California’s Central Coast

Photo by Kim Grant

California’s Central Coast Itineraries

California’s Central Coast: Epic Road Trip

The allure of spectacular nature, first-rate food and wine and a low-key vibe

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Between San Francisco and Los Angeles lies one of the state’s greatest treasures: California’s Central Coast. It’s wild and wonderful. This is where Californians head for serious rest and relaxation — a peaceful place where we can slow down and escape the crowds, and play in a vast natural playground with a mind-boggling array of things to see and do. Hike amid towering redwoods, bike along the bluffs, paddle alongside whales and otters or surf at sunrise at one of hundreds of beaches. We never tire of exploring the Central Coast: it awes, inspires and rejuvenates, time and time again.

Extraordinary Nature Everywhere along California’s Central Coast

Few destinations on the planet can claim the depth and breadth of natural wonders in the Central Coast. The 300-mile coastline stretches from the Monterey Bay Area, about 75 miles south of San Francisco, down to Ventura County, just 60 miles north of LA. It borders two huge protected ocean areas: the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (third largest in the world) and the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary in the south. The Central Coast also is home to two national parks, Pinnacles and Channel Islands, the Los Padres National Forest, several national wildlife refuge areas and dozens of state parks and beaches (there are nearly 30 just in the Monterey Bay Area).

California’s Central Coast: Big City Culture, Small Town Vibe

The Central Coast is speckled with small towns and villages that still look and feel like old-time California, and where residents hold fast to a slow, friendly way of life. But don’t let the small-town vibe fool you into thinking you’re in the boondocks. The Central Coast offers a walloping amount of urban-setting perks. Food, for starters: it doesn’t get much fresher than in these parts, and much of it is organic, or at least raised or produced in all-natural and GMO-free fashion. Feast on luscious strawberries, wild-caught salmon and halibut, lobster and crab — whatever’s in season is likely to dominate the menus. Pair your meals with hundreds of local wines of all varietals, from Santa Cruz Mountains, Monterey County, Paso Robles, southern San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara County AVAs. Tasting rooms and craft breweries abound, from Santa Cruz all the way down to Ventura and Ojai.

If you’re into history, art and culture you’ll find it everywhere in the Central Coast. Browse galleries and museums in artsy Carmel-by-the-Sea and tony Santa Barbara and follow the Path of History in downtown Monterey, where Spaniards first established a presence centuries ago. Don’t miss the various California missions along historic El Camino Real, especially in Carmel, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Ventura. Rock out with world-famous bands or listen to celebrity speakers who perform regularly at Central Coast venues — the perfect place to stop en route between big-city gigs.

Road Trip along California’s Central Coast

The most famous road in the Central Coast is Highway 1, especially the portion along the dramatic, 60-mile Big Sur Coast. But the fastest route from end to end is Highway 101, which mostly hugs the coast in the south but travels inland in the north. A car is the best way to get around, but there are plenty of public transportation options. Following are highlights of destinations along the way as you travel from north to south.

The laidback, liberal-minded city of Santa Cruz stands sentinel on the north side of the Monterey Bay. A longtime refuge for San Francisco-area residents, the county is best known for its sunny beaches, groves of towering redwood trees and avant-garde University of California campus. South of Santa Cruz lie some of California’s most popular state beaches, including New Brighton and Seacliff, and charming villages like Capitola, Soquel and Aptos.

South of Santa Cruz, Highway 1 follows the Monterey Bay coastline and passes through several seaside towns, including Moss Landing, Seaside and Marina, before arriving at the city of Monterey. Don’t miss bustling Cannery Row, immortalized by novelist John Steinbeck, and the famed Monterey Bay Aquarium — one of the best in the world. South of Monterey are Pacific Grove, Pebble Beach and scenic 17 Mile Drive, quaint Carmel-by-the-Sea and pastoral Carmel Valley. Inland from the Monterey Peninsula is the super-fertile Salinas Valley area — aka Steinbeck Country — home to vast farms, ranches, a burgeoning wine region, the National Steinbeck Center and Pinnacles National Park.

Continuing south, travel along the Big Sur Coast via Highway 1, or veer inland to Highway 101, the quicker inland route to San Luis Obispo County. The casual, collegiate city of San Luis Obispo anchors the county in the center, while the Paso Robles wine region serves as main hub in the north. Classic coastal towns include Morro Bay, Cambria and San Simeon in the north, and Pismo Beach, Avila Beach, Oceano, Grover Beach and Arroyo Grande in the south. Southern SLO wine country includes wineries in the Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande Valley AVAs.

South of here, Highways 1 and 101 merge for a time and lead to Santa Barbara, one the most attractive cities in the nation. Continue on the 101 to explore beachside Ventura and artsy Ojai in the hills above, or park your wheels and board a high-speed catamaran out to Channel Islands National Park.

What it Costs

Abstract Pricing at a Glance

Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.

Price ranges are quoted in $US.

See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$$ => Tickets $26 per person

$ => Rooms less than $100 for a double
$$ => Rooms $200 for a double
$$$ => Rooms $300 for a double

$ => $1-15 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$ => $16-40 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => $41 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)

N/A => Not applicable

$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$ => Tickets $26 per person


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