San Francisco to Santa Barbara Road Trip (Best Route and Stops)

Image of Bixby Bridge in Big Sur, California to illustrate a San Francisco to Santa Barbara road trip via Highway 1 (Pacific Coast Highway).

A San Francisco to Santa Barbara road trip encompasses one of the prettiest drives in the entire country. The key is to take Highway 1, also known as the Pacific Coast Highway, which runs directly along the beautiful California coastline. 

As much as I love taking road trips, admittedly the scenery sometimes becomes monotonous. This specific drive, however, is breathtaking from beginning to end. 

This route keeps you right along the oceanside with plenty of places to stop on the way. In this post, I’ll discuss some of the most essential sites, cities, and towns to stop over and visit as you proceed on this epic road trip.

How Long Is the Drive from San Francisco to Santa Barbara?

The shortest route from San Francisco to Santa Barbara uses US-101 S and takes just over 5 hours. This is the route that your GPS will likely put you on. However, for this particular drive, you’ll want to eschew the most pragmatic route and follow Highway 1 instead.

From San Francisco, you can just map yourself to Highway 1 South (CA-1) and then follow the signs all the way down the coastline. Occasionally, State Route 1 intersects and becomes US-101 for a short period of time, but just keep an eye on the signs to resume on Highway 1 once they separate again. 

In terms of actual driving time, a San Francisco to Santa Barbara road trip via HIghway 1 takes about 8 hours. 

Driving from San Francisco to Santa Barbara in One Day

Since even taking scenic Highway 1 only takes 8 hours, you could theoretically do the entire drive in one day. However, I would absolutely recommend against this. 

While some road trips are mostly about getting from one place to another, this particular drive is much more about the beauty along the way. There are also quite a few places just off this route which are worth spending at least a few hours.

My recommendation is to spend at least two nights, arriving in Santa Barbara on the third day. This will allow you time to relax and enjoy some of the amazing places along the way.

If you absolutely must do the drive in one day, it is possible though, and it’s still worth doing. There’s plenty of beauty to enjoy from the car windows without having to stop anywhere, if you truly don’t have the time.

Places to Stop Along the Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco to Santa Barbara

There are literally dozens of spots you could stop and enjoy on this drive. For the sake of making this road trip doable within a fairly reasonable amount of time, I’ll stick to the absolute best places.

I would recommend stopping at each of these, if at all possible. If you are pressed for time, spend an hour or two, and then move on. 

Visit the Tide Pools and Walk Along the California Coastal Trail in Half Moon Bay

An image of tide pools in Half Moon Bay, California. There is a rocky coastline visible to the right and the ocean to the left. The blue sky is in the background.

Half Moon Bay is a small coastal city about a 40-minute drive south of San Francisco. With its numerous beaches and picturesque downtown, there are plenty of places to see and things to do.

If you are traveling with kids (or even for adults who enjoy viewing marine life), the tide pools are a must-see. Be sure to check the tide times before going because you’ll need to be there at low tide in order to explore the pools. 

WIth its rocky shoreline, Half Moon Bay has a multitude of tide pools that are uniquely accessible. With a bit of exploring, you are likely to see crabs, starfish, sea snails, urchins, and sea anemones, as well as plenty of shells and aquatic plants. 

In some spots, you may also see seals on the rocks and sometimes even get a glimpse of whales and dolphins.

There are several places to visit tide pools in the Half Moon Bay area. Fitzgerald Marine Reserve is a particularly nice spot. It’s technically in Moss Beach which is about ten minutes from Half Moon Bay, although many people consider the entire area to be the same town. 

The Fitzgerald Marine Reserve self-guided tour flier provides helpful information about what to look for in the tide pools as well as important safety and etiquette info. 

Walking along the California Coastal Trail is another enjoyable activity in Half Moon Bay. Also known as the Half Moon Bay Coastside Trail, this is a paved path that runs alongside the beach. There are beautiful views along the entire trail. 

In addition to walking this trail, you can also bike if you like. This is another great way to get in some exercise, especially if you’re on a family road trip with kids.

