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California Road Trip Guide

Hi, I’m Walker, Kristy’s niece. I’m so excited to be contributing to the blog and sharing my beautiful state with all of you. I am a fifth generation Californian born in San Francisco, brought up in Sonoma, went to junior college in San Luis Obispo and currently live in San Diego. I’m a California girl through and through. My fiancé is from Hawaii and I was so excited to share some of the beauty of my state with him on this trip down the coast. This is our guide of Highway 1.

In this guide I’ve packed a ton of information so you can pick and choose where to stay, where to stop and where to skip based on how many days you have and what interests you. It’s also dog friendly and I tried to find options for those of you with kids :) If you’d like more details or want to share one of your must see stops feel free to leave a comment below.

Let’s hit the road…

San Diego

Where to stay: We live in Gaslamp, the downtown district full of bars and restaurants, pedi cabs, and the Padres Stadium. I would suggest either staying here or Old Town if you’re road tripping down the coast. We have great beach areas too but there will be tons of awesome beach towns on this map and these areas are unique to San Diego. For downtown, Hotel Solamar is a central and budget friendly hotel thats a great choice for a younger crowd (might be a bit too lively for families). For a more upscale, but still really fun place to stay go to the Pendry, this is my favorite hotel in San Diego but it can be a little pricey.

For lunch I recommend Puesto, it’s quintessential San Diego food, artisan Mexican. For dinner head to little Italy (but make reservations a few days in advance because it is ALWAYS busy) also parking is awful, Uber is the way to go. Check out Nolita Hall or fun bar vibes plus great food, Barbusa for sit down and Bencotto for a more authentic experience. Save room for dessert at Extraordinary Desserts they have amazing cakes and pastries or Salt & Straw for a unique ice cream cone.

Puesto and the Headquarters, Seaport Village

I also love Old Town, I haven’t stayed over myself because I live so close but I go there all the time and love the atmosphere. There are so many great Mexican food spots making fresh tortillas and amazing margaritas. You can’t really go wrong when picking a restaurant but I love Cafe Coyote & Harney Sushi. I would suggest staying in San Diego for the night then heading out early for LA :)

I love sharing my favorite San Diego spots. I worked at hotels here for 5 years in events and as a concierge so I know where to send you! If you have specific questions ask away- I’d love to help :)

Laguna Beach

If you’ve seen the show, you know Laguna Beach is a breathtaking piece of coastline, though Lauren Conrad doesn’t live here anymore so many celebrities have homes here or head to the resorts for an escape from LA.

Bryan and I love Laguna Beach, I worked for Montage for years and this was our favorite place to visit with my employee discount. The views along the coast are phenomenal. Treasure Island beach is Bryan’s favorite beach in California because the sand is corse like Hawaii and there are rock arches and tide pools to explore. Treasure Island park is beautifully maintained by the resort and a great place to stretch your legs after a few hours in the car and it’s right off the Pacific Coast Highway.

Treasure Island beach view- best off Highway 1
California Road Trip Guide Highway 1 Treasure Island Beach Laguna

Los Angeles

If you’re not familiar with LA, the main thing to know is that it is HUGE. There are secret pockets of greatness all over the place, but I suggest picking an area ( i.e. Santa Monica) and exploring that area only. The traffic is just as bad as everyone says, the freeways are so confusing, and everyone drives with a lead foot. Avoiding the car in LA is the secret to the best possible experience in my book.

A couple cool spots to explore include Abbot Kinney Boulevard (great shopping) & Little Osaka awesome Japanese food – Tsujita‘s Tsukemen is worth the wait. Those two places are close enough together to hit in one day :) We stayed at a friends house in Santa Monica I suggest finding a hotel out there and walking around the pier to round out the day!

Our lunch from the Butcher’s Daughter, a vegetarian restaurant on Abbot Kinney Blvd

Malibu

We headed out of Santa Monica pretty early and stopped for breakfast in Malibu. Malibu Farms is at the end of the pier and had great views of the surfers, hydrofoil surfers, and paddle boarders. It’s the perfect stop because it’s just off the PCH. (Pacific Coast Highway or PCH is another name for Highway 1 that only southern California people say)

Boo considering stealing a soccer ball
Malibu Farms Restaurant
Breakfast at Malibu Farms

San Luis Obispo

I would have loved to stay the nigh in this area, I went to junior college in SLO and had so much fun! Cal Poly is an incredible school and the two colleges being in such a small agriculture town makes for a fun, young, safe place to live and visit.

