A few weeks ago, the mister and I took off on a fairly spontaneous camping/road trip up the coast of California. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, and it was a liberating feeling to throw a tent and cooler in the trunk, pack a bag, and drive off. It was also a much needed four-day reprieve from the daily grind, and we had such a great time we didn’t want to come home. I’m already planning our next road trip through Arizona, Nevada, and Utah! (Though we’re flying to Iceland next month – eep!)
Many of you followed along with our adventures on Facebook and Instagram – thank you! If you missed them, you can still go check out the photos of coastline, rolling hills, and the ethereal Redwoods. (If you haven’t figured it out yet, I love nature.)
A lot of people asked where we were going and what our itinerary was – the truth is, it was very minimal. We just wanted to see the coast, and hit up some of the big sights along the way of course, like San Luis Obispo, Big Sur, and Monterey. We didn’t even really plan to go further than Monterey, but we found ourselves in Santa Cruz and then the Big Basin Redwoods State Park on day 3, and loved every minute of it.
So here’s what our itinerary ended up looking like – a route I’d recommend others follow with a solid four days to spare. This itinerary starts in San Diego, so if you head out from Los Angeles, you can add an afternoon or morning here or there. And of course, there are so many things to do on this route that I recommend NOT sticking to a set itinerary. Let the journey take you where it will! Making up your mind on the spot is one of the best things about any adventure.
Day 1: San Diego to San Simeon
We left early (7:15am), drove straight through LA along the 5, then connected to the 101 and eventually the 1 (PCH.)
The cute Danish town of Solvang is a “must-see” on any California coast road trip. Known as California’s “Little Denmark,” the town is quaint (albeit touristy) with bakeries, cafes, and shops featuring Danish goods, imported foods, and novelties like cookware and clocks. Browse the shops, stroll the streets, and stop in one of the restaurants for lunch, then be on your way.
This piece of “classic California” is reminiscent of 1950s beach towns and makes you think of the Beach Boys. It’s a good stopping point for a stroll in the sand and maybe a splash in the waves, but also make time for a walk on the pier and the boardwalk. You can also visit their Monarch butterfly preserve, and dig for clams (if you have the proper clamming license.)
Morro Bay & Rock
Strongly recommended by our friends, Morro Bay was a key stop on our itinerary. Time your arrival with the setting sun, so you can see the beach, towering rock, and the waves crashing on the jetty in the late golden rays of sunlight. When we were there the waves were intense, and the stunning sunset seemed to stop time.
Sands by the Sea Hotel
This was the only night we stayed in a hotel, because we got a great deal on HotelTonight. (Otherwise, we camped – and I highly recommend that option!) Sands by the Sea was a great little seaside inn with comfortable beds and private access to the beach – but be prepared that San Simeon is a small vacation stop with one convenience store and two higher-priced restaurants. If you’re on a budget, bring your own groceries in from one of the bigger towns on the way – or be prepared to pay a premium for your dinner.
- Camping is great in both Pismo Beach and Morro Bay – I like to use HipCamp, but they don’t seem to update their listings accurately during the off-season.
- The Paso Robles wine region is one of the best in the state. If you’re a wine lover, skip Pismo Beach and head inland for an afternoon of incredible vintage wine tastes.
Day 2: San Simeon to Monterey
Leave early so you can have the road to yourself: this is the best part of the route, with unparalleled views of ocean and hills, and you’re going to want to avoid traffic.
Piedras Blancas/Elephant Seal Rookery
You have to see the strange and exotic-looking elephant seal when you’re here! Just north of the village of San Simeon, there’s a rookery and viewing point in Piedras Blancas. These creatures have got to be the weirdest things I’ve ever seen – or heard – where the males have big trunk-like snouts and bellow like alien cows. Don’t miss the cacophany (or the smell), especially in early spring – mating season!
