California Driving Trip of the Central Coast – Highway 101, Big Sur, Carmel, Monterey, Santa Barbara

Pat Dunlap Our Toyota Venza on 17 Mile Drive Near Carmel central coast California
Pat with Our Toyota Venza
on 17 Mile Drive Near Carmel, California
California Driving Trip of the Central Coast – Highway 101, Big Sur, Carmel, Monterey, Santa Barbara (9/25-10/12/2012) – This is truly one of the USA’s most scenic driving trips!

We drove the beautiful Central Coast of California on Highway 101 and Highway 1 from Santa Barbara north to San Francisco in our Toyota Venza. We present our trip high points offering great trip planning tips for you. See below for the main highlight - Big Sur, Carmel, and the Monterey Peninsula.

California's Beautiful Central Coast Along Highway 101
California's Beautiful Central Coast 
Along Highway 101
California’s Central Coast is a region that remains calm and tranquil. Situated between the megalopolises of Southern California (north of Santa Barbara) and San Francisco’s Bay Area, the Central Coast includes some of the classic tourist country of California. It provides spectacular ocean views, wide-open natural spaces, nice beaches, quant towns, beautiful Spanish missions, and a more peaceful way of life. One of the USA’s most scenic driving routes, US Highway 101, goes virtually its entire length offering beautiful ocean and countryside vistas.

Beautiful & Quant Carmel-By-The-Sea California
Beautiful & Quaint 
Carmel-By-The-Sea, California
Some of our favorites areas we visited are Santa Barbara, Hearst Castle at San Simeon, Big Sur, Carmel-By-The-Sea, and the Monterey Peninsula, home to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the 17-Mile Drive, and downtown Pacific Grove. Population in the Central Coast is concentrated in a series of fun-to-visit small to medium sized towns and cities such as Big Sur, Carmel, Monterey, Morro Bay, Pismo Beach, Moro Bay, Cambria, San Luis Obispo, Solvang, and Santa Cruz.

Tree Lined State Street Santa Barbara California
Tree Lined State Street 
- Santa Barbara, California
A great place to start your trip up California’s Central Coast is Santa Barbara, the largest but still very pleasant city to wander around. Beautiful beaches and a backdrop of mountains surround it. Rebuilt after a 1925 earthquake, the architecture is built in a Mediterranean style with red-titled roofs, whitewashed buildings, and palm trees. Santa Barbara’s tree-lined main street, State Street, is a great way to spend a few hours (see photo). Stearns Wharf at the end of State Street has a mixture of shops and seafood restaurants.

A short drive north along Highway 101 from Santa Barbara is the cute Danish town of Solvang complete with windmills and half-timbered houses that is worth a drive through.

Pat Dunlap Driving Our Toyota Venza on Pismo Beach California
Driving Our Toyota Venza 
on Pismo Beach, California
Traveling north, our next stop was Pismo Beach, a nostalgic California beach town with wide sandy beaches. Pismo Beach was once famous for its Pismo clams. When we were young, my brother and I “clammed” this beach. At low tide we waded into the cold water with our clamming pitchforks and dug clams out of the sand. Because our feet became numb from the cold water, we could have stabbed our feet without knowing. These days, the beach is pretty much clammed out.

The absolute highpoint of our visit to Pismo Beach was driving our Toyota Venza on the beach (see photo). We went for miles. This is very fun to do but we recommend pulling out at the recommended place because the sand gets soft down the beach and is best for ATV’s only. (Directions: Pier Street next to Grover Beach in Oceano, south of Pismo Beach, is the gateway known as Post 1 for the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area.)

Wayne Dunlap Bubblegum Alley Higuera Street San Luis Obispo California
Wayne at Bubblegum Alley 
on Higuera Street - San Luis Obispo, California
Heading inland on Highway 101, we made a stop in San Luis Obispo, halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. San Luis Obispo is a pleasant town with no must-see attractions. We did have fun walking San Luis Obispo’s downtown Higuera Street and visiting Bubblegum Alley, known for its accumulation of chewed bubble gum on the walls of a long alley (see photo). You can add some of your own if you like. We also enjoyed the Thursday Farmers’ Market. If you like ribs, don’t miss eating at F. McLintocks. The nearby Madonna Inn is worth a stop.

