We love a good road trip. Even if it’s just a quick weekend trip (or day trip) down the coast of California! In this post, we want to show you why it’s worth taking the longer route to get from San Fransisco to Monterey, CA and beyond. From lighthouses to tide pools, world-renowned aquariums to nostalgic roller coasters, I guarantee you will love what Highway 1 on the Northern California coast has to offer!
Though it’s very possible to do the drive from San Francisco to Monterey in 2 hours, you’d be missing out on all the fun along the way. As you’ll realize after reading this post, there is so much to see along the way.
Before zipping off directly to Monterey, CA, we recommend taking your time and stopping at a few of the towns, state parks, and roadside stops listed below!
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HOW FAR IS MONTEREY FROM SAN FRANCISCO?
The drive from San Francisco, CA to Monterey, CA is approximately 120 miles. Without traffic, travelers can easily complete the drive point-to-point in just under 2 hours by taking the US-101 S. While this route may get you there the fastest, the route we recommend for this road trip is Highway 1.
Taking the 1 opens you up to a world of coastal bluffs, towns, beaches, and roadside attractions not found anywhere else. It does take a bit longer, but with all the exciting stops to entertain yourself with, who’s keeping an eye on the time?
With no traffic, it takes less than 3 hours to get from the big city to the seaside village town of Monterey via Highway 1, so you’ll have plenty of time to make a handful of stops in a short period of time.
HOW MANY DAYS FOR A SAN FRANCISCO TO MONTEREY ROAD TRIP?
You can certainly do this road trip as a day trip, but with limited time, you won’t be able to hit all the stops listed here. At best, you’ll have time to visit 5-7 stops before making it to Monterey in the late afternoon.
But some of the towns you’ll encounter like Santa Cruz, Monterey, and Carmel, CA deserve way more than a fraction of a day! To get the most out of the stops from San Francisco to Monterey, and have enough time to do all the things in Monterey, I recommend spending a night or two down there.
Ideally, you’d have 2-3 full days to embark on this coastal adventure! That should give you enough time to explore roadside attractions, visit farms, and hike in the daytime, then relax in a larger city in the evening before continuing on your road trip.
HOW TO GET TO MONTEREY, CA
The best way to get to Monterey is by driving. Either bring your own car, or rent one!
There are two routes to Monterey by car: Highway 1, which runs from San Francisco to Los Angeles along the Pacific coastline, and US Route 101, which runs through the rich valley.
Here are some basic driving times from notable California cities:
- San Jose – approximately 1 hour
- Oakland – approximately 1.5 hours
- San Francisco – approximately 2 hours
- Sacramento – approximately 3 hours
- Los Angeles – approximately 5.5 hours
Of course, we’ll be focusing on the Highway 1 route here!
If you’re flying into the Bay Area, the SJC international airport in San Jose, CA will land you closest to Monterey, CA. There is also Monterey Regional Airport (MRY), located just 10 minutes door-to-door from downtown Monterey, but expect these flights to be very expensive (since this is just a regional airport).
If you’re flying into SFO, you’ll be a bit further away, but perfectly situated for the road trip route listed in this post!
BEST TIME TO TAKE A ROAD TRIP TO MONTEREY, CA
The best time to take a road trip from San Francisco Bay Area to Monterey is either in the springtime, late summer, or early fall. This will be your best bet for sunshine and clear skies.
Why? Because California coastal weather is weird. One minute, you could experience fog, wind, and mist, and the next minute–sunny blue skies! Oddly, summer weather tends to be primarily overcast, with a few extremely sunny days here and there. If you’re lucky, you’ll get some sun!
Regardless of when you go, the coast can always get breezy, misty, or foggy, so be sure to bring a light jacket.
In terms of Monterey County itself, due to its Mediterranean-like weather, this is a year-round destination. Because of its stable weather conditions, there’s always a variety of activities you can do when you visit, no matter the time of year.
- Spring is beautiful on the Monterey Peninsula, with wildflowers blooming everywhere and moderate weather.
- Summer brings cooler, foggier, and windier weather (compared to the spring and fall seasons). If you plan on travel during the summer months, do note that marine overcast is most prevalent during June to July. These would be the months to avoid if you want to ensure blue skies and sunny days. The overcast generally burns off by mid-day.
- Fall brings warm temperatures and sunny skies during the Indian summer.
- Winter does bring slightly colder weather and occasional rain, but winter sunrises and sunsets are especially beautiful here. For optimal whale watching, November is the best time to visit.
If I had to pick the best time to visit, I’d recommend late September to early October.
MONTEREY ROAD TRIP PREPARATION: RENTAL CARS
If you don’t have a car or don’t have a reliable car you trust to get you out of The Bay and back in one piece, I suggest you pick up a rental car for your road trip.
