Framed by San Francisco in the north and sunny Los Angeles in the south, Central California is a world all of its own. Three hundred and fifty miles of soaring cliffs rush to meet the mighty Pacific. The roughed coastline twists and turns, each bend in the road revealing a vista more breathtaking than the last. Laid-back beach towns, National parks and world-class wineries and vineyards are the only disruptions to this epic route - but we don’t hear any road-trippers complaining.
From the north to south, here are the five must-make stops along California’s central coast.
With a free surf museum overlooking Santa Cruz’s most renowned surf spot and the main beach and iconic boardwalk framing the historic Santa Cruz Wharf, this town is a quintessential California town with plenty of quirk and character. Away from the water’s edge, visitor’s fall head over heels for Santa Cruz’s abundant natural attractions; Natural Bridges State Beach offers striking views of the Pacific with the chance to glimpse some of the adorable marine animals that call it home.
All about the scenic vistas and nature reserves, Monterey also retains an indulgent side for those who crave a luxury pit-stop on their road trip. The 17-Mile Drive may be part of your mapped-our route, but it’s much more than a drive. Weaving along the coastal cliffs before darting through the Del Monte Forest, this stretch of road competes as one of the most dramatic in Central California. Housing several pause-worthy stops along the way, highlights include Cypress Point Look Out and Pebble Beach. Then it’s on to the gourmet eateries and designer shops of Carmel-by-the-Sea, a once-humble seaside fishing village that’s transformed into the epitome of present-day California class.
Drawing worldwide praise, Big Sur is one of California’s most picturesque regions. Sky-high cliffs wrap tightly along the Pacific’s jagged coast, creating irresistible photo ops around every turn. Make sure you allow plenty of time for pulling over and snapping pictures. More specifically, be sure to stop at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park to see the spectacular beachfront waterfall, hike through the redwood forests at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and finish the day off with a soak in a cliff-top hot spring at Esalen Institute.
San Luis Obispo
Playfully nicknamed SLO - referencing the town’s chilled-out locals as much as the name’s acronym - the idyllic California town has a lot to be proud of. From its prized beaches such as Pismo and Avila to the Thursday night Farmers’ Market complete with BBQ booths and live music, SLO is in a league of its own. Stopping in SLO also offers a great opportunity to stretch your legs; this area boasts some of California’s best hiking trails with gorgeous panoramic views.
Just north of LA-LA-Land lies the sophisticated yet unpretentious beach town of Santa Barbara. Katy Perry might claim SB as her stomping ground, but it’s capable of much more than producing world-famous pop stars. “The Endless Summer” vibes are alive and well here - especially at Chuck’s Water Front Grill (AKA The Endless Summer Bar and Cafe). Stop in for a cold one and award-winning seafood with a side of oceanfront view. Next, take a stroll downtown on historic State Street, lined with local boutiques, art galleries, al-fresco cafes and lively bars. After that, take a swing by the iconic “Queen of the Missions” before hitting the Santa Barbara wine trail.