It’s the perfect time to get out on the open road and go for a long drive. The Fourth of July holiday is over, which means that most of the American-flag clad families and hotdog-toting young people have returned to their everyday lives.
The road is free and clear for a weekend road trip, and what better state to venture through than California, home of the one of the world’s most renowned ocean-side drives? No need to take too many weekdays off, because this route is made for the weekend-warrior. Dig out your camera, pack a small bag full of travel-ready snacks, grab a friend or two, and get ready to travel the northern neck of the California Coast Pacific highway over the course of one weekend.
Keep reading for an excitement-packed weekend trip that departs from San Francisco, loops down to Carmel and Big Sur, then turns around and lands you back in San Fran.
Try to get an early start on the way out of San Fran but not too early because you want to just miss the infamous San Francisco fog. Clear skies and clear roads are the aim here. Exit the city on the south and follow signs to Daly City and Pacifica, Pacifica being the first clue that you’re heading out into the big and wonderful wild of the California coast.
Arrive in Pacifica in less than an hour, and be sure to stop along the slopes of the two cliffs that border the little town. More likely than not, the beach will be packed with surfers in wetsuits who spend all day trying to catch a frigid wave. Great opportunity for a photo op. Get back in the car and keep driving for a few minutes, but it won’t be long before you notice cars parked along the road, competing for a vantage point of the southern-facing Martini Creek, another gorgeous view.
Stick to Route 1 and follow signs for Santa Cruz. Many folks travel and stay in Santa Cruz, and lodging options are varied and vast. If you do choose to park here for a night, beware that parking can be a challenge, especially on weekends. Regardless, be sure to stop and take a walk along the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk to stretch your legs or go to the amusement park before hopping back in the car and heading towards Pacific Cove.
Along this stretch you’ll begin to notice seemingly endless fields of agriculture, and it’s no surprise that this glimpse of Salinas Valley is also known as ‘America’s Salad Bowl’. Drive until you hit exit 402B on Route 1 to turn off and enter Pacific Cove at the very tip of Monterey Peninsula. By now, it will be early evening and your party will definitely be looking for a place to rest, eat some great food, and bed down for the night.
For dinner, head up the main drag on 17th street, where you’ll find a variety of seafood options. One great spot to check out is Red House Café, recommended by both travelers and locals alike.
For lodging, Pacific Cove has a number of beautiful and cost-effective BnB spots, but we recommend booking them early in order to get the most for your money. Spend your evening relaxing near the beach or wandering around the tranquil beach town.
As you gather your belongings to make your way out of Pacific Cove, you have to stop at Pavel’s Backerei (closed on Sundays) for a famously fresh breakfast. Most summer mornings in this area are foggy, but even hazy skies aren’t enough to break the next magnificent leg of your trip.
17 Mile Drive. Connecting Pacific Grove and Carmel long the ocean, this private road features the decadent Pebble Beach and Del Monte Forest and is home to some incredible real estate property with stunning views of the ocean. To enter, pay a toll of $10/car to the Pebble Beach Corporation that maintains the area, though it’s hard to believe they need the extra cash. Be sure to follow signs diligently because 17 Mile Drive can branch off into other parts of the community. Along the drive, you’ll find yourself remarking at the beauty The Lone Cypress Tree, which is well-worth the $10 toll. The tree has perched for over 200 years on its seaside cliff, an impressive sight, and is the most visited feature along 17 Mile Drive.
After exiting, stop for the evening in Carmel-by-the-Sea, where you’ll find everything from Tibetan shops and chocolate stores, to streets packed with Ferrari’s and Lamborghini’s. It should be mid-afternoon by the time, and the locale offers many fun ways to spend an evening. The soft sand beach is long and not usually crowded, so it’s easy to spend the last hours of the afternoon catching some rays and lounging in your own private space before heading back to town for a bite to eat. Lodging in Carmel is ample and easy to find. You should be able to wing it if you haven’t had time to make a reservation before the start of the trip but it’s always best to plan ahead if you have the opportunity.
This final drive is the apex of the trip, and the final leg of your Route 1 journey. Big Sur, with its towering, gigantic cliffs and winding roads, can be a wildly meditative ride. Along some of this portion the roads are single-lane, so plan for slower driving times. But that’s the point, after all, since you’ll stopping the car to get out and photographic almost every winding bend, each more beautiful than the last. You might even get lucky and see some Gray Whales stopping for lunch along the coastline.
Your final scenic stop is McWay Falls, a giant waterfall that spills directly into the ocean. At low tide, the falls and beach form a green crescent-shaped cove that conjures imaginings of Pre-historic dinosaurs and ferns.
When you’ve had your fill of the falls, ready your gang for the trip back towards San Francisco. The drive itself takes a little over three hours, and is the perfect time to talk about the week ahead or play a car-game to get you through the last evening of the trip.
Do you need to rent a car in San Francisco to ride this trip? Book your perfect car at San Francisco Airport here.