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10 California Road Trips Showing Off The Beauty Of The Coast

by Staff


  • California offers a diverse range of attractions, from city life to wineries and beautiful coastlines.
  • There are several road trips that allow visitors to experience the breathtaking elements of the California coastline.
  • Each road trip has its own unique highlights and major stops, offering a variety of experiences for travelers.

The state of California has a bit of everything for everyone. Between the city life of San Francisco and Los Angeles, the wineries of Napa Valley, and the technologically inclined Palo Alto, there are many areas to explore. However, those who aspire to be outdoors and see everything the beautiful state offers in nature will be pleased to know that the state boasts over 800 miles of coastline.

Now, the question transitions to how one can best see as much of this coast as possible on a road trip. While it may not be feasible to see it all in one fell swoop, there are ten road trips that will help visitors take in the most breathtaking elements of the California coastline.


Related: 10 Coastal Towns To See On A California Highway 1 Road Trip

North To South

Distance: 760 miles

Photo by Aniket Das on Unsplash

A stunning view of Mount Tamalpais, part of Northern California Coast Ranges 

If you have vacation time to spare, taking in the majority of the California coastline in one trip is an ideal way to soak in all the saltwater air and see the full picture of all the state has to offer. For most of the trip, CA-1 can be utilized, which is a major thoroughfare that goes along the coast and connects San Francisco to Malibu.

However, to get the full gamut, the itinerary starts in Eureka, California. At this stop, road trippers can take in the views of the coast and the redwoods before continuing on toward the Bay Area. After filling up on Ghirardelli chocolates and clam chowder in San Francisco, the expedition will continue to see the iconic views of Monterey and Carmel. After soaking it all in, continue on toward Big Sur and San Simeon, followed by Morro Bay before coming into the Los Angeles area.

When getting to LA, do a full tour of the local islands and see the beautiful wildlife that resides there. Be sure to check out the beach hotspots before continuing on to the final destination of San Diego.

  • Road Trip Length: 12.5 hours
  • Major Stops: Fisherman’s Wharf, Monterey Bay Aquarium, Slate Hot Springs, San Diego Zoo

Not all roads between Monterey and San Simeon are accessible to the public. Therefore, it’s imperative to stick to GPS directions to avoid getting lost.

Northern Coast

Distance: 300 miles

Gentle waves roll up to the rocky and green Trinidad State Beach, Northern California
Photo by everett mcintire on Unsplash

Gentle waves roll up to the rocky and green Trinidad State Beach, Northern California

For this road trip option, the starting point is Eureka, California. Not only is this rural town home to some of the most remote coastal locations, but it’s also in the center of the Redwood region. During their time in Eureka, visitors can take a day trip to Woodley Island and eat in one of the local cafés while taking in the beautiful ocean surrounding them.

The next step on this northern coast road trip is the town of Mendocino, California. Roughly three hours from Eureka, visitors will find rugged and rocky cliffs intermixed with cozy cottages and a thriving art scene. The views will be captivating and awe-inspiring between the tranquil blue waters and the scenic overpasses.

As the last stop on this northern coast road trip in California, visitors will drive out to Point Reyes to see the coastal views from the cape. Not too far from San Francisco, this nature-oriented town has a strong commitment to the animals and sealife that call the area home. This road trip gives unobstructed and untouched access to the California coastline’s most beautiful areas.

  • Road Trip Length: 6.5 hours
  • Major Stops: Woodley Island, Mendocino National Forest, Point Reyes National Park

When visiting Point Reyes, be sure to check for any impromptu closures. At times, the rangers will block off specific parts of the national park to protect the natural wildlife during their birthing seasons.

Montecito To San Diego

Distance: 215 miles

For those who thrive in areas with a lot of attractions and activity, this road trip itinerary is sure to please. With a start in Montecito, travelers can stop to check out Butterfly Beach. This beach has a clear view of the Channel Islands and is nestled in an area with many dining and shopping options.

Continuing towards San Diego allows for stops in Ventura to see the beautiful sand beaches, the Santa Monica Mountains, and Topanga State Park. Being close to Los Angeles, there are many attractions to explore. Therefore, most road-trippers opt to take their time and see all the sights.

