You're either for or against repeats. When it comes to travel, I'm usually against, but every once in a while there's a trip so spectacular it's well worth it. One California road trip I'm always game to do over is driving from Los Angeles to Big Sur along California Highway 1.
And I'm clearly not alone in that sentiment: among our concierge clients who are traveling to California one of the most common requests is for help with itinerary planning along this very stretch of road. And we get why -- there are a lot of different ways (all coastal versus some inland stops), speeds (one day versus a week), and styles (luxe versus glamping) you can tackle this iconic California road trip.
For something that covers a lot of ground in little time, you can check out our San Francisco to Palm Springs road trip. But, if it's postcard-perfect coastal California you're after, this is the must drive itinerary.
How Much Time Do You Need To Drive California Highway 1 To Big Sur?
If you're traveling to California from the other side of the globe, make your trip a success by reading our California road trip tips and by giving yourself plenty of time. If it's your first time doing the drive, we'd recommend you drive no more than 80 miles a day so you have plenty of time to explore the wine, food, beaches, and scenery that make this part of California so beloved. Give yourself at least a day in each of the towns along the way including Ojai, Santa Barbara, Paso Robles, and, of course, Big Sur. And, if you have the time, you can even extend the trip a few days to also check out the Monterey Peninsula and San Francisco.
The Long Weekend Itinerary Road Trip From Los Angeles To Big Sur
But, when you live in California, Big Sur usually becomes a long weekend (for the ambitious) or a four day trip for those who have more time. On a recent trip I drove around 100 miles a day, which gave me plenty of time to enjoy each town yet left us curious to explore every area even more.
Here is a four day itineary for a road trip on California Highway 1 from Los Angeles to Big Sur:
DAY 1: Los Angeles to Ojai (~80 miles)
The hardest thing about driving from Los Angeles to Ojai is deciding when to leave — too early or late and you hit commuter traffic. When there isn't traffic, it's a super fast drive and you have a few options for how to go about it.
The more rustic, scenic way is to hop on Highway 126 to the 150, which ends in a dramatic, stunningly panoramic descent into the Ojai valley. My favorite time of year to do this trip is late winter, early Spring (say, early April) when you still have citrus trees in bloom and the first of the avocados are coming in. Ojai is produce central and some of our best fruits and vegetables (especially oranges, mandarins, avocados, and olives) come from this part of California.
The downtown is pretty small and easy to wrap your head around, it's reputation as a spiritual center means there are plenty of shops, stores, and restaurants devoted to the spiritual set. If you just want something easy and clean (with a touch of hippy kitsch), have lunch at the Hip Vegan Cafe. Or for bubbles and small bites with a side of cute home decor shopping and great vibes, head to Tipple & Ramble.
As for where to stay you can get the full authentic Ojai experience at the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa. There's so much to do on property (decent drinks, wellness classes, pooltime, S'mores cookouts) that the only issue will be deciding how to do it all. Or for something more retro and afforable, check into the Ojai Rancho Inn.
Oh, and no matter what, make sure you get to Ojai in time for sunset. If you look at the Eastern mountains while the sun sets, there's a phenomenon know as the famed "Pink Moment" when the whole mountain range lights up to a bright fuschia color.
DAY 2: Ojai to Santa Barbara to Paso Robles (~150 miles)
Get up early the next day so you have time to enjoy a walk or hike in the morning in Ojai but get on the road so you can make it to Santa Barbara for lunch (a 45 minute drive). If you take Highway 150 to the coast, you'll find yourself driving through valley after valley of uninhabited, totally untouched California foothills. During the Spring, the Golden poppies (aka the state flower) and other wildflowers should be blanketing all the hills.
Santa Barbara is one of those places where I love to spend a long weekend so I can do everything from visit the old Stagecoach Inns to surf and hike and wine taste.
On this trip, our friends had never been to Santa Barbara so we took them to the taqueria institution that's coined as Julia Child's favorite taco shop, La Super Rica Taqueria. The lines are always long and they only take cash but the greasy Mexican food is worth it — especially the Rajas, tacos de Adobado, and the Super Rica especial. Just make sure to leave time for some ice cream because the classic shop, McConnell's, is well worth it.
From there we took our time heading to Paso Robles and stopped at a few of the wineries on the way. There are a ton of wineries to choose from well-known wineries like J Lohr and Justin to cult wineries like Turley.
Honestly, Paso Robles wins me over more and more every time I visit. The historic plaza in the center of town gives it an old-school California feel and the food has evolved with the wine scene so there are excellent options for both. But at its core, it's still laidback and chill, like the rest of Central Coast so you have the quality of Napa without the crowds or craziness. After a mid-afternoon snack at Thomas Hill Organics, we tried local wines at the Pony Club Bar, then had an excellent farm-to-table dinner at Artisan.
We stayed at the Hotel Cheval, which was a total indulgence but worth every penny. It's possible their mattress is the most comfortable thing I've ever stayed on and the coziness of the boutique hotel went to the extreme when we had a nightcap of S'mores and wine next to their hearth fireplace.
DAY 3: Paso Robles to Big Sur (~140 miles)
The next morrning after caffeinating at Spearhead coffee, we took off from Paso and I insisted we stop in San Simeon to see the elephant seals, because, despite them badly needing deodorant and being unsightly, I find them totally adorable.
From there we headed to Ragged Point and up into Big Sur. We spent the majority of the day cruising the coast and checking out the numerous Big Sur parks. I was totally blown away by McWay Falls because I never knew my home state had such a sight as this gorgeous cove and beachside waterfall. From there we poked about Julia Pfeiffer State Park in search of more falls and some killer views.
We made it back down with just minutes to spare before the fanciest meal we'd have the whole trip at Sierra Mar at the Post Ranch Inn. Our favorites of the meal were the Dungeness Crab Salad with Mandarins, Toasted Almonds, and Basil and the dessert of Lemon Curd with Cardamom Meringue, Hibiscus Sorbet, and Candied Fennel.
An absolute must for sunset is snagging a seat on the deck at Nepenthe and just enjoying the view. There are a ton of interesting places to stay in Big Sur from five-star Post Ranch Inn and the local camping sites to the hippy retreat Esalen and the yurt rentals at Tree Bones. We decided to split the difference and rent a cabin in the redwoods at Glen Oaks Lodge— it was a rather high-end cabin with heated floors, Pendelton blankets, and a chiminea where we told stories until late in the night.
The next morning we got some early breakfast at Big Sur Bakery and then left for the Monterey Peninusla and eventually San Francisco.
If you're heading on your first road trip in the Golden State, be sure to peruse our essential tips for road tripping in California!
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