California coast road trips are so much fun! From surf towns to city life and from sand dunes to dense forests, driving the coastal Highway 101 and Highway 1 is always an adventure. This 2 week California coast road trip will take you to great surf spots near Ventura and Santa Cruz, beautiful hikes in Mendocino and Point Reyes, and some rock climbing near Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo.
This blog was updated in November of 2019 to improve the content and help you plan a better itinerary.
As adventure travelers, we are always searching out destinations where we can play. Whether it’s surfing, mountain biking, hiking, or rock climbing, this road trip itinerary will definitely appeal to those looking for some physical movement in the outdoors.
However, this California Coast road trip itinerary is not limited just to adventure sports and many of these spots are awesome places to just chill at. Even though I’ve highlighted a lot of great surfing beaches along the way, these same beaches are great for walking at low tide or just relaxing at during the day.
If you do plan on surfing or even just playing in the ocean, note that California water temps aren’t as warm as you’d think. In the summer, Oceanside rarely gets to 70 degrees and in the winter it will drop below 60 degrees. As you go further north, it will just get colder. You may want to bring a wetsuit. Check out our favorite women’s wetsuits here.
If you are looking to mostly surf up the California coast, be sure to check out our Complete Guide to Surfing the California Coast
This California Coast road trip ended up being about 1,400 miles round trip from San Diego to Mendocino and took us two weeks. You could do it faster, but then you wouldn’t get as much time enjoying these great road trip destinations.
I’ve listed everything in this blog in order from South to North, going up the coast on Highway 1 and then back down on Highway 101.
At the bottom of the post I put the itinerary we’ve used when driving this so that we hit half the coastal spots on the way up and the other half on the way down, but for planning purposes I find it easier to have all the destinations listed in order that appear on a map starting from San Diego.
Road tripping in an RV is so much fun and every time we’ve taken a Cali coast trip, it’s been in an RV. Check out these RV rentals from popular cities along this itinerary:
1 | Cardiff
San Elijo SB, in Cardiff, is our favorite campground in all of California. Besides being right on the beach, the surf in front of the campground is some of the best in the world. We camp here all the time and love how easy it is to walk across the street and get delicious, healthy food options such as:
- Zumbar, organic coffee
- The Confessional: Lost Abbey, craft beer
- Veegee’s Donuts
- Seaside Market, a health food market
- Acai Bowls at Sambazon
For a complete guide on Cardiff including where to stay, click here and read our Ultimate Guide to Cardiff blog (coming soon).
2 | Oceanside
Oceanside Harbor is a great place to start your California Coast road trip. We love to camp in Oceanside by the harbor. There are lots of restaurants here, the surf is usually good, there’s a super fun playground for kids right on the sand, and you’re even allowed to overnight park for free here.
To get to the free parking, turn west when you exit the freeway at Oceanside Harbor Drive and take a left on Carmelo Drive. If you want to camp on the beach at the harbor, here is the info. There’s also an RV park in Oceanside called Paradise by the Sea with full RV hook ups and a pool and spa.
The area around Oceanside pier is amazing too. The surf is typically a bit faster here and there is also a playground on the beach for the kids to enjoy. There are plenty of great food options here too.
If camping isn’t your thing, check out the great mid-range one bedroom condos at Southern California Beach Club. This hotel is right by the Oceanside Pier and is perfect for larger families.
For a luxury hotel option near the Oceanside Harbor, check out Endless Summer. These one bedroom beachfront suites have all the amenities you can want in a hotel like pool, fitness center, free wifi and parking, plus the rooms have a full kitchen so you can save a little money by cooking some of your own meals. The only negative is that they do require a 3 night stay.
For a more budget option by Oceanside Harbor, stay at Days Inn by Windham Oceanside or Best Western Plus Oceanside Palms. With both you are still within a very short walk to both the beach and restaurants.
