The Ultimate California Road Trip: A Guide To Highway 1

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The iconic Highway 1 is a right of passage. No life is truly complete without this trip. It is the kind of experience that stays with you and shapes the person you are. It is something you will tell your children about when they too one day climb in a crowded car and take to this legendary road. Plus, it’s a damn good time. This central California stretch of the 1 is possibly the most breathtaking road in our country, as it hugs sheer cliffs and offers expansive views of the Pacific crashing below. It is breathtaking and at certain bends, nerve racking. With two hands on the wheel, a car full of amazing women, and nothing but time we set out for the perfect collection of restaurants, motels, vistas, and parks to pass the days in a state of peace. Enjoy the ride!

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Photo: Tamy Emma Pepin

Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara is the kind of place that makes people move to California. It feels like you are wandering around the inside of a catalog, the perfectly treed streets and pristine beaches. An older more precise version of myself lives in Santa Barbra and I can’t wait to meet her someday. Just 95 miles north of Los Angeles, it was the first pit stop and a fine one at that. Spend your time feeling as good as this place looks.

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Roxy’s Bralette, $28

Madonna Inn

Driving by the Madonna Inn we felt an almost mystical magnetic like pull to its doors. Just south of Morro Bay, it sits at the cusp of the 1 and the 101. This Inn was first built in the late 50’s with only 12 rooms but now boasts 110 uniquely whimsical and rather unforgettable lodgings. Every inch is photo ready and it begs you to have more fun than any place rightfully should. In addition to being a dream location it is a full service resort with a heavenly spa, horseback riding, wine tasting, and terrace pool bar. This wasn’t our first rodeo and it won’t be our last inside these walls.

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Morro Bay

When we drove into Morro Bay there was a heavy fog and I napped in the back of the van. When I woke up and the fog had cleared I felt like I’d woken up on another planet, the beach was isolated and dreamy and off in the distance sat this massive rock, a 576 foot volcanic plug, looking like its own planet.

Hearst Castle

Hearst Castle is a feat of human endeavors and a pinnacle of style. Envisioned and built by William Randolph Hearst and master architect Julia Morgan on sprawling land in San Simeon, it is breath taking. The estate winds around itself leading to gardens, guesthouses, and tiled pools. The whole thing looks and feels like you’ve reached Mount Olympus. There are a variety of tours you can take; we wandered the grounds all afternoon. Be sure you go inside to the Neptune pool because it is one of the most exquisite works of art I have ever laid eyes on. Being there is something special, you can feel the years of old Hollywood parties, imagine Jean Harlow and Carry Grant lounging near the pool and sipping on cocktails.

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Cayucos breaks the mold for any kind of town you’d normally find in Central California. It’s small and decidedly so, it’s beachy but not cliche. It is the perfect little hub for all activities on the guide. You can hide away and day trip out in every direction. There are miles of clear sandy beaches, the air is crisp and salty, the people are friendly and catering. Two of our favorite spots to shack up are the Pier View Suites which is just steps from the water and wonderful shopping and the Cass House with its wine and cheese tastings in the afternoon. We truly could not get enough.


Photo: Chris Swainston

Piedras Blanc Elephant Seals Vista Points 

This is an easy must stop right there on the 1 just four miles past the entrance of Hearst Castle. This moon-shaped beach attracts hoards of seals all breathing and belching and lying side by side. We took photos of them and chose our favorites, watched as they tanned in the afternoon sun. It is protected from storms and also from predators by a kelp forest and the wide beach protects the pups from high waters. It’s a nice brief endeavor to stretch your legs and look at their cute blubbery bodies.


This seaside village sits perfectly between Los Angeles and San Francisco and is right along the 1. This adorable hideaway boomed with the creation of Hearst Castle and continues to be the perfect destination for travelers there. It is quaint and adorable but not cheeky and overdone. It is the ideal sleepy town by the sea. We spent a few hours wandering the streets and shopping, sipping on wine, and then posted up in one of their many adorable bed and breakfasts before hitting the road again the next morning.

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Limekiln State Park

Limekiln was at the heart of our destinations. My parents had taken the trip when they were young and had first met. We set out, bound for the same site almost forty years after they did. Limekiln is like a slice Ferngully, a worm hole back in time to a place where fairies are oh so real. It’s straight up magic. Tucked inside a grove of redwoods this park is one of the best camping locations of the coastline. You can make reservations up to seven months in advance and I recommend doing so as the spots here are hot commodities.

