Modern Gibson Girl
A Perfect Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip in 5 Days
California hosts some of the most beautiful coastline in the world, and some of the best food in the country. But it can be difficult to know where to start, and what to see. Follow this jam-packed 5 day round-trip itinerary from Los Angeles to escape the crowded city and experience the best the state has to offer. We'll cover where to stay, what to eat, and what to see on Highway 1.
Day 1 - Santa Barbara, Solvang, Los Olivos, San Luis Obisbo, Pismo Beach
If you are leaving from Los Angles, you are going to want to leave EARLY. We're talking 6:00am. Yes, it sounds ridiculous, but trust me, the two hours of traffic you skip will be worth it. Head straight to Santa Barbara on Highway 101; you should arrive about 7:30am.
Santa Barbara is a beautiful city, filled with wine, history, good food and beach views. But it is also the easiest getaway from Los Angeles, so save the full Santa Barbara experience for a separate weekend trip. For this itinerary, you'll just be stopping by for a few hours while the rest of the world wakes up.
When you arrive, park at Santa Barbara Roasting Company, grab a cup of coffee to-go, and take the 5 minute walk to the beach. Walk Stearns Wharf and enjoy the peaceful morning. Then walk back to your car and head towards Solvang.
Solvang is an adorable Danish town in the Santa Ynez valley. Founded in 1911 by a group of Danes, the architecture, food, and atmosphere all ooze Danish charm. The town center is small, you can walk the whole length in less than 15 minutes, so park anywhere and wander. Start with a pastry at one of the five authentic Danish bakeries (my favorite is Mortenson's Danish Bakery). Try to spot the Little Mermaid sculpture replica and all five windmills, and make sure to check out Jule Hus, the year round Christmas store. When you're over window shopping for clogs, hop back in the car and head for Los Olivos.
The Santa Ynez valley produces some of the best wine in the country. And Los Olivos is home to a sleepy little street with some of the best local tasting rooms. Our favorite hands down is Stolpman Vineyards. We served Stolpman wines at our wedding, and buy their Love You Bunches Sangiovese to celebrate all of life's little celebrations. Head to Stolpman for a tasting, no reservation necessary (plus they often have the owners dogs just hanging out on the patio).
After, head to another tasting room or do some lazy window shopping in the cut-as-a-button general stores. Cookbooks and quirky decor galore. And grab some snacks for the sunset beach picnic you'll have this evening!
San Luis Obispo
Next hit the road for San Luis Obispo, and check into the world's kitschiest hotel, Madonna Inn. The exterior is iconic, and the interior is even more outrageous. Read my full review here. Once you have settled in, head downtown and get a bite to eat. San Luis Obispo is known for great, fresh food so you really can't go wrong with any restaurant, but we absolutely loved Luna Red. Focused on locally sourced, seasonal ingredients, this restaurant is everything that's good about California dining. There is cozy indoor seating and ample patio seating, and the service is friendly and top notch. I'm still dreaming about their local rockfish and albacore ceviche.
After dinner, take the 15 minute drive back towards Pismo Beach. Pismo Beach is one of the only beaches in California that you can legally drive on, and it's awesome. Entrance is $5 and valid all day, but the best time to experience it is sunset. Find a quiet stretch of sand, park with your trunk towards the water, and cuddle up to watch the sunset. Pull out your snacks and have a post dinner treat. And I definitely wouldn't recommend breaking the law and having a glass of wine (or a can of wine, I hear those are pretty convenient...).
Once the sun sets, head back to San Luis Obsipo for beer at one of the many local breweries, or a night cap at the gaudy Silver Bar at Madonna Inn.
Note: This itinerary is written for summer hours. If you are traveling in a season with shorter days, consider going to Pismo Beach to watch the sunset before going to dinner.
Day 2 - Morro Bay, Cayucos, Hearst Castle, Lucia Lodge
Sleep in a little longer today, but try to hit the road by 8:00am. But make sure to say hi to the Madonna Inn horses before you go.
Head to Morro Bay to gaze at the huge volcanic rock and watch the morning surfers do their thing. This beach is pretty quiet in the mornings and a great place to start the day.
This sleepy little town is not often in guide books, but it has been one of our favorite discoveries. It is a perfectly preserved coastal beach town, without the throngs of tourists that seem to ruin all the other ones. Head to Lunada Garden Bistro for a late breakfast (the breakfast burritos are amazing) and enjoy your meal in the back garden. Next pick up a bag of cookies from the Brown Butter Cookie Company and enjoy one on the beach.
Next, hop in your car for literally 5 minutes, and then pull over at the the very first pull out after leaving the town. Google labels this just as Cabrillo Coast Highway, but this is actually a scenic lookout point that leads to an old ship wreck. It's a perfect little detour.
If you have time, try to squeeze in a visit to Hearst Castle. This giant estate was built in the early 20th century for newspaper tycoon William Hearst, and to describe it as grand would be an understatment. It reached its social peak during the roaring 20s and into the 30s, and was THE party place for the rich and famous. My favorite part was the ornate indoor swimming pool that looked like it was straight out of The Great Gatsby. Allow yourself at least 3 hours to explore.