We like to rent from Hertz. Why? Well with their Hertz Gold Plus Rewards program (completely free to join), you’ll get counter-free pickup at select locations, and even mobile alerts with your exact rental car and its location before you arrive.
If you are more the type to compare prices between rental car companies, use Priceline’s rental car search. Not only does the tool allow you to compare rental car prices, but most of the time you can book with no prepayment and no cancellation fees.
Regardless of which rental car company you decide to go with, make sure you have the appropriate car rental coverage. Our credit card benefits typically cover car rental insurance, so we usually stick with that as our primary insurance.
Lastly, get a AAA membership! Though membership does not cover car rental insurance, there are some awesome, exclusive car rental perks.
- You get to take advantage of savings at Hertz, up to 20% off the base rate, when you include your designated AAA Discount code (CDP#) in your reservation.
- Perks include 24/7 roadside assistance including towing, fuel delivery, and lockout service,
- Other rental car benefits include free child safety seat, no additional driver fee, no young driver fee,
- You’ll also get great discounts on flights, hotels, and cruises
We absolutely love our AAA Auto Club membership. Not only is it a lifesaver when we actually do encounter car troubles, but it’s great to have (for peace of mind) even if we don’t.
MAP OF STOPS: HIGHWAY 1 FROM SAN FRANCISCO TO MONTEREY, CA
SAN FRANCISCO TO MONTEREY VIA HIGHWAY 1: 23 BEST STOPS
SAN FRANCISCO, CA
Regardless of if you’re starting a road trip in San Francisco or not, this amazing city is worth exploring for a few days. If you like nature, stunning architecture, shopping, museums, kitschy/hipster bars, and exceptional food in a city with a laidback vibe, San Francisco is a must.
If you only have a few hours to a day to explore, get some good food and see some of the iconic spots like Fisherman’s Wharf and The Golden Gate Bridge.
Plan for a visit to the ferry building (houses a bunch of artisan shops and restaurants, as well as an awesome farmer’s market on Saturday mornings), a trip to Alcatraz or a sunset bay cruise, and a visit to Golden Gate Park and Sutro Baths.
No matter what you decide to do here, you’re sure to have a wonderful time. Just be sure to bring layers and prepare for some unpredictable wind and fog!
FITZGERALD MARINE RESERVE, CA
Fitzgerald Marine Reserve in Moss Beach, CA is one of my all-time favorite places to go tide pooling. The tidepools at this reserve are probably one of the most beautiful and easily accessible natural wonders of the Northern California coast.
And I’m not just talking about being able to see sea barnacles and snails. During low tide, the saltwater pools are filled with sea creatures such as sea anemones, mussels, hermit crabs, purple shore crabs, and even starfish!
After your tide pool exploration, take the trail that begins at the sandy cove on the southern end of the reserve for a scenic walk through a grove of Monterey cypress trees.
During springtime, look out into the distance! It’s sometimes possible to spot California gray whales just offshore.
LEMOS FARM (HALF MOON BAY)
If you’re traveling with younger children, Lemos Farm in Half Moon Bay, CA is a popular attraction that families can’t miss. Lemos Farm is a family-run farm featuring resident pigs, goats, sheep, and bunnies, which kids can meet and greet in the petting zoo.
There are also little ponies here, serving up fun pony rides to small children. Families can also enjoy train rides through the farm’s small ‘western town’.
HALF MOON BAY, CA
The quaint little seaside town of Half Moon Bay, CA may sit only a few miles from San Francisco, yet has a completely different feel from what the big city offers. Once you get past the winding two-lane road, you’ll be greeted by a variety of charming shops, restaurants, world-class golf courses, and quaint bed-and-breakfasts.
When in HMB, you can’t ignore the pristine beaches. The Half Moon Bay coastline is made up of multiple state beaches, including Surfers’ Beach, Dunes Beach, Venice Beach, and Francis Beach.
For dining and shopping, Main Street is where it’s at. Take a few moments to browse through all the local gift shops, clothing boutiques, bookstores, and home decor shops. Then, get in line for Barbara’s Fishtrap (serving up the freshest fish in the area) or Sam’s Chowder House (known for their lobster rolls and creamy clam chowder).
For another great meal, head to Pasta Moon Ristorante, serving up delicious Italian fare. Then, stop by the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay for drinks and to soak up incredible views from their ocean terrace.
Pro Tip: If you’re heading to the Ritz-Carlton for drinks, avoid their parking (which will set you back $25+). There’s a small parking area about a 5-minute walk away, right before you get to the Ritz property. Park here instead and save that $25 for a second round of drinks!
Where To Stay in Half Moon Bay, CA:
- For the epitome of luxury, look no other than The Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay.
