Perched on the southern end of the Monterey Bay, Monterey is one of the California Central Coast’s most popular visitor destinations. Though there’s plenty to see in Monterey—including the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Monterey State Historic Park, sea otters, and more—the city is an ideal place to head out on a road trip to explore the Central Coast, whether it’s a day trip or an overnight excursion. Here are three ideas.

Santa Cruz

roller coaster and palm trees back the beach in Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Photo © Stuart Thornton.

Across the bay from Monterey, Santa Cruz has a distinctly different feel due to the youthful influence of the University of California, Santa Cruz and its vibrant surf culture. The drive from Monterey to Santa Cruz can range from 45 minutes to an hour depending on traffic. Just hop on CA-1 and head north to reach Santa Cruz.

Make your first stop at Steamer Lane Supply, a concession stand in Lighthouse Field State Beach right across from Steamer Lane, one of the beach town’s most popular surf breaks. With a tasty breakfast quesadilla and coffee from the eatery in hand, take in the waves peeling below at Steamer Lane and decide if you want to try and catch a few. The waves are best for intermediate to advanced surfers.

Beginners should head to the adjacent Cowell’s Beach, home to an easy rolling wave that is ideal for learners. Also, nearby is the Cowell’s Beach Surf Shop if you need to rent equipment or take a lesson.

After some time in the water, walk over to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk on Beach Street for a pulse quickening ride on the Giant Dipper Roller Coaster, which has been thrilling visitors since opening in 1924.

Awake from adrenaline, make the two-mile drive to Akira Sushi for lunch. The wonderful menu draws from both classic sushi ingredients (tuna, salmon, ginger) and items unusual in the typical sushi roll (skirt steak, Siracha, truffle salt).

Head to downtown Santa Cruz post-lunch to browse the local shops lining Pacific Avenue. Get a boost of caffeine from local Verve Coffee, which has expanded into Los Angeles, before browsing through vinyl at Streetlight Records or perusing paperbacks at Bookshop Santa Cruz, an independent bookstore that has been open for over 50 years.

Before sunset, drive 2 miles north of Santa Cruz on CA-1 to Wilder Ranch State Park. The 7,000-acre former dairy farm has 35 miles of paths including the Old Cove Landing Trail, which takes hikers out to the craggy coastline.

On your return trip to Monterey, detour off CA-1 onto the 41st Avenue Exit for dinner at Café Cruz. This longtime local favorite has all the right ingredients for a great meal: attentive service and great food at a reasonable price.

Or if you want to keep your Santa Cruz excursion going, consider getting a room at the moderately priced Seaway Inn on West Cliff Drive. This small motel is walking distance to Steamer Lane in case you want to paddle out again the next morning.

San Luis Obispo Coast

aerial shot of Morro Bay

Morro Bay State Park. Photo © modernschism/iStock.

The coastline of San Luis Obispo County offers an ideal mix of laidback oceanside towns, recreational opportunities, and California’s best version of a European castle, Hearst Castle in San Simeon. Be sure to make reservations for a castle tour before heading out. The drive to Hearst Castle from Monterey is two and a half hours long via CA-68 West, U.S. 101 South, CA-46 West, and CA-1 North.

There are several tours available at Hearst Castle, but the “Grand Rooms Tour” is recommended for first time visitors. The one hour long guided tour includes stops in the Billiards Room, Theater, and Neptune Pool.

Next up, explore the coastline within Harmony Headlands State Park. Drive 17 miles south of Hearst Castle on CA-1 and park on the western side of the roadway. The 784-acre park opened in 2003 and includes the 1.5 mile Headlands Trail, which wanders to a coastal marine terrace with a view of the undeveloped seashore.

With an appetite growing, head five miles south on CA-1 to the small town of Cayucos. Though located in a small building, Ruddell’s Smokehouse dishes up fish tacos with big flavor. The suggested order is either the smoked salmon or smoked albacore tacos, each served with chopped apples as a condiment.

Hop on CA-1 once again and head six miles south to Morro Bay to take in one of the Central Coast’s natural wonders: Morro Rock. One of the Nine Sisters, a chain of volcanic mountains in San Luis Obispo County, the 581-foot high rock towers over the scenic harbor of the fishing village.

To further explore Morro Bay, rent a kayak to paddle around the protected estuary, where you can spot sea lions, harbor seals, and 100 different bird species. Gear is available nearby at Kayak Horizons, or opt for a tour through Central Coast Outdoors.

End your day with fresh seafood at Tognazzini’s Dockside Restaurant right on Morro Bay’s harbor. The raw oysters or barbecued oysters in garlic butter are a great start to any meal.

Not feeling like driving back to Monterey? The Masterpiece Hotel in Morro Bay is decorated with reproductions of classic artworks and has a replica Roman style bath for soaking.

Inland Adventure

vineyards in Paso Robles

Paso Robles Vineyards. Photo © Stuart Thornton.

While the coastlines of Monterey and San Luis Obispo Counties get most of the attention, there’s a handful of worthy destinations inland along the Salinas Valley down to Paso Robles on U.S. 101. One of the best sights is the rocky wonderland of Pinnacles National Park, an hour’s drive from Monterey. The western entrance in Soledad offers a superb introduction to the park’s rock spires, caves, and oversized boulders. A suggested hike is the 4.3-mile-long Juniper Canyon Trail, which includes a steep and narrow section at its highest point.

Having earned a great lunch, travel 30 minutes south on U.S. 101 to King City. This sleepy agricultural city boosted its foodie cred with the opening of The Cork & Plough in 2015. Go hearty with the venison meatloaf sandwich or lighter with the shaved cauliflower salad.

Now properly sated, hit the road again for a 40-minute drive south on U.S. 101 to Mission San Miguel. This overlooked California mission has one of the best-preserved church interiors in the whole mission system along with being the site of a murderous rampage back in 1848.

Maybe it’s the fact that the padres of the Mission San Miguel made wine or just because you are thirsty continue another 10 miles down U.S. 101 to the booming wine region of Paso Robles. Recommended stops include Opolo Vineyards and the Eberle Winery. Visit pasowine.com for more information about the area’s wineries.

Soak up the wine with a meal at Artisan in downtown Paso Robles. This longtime favorite serves up wood fired pizzas, veggies, and meatier fare including slow braised pork.

If you are getting drowsy after such a full day, splurge for a night at the Hotel Cheval, an upscale boutique hotel. Another option is to secure a room at the Paso Robles Inn, where you can relax in a private tub filled with warm local mineral waters.


Need more California road trip ideas? Check out Moon California Road Trip.