POV: Your keys are in the ignition and you’re finally heading on your bucket list road trip up the Pacific Coast Highway. Now you just need to decide which towns along California Highway 1 to visit. As we’ve said before, this road trip is the most requested itinerary among our California-bound travel planning clients and we get why.
With sandy beaches, towering cliffs, poppy-covered fields, ocean-front waterfalls, swaying palm trees, majestic redwoods, barking elephant seals, world-class wine, craft beer, and farm-to-table food, it’s one of the world’s best road trips.
What Towns Are Along California Highway 1?
A reminder that California Highway 1 is over 600 miles and it starts south in Orange County and ends in Leggett in Mendocino County.
That means it passes through major cities like Long Beach, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and San Francisco, and even our founder, Aida’s hometown of Hermosa Beach!
But most travelers are doing the drive to see the coastline and the numerous quaint towns along California Highway 1 like Santa Barbara, Pismo Beach, Big Sur, and Carmel.
What Is The Prettiest Part Of The Pacific Coast Highway?
Can we answer by saying, “all of it?!?” But seriously, California has some stunning coastline so you can find something for everyone along the Pacific Coast Highway.
For sunny Southern California beach towns, pass through Dana Point, Laguna, and Santa Barbara. For dramatic cliffs, drive by Big Sur or even up toward Point Reyes and Mendocino. For sleepy seaside towns, visit Cambria, Carmel, or Jenner.
Or do an itinerary that combines all sorts of towns along California Highway 1, which, for most, is the section from Santa Barbara to Santa Cruz.
We would suggest you budget 2 to 5 days to do this stretch depending on how many towns you want to see and how many activities you want to experience. If you plan to take on the whole of Highway 1 (more on that below), give yourself 7 to 10 days.
Best Places To Stay On California Coast Road Trip
These are the towns along California Highway 1 to stop over for a few hours or even where to stay when driving the California coast for a night or two.
Ojai | 1 to 2 nights
Tucked a few miles inland from Highway 1 in the valley of the Topatopa Mountains at the southern edge of the Los Padres National Forest, Ojai is a scenic town that’s 90 minutes from Los Angeles yet feels a world away.
“Ojai” means “nest” in the Chumash language and that’s what you’ll want to do in this cozy spot. Head here to visit citrus and olive oil farms, shop local boutiques, taste local produce at the farmers market, or get outdoors by hiking, biking, or horseback riding.
Where To Stay: Our clients often opt to stay at the local luxury resort, at indie boutique hotels, or at vacation rentals.
Santa Barbara | 2 to 5 nights
One of the best-loved towns along California Highway 1 is Santa Barbara. Nicknamed “The American Riviera,” that refers to the city’s beautiful beaches, stunning hotels, and cute downtown. With just shy of 100,000 residents, it’s more of a city than other towns on this list, but that means it has more going on with art, live music, and plenty of food and wine.
It’s one of the best places to stay on the California Coast because there is a lot to see and it’s easy to get to. Speaking of, things to do here include surfing at Ledbetter Beach, stand-up paddle boarding in the harbor, scuba diving in the Channel Islands, or taking a boat along the coast.
You can also hike the hills, wine taste (and antique!) in the Funk Zone, shop the numerous weekly farmers’ markets, or dive into history at the Santa Barbara Mission or the Santa Barbara Presidio.
Where To Stay: Along the coast, there are luxury resorts while there is an assortment of high-end boutique hotels and cute beach town inns near the center of town.
Santa Ynez Valley | 1 to 2 nights
Make time to go to inland Santa Barbara County where the vibes transition from beach town chic to wine country with a side of cowboy culture. Here you’ll find the quirky Danish town of Solvang, the hipster town of Los Alamos, or the Santa Ynez Valley’s main towns of Los Olivos and Santa Ynez towns, which have stellar wines, cute boutiques, and great local food. A highlight for food lovers is to try tri-tip (an only-in-California BBQ dish from the Central Coast) along with a mix of wine tastings and farm visits.
Pismo Beach | 1 to 2 nights
You’ve made it to the heart of the Central Coast as you’re almost exactly halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco! The oceanfront town of Pismo Beach is one of the biggest towns along California Highway 1 and is best known for its sand dunes which visitors explore via ATV or dune buggy.
It has a little more happening than the three smaller towns that follow (Morro Bay, Cayucos, and Cambria) and some of the best donuts in the area! Also, it’s easy to wine taste in nearby Edna Valley (FYI, Cadre Wines is one of our favorites in this area).
Where To Stay: Most properties here are older motels but there are some recently renovated ones worth a visit!
Morro Bay | Day Trip
For full Central Coast vibes, one of the towns along California Highway 1 where you’ll want to stop is Morro Bay.
We say book a morning kayak trip on the natural harbor of Morro Bay. You’ll pass small oyster farm operations and the extinct volcanic peak of Morro Rock will be on the horizon. And this natural refuge means you’ll likely encounter various animals like harbor seals, sea lions, sea otters, snowy plovers, falcons, and more.
Cayucos | Day Trip
Located on cool, colorful Estero Bay on the Central California Coast, Cayucos is a relaxed resort town that’s a world away from the bustle of California’s big cities. If you don’t stop for any other reason, be sure to grab a farm-to-table bite at The Hidden Kitchen and some sweets at Brown Butter Cookies.
