California State Route 1 (also known as Highway 1) is the highway that runs along most of the state’s Pacific coastline. With stretches of beaches, cliffs, forests, hills, and mountains, Highway 1 provides an especially scenic route for a road trip to the numerous attractions and cities along the coast.
The highway is designated as an “all-American road,” and is often considered the best coastal scenic route in all of North America, if not the world. Although it’s definitely not the fastest way to travel the length of the state, it’s by far the most beautiful.
Below is an itinerary for your next road trip adventure along Highway 1.
- Length: 655 miles (1,055 kilometers)
- Northern terminus: U.S. 101 near Leggett
- Southern terminus: I-5 in Dana Point
- Major cities: San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Cruz, San Francisco
- Drive on the: Right
The highway spans the entirety of California, but the most popular road trip along this route stretches from San Diego to San Francisco. In this itinerary, we’ll begin at the southern end of the state and travel north through Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Carmel, Monterey, and Santa Cruz, and into the Bay Area.
Begin your trip in one of California’s sunniest destinations, where the weather is basically 70°F (21°C) all year. In the heart of the city, you can shop at Horton Plaza or catch a baseball game at Petco Park. You can also explore the famous San Diego Zoo, or wander through the city’s diverse neighborhoods: Little Italy, North Park, South Park, and East Village. These pedestrian-friendly areas form the epicenter of San Diego’s burgeoning culinary movement, progressive art scene, and craft beer boom. If you venture along 30th Street or University Avenue, you can choose from a wide selection of farm-to-table restaurants and boutique wine bars, or head to a local favorite–Carnitas’ Snack Shop with an ever-evolving menu. You can also walk around Mission Bay or cross the idyllic bridge to Coronado Island–known for its pristine beaches, crystal waters, and friendly beach-town persona.
Once you’re done exploring San Diego, drive north along the water to stop in La Jolla and snap a few photos of the coastline. Then you can hop on Highway 1 in Dana Point.
There are plenty of places to explore in Orange County, but we recommend starting in Huntington Beach where Southern California’s beach culture is alive and well. Along this city’s curving shoreline, you’ll find plenty of opportunities for cycling oceanfront paths, playing volleyball, and surfing. From Huntington Pier, it’s just a short walk to Main Street’s boutiques and restaurants–many of which offer sidewalk tables or decks that let you take in the ocean breeze. You can also explore the other side of town by horseback-riding in Huntington Central Park or bird-watching and trailblazing in Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve–restored wetland and one of Southern California’s most vital coastal habitats.
From there, follow the coastline to California’s largest metropolitan area — but be sure to listen to Phantom Planet’s “California” at least once before leaving O.C.
L.A. is California’s largest city and overflowing with fun things to do. That said, it can be more than a challenge to navigate, so plan your trip in advance. Start in the coastal city of Santa Monica — with its open beach, signature pier, shopping at Third Street Promenade, rooftop dining, and ocean and city views. It’s definitely worth a visit. Follow Santa Monica Boulevard northeast to visit legendary Beverly Hills, continue east toward Hollywood to stroll the Hollywood Walk of Fame or visit the TCL Chinese Theatre, drive east to explore hip and historic downtown Los Angeles (DTLA), or head northeast and wander through Pasadena’s old Victorian and art deco buildings.
Return to the coast and drive north past Malibu on to one of California’s prettiest cities.
Tucked in the Santa Ynez Mountains and protected from the brunt of Pacific wind and waves, Santa Barbara boasts a Mediterranean climate with plenty of sunny days. With its cache of culture and distinct Spanish colonial-style architecture, this seaside city is often called the “American Riviera.” The area also boasts an idyllic wine country, outdoor adventures on both land and sea, and plenty of artistic and cultural entertainment. Stroll down State Street for local shopping and dining, paddle a kayak from East Beach to Stearns Wharf, visit Old Mission Santa Barbara, or tour the 1782 Presidio for a look at original adobes like El Cuartel, the second-oldest surviving building in the state.
Then, drive north to sample the region’s breathtaking wine country.
Santa Ynez Wine Country
This next stop encourages you to slow down, relax, and savor your surroundings. The Santa Ynez Valley, just north of Santa Barbara, is one of the most diverse grape-growing regions in the county. And to top it all off, it’s surrounded by rolling hills, cascading vines, and ancient oak trees. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, start at Sunstone Winery. It boasts sustainably grown grapes and a spectacular limestone chateau available for overnight stays. Tip: if you buy a pass from the Santa Ynez Valley Wine Country Association, you’ll save on tastings at 15 participating boutique wineries.
Continue on to one of the state’s most remarkable and ornate structures.
From Highway 1, you’ll be able to spot this incredible complex of embellished towers and buildings perched on the coastal hilltop. Park in the main lot of the state park grounds and check in at the visitor center to ride one of the park’s shuttle buses up to the castle. Lavishly designed by Julia Morgan (California’s first female licensed architect) as the private residence of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, the complex is an extraordinary homage to 1940s opulence. Now showcased within one of California’s most visited state parks, the 165-room castle and the 127 acres of terraced gardens, fountains, and pools are must-sees.
From Hearst Castle, head north 15 miles (24 kilometers) along Highway 1 for a looped road trip along the twisted roads that lead to Ragged Point, or the “Gateway to Big Sur” — a prime viewing spot for whales, dolphins, and elephant seals. Be sure to check out this site for updated road closure information to see if continuing all the way to Big Sur is an option. If not, visiting Ragged Point will ensure that you see the iconic panoramas of California’s rugged coastline.
After venturing to Ragged Point, head south on Highway 1 and pull over near Piedras Blancas Rookery for a viewing of the elephant seals. Continue south for a temporary detour around Highway 1, starting just beyond Cambria. Turn left onto the vineyard-flanked Highway 46 and continue on to U.S. Highway 101 North to reach the growing wine country destination of Paso Robles. This San Luis Obispo County destination offers rolling hills, mineral hot springs, wine and beer tastings, agritourism, and outdoor activities such as hiking and horseback riding. Browse the art galleries of the historic downtown square, and complete your stop with a soak in one of the area’s thermal springs — found at River Oaks Hot Springs Spa, Franklin Hot Springs, or select rooms at the Paso Robles Inn.
Make your way back to Highway 1 and continue up the coast toward the Monterey Peninsula.
Monterey and Carmel
Surrounded by the sparkling Pacific on three sides, the Monterey Peninsula features plenty of clean beaches, quiet coves, casual eats, and local art. And if you like aquariums, you’re in luck — the Monterey Bay Aquarium is world-renowned, with tanks and exhibits showcasing more than 35,000 animals and over 550 species of plants. Step outside and find yourself among the hotels, shops, and restaurants along Cannery Row, the area made famous by local author John Steinbeck. Rent bikes and follow the coast south around the peninsula to Pacific Grove, or drive around the neighborhoods and pick your favorite iconic Monterey home.
Head south to Carmel-by-the-Sea, a town that deftly straddles the line between rich history and new wealth. The Carmel Mission is one of the state’s most beautiful churches, with shady trails fanning out from the site and into the Mission Trail Nature Preserve. Stroll the white sands of Carmel Beach, or explore the area’s main village.
From there, you can still spot some of Big Sur’s best sights with another looped journey south. Spend an hour or two hiking around the shoreline trails of Point Lobos State Natural Reserve (10 minutes south of Carmel) and, while you’re there, be sure to snap a photo of Big Sur’s Bixby Bridge.
After the added detour, continue north beyond Monterey to California’s quirkiest beachfront town.
At its heart, Santa Cruz is a surf town — in fact, it’s where the sport was originally introduced to California. In the center of town, Pacific Avenue offers a variety of shops with a neighborhood twist, including Santa Cruz local Jack O’Neill’s namesake store, the independent Bookshop Santa Cruz, and various locally sourced vegan cafés. Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk also offers yesteryear-style attractions, such as classic roller coasters, arcade games, corn dogs, and a historic carousel. Or, if you’re looking for vintage shops and organic restaurants, head to the downtown area.
Next, travel to your last stop on your Highway 1 road trip.
Wrap up your Highway 1 road trip in one of the world’s most iconic cities. Park your car and explore San Francisco by foot, bike, or public transportation. Walk or cycle across the Golden Gate Bridge, wander through the Presidio, and head to Golden Gate Park to take in the towering redwoods, visit the Conservatory of Flowers, or row across Stow Lake. Explore the Embarcadero and Fisherman’s Wharf, where you can try your luck at the creepy yet iconic arm-wrestling game from “The Princess Diaries.” Hop on a cable car, indulge at Tartine Bakery, stroll through the boutique of Maiden Lane, wander Hayes Valley, catch a show in the theatre district, or venture to North Beach for Beach Blanket Babylon, an irreverent San Francisco institution. For nightlife and dining, head to the Mission district, and enjoy all that San Francisco has to offer.
Regardless of the route you take or the pit stops you make on your road trip, California’s Highway 1 is sure to leave you speechless. Share your Highway 1 road trip stories with us in the comments below. We’d love to hear about your experiences on the beautiful Californian coastline!