- For a more romantic bed and breakfast experience, consider Mill Rose Inn (this hotel is surrounded by gorgeous English country-style gardens, which is a huge plus).
- And if you’re looking for a B&B experience mixed with beachfront lodging, consider Oceano Hotel & Spa Half Moon Bay.
PURISIMA CREEK REDWOODS OPEN SPACE PRESERVE
Looking for a gorgeous hiking spot while in the Half Moon Bay area? Head to the lush Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve. I’ve lived in the Bay Area for over 20 years now, and have only recently discovered this hidden gem of a spot, playing host to some of the best hiking in all of the Bay!
The Purisima Creek Redwoods North Ridge Trail (4.4-mile RT) and the Grabtown Gulch to Purisima Creek Loop (5.3-mile RT) hikes are among my favorite. They are both moderate hikes (very doable) that will leave you enough time in the afternoon to continue driving and exploring the coast.
Pro Tip: Keep in mind that the weather is often overcast and windy in Half Moon Bay, even during the summertime (due to thick fog that often blocks out the sun). Don’t forget to pack a jacket!
Next stop: Pescadero, CA! In this scenic stretch of countryside, you’ll be met with rolling hills, farmlands, marshlands, and beaches. The little town of Pescadero offers restaurants, shopping, markets, and farms, and is a great place to pick up produce or local honey.
Grab coffee and pastries at Downtown Local, an adorable coffee shop on the main street. Once you order your coffee, don’t be surprised if you linger a little bit longer to take in all the quaint antiques and memorabilia inside the shop! They’ve got some really cool stuff in there, including an old Macintosh computer from decades ago!
Once you are all souped up on caffeine, head to Arcangeli Grocery (aka Norm’s Market). Do not miss your opportunity to pick up their locally famous homemade artichoke garlic bread. As a matter of fact, pick up a loaf for someone you love, too!
In Pescadero during the afternoon or evening? Follow it up with a meal at Duarte’s Tavern. The rural town of Pescadero is small, but a fun stop nonetheless on any coastal California road trip.
HARLEY FARMS GOAT DAIRY (PESCADERO)
If you or your children have a love for farm animals, don’t miss the opportunity to play with goats at Harley Farms Goat Dairy, conveniently located in Pescadero! And if you happen to be visiting during the early spring (March-April), don’t miss the teensy weensy baby goats! They’re too cute to miss!
Foodies should also pay a visit to the Harley Farms to purchase award-winning cheese and locally produced jams or to attend one of the special Farm Dinners, which are candlelit meals held in the restored Victorian barn. Harley Farms also offers farm tours and picnics!
PIDGEON POINT LIGHTHOUSE (PESCADERO)
Welcome to California’s most photographed lighthouse! Built in 1871 to guide ships on the Pacific Coast of California, the Pigeon Point Lighthouse remains the tallest lighthouse on the west coast.
After breathing in the fresh air and snapping a few pictures, take a stroll around the grounds of the lighthouse, then onto the nearby trails. You’ll get to enjoy sweeping coastal views on all sides! Views like this are the reason why the Highway 1 drive is so iconic!
PIE RANCH (PESCADERO)
If you love pie, keep an eye out, because this one is easy to miss. Here you’ll find sustainable and locally grown produce, preserves, coffee, flour, local goods, and (wait for it…) homemade pies and pastries!
The pie menu changes frequently, depending on what’s being grown and picked at that time, so you know you’re getting the freshest pies possible. They’re open from 10am-5pm, but try to get there as early as possible because they can run out early!
The parking lot for Pie Ranch comes up quickly, so be sure to slow down and veer into the lot when you get your chance! Here’s the address to help you out: 2080 CA-1, Pescadero, CA 94060
BIG BASIN REDWOODS STATE PARK
Big Basin Redwoods State Park, located in Boulder Creek, is another beloved state park and hiking spot that offers easy access to towering ancient sequoia groves. For a relatively short day hike, take the 3.4-mile out-and-back hike to Sempervirens Falls.
For a longer option jam-packed with beauty, we love the 10.2-mile roundtrip Berry Creek Falls Loop Hike. Berry Creek Falls is by far the most popular destination in Big Basin. This hike travels through the lush groves of old-growth redwood trees and giant sequoias of the beautiful Santa Cruz mountains.
Not only will you see Berry Creek Falls in all its glory, but you will also get a chance to visit Silver Falls and Cascade Falls. Depending on the time of year you hike it, you can very well spot dozens of banana slugs on the ground during the hike! It may sound like a pretty long hike, but it isn’t all that difficult.
While the intensity of the falls varies depending on the time of year (the best season is spring), the entire park is drop-dead gorgeous and worth a visit all year round.
