Highway 1 between Los Angeles and San Francisco: The complete guide
The California Coast has all the stuff of dreams.
Between the Pacific Ocean as far as the eye can see and rugged mountain ranges, the drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco is a real feast for the eyes.
Here is my complete guide to Highway 1 between the City of Angels and Fog City.
What should you know before you leave?
To get from Los Angeles to San Francisco, or vice versa, you have several options.
The fastest route is Interstate 5, which will take you between 5.5 and 6 hours.
However, if you really want to live the ultimate California road trip experience, Highway 1 is the most spectacular way to travel between these 2 cities.
Although it will add about 100 miles (160 km) to your trip, it's one of the most beautiful scenic drives in the world.
So plan to spend 2 to 3 days in order to fully enjoy all the wonders it has to offer.
A rental RV is also a great way to enjoy this drive.
Here are the stops you won't want to miss during your adventure!
#1. Santa Monica
Santa Monica is the closest place on Highway 1 to downtown Los Angeles.
Start your trip here. A short stop at this legendary beach is a must!
The most popular spot in Santa Monica is the pier at the end of Colorado Avenue.
On this lively wooden pier you'll find restaurants, gift shops, street artists, a Ferris wheel, and even a roller coaster!
And the adventure begins! Your first stop should be Malibu.
Located some thirty kilometres from Los Angeles, the City of Malibu is known for two main reasons.
The first is its long stretch of pristine beach, home to tide pools, caves and strange rocky formations.
The second is the many Hollywood celebrities who live there, looking to get away from the big city.
Be sure to visit Point Dune, one of the loveliest beaches in southern California, or explore the city to see beautiful homes and sample some typical California cuisine.
As you drive along Highway 1, you'll pass right by the Ventura Pier.
If you're into surfing, this is a spot you won't want to miss!
Otherwise, check out the historic downtown area and enjoy some shopping in the vintage and thrift stores.
#4. Santa Barbara
Your next stop is the lovely city of Santa Barbara, known for its beaches, wine, red tile roofs and beautiful gardens.
If you're looking for a place to spend the night along the way, there's enough to see and do here to warrant an extended stop!
Take a walk along Stearns Wharf, the longest deep-water wharf between Los Angeles and San Francisco, or pay a visit to East Beach.
If you're a fan of architecture, visit the courthouse and its clock tower and the Old Santa Barbara Mission.
If you prefer a cultural activity, check out the Lobero Theater, the Arlington Theater or the Santa Barbara Historical Museum.
To stretch your legs, don't miss the Santa Barbara Zoo, the Santa Barbara Botanical Garden and Lotusland.
When you think of the California coast, you probably don't think of European architecture.
You'll feel quite disoriented in Solvang: you have to see it to believe it!
Solvang was founded by Danish immigrants who wanted to make the United States feel like home.
Today, this Danish village is a popular tourist destination with its European-style windmills, flower-lined streets and half-timbered buildings.
In fact, it's at the top of our list of the 5 most beautiful towns in California!
During your visit, you'll want to browse the northern European-style boutiques and see the many replicas of famous landmarks found in Denmark.
If time permits, head to the Hans Christian Anderson Museum and keep an eye out for the Little Mermaid statue!
#6. Pismo Beach
The Pismo Beach area is known for its beaches and sand dunes.
It's also a popular option for an overnight stay during your road trip.
If this is your case and you have a little extra time to spare, head to the Oceano Dunes State Recreation Area for an off-road ride in the sand dunes.
Otherwise, focus on its downtown area, where you can enjoy a good meal at one of the many restaurants.
If you're there at the end of the day, the sunsets over the Pismo Beach Pier are spectacular!
#7. Morro Bay
The next stop along your route between Los Angeles and San Francisco is a small fishing village.
Morro Bay is home to a magnificent state park and several estuaries teeming with birds and wildlife.
But the star attraction is at the end of Morro Beach.
I'm talking about Morro Rock, an ancient volcanic plug 175 meters high.
In addition to being imposing, it's surrounded by a beautiful lagoon where seals and sea lions can be seen throughout the day.
It's possible to kayak to the edge of the rock if you feel like it, but I recommend a short stop here to enjoy a picnic on the beach.
#8. San Simeon
The town of San Simeon is known for the extravagant home of William Randolph Hearst, a businessman who made his fortune in publishing.
While California is no stranger to great affluence and huge mansions, Hearst Castle is in a class of its own.
Perched atop a hill known as The Enchanted Hill, this eccentric castle contains marble statues, tapestries and oil paintings, Tiffany lamps, exotic carpets, and all the other collectibles accumulated by William during his somewhat marginal life.
In addition to the million visitors it receives each year, Lady Gaga used the castle in her music video for GUY.
