Big Sur Road Trip
If you love white sandy beaches, jagged coastlines, turquoise waters, and collecting seashells and beautifully polished stones, this is the trip for you. This 10 day California road trip itinerary takes you along the California coastline and up the famous Highway 1. As you head north, you will see the coastline go from warm beaches to jagged rocks and wind-swept sand dunes. This trip is great for exploring the cute towns that line the coast and walking along the beaches.
There are also some great hiking opportunities when you reach Big Sur. You can test your paddling skills in the ocean, but you may want to pack a wetsuit, as the water temperature drops significantly once you reach Santa Barbara. We took our time going up the coast and headed back a little faster. You could easily combine a few of these destinations if you need to move at a quicker pace. Or take your time and backtrack along Highway 1 for your return towards San Diego. Either way, I think we can all agree that everyone needs to take a Big Sur road trip at least once in their life.
There is so much to see in all the cities that dot the coastline that you could get easily get overwhelmed and exhausted trying to fit it all in. Instead, just pick a few things and take your time breathing in the cleansing ocean breeze.
Whichever way you choose, make time in your schedule to get to enjoy the campgrounds along the way. A lot of the enjoyment I had in this trip was staying at so many of the beachfront campgrounds. The California State Parks are amazing and camping at the beach under the stars makes this a memorable experience.
You can make reservations for all the California Sate parks here. Keep in mind they fill up fast, especially on the weekends. If you don’t have a reservation and want a site, try to get to the campgrounds by 8 a.m. to be put on the list for sites that came available at the last minute. During the week, it’s usually easy to get a campsite. However, on the weekends, people often line up hours before the sites are released.
Day 1- Starting Point: San Diego
Campground: Mission Bay RV Park
We like that this campground is on Mission Bay and is centrally located to the beach, parks, restaurants, Sea World, San Diego Zoo, Gaslamp, and Little Italy. With perfect weather and a great network of biking paths, it’s easy to make San Diego a great starting destination for your active road trip. However, they don’t take tents or RVs over 15 years old, so if you are tent camping, then see our last destination on this road trip, San Elijo.
For an active start to your road trip, ride your bike to Ocean Beach, following the signs along the bike path around Mission Bay and Sea World. Don’t forget to grab a beer at Wonderland. Time it so you can watch the sunset from the end of the OB Pier, which has by far the best sunsets in the San Diego Area. Choose to stop by People’s Organic Food Market and grab food for a picnic on Sunset Cliffs. Or, Have a bonfire on Fiesta Island and watch the Sea World fireworks (summer nights at 9:50 p.m.).
Other active options:
Take a yoga class at Spirit Yoga in Pacific Beach.
Learn to surf at Tourmaline Surf Park.
Try rock climbing at Mesa Rim Indoor Climbing Center.
Rent a surrey, walk, or bike the waterfront of Downtown or along Mission Beach.
Rent a boat or paddle boards and play in Mission Bay.
Go play on the playgrounds at Balboa Park and while you are there check out the museums and the San Diego Zoo.
Explore the Gaslamp district and grab a pint at Resident Brewery.
Check out the tidepools at Cabrillo National Monument at low tide.
Hike the mountains on the outskirts of San Diego and wander into the Anza Borrego Desert.
Day 2- San Diego to Dana Point: 65 Miles
Campground: Doheny State Beach
This cute beach town has lots to offer and the campground is located next to the state park with a large grass area, volleyball courts, and a huge bay-like area of water that is safe for kids to play in. The surf here is usually a gentle break and good place to learn to surf.
There are stores and restaurants close by in Dana Point and the Harbor is within biking distance to grab a bite to eat. You definitely want to stay at the campground, but it is a popular destination so book early. If you bike or run, there is a nice path right from the campground.
My favorite thing to do while camping here is to hop on my bike and ride ten minutes to the harbor to grab a cup of coffee or greens juice. It is also easily within walking distance.
Day 3- Dana Point to Malibu: 100 miles
Campground: Leo Carrillo State Beach
Just like Dana Point, this is a great location that makes you feel like you are away from the hustle and bustle of the city without going very far. The campground is tucked under large sycamore trees in the Santa Monica mountains, which you can hike through right from your campsite.
The campground itself is a bit larger so there is plenty of room for the kids to ride bikes around the campground. It’s a short walk to get to the beach where you can swim, surf, windsurf, and explore tide pools and caves. You aren’t close to many amenities, but there is a camp store for some supplies and food.
Want to add some culture to your active vacation? Stop at The Getty along the way.
Day 4- Malibu to Santa Barbara: 80 miles
Campground: Refugio or Gaviota State Beach
Santa Barbara has a lot to offer from upscale shopping to artisan shops. Personally, I like parking down by the water so I can walk, run, or bike along the Cabrillo Bike Path, which goes from East Beach to Stearns Wharf. It’s easy to grab food or just wander around Stearns Wharf.
My favorite thing in Santa Barbara is to stop at Goleta Butterfly Preserve and see the thousands of monarch butterflies covering the eucalyptus trees here. Both recommended campgrounds have access to playing on the beach, swimming, surfing, hiking, and biking, but like most California State Beaches, they fill up fast so make your reservations early.
For another detour, check out the wine town of Los Olivos. This area is huge on wine tasting.