Sunset Morro Rock Morro Bay California
Sunset at Morro Rock - 
Morro Bay, California
While driving north, you get back to the Pacific Ocean when you reach Morro Bay and Morro Rock. Dominating the view, Morro Rock is a 576-foot high volcanic peak jutting out in the bay (see photo).  

About Morro Rock & some history... Morro Rock is a 581-foot volcanic plug located just offshore at the entrance to Morro Bay Harbor. It was named in 1542 by Portuguese navigator Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, who explored the Pacific Coast for Spain. Cabrillo called the rock El Moro because it resembled the head of a Moor, the people from North Africa known for the turbans they wore. Climbing on the rock or disturbing the bird life is forbidden by law.

We liked the small town of Moro Bay with its beautiful beaches and harbor on the bay. Moro Bay’s Embarcadero harbor area has shops and fresh seafood restaurants. 

Travel tips... We were happy with Rosie’s that served some very good 2-dollar fish tacos on Tuesday night. Try Rosie’s killer garlic fries. Moro Bay is a pretty kicked-back place. While we were there, a seagull walked into the restaurant like he owned the place – maybe he heard about the fish tacos.

Scarecrow Festival Cambria California
Scarecrow Festival - Cambria, California
Our next stop was the wonderful Hearst Castle in San Simeon that deserved its own blog post – click here to see more about Hearst Castle. On the way, it was nice to drive through the town of Cayucos with its miles of homes on the beach and the artist community of Cambria that was setting up for its Scarecrow Festival (see photo).

Now for the main highlight of our California Central Coast driving trip... Big Sur, Carmel, and the Monterey Peninsula.

North of San Simeon is one of the most scenic drives in the U.S. winding along the beautiful rocky California coastline with dramatic cliffs rising from the Pacific Ocean (see photo). Highway 1, the Cabrillo Highway, was carved and blasted out the mountain slopes over 100 years ago and today remains unspoiled. Allow 3-4 hours to drive because of the switchback road and for stopping to enjoy the vistas.
Wayne Dunlap River Inn  Big Sur River California
Wayne at River Inn 
 in the Big Sur River, California
Pat Wayne Dunlap Big Sur Inn Big Sur California
Pat & Wayne at Big Sur Inn 
- Big Sur, California
Eventually you reach the amazing Big Sur area.  

Big Sur is a treat, more of an experience than one tangible place. It is a retreat for those who want to get away from life’s busy schedules. One of our favorite experiences in Big Sur was stopping and having lunch at the River Inn. It is located in the redwoods along the scenic Big Sur River where you can sit in chairs in the slow-moving river – heavenly! (see photo). Travel tip... If you want to stay in Big Sur, book your reservations ahead of time because, like we learned, even in October they book out.

McWay Falls Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park California
McWay Falls 
- Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, California
Other nice places to visit in the Big Sur area are crescent-shaped Pfeiffer Beach, the Nepenthe restaurant with its beautiful ocean vista, and the quant Big Sur Inn. Located 37 miles south of Big Sur, don’t miss taking the short hike to picturesque 80-foot McWay Falls dropping over a cliff into the Pacific Ocean (see photo) at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.

Beautiful Carmel-By-The-Sea California
Beautiful Carmel-By-The-Sea, California
Now for Pat’s favorite and one of California’s best gems - picture-perfect Carmel. Carmel-by-the-Sea is charming and beautiful with tree-line streets and flowers flowing out of every shop and restaurant (see photo). Carmel has a beautiful beach and fairytale Comstock cottages, with stone chimneys and pitched gable roofs, dot the town. Housing prices have soared here. Clint Eastwood, Carmel’s former major, and other celebrities have homes just east in Carmel Valley.

Bixby Bridge California's Central Coastline
Bixby Bridge and 
California's Central Coastline
About 13 miles south of Carmel is the much-photographed Bixby Bridge (see our photo). Bixby Bridge is one of the world’s highest single-span bridges measuring 714 long and 260 feet high. It has become a symbol of this coastal drive. There is a photo-opt pull off just north of Bixby Bridge. Just south of Carmel is a nice hike out to Seal Rock at Point Lobos State Park.

