San Diego California Palm Trees

We love road trips. We’re drawn to the thrill of the open road, enjoying each other’s company and seeing new sites. Last summer we drove along the gorgeous and ever changing Pacific Coast Highway/ Highway 101 in California. You may remember my post about our car camping adventure, well that was part of this trip. I wanted to share highlights from this amazing trip and hopefully inspire some of our readers to go on the same trip!

Trip at-a-glance

  • Flew into San Diego, out of San Francisco
  • One way car rental from Hertz
  • 8 cities/areas explored
  • Approximately 600 miles driven
  • 10 days long – end of August into early September
  • Way too many photos taken

I’m very proud of this map of our route. I gave myself a gold sticker for making it. OK, more like a Margarita.

Day 1: San Diego

San Diego is a collection of various communities immersed in the Southern California laid-back lifestyle that is doused in enough sunshine to make these Midwesterners envious (so much we actually now live here). We landed in San Diego just in time to meet some family for a quick and delicious bite to eat at Californian fast food chain, Wahoo’s Fish Tacos, before we all headed off to the USS Midway.  What better way to spend time with youngins than going to a decommissioned, huge Naval ship? Like so big it couldn’t pass through the Panama Canal. We explored the ship for as long as any 2 or 5-year-old could handle the sheer amazement of multiple aircrafts sitting on deck of a massive ship could, then headed to our family’s house to see their new digs and relax before a Del Mar Pizza dinner on the beach.


Day 2: Driving to Santa Barbara, seriously it took almost a whole day

The drive out of San Diego on Highway 101 stretched through numerous beach-side towns with, what seemed like, an unlimited number of stop lights. Once we exited Huntington Beach we ran into tons of LA traffic so our trip ended up taking nearly 4 hours longer than normal, yuck.  Luckily, we were armed with fresh fruit and cookies my sister-in-law packed for us so we didn’t have to waste time to stop and eat. But then again, we didn’t get to stop, eat, and enjoy the weather so there’s that.  If we did it again, we would hop on the 5 after Huntington Beach to avoid LA’s traffic.

Santa Barbara can be described as the “American Riviera” because of its Mediterranean climate Spanish architectural influence.  Walking along State St. takes you to downtown where you’ll find unique shops and restaurants or you can stroll along the beach and to the end of the pier to enjoy Santa Barbara’s natural beauty. For those interested in activities other than walking and shopping you can rent kayaks and Stand Up Paddle Boards to take out onto the Pacific.

We arrived in Santa Barbara just as Casa Del Mar Inn’s  wine and cheese happy hour started and enjoyed a much needed glass of  wine before  dinner at Adama Vegan Comfort Cuisine . As the day started to wind down, we walked to the end of the pier, which is conveniently located near the inn, to enjoy the sunset. Along the stroll to the end we were greeted by a pod of dolphins leaping through the cool waters and seals darting through the ink black water hunting for dinner.

Day 3: Santa Yunez Valley/ Santa Barbara

After a foggy morning walk to the end of the pier, we joined a wine tasting trip with Cloud Climbers Jeep Tours in the Santa Yunez Valley. The tour took us through the mountains surrounding the valley to a handful of wineries and  tasting rooms. A fun experience, but given our short stay and the tour’s high cost I wish we would have spent the day in Santa Barbara and rented paddle boards instead. We arrived back to the inn just in time to head back to the pier for some fresh seafood at the small and popular Santa Barbara Shellfish Company. We arrived pretty early, around 5:00, to put our name on the waiting list that is hung on a clipboard outside the front door. Since we wanted outdoor seating our wait time was long, but worth it since we enjoyed dinner while watching a sunset.

Day 4: Firestone-Walker Brewery/Cayucos

After a lazy early morning, we set out to head up to Paso Robles for lunch and a tour of Firestone-Walker’s Brewery.  The brewery is located just off the freeway on a frontage road.  It’s a small brewery so the tour was short and sweet. We happened to go on a Tuesday, when they are cleaning their equipment so not much action in terms of brewing and bottling, but still fun to see where some delicious beer we enjoy is made.

The road from Paso Robles wound through rolling hills on a narrow two-lane highway which lead you to the sleepy beach town of Cayucos. The main street is full of vacation rentals and restaurants that are packed in the month of December.  When we were visiting in August it felt like we had the town to ourselves.  The motel we stayed in, Seaside Motel, is run by a lovely older couple who gush about their family. Each room has a different theme, ours was the sunflower room. The patio and gardens, which have an ocean view, are meticulously well-kept.  It’s a place we would have loved to spend more than one night in, but unfortunately couldn’t.

Days 5-6: Big Sur

night sky through red woods pfeiffer big sur

I have gone into great detail about our time in Big Sur in a post from a couple months back. In short Big Sur is amazing and lovely. You drive along the Pacific on a road that hugs the cliffs with turn-outs perfectly placed so that you can pull over to take in the views. Binoculars are a must on this trip, especially for when you are in Big Sur. We witnessed whales slapping their fins and otters swimming the kelp beds all through the view of our binoculars. We slept in our car at Pfeifer Big Sur State park and hiked various trails. Again, all of this is covered in great detail on my Beautiful Big Sur – A Car Camping Adventure posts.

Days 7: Driving to San Francisco

Monterey made a natural place for us to stop for a lazy lunch, especially since it was highly recommended by a friend. This place deserves much more time than just a few hours.  I felt myself longing to rent a stand-up paddle board or kayak and join the seals in the bay rather than hanging out on the very crowded pier. But if you only have a few hours, parking near the main area is recommended and explore by foot.  This allows you to walk around and scope the area out and make your way to the water’s edge.  I hear there is a pretty great aquarium here as well, if that’s more your cup of tea.

After our quick stop in Monterey we made our way to Santa Cruz.  Home to the famous Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, where we spent our time.  It’s an over-the-top way to stretch your legs with some pretty spectacular people watching.  Aside form the cotton candy, my favorite part was the ferris wheel because it felt like it was going absurdly fast.  Seriously that thing felt like it was going to catapult us  the rest of the way to San Francisco.

We wanted to make it to San Francisco  in time to check-out Twin Peaks since we had to drop our rental car off the next day and with some time to get ready for dinner so we made our way further North.

Days 8-10: San Francisco

San Francisco at sunset

Check out our San Francisco post for information on what to do in for the weekend in SF!

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