California Coast Road Trip Guide

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Driving up the California coast is one of the quintessential American road trips that I recommend everyone add to their bucket list. California is an incredibly beautiful state with amazing landscapes that will take your breath away. Adam and I recently went on a 10-night, 11-day road trip up and down the coast of California. With an emphasis on sustainability, we did a lot of walking and hiking, and spent 4 nights camping at State Parks. From San Diego through Santa Barbara, Big Sur, San Francisco and more, we stopped at some of California's most iconic destinations. From the desert climate of San Diego to the awe-inpsiring redwood forests, the California coast has so much to offer.
Thinking of planning a road trip of your own? We've mapped out our entire route, listed our favorite destinations, and spilled all the details about our budget. Keep reading for the ultimate California Coast road trip guide.

Curious about the carbon footprint of this roadtrip? We drove a hybrid vehicle, and our journey was roughly 2000 miles round trip. According to Terrapass, we released roughly 1,690 lbs of carbon emissions. It costs about $8.43 to purchase the equivalent carbon offsets. Not sure what that means? Check out our article about carbon offsets to learn more.

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DAY 1 - San Diego to Santa Barbara
4-hr Drive from San Diego to Santa Barbara - Dinner at The Lark

We began our journey in our hometown of San Diego, California. From there it was an easy 4 hour drive to the charming coastal town of Santa Barbara, California. We wanted to save a little money, so we booked an Airbnb in Goleta, just 15 minutes outside of Santa Barbara. We had our own little suite at a house in a quaint neighborhood. It was simple, but had everything we needed. For dinner we went to The Lark, located in the popular arts district called the Funk Zone. We enjoyed a delicious meal of ravioli and lamb ribs with fried donuts and blueberry ice cream for dessert. Yum!

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DAY 2 - Santa Barbara
Hike to Inspiration Point - Visit the Old Mission - Explore Downtown Santa Barbara - Kundalini Yoga

We started the morning with a beautiful 4-mile hike to Inspiration Point. It was a lovely, moderate hike with stunning views of Santa Barbara and the Channel Islands. After that we headed to the Old Mission to stroll through the grounds and learn more about the history of the Franciscan Friars and their influence on the Chumash people who originally inhabited these lands. In the rose gardens we discovered a white rose called Sugar Moon that smelt liked Heaven. We spent the afternoon wandering around downtown Santa Barbara, checking out the shops and restaurants. In the evening we went to a meditative Kundalini yoga class at Yoga Isla Vista. It was the perfect way to wind down after a busy day, and prepare for the drive ahead.

santa barbara view

DAY 3 - Santa Barbara to Morro Bay
2-hr Drive from Santa Barbara to Morro Bay Campgrounds
Lunch at Bayside Cafe - Walking tour of Morro Bay and town - Camping

We headed out at 9am to our next destination - Morro Bay State Park campgrounds. We booked a lovely shaded spot with views of the golf course and ocean. Once we set up camp, we had lunch at the Bayside Cafe - a wet burrito with fresh caught fish, followed by a leisurely 6 mile walk along the bay to the little town and back. We passed by the famous Morro Rock, the eroded remains of an ancient volcano, as well as a beautiful bird nesting sanctuary. We enjoyed a cup of tea in town before walking back to our campsite. The temperature got a little chilly so we made a campfire and headed to bed early.


DAY 4 - Morro Bay to Lime Kiln State Park
2-hr drive from Morro Bay to Lime Kiln Campgrounds
Hiking to the Lime Kilns and Waterfall  - Sunset Yoga on the Beach - Camping

We started the day with a beautiful 2-hr drive to Lime Kiln State Park. The landscape is really stunning here. The forests grew taller and more impressive the farther north we headed. Lime Kiln State Park is named after the remains from a limestone harvesting operation in the late 1800's. It's a beautiful forest campground by the beach near Big Sur, California. We spent the afternoon hiking to the lime kiln ruins and a small waterfall. At sunset, we enjoyed a lovely yoga session on the beach and soaked up the last rays of the sun. We had peaceful campsite along a small river, and the rushing water was the perfect soundtrack to fall asleep to.

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DAY 5 - Lime Kiln State Park to San Jose
Brunch in Carmel-By-the-Sea - Explore Downtown San Jose - Dinner at San Pedro Square

The campsites in California have showers you pay for with tokens. $1.75 bought me 4.5 glorious minutes of hot water in the shower. After a chilly night of camping, it was a welcome start to the day. Then we headed off, driving up the scenic Highway 1 along the central coast of California through Big Sur. I've wanted to do this drive for years, and it really is quite beautiful. We stopped along the way for a big brunch in the posh, artsy town of Carmel-By-the-Sea. After 2 nights of camping, subsisting mostly on granola bars and snacks, I insisted on a proper sit-down meal. We ate eggs benedict with ratatouille, and it was so delicious. After brunch we took a stroll through town checking out the galleries and shops. Then we continued on our journey to our next stop, San Jose. San Jose is a diverse, family-oriented city. We took a walk downtown, stopping for burritos at the hip and bustling San Pedro Square Market. We stayed at a good friend's house, and spent a quiet, cozy night in to recover from our camping adventures.


