Update: Due to the pandemic, some of the locations shared in this post may be closed or have reduced hours. Please be sure to check ahead of time for availability.
I love a good road trip down the coast.
California’s Highway 1 connects so many of my favorite things about the Golden State – rustic farms, big trees, rugged beaches, quaint shops, silver bands of fog over golden hills and the wild Pacific, breathing in and out. It’s the proverbial road to adventure.
The most well-known section of this route is along the Big Sur coast, but you don’t need to travel that far to enjoy a wild stretch of Highway 1. Between San Francisco and Santa Cruz lies a strip of the coast highway with no traffic lights for forty-five miles.
There are great hiking trails along the coast too.
Find our favorites in the guide below.
I’m here to tell you to get out there. There are activities for everyone along this coastline – for all ages and abilities – so go chase the dog through the surf, take in some coastside culture, score some waves, post up in a dreamy hostel, savor the sunset and breathe deep that cold, salty air. Whether you take on the whole route (see map) or chip away at it, below you’ll find what you need to plan your next adventure.
Get in the car, it’s time to cruise!
Just a few miles south of San Francisco, the northern terminus of the Santa Cruz Mountains collides with the cold waters of the Pacific. This steep, wild section of coastline is my preferred launching point for this road trip, but you can work your way up from Santa Cruz too.
Stop for a walk along Linda Mar Beach to enjoy views of Montara Mountain and the wild country leading south to POST-protected Rancho Corral de Tierra. Feeling adventurous? The south end of this beach is a great place to learn to surf and you can find boards, wetsuits and lessons nearby at the NorCal Surf Shop.
Devil’s Slide, a little further south, is one of the better-known destinations along this coastline. This 1.3-mile multi-use trail was converted from a former segment of Highway 1 and it’s a must-see stop to experience one of the more dramatic sections of the California Coastal Trail. And if you get thirsty, Pacifica Brewery has a delicious selection of cold brews (and a kid-friendly atmosphere).
On the hunt for treasures? Beachcombing at Gray Whale Cove or tide pooling at the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve are highlights along this stretch of coastline. For me though, a hike along POST-protected Pillar Point Bluff for views of Mavericks, a behemoth of a wave in the winter months, is a go-to stop along this stretch of Highway 1. There’s also a nearby trail that’s great for strollers, wheelchairs and anyone needing easy access – my kids and dogs love it.
Moss Beach Distillery – an award-winning restaurant that some say is haunted.
The Barn – an eclectic, “barnilicious” destination with tasty burgers and a relaxed ambiance.
Granola’s Coffee House – a cozy, casual coffee shop just off the route.
Hop Dogma Brewery Co. – a super tasty local brewery with a friendly atmosphere.
Vibrant farms, a quaint downtown and many delicious eateries await in Half Moon Bay. There’s lots to explore, eat and drink near the harbor north of town and even more deliciousness around the town center a few miles south. If I had to choose, I’d head toward downtown.
My taste buds always lead me to the sandwiches on homemade bread at San Benito House – they’re amazing. But for breakfast, you can’t beat the refreshingly old-time feel of the Main Street Grill. And polish things off across the street with a coffee from the Café Society…just to name a few local favorites.
A trip into Half Moon Bay isn’t complete without a stop at the recently POST-protected Andreotti Family Farm, one of the oldest family farms within city limits. Pick up some fresh produce at the historic barn on Kelly Ave and, in the fall, grab some pumpkins and u-pick sunflowers just off Highway 1. The place is a local institution.
To stretch your legs after your stop in town, take a short drive south and rack up some steps at POST-protected Wavecrest Reserve and the Cowell Purisima Trail. Enjoy flat, well-maintained trails along the coastline, perfect for all abilities.
Ride a bit further south to discover the Pescadero Marsh, the largest freshwater estuary on the Peninsula with ample opportunities for exploration and phenomenal bird-watching. From there, it’s worth the time to wander your way inland to explore the charm of downtown Pescadero.
You might be surprised to hear that the local gas station (aka Mercado & Taqueria De Amigos) serves some of the best Mexican food on the coast! If you’re looking for a little caffeine pick-me-up, the vintage vibes and chilled out regulars of Downtown Local make it a must stop along this route. But my favorite Pescadero establishment is the roadside market and u-pick berries (in the summer) at R&R Fresh Farms, just east of downtown. So tasty!
Blue House Farm – stop by the self-serve farmstand (open every weekend).
Arcangeli Grocery Store – try the delicious artichoke bread (and great picnic area by the creek out back).
Harley Goat Farm – pet a goat and pick up some delicious local cheese.
South of Pescadero, Highway 1 winds through some of the more remote parts of this route. At times, it might be hard to believe you’re just forty-ish miles from the bustle of downtown San Francisco and the tech campuses of Silicon Valley. You may even find yourself without cell service!
So take time to relish the solitude, fresh air and dramatic beauty of beaches like Bean Hollow (which is dog-friendly), Pistachio Beach and Gazos Creek beach. It’s a landscape where Mother Nature’s still in charge.
Pigeon Point Lighthouse is the crown jewel for this part of the state’s coastline, and though you can’t currently go inside since it’s under repair, it remains an impressive highlight on the west coast. Beside the lighthouse, POST-protected Mel’s Lane is a short, gentle trail along the bluffs that all ages and abilities can enjoy. And nearby Whalers Cove offers great tide pooling and a bit of white sand to sink your feet into. A stop here is mandatory in my book.
If you’re looking to extend this trip by another day, there’s a great hostel available adjacent to the lighthouse. Or upgrade slightly at Costanoa Lodge, just up the road a ways, which offers a variety of lodging options (including tent camping). There’s so much to do nearby, you’ll likely appreciate having more time to explore.
Año Nuevo State Park is another mind-blowing stop, especially during breeding season for the northern elephant seal (December through March). Reservations are required to hike to the breeding site, so plan ahead – it’s worth the effort to see this natural phenomenon up close. After your visit, head across the highway to POST-protected Pie Ranch for some authentic local flavor (and they have great coffee to go with your pie too).
Davenport, a few miles north of Santa Cruz, marks the beginning of the end of our scenic road trip. If the fresh pastries of Whale City Bakery aren’t enough of a lure to get you to stop, consider a cold beer (or another drink of choice) at the local Roadhouse. It’s the ideal way to cap off your ride.
Swanton Berry Farm – delicious u-pick berries (in the summer months) on a historic ranch.
Shark Fin Cove – a breathtaking overlook of a stunning cove, featuring an easy coastal trail.
Seymour Marine Discovery Center – a working marine laboratory with touch tanks.
Wilbur’s Watch – a gentle trail to an outstanding view of Pigeon Point Lighthouse.
Important note to the reader: The end of a good road trip is always hard. We totally get it. Just remember it’s a good thing if you don’t want to go home – that’s the sign of a great adventure, right? And don’t worry, you can always come back to the tranquility of this coastline. It’s not going anywhere; we’re making sure of that.
Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) protects open space on the Peninsula and in the South Bay for the benefit of all. Since its founding in 1977, POST has been responsible for saving more than 80,000 acres as permanently protected land in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties. Learn more