This loop through Central California offers a delightful sampler of the best of the Golden State: dramatic coastline, charming towns, captivating history and, of course, plenty of wine. Following the coast south from the Monterey Peninsula to Santa Barbara and Channel Islands National Park, before heading back north through some of the state's best wine regions, makes for an unforgettable week.

Highlights

  • Hike to hidden coves in Big Sur
  • Experience the grandeur of Hearst Castle
  • Chill out in laid-back Santa Barbara
  • Kayak through the pristine waters of Channel Islands National Park
  • Sip the top local varietals in the wine country of Paso Robles

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 San Francisco to Monterey, Coastal Bike Ride Monterey
Day 2 Monterey to Cambria via Carmel-by-the-Sea and Big Sur Cambria, CA
Day 3 From Cambria to Santa Barbara via Hearst Castle and Pismo Beach Santa Barbara
Day 4 Kayaking in Channel Islands National Park Santa Barbara
Day 5 Santa Barbara to Paso Robles via Solvang & Los Olivos Paso Robles
Day 6 Explore Paso Robles Wine Country Paso Robles
Day 7 Paso Robles to San Francisco via Moss Landing  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: San Francisco to Monterey, Coastal Bike Ride

Point Pinos Lighthouse
Point Pinos Lighthouse

Less than two hours from the Bay Area, the cypress trees and cool ocean breezes of the Monterey Peninsula feel a world away.

From San Francisco, get an early start and drive straight toward Municipal Wharf II (not to be confused for the nearby, more touristy Fisherman's Wharf) in Monterey for a bite to eat at Loulou's Griddle in the Middle (118 miles, approximately 1 hour 50 minutes). After filling up with a hearty brunch, take a quick stroll along the wharf to see if you can spot any sea life (or hear them- sea lions can almost always be heard barking up a storm), then head to nearby Adventures By The Sea to pick up rental bikes or e-bikes.

It's time for a relaxing ride along this scenic stretch of coast (click here for a map of the biking route). The Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail passes through the historic Cannery Row area, and then tracks along the coast with great views of numerous hidden coves along the way (keep an eye out for sea otters floating in the kelp). After approximately 2.5 miles, the trail ends at the scenic Lover's Point Beach in Pacific Grove. After a quick break here, we recommend making a pit stop at Pavel's Backerei in Pacific Grove's cute downtown to pick up supplies for an afternoon picnic. 

From Pavel's, return to Lover's Point and follow Ocean View Boulevard. As you approach Point Pinos and its picturesque lighthouse atop the hill, the sheltered coves of Monterey Bay give way to rocky coastline and crashing surf. You can turn around and head back at any point, but we recommend that you continue to follow Sunset Drive along the coast to Asilomar State Beach. After admiring the views of the white sands and surf (and tucking into your picnic from Pavel's), head back the way you came to drop off your bikes at Adventures by the Sea (11 miles round trip, approximately 1 hour excluding stops).

After your bike ride, check into your hotel and take some time to explore Downtown Monterey. This area is much less touristy than Cannery Row, and is packed with California history and great local shops and restaurants.

Under both Spanish and Mexican rule in the 18th and 19th centuries, Monterey was the capital of what was then known as Alta California. A self-guided walking tour along the Path of History allows you to explore a number of key sites that comprise Monterey State Historic Park, including the Custom House, which was California's main port of entry in the early 19th century, and Colton Hall, where California's first constitution was drafted in 1849 after independence from Mexico.

For a well-deserved dinner, we recommend grabbing an outside table at Heirloom Pizza Co.

Day 2: Monterey to Cambria via Carmel-by-the-Sea and Big Sur

Highway 1 along the Big Sur coast
Highway 1 along the Big Sur coast

In the morning, after breakfast at your hotel, make your way to the quaint village of Carmel-by-the-Sea (4 miles, approximately 10 minutes), which became an artist's colony after the 1906 Great San Francisco Earthquake destroyed that city. Take a stroll along Ocean Ave. and admire the charming shops and galleries. Make sure to grab a cup of coffee at Carmel Valley Coffee Roasting Company to warm up from the morning chill, and then head down the hill to Carmel Beach, one of the most picturesque along this stretch of coast.

We recommend picking up sandwiches to go at Bruno's Market and Deli before making your way south down Highway 1 in the direction of Big Sur. From Carmel, the highway will gradually begin to rise high above the Pacific along the edge of the Santa Lucia Mountains. The journey is the destination here: enjoy the incredible views as you meander through one of the most spectacular coastal drives in the world.

