Carmel to Big Sur boasts views of the Pacific bounded by jagged coastline and rock formations. The 320-foot concrete arch of the Bixby Bridge provides the perfect photo opportunity at its scenic overlook turnoff. Less than two hours south lie the blubbery elephant seals of Piedras Blancas and the grandiose Hearst Castle.

From here, CA-1 and US-101 engage a dance of merges and splits through farmlands that flourish from the cool climate, producing a bounty of crops, especially strawberries, artichokes, and, most recently, wine grapes. Put on the wine maps by the 2004 film Sideways, this wine country now competes with the best of them, with over 40,000 acres of grape-bearing vines.

Ferris Wheel in Santa Cruz. Photo © B. Bourdages/Dollar Photo Club.
Ferris Wheel in Santa Cruz. Photo © B. Bourdages/Dollar Photo Club.

Planning Your Time on California’s Central Coast

Plan five days to a week to explore the Central Coast. It’s easy to run yourself ragged trying to see and do everything. Instead, pick what interests you the most and leave everything else as an opportunity for an enhanced travel experience, if time allows.

Towns all along the coastline offer lodging, food, and fuel. Cities such as Santa Cruz, Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Ventura offer more options, but smaller beach towns and resorts such as Carmel, Cambria, Morro Bay, and Pismo Beach may be more charming. Scenic Big Sur offers an interesting mix of campgrounds and upscale resorts.

It is just under 75 miles south from San Francisco to Santa Cruz via US-101, and 95 miles north from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara via US-101. If you plan to follow US-101 to California’s Highway 1 (CA-1), the drive will prove much more scenic but longer.

Carmel River State Beach. Photo © Snovitsky/Dreamstime.
Carmel River State Beach. Photo © Snovitsky/Dreamstime.

Getting There


The Central Coast is accessible by car via the scenic, two-lane CA-1, which winds along the entire stretch of the coastline.

US-101 is the primary highway that connects San Jose, Salinas, Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo, Santa Maria, Santa Barbara, Ventura, and on southward. Built along the railroad corridor, the highway at times runs parallel to CA-1, specifically through Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties.

Much of CA-1 is a two-lane road with winding turns around the coast. Some stretches are fairly isolated and it is always wise to make sure your tank is full before getting back on the road.


Coastal international airports to access the Central Coast region from the south include Los Angeles International Airport (1 World Way, 310/646-5252).

The major Northern California airport is San Francisco International Airport (650/821-8211), on San Francisco Bay about 15 miles south of the city center.

Regional air service includes Monterey Regional Airport (200 Fred Kane Dr. #200, 831/648-7000), San Luis Obispo Airport (901 Airport Dr., 805/781-5205), and Santa Barbara Municipal Airport (500 Fowler Rd., 805/683-4011).


Amtrak (800/872-7245, $135 and up) offers service on the Coast Starlight to Seattle, Portland, Sacramento, Oakland, and Los Angeles. The Pacific Surfliner provides service from San Luis Obispo to Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and San Diego. International visitors can buy an unlimited travel USA Rail Pass, good for 15, 30, or 45 days.

Maps - Northern California 7e - Central Coast
Central Coast
Maps - Northern California 7e - Monterey Bay
Monterey Bay
Travel map of Big Sur
Big Sur

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