A costal location of California, with a beach and grassy cliffs to the right and blue water coming into the bay on the left.

A Travel Guide to Road Tripping the California Central Coast

The Golden State

Thinking about the state of California in the United States unmistakably brings to mind sunny skies, refreshing beaches, and tourist hubs — not to mention its central role in the entertainment and technology industries. One part of this West Coast state that cannot go unmentioned, however, is California’s Central Coast. Located between Los Angeles in Southern California and San Francisco in Northern California, the Central Coast boasts rugged shorelines, beautiful beaches, and many natural sights that visitors should not miss! Fitting for the Golden State, the Central Coast is a golden opportunity for an unforgettable road trip.  If you are ready to explore the hidden gems of California, fill up your car and follow this travel guide to road tripping its Central Coast!

A color-coded map of the regions of California's Central Coast, including the Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and Monterey regions.
A regional map of the California Central Coast; Image source: Central Coast

Santa Barbara

A solid starting point is always important for a successful road trip! We begin our journey in Santa Barbara, a city famous for its coastal location and abundance of tourist sights. While there are many things you can do in your visit to Santa Barbara, here are two you should definitely check out: The Santa Barbara Mission and the Botanic Garden.

Old Mission Santa Bárbara

California is a historic site containing 21 Spanish missions, established from the 1760s to the 1830’s. They run from the southernmost mission of San Diego de Alcala to the northernmost mission of San Francisco Solano. Read more about history and facts of the California missions here. The tenth of these missions built is the Old Mission Santa Bárbara. Founded in 1786, it is called the “Queen of the Missions”. You can explore its grounds in either a guided tour or on your own during your visit. Some must-see points in the tour are its Cemetery and Mausoleum, the Mission Church, the Sacred Garden, and its Museum. An interesting fact is that Old Mission Santa Bárbara was built and continues to be maintained by the Franciscan Friars. Its active use as a church even today makes this mission a living piece of history!

A view of the front of the Old Mission Santa Bárbara, with a cross sculpture in the forefront and the mission in the background.
The front entrance of the Old Mission Santa Bárbara; Image source: WanderWisdom

Santa Barbara Botanic Garden

If you are looking for an alternative to the beaches of Santa Barbara that all tourists flock to, then the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden is the perfect place for you! There is a lot of native flora in California which you can see in greater detail at the Botanic Garden, especially since it spans 78 acres and is home to over 1,000 indigenous Californian plants. The best way to get a closer look at this natural beauty is through the various hiking trails that take you across the garden. The grounds are split into different sections, each with its own plant specialty — from the Arroyo Section, to the Meadow Section, to the Redwood Section. Explore each section and garden specialties in more detail here! A relaxing time among nature at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden is the best kickstarter for this road trip.

A view of a variety of plants and flowers in the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, with mountains in the far background.
The indigenous plants of California in display at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden; Image source: Visit California

Solvang

The next stop heading north on our road trip is the town of Solvang. A nostalgic and attractive place filled with Danish history, Solvang is a refreshing stop on California’s Central Coast!

The Surrey Cycle

Solvang presents the perfect opportunity to leave behind your car in the many parking spots around the center of town, and use a more unique mode of transportation to explore this charming place! These are the multi-person bikes, also known as Surrey cycles, available for rent by the hour. Ranging from two-seater tandems to six-seaters, these cycles are a fun (and colorful) way to get around town instead of walking. Great for big groups and families, these bikes are a common sight on the streets of Solvang. Even though Solvang is a very pedestrian-friendly town, make sure to look both ways and check for cars when crossing the street and parking your Surrey cycle!

The front of the shop that rents out Surrey cycles, with a sign that says "wheels for rentals" and bikes parked in the front.
The Surrey cycles that you can take for a spin around the streets of Solvang; Image source: Wheel Fun Rentals

A Taste of Denmark

The town of Solvang itself pays homage to Danish history and culture. The architecture, shops, and food are all focused around a Danish-style experience. Quaint signs and artisan shops transport visitors to northern Europe, and form a picturesque Denmark getaway within California. Don’t miss the Hans Christian Andersen Museum that celebrates the famous Danish children’s author, the wooden windmills rising above the shops, and the authentic Danish bakeries with mouth watering pastries! A personal recommendation is to visit the unique clog shop, where you can experience trying (and buying) traditional wooden clogs. Solvang also has connections with Danish Royalty, which you can read about here. With all these Danish shops and sights, Solvang truly upholds its title as “California’s Denmark”!

A line of wooden shops built in a Danish-style in Solvang, with a wooden windmill in the background.
The Danish-style architecture and shops in Solvang; Image source: Visit Santa Barbara

OstrichLand USA

On the outskirts of Solvang is an opportunity for a close encounter with animals you wouldn’t normally see in California — ostriches and emus! In OstrichLand USA, both children and adults can observe and interact with these large birds in an environment resembling their natural desert habitats. Feeding the ostriches and emus is also possible, so make sure you bring extra money ($1 per bowl) for buying the feed. OstrichLand USA creates an intimate experience between visitors and the animals, so stop by for a close look at the ostriches and emus!