Get ready for the piece de resistance of the California coast: Big Sur must be seen to be believed. The iconic, majestic cliffsides, the endless blue ocean, the winding road cutting through the mountainside, and the backdrop of rugged coastal shrubland and forests are breathtaking, to say the least. There are a million things to do here, from camping to hiking to kayaking, with endless vista points and trailheads – you’ll never want for a perfect view or a photo (in fact, you’ll have too many.) Or, it’s an incredible experience just to drive and stare at the sights – so be sure if you have more than one driver that you switch off and take turns!
Sandwiched inland between Carmel Valley and Monterey, Laguna Seca is an underrated place to pitch your tent for the night. We loved our campsite on the backside of the raceway hill, with a gorgeous view of the valley and great stargazing. I’d recommend making camp here, then heading down to Monterey for the evening.
Head down to this rather famous oceanside town for an enjoyable stroll along the boardwalk, eclectic shops and gimmicky souvenirs, and superb seafood (AKA, the best clam chowder I’ve ever had.) The marina is especially beautiful around sundown, and the park and public spots around the wharf are perfect for a picnic dinner.
- Hearst Castle – we opted to save the $25 entry fee, and time so we could see more of Big Sur. But this is a “must” on a California coast itinerary!
- If you make reservations ahead of time, try camping in Big Sur instead. The hiking and scenery are incredible.
Day 3: Monterey to Big Basin Redwood State Park
You can take it easy this morning and leave at a leisurely time to make the one-hour drive to Santa Cruz for lunch. The drive isn’t that impressive anyway, as it’s mostly inland.
Stop for lunch on the boardwalk, and indulge in a plate of fish and chips at Woodies Cafe – some of the best I’ve ever had. A heaping plate of fried snapper, lemon juice, dipping sauces, and fries for just $10 was a bargain – and the views of the ocean are unbeatable. After lunch, take a stroll along the boardwalk to see the rides and eclectic carnival features (like Laughing Sal, a truly creepy landmark.)
Big Basin Redwoods State Park
The drive from Santa Cruz is a lovely hour or so through increasingly dense treecover, where you’re abruptly transported from hipster beach town to rugged mountain wildnerness. We camped at Huckleberry campground, one of only two in this area that is open year-round. This campground is also near an easy short hike to Sempervirens Falls and Slippery Rock, two noteworthy sights in the basin. In the summer, take your pick of hundreds of campsites here (though I advise making a reservation in advance) and explore whatever your heart desires: no matter what part of the basin you choose to make homebase, you’re guaranteed a memorable time.
- If you want to skip Santa Cruz and the Redwoods for a short visit to San Francisco, leave Laguna Seca/Big Sur/Monterey early and drive straight through to San Fran. It’s about a 2-hour drive (120 miles) on the 101, so you can stay the night in San Fran and book it home the next day, or just make a day trip out of it, leaving early and late to return to your campsite.
Day 4: Big Basin to San Diego
We hit the road early and drove straight on through, opting for the 101 to save time and avoid the LA traffic. Santa Barbara is a great stopping point for a lunch break, and if you have time to spare, I suggest taking the 1 back down through Malibu and Santa Monica for a reverse look at the coastline.
Check out my full guide, including restaurants, activities, and campsites, on Gogobot!
WOW that road trip looks amazing! The coast is so gorgeous! I didn’t even know about that other place with seals (we only know la jolla and zoos down here)! I also really love that wooden bridge pic. And many of these pictures actually! Great post!
Thanks Lynn! It was truly an amazing experience. 🙂
Thank you so much for all the information , truly looking forward to our trip this summer can’t thank you enough
I am coming from San Diego and want to do free camping from big sur to the redwoods with some neat stops. Do you have a slight mapping of how to go about it and what direction to take?
Thank you for posting this magnificent trip! This is one trip-checked off of my bucket list for sure! We are headed out soon- second week of August to travel from San Diego to the Redwoods I cannot wait! We are going the route that you guys traveled and I so so much appreciate your information, experiences, picts and advice! Thanks a bunch.
Aw that makes me so happy! Thank you, Michele! Have a wonderful trip and take lots of pictures! 🙂
Oh I will! Taking our two fur babies along as well. So probably more hotels then tenting- bug we will see!