It’s the classic American road trip, first taste for many tourists of the open road in the US. The stuff dreams are made of. It tops many lists of best roads in the world, and rightly so. Highway 1 has breathtaking views around every corner. The road itself starts on the border of Oregon and California and runs all the way down to San Diego. Highway 1 is for most people known as the stretch between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the best bit being the coast between Carmel and Morro Bay just south of Hearst Castle.
We have done the bit between San Francisco and LA in both directions, with cars and on Harleys. The preferred direction is without a doubt from San Francisco and heading south towards LA, since you are then riding the outside lane, and you get the best views along the way. If you do not ride Harleys or other 2 wheeled modes of transport, a convertible is of course to be recommended. Arriving in San Francisco, you should always spend a few days to see the city and shake off some jetlag (more info on San Francisco is found in the Big Cities section). We would not recommend renting a car at the airport, and parking in San Francisco downtown, it’s bloody expensive! It’s better to rent a car at any of the downtown locations of for instance Avis and pick up the car on the morning of your departure. For motorbikes, there is no place like Eaglerider SF with downtown locations in both San Francisco and LA.
You could do San Francisco to LA in one long day, but we would not recommend it. Either do a one-night trip or a two-night trip – depending on the time you have at your disposal.
If you choose to do the one night option you will have to take the freeway from San Francisco and go straight to Monterey, it will be about 2 hours straight drive either on the 101 via Prunedale and Castroville or the 280 via Los Gatos and then number 17 to Santa Cruz and then to Monterey. Both ways are about two hours’ drive. The first stop should be Monterey and Cannery Row and spend some time (but not too long) to see the seafront and maybe the aquarium. From Monterey you will drive the same route and have the same overnight option (The Madonna Inn) as with the two-day route. The two-day route is with more time in Monterey and Carmel, and overnight in Carmel.
It is also imperative that you check if the road is open. Later years there have been mudslides that have closed the road for days and months. So, you need to check before you go. Do it here.
The two-day route is described below.
Day 1: San Francisco to Carmel
From San Francisco downtown you take Geary Boulevard, it runs all the way from Union Square to Ocean Beach, where you will meet, well, the ocean. You are now on Highway 1. Continue south. Ride along the beautiful coastline for about 2 hours until you reach Santa Cruz. In Santa Cruz they have a cool pier, like many cities used to have in the olden days. The coolest thing about this, is that you can ride/drive out on the pier. It’s a great destination for lunch, and a cool thing to do, just casually ride the pier. Several good restaurants on the pier makes it a great stop. Read more about it here
It’s about an hour drive from Santa Cruz to Monterey, not much to see, there is a lot of industrial estates here, so just keep on trucking. In Monterey you have Cannery Row, it’s very touristy, but if you like aquariums, you should really stop at the magnificent Monterey Bay Aquarium
Jellyfish at Monterey Bay Aquarium. The aquarium is known for its regional focus on the marine habitats of Monterey Bay. It was the first aquarium to feature a living kelp forest, also known for animal husbandry of jellyfish and it was the first to successfully care for and display a great white shark.
If you have some time to spend, do a kayak safari and see the adorable sea otters frolicking in the kelp on the coast by Monterey. A few minutes down the road is Carmel. Do NOT try and drive along the coast, you will hit a dead end, where the rich and infamous have a gated society and a golf course. So, head via the road you came in, and ride Highway 1 down to Carmel. We stayed at the sublime Comfort Inn Carmel By The Sea.
Carmel is famous for having had Clint Eastwood for mayor, and the restaurant once owned by the same, but it still carries the name Hogs Breath Inn, and has pictures of Clint on the walls. Also known for one of the more spectacular golf courses in the world at Pebble Beach, and the car show held here every year. The city itself is quaint, it’s not allowed to bring modernity into the city by law, a strange but nice place, no high-rise buildings, no neon signs, just wooden buildings with a lot of galleries. If you find the time a stroll along the beautiful beach is recommended. It’s a perfect place to stop for the night, and the Hogs Breath Inn has delish food and craft beer of course.
Day 2: Carmel to Madonna Inn
Now get ready for what is arguably one of the nicest one-day road trips in the world! A straight drive from Carmel to San Simeon (where in our opinion the spectacular road ends) is about 2 ½ hours. You will probably use a full day. Starting from Carmel you will after a short while get to Bixby bridge, the first of many, many stops you will make this day. Where you stop is up to you, there are plenty of vistas along the way.
Big Sur is a natural stop, just to check out the store, and hum a little Alanis Morrisette or The Thrills. A small detour down Sycamore Canyon rd. to Pfeiffer Beach is recommended. After Big Sur the adventure continues around every corner. When approaching San Simeon and Hearst Castle, make sure to stop and have a look at the seals basking on the beach.