Here’s what I would do If we had stayed the night:

I would have headed to Avila beach or Pirates cove to explore the caves (word of caution: don’t go to the beach at Pirates cove only the caves, consider yourself warned)

Next I would go to the main drag, Higuera street. It’s full of shops and restaurants and hosts a farmer’s market every Thursday that brings the whole town together. I’d walk through the (very gross) bubblegum alley. I only know about the casual eateries (because who goes out to fancy dinners in college) but my favorite is a tri-tip sandwich from Firestone Grill. Don’t worry it’s casual enough to hit right after the beach.

Then I’d drive to Paso Robles, where we would stay the night. Paso Robles is an up and coming wine region in San Luis Obispo County. I’d do some wine tasting in that area and check out the Bruce Munro: Light At Sensorio exhibit.

Exploring pirates cove caves circa 2012

Unfortunately, we had to trim this day out of our plan because of time constrains. If you end up doing the same, at least stop at High Street Deli for a sandwich and eat it at the first beach in Big Sur like we did :)

Great lunch spot in SLO
Took our lunch to Sand Dollar beach
This beach is great for showing off your rock skipping skills

Big Sur

Next stop, Big Sur! Neither Bryan nor I had ever stayed in Big Sur so this one required some research. Here is what I found…

  • Big Sur Campground and Cabins looks like the cutest place if you have kids! The river runs through it and you can rent rafts. Because of all of the kids amenities I imagine this place would attract mostly families and it says online that it takes the 10pm curfew very seriously. I’ll keep this place in my back-pocket for when I have little niños, but for now the search charges on…
  • Pfeiffer State Beach Campground also has river access and is central to the Big Sur’s main attractions, it is only $35 per night so reservations go fast, like 6 months in advance fast. It seems like a great place to stay but I wasn’t thinking about it last Christmas… mark your calendar now friends :)
  • I ultimately booked Ventana Campground! It’s in a redwood grove with a creek running through. It has luxury bathrooms and it’s attached to a resort so the grounds were well kept. The grounds are near Pfeiffer beach, The Post Ranch Inn, and the few small shops and restaurants Big Sur has to offer. The sites are $80 per night flat, that’s fairly standard for privately owned campgrounds in the area.
  • Ventana also offers a glamping experience that is super instagram worthy. The sites are $250 a night right now because, due to covid, you do not get access to the resort. You do have to pay for showers and firewood like any other campsite. If I didn’t have a great tent, air mattress, and other camping gear already, this glamping option would have appealed to us a lot more! Super cute idea just not for this trip…

I looked into hotels as well, the price ranges are allll over the place but my piece of advise would be to check the map before booking. Some hotels are technically in Big Sur but they are closer to Monterey and not near Pfeiffer beach or the Bixby Bridge. This area is rural, if you want to be close to restaurants make sure to look near Loma Vista.

Any avid campers knows the most critical part of camping is whether or not there are bugs that swarm your site and I can honestly say I did not see a single bug. For this reason alone Ventana gets 10/10. Night one we hiked around the campground and found a secret garden so the grounds are boosted to a whopping 11/10. We will be returning!

Day 2 was a beach day a Pfeiffer Beach. The Big Sur Deli and Bakery are right before the entrance if you want to bring a snack (there is also a super cute shop in that same Loma Vista gardens area you should pop into.) The road to the beach is narrow and windy and once the parking lot is full it’s one car in, one car out of the park, so come early! We had to wait about 10 minuets until a few people left, its $12 per car so bring cash.

Loma Vista Gardens
Pfeiffer Beach Highway 1 Roadtrip

Food- We actually didn’t bring food with us to the campsite because we wanted to eat at the restaurants in the area so here is our review of the spots we tried!

We scored a great seat at Nepenthe, the trick is just go for a drink, you order at the bar and there is a private seating area high above the ocean with the best view in the house. The roads around here require your full attention so I wouldn’t have more than one.

Big Sur Road Trip California Road Trip Guide Highway 1

We also tried the Big Sur Tap house, I wasn’t expecting too much because it seemed like the bar was the focus of the place but I was pleasantly surprised when this gigantic plate of nachos came out.

Day 3 we jumped in the car and started our journey up north. We stopped and explored the walking paths at the Big Sur Lodge and walked around in the river. The scene was super picturesque and the only chance we had to see the river but both of our phones were dead so you will have to go and see for yourself :) They don’t allow dogs on the trails so after 30 minuets we hit the road again.

Had to stop for a pic at Bixby Bridge

We also stopped at Garrapata beach just off the 1 and were not disappointed

California Road Trip Guide Highway 1 Treasure Island Beach Laguna
The color of the water is spectacular
California Road Trip Guide Highway 1 Treasure Island Beach Laguna

Carmel-by-the-Sea

Next stop, Carmel-by-the-sea, a whimsical little beach town where the cottages have names instead of addresses and dogs run free on the beach.

