Central California Road Trip Guide

Once in a while, taking the long way is more rewarding and fulfilling. If traveling from Los Angeles to San Francisco, most people opt for the direct inland route of I-5 or the scenic route of I-101. However, neither of these routes are nearly as rewarding as taking the road less traveled and driving up the central coast on the beautiful California State Route 1.

On my recent trip from LA to San Francisco, I decided to take the extra time to explore the California central coast on Highway 1, the highway that is described by many as the most scenic drive in America.

As long as the ocean was to my left, I knew I was going in the right direction.

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Highway 1 stretches 655 miles along the California coast, from Orange County in the south to Mendocino County in the north, and has unmatched coastline views along much of the way. There are plenty of rest stops, camping grounds and hotels along the drive, making this a great road trip for anybody.

 

Pismo Beach

 

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Pismo Beach, stairway to paradise

 

Pismo Beach, California

Before jumping on Highway 1, I made a stop at Pismo Beach to fill up on gas. Pismo Beach is a small picturesque beach town filled with unique beach fronts and an endearing boardwalk. If you get the chance, grab a bowl of clam chowder at Splash Cafe which is not only famous but also delicious, as the line that wraps around the building would suggest.

Morro Bay

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The next stop on my road trip was Morro Bay, best known for its 576-foot high volcanic rock. The Morro Rock is open to visitors with ample parking and walking paths located all around it.

I happened to arrive in Morro Bay just in time for its annual “Mermaid and Pirate Parade” where locals dress up as mermaids and pirates and walk down two miles along the Harbor Walk. There is no registration fee to participate so mark down this event on your calendar for next year!

Highway 1 Scenic Views

Along Pacific Coast Highway Central California
Taking a short break from the wheel on PCH

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My next stop was Big Sur, a popular tourist destination with stunning views of the central coast. The drive along the coast to the Big Sur is spectacular, and I highly recommend stopping a few times along the way to take in the views. There are plenty of places to pull over along the highway, each stop more beautiful than the last.

Big Sur

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McWay Falls, Big Sur, Central California
McWay Falls, one of the most photographed waterfalls in the world

One of the most popular tourist destinations in Big Sur is McWay Falls. Park at the Julia Pfeiffer State Park on the eastern side of Highway 1, where you’ll find the McWay Falls Trailhead. The trail goes out to the coast before splitting along the edge of the cliffs for unblocked views of the coast and pristine beaches. Head north on the trail to reach the McWay Waterfall House where you can get a great viewpoint of the 80-foot falls.

After McWay Falls, continue north for 10 miles until you see signs for Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, a great spot to set up camp or stay at the Big Sur Lodge for the night. With over 1,000 acres of redwood, oak, meadow, and beach areas, this is the perfect environment for an overnight camping experience starting at $35/night. However, be aware that most camp sites get fully booked well in advance, so check for open reservations HERE.

Bixby Bridge

Bixby Bridge on Highway 1
Bixby Bridge on Highway 1

As you continue driving north on CA SR-1, you will eventually cross an amazing bridge in Big Sur called Bixby Bridge. Built in 1932, Bixby Bridge is one of the tallest concrete bridges in the world and truly a spectacular sight to see. There is a reason why Bixby Bridge is one of the most photographed bridges in the Pacific Coast.

Monterey Bay

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Monterey was my final stop on Highway 1 before I rejoined the I-101. There is plenty to see in this small city full of character. Experience a variety of shops and galleries as you stroll down the historic Cannery Row. Or for an extraordinary look into the area’s marine life, head to the world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium. My favorite area is Fisherman’s Wharf, where you can enjoy the great views while indulging exquisite seafood.

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Driving down the central California Coast is a road trip that will leave you with memories of a lifetime. Whether you are traveling with your family or going on a solo Eat, Pray, Love mission, the experience is unforgettable. So next time you are planning a trip, don’t be afraid to take the road less traveled. In the end, it’s not the destination but the journey that counts.

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