Photos shown above via Booking.com
3 | Malibu
You have a few great options at Los Angelas’s most popular beach town. You can enjoy the sand and sun at Zuma Beach, shred the epic point break at Malibu’s Surfrider Beach, take in the great views and maybe spot some whales in the winter from the bluffs at Point Dume, get a dose of art and culture at The Getty, or explore the miles of trails, rock pools, and rock walls at Malibu Creek State Park.
If you choose Malibu Creek State Park, it’s a short 30 minute hike to the pools where you can jump off rocks into the water. There is also fun rock climbing like Planet of the Apes wall, which has an easy approach, plus you can top rope all the climbs, there is a safe area for kids to play, and the wall itself has huge pockets (making it a very fun climb).
We’ve also stayed at Leo Carrillo State Park before. This is a beautiful campground also with hiking trails and has access to the beach so you can get a little of both.
For luxury accommodations in Malibu, check out the Malibu Beach Inn and fall asleep to the sound of the waves crashing onshore.
4 | Ventura + Carpinteria
Ventura is just as rad as the surf towns in SoCal, but with way less crowds. We absolutely love surfing C Street in Ventura. You can park at Surfer’s Point at Seaside Park and surf the epic rights that roll through, run or ride the bike path that takes you up the coast, or just hang out on the beautiful driftwood filled beach.
Just 15 miles north of Ventura is one of my favorite beach towns, Carpinteria. If surfing isn’t top on your list, I’d stop at Seaside Park in Ventura to take some pics and then head to Carpinteria to eat.
I like the kick back vibe at Island Brewing Co and I usually grab coffee in the morning at Lucky Llama Coffee. If you’re a chocolate lover, stop at Chocolats Du Calibressan on the way there.
We love camping on the beach here however, while you can surf here, note that it is a shallow, mediocre beach break (great for learning on a higher tide). If you want good surf, then drive south ten minutes and surf Rincon AKA “The Queen” (be ready for crowds).
If you are looking to camp, here are a few option:
- Ventura Beach RV Park, which is pricey but within walking distance of the C-street surf break.
- Emma Wood State Beach, which has great views and is affordable, but doesn’t allow tents and is hard to get reservations for.
- Rincon Parkway, which has a rad vibe, but often fills up fast on the weekends and also doesn’t allow tents.
- Carpinteria State Beach, which is one of our favorite campgrounds and allows tents.
- If you are discreet, there are also plenty of free camping opportunities around Ventura.
If you need a hotel, the Crowne Plaza Hotel is perfect for couples or families with 2 or less kids. This oceanfront property has a heated outdoor pool, is within walking distance to surfing C street, and is right on the boardwalk.
Above photos credit to Booking.com
There aren’t a lot of options in Carpinteria, but the Best Western Plus Carpinteria has a central location so you can walk to all the great coffee shops and breweries and can accommodate large families.
5 | Santa Barbara
After you’ve had your fill of surfing and exploring Ventura and Carpinteria, head to Santa Barbara.
The most iconic places to go see in Santa Barbara is Stern’s Wharf. It’s your typical touristy boardwalk with food and shopping but it’s all along the pier. I think it is certainly worth stopping at for a few hours before exploring some other unique options like:
- Between November and February, check out the Monarch Butterfly Grove in Goleta
- Rock climbing Fire Crags off Highway 154. It’s easy climbing with epic views. The only draw back is that I couldn’t get my RV up the steep Painted Cave Road to the climbing area. If you have a smaller car or van, you can drive right up to the crag.
- Take a short detour and go wine tasting in Los Olivos. We loved the rad vibe at Carhart Winery. You may also want to spend some time exploring Solvang, known for its Danish inspired architecture featuring windmills.
- Or sign up for this wine tour that will take you to 4 different wineries in the Santa Ynez Valley.
For more touristy options near Santa Barbara you can visit:
- The Santa Barbara Zoo,
- Mission Santa Barbara,
- Santa Barbara Courthouse,
- Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens,
- Check out one of the many museums,
- Or do what Santa Barbara is most known for, shopping at Paseo Nuevo or State Street.
