For the sake of not putting this off, or over complicating things, I’m going to attempt at keeping this SIMPLE… Let’s see how this goes….
8-day California Hwy 1 Road Trip Itinerary —
First of all, I did not plan this trip from scratch. I have to majorly shout out Practical Wanderlust as their 10-day itinerary was my starting point. From there, I narrowed down to fine tune to our interests and timeline.
Also, I would not necessarily recommend how we began the trip (flying into LA, renting a car, driving to SF then working the way down) Since we waited until the last minute to plan and then cashed in points for our airfare it only worked out to fly in and out of LA. Most blogs will suggest flying into SF and out of LA, I would agree.
That detail overly complicated the beginning of the trip, even though it was really cool to see the landscape and agriculture fields, I’ll just begin as if we DID start in San Francisco.
One last thing before you read this; I’m not a foodie and don’t do a lot (if any) research on food. But, there are a few food elements of the trip that stand out, and I feel like they are worth mentioning but apologies in advance if you were seeking food recommendations.
Here’s a high level breakdown of the route –
San Francisco – Santa Cruz – Big Sur – Monterey – Morro Bay – Santa Barbara – Los Angeles
Now for the wordy part —
Atlanta > LA > San Francisco
(arrived in SF around 5pm)
Activities: Explored Fisherman’s Wharf and surrounding area, caught the sunset
Notes: Parking by the wharf is $$$, for ours it was $50/all day so you’d want to make full use of it. There’s a WW2 museum and submarine I would have checked out but it was closed, however, right beside it, there’s an antique coin museum arcade that was a surprise and very cool. Don’t even have to spend money, it’s neat to just look! There’s a lot of seemingly cheesy restaurants around there but there’s also some great stuff mixed in. Popped into San Francisco Brewing in Ghirardelli Square and while it was very touristy, the historical buildings over there are really cool to peruse. Watched the sunset from the Aquatic Park beach – that park as a whole is cute and a great place to rest and people watch.
Overnight in SF
Activities: Muir Woods, The Haight, sunset cruise
Notes: Parking pass for the national park required, very important, you will get turned away! Incredible experience, don’t sleep on seeing the largest trees in the world! We went in the morning and noticed it got way busier as we were leaving around noon. The entrance and boardwalk trail is packed with kids and the elderly so if you want actual peace and quiet to take things in, hike a trail. Opted for the fern trail to escape and even though it was at times exhausting, it was so worth it to have quietness.
If you’re into music, specifically musicians from the 60-70’s, check out the Grateful Dead house, Janis Joplin’s apartment and Jimi Hendrix’s “red house.” The area Haight-Ashbury also has great shops of the plant, hippie and vintage variety. We popped into Magnolia Brewery for a pint- recommend! Regarding the sunset cruise- would opt for a smaller, more private boat. I booked this one, and it was not it. Way too many kids. It also didn’t help that there was no sunset. The entire day was gorgeous then a few hours before what would have been golden hour, fog rolled in. I would suggest, if you can, walking up to the wharf and booking on the spot. There was a small sailboat offering 1-hour cruises for very cheap. With booking ahead, you just don’t know how the weather will actually be, since it can shift so quickly. Cashed in IHG points and stayed at the Kimpton Hotel Enso in Japantown – great location and nice hotel. They had a little wine happy hour and in California, anything free is very welcome!
Overnight in SF
Santa Cruz, Big Sur, Monterey
Activities: enjoy the coastal highway, sightsee
Notes: Drove to Santa Cruz, specifically Natural Bridges State Beach. After looking at things to do in the area, I realized we didn’t need a ton of time there, so we just hung at the beach for a bit watching the birds on the “bridge” and then headed towards Big Sur. There are not a lot of pit stops in or along Big Sur so to take advantage of the views, we landed on Nepenthe for a relaxed long lunch. Very much recommend, though be prepared to spend, lunch was not fancy in the slightest but the prices were steep. Heard from a local it’s the “tourism tax” as well as to counterbalance all the money the city spends on natural disasters (rock slides etc) to keep things open _for_ tourism. After lunch we popped by Deetjens Big Sur Inn to have a look around after it came recommended by a friend and folks we met at lunch. Then it was time to get ready for sunset so we drove to Julia Pfeiffer State Park. We heard there was purple sand (there was!) and we walked around peeking into tide pools hoping to find starfish (we did!)
That evening’s hotel was purely for a bed, and we knew that going in, so we stayed in Monterey for the easy access back onto the highway. There is currently a part of the road closed due to a rockslide so we had to detour around it. This is something you’ll definitely want to look into when planning your coastal highway trip!
