California is a big state. Sure, we boast about being able to surf and ski in the same day, but have you ever tried driving that distance? Especially if you have to drive through LA traffic sometimes all you want is the fastest route from A to B. I get it. But having driven through the central valley on Interstate 5 for years, sometimes what you really want is some actual scenery. A lovely drive with plenty of places you want to pull over and check out. Once you get out of Los Angeles and start driving up the coast on Highway 1 or 101 you’ll want to stay forever. There’s something magical about seeing the ocean on one side of the freeway and a forest on the other. Add in a hovering marine layer and you’ve got the perfect central coast road trip.
Note: Southern Californians (and some Arizonans) refer to highways and interstates with the definite article. For example: Interstate 5 = the 5. Check out this article if you’re interested, but I will be using ‘the’ in place of highway or interstate from now on.
After the 101 splits off from the 405 (or the 5 in downtown, depending on where you’re coming from) you’ll travel through the land of the Kardashians – Calabasas – before reaching the beach cities of Oxnard and Ventura. Ventura is the last major city before you come into Santa Barbara. The towns between are smaller and more spread out. The farther north you go, the farther apart the cities become so just keep an eye on your gas tank and trust those “no services for xx miles” signs.
Santa Barbara is famous for it’s beautiful Spanish style buildings and epic ocean views. Imagine bright white walls, red tile roofs and blooming bougainvillea and you’ve pretty much nailed it. For as big of a city as it is, it definitely feels small town. While you’re in downtown check out the original Habit Burger on State St. It’s legit better than In-n-Out.
Downtown Santa Barbara, running mainly along State Street, is great for walking around, window shopping, wine tasting and of course, eating. The city is also home to one of the twenty-one California missions, about a mile and a half from downtown. Known as “the Queen” of the missions it’s definitely one of the most beautiful. From the roses blooming out in front to the painted walls inside the chapel, to the La Huerta Historical Garden, this is probably the one you want to see. Admission for the self-guided tour is $9 for adults. Kids 4 and under are free, otherwise $4.
Just up the road from Santa Barbara is the Dutch town of Solvang. This little touristy spot is totally worth the stop for Aebleskivers, if for anything. Aebleskivers (pronounced: able – SKEE – ver) are pancake balls usually topped with raspberry jam and powdered sugar. SO. GOOD.
Throughout the village of Solvang you’ll find traces of Danish culture. There are full size windmills, a replica of the famous Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen, even a giant wooden clog. You can visit the Hans Christian Andersen museum or just continue your wine tasting tour at any of the tasting rooms in downtown.
Just outside of Solvang is the Mission Santa Ines. Are you sensing a trend here? I admit I love California history and the missions are some of the best places to find it. Most of the original mission was destroyed in an earthquake in the early 1800s but the chapel was rebuilt to what you will see today. Behind the present mission buildings is a lovely garden.
San Luis Obispo
Lush trees and open fields belie evidence that San Luis Obispo is, in fact, a college town. The town is home to the California Polytechnic University, part of the California State University system. San Luis Obispo, or SLO, has dubbed itself the happiest place in America, and every time I drive through it, I tend to agree. The downtown area lined with brick buildings has restaurants, breweries, wineries, basically all your tourist wants and needs. If you don’t know what you want or need, check out bubblegum alley, literally an alley covered in chewed bubblegum from thousands of people’s mouths. That will teach you not to know what you want!
And guess what?! There’s another mission here! I know, I know, I’m mission crazy, but hey – we skipped a couple on the way up here, so bare with me. The Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa is one of the missions founded by Father Junipero Serra. (Not all the missions were founded by him, he was already an old man when he started in 1769) Depending on the season, you might even find grapes growing on the arbor in the Mission garden.
If you’ve been driving north following the 101, San Luis Obispo is where you’ll catch the famous Highway 1. Just a few minutes north is Morro Bay. To be honest, I haven’t spent a lot of time in the town but it’s definitely worth stopping to see Morro Rock, and possibly catch a glimpse of a sea otter.
Morro Rock isn’t really a rock, but a huge mound of earth, over 500 feet tall at the end of the beach across from the harbor. If you exit Highway 1 on Morro Bay Blvd and jog over to Beach Street you’ll see Morro Rock rising majestically over the hill directly in front of you. You can walk out on the spit that leads to the rock, but you can’t climb it. It’s a protected habitat for the peregrine falcon. The last time we stopped here we just parked at the marina. Walking out to the end of the pier will give you a clear view of the rock. We even saw a sea otter chillin’ in the marina. So cute!
