California Coast in 5 Days and 2,725 Miles

I rarely need an excuse to travel, so when my husband bought me tickets to see Metallica in San Francisco I knew we had to extend our time in California. We’ve been talking about driving up the coast for years, but never committed. Now we had the perfect excuse to check off a bucket-list trip. We booked our trip Wednesday though Sunday, which gave us five days to cram in as many sights as we could from L.A. to San Francisco while driving an obnoxious, touristy red Camaro convertible (that I adored). Tip: Extend your trip to six or seven days to ensure you have ample time to explore San Francisco or L.A.

Camero Convertible California

Day 1: Cleveland to Los Angeles

Highlights: Sanchos Tacos and Laguna Beach

We kicked off our trip in southern California. We scored a direct flight on United from Cleveland for the insanely cheap price of $258 round trip. Tip: Travel during one of the shoulder seasons (spring/fall) for great deals. The weather will be milder, but there will be fewer people and much better prices. It can be quite rainy during the winter months, but we lucked out and had sunshine and upper 60 degree weather the entire time we were on the west coast.

For this trip, we didn’t stay directly in Los Angeles. I’ve been to L.A. a couple of times, but the traffic in the city is enough to keep me far, far away. If you do stay in the city, I would highly recommend hiking in Griffith Park to see the Hollywood sign and gorgeous views of the city below. We stayed just south of L.A. in Huntington Beach with friends that offered us a free place to crash and to act as our tour guides.

Sanchos Shrimp Tacos

Our first stop in Huntington Beach was the In-N-Out Burger. They don’t offer anything vegetarian so I just ordered fries and a shake. The shake was delicious, but the best part was that we ate outside in the sun, in February. For a Clevelander, that is a really big deal. We ended up exploring Huntington Beach a.k.a. Surf City USA and then driving down the coast to see Newport and Laguna Beach.  I quickly realized that our vacation was going to be all about the food, as I sampled phenomenal shrimp tacos at Sanchos Tacos in Huntington Beach before enjoying a fabulous sandwich and vegetarian chili at Urth Caffe in Laguna Beach. If you’re going for a chill, beach experience I would highly recommend this area of Cali.

Laguna Beach Sunset

Day 2: Los Angeles to Big Sur

Highlights: Bagelmania Oreo Mocha, Santa Barbara, Bello Mundo Cappuccino, elephant seals at Piedras Blancas and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

We hit the road super early (5:45 a.m.), but once we had stopped at Bagelmania for a quick breakfast and coffee, we didn’t  make it on the road till 6:15 a.m. It turned out that was already too late for L.A. rush hour and it took us two hours to get out of the city. Tip: Stay overnight just north of L.A. if you’re looking to avoid rush hour traffic or leave at 5 a.m. I would say that we kept the road rage to a minimum, given that we were on vacation and really we had nowhere we had to be all day.

Santa Barbara Monastery

Our first stop was Santa Barbara. If we had more time, I would’ve spent a half day here. The main drag looked absolutely beautiful and I’ve heard this area be called the Mediterranean of California. Definitely worth stopping if even for a coffee and a quick walk in their downtown area.

Once you hit San Luis Obispo, this is where you would hop off Hwy 101 and onto Hwy 1. We stopped here and grabbed lunch at the Firestone Grill. This place received rave reviews, but we weren’t overly impressed. The food wasn’t bad but it wasn’t great either. After lunch we grabbed coffee at Bello Mundo, where Derek attempted to teach me chess over cappuccinos. Definitely swing through for a cup of coffee before hitting the road.

Bello Mundo Cappuccino

Morrow Bay is right after this and you can see the mini-mountain rising out of the ocean from the road. Keep driving and you’ll hit the Hearst Mansion (it’s up on the cliffs to the right). They say to schedule three hours there and we just weren’t that interested, so we kept driving. Right after the Hearst Mansion is where you can see the elephant seals sunbathing at Piedras Blancas. The females had just given birth a month or so ago, so there were tons of them hanging out catching the rays. They are really great to see up close and you don’t have to walk far to catch a glimpse.

Piedras Blancas Elephant Seals

There are lots of little towns that dot Hwy 1, so it all depends what you’re interested in seeing and doing. We only had two full days to drive from L.A. to San Francisco, so we were a little picky with where we stopped. Big Sur was our main “destination.” This isn’t just one spot, but a rather long stretch of Hwy 1 that includes dramatic cliffs that drop into the Pacific. There are tons of vista points, so pull over whenever you feel the need to snap a few pictures and just enjoy the dramatic scenery around you. Whatever you do, try not to rush.

Big Sur Coastline

I would recommend stopping at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. A one mile round trip hike will take you to views overlooking an 80 foot water fall that drops into the ocean. Whales and sea lions  can also be spotted from up above. January through March is an ideal time to see the gray whales migrating. It’s also not a bad spot to take in the sunset.

