Central California Coast Vacation Ideas Central California Coast - Road Trip Planner

Bay Area Scenic Drives San Francisco, Pacific Coast Highway, Napa Valley, 17 Mile Drive

Things to do / Travel Guide

The best part about central California is that much of it, particularly the areas just south of San Francisco and the Bay area, are close enough together that driving from one to the other does not involve hours and hours behind the steering wheel. Thanks to the beauty of the Golden State, everywhere you drive is bound to be scenic in some way or another, but there are some routes that really stand out.

California Highway 1 (a.k.a. Pacific Coast Highway)

The most popular scenic drive, traversing the entire length of the region is California Highway 1, also known as the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH). It is one of the most popular drives in the world and part of almost everyone's California itinerary. California Highway 1 winds its way along the central California coast as it parallels steep ocean cliffs and goes past beaches and inland mountains. The route starts south of Los Angeles and snakes its way along the coast through Pismo Beach, and further north through Morro Bay, Big Sur, Monterey, Santa Cruz, San Francisco, and ends up in Marin County. It's possible to drive the roughly 300 miles of the PCH from Pismo Beach to Sausalito in about eight hours (if you're lucky), but that would be missing the point. You should be prepared for slow-going on this road, its part of the fun and allows everyone in your car to really absorb the highway's amazing beauty. Don't be surprised if you stop more than you usually do because of all the stunning vistas along the way.

The Scenic 49-Mile Drive

If you want to take a mini-road trip to explore San Francisco and the greater Bay Area journey along the Scenic 49-Mile Drive. Take your time; there are a lot of places along the way you might want to take a moment or two to check out more thoroughly. The Scenic 49-Mile Drive features many of the most striking sights across San Francisco, including the famous Golden Gate Bridge, the triangular Transamerica Pyramid, and the Coit Tower.
It's recommended you pick up a map before you set out (maps can be picked up at the San Francisco Visitors Information Center), but, in any case, the Scenic 49-Mile Drive is well-signposted to help keep you from getting lost.

The 17-Mile Drive

To get a good look at the exclusive Pebble Beach area of Monterey, head out to the 17-Mile Drive, the scenic drive on the Monterey Peninsula that links Carmel with Pacific Grove. The 17-Mile Drive is open for travel from sunrise to sunset for a fee (less than $10 per vehicle). It winds its way though Del Monte Forest and Crocker Grove, past the Cypress Point Lookout and Fanshell Beach, where seals and other amphibious creatures can be seen frolicking on Seal Rock. Other sites along the 17-Mile Drive include Bird Rock, where sea lions and indigenous birds play in the sun, Point Joe, the site of many shipwrecks, and Spanish Bay, where, in 1769, explorer Gaspar de Portola first dropped a Spanish anchor. Expect to spend at least 1 hour on this drive.

Old Coast Road in Big Sur, California

One of the most iconic sights in Big Sur is the Bixby Bridge which crosses over Bixby Creek right along the Pacific Coastline. The Old Coast Road is the route you'll want to take if crossing the Bixby Bridge is on your list of things to do. It loops off of California Highway 1 and goes inland from Bixby Bridge to the Big Sur Valley, traversing thick forests and cutting through barren granite, while affording excellent views of the scenery and the sky.