Historic Highway 1 – California Family Road Trip
Say the words “Road Trip” in some families, and it conjures memories of being held captive in the back of a station wagon with no AC and a mom trying to organize painful sing-alongs. Do the echoes of “Are we there yet?” still ring in your ears?
A drive up Historic Highway 1 through the Central California Coast will change your family’s impressions about road trips for the better. Officially designated a Scenic Byway by both the Federal government and the State of California, Highway 1 is literally full of cool things to see and do, including Morro Bay, Hearst Castle, Big Sur, Carmel, Monterey, Santa Cruz and more. Although recent heavy rains have washed out some of Highway 1 around Big Sur, there are still many ways to enjoy the historic route and the beautiful California coastline.
Here’s your Highway 1 California road trip plan:
Start in Los Angeles and Head Towards San Luis Obispo
Although Highway 1 technically runs north all the way from Orange County, it’s best to start fresh after a nice rest at the Hilton Woodland Hills or the famous Beverly Hilton. Drive north on Highway 405 and connect to Highway 101 North towards Santa Barbara.
About 3 1/2 hours in, you will hit San Luis Obispo, a beautiful college town known for California Polytechnic University, or as we locals call it, Cal Poly SLO. Grab some lunch and then veer on to Highway 1, heading north up the coast through Morro Bay and Cambria amid gorgeous Southern California beach vistas. These oceanfront towns are picturesque and quaint, complete with antique stores, small-batch wineries and roadside farm stands. We stopped for fresh-picked cherries and plums, which the farmers harvest locally. So sweet and delicious!
Hearst Castle/San Simeon
Not far up Highway 1 across from the rocky coastline on some 250,000 acres sits Hearst Castle, named after its creator William Randolph Hearst. You’ll know you’re close because the green pastures next to the road are dotted with grazing zebra herds. Yes, the eccentric millionaire who built this amazing compound raised zebra onsite, and their descendants still prosper. I’ve never seen my kids get out of the car so fast; they were on a dead run to the fence before I had turned off the engine. The zebras really are an impressive and wonderful sight, and so is the castle.
Hearst, a newspaper magnate and entrepreneur, took decades to complete the compound and outfitted it with artifacts from around the world. Gold leaf pool tiles, gargantuan dining halls, ornate sitting rooms, libraries like something out of Harry Potter all await the visiting public on several guided tours of about 60 minutes in length. I strongly urge you to book tickets in advance.
Elephant Seal Rookery
Five minutes farther up Highway 1 is the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, a protected habitat for the seals to live through their life cycles. They pair up, pup, raise their young, and molt. Males spar over potential mates in an impressive show of bravado. The males have very long noses, which appear somewhat elephant-like (thus their name).
While we looked on from the fenced trail, the seals mostly lazed on the beach in the warm sun and occasionally rolled over to tan the other side. Our girls had each one named before we made it back into the car and begged for their very own baby seal to take home. Never mind that they grow up to 5,000 pounds and practically eat their own weight in fresh fish daily. Nope.
Wine Tasting in Paso Robles
To reach Big Sur, you will need to backtrack south on Highway 1 for a few miles, taking Highway 46 back over to Highway 101 and then head north to towards Paso Robles. If you enjoy fine California wines, Paso Robles is a great place to stop and visit some wineries, taste some of the local vintages and rest for the evening. Some of the award-winning Paso Robles wines to consider include the J. Lohr, Eberle and Tobin James wineries.
Relax and hit the road again the next day!
Monterey Bay Aquarium
Up Highway 101 North and then a quick cut over on Highway 68, you will be back on Highway 1 in historic Monterey. Literary students may know that Monterey was made famous by great American novelist John Steinbeck in his bestseller Cannery Row. The town’s fishing industry, which plays prominently in the Steinbeck story, is even more popular today with visitors and locals alike. Fresh fish can be purchased and cooked at home, or if you are visiting like our family, there are a plethora of restaurants gathered along the real Cannery Row that serve any number of delicious seafood feasts.
You won’t want to skip the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which is arguably among the best in the world. Kids of all ages are fascinated by the exhibits and display, and our girls loved getting their hands wet by touching and holding California-native crustaceans, mollusks and other sea creatures. The jellyfish tanks are a standout, as are the massive tidepool exhibits, shark tanks and the adorable sea otters.
A few more miles down Highway 1 lays the quaint village of Carmel-by-the-Sea. Originally settled as an artist colony, Carmel has maintained a certain artistic flair and quirky elegance. Now a toney neighborhood of Architectural Digest-worthy cottages, shops and studios, Carmel boasts Clint Eastwood as a former mayor and is still home to Doris Day and other privacy-minded celebrities. Far from starstruck, our little family was more drawn to the white sand dunes and photo-perfect beaches.
We parked in town, walked down to the beach, strolled through the dunes and famous wind-twisted pines, and even spied a hole or two of renowned Pebble Beach’s golf courses immediately to the north along the famous 17-Mile Drive.
Big Sur and Breathtaking Views
The Beatles must have had this stretch of Highway 1 in mind when they wrote The Long and Winding Road, but the vistas are so incredibly beautiful that the curvy drive goes quickly. With plenty of lookouts and stops along the way, I could have snapped a thousand photos in less than 10 miles. The coastline here is breathtakingly gorgeous with rocky cliffs, azure blue waters, and even an occasional whale sighting. (Yes, we did see one!) We toured in the spring, and the wildflowers were blazing with color while the roadside waterfalls flowed to the rocks below. Stunning beyond measure.
Driving into the Big Sur area, we found ourselves in the midst of a California Redwood forest. Trees towered above the road, which sometimes spanned the rocky coastline on curving bridges of architectural wonder. We oooh’d and aaaah’d our way down the highway to stop at a delightful restaurant called Nepenthe, which overhangs the cliff looking southward down the redwood coast in a way that poets and painters dream of. Really, someone sprinkled magic on this place. We were even greeted by a rainbow on our visit.
End in San Francisco
When you are ready, San Francisco is just a quick 1 1/2 hour drive back up Highway 1. All the wonders of the City by the Bay can be enjoyed, including Fisherman’s Wharf, the prison mysteries of Alcatraz Island, museums of Golden Gate Park, shopping in Union Square, unusual delicacies of China Town, baseball memorabilia and a Giants game at AT&T Park. Really the list goes on and on. Our kids never get tired of our fun visits to San Francisco.
Or, you could keep on driving the Highway 1 and find yourself tooling over the Golden Gate Bridge and into Sausalito in no time, but that’s a whole other road trip!
You may also enjoy:
- Visit the Elephant Seals in California’s Ano Nuevo State Park
- California Dreamin’: The Beaches of Ventura and Oxnard
- Must-See San Francisco Attractions – A Two-Day Itinerary
- Get more tips for family vacations to San Francisco
- Find Hilton hotels along the way near Santa Cruz or in San Francisco
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A Cali boy his entire life, Jon prefers to be near the water at all times. He grew up in San Francisco and now lives in San…