Hearst Castle is also a must on the way. You will have seen this landmark in many a movie, especially the pool and the silhouette of the house itself. Built by tycoon Randolph Hearst between 1919 and 1947, the house and the property is a pastiche of European Castle and Spanish revival. The structure built in concrete, the outside and inside filled with stuff bought and sometimes stolen from Europe and the world in general. Fascinating place and house, but if you’re used to castles from Europe which are “the real thing” this might not impress you that much. What does impress is the scale, and the will to build this in such an inaccessible place. Pre-purchase of tickets is a must!
From San Simeon you continue Highway 1 via Morro Bay to San Luis Obispo where the 1 joins the 101 coming from the north. Just after this is our recommendation to spend the night at the stupendous sumptuous and incredulous Madonna Inn! Every room here has a theme, from caves to cowboys. Whatever you fancy, they have a room for it! Fabulously kitsch, check out the downstairs gents’ toilet in the restaurant, there is an actual waterfall there. The restaurant itself is a symphony in pink plastic, but do not be fooled, they serve the best and biggest steaks there, they are like bison without the fur. And make sure to have the breakfast in their diner in the morning, the pancakes are what syrup dreams are made of. If you do the one-night trip, this is also the place to stop.
Day 3: Madonna Inn to LA
From the Madonna Inn to Santa Barbara, it’s a little less than 2 hours drive, not something to write home about this stretch of road. It’s nice when you drive over the San Marco pass, but not anything as spectacular as the ride the day before. You could do the small detour to Solvang, a piece of Denmark in the US.
In Santa Barbara, head for the pier (they also call it wharf in the US). Like Santa Cruz you can ride out on the pier and have a nice lunch here while watching the surfers catch a wave. Santa Barbara downtown is also good for high end shopping if that’s your kind of thing.
Continue along the coast until you reach Oxnard, here it’s essential that you get the correct exit and end up on the road along the coast, not continuing inland to LA via Thousand Oaks. So, look for Exit 62B Oxnard Blvd. and take this exit and do a right. It will lead you through Oxnard, after W9th Street you need to be in the two left lanes, this is where Highway 1 continues towards the ocean again, and make sure not to end up in the Oxnard onion fields! You will drive past Point Mugu Naval Base, where you probably will be buzzed by a Navy jet or two. There is a display along the road. Not long after you will join the coast again, and you will see The Neptunes Nest restaurant on your left, a famous destination for locals doing road trips from LA along the coast.
Riding through Malibu you will after a while loose sight of the sea, due to rich people’s homes along the coast. Think “Two And A Half Men” house and you get the picture. LA and Santa Monica Beach will come into sight. You may now start to hum The Doors.
Now the last tricky bit of riding is to get off the main road and up the California Incline to get to the Santa Monica Pier. It’s not well signposted, and you need to stay in the left lane. You will see two pedestrian bridges over the road, and you will see white high-rise buildings on the hilltop. Keep in the left lane, and it will split into a separate lane, and you will take a slight left at the lights and up the incline. At the top of the incline, take a right, and you are now cruising Ocean Avenue of Santa Monica. Take a right again and you will drive down on the pier itself. That whole place is iconic with the ferris wheel and amusement park, known from from movies and of course being the official end of Route 66. Look for the sign that designates the end of The Mother Road.
Our favourite hotel is the art deco splendour of The Georgian Hotel right on Ocean Av.
LA is infinite. We have stayed here a few times. We like it the best on the beach in Santa Monica. Great fun to rent bicycles on the pier and bike to Venice Beach, looking at all the mad and weird people. Make sure to venture beyond the boardwalk of Venice and see the real old Venice with the canals, it’s quite a different place to the rest of that area. Walking among the small houses on the canals is very cool for an hour or two. If you have a few days in LA, make sure to take a guided tour, the city is so massive, you need someone with local knowledge to show you around. Look for the more independent and smaller tours, many specializing in movie locations in and around the city, they give you a more special experience we think. Just enjoy LA, the city of lights.
So, there you have it, a magic road trip ended. More on LA is featured in our Big Cities section.
Beautiful photos! We’ve done Highway 1 from Depoe Bay, Oregon down to San Francisco, then from San Diego up to San Francisco. I hope to do any part of it again someday. Fantastic, beautiful and so much to see. However, our most expensive stay was San Francisco! I counted about a dozen added fees and taxes, including an astonishing parking fee. Oh well, it was a cool experience!
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Agreed! We did Seattle to SF along the stunning Oregon and north California coast. See our blog post if you like👍 we would love to do it again! SF is like most major towns expensive.
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