Cruising the Coast:

Six Stunning Seaside Stops For a California Roadtrip

Alec Jones
June 13, 2024

Few coastlines are as iconic as that of the Golden State.

From the iconic Santa Monica pier to the rugged beauty of Big Sur, there are 1350 kilometres of sun-soaked beaches, cosy seaside towns and jaw-dropping vistas waiting to be discovered in California.

Explore the Pacific Coast from top to bottom with this itinerary of must-stop spots. Let’s hit the road.

The Lost Coast:

Fort Bragg

Our first destination is Fort Bragg, about three hours north of San Francisco. Until the 1990s, this rough-and-tumble lumber town was not very popular with tourists. Since the mill’s closure in 2002, the residents have worked hard to polish the town into a quintessential Northern California stop, and the result is something well worth the mileage.

Founded in 1889, Fort Bragg is a frontier town through and through. It won’t take you long to notice the cool air, fleets of fishing boats and thick redwood forests. Shack up overnight at Noyo Harbor Inn, a luxury hotel near the harbour where you can listen to seabirds and seals while watching fishing boats bring in the bounty of the Pacific.

Image of Two hands holding a handful of beach sand filled with shiny and colorful pieces of smooth glass

Glass Beach, Nicholas Klein via istock

Hit up one of the many seafood-focused restaurants in town, or visit the Company Store to browse and sample all sorts of local produce. In terms of sightseeing, hop aboard the Skunk Train for a scenic ride through the redwoods, stroll the multicoloured shore of Glass Beach or go wildlife-spotting down the scenic Noyo River via kayak.

Images: Fort Bragg Coastline (Kyle Roberts via iStock)

A Maritime Paradise:


California’s Central Coast region is well-established as a destination for visitors, thanks to the busy Monterey Bay area. Founded in 1770, Monterey is one of California’s oldest towns and is packed with history and maritime charm. Just a two-hour drive south of San Francisco, Monterey is primarily recognised for two attractions: Cannery Row and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The former was once a beating heart of the global sardine industry, feeding the world with nutritious canned sardines until the 1940s when overfishing caused the industry in the area to collapse. After a few decades, the Cannery was revitalised into Monterey’s main attraction. Now, it’s packed with luxury ocean-view hotels, fine restaurants, boutique shops, historical buildings, tasting rooms and more.

It’s also home to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Since opening in 1984, this massive aquarium has become one of California’s most popular attractions and a leading marine biology research centre. It comprises almost 200 exhibits containing 80,000 plants and animals from a huge variety of marine habitats. Any lover of the ocean or the animal kingdom should make it a must-visit.

Images: Kayaking in Monterey Bay, Cannery Row, Monterey Bay Aquarium, Orcas in Monterey Bay  — courtesy of

As Wild as Coastlines Can Be:

Big Sur

Due south of Monterey, Big Sur is a world-famous 144-kilometre stretch of largely uninhabited California coastline where the Santa Lucia Mountains meet the Pacific Ocean. Here, an incredible series of dramatic cliffs are met by crashing waves, threaded through by the California Route 1 Highway. Crossing the region from end to end wouldn’t take long but it’s worth making some stops. But plan ahead as inclement weather can cause road closures on Route 1.

Spend night in the luxurious Post Ranch Inn where each of the 39 rooms has a view of the ocean, mountains or redwood forest. Guests can access spa treatments, scenic pools, guided walks, wellness activities and more. Sierra Mar, the onsite restaurant, serves breakfast, lunch and dinner with stunning views of the ocean 300 metres below.

Alternatively, Big Sur is an ideal destination for camping and hiking. The Pfieffer Big Sur State Park covers 1000 acres around the Big Sur River, with a multitude of campgrounds and bookable lodges to accommodate you. Hike along the river or through the forest and keep your eyes peeled for bobcats, deer, squirrels, skunks, kingfishers and more.

Images: Sunset over Big Sur, Diners at Nepenthe, Scenic River, Pfeiffer Falls Trail — courtesy of

A Cosy Oyster of Adventure:

Morro Bay

Travellers continuing south on Route 1 will eventually arrive in Morro Bay, a relaxed coastal town built in the shadow of the huge Morro Rock, a volcanic coastal monument just offshore.

Morro Bay is divided between bay, beach and harbour. The bay is a protected marine sanctuary, so you can hop aboard a kayak or SUP and paddle in search of fish and seals. There are almost ten kilometres of beaches to hit, perfect for strolling, swimming and surfing alike.

Visit the working fishing harbour to get a close look at the local sea otter population and watch the ships bring in a fresh bounty, then dig in to the very same catch at one of the local seafood restaurants later in the day. Shack up for the night at Anderson Inn, a cosy boutique stay overlooking the water in the busy waterfront district.

Images: Morro Rock, a surfer in Morro Bay (Jim Glab via iStock), Morro Bay Marina, Seals in Morro Bay Harbour (Nature, Food, Landscape, Travel via iStock), Suns & Buns Bakery (Manel Vinueasa via iStock)

The American Riviera:

Santa Barbara

Arriving in Santa Barbara, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d somehow driven through a portal to the Mediterranean. The islands offshore, the bougainvillea climbing on buildings, the sounds of seabirds — it’s referred to as the American Riviera for a reason.

Spend your time sipping on Californian wines grown just inland, wandering the scenic botanical gardens or historical Spanish missions and enjoying the coastal air over a gourmet meal. Santa Barbara restaurants are stocked by a range of nearby farms and wineries, plus a bountiful supply of seafood from the Santa Barbara Channel. You’ll find everything from cutting-edge omakase to traditional Mexican with the diverse eateries on offer.

Visitors to Santa Barbara often take day trips by boat to California's Channel Islands National Park.

Jim Glab via iStock

Santa Barbara has several public beaches ideal for a dreamy day of swimming, surfing or sunbathing. Keep your eyes on the water — between November and April the waters between the mainland and the Channel Islands are packed with feeding blue whales and humpback whales, plus thousands of migrating Pacific grey whales.

Images: Santa Barbara (Damien Verrier via iStock), a Ferry in the Santa Barbara Channel (Jim Glab via iStock)

The End of the Trail:

Santa Monica

You’ve probably seen Santa Monica in dozens of movies, shows and video games — and now you can see it in the flesh. This city on the edge of LA is a lot of things: it’s home to one of the most famous piers in the world, it’s the western end of the cross-country Route 66 route, and it’s the final destination on this tour of the California coast.

Beyond the tourist attractions, Santa Monica boasts a strong arts and culture offering, with 120+ galleries, museums, street art areas and theatres spread throughout its 21 square kilometres. It’s also best explored on two wheels, with designated bike lanes threading throughout the city.

Image: Santa Monica Pier (Visit California)

Start planning your tour of California, America’s ultimate playground, today.

Header image: Visit California

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