Day 5- Santa Barbara to Cambria: 125 miles
Campground: San Simeon State Park
On the way up, stop at Morro Bay for lunch at one of the many fish and chip restaurants along the bay. Then hit up The Brown Butter Cookie Co for dessert in Cayucos. Cambria is another cute coastal town that can be explored in just a few hours. Moonstone beach is famous for its brightly polished stones. In the town of Cambria there is a nice coffee shop, Cambria Coffee Roasting Co, or go beer tasting at Cambria Ale House.
What we liked most about this area was camping at San Simeon. There are very few city lights nearby so on a clear night you can see so many stars! If your budget allows, stop by Hearst Castle and pay to take the tour of this famous house.
When you leave San Simeon, stop at Piedras Blancas to see the rookery of elephant seals. Also, keep an eye out for the herds of zebras roaming outside of Hearst Castle. You can often see them from the Highway.
Day 6- Cambria to Big Sur: 65 miles
Campground: Plasket Creek or Big Sur Campground & Cabins
Sand Dollar beach is a beautiful crescent shaped beach that you can stop at on the way to Big Sur. There is a nice campground here, Plaskett Creek, which is much more affordable than staying in Big Sur. It’s also a decent surf break if you’re brave. Now it’s time to walk off all the food you ate getting here. You must stop and hike Ewoldson Trail at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. This is also where you can take the iconic picture of the McWay waterfall.
Two of our other favorite hikes were Buzzard’s Roost and Andrew Molera Loop. We also liked hiking the Cypress Grove Trail at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve and saw day old seal pups when we were there! The coffee and pastries at Big Sur Bakery are great and it’s fun to eat at the Big Sur Taphouse next door because they have a ton of board games to play while you enjoy your meal.
Set aside a few hours to walk through the fairytale town of Carmel-by-the-Sea and, if you like expensive cars, you will get to see plenty of them drive by here.
Day 7- Big Sur to Santa Cruz: 70 miles
Campground: New Brighton State Beach or Big Basin Redwoods State Park
I like staying at New Brighton because you are close to Capitola. This little town has many cute shops and great restaurants. There’s also a surfing museum you can check out there. If you don’t get enough surf vibe here, then head up to Steamer Lane and surf the iconic break. While in Santa Cruz, you have to visit the Mystery Spot. It was one of my kids’ favorites! There is also the Santa Cruz Boardwalk and Wharf, but be prepared to spend money and tolerate crowds. Getting just a few minutes out of the city will bring you to some beautiful hiking trails near Little or Big Basin Redwoods State Park, which we have also camped at and enjoyed a lot.
If you have time to spare and want another great detour, go another hour north to Half Moon Bay. The coastline gets even wilder and the campground sits right on the edge of a beautiful stretch of sandy beach.
Day 8- Santa Cruz to Pismo: 175 miles
Campground: Pismo State Beach
Pismo beach is one of those places that really surprised me. A lot of what I loved about here started with the great campground that had spacious sites, great roads for skateboarding, beautiful sand dunes that block the wind from the campground, and the butterfly garden next to it.
If you get to the campground early, they give you a free pass to drive onto Oceano State Beach (and how often do you get to drive on the beach right up to the ocean?). If you want more adventure you can rent dune buggies or quads and go explore the sand dunes. We had our surfboards and caught some waves, but be prepared for cold water. I also enjoyed riding my bike on the sand up to the shops by the pier.
Stop for lunch in San Luis Obispo and take a photo in front of bubble gum alley or check out the Madonna Hotel.
Day 9- Pismo to Carpinteria: 100 miles
Campground: Carpinteria State Beach
Hopefully, you aren’t sick of beachfront campsites yet because Carpinteria is one of the best. It’s right on the beach. You can surf here, but it is a shallow, mediocre beach break. If you want good surf, then drive south ten minutes and surf Rincon AKA “The Queen” (be ready for crowds though).
I love how easy life is from this campground. There is a great brewery, many cafes, and a wonderful farmer’s market all within walking distance. If you’re a chocolate lover, stop at Chocolats Du Calibressan on the way there.
This detour is a little more out of the way, but we visited Ojai on our way from Carpinteria back to San Diego.
Day 10- Carpinteria to Cardiff: 185 miles
Campground: San Elijo State Beach
Welcome to my home. We try to live at San Elijo as often as possible. This campground is why I can’t break down and go get a house. I love it here, even the train that runs through the night (wear earplugs if you tent camp) fills me with joy and happiness. The surfing vibe is strong here and permeates into everything you do. The break is one of the best and if you don’t surf it is still a great place to learn.
There are so many great options for food right across the street including my favorites: VeeGees donuts; Sambazon, for açaí bowls; Lost Abbey brewery; New York style pizza at Best Pizza & Brew; and Seaside Market, a health food store. I love the yoga studio, Vinyasa Arts, that is also across the street. With days filled with surfing, eating, yoga, and cold brews, how could you not love it here!
Check out Encinitas for other great stores, surf shops, and restaurants just a few minutes north.
If this is your first time camping or are new to road trips, read my book 1000 Miles of Memories: How To Plan Your First Epic Road Trip & Save Money By Camping or sign up for our email newsletter below and get notified when our newest book comes availbale this summer The Road Less Traveled: Why You Shouldn’t Leave Your Comfy Couch, Warm Showers, & Steady Paycheck. In it I share what it’s been like to live in a thirty foot RV with 5 kids and then backpack with them through Europe for 6 months. Find out why we choose this unconventional lifestyle for our family.
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