California Highway 1 Road Trip Travel Guide

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Highway 1 is a two-lane highway that runs most of the coastline of California. Closer to the state of Oregon, it turns into 101. Having driven most of Highway 1, I thought I’d share some of my favorite insight for a Highway 1 road trip.

I feel like I say this a lot, but this highway is nearly 700 miles long and very curvy. If you start at the top, you will not see it in one day, even if you drive straight through. From Fort Bragg to San Francisco, it took us 10 hours with only a couple of stops. From Santa Cruz to Santa Barbara it’s taken me 8 hours with stops (and bad weather). If you try to drive it straight through it will take nearly 17 hours not including road work, one lane passes, inclement weather, or traffic. I would plan for at least 3-5 days of driving, but I highly recommend you take 6-8 if you want to enjoy the drive and areas along it.

Direction is another very important aspect of the drive, North to South is the best! So many guides say to start in Los Angeles, but as a California native, I don’t think this is the best direction. Driving North to South will put you on the ocean side of the highway, providing the best views and mostly easy spots to pull over.

If you start your journey at the beginning of Highway 1 near Fort Bragg, I’ve come up with the following itinerary to help. You can adjust it to your taste, budget, travel priorities, and length of your journey.

Day 1. Fort Bragg, California

Stay: Inn at Newport Ranch might be a little north of Fort Bragg, but it’s a California modern beauty on my travel wishlist. It’s surely to be an experience in itself.
Eat: Try The Restaurant (yes, it’s called that) then for dessert, head over to Cowlicks Ice Cream.
Stop: If you start at the very start of Highway 1, there is a drive-thru tree park in Leggette, California. MacKerricher State park is beautiful, and on the way through Fort Bragg, be sure to stop at the glass beach and Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens. Van Damme State Park is probably easiest place to see more redwoods. The lighthouses at both Point Cabrillo and Point Arena are beautiful too, as is the sleepy town of Gualala. For more Mendocino County gems, see my city guide.

Day 2. Forestville, California
Stay: The Farmhouse Inn will make for a restful haven from your long day of driving and exploring, and I can personally vouch for how amazing the property is.
Eat: Backyard is a seasonal and sustainable restaurant nestled in the small town of Forestville, California. On the way back out 116, stop at Higher Ground in Guerneville for a cup of java for the road, and do a little shopping at Commerce Fine Goods.
Do: This is a slight cut-in from the coast (come down highway 116 from Jenner), but it’s well worth it for a slight taste of California wine-country. There is a free tasting and tour at Korbel, one of the few wineries over 100 years old in the area. If you’re very short on time, you can take highway 101 from near Forestville, but if you return back to highway 1 you’ll be rewarded with unbeatable views as you come over Mount Tamalpais before crossing the Golden Gate Bridge.

Day 3. San Francisco, California
Stay: Hotel Zelos is located downtown, very near Union Square, and offers parking (#winning in SF!). It would make a great base for exploring in a not too touristy location.
Eat: Boulevard Restaurant is one of the only places I’ve had the pleasure of eating that I didn’t feel like I needed to be picky with preparation. Everything tasted, looked, and just was, perfect.
Do: There is so much to see and do in San Francisco (Please don’t call it San Fran!) that you will never do it all in one day, but I really love Jordan Ferney’s 3 hour tour of San Francisco

Day 4. Carmel, California
Stay: Hyatt Carmel Highlands is a place I’m very partial to because it’s where we got married! It’s set on the cliffs just south of Carmel and you’d be doing yourself a huge favor by getting a room with a view of the ocean.
Eat: Another suggestion I’m partial to is Pacific’s Edge Restaurant at the Highlands Inn. You conveniently won’t have to leave the hotel to enjoy a sunset dinner overlooking the pacific.
Do: After you leave Carmel Highlands, be sure to make a quick pit stop to snap some photos of Bixby Bridge, and enjoy the drive.

Day 5. Ragged Point, California
Stay: Ragged Point Inn & Resort is another one that sits on the cliffs above the water. There’s not much flat coastline here, but lucky for us it makes the views all the better.
Eat: Try Big Sur Bakery on the way down, or snag a sunset dinner at Nepenthe or Sierra Mar (fancier). Lucia Lodge is another place with beautiful views and delicious fare.
Do: This coastline is beyond beautiful.  Be sure to make a stop off at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park to see McWay Falls and Pfeiffer Beach. Hearst castle is also on the way to your next stop and makes for some beautiful photos. On the way to your next stop, think about making a stop off at the “Danish” town of Sølvang for some Aebleskiver and meatballs.

Day 6. Santa Barbara, California
Stay: Somewhere a little luxurious and natural like Bacara Resort & Spa, or somewhere downtown in walking distance to everything, like the Canary Hotel.
Eat: There are so many wonderful places to dine in Santa Barbara, but my favorite by far was The Lark for it’s seasonal and local fare, and The Hungry Cat had a to-die-for burger (even if it’s known for it’s amazing seafood). See my city guide for more recommendations.
Do: I spent 5 days in Santa Barbara, and still had more to see. My top picks for a one day trip is to start the morning off with a long walk through Lotusland, enjoy lunch and shopping downtown, then watch the sunset on Butterfly Beach.

Day 7. Los Angeles, California
Stay: I still have some hotels to check off of my imaginary Ace list, and the Ace Hotel in Downtown LA is one of them. It looks soooo hip (and ‘grammable) in photos.
Eat: I have to admit that I am not on the up and up for the Los Angeles culinary scene but somewhere in California you need to enjoy a burrito (make it a California burrito!), and have a trip to In-N-Out (One on every corner, it’s all about the Animal Style!).
Do: If you’re after culture, head to the Getty Center, Griffith Observatory, or the LA County Museum of Art. If you’re after the beach culture, explore around Venice or Manhattan Beaches. I’d love to go back and spend more time in either.

Day 8. Laguna Beach
Stay: It’s been awhile since we made it down this far, but my top choices would be to stay at the Montage or St. Regis.
Eat: At this point you might be so exhausted from your trip that it’s time to lay low and succumb to room service.
Do: I’m dying to visit Victoria Beach. It’s a little off the beaten path and you’ll want to visit during lower tide to be able to see the tower. 1,000 Steps Beach is another highly recommended sight.

A proper Highway 1 road trip would really end near Dana Point, a little further down the highway, but you can always explore that area on your last day. If you’re still a little lost about driving Highway 1, here is a post I wrote with some quick tips. Another helpful tool to get you on your way and seeing interesting sights during road trips is the website/app Roadtrippers. Honestly, there is so much to see and do that it is impossible to cull everything into one post. You will need to determine your priorities and plan your trip pretty rigidly to fit a lot of this in. Some of these activities require pre-booking and fill up quickly during high season.
Have you driven California’s Highway 1 yet? What was your favorite part? Any suggestions?

19 thoughts on “California Highway 1 Road Trip Travel Guide

  1. WOW! These pictures are absolutely stunning! I just went to Napa, CA but will have to pin this for the next trip I make out there!

    Shelbi | itsallchictome.com

  2. This is awesome! I love California, and I can’t wait to check out some of these cool spots when I go back in April! Thanks so much for all the info!

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