California coast road trips are so much fun! From surf towns to city life and from sand dunes to dense forests, driving Highway 101 and Highway 1 along the California coastline on a road trip 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 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. To help you save money, we’ve included a few places where you can free camp along the way too.
Day 1: Oceanside Harbor
Free Camp here or paid camping at the Harbor
Oceanside Harbor is a great place to camp when coming into or leaving San Diego. 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. 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. Just my opinion, but I do not recommend staying at Paradise by the Sea.
Day 2: Surf or Bike Ventura
We 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. If you are discreet, there are plenty of free camping opportunities around Ventura. 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.
Day 3: Surf Rincon + Climb in Santa Barbara + Wine in Los Olivos
After you’ve had your fill of surfing and exploring Ventura, head to Santa Barbara. If you are a climber and not a city person (like us), skip Santa Barbara and head into the mountains for some fun climbing with rad views right off highway 154 called Fire Crags. We had to park our RV in a pull off and walk the last mile or so 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.
Finish off the day with wine tasting in Los Olivos. We loved the vibe at Carhart Winery. Again we found a discreet place to pull over and free camp when we left Los Olivos.
Day 4: San Luis Obispo
There are a lot of fun things you can do in San Luis Obispo, but these are our favorites:
- Hike or Climb Bishop Peak
- Take your picture in Bubblegum Alley
- Pick up some delicious coffee at Scout Coffee Co
- Grab beer and burgers at SLO Brew
From here it’s a long drive to Mendocino. We took Highway 128 into Mendocino. It’s a very windy road and there are a lot of deer on the side of the road at night so be alert. We found a small pull-off near the wineries in Navarro, which is on outskirts of Mendocino, to free camp.
Day 5 + 6: Hiking in Mendocino
Campground: Van Damme State Park
I highly recommend doing the six-mile round trip Fern Canyon trail hike to the 36-foot waterfall that is in Russian Gulch. It’s an easy, mostly paved hike, with very little elevation gain (perfect for young kids who aren’t stoked to hike every day like our two youngest).
Related Blog: What to do when your child doesn’t want to hike
Note: If you are in an RV over 24 feet, you can’t park in the state park, but there is a pull off on the south side of the bridge on Highway 1 where you can park and then take the trail by the headlands into the gulch.
The Van Damme’s Fern Canyon Trail is a great hike and starts right form the campground.
The Mendocino Headlands are a great spot to have a picnic or play on the beach.
On the way down the California coastline on Highway 1 there is a huge pull-off that is secluded from the traffic on Highway 1 where we slept for the night.
Day 7: Explore Highway 1 + Fort Ross
There is so much to do along Highway 1. These were the three we enjoyed the most:
Point Arena Lighthouse, which feels like being in Ireland.
Fort Ross State Park, which is really cool if you like learing about California’s history and the influence the Russian fur traders had in the area in the early 1800’s.
Bowling Ball Beach, a fun hike to the beach to see these large, round stones.
Campground: Bodega Dunes Campground
Day 8 + 9: Point Reyes
Campground: Olema Campground
Point Reyes National Seashore is filled with great hikes. On the way, stop at Tomales Bakery and grab delicious pastries to eat on the hike. While hiking Tomales Point in Point Reyes, we were treated to an up-close encounter with wildlife (check out the video). There are also numerous trails that start from the Bear Valley visitor center in Olema.
Day 10: Pacifica
I love the surf vibe in Pacifica and how the backdrop of the forested mountains reminds me of the Basque region of Spain, especially Playa Rodiles. This is usually a great place to learn to surf. There are great mountain biking and hiking trails on the coast. You could easily spend a few days enjoying the nature and adventure here.
There are so many the cute restaurants here. I always stop in and grab a bottle of wine at Table Wine.
Day 11: San Francisco
There is so much to explore in San Francisco and it’s easy to hop on busses, trolleys, or just explore the city by foot. If you choose to brave the narrow streets of San Fran with an RV, do so early and park down at the Embarcadero. It’s expensive but easy. Or park by the beach or Golden Gate park and bus in.
Some of our favorite places in San Fran:
- Chinatown and Little Italy are musts. Go hungry and taste as much as you can.
- So is grabbing coffee and desserts at Dandelion Chocolate, which has amazing sipping chocolate
- Coit Tower
- Lombard Street
- Walk across the Golden Gate Bridge
- Fisherman’s Wharf and Ghiradelli are nice to see once
- Farmers market in Marin County was awesome too!
Related Blog: Weekend Itinerary in San Francisco and Marin County (coming soon)
Day 12 + 13: Explore Capitola + Santa Cruz + Surf Steamer Lane
Campground: Sea Cliffs State Park or New Brighton State Park
From New Brighton State Beach, you can ride bikes into the cute surf town of Capitola. I liked wine tasting at It’s Wine Tyme and picking up delicious organic sourdough baguette at Gayle’s Bakery to go with the French cheese we had bought in Point Reyes.
If this is your first time in Santa Cruz, make sure you check out The Mystery Spot.
If you surf, then Steamer Lane is a must. Even if you don’t, it’s fun to watch the surfers and all the wildlife in the ocean here.
Day 14: Hike + Climb in Malibu Creek
As you make your way back down, you can camp for the night at one of the campgrounds in Venutra that were mentioned at the top. Since it is a long drive from Santa Cruz back to San Diego, we broke it up with a half day hiking and climbing at Malibu Creek.
It’s a short thirty minute hike to the pools where you can jump off rocks into the water. There is also fun rock climbing. Try the Planet of the Apes wall, which has an easy approach, 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).
Day 15: San Elijo
San Elijo is our favorite campground. Besides being right on the beach and the surf in front of the campground is some of the best in the world, there are delicious, healthy food options right across the street like:
- Zumbar, organic coffee
- The Confessional: Lost Abbey, craft beer
- Veegee’s Donuts
- Seaside Market, a health food market
- Vinyasa Arts, yoga classes
Other California Destinations
California really is one amazing state. If beautiful coastlines and cute surf towns aren’t your thing, head to the mountains and experience the incredible granite rock domes and gorgeous meadows in Yosemite Valley.