Road Trip Along California’s Stunning Highway 1

Are you looking for an unforgettable road trip? Look no further than the legendary California‘s stunning Highway 1. This iconic route stretches 656 miles from Southern to Northern California and passes through some of the most stunning shorelines, historic cities, and picturesque towns in the entire state.

You may have seen Highway 1 as a backdrop in countless movies, television shows and advertisements. Most of them showcase romantic couples driving their convertibles top-down, with cool Pacific breeze blowing their hair. But it is not always sunny and warm in California. In fact, it was cold and rainy in February, but still worth the once-in-a-lifetime road trip.

If you are planning to take a road trip along California’s Highway 1, here are some must stops to eat, stay, see and relax at.

views along Highway 1

San Francisco to Monterey

Arrive at San Francisco (SFO) and rent a car from the airport so you can start your road trip right away. You can also plan to spend a day or two to explore the city’s attractions such as attractions like Fisherman’s Wharf and Alcatraz Island. But I feel San Francisco deserves another trip as there is so much to do and see.

lighthouse on highway 1

From San Francisco, continue south along Highway 1 to Monterey. On your road trip, you will see breathtaking views of the Pacific, redwood forests, and quaint coastal towns. Stop at Half Moon Bay to visit Maverick’s Beach, Ano Nuevo State Park, and have a bite at Dad’s Luncheonette. Continue on to the touristy town of Santa Cruz. There are plenty of family-friendly attractions in the area to fill up an entire day. But if you have limited time, take a walk along Natural Bridges State Beach, grab come caffeine from Verve Coffee, or a sweet refreshment at Penny Ice Creamery. Your next stop along Highway 1 will be Moss Landing where you may be able to see some otters during your hike through Elkhorn Slough.

Monterey on road trip in California

Monterey

Monterey‘s rugged coastline is the most photographed portion of Highway 1. Plan to spend a couple of days here to enjoy the laidback fishing village. At Monterey Bay’s Cannery Row, you will find frequent references to its sardine packing history and the novelist John Steinbeck.

Monterey plaza hotel

Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa 

Stay at the historic Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa that is perched dramatically on historic beachfront property within walking distance to most attractions. The rooms are large and spacious, offering private views of the water so you may be able to spot a sea lion during right from your bedroom! Make sure to book a treatment at the rooftop spa, which offers great views of the Pacific Ocean. Soak in a bath infused with organically grown hemp-derived CBD and a special blend of lavender, bergamot and ho wood. Also, you can relax in the outdoor rooftop hot tub. 

For dinner, head downstairs to one of the restaurants on the property. Coastal Kitchen is one of the only restaurants in Monterey Peninsula that offers a seasonal chef tasting and wine paired menu curated by Executive Chef Michael Rotondo (named “Most Promising Chef” at Bocuse D’or by Daniel Boulud & Thomas Keller). 98% of the ingredients come from within a 100-mile radius so you will definitely taste the best of what California has to offer. 

In the morning, drive out to Alta Bakery & Café in Monterey for fresh baked pastries and coffee. Housed in the historic Cooper-Molera Adobe, Alta uses locally grown, seasonal ingredients to create some unique flavors of sandwiches, pavlova and more. My personal favorite was the passion fruit doughnut. 

17 mile drive

Pebble Beach

After breakfast, take a short drive to the world-famous Pebble Beach community where you will see multi-million dollar homes perched along the shoreline. Purchase a pass at the gate to enter or make a reservations at the hotel, spa, restaurant or golf center to get your name in the guest book.

Book a lunch at Stillwater Cove, the main formal dining room at Pebble Beach. The restaurant features fresh and flavorful sustainable seafood and stunning views of the golf course and the ocean. 

relax at the spa

Get a massage at the Spa at Pebble Beach. It is one of only 90 spas in the world to receive the coveted Forbes Five-Star Award. I recommend splurging on a two-hour Royal Treatment. It’s a unique massage treatment that incorporates head-to-toe relaxation with honey, ginger and a royal jelly facial mask. After the royal treatment of the back with pure honey, a beeswax sheet is applied to support the healing process. That is followed by a therapeutic massage, foot scrub and rub. You will be so relaxed and your skin will feel like new! 

road trip in Pebble Beach

17-Mile Drive 

Even if you are not planning to use the facilities at Pebble Beach, you can drive on one of the most scenic drives on the Monterey Peninsula of California. 17-Mile Drive is a visually stunning stretch of roadway which hugs the pacific coastline from Pacific Grove to Pebble Beach. Stop at scenic lookout points at The Lone Cypress, Spanish Bay, Stillwater Cove, the Del Monte Forest, and barking sea lions near Bird Rock. 

Carmel-By-The-Sea

Continue your drive along California’s Central coast to the charming European town, Carmel-by-the-Sea. Carmel is not like your typical beach town. Though there is an expansive white sand beach for swimming, surfing and walking, there’s a lot more to do here. You will find a one-square mile walkable downtown filled with interesting architecture, boutiques, art galleries, restaurants and wine tasting rooms. From fairytale German cottages to Spanish style villas, the architecture in Carmel is quite instagrammable!

Take a stroll down Ocean Avenue and pop into one of the 100 art galleries lining the streets. Take a self guided Wine Walk to 13 tasting rooms and learn about the local boutique wine makers. My personal favorites are – Dawn’s Dream, who supports local nonprofit organizations, and Lepe Cellars, the only wine tasting room inside a gallery.

A great way to learn about the rich history, celebrity presence of this town is by taking a Carmel History Walk. The guided tour will show you 41 passageways and courtyards (that most tourists miss on their own) around downtown Your guide will also point out the best galleries and restaurants that you don’t want to miss.

If you want a fresh and hearty California style breakfast, head to Stationary. They also serve eggs and caviar for your four-legged companions. Have lunch at Little Napoli, one of the most iconic locally-owned Italian restaurants (where even President Obama dined). And for dinner, book a table at the hottest new restaurant in California – Foray. The menu highlights wild products and foraged ingredients from the West Coast, such as chanterelles, clams and truffles. Each dish is very unique and flavorful. This will be a meal to remember!

Cocktails at Bud’s at La Playa is a must! Not only does the hotel bar offer a cozy Bohemian environment, they also sell drink for $0.10! If you are lucky enough to be there on “Dime Time,” you can get a cocktail for only 10-cents. “Dime Time” occurs once a day at the bartender’s discretion and only lasts for ten minutes. You must pay with exact change, so remember to keep dimes handy.

Big Sur

Further south on Highway 1, drive over the famous Bixby Bridge. The bridge is located 13 miles (21 km) south of Carmel. It is considered to be the most photographed features in California. There is a car park area next to the bridge where you can get out and take photos from.

Bixby bridge

You will pass through beautiful forests and beaches as you continue your drive to Big Sur. Here you can spend another full day hiking along many of the trails, surfing and beachcombing at Pfeiffer Beach, camping in the state parks, or simply soaking in the energy of the old redwood forests.

From here you have an option to continue your road trip further south towards Los Angeles. Unfortunately, Highway 1 was closed when I was visiting due to landslides and road erosion.

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Published by

Sucheta Rawal

Sucheta is an award winning food and travel writer, who has traveled to 100 countries across 7 continents. She is also the founder and editor of 'Go Eat Give' and author of 'Beato Goes To' series of children's books on travel.