FIRE CLOSURE: As of March 2021 there are closures in this park or area due to wildfire. For the latest information, please visit their website here.
ANO NUEVO STATE PARK, CA
Año Nuevo State Park is a nature reserve featuring wetland marshes, dune fields, coastal scrub, and beaches. There is one main draw that makes this state park stand out. Every winter, from December through April, a must-see-for-yourself event occurs here–thousands of enormous elephant seals arrive on the shores for their breeding season.
In fact, Año Nuevo State Park is the world’s largest mainland breeding colony for the northern elephant seal. As many as 10,000 seals will pay a visit to the dunes and beaches of Año Nuevo State Park to breed and give birth to their pups. If you’re lucky, you might even catch a mother seal giving birth.
The sheer number of seals is certainly impressive, but so is their size. Bull elephant seals can be up to 16 feet wide and weigh an average of three tons each!
Año Nuevo State Reserve is only open for guided tours from December through April, and reservations are required. For the rest of the year, visitors are free to take self-guided walking tours, but will still need to obtain free permits. Check the Año Nuevo State Park website for more info.
SWANTON BERRY FARM (DAVENPORT)
A visit to Swanton Berry Farm will grant you the classic u-pick experience in the summertime! Families have been visiting this hidden gem for years to pick strawberries and grab freshly made pies, jams, and other delicious treats.
As soon as you step out of the car, you’ll be greeted by the sweet, sweet aroma of fresh strawberries in the air! You can either pick your own berries or browse the store for already picked berries and other goods.
If you want to pick your own berries, simply pick up a box from inside the market, head out to pick to your heart’s content, then pay inside. Inside the market, you’ll find goods like olallieberry pie, strawberry shortcake, berry jams, freshly squeezed strawberry lemonade, and even t-shirts for sale.
If you’re planning on skipping on the desserts, don’t! Trust me when I tell you, their strawberry shortcake is absolutely delightful. Please do yourself a favor and get a slice of pie or shortcake per person–it’ll be so good that you won’t want to share!
Once you’re ready to pay, head to the counter and weigh your berries. They have a self-checkout system, but usually, someone is around to help if you need it.
Swanton Berry Farm really is a strawberry lover’s dream come true! We had such a blast picking strawberries on our most recent trip from SF to Santa Cruz!
Davenport, CA is a tiny town and a fun, quick stop located along Highway 1. Davenport used to be a bustling whaling village, established in 1867 by a whaling captain named John Pope Davenport.
One of the main attractions of Davenport is the famous Shark Fin Cove, one of the coolest-looking beaches in all of California. The views are stunning and the rock formation really does look just like a shark fin!
Another totally Instagram-worthy spot is Davenport Pier, a frequently photographed landmark. At times, you’ll find a random swing anchored to one of the pier foundation arches which stretch out into the surf. The pier deck has been gone for years, but that makes this spot even more photogenic.
Davenport Pier is located at the beach below the bluff, but it is not easy to get to. You’ll need sturdy shoes and should only attempt if a rope to guide you down the bluff is present (or, bring your own ropes). Photos can also be taken from the bluff which is much safer.
All in all, this is a great spot for snapping a few photos, grabbing lunch (try American Abalone Farms for oysters, abalone, sea urchin, and crab!), or taking a quick coastal stroll.
SANTA CRUZ, CA
Congrats, you made it to Santa Cruz, land of the surf and laidback vibes!
From gnarly waves to beachside boardwalks to redwood forests, Santa Cruz, CA is the iconic coastal town that you’re probably picturing when someone utters the word “California”. There’s literally so much to do in Santa Cruz, so much that we dedicated an entire post to the best things to do in Santa Cruz, CA!
To get you started, visit The Santa Cruz Surfing Museum to learn all about the city’s significant surf history with artifacts, photographs, and plenty of old-school boards. Due to its many expansive beaches and some of the world’s best off-shore breaks, Santa Cruz is really famous for its laidback surf culture.
Not interested in the surf? Don’t worry, there’s so much more to this city than meets the eye! From there, head to Pleasure Point to enjoy some of the best breakfast burritos in maybe all of California at Point Market (an unsuspecting convenience store that just so happens to serve some huge and yummy breakfast burritos).
Grab some refreshing tiki drinks at Hula’s Island Grill, then stroll around downtown Santa Cruz, being sure to enjoy all the restaurants, coffee shops, surf shops, and vintage shops in the area.
We always enjoy taking a peek inside vintage/consignment stores like Moon Zooom and Crossroads Trading Co. before grabbing a midday pick-me-up at Verve Coffee Roasters nearby.
Round out your late afternoon by heading to Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Built in 1907 as the “Coney Island of the West,” the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk oozes nostalgic California vibes. Ride some coasters, stroll around (walking around is admission-free), and eat some funnel cake!