Your next stop is Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park to explore (on foot) some of the best the Big Sur coast has to offer (37 miles, approximately 1 hour). We recommend the short Partington Cove Trail, (approximately 1 mile) which leads to a beautiful cove accessed through a 60-foot tunnel, used to transport lumber to awaiting ships in the 19th century. There are also optional trail spurs that take you to another nearby cove or along the forest-lined creek in the adjacent canyon. Please note that the trail does have some elevation change. If you're up for more hiking after returning to Highway 1, the Tanbark Trail, located directly across the road, will take you further uphill to explore more of Big Sur's lush forests.

Just down the road is McWay Falls, one of the most iconic Big Sur images. This narrow waterfall descends 80 feet from the rocky bluff above to a sandy beach nestled in a lovely cove. The falls can be seen from the highway itself, but we recommend taking the short trail, which can be accessed just inside the entrance to the state park, for the most up-close views.

Continuing down the coast, the short trail down to Sand Dollar Beach is another worthwhile stop for great views and a chance to dip your toes in the sand (22 miles, approximately 30 minutes from McWay Falls).

As you approach Cambria, where you'll be spending the evening, see if you can spot elephant seals in the Piedras Blancas Rookery, located right along the side of Highway 1.  While the peak season for viewing these impressive animals (adult males can be 16 feet long and weigh 4,000 pounds or more) in large numbers runs through the winter and spring months, they can be spotted year-round in smaller numbers (26 miles, approximately 40 minutes from Sand Dollar Beach).

After settling into your hotel in Cambria (14 miles, approximately 15 minutes from Piedras Blancas), the hearty fare of Madeline's Restaurant & Tasting Room is a great option to refuel after a day of exploring the coast.

Day 3: From Cambria to Santa Barbara via Hearst Castle and Pismo Beach

Pismo Beach
Pismo Beach

After breakfast, grab a smoothie for the road at The Hidden Kitchen, then make your way up into the hills to Hearst Castle (14 miles, approximately 25 minutes). This historic landmark, the expansive estate of the newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, was continuously developed over the first half of the 20th century. Explore this immense property, known for its incredible architecture, art collections, stunning gardens, and the recently restored Neptune Pool. Hearst Castle offers an array of daily tours suited for different interests, and the property can only be visited with a tour.

After your tour, jump in your car and head further south down CA-1 to Pismo Beach (59 miles, approximately 1 hour 15 minutes). Take a stroll through the walkable downtown and boardwalk area adjacent to the sandy shoreline before stopping for lunch at Splash Café, a casual beachfront cafe whose clam chowder bowls are a local favorite. 

After lunch, continue down CA-1 to reach the area of Oceano. Formerly known as the Pismo Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, the Oceano Dunes SVRA is a natural wonder of oceanfront sand dunes and the perfect place for an ATV adventure. Stop by one of the rental companies at the entrance of this one-of-a-kind state park, such as Steve's ATV Rentals, to grab your gear and get ready to ride. With beginner options and rentals by the hour, first-timers have no need to worry. Let loose and explore this 5-mile stretch of sandy coastline. 

Hop back in your car to continue on your journey to one of Southern California's favorite seaside towns, Santa Barbara (80 miles, approximately 1.5 hours). This city, known for its laid back vibes and beautiful coastlines, offers plenty to do besides strolling along its famed beaches.  After settling into your accommodations, make your way to Stearns Wharf and pop into one of the fresh seafood eateries for dinner. Try Santa Barbara FisHouse for beautiful ocean views and a casual outdoor patio.

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Day 4: Kayaking in Channel Islands National Park

Santa Cruz Island in spring
Santa Cruz Island in spring

Located about 20 miles off the coast of Santa Barbara, Channel Islands National Park feels a world away from the mainland. While the islands themselves are packed with numerous hiking trails, this amazing landscape is arguably best explored from the water.

After an early breakfast at your hotel, you'll head south to Ventura Harbor (30 miles, approximately 30 minutes) to board your ferry to Santa Cruz Island, the largest of the Channel Islands. Be sure to pick up sandwiches or salads at Boatyard Cafe before setting out, as there is no food available on the island.

Enjoy the scenic views of Anacapa Island, Santa Cruz Island, and the Santa Ynez Mountains as the ferry cruises across the Santa Barbara Channel. The trip takes approximately an hour and a half depending on ocean conditions. Migrating whales and other marine life are frequently spotted en route, so keep your eyes peeled.

