The Perfect Coastal California Road Trip

Big Sur Carmel Road Trip

Any road trip along the California coast is perfect, but if you’re looking for something that you can do in one day, this is it! We drove from the San Francisco Bay Area down to Santa Barbara. We didn’t go further south than Santa Barbara (Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, etc.), but the Central California coast might just be the prettiest in the state.

It’s possible to do all of this in a day and would make for a fun, adventure packed trip, but it is long! I could easily drive all day if there are fun stops along the way (and food), but Kevin doesn’t find long car rides as easy and started to get antsy after passing through Big Sur.

We left from Livermore around 10am and made our way to 101 South. Ideally, it would be best to leave around 7am so you have daylight for the majority of the trip.

Our first stop was Monterey. We drove through the old army barracks by accident when trying to get to the dunes, but ended up stopping to walk around and take some eerie photos!

Next stop was our original plan of heading to the sand dunes. We grabbed the camera gear and walked up to the top, not knowing what would be there. It was a gorgeous view of the ocean with sprawling dunes and the perfect spot for photos!

The particular dune we were on lead down to the beach/ocean and was a launch point for paragliding. After snapping a lot of photos, a man appeared from the same trail we took and continued to walk down to the ocean with a helmet on and all his gear. We watched him unfurl his kite (?), catch the wind, and float away!

Paragliding Monterey Sand Dunes

At this point it was around 2pm and we hadn’t had a proper meal and Cannery Row was our next stop. We had lunch with a nice ocean view, but it was pricier than expected and teeny portions. I guess that’s the price you pay for a great view.

Moving on. Another hour and a half south we stopped at the first outlook point in Big Sur. We snapped some more photos and took in the view before 5 more cars pulled up to do the same thing. I can’t believe how beautiful this area of California is!!

Driving a bit further down we followed the signs for McWay Falls and turned left into the parking area. There is an outlook point on the right, but turning left will lead you to another lower trail with better, less obstructed views. This is a popular spot, so it’s best to hit it on a week day.

Big Sur McWay Falls Roadtrip

After another hour driving south we stopped at an outlook in Ragged Point. We wanted to take a break from sitting and we broke out the Passionfruit La Croix that had been sitting in the back of the car and pretended my car was in a commercial – because why not.

We were worried about running out of gas since we were getting low, so 5 minutes from the Ragged Point outlook we found a little gas station next to a restaurant. IT WAS ALMOST $6 A GALLON. Insane. Make sure you have a full tank after Monterey so you don’t have to get gas here. There is also a mini mart to grab snacks if you didn’t fill your car with chips and cookies like we did.

Big Sur Carmel Gas

Another 20 minutes down the road you’ll get to Elephant Seal Boardwalk/Beach. Depending on the time of day, this beach will be covered with Elephant Seals just hanging out and flopping around. We didn’t get here until after sunset and there was just one, lonely, chubby seal hanging out.

There aren’t many stops from Elephant Seal Beach to the next stop which is San Luis Obispo. It takes about an hour to get to San Luis Obispo — look for 101 South Freeway signs. This is the soonest cut-over from Highway 1, unfortunately.

Because we didn’t get to the Elephant Seals until the last light of the day, it was late and dark by the time we reached SLO. We stopped at a Carl’s Jr. to get Beyond Burgers and take a little break after so much driving. (Side note: Kevin eats meat and this was his first Beyond Burger experience. He LOVED it and kept talking about how shocked he was that it tasted so good.)

If you make it to San Luis Obispo when it’s still light out, here are some recommendations of things to do I’ve complied from friends who were nice enough to send me them!

— Architecture Graveyard
— Perfumo Canyon
— Ventana Grill - abandoned staircase
— Serenity Swing
— Pirates Cove
— Terrace Hill for picnic
—Urbane Cafe
— Taqueria Santa Cruz
— High St, Deli
— Kruezberg Coffee
— Sally Loos

You can also make a stop in Pismo Beach just 10 minutes south of San Luis Obispo! It’s a cute little beach town.

From SLO, we powered our way through the rest of the drive straight down to Santa Barbara. If you’re stopping here, I have a few guides to help you have the best trip!

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The Perfect Coastal California Road Trip