This California road trip itinerary takes you along the spectacular Pacific Coast Highway, through deserts, and around lakes, mountains, and other places. This is one of the most varied road trips you can make in the United States.
We have traveled these roads and highways on several road trips through California. We visited all of the recommended sights. Mix and match this two-week itinerary to make California road trips as long or as short as you want.
California Road Trip Itinerary
Before you embark on your California road trip, download your Pacific Coast Highway Self-Drive tour. Follow the app to explore the California Coast at your pace. You can also discover towns and other points of interest as you go. It will automatically track your route and tell you about stops from Monterey to Pismo Beach.
The first stage of our California road trip has been planned from San Francisco. You can fly in from most major airports and rent a car directly at the airport. San Francisco’s traffic is less jammed than in Los Angeles, making it a great place to start any California road trip.
Two days in San Francisco will allow you to visit all the famous sites, such as the Golden Gate Bridge. Then move south. You can plan your trip to San Francisco with our 72 Hours in San Francisco guide.
Tip: We bought a City Pass and explored San Francisco’s neighborhoods by bus. It was an excellent way to learn about the city’s layout and to have the ability to hop on and off as many times as we wanted with a 24- or 48-hour pass.
Click here to find all the car rental agencies and get the best deal for your California Road Trip.
Things to Do in San Francisco
San Francisco Cable Car
Golden Gate Park – One of the most beautiful views of the Golden Gate Bridge
Full House made The Painted Ladies famous.
Haight Ashbury’s hippie district and China Town are home to the Hippie District.
The Palace of the Arts
Check out our complete guide to the Best Hikes in San Francisco.
The Golden Gate Bay Cruise will take you to many of the top sights when you’re in San Francisco. You will cruise along the waterfront, sail underneath the Golden Gate Bay Bridge, visit Alcatraz, and go through the old hippy enclave Sausalito. You can see marine life like sea lions, dolphins, and whales while you cruise the Marin Headlands wildlife reserve.
Monterey/Carmel By The Sea
We leave San Francisco and continue down the Pacific Coast Highway toward Monterey. Either Monterey, Carmel by the Sea, or Monterey are options. Monterey and Carmel by the Sea can be reached in 10 minutes. Carmel by the Sea was our home for the night, and it was an excellent location from which to explore Big Sur.
Monterey is a great place to watch whales. The Monterey Bay tour leaves from Old Fisherman’s Wharf and takes in whale watching. As you travel by Cannery Row and the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, you’ll be able to see Californian Sea Lions relaxing in the harbor.
Things to Do and See
Cycling 17 Mile Drive – This is it if you want to see Carmel before going on. We had a great time riding e-bikes with Big Sur Adventures. Learn more about our experience on 17-Mile Drive, California’s Most Scenic Drive.
Cannery Row – The Historic Cannery Row was transformed from an old warehouse to colorful buildings that line the waterfront, dotted with shops and eateries.
Monterey Aquarium – The Monterey Aquarium, the heart of Monterey Bay, is where they study the water and address ocean health issues.
Kayaking Monterey Bay: Take advantage of kayaking in Monterey Bay. Adventures highly recommend a kayaking tour of Monterey Bay by the Sea. view sea-otters or sea lions.
Surfing Carmel – Beginners will love Carmel Bay’s easy breaks and shallow waters. The Carmel Surf Company taught us a lesson.
For an hour, continue down the Pacific Coast Highway 1 from Monterrey towards Big Sur.
The Pacific Coast Highway is California’s Grand Dame of all California road trips. We recommend spending at least two days exploring Big Sur’s coast. These sights can be explored from Monterey.
This Pacific Coast Highway Self-Drive Tour is an excellent Big Sur road trip addition. It showcases some of the most beautiful views and stops from Monterey to Pismo Beach. The app tracks your route, and the audio guide provides commentary that tells stories and suggests points of interest. This leg will take you to places such as Garrapata State Park and McWay Falls.
Many consider The Big Sur section of California Coastal Drive 1 to be one of the most beautiful drives in the world. It is a must-see for road trip lovers. This leg should be included on all California road trips. There are beautiful stops at sea cliffs that overlook the Pacific Ocean.
Big Sur: Things to See
Bixby Bridge – Don’t forget to stop at the Bixby Bridge. Many films and TV shows have made this bridge famous (most recently, Big Little Lies). Tip: See the sunrise. No tourists were present when we were awake before dawn.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns National Park is a great place to hike and stroll along the trails. The McWay Waterfalls are the most prominent feature. It also offers stunning views of the Pacific Ocean.
Pfeiffer Beach is one of the most beautiful beaches along the route. Pfeiffer Beach can be reached by driving off Highway 1 on a narrow, bumpy road. It attracts fewer tourists than other views along Highway 1. Check out: 24 of the Best Beaches In California
Garrapata State Park: Hiking trails along California’s coast, Karst formations, and sea arches make Garrapata State Park an extraordinary place to see the rugged coastline. To see a complete list of stops for photography with GPS coordinates, visit our Photography guide to Big Sur.
Ventana Resort is the best place to stay in Big Sur.
We made Big Sur our home base at Ventana resort and spent two days exploring the area. One night was spent in their glamping tents and the other in a luxury suite overlooking the ocean. Ventana is the ideal base to explore Big Sur because it’s right in the middle of everything.
Big Sur Restaurants
The Sur House – The Sur House is located at Ventana BIG Sur. It’s an elegant dining establishment that uses locally sourced cuisine. A delicious three-course meal is available on the $90 Fix Menu—address: 48123 Highway 1.
Big Sur River Inn – The Big Sur River Inn was the first restaurant and hotel in the area. These photos were from 1932, when the area was still inhabited.
Nepenthe – A staple of Big Sur, Nepenthe has been open since 1949 and attracts artists, poets, and travelers to its 800-foot sea cliff views. Address: 48510 Highway One
Big Sur Roadhouse – This family-owned eatery is known for its funky atmosphere and family-friendly seating. Steve Justice, a designer, transformed the roadhouse into a unique design they call homegrown modernism.
Coastal Highway Stops
The drive from Big Sur to Santa Maria takes three hours, but you will have plenty of time to enjoy all the sights.
Continue down the coast to Santa Maria, which we love so much. This route is not for the faint of heart. You can still see a lot on this stretch of California Coast. It is possible to spend an entire day exploring these sites while you travel to your next overnight destination.
San Simeon built Hearst Castle on 127 acres. It is located on a hill overlooking San Simeon. Enjoy a tour of America’s castle before continuing to Santa Maria for the night.
Morrow Bay – Another stunning beach is Morrow Rock. This 180-meter-high volcanic plug stands proudly off the coast of Morrow Bay.
If you have time before Santa Maria, Pismo Beach can be another stop.