For dinner, we highly recommend Jack’s Hamburgers or Lillian’s Italian Kitchen! (If you had to pick just one, I’d suggest picking Lillian’s.)
Santa Cruz is a great place to relax and grab dinner. The sunsets here are excellent, making it the ideal place to call it a night. The next morning, start your day off with a jog by the beach or at a hip breakfast joint!
Where To Stay:
- Sea & Sand Inn – Located a 10-minute walk from Santa Cruz Wharf and Boardwalk, this hotel features modern, spacious rooms with ocean views, free guest parking, and a daily continental breakfast.
- Hyatt Place Santa Cruz – Experience modern accommodations in Santa Cruz style, conveniently located near the Boardwalk and Downtown. Features a pool and hot tub.
- West Cliff Inn – A Four Sisters Inn – A renovated Victorian-style inn situated on a bluff across from the beach. For a classy historic hotel stay, look no further!
Read More: Best Things To Do In Santa Cruz, CA
ROARING CAMP RAILROADS / FELTON, CA
One of the most unique things to do near Santa Cruz is to head to Roaring Camp Railroads in the Santa Cruz Mountains, where you can take an authentic steam train ride through the redwoods!
These 19th-century trains were once used to haul giant redwood logs out of the mountains, but nowadays, they’re dedicated to transporting passengers curious to see the beauty of the redwoods.
The classic train redwood forest route takes you up Bear Mountain. During the train ride (a bit over 1 hour long), you’ll get to enjoy unbeatable forest views as well as hear the conductor narrate the story of Roaring Camp.
You can also catch a steam train from Roaring Camp all the way to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk during the high season. Reverse roundtrips departing from the beach in Santa Cruz to Roaring Camp and back may be purchased from the conductor on the train departing from Santa Cruz. Read more about Roaring Camp and see the train schedules here.
As the West Coast’s oldest beach resort, Capitola, CA sure is worth a visit. This little resort town located just minutes from Santa Cruz offers a wide variety of trendy beachfront stores, restaurants, and museums.
Aside from enjoying the warm sand and sun at Capitola Beach, take some time to stroll through Capitola Village, being sure to enjoy the ambiance, eateries, and shops.
Planning a visit in the summer? Be sure to check the city’s event calendar! During the summer months, a variety of special events are hosted at the beach, including free family movies, art shows, and a twilight concert series.
Looking for a place to stay for the night in Capitola, CA?
- Inn at Depot Hill – A 10-minute walk from Capitola Beach and Wharf, this luxurious B&B offers an evening wine reception complete with appetizers. A full breakfast with wonderful hot items is included.
- Capitola Hotel – A charming boutique hotel in the heart of Capitola Village, steps to the beach, restaurants, wine tasting, and shopping.
MOSS LANDING, CA
Moss Landing, located 20 miles north of Monterey, is a little fishing village that’s popular for antiquing, surfing, and nature watching. It’s located at the mouth of Elkhorn Slough, one of California’s largest wetland areas and home to hundreds of animal species.
Once you hop out of your car to explore, you’ll find antique shops, art studios, fresh seafood markets, and a few great restaurants all within walking distance of each other.
After you’ve done some strolling, head to Phil’s Fish Market and Eatery, a super well-known food joint featured on Food Network’s Road Tested and Throwdown with Bobby Flay. It’s a local favorite!
ELKHORN SLOUGH RESERVE (MOSS LANDING)
If you’d like to get a bit closer to the wildlife, head to the Elkhorn Slough Reserve, a unique ecosystem home to seals, sea otters, sea lions, herons, egrets, and other wildlife.
This is the perfect place to rent a kayak and get out on the water. The sheltered slough is one of the calmest spots on the Pacific Coast to begin your kayaking adventure! Alternatively, hop onboard a 37’ catamaran on this Elkhorn Slough Wildlife Tour.
SEASIDE AND SAND CITY, CA
Got a little bit of extra time and want to hop off-the-beaten-path? Explore Seaside and Sand City, located minutes from each other. These little cities are becoming hubs for adventure, food, and art.
Seaside: The former site of Fort Ord is now an up-and-coming destination complete with two golf courses, an easy entrance to Fort Ord National Monument, and some of the best beach access on California’s Central Coast. Head over to Marina State Beach to explore the sand dunes, which reach heights rarely seen on the California coast!
Sand City: Once a factory district where sand was made/processed (hence the name), its industrial areas later became a popular place for artists to work and live (illegally). Rather than kicking out these artists, Sand City decided to support them and legalize their live-work lofts, and now the tiny town is packed with resident artists. Grab some coffee at Coffee Mia, head to the beach for a stroll, and take a minute to catch the paragliders in the air at Sand City!