Spend a Couple Hours at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

Located in Santa Cruz, about an hour south of Half Moon Bay, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is definitely worth a visit. This amusement park is located right along the beach. Entry is free; you can buy tickets if you’d like to go on the rides. There is also a huge assortment of food for sale along the boardwalk. 

View looking down at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in California. In the center is the Giant Dipper rollercoaster. There are a lot of palm trees and the background is the sandy beach and the ocean. In the far distance, you can see the ferris wheel.

If you have the time, you can step off the boardwalk onto the beach for a bit. There is also a nice walking trail just off the beach, if you want to get in some exercise before resuming your road trip.

Monterey, California

The city of Monterey itself is absolutely worth a stop. If you don’t have much time, at least visit Cannery Row. If you map yourself on GPS, you can easily find parking lots right next to the entrance to the street (which have a fee that can be paid at a machine on the side of the parking lot).

Cannery Row was originally called Ocean View Avenue. In 1958, the name was officially changed to Cannery Row, in homage to John Steinbeck’s classic novel which takes place on the street. What was once a street lined with huge sardine canneries is now a fun tourist spot with a multitude of unique shops, as well as the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium.

If you do visit Cannery Row, be sure to get some of the salt water taffy from the candy shops along the street. The taffy is available in literally dozens of different flavors, and it makes a unique treat.

Numerous sea lions and otters sunning themselves on rocks in Monterey, California. The water, with boats, is in the background.

Off of Cannery Row, near the main parking lot, there is a very nice paved trail that goes along the ocean. You can walk or bike, and it’s often possible to spot sea lions and otters sunning themselves on the rocks just off the trail. 

Enjoy the Amazing Views When You Hit Big Sur

One of the marvels of Big Sur is that it can be enjoyed from the car windows while driving along Highway 1. If you’d like, it is absolutely possible to stop over and camp or hike in the Big Sur region. Stopping and getting out of the car isn’t necessary though. 

Much of the appeal of Big Sur is the amazing cliffs leading to the ocean and the ragged wilderness of the entire area. On a San Francisco to Santa Barbara road trip, I would recommend taking in the beauty of Big Sur while driving, as opposed to making it another place to stop. I wanted to mention this area though because it’s one of the most stunning drives in the country.

Jagged cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Big Sur, California. In the background, you can see the sunset and there are light waves in the sea.

One thing to note is that cell phone reception is very spotty (and sometimes nonexistent) on this stretch of Highway 1. It’s helpful to take that in consideration when planning your trip.

Pismo Beach, California

Pismo Beach is a great stop, especially if you like to surf, relax on the beach, or are traveling with kids. You can map yourself to the Pismo Beach Pier in order to situate yourself right along the beach with plenty of activities to do.

Pismo Beach Pier is a long pier that provides an enjoyable place to walk and take in the beauty of the Pacific Ocean. There are also plenty of shops and restaurants along the pier.

Kids are sure to like the Whale Surfing Playground at the Pismo Pier Plaza. This is a fun sea life and beach-themed playground in a beautiful location. It can be fun to relax and people-watch while the kids run around and play on the equipment. 

If you happen to be going on your road trip between late October and February, take care not to miss the Monarch Butterfly Grove located just about a mile south of the pier. 

Numerous monarch butterflies on Eucalyptus tree leaves at Monarch Butterfly Grove in Pismo Beach, California. This illustrates the migration of monarch butterflies to this region in winter and shows a place to visit on a Highway 1 road trip.

During the chillier months, thousands of monarch butterflies migrate from Northern California to Pismo Beach each year. They take residence in this lovely eucalyptus tree grove. Take some time to explore and see the butterflies. There are even volunteer docents available to provide additional information. 

Final Destination: Santa Barbara

View of Santa Barbara, California looking from the pier. You can see the water in the front and the city in the back. There are several palm trees, a street with cars and a bus, and mountains in the background. It is nearing sunset and the sky is orange, pink, and yellow.

At the end of this epic Pacific Coast Highway road trip, you’ll arrive in Santa Barbara which has plenty to see in its own right. 

You probably already have plans of what you’d like to do here. Some of the many available activities include visiting the countless beaches, world-class shopping, checking out the Santa Barbara Zoo, or enjoying one of the several available gardens located throughout the city. 

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