I’m not a big fan of shopping so we typically blow through Santa Barbara and spend more time in the next two spots. If you choose to camp nearby there are two great campgrounds just north of Santa Barbara, Gaviota and El Capitan State Beaches that can be reserved here. Note that both of these fill up way in advance. For hotels in Santa Barbara, check here for the latest deals.
Other fun tours in Santa Barbara include:
- Downtown Santa Barbara Food Tour: Includes 7 different restaurants + 2 Wine Tasting Rooms
- Santa Ynez CUPCAKE + Wine Tasting: Wow! Imagine the sugar rush from that one 🙂 There’s also olive oil tasting and a visit to a lavender farm on this one.
- Santa Barbara Funk Zone Food and Photo Tour: A fun culinary and picture-taking tour in Santa Barbara that goes to three different local eateries, a microbrewery, two wineries and a distillery in the city’s artsy Funk Zone.
- Surf Lessons. Enjoy an authentic day/morning in the life of a surfer with uncle Micah.
- Kayak Tour. If surfing sounds a bit too adrenaline packed, take in the views of Santa Barbara in a more chill manner with a kayaking tour.
6 | Pismo + San Luis Obispo
Between the giant sand dunes in Pismo and the rolling hills of San Luis Obispo, there are so many fun things you can do in this area. We love stopping in Pismo and SLO. Here are some of our favorites things to do:
- Camp on the beach at Oceano Dunes.
- Or if you’d rather have some amenities, camp at North Beach State Campground, which still gives you quick access to fun in the sand and is right next door to another Monarch Butterfly Grove.
- Walk or fat tire bike Pismo Beach at low tide and explore the shops by the Pismo Pier.
- Check out the views or go sea kayaking at Dinosaur Caves Park.
- Rent a quad or buggy and go play at the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area.
- Surf or grab dinner while taking in the sunset at Avilia Beach.
- Run or bike ride the scenic, 3 mile Bob Jones Trail.
- Soak those sore muscles in the Avilia Hot Springs.
- Hike or Climb Bishop Peak.
- Take your picture in downtown SLO at Bubblegum Alley.
- Sip on delicious coffee at Scout Coffee Co.
- Grab beer and burgers at SLO Brew.
If you camp, stay at one of the campgrounds mentioned above. If you need a hotel, I think it is better to stay at the famous Madonna Inn. Each themed guest room is uniquely-decorated and the hotel is famous for its Bakery and Pastry Shop, plus they have 3 bedroom suites that sleep up to 9 guests.
There’s a super affordable hostel near downtown called International House SLO. For complete luxury, try Hotel San Luis Obispo. Both Garden Street Inn Downtown SLO and Granada Hotel & Bistro are near downtown, mid-priced, and great for couples. A better choice for families would be the Apple Farm Inn.
Between Santa Barbara and Cambria, you may want to stop in Morro Bay for lunch at one of the many fish and chip restaurants along the bay. Then, hit up The Brown Butter Cookie Co for dessert in Cayucos.
7 | Cambria
Cambria is another cute coastal town that can be explored in just a few hours.
Be sure to explore Moonstone Beach, which is famous for its brightly polished stones. In the town of Cambria there is a nice coffee shop, Cambria Coffee Roasting Co, or go beer tasting at Cambria Ale House.
Just a few miles north of Cambria is the famous Hearst Castle and Piedras Blancas, home to a huge rookery of elephant seals. When you drive this section of highway, keep your eyes peeled for the herds of zebras roaming outside of Hearst Castle.
Cambria is a good place to spend the night so that you have a full day to drive up Highway 1 to Big Sur. We camped at San Simeon State Park and loved it. You can check here for hotels in Cambria.
On the way to Big Sur, stop at the beautiful crescent shaped beach, Sand Dollar beach, which is also a great surf break. There is also a campground here, Plaskett Creek, that is good for tents and small RVs.
8 | Big Sur
Just before you get to Big Sur is Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. This is where you want to stop to take the iconic picture of the McWay Waterfall.
Big Sur isn’t exactly a town, it’s more an area and so you may not even realize you reach Big Sur when you get there. There also aren’t a ton of food options.
We usually grab coffee and pastrie