This town is (one of the many places) where California’s old money resides. The main stretch of beach is flanked by Pebble Beach Golf course and a Frank Lloyd Wright house that juts out into the sea.

We drove straight to Sonoma from here but if you plan on staying in the city, visit the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, it’s a small state park that takes about 3 hours to hike all the way around with stunning views of cliffs and the cypress trees that cling to them.

Carmel also has a beautiful mission. These Spanish missions dot the California coast and are a key part of the state history. The one in Carmel, Carmel Mission Basilica, is where my grandparents were married. If you’ve never been to one you ought to stop by!

San Francisco

I’ve always loved San Francisco, as soon as my friends were able to drive in high school we would go on day trips to the city exploring the different districts and getting out of sleepy Sonoma.

Last time we stayed downtown in Union Square at the Kimpton Sir Francis Drake (dog friendly) and did the tourist thing, went to the Tonga Room, walked around China Town, went to Brenda’s French Soul Food for Breakfast and explored Hayes Street for shopping. Side note: I love doing touristy things and have no shame, clam chowder in a Boudin bread bowl is a must, don’t @ me.

Chinatown San Francisco
“Go stand by that cute lampost” – me probably

2 quick tips: There is a famous Mark Twain quote “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco,” turns out he never said that but bring a jacket. Also, San Francisco is not a particularly dog friendly city but the parklets make it easier to bring them along- prepare to eat outside if you bring your pup. If they don’t have outdoor seating don’t bring them.

This time Emma took us to some of her favorite places around the city- First stop the Dumpling House.

Much wow

Next, we drove over to the mission district and shopped around the boutiques and book stores.

California Road Trip Guide Highway 1 Treasure Island Beach Laguna

We enjoyed a cone from Bi-Rite Creamery at Dolores Park.

Bryan is cute, but the real star here is the man sunbathing when it’s 60 degrees

We are all foodie people and San Francisco is a melting pot of cultures, it’s known for amazing authentic food from every corner of the world. For dinner we had Burmese at Burma Superstar, it was mine and Bryan’s first time trying Burmese and we loved it!

California Road Trip Guide Highway 1 Treasure Island Beach Laguna

For more about San Francisco check out of SF Travel Guide.

Sonoma

Our final stop is my home town of Sonoma! Think Napa’s cute quaint neighbor (We say Sonoma makes wine, Napa makes autoparts ;) all in good fun.) Here are a few tips from a local.

Tuesday Night Market is the place to be in the summer time. Sonoma Plaza is one of the only public parks to allow open containers in the state making it the perfect dinner picnic spot. Pick up a bottle of wine from Whole foods, buy a personal pizza from Mike the Baker at the market, afterwards stop by sweet scoops for ‘Watmaugh Road’ strawberry Ice cream for the perfect end to a summer night in wine country.

Just a pic of my BFF being cute while picnicing at the Plaza

Food I get while I’m home:

Mexcian- $- Tortilleria Jalisco- don’t let her appearance sway you & know that the hot sauce is extremely hot.

Pizza- $$- Red Grape- Just off the plaza, this little gem has terrific thin crust wood fired pizzas and yummy salads. They have an open kitchen so you can see all the pizza action and a little terrace area out back thats perfect for a lunch date.

Groceries- $$- Sonoma Market- Great place to pick up picnic supplies/ snacks for your room. I make a point to buy Meyer Lemon Della Fattoria Bread here while I’m home (pairs well with Humbolt Fog- my absolute favorite cheese.) The salsas, smoothies, ready made food and paninis are all awesome. Sonoma can get expensive so it’s good to have some quick snacks to fall back on so you don’t spend too much dining out.

Special Occasion- $$$- Salt & Stone- My mom and I took my dad here for father’s day. The food is excellent. It’s a great place to go if you’re celebrating.

Muir Woods Redwood Forest

Bryan and I planned on visiting Muir Woods Redwood Forest originally, and though we didn’t make it I still want to share with you so you go! California is home to the largest trees on earth, Redwoods and Sequoias. They are so big you can drive a car through their base (see exhibit A below), they can be taller than the statue of Liberty, and they are over 2,000 years old. Growing up my mom and I would visit nearby National Parks to see these giants every summer, so they hold a special place in my heart.

Muir woods is about 40 minuets north of San Francisco and an excellent reprieve from the city. The park is very well maintained, most trails are wide flat paths, some are even wheelchair accessible. They are also relatively short and flat, so it’s a great place for kids and non-hikers.

Also note, you need to make parking reservations in advance and the park costs $15 per adult, National Park Annual Passes are available and pay for themselves pretty quickly. If you’re coming to California and are interested in the slightest I promise you will not be disappointed, there is a reason they call us tree huggers.