Overnight in Monterey
San Simeon, Morro Bay
Activities: Hearst Castle, elephant seals, kayaking
Notes: If you find yourself in Monterey, have breakfast at Wave Street Cafe, it was exceptional! After fueling up, we drove to Hearst Castle, and took the grand rooms tour. If you have more time I think it’d be worth seeing more, but the grand rooms did the trick for us. I was most impressed with the indoor pool and the fact that Lady Gaga shot a music video at both the pools! I mean…
A few miles down the road from the castle is the (free) elephant seal viewing area. Super neat to see the massive creatures. After hanging with them, we drove to Morro Bay, quickly checked into the hotel and got ready for this sunset kayak excursion. Loved our tour guide, “Ocean Mike.” We saw otters, bay seals, an oyster farm and watched the sunset from the dunes over wine and cheese- very much recommend!
Overnight in Morro Bay *HIGHLY suggest: Beach Bungalow Inn & Suites, specifically the oyster room, great view of Morro Rock
Activities: dune buggies, wineries, dinner
Notes: While the dunes were really cool, I do not recommend the dune buggy experience. If you have any injuries or are in your 30’s…it’s brutal for the neck and back. Instead do the kayak experience (above) and you’ll walk the dunes around Morro Rock which is equally as cool. I do support hitting up San Luis Obispo wine country. There are (according to Google) 250 wineries in that area so it’s definitely somewhere you can spend some time, but we only had 2 afternoon time frames and opted for the following – Chamisal Vineyards, Saucelito Canyon, Baileyana Tangent & True Myth, lastly Claiborne & Churchill.
Followed by an impromptu stop at Madonna Inn which is apparently on several of my friend’s bucket lists. It’s pretty dang cool! Would love to stay there one day, especially since it’s right by so many great wineries.
Overnight in Morro Bay
San Luis Obispo, Solvang, Santa Barbara
Activities: wineries, free styling
Notes: The plan was to just drive to Santa Barbara, but because Bittle Ranch was closed when we were winery hopping the previous day, we stopped by. The vibes (and wine) were so me! Olive trees everywhere, black and white decor. While there, one of the gals told us about Brick Barn and it sounded really cool too, so we popped by. All in all, the 6 wineries we visited were all great! On our drive to Santa Barbara we passed through Solvang, which Practical Wanderlust recommended and I originally opted out of but, the Danish details got me! We stopped for a beer and game of corn hole with some locals. Then continued on to Santa Barbara for a late dinner and early night in order to pack it in the following day.
Overnight in Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara, Los Angeles
Activities: architecture walking tour, shopping
Notes: The walking tour is FREE and not daunting, I promise. It’s all within a few city blocks. If I hadn’t dropped the ball, we planned to visit Lotusland- a former home of a Polish opera singer turned botanical gardens. Low key regret not making it happen but also each city we went to had incredible (free) landscaping to gawk at. The Funk Zone had really cute shops and eateries though we did all our shopping along State Street. I’d love a slower paced couple of days here, it’s so gorgeous! After a nice afternoon we checked into The Line hotel in LA. Bit of a splurge but every other stay was very thrifty or booked with points and the view from the room and amenities was worth it!
Took advantage of happy hour and hung at the pool then had dinner at Openaire. A friend had recommended The Comedy Store so out of curiosity checked to see if there was another that night- to our surprise there were tickets available for a fun lineup of comedians. If the day wasn’t packed enough, we had heard there was a speakeasy below the hotel (there’s actually TWO!) so we hit that up as well. Next time you’re in LA, definitely hit up Kiss Kiss Bang Bang for a disco dance party.
Overnight in Los Angeles
DAY 8 – the last day!
Los Angeles, Venice Beach, Santa Monica
Activities: hike, beach, bike ride, tattoos
Notes: Hiked around Griffith Observatory grounds followed by seeking AC and checking out the free exhibits. Very cool space information and I even touched a piece of the moon! I had made a tattoo appointment with Joey Hill in Venice Beach so of all the beaches to hit around LA, we opted for that area. We first hit the Santa Monica pier, which was very similar to SF’s Wharf as far as touristy vibes goes. To our luck, there was a classic car show happening which was very cool. The pier was packed with all kinds of crazy cars, and people. Upon realizing we were tired and could only cover so much ground, we rented bikes. This was the move! Allowed for a lot more exploration. Few of the highlights of the bike path were the skate park, lunch and drinks at Shutters, and the people watching – so many characters!
Overnight in Los Angeles before heading out the following morning
What a journey! There are few things I’d do differently – it was that good!
Couple of last notes: to save time and allow more flexibility, I’d pack outfit options so we wouldn’t have to go back to the hotel and I’d just change in the parking lot. Almost every single time I put on makeup, it was in the car. And speaking of, lots of folks asked if we were renting a convertible, we did not. We got a very comfortable Mercedes SUV and have no regrets. We spent so much time in the car and it was extremely comfortable, had lots of space for our stuff and the larger windows allowed for perfect viewing.
If there are any questions you have, ask away!