A close view of an ostrich behind the fence at OstrichLand USA, with other ostriches in the background standing in sand.
Feeding ostriches and emus is possible at OstrichLand USA; Image source: www.ostrichlandusa.com

Pismo Beach

Driving up the California Central Coast, we come to Pismo Beach. Here, you can find the abundance of beaches and rugged bluffs that are characteristic of this area. There are many nature spots to choose from, but the Butterfly Grove and the Pismo Beach Pier are one of the few that you should definitely check out!

Monarch Butterfly Grove

Visiting Pismo Beach anytime between late October and February gives you the opportunity to witness the southern migration of the monarch butterflies. Read more about the monarch migration here! The best place to get a look at these butterflies is in the Monarch Butterfly Grove. The colony of monarchs at this grove is the largest one in the world: averaging about 25,000 butterflies every year! A tour guide can take you through the grove and explain the significance of this site to the monarchs. If the season is right, the Monarch Butterfly Grove is an unmissable stop on this road trip.

Orange monarch butterflies clustered together on a tree in the Monarch Butterfly Grove.
The clustering of monarch butterflies at the Monarch Butterfly Grove in Pismo Beach; Image source: California Beaches

Pismo Beach Pier

The best way to wrap up your day visit at Pismo Beach is by watching the sunset at the Pismo Beach Pier! A popular place for relaxing by the beach and taking in the sunny California vibes, the pier provides a view of the setting sun that is unrivaled. Any fishing enthusiasts would also enjoy the pier as a spot for some good fishing. If you want to visit the beach during the day and are interested in learning a new skill, surfing lessons are also available! The Main Street offers a variety of restaurants and tourist shops for the passing visitor. Safe to say, a day spent at Pismo Beach and the pier will not go wasted.

A zoomed out view of the Pismo Beach Pier, with an orange and yellow sunset in the sky reflecting onto the water.
A stunning view of the sunset from the Pismo Beach Pier; Image source: Visit the USA

Morro Bay

Moving swiftly northwards, we reach Morro Bay, the following place to visit on this Central Coast road trip. There are also many places for you to encounter nature and the Californian wilderness here. A mix of city and nature, Morro Bay provides the best of both worlds for any visitor!

Montaña de Oro State Park

The Montaña de Oro State Park offers a variety of geographic sights — from plains, to cliffs, to streams. Its name, meaning “Mountain of Gold”, refers to the golden-colored flowers that bloom in the park every spring. Once you take your car through the hills of the park, you can park it by the hiking trails and shallow beaches. Then, the park is yours to explore by foot! For the adventurous explorer, Spooner Cove and the bluffs have natural caves and rocks ready for climbing. To learn about the history of the park and explore it as a historical site, make sure to visit the Montaña de Oro visitor center. It is adjacent to the Spooner Ranch House, which has been preserved to this day.

A view of Spooner Cove, with land curving around the sides of the water, and a rocky island in the center of the cove.
An aerial view of the bluffs and beaches of Montaña de Oro State Park; Image source: 50 Campfires

El Moro Elfin Forest

Just on the southeastern shore of Morro Bay is the city of Los Osos, where you can find the El Moro Elfin Forest. This forest is named such because the California Live Oaks here are stunted in growth as compared to elsewhere in Los Osos, due to the natural environment. This is a smaller-sized preserve, but it does not lack diversity. All types of environmental habitats in the overall Morro Bay are present just within the Elfin Forest — allowing for a wide range of plants (and animals) to coexist together.

A unique boardwalk winds through the forest, and information boards along the way introduce you to the different flora and fauna. Especially interesting to look at are the water and salt marshes, which fill you with an overwhelming sense of appreciation for nature. Here, you can take a seat on one of the many benches on the boardwalk and contemplate the diverse beauty of California’s Central Coast!

A wooden bench at the end of a boardwalk, surrounded by trees with crooked trunks and a canopy of green leaves overhead.
A serene spot to sit on the boardwalk, amongst the stunted California Live Oaks; Image source: Highway 1 Discovery Route

Boat Tour of the Bay

A visit to Morro Bay is not complete without touring the bay itself! Morro Rock is the highlight of the bay, and holds deep historical importance for mariners who used it as a navigational landmark due to its size. The rock itself stands at about 576 feet tall. Booking a boat ride on the bay is the best way to catch a glimpse of Morro Rock, as well as sight the playful sea otters and sea lions that live in the bay. While you wait for your boat ride, you can also explore the thrift and artisan shops of downtown Morro Bay and leisurely walk through the embarcadero by the water. If you’re lucky, you may even catch an art market set up in the park and look through the handmade pieces by local artists!

The blue water of Morro Bay in the foreground, with a single boat in the water and Morro Rock in the background.
A clear view of Morro Rock from waters of Morro Bay; Image source: PlanetWare

San Simeon

If the name William Randolph Hearst rings a bell, then San Simeon is definitely the place to park your car for a day on your road trip. Centered around the life and history of Hearst, the sights of San Simeon reveal not just the natural greatness of the Central Coast, but also its man-made grandeur.

