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The Ultimate Guide to your San Francisco to Santa Barbara Drive

The drive from San Francisco to Santa Barbara along Highway 1 is full of stunning coastal views and charming seaside towns. The best part about this road trip is that it’s incredibly accessible – all of the amazing sites are just off of the highway, making both stopping for breaks, making the most out of your trip, and navigating, extremely easy. I’ve put together this list of things to do along your San Francisco to Santa Barbara drive – I hope you enjoy the trip as much as I did!

Starting from Portland? Here’s my Portland to San Francisco road trip guide.

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How many hours does it take to drive from San Francisco to Santa Barbara?

So many foreign travellers (including myself before relocating to the States!) forget how GIANT California is. This drive is 400 miles or 643 kilometres! Driving along Highway 1 will take you about 8 hours if you drive along the highway with no stops, but it’s a route worth taking your time with, as there are so many incredible stops along the way. I’d allocate two or three days for this road trip, possibly more if you want to stop in the larger cities along the way.

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San Francisco to Santa Barbara Road Trip Itinerary

These are all of my recommended stops – feel free to pick and choose from what looks interesting! I’m sure I’ve left out some viewpoints along the way – the entire coast is so full of stunning views that it would be impossible to list them all!

San Francisco

San Francisco (also called ‘SF’ or ‘The City’, and never ‘San Fran’ or ‘Frisco’) is a diamond in the rough. San Francisco is a city of competing themes – tech boom wealth and extreme poverty, Victorian and ultra-modern architecture, and cold summers and warm winters. It’s an incredibly special city that has so much to offer if you give it a chance. After spending a summer interning in SF in 2019, I decided to return to the city for good – here are all of my tips and recommendations!

Things to do in San Francisco

  • Cycle across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito
  • Visit Alcatraz
  • Eat your weight in dim sum
  • Hike in the Marin Headlands for the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge

Pacifica

Pacifica is the first place outside of San Francisco that you’ll see beautiful stretches of ocean. There are amazing surfing spots in Pacifica, and you shouldn’t miss the Taco Bell – it has the prettiest view out of any Taco Bells in the world! It’s also the only Taco Bell to serve alcohol.

In Pacifica, you can also walk the Devil’s Slide Trail. It’s part of the California Coastal Trail and offers incredible views of the steep rocky cliff leading to the ocean.

Half Moon Bay

Half Moon Bay is a beautiful stop along your San Francisco to Santa Barbara drive. With plenty of natural beauty and a charming town, you could easily spend a day in Half Moon Bay alone!

Things to do in Half Moon Bay:

  • Visit Downtown Half Moon Bay – the town is extremely charming and Main Street has so many shops to browse at, restaurants to eat at, and sights to see!
  • Moss Beach
  • Seal Cove
  • Mavericks Beach – GIANT (35 foot!) waves attract surfers and spectators to the Mavericks Surfing Contest

Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park

This was a great stop on our highway 1 trip. While you can’t get too close to the old lighthouse anymore, there’s a great viewpoint here. The sparkling ocean, the tall lighthouse, the blue skies… it’s just perfect!

Año Nuevo State Park

This state park is home to one of the largest mainland breeding colonies of northern elephant seals. To view the elephant seals, you’ll have to hike 3-4 miles. Don’t be deterred, though! This is a great place for hiking on trails that reward you with stunning views. However, if you’re looking for a place to drive up and see elephant seals, there’s Elephant Seal Vista Point, which I cover further down below. Note that you can’t bring pets into the state park.

Shark Fin Cove

This cove is easily missed, but something about it was so charming to me and I highly recommend stopping here! It’s so easy to miss this little spot, so keep your eyes peeled (or at least on Google Maps). From the road, you’ll see an incredible cove that is, unsurprisingly, shaped like a shark fin peeking out of the water. This view is worth the stop alone, or you could walk down the steep, STEEP, trail, down to the cove itself, for something really special.

Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz is such a fun, laid-back coastal city. It’s a great place to stop for a few hours or overnight. There’s plenty to see and do, so I recommend stretching your legs here!