At each of the towns, you can also browse local stores and art galleries.
You’ve finally made it to Monterey–give yourself a pat on the back! Given that there’s so much to do in Monterey (as well as around Monterey), you can really have yourself a jam-packed weekend adventure here! For a deeper dive on how you should spend your time in Monterey, check out our Monterey travel guide, dedicated to all the fun things you could do in Monterey, CA.
I won’t go too in-depth there, but some major highlights include the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the historic district of Cannery Row where all the cute shops and restaurants are located. Be sure to stop by Old Fisherman’s Wharf for a meal at Old Fisherman’s Grotto (you need to try the clam chowder here, it’s iconic). Then, grab a pint or two at Dust Bowl Brewing.
Whale-watching tours are also all the rage here. In fact, because whales are so prevalent in this region, tours are offered year-round in Monterey! Depending on the time of year, you might see gray whales, humpback whales, blue whales, or killer whales.
Read More: 34+ Best Things To Do In Monterey Bay, CA
17-MILE DRIVE THROUGH PEBBLE BEACH
The 17-Mile Drive is an exclusive stretch of road that takes you from Monterey to Carmel (longer, scenic route), full of dramatic coastal cliffs, peaceful beaches and forests, and world-class golf courses. It sure is beautiful! But the catch? You do have to pay an entrance fee just to drive on it.
Admission is $10.75 per vehicle. The gate fee is reimbursed with a purchase of $35 or more at all Pebble Beach Resorts restaurants, excluding Pebble Beach Market. Bicycles can get in for free if they enter through the Pacific Grove gate.
There are four entry gates where you will stop to pay the entry fee and pick up a map. The one closest to Monterey is the Pacific Grove entrance, though if you’re already on Hwy 1, the Highway 1 entrance may be the most convenient. Follow this driving map as you wind through and admire the beauty along the way.
Allow 2-3 hours or more for the whole drive, especially if you plan to stop and eat. Must-stop points along the route include the famous Lone Cypress, Bird Rock, Fan Shell Beach, and the Cypresses of Crocker Grove. There are various pullouts where you can stop to photograph and admire the sweeping coastal views.
Sure, Carmel, CA is slightly past Monterey, but it doesn’t deserve to be left out! Carmel is one of the cutest little towns I’ve ever laid eyes on–it’s a quaint and romantic seaside village with a great selection of shops, galleries, cafes, wine bars, and restaurants. You will not be able to resist the charm that the town of Carmel carries, evident the minute you step out of your car.
Carmel is a great town to grab a bite to eat and go wine tasting. If you want to stay the night here, it’s a great place to unwind and relax, though the B&B lodging options here might be pricier than in neighboring cities like Monterey.
If you have the time to spare, I’d highly recommend slowing down to explore the hidden courtyards and passageways in this picturesque village!
POINT LOBOS STATE NATURAL RESERVE
Point Lobos is also slightly past Monterey, but if you want to get outside and enjoy nature one last time before heading back to SF, don’t miss this hidden gem! Point Lobos Natural Reserve is home to lots of sea birds, sea lions, harbor seals, elephant seals, and sea otters. It is also a year-round stopping point for orcas.
In this local favorite natural reserve, you will find a few hiking trails, hidden beaches, and many viewpoints to keep you busy for 1-2 hours. There are a ton of walks and trails to choose from, and most of them are relatively easy and can be done without breaking too much of a sweat.
While the entire reserve is beautiful and worth exploring, don’t miss China Cove and Bird Island Lookout (on the south end of the park). Here, you’ll find coves filled with some of the clearest waters in all of Big Sur.
If you’re looking for a short hike here (since you’ve got a whole day of exploring still ahead of you), I’d recommend the South Plateau Trail to Bird Island hike. This hike is only 1.6 miles long.
Got a few more days to spare? Drive down Highway 1 through the iconic Big Sur coastline!
WHERE TO STAY IN MONTEREY, CA
If you are looking to splurge on a hotel…
Spindrift Inn – Located directly on the beach, the Spindrift Inn offers elegant accommodations in the heart of Monterey. A complimentary continental breakfast is provided (on a silver tray if you’d like). Probably one of the cutest hotels I’ve ever laid eyes on!
Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa – This luxury beachfront resort offers traditional room decor, a deluxe rooftop spa, an oceanfront restaurant, and bikes you as a guest can use to explore Monterey.
Intercontinental The Clement Monterey Hotel – another higher-end hotel option, located right on Cannery Row. The hotel features an onsite spa, a pool, and a children’s club. Rooms are spacious, elegantly furnished, and some rooms even provide ocean views. The Intercontinental is within walking distance of lots of shopping, wine tasting, and dining opportunities.
