Central Coast
US Travel

Driving Up the 101: Central California Coast Road Trip

Ready for a controversial opinion?

I think that the Central Coast is the best part of California.

I don't claim to know every square mile of my enormous state, but the Central California Coast always speaks to me. I suspect it's because it still feels like home, but just a lot less crowded, more relaxed. Much of the landscape looks familiar, but with some exciting differences (redwoods, Monterey pines, so much fuschia, and monkeyflower). The beaches I’ve visited along Hwy 1 are generally less commercialized and much emptier than our usual haunts in Oceanside or Encinitas.

My initial intent was to spend a leisurely day driving up along the 101 and the 1, finally stopping for a couple days in Monterey. We ended up cutting our time a bit short because my travel-companion sister wasn’t feeling well, and neither was my dog. In the end, we took one day up and one day down the coast, but there was enough to do for several more days.

Where We Stayed

I set out wanting to stay at campgrounds along the coast. I figured that we had largely missed the summertime rush of tourists since many schools had started the previous week. What I didn’t count on, however, was the rush of European tourists in the area. Every campground we passed was booked full. With a hotels.com coupon code in hand, I booked us one night at the Hyatt Regency Monterey Hotel & Spa after we finished our tour at the Hearst Castle.

The hotel was beyond family-friendly with its large heated pool and jacuzzi, a family game area, and a welcoming fire pit. The room had a patio and sliding glass door that was literally steps away from the pool area; no complaints from me! We went for convenience for breakfast the next morning and ate at the hotel. I went with the buffet thinking that I would share with Jenny, but our waiter let us know that she would have been free anyway. Overall, we were impressed with the hotel and would definitely stay there again!

california coast

Our Pit Stops

Solvang

I’ve been to Solvang many times, including when Jenny was about a year and a half (insert shoe picture). We typically use Solvang as a leg-stretching point on the way up to San Francisco. This time we stopped for breakfast at Paula’s Pancake House and walked through a charming antique shop while trying to track down a cheeky cat. I tried the Danish-style sausage and was not a fan. Next time I’ll plan on getting a coffee and pastry at one of the many Danish bakeries in town for breakfast instead.

california coast

Hearst Castle, San Simeon

This was my first time at the Hearst Castle. It. Did. Not. Disappoint. We took the Grand Rooms Tour and were wowed by the entire place. The tour itself took about an hour and we were free to explore the grounds for as long as we wanted afterward. The outside of the estate reminded me of the University of San Diego in a lot of ways but the inside was much more sumptuously decorated. I’m very into art history and architecture, not to mention the gardens, so I could have spent our entire vacation here. Pretty much every inch of the estate was ripe for photos so come with an extra battery pack just in case.

central coast
central coast
central coast
central coast
central coast
central coast
central coast
central coast

Beach along Highway 1, just pick one!

There is a stretch of coast between San Simeon and Ragged Point that has some amazingly low key, wide beaches for relaxing. Some of the beaches are also in the elephant seal zone, so make sure you avoid them if they're present.  I have a favorite, but loose lips sink ships. You’ll be able to find one you love, I’m sure of it! The beaches are generally very windy so be prepared to contend with sand toys being blown around and a little bit of sand in the face (just face the other way).

california coast

Avila Valley Barn, San Luis Obispo

As I've mentioned in our Scotland post, we love farm shops! This one is no exception! The Avila Valley Barn had a produce and baked goods area, animal stalls, a walk through chicken coop, a u-pick sunflower field, a sweets barn, a cafe.... I can't really think of anything that they didn't have. Jenny had a great time checking everything out, including the goats (lettuce is sold for feeding the wily goats; one jumped the fence while we were on our way out). As a nice surprise, they even sold California Native Plants and local Gilroy garlic, which I'm planning on using as seed garlic this fall. 10/10 would recommend!

california coast

california coast
california coast
california coast
california coast
california coast
california coast
california coast

Monarch Butterfly Grove, Pismo Beach

I've always heard such amazing things about this monarch butterfly grove near Pismo Beach, I had to stop on our way up. I'm sure that it's amazing when there are monarchs there; we only saw eucalyptus trees. We've had monarchs and monarch caterpillars for months in Temecula so I figured that there would be something to see at the grove. So wrong. The season up there is from late October to February. Lesson learned!

california coast

California Sea Otter Game Refuge & Cannery Row, Monterey

Sea otters are my favorite marine creatures and the Central Coast is supposed to be a great place to catch one in the wild. While I was developing our itinerary for our trip the California Sea Otter Game Refuge caught my eye. Unfortunately, this one was another swing and a miss; we only saw birds.

My expectations about Cannery Row were pretty skeptical to start out with. We ended up having a fun, quick trip through the district. It was a lot smaller than the Embarcadero or Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. We got some hot chocolate at Ghirardelli's (that has a balcony), found an adorable baklava shop and adjoining Turkish gift shop, and ordered some fish and chips for the road. We didn't make it to the aquarium because of our time crunch, but I expect we'll be back sooner or later.

california coast
california coast
california coast
california coast
california coast
california coast
california coast

The Cheese Shop, Carmel

Jenny loves cheese so this had to be on our list. We could have stayed a lot longer at this cozy cheese cave tucked into an outdoor mall in Carmel, but we had to get on the road. Don't forget to check the cheese remnants if you're in a hurry. Grab a baguette before you leave and head across the courtyard to the Carmel Honey Company and get a jar of the meadowfoam honey. So good and so unique!

california coast

california coast

Big Sur, Highway 1

Drive safely. Stop often. Be careful of blind turns. Do not take the Nacimiento-Fergusson Road unless you enjoy the prospect of death.

california coast
california coast
california coast
california coast

_______________________________________________

Driving up and down the Central California Coast is one of my favorite spontaneous excursions. There's plenty that we didn't get to in Paso Robles, Monterey, Carmel, and Big Sur... I know we'll be back soon!

What are your favorite stops along the Central California Coast? What cities do you skip? Let me know in the comments!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *