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A Must-Drive Road Trip to The Central Coast's Beaches

A Must-Drive Road Trip to The Central Coast's Beaches

By California.com
October 24, 2020

As California mitigates health risks during the COVID-19 pandemic, some travel restrictions may remain in certain communities. Call the local and regional tourism offices to learn more about the restrictions in your intended destination. Thank you for reading, and stay safe.

Purple sands, grand rock formations, and washed-up boats are a few of the unique characteristics Central Coast beaches have to offer. Whether you’re chasing waves or admiring the beauty of the coastline, the Central Coast has something for everyone. The next time you’re planning a Central Coast getaway, make sure you hit up all of the best surf spots and must-see attractions that’ll blow your mind. 

Day One: Oxnard to Ventura

Admire the sweeping shores and crashing waves as you sink your toes into the sand in Ventura.

The first day of your Central Coast vacation begins in Oxnard. Captivating visitors with cool Pacific breezes and expansive agricultural pastures, the town has a plethora of unmatched seaside destinations. The first Central Coast beach to check out is Silver Strand Beach. Stretching from the Channel Islands Harbor entrance to the Port Hueneme Harbor entrance, it’s one of the best spots in Ventura County for surfing and bodyboarding. Walk towards the south end of the beach and you’ll find another one: La Jennelle. This hidden beach on the Central Coast is named after a ship that sank back in 1970. You can still find rusting parts of the vessel when walking on the boulders. Spend a couple of hours swimming and playing beach volleyball here while watching large ships come and go. Once you hear your stomach growling, stop by Cabo Seafood Grill and Cantina for a delectable Mexican meal to satisfy your cravings. 

The next city on your Central Coast road trip list is Ventura. Here, you can rollerblade around the town and wave goodbye to the last bits of light at the pier. The latter is everyone’s go-to fishing spot and the best place to admire the Channel Islands. Top off your Ventura explorations with a visit to Emma Wood State Beach. Take note of the World War II artillery emplacements and moss-covered rings in addition to the day-use beach, group camp, and Seaside Wilderness Park. As you walk towards the south end of the park, you’ll discover a beach made up of smooth round rocks. If you’re driving an RV, camp here overnight to recharge for another wonderful day full of Central Coast beach adventures.

Day Two: Ventura to Santa Barbara

No Central Coast road trip is complete without some fresh seafood. Photo courtesy of The Lark Santa Barbara.

Santa Barbara is only a 30-minute drive away from Ventura. Before cruising into Santa Barbara, stop in Carpinteria to visit Tar Pits Beach, one of the must-see stops when you’re on the road with your family. The beach is lined with dark strands of asphalt-soaked rocks, making it seem as if the underworld is ascending towards the sands. With only five other beaches like this in the world, it goes without saying that you can’t miss Tar Pits Beach—it is a rare sight to behold.

Once you're done exploring this cool California beach, continue driving north towards Santa Barbara. The "American Riviera" welcomes you with its abundance of Mediterranean-style white stucco buildings and red-tile roofs. Stroll through downtown to admire the architecture and the Santa Ynez Mountains looming in the distance. Then, it’s time to feast on fresh seafood at The Lark Santa Barbara. The delicious food and fantastic atmosphere will put you in the mood for a midday visit to West Beach. The afternoon sun calls for a swim in the blue waters of Santa Barbara. Sunbathing and taking a dip in the ocean aren’t the only beach activities here—you can even go kayaking along the shore and spot some sea lions. Stay the night at the luxe, hip Hotel Californian for the coolest part of your road trip. 

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Day Three: Santa Barbara To Morro Bay

Marvel at the massive Morro Rock when visiting the beaches of San Luis Obispo County.

As you drive north of Santa Barbara, make a stop in San Luis Obispo before continuing on to Morro Rock Beach in Morro Bay. The expansive sandy beach is home to the iconic Morro Rock, which was formed about 23 million years ago from the plugs of long-extinct volcanoes. Occasionally called the “Gibraltar of the Pacific,” it’s the last remaining peak of the nine volcanic mountains known as the Nine Sisters, which extend from San Luis Obispo to Morro Bay. As a State Historic Landmark, it’s protected by a natural preserve, and climbing it is strictly prohibited. Morro Rock Beach is also a bird sanctuary for peregrine falcons and other bird species.