Before entering San Diego, there are many beaches to stop and see. These areas are quite popular and include Huntington Beach, Laguna Beach, and La Jolla.

  • Road Trip Length: Five Hours
  • Major Stops: Butterfly Beach, The Getty Art Museum, San Diego Zoo

Big Sur To Pismo Beach

Distance: 210 miles

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park Big Sur California
Photo by Joe Yates on Unsplash

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park Big Sur California

Big Sur is well known for its beautiful waves and intimate connection to nature. However, many people often overlook that just a short drive away is the Slates Hot Springs, which can be the perfect addition to a day of hiking and exploring. Start this road trip off in Monterey, taking all the time you need at the hot springs. It’s important to note that a reservation is needed to utilize the hot springs. At around $350, guests can take part in a variety of alternative healing practices as well as soak in the mineral-rich hot springs.

When the time feels right, continue your adventure to Big Sur. With a landscape of mountains surrounding the pristine blue waters, spending several hours relaxing and appreciating the beauty is easy to do. With many hotels and restaurants, visitors often choose to spend several days taking it all in.

Continuing the road trip will take you to Pismo Beach, which is more populated but offers many opportunities for adventure.

  • Road Trip Length: Four hours
  • Major Stops: Slates Hot Springs, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, Pismo Preserve

Pismo Beach To Malibu

Distance: 188 miles

Malibu, California
Photo by Carlos Bastias on Unsplash

Malibu’s beautiful shoreline

Not only is Pismo Beach an incredible area to soak in the sun and enjoy the beautiful water, but it’s also home to the Avila Hot Springs and the Monarch Butterly Grove Nature Preserve, which is free to visit. Before heading to Malibu and the hustle and bustle that can accompany it, visitors often enjoy a few days of the laid-back temperament that Pismo Beach offers.

The drive towards Malibu offers ongoing coastal views and a peek at the Vandenberg Space Force Base. Tours are available. However, some legwork is needed to secure a spot, and a tour must be requested in advance. Along the way, visitors enjoy staying overnight in areas like Montecito, Las Cruces, and Ventura to take in more of the coastal beauty.

  • Road Trip Length: Four hours
  • Major Stops: Monarch Butterfly Grove, Vandenberg Space Force Base, Ventura Beach

Central California Coastal Drive

Distance: 91 miles

Traveling the Big Sur Highway (Highway 1), California Central Coast

Traveling the Big Sur Highway (Highway 1), California Central Coast.jpg

Starting in Half Moon Bay and taking in the California Coastal Trail is the perfect beginning to this central California road trip. Continuing to Santa Cruz and finishing up in Monterey gives vacationers the perfect glimpse into the state’s exquisite coastline.

When leaving Half Moon Bay, road trippers will continue to drive along the coast, taking in every inch of water between the two cities. Going around Big Basin Redwoods State Park gives a glimpse into another California gem and adds another element to an already perfect vacation. Stopping in Santa Cruz allows drivers to visit the boardwalk, enjoy the local cuisine, and put their toes in the water at the many beaches.

When it comes time to continue to the next destination, Monterey, many people like to set aside some time to visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium. In addition, the town has a lot to offer in the way of beaches, scenic overpasses, and national parks.

  • Road Trip Length: Two Hours
  • Major Stops: Big Basin Redwoods State Park, Santa Cruz Boardwalk, Monterey Bay Aquarium

Related: A Guide To The Scenic Stops You Should Be Making On 17-Mile-Drive

Bay Area Tour

Distance: 88 miles

Bay Area night skyline and water inlet
Photo by Cedric Letsch on Unsplash

Bay Area night Skyline and water inlet

This road trip starts in the town of Point Reyes, which is home to the Point Reyes National Seashore. Here, visitors can take in the iconic sights from the tops of rocky cliffs on protected land. Located on a cape, the town of Point Reyes juts right into the Pacific Ocean, giving priceless views that stretch on forever.