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Vista Points 

It felt like every bend in the road was the best view we had yet. Every moment a vista point, ever pull of the perfect place.

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McWay Falls

This is the classic look out/ Instagram photo/ kiss me spot of Big Sur. McWay Falls located at Julia Pfeiffer spills out from the cutaway coastline and onto a beach of crystal clear water 80 feet below. On bright days the colors here can make you feel as if you’ve just begun to truly see for the first time. It feels perfectly isolated, like the last spot on earth, nothing but the land and sea.

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Pfeiffer Beach

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Beach is one of the most popular access points along the 1 in Big Sur. It is also one of the best spots for whale watching and has since 1970 been home to an ideal stretch of underwater amazement for scuba diving. This park has two campsites and both of them are hike in only with no vehicle access making it one of those travel lightly and leave nothing behind kind of sites. We curled up like sea lions on hot rocks and purple sand, and watched the waves roll in for hours.

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Photo: Vivianne Lapointe

Henry Miller Library  

The Henry Miller Library is a gem. If you can try to catch a show here as it functions sometimes as a music venue, or attend a wedding, or an art show, or a book release, or seminar, or just browse the library and drink coffee and smell the books. If I could morph into a place this would be it. I’d like to be these redwoods and watch people with clasped hands look at literature and listen in on important conversations. It has a weight to it, and it also has life all its own. The library was originally the home of Emil White, who was a dear friend to writer and Big Sur resident Henry Miller. He dedicated the space to Miller in 1980 when Miller passed away and then later passed it on as a non-profit organization.


Nepenthe is an old Grecian word, a drug actually, to cure the ailments of loneliness and sorrow. It will essentially help you to forget whatever it is that troubles your tired soul. Sitting 800 feet above the sea perched in the trees on the outdoor patio of this restaurant is the perfect fix. How could you be anything less than grateful with views like this? It is a place to set down your burden, sip wine beneath the stars, and enjoy the simple things in life. Lolly and Bill Fassett created this haven after moving to Big Sur in 1947 and it has since then attracted wanderers, lovers, poets, star gazers, and the every day dreamer. Nepenthe has a feeling of community and a shared peace in the space. It is a place to sit back and say, yes.

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Esalen Institute 

The Esalen Institute is a mecca for creatives, dreamers, thinkers, and doers. They offer 600 workshops and programs throughout the year ranging from spiritual studies, neuroscience, writing, family practice, and just about everything between. It is so inspiring to see a place dedicated to bettering our culture on a daily basis. It is a place of healing, learning, and growing. They change lives, and allow you the space to change your own. Their aim is to provide a learning facility that answers and asks the deep, stronger questions in life. They host world renowned teachers in their specialized fields through out the year with a rotating calendar of enlightening and expanding events.


Post Ranch Inn 

This is the high class way to take in Big Sur. Post Ranch Inn sits high on top of the cliffs at 1200 feet and offers expansive ocean and mountain views from the entire premise. We feasted on a fresh and daily changing gourmet menu, took a yoga class, and lounged in the Jade pool. We spent the late night hours stargazing and wishing to never leave. With 39 luxury rooms, a full in house spa, and a commitment to privacy for all their guests this is one of the most romantic places I have ever been.


 Big Sur Bakery 

Over the hill and through the woods to Big Sur Bakery we go. The only thing more delicious than this little cottage is the food and treats being cooked up inside. Their tag line, “Slow Down and Come to Your Senses,” couldn’t be more apt for this experience. The journey through Big Sur forces you to literally slow down, and The Bakery takes this approach to everything they do. They ferment their own pickles and sourdough breads, slow braise their meats and vegetables, and all done with a patient mindful ease. They are dedicated to every detail of the meal and have spent their sweet slow time perfectly crafting recipes that will make you close your eyes while you eat. Built in 1936, the Big Sur Bakery has been soothing hungry travelers passing through for decades upon decade.