California Road Trip Guide Highway 1
Huggable right?!?

If you’re not near Muir Woods don’t worry, you can find these giant Sequoias and Redwoods all over the state. Try Sequoia National Park, Humboldt Redwoods State Park, or Big Basin Redwoods State Park

That’s a wrap

I hope this helps one of you with your trip plans or inspires you to drive Highway 1! We had a blast and would love to know what you think. Where would you stop? Where would you skip? Any details I left out? How about local secrets? Let us know in the comments.

Until next time,

Walk

For more travel guides click here.

Thoughts?

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17 thoughts on “California Road Trip Guide

  1. Thank you Walker for your jam packed info of a “must do” on anyone’s bucket listen drive the Pacific Coast! I did it with my husband and it truly was amazing but wish I had your info as we did it s as little different. A must see for me on the way way was a side venture to visit the Hearst Castle. Also, “loved” Carmel by the Sea! Not to be missed! And, to stop along the way at roadsides to see the sea lions basking on the sandy strips.
    Great job! Loved your info!!

  2. Thank you so much Walker, that was a wonderful piece! Such beautiful pictures and descriptions! I felt like I was there exploring too! Never been to California, it def is on my bucket list!

  3. This is fabulous. You picked some of my fav places when I visit CA and included may I want to hit next trip. I’ll give Cambria a shout out, Moon Beach was very cool. Love all the details you added. I plan to share this all w my traveling friends and family. Great job!

  4. The CA coast is always a great trip! I love the details and highlights you provide in your guide. I have been to many of the spots you mention but enjoyed the tips you included. I am sure you had a great time. Thanks for the wonderful post; I will use it the next time I go!

  5. Love this post with great pictures. California is spectacular. We are from PA and will be in Carpiteria for 8 days and then head to San Diego for 4 days in August. You helped us decide where to stay in SanDiego. Since we are only in San Diego to tour for three days – do you recommend the Zoo or safari? If there is anything we need to see in addition to what you indicate in the post, please let me know. We only have three full days in your neck of the woods so we’d love to plan carefully. And we are more likely a little older than your parents age. We are full of energy and appreciation for the beauty that surrounds you in SanDiego area. Huge thanks in advance for the great recommendations.

    1. Hi Jackie!
      So happy to help:) The zoo here is incredible there is so much to see. To be honest I haven’t been to the Safari Park but I’ve heard great things. Here are the key differences- The Safari Park is in north county, depending where you stay it could be 45 minutes away from you, whereas the zoo is in Balboa Park (very central.) If you have a zoo in your area and want to do something different The Safari Park is unique. The general admission ticket comes with a 25 minute guided Safari tour, you can walk around the park after but because of the size of the enclosures its going to be a lot more walking between exhibits. You can purchase more safari trips starting at $55 + per person on top of you admission ticket. The zoo is much more walkable, you can peek into all the exhibits from the walking path. They also have a lot more animals and a bigger variety. So it depends what sounds more fun to you two! Either way wear comfortable shoes and bring sunscreen:)

      1. More favorites:
        Sunset cliffs is an incredible place to watch the sun set there are even caves to explore if you go down to the beach area.
        I personally think the best beach in San Diego is in Coronado, the long stretch of beach is gorgeous and the Hotel Del is a fun place to check out while you’re walking along.
        Balboa Park is beautiful and full of great museums and gardens. If you go on a Sunday listen for the Organ Concert around 2pm.

        If you have any other questions feel free to ask, otherwise enjoy your trip!

  6. You are a great member of the team! I really enjoyed your style and I relate so much because I also love camping!

  7. This was AMAZING!! Thank you for taking us all on your getaway!! I felt I was there. I always wondered how people can travel with their doggies. Did you dine outside with your dog at these restaurants? And did your dog come with you inside the shops or did you take turns shopping and dog sitting outside? This was great!!! BEAUTIFUL pics!! I would LOVE to see a blog post on tips how to get away or travel with a dog. ♥️♥️♥️♥️

    1. Hi Josey!

      Thank you so much for you kind words :) San Diego is super dog friendly, anywhere that has outdoor dining allows dogs and every hotel and business puts a water bowl outside, it’s crazy how dog happy we are. Because of that Boo comes everywhere with us and she’s used to lot of people and changing environments. I’m not a dog expert but I know mine, I’m confident if a baby came over to Boo and poked her right in the eye Boo would be completely unfazed. If it was at all stressful for her or me I would skip it. I know she likes going out with us (because she always pulls me into restaurants she’s been to) and I like bringing her and I trust she will behave no matter what happens. That’s the most important thing for us!

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