Lone Cypress Pine 17 Mile Drive Monterey Peninsula California
Lone Cypress on 17 Mile Drive
- Monterey Peninsula, California
Wayne Dunlap Lodge at Pebble Beach Overlooking Golf Course California
Wayne at Lodge at Pebble Beach 
Overlooking Golf Course
The famous 17-Mile Drive starts just as you leave north of Carmel. This is a must-do spectacularly scenic drive where every curve reveals another postcard vista. Stop and enjoy the well-marked sights such as Lone Cypress that stands alone on a rocky outcrop above the pounding surf (see photo). We also enjoyed the Lodge at Pebble Beach. It is elegant and yet causal with a friendly staff. We had drinks overlooking the 18th hole at the famous Pebble Beach Golf course (see photo).

Fishermen's Wharf Monterey California
Fishermen's Wharf 
- Monterey, California
Headed north of the 17-Mile Drive you drive through tranquil Pacific Grove with a pretty downtown and then you reach Monterey with its famous Monterey Bay Aquarium. We visited the Aquarium last trip and highly recommend it. So this time we had a nice seafood lunch on the Fishermen’s Wharf. It is a bit touristic but fun to walk along the wharf and get free clam chowder samples at many of the restaurants. You can take deep-sea fishing trips and whale watching expeditions from here.

Beach Boardwalk Santa Cruz California
Beach Boardwalk 
- Santa Cruz, California
Leaving the Monterey Peninsula, we drove north to Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz is a classic California beach town. Its famous beach boardwalk (opened only during the summer) has the oldest beachfront amusement park on the U.S.’s west coast (see photo). Overlooking the beach, it includes carnival rides, the famous half-mile-long Giant Dipper, a vintage 1924 wooden roller coaster, and the 1911 Looff carousel. You can also join the barking sea lions at the nearby municipal wharf for a seafood lunch or dinner. Just south of Santa Cruz is the pretty town of Capitola, known as the oldest beach resort on the west coast and worth a visit.

Elephant Seals Ano Nuevo State Park California
Elephant Seals 
- Ano Nuevo State Park, California
The Ano Nuevo State Park offers a great experience to learn more about the once almost extinct northern elephant seals. These large animals spend most of their lives at sea, coming ashore only to molt, give birth, and mate. Every winter, thousands of northern elephant seals gather. Females arrive, giving birth to their babies and shortly afterward, males start fighting to mate with them. The orgy of birthing, mating and fighting lasts for three months. They were slaughtered wholesale in the 1800s for their oil. By 1892, only 50 to 100 individuals were left. Because they are protected, the population now exceeds 150,000. Local docents are available to tell you about these amazing animals.

Restaurant Half Moon Bay California
Restaurant - Half Moon Bay, California
Before reaching San Francisco, a quick stop at Half Moon Bay is fun.

We would like to thank Toyota for lending us a new Venza for this trip. The Toyota Venza is a very comfortable cruising car with many nice features – great for having an adventure. It made our trip more enjoyable. We liked this car very much and now miss it after our trip. You should check out the Toyota Venza.

Please see our other 11 blog posts on beautiful California:

Santa Barbara, California

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  1. Great post! Looks like you had a really nice time. We also plan for the same route for our up coming california trip.hotel near Davenport fl

  2. Fantastic! I used to live in Pacific Grove and Monterey, and would spend many weekends driving Big Sur. One of the most amazing places on our planet.

  3. Thanks for the highlights of your California road trip. I am planning on spending a couple of months in California early next year on my big road trip so I will revisit this post again I am sure.

  4. We did this route one year also, but in the opposite direction. We stayed in lovely little Bed and Breakfast places along the way. I'm usually a bad car passenger, but on this route, the drive is part of the "there, there" (with apologies to Gertrude Stein), so I behaved myself and enjoyed the ride.

  5. Wonderful suggestions all! I should know, I think I've been to every place you mentioned. Of course, that has been over a lifetime as a native Californian. The rest of you better get crackin' on this bucket list drive!

  6. Would you rather stay at a
    California vacation property
    ? or would a hotel do when you visit someplace for a few weeks?


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