Ready for an epic road trip? The spectacular Central Coast of California is a vast region that stretches 350 miles along the shore, or a short drive to the ocean, between Ventura (mainland base for Channel Islands National Park) and Santa Cruz. Some folks, tethered to strict schedules and trying to travel as fast as possible between the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles, speed through the Central Coast in a day. Or drive down Highway 5 and miss it altogether. But a leisurely California Central Coast road trip is the best way to visit this pristine wonderland.
We recommend at least a full week and preferably 10 days to two weeks to dive deep into the Central Coast and experience all its wonders, natural beauty, and laidback lifestyle. Set your travel mode to “chill” and cruise through the Central Coast at a relaxing pace, using this “umbrella” itinerary as a foundation. It links to destinations and itineraries along the way. Feel free to build your own epic adventure, using the suggested one-day itinerary “blocks” as you see fit, given your interests and time available. Happy Trails!
Getting to the Central Coast
This itinerary assumes you are beginning your trip in Southern California and will head north. If you fly into Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), drive up Highway 1 along the coast through Malibu and Oxnard to Highway 101, then head north to Ventura.
If you begin in the San Francisco Bay Area, just reverse the itinerary.
You can also bite off chunks and leave the rest for a future visit.
Stop 1 — Ventura/Channel Islands National Park
The city of Ventura is about 60 miles north of LAX via Highway 1 and US 101. Pull off the highway and take a break at Ventura Harbor. Park in one of the harbor’s beachside lots, slip off your shoes, dig your toes into California sand, then dip them into the Pacific Ocean. Check out the exhibits at the Channel Islands National Park Visitor Center across from the beach, and stroll around Ventura Harbor Village.
Head north to picture-perfect Santa Barbara, fabled for its stunning setting, colorful history, world-class arts and culture, and rural North County wine country.
Tip: If it’s a weekday, don’t get on the road before 9 a.m. as you’ll likely get stuck in slow-moving commuter traffic. If you’re reversing this itinerary on a weekday, avoid the commuter traffic heading south between 4 and 6.
Stop 3 — Pismo Beach, Avila Beach, Edna Valley, SLO
Onward ho to San Luis Obispo County! Stop at Pismo Beach to check out the beach and waterfront vibe, then drive a few miles north to sunny Avila Beach and Port San Luis for scenic views of Avila Bay and the Pacific shoreline to the south. Detour a few miles inland via Price Canyon Road to Edna Valley and taste wine or sample craft beer. Continue north on Highway 227 to San Luis Obispo.
In San Luis Obispo, visit Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa and wander up Higuera Street, the city’s main shopping and restaurant hub. If it’s a Thursday, don’t miss the city’s legendary Farmer’s Market.
Stop 4 — Morro Bay, Cayucos and Cambria
Time for more coastal adventures. Drive west to Morro Bay and gawk at massive Morro Rock, then travel along Highway 1 north 4 miles to Cayucos, a tiny, classic beach town. Continue north to the minuscule, artsy “town” of Harmony (population 18) before arriving in Cambria.
Stop 5 — San Simeon and Ragged Point
Head north to San Simeon, just a few miles north of Cambria, and stop by the visitor center and the Friends of the Elephant Seals office to learn about the huge colonies of elephant seals that haul out on nearby beaches. Continue a few miles north to Old San Simeon, and join a tour at Hearst Castle across the highway. After your tour, continue north on Highway 1 to the Elephant Seal lookout just south of Piedras Blancas Lightstation.
Hearst Castle, photo by Dino Vournas
Stop 6 — Paso Robles
A half-hour drive along scenic Highway 46 West leads to Paso Robles, historically known for its abundant hot springs and today’s plethora of wineries, craft breweries, distilleries, olive oil ranches, and other attractions.
Stop 7 — Big Sur
Head back to the coast and Highway 1 for the dramatic drive north along legendary Highway 1 and the Big Sur coast. Spend your time here hiking, relaxing, and channeling the Big Sur vibe.
McWay Falls, photo by Dino Vournas
Stop 8 — Carmel, Carmel Valley, Pebble Beach, Pacific Grove, Monterey
Time to explore the pristine Monterey Bay Area! Browse the shops, galleries, and restaurants in the square-mile village of Carmel-by-the-Sea. Drive along the stunning 17-Mile Drive in Pebble Beach, along the waterfront to Pacific Grove, and inland to quaint Carmel Valley Village. Explore historic Monterey.
Stop 9 — Santa Cruz
Curve around the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary waters up to Santa Cruz. After exploring the area, continue up Highway 1 to Half Moon Bay and San Francisco. Alternatively, drive inland to Highway 101 and head south, or embark on Northern California adventures.
Ventura, California, USA
Channel Islands National Park, California, USA
Santa Barbara, CA, USA
Los Olivos, CA, USA
Los Alamos, CA, USA
Pismo Beach, CA, USA
Avila Beach, CA, USA
San Luis Obispo, CA, USA
Morro Bay, CA, USA
Cayucos, CA, USA
Harmony, CA, USA
Cambria, CA, USA
San Simeon, CA, USA
Paso Robles, CA, USA
Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA, USA
Carmel Valley, CA, USA
Pebble Beach, Del Monte Forest, CA, USA
Pacific Grove, CA, USA
Monterey, CA, USA
Santa Cruz, CA, USA
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