Later, head over to Morro Bay’s scenic and historic Embarcadero to get a bite at Tognazzini's Dockside Restaurant. With a menu focusing on West Coast-caught seafood, this restaurant’s dishes will leave your taste buds tingling. Once you’re done feasting, hit the road and drive towards Moonstone Beach in the nearby town of Cambria. Composed of brown, sandy coves divided by rocky headlands, the Central Coast beach features large drift logs and plenty of rocks to rest on. Stroll along the Moonstone Beach Boardwalk and enjoy life in the slow lane. Watch the sun disappear below the horizon before returning to Morro Bay and getting a good night’s rest at Estero Inn

Day Four: Morro Bay to Big Sur

Head to Big Sur's Pfeiffer Beach to see the unique Keyhole Arch, which is most spectacular at sunset.

Home to some of the most stunning coastline in California, Big Sur is famed for its incredible views of turquoise waters and cliffsides. The region has no shortage of adventures and majestic sceneries. When in Big Sur, Pfeiffer Beach is a must-see—it's considered one of the best beaches on the Central Coast. There are two reasons why this Central Coast beach is unique: purple sands and Keyhole Arch. The sands here change colors due to the manganese garnet rocks in the cliffs; as for the main feature of the beach, Keyhole Arch is a breathtaking natural arch where the rays of sunlight pass through, creating an extraordinary sight. 

Nepenthe is your go-to dining destination in Big Sur. The iconic restaurant first opened its doors in 1949 and has been feeding adventurers ever since. Whether it’s the mouthwatering food that captivates you or the sweeping coastal views visible from the outdoor terrace, spending your siesta here is a must. Rest your head at the luxurious Glen Oaks Big Sur for a pampered, sustainable stay amongst the redwoods. 

Day Five: Big Sur to Santa Cruz 

Conclude your Central Coast vacation in Santa Cruz County, making sure to stop by Shark Fin Cove.

As your Central Coast road trip comes to an end, it’s only appropriate to make the most of your last day. Get an early start so you have time to stop in Carmel-by-the-Sea on your way to Santa Cruz. Carmel-by-the-Sea is a charming, European-style village that's home to a pitstop-worthy beach: China Cove. A narrow, sandy beach surrounded by rock walls, this emerald green cove looks like it's straight out of a fairytale. This hidden paradise consists of a small cave and a rock arch, which you can walk up to at low tide. Take in the gorgeous sight and experience the beauty of the natural wonder before continuing your Central Coast drive.

Cruise through the town of Monterey, and roughly one hour later, you'll find yourself at your final destination. Santa Cruz is abundant with sandy beaches, redwood-covered mountains, and organic farms, so prepare for fresh produce all day. One of the most photogenic beaches in Santa Cruz County is Capitola City Beach. The shore is lined with vibrant houses, which serve as the perfect backdrop. With a large fishing pier towards the south, Capitola Beach is every local’s favorite spot. Have a bite to eat at Wharf House Restaurant. Specializing in seafood, this local joint is the prime spot to feast away on your favorite crustaceans as the stunning views of Monterey Bay take your breath away. 

Drive up to the Wilder Ranch State Park Visitor Center before embarking on a hike to Fern Grotto Beach. With ferns draping down overhead, the deep, rocky cove leads to a gorgeous sandy beach surrounded by sandstone walls. The hike is certainly rewarding—it’s not just the end of your journey that’s worthwhile. As you trek to the beach, take in the incredible sights.

The last Central Coast beach to visit on your road trip is Shark Fin Cove, one of the most unique beaches in California. Also known as Davenport Cove Beach, it got its nickname thanks to the huge rock that resembles a shark fin. The stunning beach also features a large rock arch tunnel that you can walk into at low tide. To capture the beauty of the rock formation on camera, the bluff-top farm road at the north of the cove provides the best vantage point. Soak in the beauty of the beach and reflect on your experiences until it’s time to say goodbye to your best Central Coast weekend getaway as of yet. 

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