Everything you need to know about a road trip on Highway 1: Map, tips, facts, all the musts
San Fransisco → Monterey → Carmel → Big Sur → San Simeon → Santa Barbara → Santa Monica
Facts about Highway 1
- Official name: California State Route 1, aka the Pacific coast highway
- Completed: 1937
- Lenght: 1 055 km, the distance between San Francisco and Los Angeles is c. 600 km
- The ocean: The Pacific Ocean
- Recommended time for a roadtrip: 2-5 days
- Read: California by Joan Didion
- Wow! moment: Big Sur
When to do a roadtrip on Highway 1
You may see whales from December to March (Monterey) when they are migrating from Alaska to Mexico. Just so you know: The winter months may be stormy resulting in closed roads.
We went in January and the weather was beautiful the whole time even though it was a little cold and very windy. If you are planning to rent a convertible you might want to think again.
However, it was not that touristy which was great.
The thick fog that sometimes covers the coast line may cause problems, especially during June, July and August. According to many, September, Octorber and May are the best months to go.
Rent a car
Usually, your home insurance provides good personal protection, but I would recommend purchasing an extra travel insurance as well.
If you book and pay for the car prior to departure in surance is included and you thus need no extra insurace if the car rental company would insist on one when you pick up the car.
We started off in San Francisco and drove down to Santa Monica in three days spending the night in Carmel and Santa Barbara. We were driving way too fast – I am thinking four or five days on the road would have been perfect.
My best tip for you is to plan your trip really well to get the best and the most out of your roadtrip.
If you have time, it might be nice to take a small detour inland, like taking the Narrow Palo Colorado Road which disappears into a magic redwood forest (by Notley’s landing between Carmel and Big Sur), or the somewhat treacherous Nacimiento Fergusson Road (between Big Sur and San Simeon) which continues up to the mountains (google it and try not to faint!) and into a valley. Sleep over on the small monastery of Mission San Antonio de Padua.
Generally speaking, it might be worth your while to check out small cozy hotels or BnBs a little off the Highway 1 because the prices are much lower.
It is also good to keep in mind that during the high season there are lots of people on the road, especially in the morning, when both the tourists are taking off and regular people are going to work. Plan to leave really early or a bit later.
Be sure to fill in the tank properly because there are not that many gas stations along the Highway 1. Also, gas is more expensive on HW1.
By the way, it is not only your vehicle that needs energy – oranges are delicious in California so make sure to buy a few.
The road trip
Before we took off from San Fran we had a lunch in Sausalito – big mistake! Start early instead and head for…
…which is known for its carousel, beautiful buildings and the beach walk Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. If you are interested in hiking or riding a bike you go for The Santa Cruz Mountains. Have lunch either in Santa Cruz or in Carmel.
The coastal line here is really beautiful but the landscape is not as dramatic as in Big Sur.
There are a few rest areas with rest rooms. And it is windy, and a little cold, in January anyways.
If you are interested in whale safari this is the place. You also find the Monterey Aquarium here which is considered to be the best aquarium in the United States and is well worth a visit.
If you have time for an excursion take the 17 Mile Drive (toll), a really pretty coastal road lined up with glamorous villas, especially at Pebbles Beach. The world famous golf course Pebble Beach Golf Links, is located here. The drive takes 45 minutes.
We spent our first night in Carmel (please see below) but we booked a whale safari in Monterey. Ask the hotel staff to book tickets and don’t forget a warm jacket because it gets cold on the sea. The name of the company was Chris Whale Watching and I would recommend them.
Our guide knew all about the whales.
Finally, we saw a lot of whales (even though you might not think that we did looking at this pic. However, my fingers were so frozen by then I could not pick up the camera).
We spent our first night in the cozy little village Carmel-by-the-Sea. Clint Eastwood was the mayor here 1986-1988.
It is so weird that there are no street lights at all in this town. When the sun sets it is pitch-black – if the stores are still open you have some light coming from the window displays.
We had booked at the Carmel Mission Inn because we thought the location by the Highway 1 would be perfect and the hotel was quite alright, nothing fancy but alright. However, it was located a bit away from the town center and I would rather stay at a cozier boutique hotel and stroll around the town without giving a thought about the car.
Point Lobos National Park
Point Lobos National Park is a natural reserve with phantastic views, sea lions and hiking trails. We chose not to stop here but if you have time stay for a couple of hours. The barren coast line is spectacular.
You don’t have to worry about missing Big Sur. The landscape becomes more and more dramatic the closer you get and when you go “wow” all the time you have arrived to Big Sur.
Big Sur is undeniebly the most amazing part of your trip and, of course, the most famous. Thus, the price of gas, lunch and a hotel night is rather high. But nothing else matters when you drive over the Bixby Bridge and get to admire the scenery.
Big Sur was particularly popular among the beatniks, writers and artists during the 1950s. Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac lived here on and off.
- Pfeiffer Beach, a stunning beach easy to miss because there are no signs. Not for those wanting to swim but all the surfers, hikers and climbers will be very happy. Even so, you will be happy just hanging on the beach, I suppose.
- The hiking trail Pine Ridge Trail to Sykes Hot Springs is supposed to be magic.
- Post Ranch Inn – wouldn’t mind staying here for a couple of nights. Just saying.
- Ventana Inn & Spa
- Lucia Lodge
- I only hear good thing about Deetjeens Big Sur Inn.
- Glen Oaks Big Sur
- Motel Big Sur River Inn
- Restaurant Nepenthe. The food is fine and so is the view.
Drive past Gorda and continue to…
…instead. The media mogul William Randolph Hearst’s private residence is filled with antiquities, luxorius objects, gardens and interesting architecture. And zebras.
Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Yvonne Lombard and Winston Churchill are just a few of all the fabulous people who frequently visited. Book the tickets in advance.
Don’t miss Piedras blancas with all the elephant seals lying on the rocky beach sunbathing, or the scarry males fighting with each other.
Cambria is a picturesque small town and perfect for your next overnight stop, The people are nice, there are lots of antique shops, art galleries and several quite exquisite restaurants.
A nature conservation area and a paradise for bird watchers. Morro Rock, a vulcanic plug and a state historic landmark, stands proudly in the ocean.
San Luis Obispo
One of the oldest towns in California. Lots of vineyards and beautiful nature.
- Madonna Inn, an – well – interesting hotel. Roxette shot the music video the Centre of the Heart here.
When you reach the Pismo Beach you can either follow HW1 or take the route 101. Route 101 is faster and the scenery beautiful. If you would have cravings for pizza you should make a stop at Full of Life Flatbread in Los Alamos.
Vineyards, ever so cozy, relaxed, beautiful.
Santa Barbara tips!
- Old Mission of Santa Barbara. A mission in Spanish colonial style from 1786: “If only these walls could talk”. A few Fransiscan Friars still live in the mission.
- Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. Beautiful gardens and a Japanese thé house.
- Vineyard: Zaca Mesa
- Wine tasting: Au Bon Climat
- Canary Hotel. I really recommend the Canary hotel. It is located in a quite area close to the city centre.
- Santa Barbara Shellfish Company by the pier for lunch.
- Finch & Fork, Canary Hotel’s restaurant. Good food, trendy athmesphere and casual.
- The Hungry Cat, if you enjoy fich and seafood.
- Santa Monica
Our final destination.