Hearst Castle

The highlight of San Simeon is Hearst Castle — the past home of its namesake, an affluent businessman and newspaper mogul of Americana history. Learn about Hearst’s life and career here. The Castle itself is worthy of its title: it sits atop a hilltop overlooking San Simeon. In addition to the main building, there are three guesthouses and a total of 127 acres of property filled with gardens, swimming pools, and priceless artwork. Guests can explore the Mediterranean and Spanish style of this 1900’s estate on a guided tour. Any visitor would delight in the architectural wonders of Hearst Castle!

A bottom-up view of the main entrance to Hearst Castle, which has a white exterior with blue and gold detailings.
The intricate double towers of the main building of Hearst Castle; Image courtesy of Ashika Raghavan

Hearst Memorial State Beach

Just down the hill from Hearst Castle is the Hearst Memorial State Beach. This is the perfect place for a picnic on the beach after a long tour of the castle! The white painted pier provides a stark contrast to the bright blue of the ocean, and is an ideal spot to take some good pictures on your road trip. While resting on the beach, you might also be able spot some sea lions that are relaxing with you by the pier!

A view of the Hearst Memorial State Beach Pier, with the white railings of the pier extending into the distance and the blue water below.
The picturesque pier of the Hearst Memorial State Beach; Image courtesy of Ashika Raghavan

Big Sur

The next stretch of the California Central Coast can be accomplished without needing to get out of your car. It is called Big Sur, a rugged stretch of coast between San Simeon to the south and Carmel to the north. Amongst all the scenic routes you could take, this would be at the top! Some highlights driving along Big Sur are: Bixby Creek Bridge, Pfeiffer Beach, and Point Sur Lightstation. This is the point in the road trip to put on some music, roll down your windows, and marvel at the raw and natural attraction of the Central Coast as you travel along Highway 1.

An aerial view of the open arch bridge crossing between mountains on the coast, and the far-off beaches near the base of the mountains.
The Bixby Creek Bridge in Big Sur; Image source: Lonely Planet

Monterey 

Finally, we have reached the last stopping point of our road trip! Monterey is a major city in the California Central Coast, and home to the fabled Cannery Row on the waterfront. Visitors can shop and eat in Monterey to their heart’s content, especially those who love luxurious boutiques and seafood. If you are aiming to complete this road trip to its entirety, however, Monterey offers much more. Check out the 17-Mile Drive and the Monterey Bay Aquarium to round out the end of your trip and check the Central Coast off your bucket list!

17-Mile Drive

This scenic route takes you by car through Pebble Beach and Pacific Grove on the coast of the Monterey Peninsula. Just like there are 17 miles on this route, there are also 17 points/attractions along the way. You can stop at each one to take pictures and learn about these unique natural formations and their interesting histories. These 17 points are:

  1. Shepherd’s Knoll
  2. Huckleberry Hill
  3. Spanish Bay Beach
  4. The Restless Sea
  5. Point Joe
  6. China Rock
  7. Bird Rock
  8. Seal Rock
  9. Fanshell Beach Overlook
  10. Cypress Point Outlook
  11. Crocker Grove
  12. The Lone Cypress
  13. Ghost Trees at Pescadero Point
  14. Visitor Center at Pebble Beach
  15. Pebble Beach Golf Links
  16. Equestrian Center at Pebble Beach
  17. Ford Meadow
An animated map of the Monterey Peninsula in green, with drawings for each of the points on the 17-Mile Drive.
A map of the attractions along the coast of the 17-Mile Drive; Image source: TripSavvy

Monterey Bay Aquarium

The name “Monterey” itself conjures up images of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. A famous and grand display of marine life, the aquarium also works in preserving the natural habitats of Monterey Bay. Exhibits of sea otters, penguins, octopus, kelp forests, and more leave visitors in wonder at the diversity of flora and fauna in our oceans. A great way to get back on your feet after a long drive and put on your scientist hat, the Monterey Bay Aquarium awaits you! It provides a learning experience for both children and adults, so make sure not to miss out on the aquarium while in Monterey. Click here for information on tickets, exhibits, and other details for visitors.

Also Read: 5 iOS Driving Apps for your Family Road Trip

People stand in front of the ceiling-high glass in front of the kelp forest exhibit, which is filled with blue water and long pillars of kelp.
Visitors stand in awe at the grand kelp forest exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium; Image source: Monterey Bay Aquarium

Central Coast: Just You, Your Car, and Highway 1

Your best friend on this road trip of the California Central Coast is Highway 1. It snakes up the coast of California, and provides easy access to the places on this travel guide. All you need for a successful road trip of the Central Coast, then, is your car and Highway 1 (and of course, you!) This is the perfect opportunity to explore a place closer to home if you already live in California, or find a new side to the state if you are visiting from elsewhere. California is a wonderful blend of urban and rural, popular culture and natural beauty. The Central Coast captures it all, from the beaches and cliffs to popular celebrities of American history. So the next time you’re contemplating a road trip that will take your breath away, look no further than the California Central Coast!

An aerial view of the highway running between the golden hills of the coast to the left, and the rocky cliffs by the water on the right.
Highway 1 running down the scenic Central Coast of California; Image source: loveEXPLORING

Leave a Reply