Besides the castle, you should also visit Moonstone Beach, the stores of Cambria Village and, above all, Piedras Blancas Beach.
The latter is home to an enormous colony of elephant seals.
Fun fact: in 1990, there were only 24 elephant seals in this colony, and then in 1991, more than 400 showed up on the beach just south of the Piedras Blancas lighthouse.
Nobody knows why!
#9. Big Sur
Be prepared to stop often near Big Sur on the famous Highway 1.
The route winds along high cliffs with drop-offs that are both exhilarating and terrifying.
An icon of the scenic highway can be found here: the Bixby Bridge.
It's one of the tallest single span concrete bridges in the world and one of the most photographed bridges on the West Coast - right behind the Golden Gate Bridge, which you will soon be seeing!
While in the area, don't miss Point Sur State Historic Park, Ragged Point, and especially the famous Julia Pfeiffer State Park.
This park's main attraction is McWay Falls, which spills from a high cliff directly into the Pacific Ocean.
It's one of the most beautiful beaches in California.
The trail to the falls is well indicated in the park.
You will have to pay the $10 park entry fee.
If you have the time, explore the rest of the park, which is home to sequoias that are over 2,500 years old.
#10. Point Lobos Natural Reserve
Point Lobos Nature Reserve is one of the most beautiful parks in the State of California.
Coming from Los Angeles, Point Lobos will be on your left, just before you reach Carmel.
The park entrance can't be seen from the road, so watch out for the signs.
Point Lobos is a real paradise for lovers of nature and wildlife.
Explore the park's coves and beautiful trails.
On its shores, you'll have the chance to see seals, sea lions, sea otters and orcas.
On the wooded trails, keep an eye out for gray foxes, raccoons, opossums, deer, rabbits, bobcats and coyotes.
Carmel-by-the-Sea is a romantic little town with a European coastal charm.
Many musicians, writers and painters have made Carmel their home for many years.
One of the town's mayors was none other than famous Hollywood actor Clint Eastwood.
Main Street is definitely the heart of the action.
The street is lined with art galleries, boutiques, and upscale shops and restaurants.
The city's architecture is a mix of charming little beach houses, rustic cottages, log cabins, and breathtaking modern glass houses.
Nearby, the Carmel Mission with its courtyard and gardens is a peaceful place to meditate or enjoy a rest.
A museum presents the history of the Monterey Peninsula and all the California missions.
Near Monterey you will find what is probably one of the most beautiful stops along Highway 1.
17-Mile Drive is definitely the most beautiful stretch of coastline on the Monterey Peninsula.
It stretches from the majestic Pacific coast to the Del Monte forest.
You will drive through Pacific Grove to Pebble Beach.
This road is private and has an access fee, but thousands of people drive it each year to see the magnificent Lone Cypress, one of California's most famous natural treasures, as well as Bird Rock and Spanish Bay.
The coastline is heavily populated with sea lions. For several miles you can see baby seals and their mothers on the beaches.
At the end of the road, you will reach the city of Monterey.
Its famous Cannery Row was once the hub of the sardine packing industry.
Today, the factories have been transformed into gift shops, bars and seafood restaurants.
Don't miss the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the sixth-largest aquarium in the world.
It is home to sea otters, penguins, sharks, stingrays, jellyfish and many other native marine species.
#13. Santa Cruz
In Santa Cruz, prepare to be nostalgic!
The 1960s are alive and well here, especially along the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk with its Americana vibe.
Visit the beach to see the beautiful lighthouse and the Giant Dipper on the boardwalk.
The Santa Cruz wharf is an excellent starting point for exploring the area.
You can also take a whale-watching tour or a fishing trip, if you have the time.
If you're interested in the supernatural, check out The Mystery Spot, a collection of strange phenomena from the last 70 years.
Along the iconic Pacific Avenue, you will find all kinds of vintage goodies.
If you need to stretch your legs one last time, pay a visit to Wilder Ranch State Park for some hiking.
If you're staying overnight, head for the Rio Theatre for a local music concert.
#14. San Francisco
And that's it!
Your final destination is San Francisco, the most European and most tolerant city in the American West.
Don't miss the city's main attractions, like Fisherman's Wharf to enjoy a meal with sea lions, Telegraph Hill, or the Painted Ladies, a famous row of colored houses.
I suggest you book a tour of Alcatraz.
If you're not easily spooked, opt for the evening tour and discover the haunted remains of the old prison from which no one could escape.
And don't forget your picture of the Golden Gate Bridge.
After all, did you really visit San Francisco if you don't bring back a photo of the Golden Gate Bridge?
Locate the stops on Highway 1 between L.A. and San Francisco
Now you're ready to discover the wonders of this famous California coastal road.
Do you have any other suggestions of places to stop? Feel free to share them in the comments below!