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The Best Stops on Your Road Trip From San Francisco to Big Sur
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The Best Stops on Your Road Trip From San Francisco to Big Sur

Make sure you enjoy the journey as much as the destination with the best stops to make on your road trip from San Francisco to Big Sur.

Dikran Seferian

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5 min read

April 14, 2022

Disclaimer: California.com is not receiving any type of compensation for reviewing any of the products or businesses mentioned in this article.

With its picturesque views and fascinating landmarks, the Pacific Coast Highway provides the perfect setting for a scenic road trip. One stretch, in particular, that is sure to be memorable is the drive from San Francisco to Big Sur. Boasting an abundance of coastal towns and stunning vistas, this scenic route is a testament to the unparalleled beauty of California’s coastline. Add in a variety of mouth-watering restaurants, exciting activities, and jaw-dropping state parks, and you’ll never want your road trip to be over. 

Pacifica

Taco Bell? Ocean views? Absolutely sign us up. The first stop on your Big Sur drive from San Francisco will allow you to sink your teeth into a juicy quesadilla while watching surfers as they catch waves.

Besides having the best Taco Bell in the country, the coastal town of Pacifica is also home to a number of cool coastal hiking trails such as Devil’s Slide. Being the most common choice, this hike can get a little crowded; but we promise that the stunning views are totally worth it. If you prefer paths less traveled, the Pedro Point Headlands trail is the one for you.

The Pacifica region offers a slew of hiking trails in the midst of breathtaking scenery.

Half Moon Bay

The next stop on your road trip from San Francisco to Big Sur is Half Moon Bay. Nearly 15 minutes away from Pacifica, this small coastal city offers sweeping views of the ocean in addition to a handful of gastronomical gems. If you prefer seafood over Taco Bell, make sure to stop by Sam’s Chowder House for a hearty bowl of chowder.

Once you’ve filled your tummy, explore the many things to do in Half Moon Bay and head over to the city center where you can find a variety of boutiques, galleries, and artisan shops. And if you want something unique for the ‘Gram, take a selfie with the huge rusted metal statues of dinosaurs in Spanish Town.

Make sure to stop by Half Moon Bay to indulge in a variety of restaurants and attractions.

Pescadero

At this point, it’s safe to say that you’ve decided to take your time on the road trip, right? So why not spend the night at the Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel in Pescadero? The iconic lighthouse is among the tallest ones in the country, and definitely one of the most photographable. And if you’re lucky enough, you will even spot seals in their natural habitat. This coastal area also boasts a slew of hiking trails as well as a hidden beach — plus, it’s within a “Dark Sky” preserve, making it perfect for stargazing

The Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel is an ideal place to get some shut-eye after a few hours on the road.

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Gilroy

Who doesn’t love garlic? If you have a passion for this divine vegetable, you need to stop by Gilroy. Located in Santa Clara County, the town is famous for the Gilroy Garlic Festival and is even dubbed the garlic capital of the United States. The festival usually takes place around July so if your San Francisco to Big Sur road trip happens to be around that time, you may actually catch it. Gilroy is also known for being a gastronomical haven which means you’re spoilt for choice when it comes to picking a restaurant or even sampling the local produce.

With a fair share of agricultural fields, local produce, and an array of restaurants, Gilroy is a must-visit coastal city.

Santa Cruz

Your Pacific Coast Highway road trip wouldn’t be complete without a stop at Santa Cruz. This iconic surf town is famous for its vibrant beach vibes, natural beauty, and of course, the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. This bustling oceanside stretch is lined with an abundance of carnival games, amusement park rides, classic arcades, and eateries. After having your fair share of adrenaline and snacks, consider going for a hike at Wilder Ranch State Park or admiring the unique rock formations at the Natural Bridges State Beach.

The Santa Cruz Boardwalk features an endless variety of fun activities for the whole family.

Capitola

Not very far away from the Santa Cruz Boardwalk is the ever-so-charming Capitola waterfront village known as the Venetian Court. Adorned with a tapestry of pastel-colored houses laid along azure waters, this picturesque town is definitely another one for your Instagram feed — especially at sunset.

Once you’ve worked up an appetite, you can find a variety of restaurants including The Wharf House Restaurant and Pizza My Heart. Make sure to save room for dessert because Marianne’s Ice Cream has over 50 flavors to choose from.

Rows of pastel houses create the picture-perfect beachscape of Capitola.

Monterey

One of the final stops on your way to Big Sur is Monterey, a laid-back city that’s home to the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium. Take your time to explore the aquarium and witness the majestic ecosystem of Monterey Bay. Then, treat yourself to a delicious meal on Lighthouse Avenue and stretch your legs along the Monterey Bay Coastal Trail. If you’re a literature enthusiast, you will be thrilled to find out that this coastal city appears in many of John Steinbeck’s novels, the author himself being a Monterey native.

Appreciate the natural beauty of Monterey's marine wildlife at Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Carmel-by-the-Sea

If you’re looking for a more sophisticated version of Monterey, Carmel-by-the-Sea should be your cup of tea. Famous for its cobblestone streets and charming city center, this high-end coastal town boasts an array of upscale boutiques, art galleries, and fancy restaurants. And when you’re done shopping and dining, head over to state beach and treat your eyes to the exceptional seascape. With the unparalleled charm that it exudes, it’s no wonder that Carmel is full of things to do and such a popular choice for romantic getaways.

Whether you're taking in the majestic scenery or treating yourself to the upscale boutiques, Carmel-by-the-Sea has a piece of paradise for everyone.

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

With its turquoise waters and lush greenery, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is no less gorgeous than any other landmark on the Pacific Coast Highway. Despite not being as popular as Big Sur, Point Lobos features several hiking trails from which you can admire the idyllic scenery, making the trip to Big Sur worth the drive. You will also have the chance to rent a kayak and discover the secluded China Cove, which is a paradise in and of itself. This hidden gem is also accessible via a smooth hike — although the way back might be a bit of a challenge.

Pristine waters and verdant hills characterize the coastal heaven that is Point Lobos State Natural Reserve.


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