You're either for or against repeats. And when it comes to travel, I'm usually against. There's so much out there to see that a trip needs a lot of pull to make it worth repeating. But, every once in a while, there's a trip so top that's it worth repeating annually, like the drive along to Big Sur along California's Highway 1.
If you're traveling here from the other side of the globe, then I'd highly rec you take your time — drive no more than 50 miles a day and explore the wine, food, beaches, and scenery everywhere from Ojai to Santa Barbara to Paso Robles to Big Sur. But, when you live in California, Big Sur usally becomes a long weekend (for the ambitious) or a 4 day trip for those who have more time.
This time around I went with two of my friends who I'd already vetted during past road trips and we took our time, driving just around 100 miles a day, which gave us plenty of time to enjoy each town yet left us curious to explore every area even more. Here are all my travel tips for a road trip on 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. To me the more rustic, scenic way is to hop on Highway 126 to the 150, plus it allows you to dramatically drop down into the Ojai valley and have it unfold before you. 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. If you're in town for more than a few days, definitely get a rental property because there are some gorgeous places in Ojai Valley. But, if you're in town for just a night and want the full authentic Ojai experience, stay 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.
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 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 surfe 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 moment of the trip were our family dynamic became most evident was the morning we drove from Paso Robles to Big Sur. After caffeinating at Spearhead coffee, we took off from Paso and I insisted we visit the elephant seals, because, despite them badly needing deodorant and being unsightly, I find them totally adorable. Moments after we left the elephant seals, we began the winding climb from San Simeon to Big Sur only to realize we hadn’t bothered to get gas. Apparently, filling the car wasn't on our agenda. With visions of us pushing the car up the 15% grade that is the start to Big Sur, we were silently cursing ourselves (well, it wasn’t all silent) for the next half hour. As luck would have it, we made it to Ragged Point running on the very last fumes.
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 San Francisco. My only complaint? The trip went by too fast — if I had the time, I'd do it in 5 or 6 days and go all the way from LA to San Francisco, stopping every 100 miles or so. But then again I live here so this is a trip I plan on doing again and again.
More California On Salt & Wind
- Santa Barbara Food Lover's Itinerary
- Central California Has Its Own BBQ Style: Here's Where To Eat It
- Weekend Road Trip In Southern California
Did you know we lead boutique food and wine tours for food lovers? Come join our next Salt & Wind trip!
P.S. If you liked this story, you'll probably like our newsletter too!