The California central coast is known for stunning coastlines, blue oceans, wildlife, and redwood forests There’s no better way to explore the Golden State than to take a road trip up its coast, stopping at unique coastal towns, big cities, national parks, and everything in between. This One Week on the California Central Coast itinerary will take you through the best coastal stops, highlighting activities that will give you the best experience in each destination, even if your stops are short.
So, starting in Los Angeles, hop on the 101, and set course for Santa Barbara.
DAY ONE: Santa Barbara, Pismo Beach, and Morro Bay
In day one we are covering a lot of ground. If you decide not to go as far as Redwoods National Park on Day 6, we suggest you extend your stay in this area for two days.
Santa Barbara, located about an hour and a half north of Los Angeles is one of the best beach towns in the state. It’s known for the original Habit Burger Grill, plenty of beautiful beaches, the famous State Street, and the Santa Barbara Mission. Stop and enjoy dessert at Mission Street Ice Cream, or experience the Sunday Santa Barbara Art Walk.
From there, you’ll drive to the famous Pismo Beach, which can either be a scenic two and a half hour trek up Highway 1, or an hour and a half mountain cruise through the 154 and 101, which will take you through the Los Padres National Forest and past Lake Cachuma. nBoth routes will end with gorgeous beach access, a 1,200 foot-long pier, and natural attractions like the Monarch Butterfly Grove and Dinosaur Caves Park.
Only another 45 minutes up the coast lies Morro Bay, a quiet little beach town perfect for ending your first day on the road. Morro Bay is known for a giant rock formation that sits at Morro Bay Rock Beach—the perfect place to catch the sunset.
DAY TWO: Big Sur
You simply can’t spend one week exploring the California central coast and skip Big Sur. It’s easily the state’s prettiest stretch of road, but it’s also one of the most crowded. Make sure you stop often and take in the views—you don’t want to miss this. Big Sur is about two and a half hours north of Morro Bay, and is made famous by its bright blue waters and Bixby Creek Bridge. Make sure you don’t miss Partington Cove and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. There are plenty of amazing coastal hotels in the area, but there are also campgrounds, if you’d rather fall asleep to the sound of Big Sur’s famous waves.
If you’d like more information on Big Sur, see our One Week from San Francisco to LA with Big Sur itinerary
DAY THREE: Santa Cruz
The next amazing beach town to call California home is Santa Cruz. Less than two hours from Big Sur, Santa Cruz is notable for its amazing beach boardwalk, coastline, and redwood trees. Here, you can watch sea lions play, catch an incredible sunset, and even take a steam train through the redwoods with Roaring Camp Railroads. Downtown Santa Cruz is home to a farmer’s market and fantastic shopping.
Also don’t miss the West Cliff Drive, a stunning 3-mile-long coastal drive that offers visitors some of the most breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean. The drive is a favorite among locals and tourists alike, and it is not difficult to see why. With its rugged coastline, pristine beaches, and stunning cliffs, West Cliff Drive offers a glimpse into the natural beauty that California is famous for.
Starting at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, West Cliff Drive takes visitors along the coast, offering stunning views of the Pacific Ocean. The drive is lined with palm trees, colorful flowers, and well-manicured lawns, making it an excellent place for a relaxing stroll or bike ride. The path is wide enough for both walkers and cyclists to enjoy, and it is not uncommon to see people jogging or rollerblading along the way.
One of the highlights of West Cliff Drive is the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, located in a lighthouse that was built in 1967. The museum houses a collection of surfing artifacts, including vintage surfboards, wetsuits, and photographs. It also has displays that celebrate the history of surfing in Santa Cruz, which dates back to the early 1900s. Visitors can learn about the sport’s evolution in the area and see some of the pioneers who helped make surfing a popular activity.
Another attraction along West Cliff Drive is the Natural Bridges State Beach. This beach is famous for its natural rock formations that create a bridge-like structure over the water. Visitors can walk along the beach, explore the tide pools, and watch for whales and dolphins in the water. There is also a visitor center where guests can learn about the area’s history and ecology.
DAYS FOUR AND FIVE: San Francisco
By now, you’ll have made it half way through the One Week on the California Central Coast itinerary, which means you deserve a bit of a breather. San Francisco is a California cultural icon located only 2 hours north of Santa Cruz. An array of experiences, from the food at Fisherman’s Warf to art museums like MoMA call this place home.
In order to truly see San Francisco, start with the classic cable cars, taking them down to Pier 39 where you can say hi to some sea lions, eat amazing food, and spot Alcatraz across the bay. Just a short walk from Pier 39 and adjacent Fisherman’s Warf are the famous Hyde Street and Lombard Street: the city’s steepest street and windiest street, respectfully. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to end your first day here by watching the sunset from Golden Gate Park.
Your second day in San Francisco is a great opportunity to jump off the beaten path, or maybe, off the mainland. Booking a tour of Alcatraz Island will let you explore the city’s history, and cross off the last super touristy attraction in the city. The rest of your day can be spent urban hiking the San Francisco streets or exploring one of the city’s unique museums such as The Luggage Store or the Cartoon Art Museum.
DAY SIX: Jackson State Forest
The next two days of driving will be a bit longer than the first half of the trip. Highway 1 will give you the best views in the state, but there isn’t a lot to do in this heavily forested part of the state. About halfway between San Francisco and Redwoods National and State Parks lies the Jackson State Forest, California’s largest state forest. Located 4.5 hours north of San Francisco on Highway 1, it will be your first true taste of the vast northern Redwood Forests. Interspersed with waterfalls and plenty of wildlife, the Jackson State Forest is just one of many state parks in the area, but it’s certainly the most impressive due to its 50,000 acres!
Nearby Mendocino County is also a fantastic hidden gem in the Jackson State Forest area that features amazing coastline, some of the most photogenic spots in the state, like the Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree, and plenty of wineries. With lots of accommodations in Mendocino County, from hotels to farm stays to lodging in the forest, you’ll be able to relax in comfort amongst the tallest trees on Earth before your last day on the road.
DAY SEVEN: Redwoods National and State Parks
If you are looking to extend your drive up past the California central coast, you can continue on for about 4 more hours north to one of California’s prettiest landscapes: Redwoods National and State Parks. Here, you’ll find more of the tallest trees on the planet, seemingly endless hiking trails, miles of scenic road such as the Newton B. Drury scenic parkway, and wildlife viewing opportunities, from elk to grey whales. The park itself does have a few cabins available for rent, as well as four developed campgrounds if you want to spend your evening under the state’s most famous trees, but there are also plenty of hotels and guest houses for rent just outside the park in Klamath and Orick, CA.
While you’re there, don’t skip Enderts Beach and the Klamath River Overlook for a chance at some whale watching. The Trillium Falls Trail is one of the best places to spot elk, and Howland Hill Road is one of the most scenic roads in the park.
California is a world of blue coastlines, towering trees, and some of the trendiest big cities in the country. While it’s a long stretch of road, it’s entirely possible to see and experience every inch of California’s famous coastline in one week. One Week Exploring the California Coast allows you to see California’s prettiest scenic route, and the beauty of the highways will make all those miles on the road fly by so fast you’ll dream of seeing the rest of this Golden State sooner than later.
For more information on Northern California, see our One Week in Northern California Itinerary.