California Coast Road Trip
California coast road trips are so much fun! From surf towns to coastal villages and from sand dunes to dense forests, driving Highway 101 and Highway 1 along the California coastline on a road trip is always a feast for the senses. There is so much to see, so much beauty to take in, and so many outdoor activities you can do, it’s hard to fit it all in.
We love all the great surf spots near Ventura and Santa Cruz, the great hiking opportunities in Mendocino and Point Reyes, and the rock climbing near Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. Two years ago, we did a road trip to Big Sur and enjoyed the beaches from Cambria to Carmel. On this road trip to Mendocino, we were able to see the breathtaking views of the rugged California coastline on Highway 1 from Mendocino to Marin County.
This California coast road trip ended up being about 1,400 miles and took us two weeks. You could do it faster, but then you wouldn’t get as much time enjoying these great road trip destinations. To help you save money, we’ve included a few places where you can free camp along the way too.
Day 1 (40 miles driven)
We left Coronado late Thursday night and drove only an hour up to Oceanside. There’s a great parking lot near Oceanside Harbor where you can spend the night for free. (Turn west when you exit the freeway at Oceanside Harbor Drive and take a left on Carmelo Drive to access the large parking area.). We pulled in next to the other RVs and called it a day.
Day 2 (140 miles driven)
We woke to a nice morning of three-to-four-foot waves for us to surf at the harbor before heading north. But not before having to stop to fix the sewer tube under the RV. Luckily, we only broke the pipe to the gray water holding tank. Unfortunately, we spent the next two hours in the Lowes parking lot trying to repair the pipes. In the end, we went with good ole’ reliable duct tape to hold it in place and hoped it would stay until we got home in two weeks. (If you read my book, 1000 Miles of Memories, you will know this is a common occurrence for us).
By now, the traffic was way too bad to make it up to Malibu to rock climb like we had planned, so we drove to Crystal Cove in Laguna Beach and hiked. The hike was nice because the yellow wildflowers were in full bloom and the views over the ocean were fantastic. However, they paled in comparison to the hikes we were about to do in the next week.
That night we pulled up and slept at a gas station in Camarillo with a bunch of other semi trucks that also were catching some shut eye before heading on. In the morning we saw there was Park & Ride around the corner that allows RV’s up to 30 feet to park overnight.
Day 3 (140 miles driven)
We started the day surfing C-Street in Ventura. It was a great morning of surf with waves in the four-to-six-foot range. The sun shining made it feel extra nice. This was my first time in Ventura and I fell in love with the driftwood beach, the busy boardwalk, and great surf all along Surfers’ Point park. It’s a great California vibe! I liked that if the surf wasn’t good (like it wasn’t when we stopped here on the way back), you can bike or run along the path that goes on for miles along the coastline here.
From Ventura, we drove through the mountains above Santa Barbara. We stopped along highway 154 and walked up the steep Painted Cave Road to a climbing area called Fire Crags. Although it wasn’t one of the best climbing areas that we’ve been to, the views of Santa Barbara and the coastline from this high up were superb. It was nice to get on actual rock since we hadn’t been outdoor climbing since Santa Barbara in Spain (quite ironic).
We finished the day wine tasting in Los Olivos at Carhart Winery. This place is great. Unlike the stuffy and quiet wine tasting rooms in the area, this one was packed with SoCal Reggae and lots of laughter. We then found a quiet road near the Madonna Inn (San Luis Obispo) to sleep for the night.
Day 4 (350 miles driven)
We started the day climbing Bishop Peak before grabbing beer and burgers at SLO Brew (I recommend their house IPA.) Don’t forget to take your picture in Bubblegum Alley and pick up some delicious coffee at Scout Coffee Co. This was a big driving day for us. We felt like we were back in Europe again as we tried to outrun the rain.
That evening, we took the very windy Highway 128 into Mendocino while fog and darkness encompassed us (which I don’t recommend). You should be alert because there are a lot of deer on the side of the road! We found a small pull-off near the wineries in Navarro, which is on outskirts of Mendocino.
Day 5 (30 miles driven)
We started this day with a hike through Russian Gulch. If you are in an RV over 24 feet, you can’t park in the state park, but there is a pull off on the south side of the bridge on Highway 1 where you can park and then take the trail by the headlands into the gulch. We hiked the six-mile round trip Fern Canyon trail to the 36-foot waterfall. It’s an easy, mostly paved hike, with very little elevation gain (perfect for young kids who aren’t stoked to hike every day like our two youngest).
Finally reaching our northernmost destination, we splurged for a campsite at Van Damme State Park. I highly recommend this campground. It’s gorgeous and it accepts RVs up to 35 feet.
Day 6 (20 miles driven)
We spent this day exploring Mendocino after hiking Van Damme’s Fern Canyon Trail that started right from our campsite. Mendocino is a quiet, sleepy town with only a few food options. There is a good natural foods market in the town where we found a great bottle of local organic wine called Terra Savia, that I will now be searching out. The Mendocino Headlands are a great spot to have a picnic. Our kids enjoyed playing on the beach here too.
From Mendocino, we started our slow drive down the California coastline on Highway 1. We spent the first night vagabonding in a huge pull-off that is secluded from the traffic on Highway 1.
Day 7 (80 miles driven)
On our continued slow drive down Highway 1, we first stopped off at Point Arena. If I didn’t know any better, I would think I was in Ireland again wth the green rolling hills, bog-like grass, and tumultuous ocean. Our next stop was Fort Ross State Park. This was another place I’ve been trying to get to for years. It was a good homeschooling lesson in California’s history and the influence the Russian fur traders had in the area. They’ve done a great job recreating what the fort would’ve felt like in the early 1800’s.
