Driving down scenic California Coast Highway 1, aka the the Pacific Coast Highway is an exhilarating experience! This is a look at our Driving Itinerary of California Coast Highway 1 from San Francisco to Big Sur and Cambria, CA.
My husband and I drove from San Diego to San Francisco during our ‘babymoon’ trip 11 years ago. I’ve always wanted to take our kids so they could experience it and this year was the perfect year for my kids, ages 8 and 10. I remembered the breathtaking views and had my fingers crossed that this would be the ultimate road trip for my kids – and hoped they wouldn’t get bored being in the car so long…to my delight, they enjoyed it more than I could have imagined.
We started our California Coast Highway 1 adventure in San Francisco where we had a great time exploring the city by the bay. Not far out of the city, we started enjoying breathtaking views that can only be found on the West Coast. We enjoyed comparing and contrasting the Pacific Ocean and Atlantic Ocean, as we’ve taken many beach vacations on the East Coast including South Carolina, North Carolina, Massachusetts, and Virginia.
Exploring CA Coastal Beaches
It didn’t take long for us to stop alongside Highway 1 to climb down the sandy bank to the ocean.
Discover CA Nature and Plantlife
It was like we discovered our own little beach as we were the only ones there. It was the perfect time to explore the CA Coast with all it’s treasures and to take fantastic pictures! My son has become an avid gardener of succulents and cacti. He was in Heaven when we found this field of succulents including Coastal Hottentot Fig Ice Succulents, California Sage Scrub, Dudleyas, Abronia Maritima, and Sand Verbena alongside California Coast Highway 1! Many of the plants that he has at home grow wild in California. It was quite amazing!
We found many state parks along California Coast Highway 1. Generally, they offering the same view and experience as other stops along the way, but charge a minimum of $10 to park – plus, you are with a lot of other people. We preferred to stop alongside the highway and venture down to the beach on our own. Just be cautious to ensure it is a safe pathway and nothing treacherous or marked “No Trespassing” or anything like that.
Roadside Fruit Stands
If you see a fruit stand along the way, STOP. We had the best, most amazing fruit ever along California Coast Highway 1. The apricots and cherries were out of this world. We have never tasted anything as amazing as the fruit at the roadside stand below. The prices were amazing too – about 1/4th the price as in Ohio. We ate so much fruit on our road trip! Nobody will reach for chips if you have fresh CA fruit! Trust me!
Point Lobos State Reserve
About 3 hours from San Francisco is Point Lobos State Reserve in Carmel, CA. It is a must-see as they have fantastic hiking paths along the coast with opportunities to explore tide pools, sea life, wild life, and many, sea otters, seals and many sea lions! You might even see the migrating gray whales (December – May).
You’ll know you are at the reserve when you see a bunch of cars parked alongside both sides of Highway 1. You can park inside too for $10. If you are short on time or don’t want to hike to the coast, pay the $10. You can drive all the way to the coast and save yourself at least 1 hour. We parked along the road, saved $10, and had a nice hike.
We had a blast walking along the rocky and sandy landscape, discovering tide pools and taking in the beauty of this reserve. My kids found crabs, jelly fish, and other unknown creatures in the tide pools. Next time, we’ll plan to stay longer because you could literally spend the day at Point Lobos State Reserve.
You can hear the sea lions from far away on the path, they are quite loud! Although there were many on the islands down below, they were still far away and couldn’t be seen too well. You can hear them in my video – but I ran out of battery on my camera so I didn’t get a good shot to post.
Point Lobos State Reserve
Route 1 Box 62
Carmel, CA 93923
Take Pictures along California Coast Highway 1
The pictures you take along California Coast Highway 1 will never capture the utter beautiful and amazement you feel while you experience the drive, but take plenty anyway! The view is so varied, so gorgeous, and so vast that there is no way you can capture it all. Bring a selfie stick or just ask someone to take a family photo – when are you going to get such an amazing shot anywhere else?!
We actually saw a whale while driving. We stopped at the first pull off available and I snapped a picture. Of course nobody else can actually see the whale in the picture, but that moment will be forever in our memories. How cool is it to see a whale swimming in the ocean while driving?! My kids were ecstatic!
All I can suggest is not to rush on your drive on California Coast Highway 1. There is so much to see and explore. Take time to really take it all in. We had fun spotting sea otters on many of our stops as well as sea lions and seals on other stops.
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is a great way to see the Giant Redwoods in California without going inland and far up north. It is only about 40 minutes away from Point Lobos State Reserve. It cost about $10 to enter per car and it totally worth it. There are many trails through the woods and meadow to explore the Giant Redwoods as well as conifers, oaks, sycamores, cottonwoods, maples, alders and willows. My kids were amazed at seeing the Giant Redwoods, the world’s tallest trees. Giant Redwoods soar over 200 feet tall, it’s like seeing a 30 story skyscraper in the middle of the forest! They aren’t the record breaking 300 feet tall redwoods that you can find up north, but the perfect way to experience redwoods on your California Highway 1 road trip.
You can also camp or stay in the 61 guest room lodge overnight.
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
Big Sur Station #1
47555 Highway 1
Big Sur, CA 93920
Piedras Blancas Rookery Elephant Seal Habitat
About 1 hour 45 minutes (without stops) you will arrive at an Elephant Seal Habitat in San Simeon, CA. This was another amazing experience to be able to see such massive mammals right on the beach! Piedras Blancas Rookery is home hundreds of elephant seals.
There is plenty of parking and FREE admission. May is the busiest time with up to 5,000 on the beach, many of which are females and juveniles. While we were there (June – August) you’ll find hundreds of sub-adult and adult males molting. They are enormous and showing off their dominance with duels.
Piedras Blancas Rookery
250 San Simeon Ave
San Simeon, CA 93452
More to See Along California Coast Highway 1
The above trip from San Francisco through Big Sur and into Cambria, CA was done in just 1 day. We saw and experienced so much! We could have easily spent twice the time but our West Coast Trip is taking us from San Francisco to Arizona to Nevada, so we spent our time wisely to experience it all in just 10 days.
If you have more time, spend 2-3 days on this California Coast Highway 1 trip. Add places like the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and experience the world’s best seaside amusement park and time on the beach.
If you have time, stop by Monterey Bay Aquarium where you’ll find exhibits that far surpass any other aquarium or zoo I’ve ever visited. My husband and I went years ago and it was fantastic! You’ll find all sorts of sea life including jellyfish, cuttlefish, squids, octopuses, otters, penguins, sea turtles, sharks, and more. Check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium Live Web Cams!
Stay in Cambria, CA
We arrived in Cambria, CA late after a full day of travel along California Coast Highway 1. Cambria, CA is charming, slower paced, and a wonderful place to stay is Sand Pebbles Inn, located right on the coast.
This quaint yet luxurious inn felt like home from the moment we arrived and throughout our stay. Read our full review.
Our Driving Itinerary of California Coast Highway 1 from San Francisco to Big Sur was perfect for my nature-loving family. There was never a time when my kids asked, “Are we there yet?” and they weren’t glued to video games or electronics. They were fully engaged in the Highway 1 experience. The excitement continued in Cambria, then onto Arizona and Nevada in the days after.
Discover all of our West Coast Travels.