For a more budget-friendly option…
Villa Franca Inn – Located 10 minutes’ walk from Monterey town center, the Villa Franca Inn offers bright, clean and modern guest rooms which include free WiFi, a microwave and fridge, and TV.
SF TO MONTEREY ROAD TRIP: ESSENTIAL PACKING LIST
Aside from the normal clothing and toiletries you’d pack for any regular trip, here are the things I’d recommend you not leave home without:
- License and registration | This is a no-brainer, but always good to check you have all documents before it’s too late and you get too far away from home. Do NOT leave home without them. They are road trip essentials!
- AAA Membership | If you’re really not one to do it yourself when you run into car problems, then you need a AAA Membership. Perks of the annual membership include 24/7 roadside assistance including battery replacement, gas delivery, towing, and lockout service. There are also a bunch of rental car perks too. If you don’t have AAA, then prepare some phone numbers for roadside assistance, just in case.
- Spare Tire | In addition to carrying a spare tire with you, don’t forget to check your current tire conditions before you set off as well.
- Jumper Cables | Jumper cables are one of those things on your road trip list you hope to never use, but are so useful when you do need to call on them! If you’re looking to invest in something exponentially more powerful/convenient than simple jumper cables, get the NOCO Boost HD Car Battery Jump Starter Box. This tool serves as a car jump starter, portable power bank, LED flashlight, and 12-volt portable power–all in one.
- Roadside Emergency Kit | You never know what kind of car trouble you may encounter on the road. This kit contains 42 roadside emergency components, including jumper cables, an aluminum flashlight and batteries, 2-in-1 screwdriver, duct tape, poncho, cable ties, bandages, towelettes, and zipper-lock bags.
- Trunk Organizer | With any road trip comes lots and lots of stuff to pack. Keep your road trip essentials organized with a trunk organizer. Not only will this make it so much easier to find what you need, but it will also lead to more space in your trunk for you to pack other necessities.
- Flashlight | You never know when you’re going to be stranded on the road at night, out hiking late, or even exploring a dark cave. Even adventurous times call for some pre-planning and preparation. Leaving a flashlight in your car can really come in handy when you’re faced with unexpected situations.
- Smartphone UV Sanitizer and Charger | Our phones gather all the grime and bacteria we touch throughout the day, and then they are stored in warm, dark places like purses and pockets, which make for great breeding grounds for bacteria to grow. They are the third hand we never wash, but should! Using a UV sanitizer such as PhoneSoap on a regular basis will help keep germs and illness at bay.
- Umbrella | An umbrella, particularly a wind-proof umbrella, is crucial when traveling to destinations with varying/unpredictable weather. If you have an umbrella with you, then it means the rain can’t stop you from enjoying your trip and exploring the outdoors.
- Slip-on Sandals | Slip-on/slip-off sandals are a must for that extra comfort while sitting in the car. This allows you to make lots of stops without having to go through the process of putting your sneakers/boots back on.
- Portable Cooler | Coolers are a must for any road-trip. Not only will you be able to keep beverages cold and refreshing, but you will also be able to keep perishables fresh (like berries and pies). A portable hard cooler will allow you to pack picnic lunches, bring cheese and jams, and more. If you’re looking for the best cooler technology out there, the Yeti Portable Cooler is top of the line, with ColdCell Insulation that offers superior cold-holding compared to other soft coolers.
- Roll-up Picnic Mat | Probably one of the best inventions since sliced bread, and one of my best investments for the summertime! Not only are these picnic mats super-portable because they roll up into themselves, but their water-resistance factor is a game-changer. No need to worry about wet-grass-butt anymore!
- Swiss Army Knife | A multi-tool is great to have in any car, regardless of if you’re going on a road trip or not. It can be useful in so many situations! There have been so many instances where I’ve needed to cut something or open up hard-to-open packaging while away from home, and this has been a lifesaver.
- First Aid Kit | It’s always good to carry a first aid kit around with you when traveling. Road trips make it easier to do this since all you need to do is toss it in the trunk! Note: This is not the same as the roadside emergency kit.
- Garbage Bags | Because you don’t want the inside of your car to resemble a dumpster can. Plastic bags (or garbage bags) can also be used to hold wet clothes if you get caught in the rain, go for a swim, etc.
- Hiking Boots | If you plan on hiking, bring well broken-in boots with good ankle support and good traction. My all-time favorites are the Lowa Renegade GTX Mid Boots. They’re one of the lightest boots in its class, very durable, and provide out-of-the-box comfort, which is extremely important if you want to prevent blisters from the start.
- Hiking Socks | Make sure you have a good pair of cushioned wool hiking socks. For extra toe protection and to prevent blisters from developing from skin-to-skin contact, go with a pair of Injinji toe socks.