Julia Pfeiffer State Park Waterfall

If you can (only in the off-season), don’t book a place to stay in Big Sur until you arrive. This allows you the flexibility to drive as far as you want, without feeling rushed to get to your destination. In the summertime you’ll need to book in advance, otherwise you risk not having anywhere to sleep.  Based on where we were at the end of the day, we stayed at Big Sur Lodge State Park. The rooms are normally $399 a night, but we were able to stay for $169 due to it being February. The rooms are nice, but pretty basic. We ate dinner at the lodge, and it was delicious! Be prepared to spend a lot eating in Big Sur. There aren’t a lot of restaurants and because of the location, you are going to be charged more than if you were somewhere else.

Day 3: Big Sur to San Francisco

Highlights: Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Ventana Inn restaurant, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park,  and Half Moon Bay

In the morning we got up early (which seemed to be a theme this trip) and went back to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park to go hiking. Our concierge at the lodge had recommended the EWoldson hike. What she failed to mention is that the first three miles of this six mile hike are practically straight up the mountain. I will say, it is worth the effort. You not only get to experience the coastal redwoods, but you also get fabulous views of the Pacific and coastline. It took us just over two hours, so we were famished when we were done. We ended up eating at the Ventana Restaurant, which is also perched on the side of the mountain with beautiful patio seating and views of the ocean. The food was so incredibly fresh and tasty. Definitely stop and sit outside if the weather allows.

EWoldson Hike View in Big Sur

After breakfast we went to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, which is right near the lodge. It’s a two mile, mostly one-lane road that dumps you out onto the beach. It’s a great place to spend half a day taking in the sun, but we only stayed for a quick walk on the beach before heading back to the car. The really cool thing about this beach is the purple sand beneath your toes. Once I’d gotten my early morning beach fix, we were back on the road, until yet another stop was required at the Bixby Bridge. This is a very popular stop, so we got out, took our pictures and kept moving.

Bixby Bridge in California

Once you get out of Big Sur, there is a stretch of Hwy 1 that takes you off the coast and into some less than attractive agricultural fields. Don’t fret too much, as you’ll be back to the coast before you know it. We did take the 17 mile scenic drive ($10 toll road). The views are pretty, but I’d say it is more to see Pebble Beach and the other golf courses more than dramatic ocean views. If you have the time, do it. However, I didn’t feel like the views were that much better than the rest of Big Sur.

Santa Cruz was our next stop once we got to this section. They have a great boardwalk with lots of rides (which are closed until the summer) even though it was 70 degrees and in my mind, summer. They have a cool downtown area as well and once we had refueled at the local coffee shop, we were driving to Half Moon Bay. We just happened to get there right in time for sunset. San Francisco isn’t too much further once you get out of Half Moon Bay, so we made it into the city right after dark.

Sunset along the Pacific Coast

Days 4: San Francisco

Highlights: Noe Valley, Chloe’s Cafe, Golden Gate Bridge, Golden Gate Park National Recreation Area (and Drive), Embarcadero

If you’ve never been to San Francisco, you need at least a couple of days to explore. We only had about a day and a half. We rented an apartment in Noe Valley, and I would highly recommend staying in that neighborhood. You get the sense of what it’s like to live in San Fran, while having the convenience of street parking and easy access to downtown via public transportation only a block away ($2.25 a person).

Breakfast at Choloe's Cafe in San Francisco

Like Cleveland, San Francisco is a huge foodie city. Our favorite restaurant on this trip was Chloe’s Cafe. The brunch was one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had – banana walnut pancakes, eggs and fresh fruit served with a top-notch cappuccino. Ah, heaven! We spent a good part of the day at Golden Gate Park National Recreation Area (about 25 minutes from Noe Valley), where the views of the city and the Golden Gate Bridge are unparalleled. We drove through the park to the Point Bonita Lighthouse parking area, where views that were just as good as Big Sur were around every curve. I would highly recommend taking this little detour.

Golden Gate Bridge

On the drive back through the city we parked on Hyde Street and jumped on one of the infamous cable cars. Tip: We weren’t charged to take the car down Hyde Street from Lombard because we were so close to the end of the line. We did take it back up and that costs $7. About a third of people can get an outside seat; the rest are facing the interior. Don’t worry about taking pictures while riding the cable car. When you take the car down the hill, you can pose for pictures once the car has stopped and is waiting to be parked.

Powell and Market Street Car San Francisco

Lombard Street is prettier in the spring with all of the flowers, but still worth a stop. We spent most of our time along the Embarcadero, which is where the majority of the best sites are anyway. While Fisherman’s Wharf is okay, there are far less touristy areas along the water that are better. We ended the day with a fabulous concert by Metallica at AT&T Park. The excitement of the city for the Super Bowl, coupled with the concert, made for a very fun trip.

Lombard Street

Day 5: San Francisco to Cleveland

Highlights: Sun and Chloe’s Cafe (again)

We had just enough time to enjoy the fabulous food at Chloe’s Cafe one last time, before I begrudgingly returned the convertible I had grown so accustomed.  And we landed in Cleveland and were immediately greeted with snow. Sigh. Until next time San Francisco.

Chloe's Cafe in San Francisco

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