After leaving Point Reyes, road trippers will continue to San Francisco. By driving along CA-1 South between the two cities, drivers will see a constant view of the coastline in the two-hour drive that connects the two areas. Along the way, there will be opportunities to pull off the road to take some scenic shots and stretch.

Upon leaving San Francisco, the Bay Area tour trip’s last stop is Half Moon Bay. While the cities are only 30 miles apart, the scenic drive makes adding another stop completely worth it. Moreover, Half Moon Bay is home to the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve and is located on the California Coastal Trail.

  • Road Trip Length: Three hours
  • Major Stops: Point Reyes National Seashore, Golden Gate Park, Fitzgerald Marine Reserve

Between San Francisco and Half Moon Bay, be prepared for tolls!

Southern California

Distance: 85 miles

Venice Beach, Los Angeles

Many travel to California for a chance to see all the hotspots that are primarily displayed on television. However, not all are set on only taking in the glitz and glamour. It’s easy to combine both of them in this road trip itinerary.

The coastal area of Los Angeles has many cities and beachside villages. Starting at the northern end of the City of Angels, travelers can go to Leo Carrillo State Park just outside of Thousand Oaks. This beach is ideal for those wanting to surf or paddleboard. However, it does charge a fee to enter and park, which changes based on the vehicle size.

Coming through Los Angeles, one can take the time to see many of the top attractions inland while also devoting some time to checking out the shore. Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach, and the Venice Canals are popular destinations. Heading towards the southern part of the city, road trippers can venture towards Huntington Beach, Emerald Bay, and Crystal Cove State Park.

  • Road Trip Length: Three hours
  • Major Stops: Leo Carrillo Beach, Manhattan Beach, Disneyland, Crystal Cove

Island Hopping

Distance: 85 miles

View of Avalon harbor on Santa Catalina Island, a rocky island off the coast of California
Carol M. Highsmith, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

View of Avalon harbor on Santa Catalina Island, a rocky island off the coast of California

Your road trip doesn’t have to be only on the mainland of California. To see the coastline uniquely, it’s best to go off the beaten path and see the many islands that reside in the area. While certain components will require the use of a ferry or boat to reach the chosen destinations, it will be necessary to utilize a vehicle to get to the different points on the itinerary.

Starting in Thousand Oaks, the first stop on this unique itinerary is a trip to East Anacapa Island. There aren’t any modern luxuries here, but tent camping is permitted. Anacapa is accessible by boat and has a lighthouse on the island. From East Anacapa, many people move on to the Channel Islands to take in the wildlife at the national park.

After getting back to the car and driving south, visitors can enjoy some time on Catalina Island. This area is much more populated and offers hotels and houses to stay in, as well as restaurants. The island life, just a brief boat ride from Southern California, gives a different perspective on the beauty that surrounds the state.

  • Road Trip Length: Two Hours
  • Major Stops: Anacapa Lighthouse, Channel Islands National Park

Related: From SoCal To NorCal: Discover California’s Pacific Coast Highway By Making These 10 Stops

San Simeon

Distance: 30 miles

Hearst San Simeon State Park
Peter D. Tillman from USACC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Hearst San Simeon State Park

Throughout the San Simeon area of California, many small towns and villages dot the coastline and provide unique and entertaining opportunities. Many people add this specific region to their road trip list to take advantage of the many hiking trails. Located just 65 miles south of Big Sur, some tack it on to a visit to the city, and others do it as a standalone vacation.

Starting in San Simeon and after a visit to Vista Point, many people take the time to stop at Hearst Castle. With a rich history, one can easily be transported back to the time of William Randolph Hearst. Reservations are required to visit, and ticket prices range from $15-30. The town of Cambria, which houses Hearst Castle, is a small farming town with a friendly atmosphere.

A visit to nearby Harmony will give access to many local handicrafts, and the San Simeon State Beach can provide respite from a day full of adventures. Continuing south towards Pismo Beach will bring the road trip to Morro Bay, which has a beautiful state park and rock beach.

  • Road Trip Length: One hour
  • Major Stops: Hearst Castle, Morro Rock Beach, Vista Point

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