Pacific Coast Road Trip: Central California in 3 Days

This 3-day itinerary of California’s central coast explores a chunk of the Pacific Coast Highway (SR 1), launching from San Francisco and following the coastline south to Santa Barbara.

Day 1

San Francisco to Big Sur

(160 miles/250 kilometers, 4 hrs)

The famed Lone Cypress along 17-Mile Drive in Pebble Beach, California.
Take a detour near Carmel to see the famed Lone Cypress along 17-Mile Drive in Pebble Beach, California. Photo © Mariusz Jurgielewicz/123rf.

Move out early and head down CA-1, rounding Monterey Bay. Choose stops along the way based on your interests. Stroll the boardwalk and ride the roller coaster in Santa Cruz, tour Monterey’s famous aquarium. Carmel offers pristine white sand, cypress trees, and charming art galleries–you could easily spend three days in Carmel itself. All three towns have plenty of options for lunch.

The highway heading into Big Sur has some of the most scenic stretches in California. Be sure to snap some photographs, stopping or using pullouts only when it’s safe. Enjoy astonishing views at the Point Lobos State Reserve and the Bixby Bridge. On the west side of CA-1, take Sycamore Canyon Road to Pfeiffer Beach to see impressive rock formations. Time your stop to enjoy the sunset.

Stop for dinner and a bed at historic Deetjens Big Sur Inn, nestled in the redwoods.

Day 2

Big Sur to San Luis Obispo

(117 miles/188 kilometers, 3 hrs)

McWay Falls in Big Sur pouring directly into the Pacific ocean.
Big Sur’s iconic McWay Falls at sunset. Photo © Andrew Zarivny/123rf.

Set out early in the morning, stopping along the way at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park to hike the short trail to the scenic overlook of McWay Falls. See the lighthouse and elephant seals at Piedras Blancas. Continue south to San Simeon, where you’ll stop for lunch before touring the enchanting Hearst Castle.

At Morro Bay, CA-1 moves inland toward San Luis Obispo, a laid-back college town, where roadside attraction the Madonna Inn is worth a look around—or an overnight stay, depending on your appreciation for kitsch. Another option is to continue south to spend the night at the Dolphin Bay Resort & Spa at Pismo Beach.

Day 3

San Luis Obispo to Santa Barbara

(105 miles/170 kilometers, 2 hrs)

Old Mission Santa Barbara. Photo © Terry Straehley/Dollar Photo Club.
Old Mission Santa Barbara. Photo © Terry Straehley/Dollar Photo Club.

Continue south on US-101 to Gaviota State Park, where you can hike to Gaviota Peak for stunning views of the Channel Islands. Less ambitious beachgoers may prefer spending the morning at scenic El Capitán State Beach.

Continue south to Santa Barbara to enjoy lunch along the water. Spend the afternoon diving into Santa Barbara’s history and culture, visiting the Old Mission Santa Barbara or Santa Barbara Museum of Art. Do some window-shopping on State Street, which also offers plenty of dinner options. Get a room at the Spanish-style Brisas del Mar Inn, just a short walk from the beaches.

Southern California travel map
Southern California

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