Pacific Coast Highway: Road Trip From San Francisco To Santa Cruz

Do you only have a few days in California, but are really interested in doing one of those traditional scenic drives along the California coastal highway? We look forward to sharing with you our road trip planner with all of our favorite (and not so favorite) spots that you should definitely hit if you’re thinking of a small road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway.

Driving Highway 1, or more commonly known as the Pacific Coast Highway, is something that everyone should have on their traveling bucket list (it’s definitely on ours)! But, we get it. Sometimes, life gets in the way and prevents you from making that kind of committed drive. If you only have a few days, consider flying into San Francisco and renting a car to drive to Santa Cruz. The drive, without stops, only takes about an hour and a half.

Stop 1: Muir Beach

Muir Beach near San Francisco, California-road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway

Muir Beach near San Francisco, California-road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway

Muir Beach was our first stop during our road trip. It is located just 2 miles from Muir Woods National Monument and about 20 minutes from San Francisco. It’s a quiet beach, filled with mostly locals. It features wetlands, lagoons, and dunes that are currently in the process of being restored. Many shorebirds, amphibians, salmon, trout, and marshy call this beautiful beach their home.

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Fun Fact:

We actually came across this beautiful beach by mistake. We were planning on hitting up Muir Woods National Monument, but found out the difficult way that they require parking reservations. What made matters worse, was that the area had absolutely NO cell service, so the parking assistant suggested we drive down to the beach that was about 2 miles away. It was such a wonderful find, that we wound up staying and taking a ton of pictures!

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Are you in the San Francisco area and are looking for some fun things to do in the city? Check out our San Francisco post here!

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Our Opinion Of This Stop:

This was a hidden gem that we were happy to come by! It was also the first time I’ve ever seen the Pacific Coast. Our favorite experience at this beach was the weather. By the water, it was blue skies. Over the woods and hills, however, it was stormy and dark. Out of that combination, we were able to experience such a beautiful rainbow over the hills!

Stop 2: Devil’s Slide

Devil's Slide in California-road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway

Devil's Slide in California-road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway

Our next stop along the Pacific Coast Highway gets it’s name from it’s steep and sloped cliffs. This area was actually the former home of State Route 1 that was well-known for its road closures due to the frequent landslides in the winter. Originally, the new route was designed in an effort to replace the Pedro Mountain Road, which was incredibly steep and winding. Unfortunately, State Route 1 suffered many of the same issues that the Pedro Mountain Road did. On March 25, 2013, the road was shut down for being too dangerous and was replaced by the Tom Lantos Tunnels. Now, you can walk, bike, or skateboard Highway Route 1.

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Our Opinion Of This Stop:

We came across this spot when seeing it on Google Maps. It automatically caught our attention based on its name. Coming from New Jersey, we aren’t used to seeing a road between steep cliffs unless we’re driving through the mountains. So, we found this spot to be really neat.

SEE ALSO:   New Jersey to Colorado Road Trip: Spontaneous Adventures

Stop 3: Point Montara Lighthouse

Point Montara Lighthouse near Half Moon Bay in California-road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway

This lighthouse was first established in 1875. The lighthouse is now longer in use and is not open to the public, meaning you can’t climb it. Instead, the area is now home to a youth hostel.

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Fun Fact:

The Point Montara Lighthouse, specifically the hostel, can be found in the movie, Bandits, starring Bruce Willis, Cate Blanchett, and Billy Bob Thornton.

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Our Opinion On This Spot:

We were a little disappointed with this spot. It’s not open to the public and the photo opportunities weren’t great. If you take the stop here, it’ll definitely be a short one, unless you decide to stay at the hostel!

Stop 4: Fitzgerald Marine Reserve

Tidepools at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve in California-road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway

Tidepools at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve in California-road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway

This marine reserve is home to a variety of tidepools that host sea urchins, anemones, hermit crabs, and other intertidal creatures. While the area is off-limits to tourist, the area also is home to the active Seal Cove Fault. If you look real close, you’ll be able to see some seals during their breeding season!

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Fun Fact:

David thought it would be a fantastic idea to test his new Samsung S8s “waterproof” abilities. He really wanted to capture a cool picture of the anemones on his phone. I’m sure you know where this going…yup, his phone got destroyed and he didn’t have one for the rest of the trip!

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Our Opinion on this spot:

So, we are SUPER into marine life, so this was a must-stop kind of spot. We always find it worthwhile to see various different species in their natural environment. However, according to David, there are many other tidepools that host many more species. Regardless, if you have small children, or are really into sea life, the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve is worth it!

Stop 5: Half Moon Bay State Beach

Half Moon Bay State Beach in California-road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway

To park and explore state parks in California, they require you to buy a $10 pass for the day. However, do note that it covers many state parks so if you plan on visiting more than one site during the day, its worth it!