DAY 6 - San Francisco
1-hr Drive from San Jose to San Francisco
Japanese Tea Garden - Walking Tour of San Francisco - Drive to Dunsmuir

It was a perfect, sunny day to visit San Francisco, just a 1-hr drive from San Jose.  I love the energy of this city. We started with a visit to the gorgeous Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park, and spent the rest of the day exploring the city on foot. We walked miles through all the different neighborhoods, taking in the sights. We passed by beautiful Victorian mansions, and lots of grungy teens in town for the Hippie Hill Festival. I got the most delicious hazelnut Tiger Spice Chai at the Chai Bar. The last stop on our tour of the city was the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). We didn't have time to check out the whole museum, but we did stop by the lobby to see this gigantic mural my brother-in-law worked on with artist Julie Mehretu. We left the city before 5pm to avoid rush hour traffic, and continued the drive on to Mount Shasta. We arrived late at night, got lost, and couldn't find our Airbnb. But fortunately, we were able to book a room at a quaint little motel called Dunsmuir Inn and Suites.


DAY 7 - Dunsmuir
Breakfast at Local Cafe - Hiking at Gateway Shasta Trinity Forest Trail and Lake Siskiyou

One week into our road trip, and we woke up in snow country! We've come a long way since San Diego. Dunmuir is a charming historic mountain railroad town. We went for breakfast at a cute local cafe and then drove to the top of Mount Shasta which was covered in snow.It was warm and sunny and gorgeous even though there was snow on the ground. We went to a spot called Bunny Flat, and saw lots of hikers gearing up for a snow hike. It looked like a lot of fun. We didn't have snow gear so we drown down elevation a bit towards the Gateway Shasta Trinity Forest Trail. This is a gorgeous area to go hiking. The weather was perfect - warm and sunny - and the scenery was stunning. The air smelled so fresh, like evergreens, and the soundtrack of birds chirping was divine. We drove a short distance away to Lake Siskiyou for another gorgeous hike around a peaceful mountain lake. After a full day of hiking, we headed back to our hotel for a nap before a sunset walk along the railroad tracks through the arts district of town. We had a quiet dinner at the hotel, and packed up for 2 nights of camping ahead.

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DAY 8 - Jedidiah Smith State Campgrounds
4-hr Drive from Dunsmuir to Jedidiah Smith State Campgrounds
Breakfast at Black Bear Diner - Fishing and Camping along the Smith River

We woke up in Dunsmuir this morning, and got moving pretty quickly. We drove all the way to the top of California, briefly passing through Oregon on our way to Crescent City, California. We stopped for a big yummy breakfast at Black Bear Diner where I ate a hearty meal of scrambled eggs, bacon, and giant pancakes. It was about a 4 hour drive until we reached our campsite at Jedidiah Smith State Park in the redwood forests. We set up camp and went for a walk along the Smith River, running into a friendly couple who had spotted 6 osprey fishing by the river. Adam got all geared up in his waders and vest to go fishing. Our campsite along the river was incredibly serene and peaceful. The weather here was actually warmer than our previous campsites farther south. We enjoyed a cozy dinner by the fire and spent the evening reading and relaxing.

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DAY 9 - Jedidiah Smith State Campgrounds
Hiking to Boy Scout Tree - Fishing and Camping along the Smith River

We've had a jam-packed itinerary so far, so we've been taking time to slow down and enjoy nature in the redwood forests. There is an incredible energy here amongst these gigantic, ancient trees. We took a hike to Boy Scout Tree, a ginormous redwood in the middle of the forest. It felt like we were hiking back through time to millions years ago when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Adam spent the afternoon fishing, and we had another quiet evening by the fire. Tomorrow we're splurging on a hotel in Monterrey for our final night on the road trip.

DAY 10 - Monterrey
8-hr Drive from Jedidiah Smith State Campgrounds to Monterrey
Walk through Monterrey - Fish and Chips Dinner - Room Service Dessert and Hotel Spa

We're on the home stretch, headed back to Southern California. After a long day of driving we arrived in the historic coastal town of Monterey, made famous by author John Steinbeck. In the 1950's, Monterey was the center of a booming sardine canning industry. Within a few decades, the sardine population was destroyed and the industry collapsed. Today, Monterey is known for it's excellent seafood and the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium. We didn't have time to check out the aquarium, but I definitely recommend you check it out. We had fish and chips for dinner, and spent a relaxing evening at our hotel, The Monterey Plaza, ordering room service and enjoying time at the rooftop spa. It was the perfect way to end our epic journey.


DAY 11 - Homeward Bound
6-hr Drive from Monterrey to San Diego

We made it! It's been quite the adventure, and now we are ready to head home. We survived 11 days of extreme togetherness and many hours logged on the road. It was so much fun, exhausting at times, but always an adventure. There's nothing like time on the road to make coming home extra sweet. After 11 days on the road, I was so happy to sleep in my own bed again. Where should we go next?!

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Total Budget for 2 people, 10 nights: $964
Gas - 2000 miles ($3.60/gallon @ 20 miles/gallon) = $360
2 Nights Airbnb in Goleta (near Santa Barbara) = $220
1 Night Camping at Morro Bay State Park =  $51 ($35 campsite + $16 firewood)
1 Night Camping at Lime Kiln State Park = $58 ($42 campsite + $16 firewood)
1 Night in San Jose - Free stay at a friend's place
2 Nights Motel in Dunsmuir = $175
2 Nights Camping at Jedidiah Smith State Park - $100 ($40 campsite x 2 nights + $20 firewood)
1 Night Hotel in Monterrey = Free with credit card points

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