Another town that might otherwise be a blip on the radar but is definitely worth a stop is Cambria. I discovered Cambria the first time I drove Highway 1 with San Simeon as the destination. I instantly fell in love. It’s just one of those idyllic places. Both in the woods and on the coast, it’s everything you could want in a small town in California. Head to Main Street, running parallel to the highway. Grab lunch at Linn’s, or just a piece of pie around the corner at the Easy as Pie Cafe. Olallieberry is their specialty, but I love the peach-blueberry. Adjacent to Linn’s, up a steep hill you’ll find the Old Santa Rosa Chapel and Cemetery. If you’re a taphophile like myself, you’ll want to check this place out. Most of the gravestones are from the late 1800s or around the turn of the century and many of them are from the same families. Further down Bridge Street, past the Easy as Pie Cafe, is Cambria Cemetery, which is much bigger and filled with unusual stones and markers.
On the other end of Main Street you’ll find more places to eat and shop. Or try 927 Beer Company or any of the many wine tasting rooms – Moonstone, Cuyocos, and Black Hand are all close together -if you’re in the mood for something alcoholic. The Central Coast has many wine regions including Paso Robles, about 40 minutes inland. It’s a great location for a wine weekend.
Before you leave, take a few minutes to take in Nit Wit Ridge. This historic landmark on Hillcrest Drive must be seen. It’s the work of Arthur Beal, the town garbage collector, who built his house over the course of fifty years out of trash. He also salvaged things from the local woods and beaches. The facade of the house is adorned with abalone shells and smooth beach rocks, as well as toilets, tin cans, and other things that are commonly thrown out.
A few miles north of Cambria is the even tinier town of San Simeon, mainly known as the home of Hearst Castle. William Randolph Hearst, was a newspaper baron around the turn of the 20th century. He employed a tactic now known as yellow journalism (although in 2018 we just call it Fake News) to sell papers. If you’ve ever seen the movie or play, Newsies, he’s mentioned along with Pulitzer who owns The World, the newspaper the Newsies work for. That story really happened, kind of, and Hearst and Pulitzer both exploited workers and readers to make their fortunes. Anyway, Hearst built a beautiful house for himself in the hills overlooking San Simeon, that is grand enough to be called a castle. If you’re going to splurge for one thing on this trip, I’d recommend a tour of Hearst Castle. It’s truly incredible. Plus, there are great views of the ocean and hills from up there. Note: The Hearst family does a lot of philanthropy including restoring local historical buildings like the Mission San Miguel.
Down near the coast is the tiny town of San Simeon. You won’t find much but Sebastian’s General Store, a national historic landmark, and a couple of pretty cool old buildings and rusting farm equipment. Personally, I love stuff like that. There’s a beautiful view of the ocean from there too, for those of you who don’t.
San Simeon Creek Campground
On my last trip to San Simeon, we camped at San Simeon Creek Campground. It’s a pretty big campsite with three loops, both tent and RV spaces, and a walking path down to the beach. You can reserve in advance, but you can’t pick your spot. We got there around 3pm on Friday and were granted a pretty decent spot, close to the water supply and restroom. The site was below street level, so it made it a little private, but the sites on either side of ours were very close.
Each site comes with a picnic table and fire pit. It’s hard not to judge your own camping skills when you’re surrounded by people making full on pancake breakfasts and camping with their cats (yes! Our neighbor had a cat in their tent!) but hey, we cooked our dinner and made s’mores so we did alright! However, I think next time I’m going to take a page from our super camper neighbors and cook on the butane burner I have, rather than try to cook over the campfire.
The weather was really foggy and overcast at the beach, kind of like being in a cloud. Terrible beach weather, but we loved it. Be sure to check the weather for the season you’ll be camping and remember, no matter how warm it is during the day, sleeping in a tent is much colder than sleeping in a hotel. So be sure to pack warm sleeping clothes!
I’ve lived in California for most of my life, and I’m still amazed at how awesome it is. There’s so much I haven’t seen yet! Living in Los Angeles can be a pain, with the soaring costs of rent and the insane amount of traffic but it’s perfectly positioned for all kinds of day trips and weekend trips to escape the hustle and bustle. Driving north on the 101 may take longer but in my opinion, it’s worth the extra time. Next time you’re heading out of the city see if you can squeeze a coastal trip in, you won’t regret it.
Where’s your favorite place to road trip? Let me know in the comments!