Did someone say road trip!? Aside from wine, this is quite possibly my favorite word.
The idea of a road trip anticipates adventure, solid tunes and sing-a-longs, beautiful scenery, severely unhealthy truck stop food, a wrong turn or 7 and that one thing we all crave; the excitement of the unknown.
If there is one road trip you ever take in your life, it must be down Highway one in California, an absolute bucket list item with SO many seaside towns and beautiful stops along the way. We have curated a list of some must see stops below and noted some prep tips for visiting this gorgeous slice of Mother Nature. We hope you find it helpful if you are planning a roadie here anytime soon – or maybe we can inspire you to visit.
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So without further ado, here is your ULTIMATE guide to a road trip down highway one.
Grab a bevvy & let’s do this…
Tips For Heading Out (The road trip essentials)
The first thing you will need to do in preparation for a road trip of course is to organize your veh-hicle. If you are lucky enough to live in California or the surrounding states or Nan’s lending you her ride, you’re sweet and can move on to the next step. If you are like us and traveled from Aus or anywhere else in our lovely world, you will need a hire car. Hand on heart I cannot recommend booking through Discover Car Hire enough – cheap rates, awesome service, CLEAR rental conditions (which can be hard to come by) & the option to really cliché this baby and hire a snazzy convertible like this one (disclaimer – head scarf and oversized sunnies not included)
It goes without saying, but imma say it anyway – if you cannot afford insurance with your hire car, don’t hire a car – SO important. Depending on the option you have selected for your rental, you may have complimentary insurances, so check this out to ensure it’s enough coverage and if not, shop around for sufficient cover. Please don’t assume that just because you have rented with the company, their insurance will be the cheapest – often it can be a lot more expensive, especially if you wait until the day of pick-up and organize it at the counter – this happened to us and our insurance ended up being more than the rental – learn from our mistake and please don’t let this happen to you. A great website we have recently discovered and booked with for our upcoming trip is; rentalcover.com – they explain the insurances you need clearly and are advocates for saving you money, allowing you to break up the covers so you aren’t doubling up & ensure you only purchase cover you may be missing – e.g – because we already had TP (third party liability insurance protection) & CDW (collision damage waiver) in our rental agreement all we needed was a ‘top up’ policy which includes coverage that most car rental companies will never include and tend to use as loopholes, such as; free roadside assistance inclusive of call-out fees, storage impound fees, towing fees, loss of hired items such as GPS fees, key loss and replacement fees, “drop off” fees that are charged by rental companies to relocate vehicles to their intended destination – the list goes on. It was only $36 AUD for 3 days – SO worth it. (Additional tip – your credit card provider may provide complimentary travel insurance or have an affiliate who does, always check this first.)
Planning your Route
Perhaps nearly as fun as the actual trip it-self, planning where you want to go & what you want to see is such an exciting time. It can often help to have a visual – google maps is great to use for this and also rome2rio to determine time frames between cities, the miles/kms you will be driving and the best towns to stop in. Everybody travels differently but our best advice is to take your time road tripping highway one – allow enough time to see attractions – without rushing, stop for food, fuel, bathroom breaks and photo ops (trust me, you will want to pull over for a photo every 5 minutes.) The classic Highway one road trip is quite typically taken from L.A > San Francisco. We actually did this in reverse and started in San Fran which was a really beautiful option as you are driving up the side of the highway closest to the coast with completely unobstructed views.
Buy your snacks in bulk, on the road- As you leave San Fran (or L.A) and start hitting the open road, you’ll notice there will be food markets and small grocery stores along the way. We recommend due to the expense of the city, to wait until you come across one of these to fill up your bags with snacks, $2 sunnies & brekkie supplies to save money on the road.
Use Air Bnb/Hotel Tonight – if you haven’t got these apps on your phone, we definitely suggest downloading them prior to your road trip. If you like to be super organised it is absolutely okay to book your accommodation in advance but to give yourself as much flexibility as possible and allow for any delays, we recommend booking your accommodation on the road. Air bnb is a really affordable way of booking to stay with a local in their hometown (the cherry on top of a memorable road trip) and Hotel Tonight provides insane last minute deals around you, based on a location search. They partner with hotels to provide unsold rooms of the day at really affordable prices.
Bring a Thermos and re-usable water bottle – It goes without saying, the impacts of carrying a reusable water bottle are not only great for your wallet but also for the environment. The less single-use plastic we use whilst traveling, the better. Another way to save some dollars on the road is to BYO Coffee Thermos or Tea Totty and fill it up at your hotel or air bnb before you leave of a morning, not only will having an entire thermos full of cuppas for throughout the day to keep you sufficiently caffeinated (especially if you are driving) but depending on your regular coffee or tea intake, this can save you between $5-$15 a day per person.
Towns to stop in & Attractions that cannot be missed along the way
This ultra laid back beach side town is one you will not want to miss. The home of the famous 40 year old Skateboard brand and the ultimate town for watching kite-surfing and regular surfing – we could have sat for hours watching the local talents.
On your way in to Santa Cruz, if time permits, be sure to stop at the Redwoods State park and head down to Natural Bridges State park for phenomenal rock formations.
The Santa Cruz Wharf is definitely worth a visit. It can be pretty touristy over the weekend, so if you can – try and time it so that you are visiting through the week. The vintage carnival rides are so much fun, we spoke to a local who had been coming for over 50 years and said that it hadn’t changed a bit. The wharf is also known for hosting big screen movie nights on the beach – a perfect vibe for the old fashioned attraction. We were here on a Wednesday and they just so happened to be playing Grease – need I say more?