The state park offers campgrounds, areas to fish, and picnic areas for you to enjoy your entire day (or evening) here.

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Our Opinion on this spot:

We personally thought this beach was a little too hyped up. It was very crowded, and just wasn’t our favorite beach that we hit during this road trip.

Stop 6: San Gregorio State Beach

San Gregorio State Beach in California-road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway

San Gregorio State Beach in California-road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway

At this beach, there is a small creek that widens to form an even smaller freshwater lagoon that is located behind a barrier beach. During the rainy season, the water from the lagoon usually breaks the barrier beach and flows directly into the ocean. The creek is apparently considered as one of the cleanest in the state! The Department of Fish and Game are considering restocking the creek with Soho Salmon to improve the salmon fisheries.

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Our Opinion on this spot:

This was the first beach that we got to hike up and take pictures from a cliff. The views are absolutely BREATHTAKING. It’s definitely up there as one of our favorite beaches during the drive.

Stop 7: Pescadero State Beach

Pescadero State Beach in California-road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway Pescadero State Beach in California-road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway

Pescadero State Beach in California-road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway

This next beach along the Pacific Coast Highway features beautiful rock/cliff formations and foliage. The site is also frequently home to Stellar Sea Lions and Harbor Seals that enjoy to sunbathe themselves on the rocks offshore.

SEE ALSO:   Enjoying San Francisco On a Budget

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Our Opinion on this spot:

This was another beach that we decided to visit spontaneously. And, wow, was it worth it! There were so many photo opportunities and the views from every part of this beach were amazing. We were even able to spot some Harbor Seals sun bathing in the distance!

Stop 8: Pigeon Point Lighthouse

Pigeon Point Lighthouse in California-road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway

This is the tallest lighthouse on the West Coast of the U.S.! It’s considered as a California Historical Landmark and still aids the Coast Guard in navigation. Unfortunately, the lighthouse has been closed to the public since 2001 due to structural issues. It has been undergoing a restoration process, in hopes of repairing the upper portion of the lighthouse.

The area is also used as a youth hostel, similarly to Point Montara Lighthouse.

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Our Opinion on this spot:

Try hitting this lighthouse close to sunset! The sunlight hits this area in such a beautiful way, making for some amazing pictures! Some of our favorite pictures during the trip were of this beautiful lighthouse.

Stop 9: Panther Beach

Half Moon Bay State Beach in California-road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway

Panther Beach near Santa Cruz, California-road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway

Panther Beach near Santa Cruz, California-road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway

This was our last stop before hitting Santa Cruz…and boy was it worth it! It’s not a very popular destination and wasn’t crowded at all, which made it all the more amazing. There aren’t any signs to this beach, so you’re going to have to be careful. You’ll be parking on a dirt road and then will have to hike down a bit to get to the beach.

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Our Opinion on this spot:

This was our #1 favorite beach during our short road trip. We visited it during sunset, and everything was just so beautiful that words really can’t do it justice.

Stop 10: Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz, California

Santa Cruz Boardwalk in California Santa Cruz, California

Santa Cruz is best known for the surfing, boardwalk, food, and beaches. Whether you’re traveling with a significant other, friends, or family, there are so many different things to enjoy in this beach town!

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Our Opinion on this spot:

We absolutely loved this town! We wound up staying here for the night and walked around the next day. It was definitely the off-season (since we did make this trip in March), so it was really cool to see it so quiet!

We wound up staying in with an Airbnb host. We were skeptical about having a shared bathroom, but it was actually really private! The owner wasn’t there much (came home late at night and left early the next day) and our room was cozy and welcoming. We also were able to use the fire pit and sitting area outside, which was nice to have on a cool March night! If you’re planning a trip to Santa Cruz and are looking for somewhere affordable, clean, close to the beach and boardwalk, and welcoming, we highly recommend Ellen’s Cypress Dream home.

USE OUR REFERRAL LINK FOR $40 OFF WHEN YOU SIGN-UP WITH AIRBNB! 

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Interested in seeing even more incredible pictures from our short road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway? Check out the link here!

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San Francisco to Santa Cruz road trip. For full directions, visit: https://www.myscenicdrives.com/road-trip-directions?i=594838d3-0aa0-490b-a391-7407e4c05020
For full directions, visit this link from My Scenic Drives.

Did we miss any amazing spots along the Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco to Santa Cruz? Let us know in the comments below, so we know where to go during our next Highway 1 road trip!

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6 Replies to “Pacific Coast Highway: Road Trip From San Francisco To Santa Cruz

  1. Awesome photos! We did the northern route last week. It was definitely scenic with lots of great views all along the route.

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