Elephant Seal Vista Point
After leaving Heart Castle, stop off at the Elephant Seal Vista Point. This is a must do if you are traveling with kids. But even if you're not, these elephant seals are a sight to behold. Just pull up to the Viewing Point and gawk at giant, uncouth, water mammals. We happened to visit during mating season and things got... interesting.
Old Man of Sur and Black Sand Beach
Next you're off to the starting point of Big Sur. This is where the real beauty starts. You could probably pull over at every turn out, but our favorite on this first leg is what we called the Old Man of Sur (a play on the Old Man or Stor for all you Scotland fans out there). It's a large pointed rock on the shoreline that leads down to a wide black sand beach. This site doesn't actually have a name, just a small turnout on the road, so it's usually pretty empty. We were the only ones there.
Now is time to end the day with a perfect view. If you can swing for one expensive evening, do it here. Located right off the Highway 1, Lucia Lodge is a family run lodge with 10 cabins situated on a dramatic cliff above the coast. The rooms are basic, but the views are spectacular.
The lodge also has a small restaurant on site that serves a continental breakfast, as well as lunch and dinner to order (seasonal). While the food was nothing to write home about, the views are wonderful, and after a long day you'll appreciate not having to drive in search of a meal. And the complimentary breakfast, coffee, and tea is a welcoming and homey touch.
Lucia Lodge is my pick for best all around place to stay in Big Sur, because you can wake up to this view for as low as $200 a night. That might seem high, but trust me, for Big Sur, that is low. If you are planning to stay here, read my full review, which includes info on which cabin to book and how to save the most money.
If $200 is a little too steep, check out Detjen's Big Sur Inn. If you'r traveling with kids, try Big Sur River Inn. You can read about both on my post Where to Stay in Big Sur.
Day 3 - Big Sur
McWay Falls and Ewoldsen Trail
Big Sur is the star of the California coast. Start your day early with a coffee overlooking the water, and the continental breakfast from Lucia Lodge. Then head to the McWay Waterfall Trailhead.
You can park for free along Highway 1, or pull into Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and pay $10 cash to use the parking lot. The path to the waterfall is well marked, and it only takes about 10 minutes to reach the viewing point of the beautiful McWay Waterfall.
Next, head back to parking lot and locate the trailhead for Canyon Falls/Ewoldsen Trail. Ewoldsen trail is a 4 mile round trip loop with a little bit of everything: old redwood forests, ocean views and canyon views. But if you are looking for a shorter hike, just take the trail to Canyon Falls and head back before the loop begins.
For lunch head to Nepenthe, one of the best restaurants in Big Sur, with views that rival Lucia Lodge. Relax and enjoy vista before venturing on.
Next make your way to Pfeiffer Beach, a beautiful beach with a grand stone arch and unique purple sand. The parking lot is small (and costs another $12 cash) but this helps with crowd control and allows you enjoy the area without too many other tourists.
Bixby Creek Bridge
Bixby Creek Bridge is one of the most iconic sights in Big Sur, and for good reason. The beautiful architecture set against the grand coast line is pretty breathtaking. And of course you will want a photo. Free parking is available on both side of the highway on the north end of the bridge. Just pullover (watch for cars!) and meander around the bridge for your perfect shot. Honestly, it's pretty hard to take a bad one.
Next head up to Monterey or Carmel-by-the-Sea for the evening. We chose to say at a vintage B&B called Pacific Grove Inn and loved it. Minimal services but overflowing character. You can read more about it here. For dinner, Passionfish restaurant is an absolute must-visit, some of the best seafood I have ever eaten. Plus they have crazy impressive local wine selection.
Day 4 - Carmel-By-The-Sea, Point Lobos, Monterey, Cannery Row
If you chose to stay in Monterey, start your morning early with a stroll out to Lovers Point. This tiny park includes a small beach and a beautiful rock structure that juts out into the water. Next, head to Point Lobos State Natural Reserve.
Point Lobos is known as the crown jewel of California's State Parks, and for good reason. The entire park is gorgeous. Parking costs $10, but if you come early you can park on Highway 1 and walk. Make sure to check out China Cove and Gibson Beach, and keep your eyes peeled for harbor seals and sea lions.
After exploring Point Lobos, head to Carmel-by-the-Sea. Make a reservation at La Bicyclette, an adorable french cafe with crazy good food. Then wander the perfect beach side town and window shop till you drop.
Cannery Row (and Aquarium)
Cannery Row is the historic center of Monterey. Built around old sardine canning factories, this waterfront street has something for everyone. We loved the scattered antique stores, like Cannery Row Antique Mall.
If you have kids, definitely check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium, it is one of the best marine life sanctuaries in the country. And if it's just adults, head to A Taste of Monterey for some wine tasting with an ocean view.
Day 5 - Santa Cruz and Home
Just because this is your last day doesn't mean you can't do anything fun! I grew up going to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, and it is still just a perfect as I remember. If you're traveling with kids, spend the morning and early afternoon enjoying classic boardwalk fun. If it's just adults, go early to get some fun pictures, then spend the morning on the sand and walk the pier.
If you're headed back to Los Angeles, it will take about 6 hours, so head out by late afternoon.