San Francisco to Santa Cruz Road Trip: 15 Best Stops On Highway 1

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 Santa Cruz.

From lighthouses to tide pools, fresh seafood to nostalgic roller coasters, I guarantee you will love what the Northern California coast has to offer!

Though it’s very possible to do the drive from San Francisco to Santa Cruz 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 to Santa Cruz (and Santa Cruz alone), we recommend taking your time and stopping at a few of the towns, state parks, and roadside stops listed below!

This post may contain affiliate links. You won’t be paying a cent more, but in the event of a sale, the small affiliate commission I receive will help keep this blog running/pumping out useful and free content. Thanks a lot!


The drive from San Francisco, CA to Santa Cruz, CA is just under 75 miles. Without traffic, travelers can easily complete the drive point-to-point in about 1 hour 15 minutes by taking the CA-17 S. While still beautiful, 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 2 hours to get from the big city to the surfing town of Santa Cruz via Highway 1, so you’ll have plenty of time to make a handful of stops in a short period of time.


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 4-5 stops before making it to Santa Cruz in the late afternoon.

But Santa Cruz itself deserves way more than a fraction of a day! To get the most out of these stops from San Francisco to Santa Cruz, and have enough time to do all the things in Santa Cruz, I recommend spending a night down there.


The best way to get to Santa Cruz is by driving. Either bring your own car, or rent one!

If you’re flying into the Bay Area, the SJC airport will land you closest to Santa Cruz, CA.

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!


The best time to take a road trip from San Francisco Bay Area to Santa Cruz 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.

San Francisco To Santa Cruz Road Trip - TravelsWithElle


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 when they have good promos. 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, I recommend you use’s 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.

Mendocino to Redwood National Park Road Trip




Baker Beach - Free Things to Do in San Francisco

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.

If you have a weekend to spare, you can slow down a bit and really get to know some of our iconic neighborhoods such as The Mission DistrictHaight-Ashbury District, or North Beach / Chinatown.

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!

Read More: 55+ Free and Affordable Things To Do In San Francisco, California


Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, CA - TravelsWithElle

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.


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 - San Francisco To Santa Cruz Road Trip

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:


Purisima Redwood Preserve - San Francisco To Santa Cruz Road

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!


Pescadero, CA - California Highway 1 Road Trip - Travels With Elle

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!

Pescadero, CA - California Highway 1 Road Trip - Travels With Elle

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.


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 - SF To Santa Cruz Road Trip - Travels With Elle

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!

Pidgeon Point Lighthouse - SF To Santa Cruz Road Trip - Travels With Elle


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 - TravelsWithElle

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.


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 - San Francisco To Santa Cruz Road Trip - TravelswithElle

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!

Swanton Berry Farm, CA - San Francisco To Santa Cruz Road Trip - TravelswithElle


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.


Surfing in Santa Cruz CA- San Francisco To Santa Cruz Road

Congrats, you finally 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).

Pleasure Point Santa Cruz, CA - SF To Santa Cruz Road Trip - TravelsWithElle

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 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!

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk Swing - San Francisco To Santa Cruz Road

For dinner, we highly recommend Jack’s Hamburgers or Lillian’s Italian Kitchen!

Where To Stay In Santa Cruz:

  • 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 Steam Train - Felton, CA - Travels With Elle

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.


Capitola, CA - San Francisco To Santa Cruz Road Trip - TravelswithElle

As the West Coast’s oldest beach resort, Capitola, CA sure is worth a visit. This little resort town 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.

California 1 Road Trip Packing List - TravelsWithElle

Want more California road trip travel tips? Read More:

45 Must-Have Road Trip Essentials For Your Next Road Trip

The Best Things To Do In Lake Tahoe/Reno: Stops From San Francisco To Lake Tahoe

20+ Best Towns Between San Francisco to Los Angeles: California Coast Road Trip

31 Best Things To Do In Santa Cruz, CA For The Perfect Beach Vacation

21 Best Family Vacations In California

20 Awesome Day Trips From Santa Barbara, California

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Elle Leung

My name is Elle and I'm a travel blogger and adventurer based in California. I love helping people plan trips and create unique itineraries based on their interests and their budgets. I'm a huge fan of outdoor adventures and doing off-the-beaten-path things in my state (and all around the world too)!

2 thoughts on “San Francisco to Santa Cruz Road Trip: 15 Best Stops On Highway 1”

  1. This was an amazing blog, and it literally made my last day in California magical! I started off on SC and ended at SFO. I stayed at Sand and Sea Inn and fueled up at Compassion Bakery before heading north on Highway 1. First stop: Shark Fin Cove- the strong wind, cold mist, and powerful waves made the 15 minute adventure feel like a movie scene! Then I went to Anu Nuevo and was lucky enough to be an add-on for a 2.5 hr guided tour to see the elephant seals in all their glory! Whoa! Park rangers said it was the best day to see them! I was cold, wet and utterly amazed. Afterward, I needed to fill my tank with Pie Ranch goodies (yay for food justice programs!). I left at 11am, and it’s already 2:30! I did a quick drive by the Pidgeon Point Lighthouse and marveled at the gorgeous 20 mile stretch (mountains and ocean) for the last stop at the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve to explore the tide pools. I had the entire beach to myself and saw so many amazing specimens, including some pretty beach glass. Made the last 20 minute jaunt to SFO and boarded the plane back to Michigan.
    I woke up thinking I was going to have to have a lame last day, and ended up having an incredible adventure all because of you and your blog! Thank you!

    • OMG Janet, thank you for sharing your amazing last day in CA with me! I thoroughly enjoyed my mini-road trip through your detailed experience 🙂 I’m so glad you found the article helpful — my goal is always to help everyone have deeper, more meaningful experiences in not-so-popular areas of the world! Yay!


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