We finished the day camping at Bodega Dunes Campground. (This is one of my 10 favorite campgrounds in California and I will be sure to write another blog on it soon).
Day 8 (70 miles driven)
Our last section of highway 1 took us into Point Reyes National Seashore. On the way in we stopped at Tomales Bakery and picked up delicious pastries, which came quite close to the incredibly delicious ones we had in France and the Netherlands, and enjoyed them on top of Tomales Point along with some fresh coffee made with our Jet Boil Java Kit. While hiking Tomales Point in Point Reyes, we were treated to an up-close encounter with wildlife (check out the video). That night we enjoyed free hot showers, a campfire under a clear sky, and electricity at Olema campground.
Day 9 (50 miles)
Today we hiked one of the numerous trails that start from the Bear Valley visitor center in Olema. The one we chose was a 5-mile loop. I liked that it climbs up and down under the coverage of the forest trees, opens up through a meadow for a bit, and at one point you get an incredible view of the beach and ocean of Point Reyes National Seashore. A lot of this hike reminded us of one of the hikes we did in the Black Forest of Germany.
On our drive to Pacifica, Danny and I took a nice yin yoga class to help him get ready for his race this weekend.
We spent the night in Pacifica at the park and ride.
Day 10 (0 miles driven)
I love the surf vibe in Pacifica and how the backdrop of the forested mountains reminds me of the Basque region of Spain, especially Play Rodiles. The surf was too small to make it worth getting into our wetsuits and shivering in the water. Instead, Gabi, Isabelle, and I grabbed our beach cruisers and headed to the hills of Pacifica, alternating between riding and walking our bikes over the green rolling hills and mountain biking trails. We spent the rest of the day hanging out on the beach and giving Danny a chance to rest up before his big race.
Day 11 (100 miles)
When our son, Danny, was about 8 years old, I used to force him to run a timed mile once a week as part of his P.E. for school. He whined and complained every time. Eventually, I grew so tired of fighting him that I said, “Fine, I won’t time you, but you have to run two miles.” And that was the day he became a runner. He loved it. For the past two years, he has had it in his head that he wanted to run a fifty-mile race (an ultra marathon) before he turned eighteen.
The race he chose, The Ruth Anderson Endurance Race, was an interesting one because it was a four and a half mile loop that had to be completed eleven times, plus a short half mile out-and-back to finish. The nice thing about this is that his race became a family affair. Every lap we would alternate having someone from our family be a support team. First I would run with him, then Victor, and then the older girls would bike with him to keep him motivated. He was amazing! He finished the race in eleven hours and thirty minutes and was awarded first place in his age group
We then braved the narrow streets of San Fran with our RV on a mission to grab desserts at Dandelion Chocolate (literally the best sipping chocolate in America) before driving to Sea Cliffs State Park in Santa Cruz. This campground is a bit pricey, but it’s nice because you park right on the beach and there is a nice bike path in front of the campground.
Day 12 (20 miles driven)
Being slow to get going this morning after a long day at Danny’s race, we missed our opportunity to surf because the wind had turned on early that morning. We moved a mile north from Sea Cliffs State Beach over to New Brighton State Beach and from here, I rode bikes with Gabi and Isabelle into the ever so cute surf town of Capitola. We grabbed coffee (and wifi) before stopping and doing some wine tasting at It’s Wine Tyme and then picking up an Organic Sourdough baguette at Gayle’s Bakery to go with the French cheese we bought in Point Reyes.
If this is your first time in Santa Cruz, make sure you check out The Mystery Spot.
Day 13 (270 miles)
We got going early and backtracked to surf Steamer Lane. Seriously, this is cold water. If you’ve ever had to soak an injured body part in an ice bath to decrease inflammation, that’s what this felt like. The day we went out it was five to eight foot, but it was high tide, so it was a little too mushy to catch the five footers with the short and mid-size boards that we had and the eight-footers that rolled through every half hour were a little too big for my taste. We still managed to pick up a few screamers and had fun on this beautifully peeling right that stretches across the point and into the bay. I especially enjoyed the sea otter that inadvertently swam right up next to my board. He was so focused on the sea urchin he was eating that he when he noticed that he was about to bump my board, he startled himself and swam away in a hurry.
We thawed out on our long drive to Santa Barbara and camped at another one of my favorite California road trip destinations, Carpinteria State Beach.
Day 14 (170 miles driven)
On the way from Carpinteria to Oceanside, we stopped at Malibu Creek. Here we hiked the short thirty minutes to the pools and jumped off rocks into the water. We also rock climbed the Planet of the Apes wall. This is a great climbing area because it has an easy approach, you can top rope all the climbs, there is a safe area for kids to play, and the wall itself has huge pockets (making it a very fun climb).
Day 15 (15 miles driven)
We finished off this epic road trip at our favorite campground, San Elijo. What’s not to love about camping here? Stunning surf, delicious organic coffee at Zumbar, craft beers at The Confessional: Lost Abbey, healthy grocery options at Seaside Market, and wonderful yoga classes at Vinyasa Arts.
California really is one amazing state. If beautiful coastlines and cute surf towns aren’t your thing, head to the mountains and experience the incredible granite rock domes and gorgeous meadows in Yosemite Valley.
If you enjoy this road trip and more stories like it, make sure you read my book 1000 Miles of Memories. It is filled with great tips on how to road trip, stories of why we are such big fans of this type of travel, and some great stories from our travels. Even if you aren’t ready to road trip yourself, you’ll love the entertainment value of hearing what life has been life for us on the road (haha).
Where do you like to road trip in California? Share your story in the comments.