Cambria| Day Trip
Tied with Cayucos and Morro Bay for the quietest beach towns along California Highway 1, Cambria is a seaside town with one street and rustic vibes. If you want to experience a bit of Central California’s slow-paced life, this is a good choice. There are seaside hotels that are renovated former motels and have nice mid-century modern vibes.
From here you can drive 30-minutes to Paso Robles to wine taste, head to Stepladder creamery for artisanal cheeses, or just enjoy the beach. Though the town of San Simeon is where the famous Randolph Hearst Castle has its address, we prefer Cambria.
Paso Robles | 1 to 3 nights
Set in San Luis Obispo County, on the Southern end of the Salinas Valley among rolling hills, Paso Robles (pronounced “ROH-buhlz,” or “ROH-blays” to some locals) historic town is centered around a historic square.
There is a lively cowboy culture-meets-wine culture here and we always end up making new friends when we visit. Things to do here include wine tasting, shopping at the local boutiques, antiquing, or just hanging out.
Where To Stay: Our clients often opt to stay at the local wine resorts, at boutique hotels in town, or at vacation rentals.
Big Sur | Spend 1 to 2 nights
Big Sur sprawls across the hillside so, of the towns along California Highway 1, it iis the one that has no real center of town. Even so, you can find a variety of things to do like visiting state parks (say, Julia Pfeiffer Burns) walking among redwoods, dining at riverside cafes, or cliffside fine dining spots, walking among Calla Lily fields, or just pulling off and admiring the view as you drive.
Where To Stay: Of the spots on this list, the lodging is the priciest in Big Sur. Plan to either splurge on a glamping situation or one of the handful of luxury 5-star hotels if you spend the night.
Monterey Peninsula (Monterey, Pacific Grove, & Carmel) | 1 to 3 nights
Three main seaside towns make up this area: Monterey and Pacific Grove being more residential, Carmel-By-The-Sea being more upscale with the main street made up of English cottage style, and inland Carmel Valley being the gateway to wine country with resorts. The seaside towns will have more mild temps (daytime highs low 70s) while Carmel Valley will get into the high 80s.
Things to do in these towns along California Highway 1 include whale watching, visiting the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium, exploring the shops and restaurants of Monterey’s Fisherman’s Wharf, meandering along the famous 17-mile Drive, seeing the Pebble Beach Golf Course, going inland to taste wine and visit farm stands, doing shopping or a meal in downtown Carmel-By-The-Sea, or a day trip to Big Sur.
Where To Stay: Hotels are a mix of inns and business hotels in Monterey and Pacific Grove, cottage-looking b&bs and bungalows in Carmel-By-The-Sea, or full-service luxury resorts in Carmel Valley.
Extend Your California Highway 1 Trip
Once you’ve visited the above towns along California Highway 1, you may want to dive even deeper into the Golden State. Here are a few ways to extend your road trip:
Go South: San Diego County
Go East: Yosemite | Spend 2-3 nights (~3-5 hours from Monterey or San Francisco)
FYI, you can get to Yosemite National Park in just a few hours from Monterey. Head east to Groveland – the northernmost entrance – to be in the middle of the woods or to Mariposa and Oakhurst to be near the Redwood Grove and the Valley floor. Or have some food adventures in Fresno and then head on this itinerary to Yosemite.
Go North: Santa Cruz, Capitola, and Half Moon Bay
If you have another day or two, head onward to the surf-centric town of Santa Cruz, see the candy-colored houses in Capitola, or walk the beachfront path in Half Moon Bay.
Go Farther North: Point Reyes, Sonoma Coast, and Mendocino
If you have 3 to 7 more days, we highly recommend you extend this trip north to see the northernmost towns along California Highway. Not only will the scenery and culture change, but also it will be less and less crowded.
Stop in San Francisco or some city vibes and then cross the Golden Gate Bridge (which is on Highway 1, FYI) and head toward the coast.
Explore Muir Woods for redwoods, see oyster farms and Cypress trees on the Point Reyes National Shoreline, visit coastal wineries on the Sonoma Coast, and get away from it all along the cliffs of the Lost Coast and the glass beach of Fort Bragg.
More FAQS about California Highway 1
We’ve shared our driving tips for California Highway 1 and addressed questions like “Is it better to go north or south on Pacific Coast Highway?” and “How long does it take to drive the entire Pacific Coast Highway?”But there are a few more FAQs we want to address. Namely:
Are highways 1 and 101 the same?
Yes and no. For certain sections of the state, the two are combined, while in the most scenic parts (driving to Big Sur or through the Sonoma Coast) they are separate.
Is it scary to drive the Pacific Coast Highway?
No! I’m someone who can’t really deal with heights but this drive isn’t scary to me. The reason is that the cliffed, windy sections have guard rails, the cliffs are more sloping than steep, and people drive slowly in those parts. Also, the road is very well maintained!
Have Us Plan Your California Trip
Looking to travel to the Golden State and see these towns along California Highway 1? Did you know we’re also a boutique travel agency that specializes in California vacation planning? If you’re looking to plan a trip to California, our California trip planner services are here to help you plan your perfect itinerary.