After arriving at Prisoners Harbor, you'll meet your guide and get ready for approximately two and a half hours of paddling along the beautiful coastline (appropriate for beginners; all equipment is provided). The water here is often crystal clear, offering views of the kelp forests and abundant marine life below. Your guide will also explain the history and ecology of this unique island environment.

After kayaking, you'll have a few hours in the afternoon to enjoy your picnic lunch and relax on the beach. If you still have a little energy, take a short walk up Navy Road for nice views.

In the late afternoon, you'll board the ferry to return to Ventura Harbor, followed by the 30-minute drive back to Santa Barbara. After showering and changing at your hotel, head to Santa Barbara Public Market, an indoor food hall and local favorite with numerous fresh and local options available. We recommend the tacos and ceviche at Corazon Cocina.

Day 5: Santa Barbara to Paso Robles via Solvang & Los Olivos

Solvang
Solvang

This morning, stop at Scarlett Begonia for a delicious breakfast, then head to Santa Barbara's Funk Zone. This once industrial area of warehouses has been revamped and is now home to an array of restaurants, shops, wine tasting rooms, and outdoor art and murals to admire. After exploring, head over to the Lucky Penny and grab a table outside to enjoy the sunshine and a wood-oven baked pizza for lunch. 

Heading out of Santa Barbara, make your way north to reach the town of Solvang (35 miles, approximately 40 minutes). This small village in the Santa Ynez Valley is known for its unique Danish-style architecture and atmosphere. Spend an hour strolling through Solvang and admiring its charming European style houses, windmills, and boutique shops. Don't forget to pop into one of its many renowned bakeries, like Olsen’s Danish Village Bakery, for an afternoon cup of coffee and a fresh danish. 

From there, hop back in your car and make the 10-minute drive to nearby Los Olivos. This small area, just a few square blocks, is home to around 25 wine tasting rooms. We recommend trying Zinke Wine Co. to start, for a classic experience tasting the local specialties. From harvesting to bottling, you'll learn about the unique region and everything that goes into your glass of wine.

From here, make your way north to Paso Robles (90 miles, approximately 1.5 hours). Head to Fish Gaucho for evening cocktails and delicious Mexican cuisine for dinner.

Day 6: Explore Paso Robles Wine Country

Paso Robles vineyard
Paso Robles vineyard

After breakfast at your hotel, take the day to explore the stunning scenery and award-winning wines in the wine region of Paso Robles. With more than 200 wineries in the area and 14 tasting rooms right in the town's center, the laid-back atmosphere and approachability of Paso Robles has something for everyone.

Start in the Paso Robles town center to get your bearings and visit Taste in the Alley. This wine bar and tasting room has hundreds of local wines in stock and is a perfect place to introduce yourself to this wine region. After, venture into the Adelaida District, where you'll find plenty of award-winning wineries, not to mention stunning views. We also recommend visiting Halter Ranch Winery and the nearby Tablas Creek Winery, which both offer daily tours of their vineyards and authentic insight into the production process. And if you're in the mood for some sweeping views with your libation, don't forget to make a stop at DAOU Vineyards & Winery. 

Head back into the downtown and stop for lunch. If all the wine has you in the mood for Italian, try Il Cortile for homemade pasta in a quaint space. When you're ready, jump back in your car and drive just a couple of miles down the 46-E to round out your visit with an Old West experience at Tobin James Cellars. The old-fashioned western-style saloon and tasting room, as well as the stagecoach outside, transport visitors to another time. 

Once you've had your fill of wine for the day, head back into central Paso Robles for dinner at Paso Terra. This evening, if tickets are available, don't miss Bruce Munro: Field of Light at Sensorio, an art exhibit with nearly 60,000 flower-like spheres lit in a vast array of colors that blanket the hilly landscape.

Day 7: Paso Robles to San Francisco via Moss Landing

Sea otter near Moss Landing
Sea otter near Moss Landing

This morning, after breakfast and a final stroll through downtown Paso Robles, it's time to begin the approximately 3.5-hour drive back to the Bay Area.

While following Highway 101 will take you the whole way back to San Francisco, we recommend a worthwhile detour that only adds a few minutes to the drive. Cut over to Highway 1 from Salinas in order to stop for lunch at Phil's Fish Market and Eatery in Moss Landing, (112 miles, approximately 1 hour 45 minutes). Grab a table outside with views over the beach and dig into fresh, local fish & chips, cioppino, and clam chowder. If you're not in a rush, take a stroll south along Salinas River State Beach or see if you can spot some frolicking sea otters in neighboring Elkhorn Slough before heading back to San Francisco (96 miles, approximately 1 hour 40 minutes).