Things to do in Santa Cruz:

  • Beach Boardwalk – DEFINITELY worth visiting. It’s so touristy but so fun.
  • West Cliff Drive – a great drive or walking spot with amazing views
  • Natural Bridges State Park – these rock formations look like bridges but were created by the waves
  • Beach day!
  • Go surfing
  • Check out the Patagonia outlet (I find it’s hit or miss but always worth checking it out if you’re in the market for some Patagonia)

Monterey

I am a big fan of Monterey. It’s a really great place to spot wildlife, grab lunch, or stop to get a beautiful view of the ocean. Fisherman’s Wharf is my favourite attraction because it’s so lively, but I also love to wander further from the crowds – the further you go from the wharf, the more peaceful and serene it is!

Things to do in Monterey:

  • Cannery Row and Old Fisherman’s Wharf
  • The Monterey Aquarium (expensive but world-renowned!)
  • When it’s time to head out of Monterey, drive along Ocean View Boulevard and then along Sunset Drive. There are plenty of places to stop and the views are amazing!

17 Mile Drive

The 17 Mile Drive is an iconic drive located in Pebble Beach, in between Monterey and Carmel. There are amazing coastal cliffs, lush golf courses, and beautiful views along the road. You could easily spend half a day to a day just driving along the 17 mile drive! It costs $10.75 per vehicle to drive along this road. Motorcycles are prohibited.

Things to see along the 17 Mile Drive:

  • Restless Sea (big splashing waves!)
  • Point Joe
  • China Rock, Bird Rock, and Seal Rock
  • Cyprus Point
  • The Lone Cyprus
  • Ghost Trees

Carmel-by-the-Sea

Carmel is a charming, upscale, lively little town with plenty of shops to look at and restaurants to eat at! It’s a great place to stop for a walk after driving all day. It’s also worth taking a look at the Carmel Mission if you have time! It’s easy to spend a few hours here, so allocate some time for Carmel!

Big Sur

Big Sur is a beautiful little region of coastal California, with amazing bluffs and shimmering blue water. Make sure to drive this section slowly, as there are so many attractions you won’t want to miss. If you like to hike, make sure to bring your hiking shoes – there are thousands of miles of trails, all with great views!

Things to do in Big Sur:

  • Pfeiffer Beach (lovely!)
  • Bixby Bridge – this famous arch bridge is tall and offers amazing views of the surrounding area. It’s also very popular due to its appearance in the show, Big Little Lies.
  • McWay Falls
  • Ragged Point

Elephant Seal Vista Point

This was truly my favourite stop on the entire trip. We pulled up to the parking lot, looked over the railing towards the water, and immediately saw around 60 elephant seals basking in the sun. I’ve never seen anything quite like them and it was so fun to watch them lounge around (and occasionally throw themselves towards the ocean two inches at a time).

Morro Bay

Extremely charming and home to the Krabby Patty (yes, from Spongebob!), Morro Bay is an amazing place to stop for either a quick lunch and stretch of the legs, or for a few hours!

Things to do in Morro Bay:

  • Grab a Crabby Patty from the Lil’ Hut
  • Catch all the views of Morro Rock
  • Spend the afternoon looking for otters, seals, and even dolphins!
  • Eat your weight in Carousel salt water taffy – it’s GOOOOD.

San Luis Obispo

San Luis Obispo (or SLO) is a really charming college town. I love walking around the main area of town, and if you’re hungry, there’s probably hundreds of restaurants to choose from! There’s also plenty of wine tasting in the area (SLO is in the Central Valley!), so you could easily spend a few hours hopping from winery to winery.

Eager to spend the night? Don’t miss the iconic Madonna Inn.

Pismo Beach

Pismo Beach is a classic beach town. It’s an incredibly fun place to have a beach day, but also a great place to relax at the end of a long day of driving. We came to Pismo Beach right at sunset and were greeted with the most beautiful cotton candy-coloured sky.

Solvang

Don’t miss Solvang! Solvang is a CHARMING European-inspired town. With plenty of windmills, Danish eateries, and the quaint architecture, you can feel like you’ve holidayed in Europe without ever leaving California.

Grab breakfast here if you can! Solvang does breakfast the right way (waffles or pancakes, anyone?)

Santa Barbara

After driving another 46 miles (or around 50 minutes) from Solvang, you’ll reach Santa Barbara! With Spanish architecture and glimmering beaches, there’s plenty of incredible things to see in Santa Barbara.

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