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The Perfect Highway 1 Road Trip Through California

Don't travel this iconic route without hitting up great camping, hiking, surfing, and more along the way

Taking a roadtrip up the California coast using Highway 1 is a great summer adventure. (Visit California/Mason Trinca)
Photo: Visit California/Mason Trinca California

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Don't travel this iconic route without hitting up great camping, hiking, surfing, and more along the way

California’s Highway 1 is a perennial favorite for adventurous road-trippers—and for good reason. You can visit the sunny beaches of San Diego, the wine country of the central coast, the rugged cliffs of Big Sur, and the towering redwoods of Mendocino without ever leaving the road. Sections of the iconic highway were closed due to wildfire and mudslides for over a year, but these reopened in July 2018 and the route is eager for visitors. Along the way, score dreamy campsites overlooking the Pacific Ocean or post up at the many revamped retro hotels that dot the route. Tackle the whole thing, or take it on piecemeal by planning a trip for one of the sections below.  

Leg One

California
(Courtesy Skyview Los Alamos)

San Diego to Santa Barbara

Start from the southern end of Highway 1 in San Diego, where you’ll find a thriving craft-beer scene, friendly surf breaks, and 65 miles of trails in the city’s 1,200-acre Balboa Park. Stay in Hotel del Coronado (from $323), a historic guesthouse on Coronado Island in the heart of San Diego Bay, and don’t miss the ever changing collection of small plates, like pork shoulder with bacon-braised lentils and black trumpet mushrooms, at the award-winning restaurant Juniper and Ivy in the city’s Harbor View neighborhood.

Crystal Cove, near Newport Beach (south of Los Angeles), has oceanfront cottages and private rooms for rent starting at just $37 a night, or continue north and hit Sandy’s Beach Shack in Huntington Beach for mahi-mahi tacos, beer, and a surf session before checking into Malibu’s Surfrider Hotel (from $369), a revamped 1950s-era motel with wetsuits and surfboards for rent and a rooftop deck. Near Santa Barbara, Skyview Los Alamos (from $179) is another renovated motel, this one with outdoor showers overlooking wine country and loaner mountain bikes for exploring the area’s miles of quality singletrack.  

Leg Two

California
(Luke Dahlgren/Unsplash)

The Central Coast

Camp, sandboard, or drive ATVs on more than five miles of sand dunes in Oceano Dunes State Park, and check out the history of skateboarding at the Morro Bay Skateboard Museum. Then be sure to grab a scoop of Harmony Valley Creamery ice cream at the legendary Thursday-night farmers’ market in San Luis Obispo. The Hotel San Luis Obispo (from $445) opens in June, or check out the town’s eccentric Madonna Inn (from $109), where you can stay in a rock-lined room designed to mimic the granite walls of Yosemite.

Instead of continuing north on Highway 1, make a short detour inland to visit the wineries that surround Paso Robles in addition to a new multi-acre installation from artist Bruce Munro called Field of Light, where you can wander among 58,800 solar-powered spheres that light up the night. Back on route, spot elephant seals on the beach in the seaside village of Cambria, and book a tour of Hearst Castle in San Simeon to take in the art, gardens, and free-roaming zebras that were once part of William Randolph Hearst’s private zoo.

Leg Three

California
(Visit California/Myles McGuinnes)

Big Sur to San Francisco

Stop off in Limekiln State Park and you’ll find a secluded beach and views of the Big Sur coast. Then hike the trails and pitch a tent in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, which should reopen sometime this summer after a storm damaged it in early February. From there, it’s just an hour north to Big Sur proper and the surf breaks at Sand Dollar Beach. If you’re in search of some luxe accommodations, opt for a safari-style tent nestled in a redwood forest at Ventana Big Sur (from $450), which overlooks the ocean and has Japanese-inspired hot baths and a gallery featuring the works of local artists. Can’t-miss eats in the area include the cookies at Big Sur Bakery and the Ambrosia burger on the outdoor patio at Nepenthe.

On your way north toward San Francisco, Carmel Coffee, in the charming one-square-mile town of Carmel-by-the-Sea, has espresso and surprisingly good ramen bowls, and there’s quality mountain biking in Santa Cruz’s Demo Forest, just south of San Francisco. Don’t miss the freshly baked artichoke bread at Norm’s Market in the old fishing town of Pescadero, just off Highway 1, and the sunset from San Gregorio State Beach.

Leg Four

California
(Courtesy Bodega Bay Lodge)

Mill Valley to Mendocino

Once Highway 1 crosses the Golden Gate Bridge, you’ll be treated to vast stretches of empty, jagged coastline and little towns worth long pit stops. Start with a mountain-bike ride or a trail run with ocean views in Mount Tamalpais State Park, north of Muir Beach, where mountain biking first got its start. There’s a well-loved surf break in Bolinas—and good beta and gear at the town’s 2 Mile Surf Shop, which rents boards and offers lessons—if you can find the turnoff for this unmarked beach town. Fuel up with tasty tacos in an old lifeguard tower at Siren Canteen in Stinson Beach.

In Guerneville, AutoCamp (from $190) rents decked-out Airstreams for a night along the Russian River and provides canoes for a mellow paddle. Or book yourself into the Bodega Bay Lodge (from $189), which has recently renovated rooms on a rocky bluff above the sea. In Mendocino, Catch a Canoe and Bicycles Too rents paddleboards and bikes and offers guided boat tours on outrigger canoes up the Big River, which flows into Mendocino Bay. From there the highway continues along the coast for a few dozen miles before turning inland to join Highway 101.   

Filed To: San Diego / Bikes / Biking / California / San Francisco / Santa Barbara / Beaches / Fishing / Road Trips