- Adventure Sandals | Tevas and Chacos are my go-to brands for multipurpose summer sandals. If you’re planning on spending some time by the beaches, rivers or lakes, you should definitely consider getting adventure sandals — they’re comfortable for long-distance walking, safe for submerging in water, and super durable.
- Waterproof Rain Jacket | A lightweight waterproof rain jacket is critical for any outdoor adventure. Since these weigh virtually nothing and are so easily packable, I recommend you carry one with you whenever you head outdoors. Depending on the weather forecast and chance of precipitation, I’ll either go with a rain shell or a puffier windbreaker. Despite the options I have here, one thing is for sure— I’m never without some sort of outer layer. My top recommendations are Marmot Men’s PreCip (for men) and The North Face Women’s Venture 2 Jacket (for women).
- Puffy Jacket | You’re going to need layers in Northern California. The coastal California climate brings chilly evenings year-round, even on warm summer days. Fog can also roll in unexpectedly up here. You have a lot of options here, but I personally have the North Face Thermoball, and it’s kept me warm throughout my many years of outdoor adventuring!
- Daypack | I’m a fan of the Deuter ACT Trail 30 Hiking Backpack. It has ample room for all the snacks and water you’ll need, as well as for your camera and the safety essentials for the hike.
- Laundry Bag | Summer and outdoor activities = lots of sweaty, smelly, dirty, and worn clothes. Don’t soil your entire travel bag by mixing worn clothes with your unworn clothes! Definitely bring a laundry bag to separate your clean clothes from your dirty clothes to maintain the utmost freshness.
- Hat, Bandana, or Buff | Sun protection is key for any outdoor destination. Keep the sun off your skin with a fancy sunhat, bandana, or a Buff. All three can be used to shield your neck or forehead from the sun. As a bonus, bandanas and Buffs can be used as headbands to keep hair and sweat off of your face. Soak your bandana or Buff then put it on your head, face, or neck for a quick cool down.
- Travel Towel | These are light and quick-drying, which is exactly what you need when you’re hopping from a river or lake to a car. This one here is a great option.
- Travel Clothesline | This is a small and portable clothesline that allows you to hang up your wet clothes almost anywhere. I’ve found that it’s really handy whenever I have wet bathing suits or towels that need to be air-dried. I love it for its multi-purpose functionality!
- Dry Bag | Another multi-purpose item on the list! Dry bags are completely necessary for keeping your dry belongings (clothes, electronics, money, etc)… dry. Don’t set foot on a kayak, boat or canoe without putting your stuff in a dry bag. Trust me, it’s better than ending up with a phone or camera submerged in water in the case where the boat tips or something. It’s also super handy for carrying around wet bathing suits and towels. Or even doubling as your laundry bag!
- Insect Repellent Lotion | Mosquitos love hot and wet climates, so I would definitely recommend packing insect repellent with a high DEET percentage if you’re traveling in the summer and plan to be on the water. Sawyer makes some really great bug repellent products, and they’re travel-friendly too!
- Hand Sanitizer | Hand sanitizer gel or wipes are a must any time you’re going to be in contact with surfaces many other people have touched. Never leave your hotel room without it! And if you do happen to forget it, remember to wash your hands often, especially before eating or touching your face.
- Body Wipes / Feminine Wipes | Feeling a bit gross after a hike but don’t have the time to shower right in that instant? Just whip out one of these body wipes for a quick refresher. The feminine wipes I like are infused with cucumber and aloe. Trust me, you will feel and smell so much better. Always good to have a few handy in your travel bag.
- Emergen-C packets or Liquid I.V. Hydration Packets | These are a great way to support your immune system and overall health on a road trip. They are light, take up no space, and are easy to pack.
- Headlamp / Flashlight | Being able to find your way through the wilderness or walk around a dark campground is essential, so you should always carry a light source with you, even if you don’t plan on staying out past sunset. An LED headlamp allows you to hike hands-free and is my preferred source of light. FYI, the flashlight on your smartphone is not an adequate substitute– the light is not bright enough, plus it’ll drain your battery life, which may be critical in an emergency. Always carry extra batteries.
- Portable Power Bank | You’re probably going to be out all day, snapping away taking pictures, GPSing to all the great breweries and eateries… the last thing you want is to be stranded with no phone battery! A portable power bank is a must-have, and Anker’s ultra-light, ultra-portable power bank is tried and true by so many travelers! I never embark on a day of exploration without it.
- Soft Hydration Flask | Stay hydrated throughout the day with a water bottle that can go anywhere with you—and fold up when not in use. I love the packability of these bottles!
- Medications | Motion sickness pills for those windy roads, painkillers, anti-inflammatories, etc.