These lovely towns sitting side by side on the Californian coast are known for beautiful beaches such as Pebble beach & amazing whale watching (if you are here at the right time of year). It is where a lot of people choose to stay for their first night on the road & definitely a fine choice. One of the things we loved most about this area of the coast were the stunning bed & breakfast cottages.
Carmel beach (located in Carmel cove) is where you will find a lot of locals hanging out – here you can light bonfires on the sand dunes & roast marshmallows all night long. The town of Carmel-by-the-sea is located just east of the beach and an easy walk to grab a meal and explore.
Bixby Bridge is a really funky and historic attraction as you head in to the area but a little disclaimer here – always check your signage guys. We spent a good 10 minutes here celebrating the fact we had finally come across the classic monument – taking in the views and appreciating how lucky we were to have it all to ourselves, only to drive quite literally 2 minutes down the road to meet an abundance of tourists snapping photos of a very similar but much larger version of the bridge we had just been hanging out at – FAIL. Turns out this little number is actually ‘Rocky Creek Bridge’ but we think it’s pretty amazing & those Pacific Ocean views are unbeatable.
Rocky Creek Bridge – Built in 1932
Anddd will the real Bixby Bridge please stand up?!
The moment you have all been waiting for, ladies and Gentlemen.. BIG SUR. This 140km/90 Mile rugged stretch of windy highway really is as breathtaking as people suggest and is known for its dramatic scenery surrounded by redwood forests and amazing views of the ocean from the seaside cliffs. Due to the altitude, there will often be a thick layer of fog through the mountains- if mystical vibes is what you are after, Big Sur will certainly deliver.
Unfortunately, we visited not long after there was a mudslide in the area, taking out Pfeiffer bridge and making it impossible to reach Mc Way Falls, Pfeiffer Beach or the classic Nepenthe Restaurant (locals were having supplies airlifted in at this stage) but we are mentioning them here because although we haven’t yet had the opportunity to experience them for ourselves, we spoke to so many locals along the way and the attractions mentioned above were the ones that stood out the most, plus we did a lot of research around the classic stops prior to being informed of the mudslide.
A dreamy purple sand beach due to the erosion of manganese garnet and a simply beautiful photo op. There is a $10USD parking fee but you are able to park for as long as you want to – a perfect spot for a picnic!
Photo Credit; James Donovan, Unsplash
15 minutes south of Pfeiffer Beach, you will find this gorgeous restaurant – located on the edge of a cliff, it takes a meal with a view to a new level.
Mc Way Falls
Located in Julia Pfeiffer Burns state park and perhaps the most iconic spot for the entire Highway one drive. This gorgeous 24m high waterfall is only one of two in California that enters the ocean and looks magnificent to watch. The waterfall flows from Mc Way Creek onto the pristine Mc way beach. The beach it-self isn’t accessible by visitors to protect the natural beauty of the cove, but the viewpoint can be accessed by walking a short trail off the highway.
Photo Credit; Raymond Lee, Unsplash
As you leave Ragged point (the last spot along the cliff-face & with EPIC views) you will venture into the Cambria area. On your way in be sure to stop at Hearst Castle, this little gem is located right smack bang in the middle of SF & LA and is an absolute must see if you are into funky historic architecture. A tour needs to be pre-booked and costs $25pp – it is worth every penny! You will start your tour much like any other – wrist bands & prep video included and jump on a bus to head to the castle which is located 1,600 feet above sea level, the views of the pacific are unbelievable! Dating back to 1865, the castle was home to George Hearst and was originally utilized as a ranch. Every single room of the castle has its own story to tell – our favorite was The assembly room which was second in line to be used as the great hall for the Harry Potter films – visit and you will definitely see why.
Upon entering Cambria, take a step back in time at antique stores such as ‘Granny had one’ and grab brunch at one of the many delicious local bakeries.
Perhaps the most quaint little town we have ever stepped foot in, narrow beach streets, funky surf shops & the friendliest people in California!
Aka palm tree city. This Mediterranean inspired seaside town is absolutely STUNNING. I don’t know if it was just coincidence or the overwhelm of anticipation to get to Santa Monica, but we stopped at yet another pier and it was so much fun to hang out at. This little number is located right in the middle of Santa Barbara and known as Stearns wharf. With the Santa Ynez Mountains as your backdrop, beautiful dessert eateries & local fisherman to hang out with – it is the perfect way to spend an afternoon.
We left a piece of our hearts in Malibu. The drive in was simply magical, with gorgeous coves dotted along the coast, dolphins playing in the break and lovers hanging out on the beach, we really could have settled in quite nicely here. Malibu is famous for its stunning beachfront Mansions, amazing wine & of course its beaches – you will never be without an option with classics such as Zuma Beach, Point Dume State, Lagoon State & El Matador State beach, anticipating your arrival. There is nothing quite like dusk in Malibu & after a stroll along Zuma, we headed to perhaps the best place to eat in the whole town, Malibu Farm, to enjoy sunset. Hit them up for the freshest frozè that has ever touched your lips.
After you have explored L.A, another town not to be missed only a 1.5hr drive south of the city, is the wonderful Laguna Beach. We were lucky enough to actually spend 4 nights in this slice of heaven. We stayed in a gorgeous air bnb in the town of Laguna Niguel – just a short 10 minute drive to the beach. This was perhaps our favorite stop on the drive (which is why we decided to stay longer than anticipated) One of the most important lessons we have learnt whilst traveling is to try and keep your itinerary as flexible as possible so if you do want to stay in a place longer/shorter than expected, you can always accommodate this. Laguna is filled with the perfect balance of boutique and surf stores, the yummiest macarons and the most stunning rooftop bar for summertime plays.
Have you driven Highway One? Do you have any must see’s to add to the list? Let us know in the comments below!
Peace, Love & Happy Travels