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Ventana Inn and Spa

Ventana Inn & Spa is an escape within an escape. It is a place to pamper and brunch and drink bloody mary’s. It is a blend. Here you can relax about relaxing. There is nothing you have to take care of, nothing you have to pitch or prepare, nothing other than breathing deeply and appreciating those you travel with. Ventana is rustic and modern, a fresh take on the Big Sur experience and guaranteed to take your endorphin levels to a new high. We highly recommend giving yourself a swath of time to simply wander the grounds because around every corner is a new oasis tucked into the trees. Our favorite spot is the clothing optional swimming pool and Japanese hot bath on the west end – heaven.

Photo: Vivianne Lapointe

 Glen Oaks Big Sur

I love that Glen Oaks calls themselves, The Great Indoors. It’s the perfect way to describe this place. Only in the comfort of these idyllic cabins could one feel just as much peace as you do sitting at the foot of a massive redwood. The cabins are secluded, the trails are pristine and the decor harmoniously marries the outdoors with the hearth. Every single space is memorable but our personal favorite is the Big Sur cabin, particularly because you can listen to the rush of the Big Sur river from the living room and sit at one of two outdoor fire pits to watch the water hurry by. We also fell in love with the private courtyard with a fire pit and two clawfoot soaking tubs. I am surprised we ever left.

Big Sur Road House 

Even if you aren’t going to stay the night at Glen Oaks be sure to stop in at the Big Sur Road House for a glass of wine and some fine fare from chef, Brendan Esons. Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner this one of the very best meals we had on the road. They have ideal outdoor seating, an amazing beer selection, and the most friendly staff ever (my guess is because everyone just truly loves being there so much.) Keeping in tune with the surrounding magic The Road House features a menu that changes with the seasons and features locally sourced organic ingredients. On Saturdays and Sundays they have a killer brunch. On Tuesday nights they are closed for dinner. It’s the kind of place you want to spend several hours enjoying a meal, and who knows maybe lunch will turn into diner because it’s just that lovely and relaxing.

Bixby Bridge

Driving along the one you cannot help but recognize how insane it must have been to build this road. You are crossing over massive coves and bays, and hugging tight to the sheer cliffs that plunge into the ocean. It all had to be built and blasted away. Before this bridge was open in 1932 the people of Big Sur were essentially cut off during the winters when roads the roads inland became untravelable. Bixby Bridge is one of the most photographed spots on the drive along The One, and one of the most iconic bridges in our country. One of the best spots to shoot from is 10.5 miles south of the bridge.

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Roxy’s denim jacket, $298

Point Lobos

Point Lobos is a natural reserve resting at the northern tip of Big Sur and just south of Carmel-by-the-Sea. It is home to a wild array of sea life, a world class diving location, rolling hills, meadows, and coves. It was once the heart of the whaling and abalone industry and still to this day sits a small fisherman’s cottage at the Whalers Cove, now a historical site. One of the best ways to take on Point Lobos is to sign up for a guided walk. While the area is breathtaking there is so much that is missed by the untrained eye. Guides are passionately aware of the area, it’s natural habitats, history, and endless amount of art that has been created at this gem location. Point Lobos’s sheltered coves make for clear water and spectacular scuba diving. Divers travel from all of the world to venture into the kelp forests and drift among the sea life.

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Monterey Aquarium

This is one of the most fascinating places we have ever stepped foot in. I felt like I understood for the first time how short humans have been on earth. Some of the fish here, particularly a massive sun fish larger than a VW Beetle, float through aquariums of crystal waters two stories high. It is home to 35,000 creatures of 550 species in 34 major galleries. The halls of this aquarium are endless. It is truly a view into the ocean. One of the most captivating spaces is the Drifters Gallery where purple striped jellyfish float past massive windows in a dark room. A tip for snapping photos, even though it’s dark keep your flash off to capture these creatures.


Photo: Tamy Emma Pepin

Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz would be a wonderful place to spend the rest of your life. I am convinced time passes in a different fashion. The air is cooler, the clock ticks slower, the vibe is generally and naturally low key. The people of Santa Cruz care about their town in a way you don’t see enough of these days. They are proud to be locals and we were thankful to be visitors. Between the epic waves, the incredible university, locally grown and environmentally conscious everything, and the picaresque boardwalk, it kind of feels like you are wandering around the inside of someones dream or a painting.

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Photo: Tamy Emma Pepin

Our Ultimate California Road Trip Packing List:

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