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Coastal Drive from San Francisco to Monterey

The coastal drive from San Francisco to Monterey is one of the top scenic drives in the US. I will show you the sights along Highway 1 and tell you what there is to see and where you should stop.

We will first admire the rugged coastline and sandy beaches south of San Francisco and stop at the original village of Pescadero. Further south there are many beautiful state parks, either with coastal wildlife or redwood forests.

North of Santa Cruz we will make a side trip and see the scenic West Cliff Drive and before reaching Monterey there is still time to stroll through the postcard-pretty village of Capitola.

Capitola Wharf, Highway 1, California

Things to see on Highway 1, California: Capitola Wharf

Monterey itself is a destination where you can easily spend days. The city has a historic core by the bay and offers a lot of activities: Fisherman’s Wharf, Cannery Row, Aquarium, whale cruises…

And it gets even better outside the city. You have to see the two fairy-tale towns Carmel-by-the-Sea and Pacific Grove and take to 17-Mile Drive. Inland there is Carmel Valley which is a beautiful wine-growing region. And of course you can drive on to Big Sur and on to Los Angeles.

Ice flowers, Pacific Grove

Coastal flowers of Pacific Grove

San Francisco to Monterey Drive on the Map

 

Map of coastal drive from San Francisco to Monterey 

This map shows the San Francisco to Monterey drive along Highway 1. How long is the drive then? Not long, just 130 miles which makes three hours driving time.

Yet Highway 1 offers so much that you can easily spend a full day between Monterey and San Francisco. You will want to stop, many times, since there are so many sights.

So we started our Highway 1 drive from San Francisco, heading south from its famous Golden Gate Bridge.

San Francisco, California

Golden Gate Bridge, the symbol of San Francisco

 Golden Gate Bridge, the symbol of San Francisco

San Francisco of course is a must see place in California. We spent days exploring this amazing city and I can warmly recommend that to you too.

I have two blog posts on San Francisco sights (and some more on other attractions in San Francisco bay area). Here are my San Francisco posts and you can find the rest on the California posts page.

View from Lands End walking track

Lands End, California

Highway 1 takes you from Golden Gate Bridge through an area called Presidio straight to Golden Gate Park further south. From there it continues towards US 280 in Daly City.

You can take this straight road if you like. We wanted to see a bit more and took the smaller road that follows the ocean shore. It was Lincoln Boulevard to Sea Cliff and Lands End.

Point Lobos Sutro Baths

Sutro Baths, Lands End

Lands End is a popular hiking area and there is an old bathing complex (Sutro Baths). What about a hike in the fresh sea wind?

The rugged coastline of Point Lobos at Lands End

The rugged coastline of Point Lobos at Lands End

After Cliff House the road turns inland. The Great Highway leads you past Golden Gate Park to Skyline Boulevard that you will follow up to Pacifica.

San Francisco Ocean beach

San Francisco ocean beach and Great Highway

Golden Gate Park buffalo

A suspicious buffalo in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park

When you reach the community of Pacifica south of San Francisco Highway 1 suddenly narrows to a two lane road. There is a row of small towns like Princeton and Half Moon Bay and nice sandy beaches follow all the way as you drive down.

Nice beaches but no-one is swimming, absolutely nobody. The Pacific Ocean is very cold and it is that all year round. Never mind, you can spend time on beaches in other ways – and enjoy Californian flowers:

Californian flowers, Highway 1

Californian flowers, Highway 1 from San Francisco to Monterey

Californian flower, Highway 1

Coastal drive nature 

Pescadero

Historic village of Pescadero, California

Driving from San Francisco to Monterey: the historic village of Pescadero

After some driving comes the old village of Pescadero which might be a good place for your first stop. It’s a tiny village and a small farming community that only has a church, country store, tavern and post office. But that’s basically what you need. We are in the American West.

Pescadero Country Store road sign

Why not have a sandwich in Pescadero?

Pescadero is like from another world, so tranquil and so original, and just a short drive from the business districts and huge crowds of San Francisco and Silicon Valley.

There are only two streets and both are full of wild west buildings. And better still, one of the local farmers is producing traditional American barns for sale. I’d so much love to take one of these barns with me and put them to my home yard, back home in Finland, Europe! As a souvenir from Pescadero, California.

Dry Creek Mini Barns Pescadero

Mini barns for sale along Highway 1 to Monterey

More village views of the small community of Pescadero:

Pescadero historic homes

Typical country homes

Pescadero Main Street

Pescadero main street in the coastal California

Pescadero Country Store

Pescadero Country Store

San Francisco to Monterey: visiting a country store

We dropped in the country store, to find out that in addition to the store there was taverna were local farmers in their cowboy hats and leather booths were gathering for lunch.

Pescadero Country Store

We just had to order hamburgers and join them!

Pescadero Country Store bar

Pescadero country store bar corner which we didn’t use

Pescadero Country Store hamburger

My wild west hamburger

Rocky Shoreline and Sea Birds

Californian sea bird along Highway 1

Californian sea bird along Highway 1

The landscape in this region here is mostly flat farmland but the shoreline looks pretty with its rocky cliffs and sandy coves.

Driving further southward there are small natural preserves that are good places for bird-watching.  Above you can see a Californian sea bird and here is another coast view:

Californian Highway 1 coastline

Rocky coastline between San Francisco and Monterey

Pigeon Point

Pigeon Point Lighthouse California

Pigeon Point Lighthouse

The next stop on our Highway 1 drive is Pigeon Point, 8 miles (13 km) south of Pescadero. Pigeon Point has an old lighthouse station that today serves as a hostel. So this extremely rural area has some accommodation!

It looked like the lighthouse built in 1872 was closed for visitors but you we were free to walk where we wanted in the hostel area.

Pigeon Point hostel San Francisco to Monterey

Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel

Spring is maybe the best time for California travel. Californian weather is not yet too hot (and as we noticed it can be misty at times). In spring there are absolutely no crowds yet. No traffic problems and no waiting-times anywhere since you’re alone on the road…

California ice plants

Spring is the time of flowers

In the spring Californian nature shows its best as there are so many flowers in all places, a lot of spring flowers! Look at these ice plants!

Pink ice plant

Californian ice plant

California also has a lot of succulents that benefit from the dry and misty climate zone. Succulents really flourish in California and grow into huge dimensions:

California succulents

Wallside succulents, Pigeon Point

Pigeon Point succulent

A huge Californian succulent and pink ice plants

Green succulent

One more Pigeon Point plant

Pigeon Point rocks are perfect for spotting ocean life. When you look around you can see that there are a lot of seals around. Some of them are swimming in the cold sea, others keep barking on the rocks and the rest of them are just resting:

Seals along California's coastal highway 1

Pigeon Point sea life along California’s coastal highway 1

Seal on the rock, Californian Highway 1

A sleepy California seal off Pigeon Point

And of course there are the water birds as we are on the coast, there are whole colonies of them.

Californian water bird

A big black bird at Pigeon Point

Waterbirds on the rocks

Californian water birds on Pacific Ocean rocks

But we have to continue south, we are on the way to Monterey. We are now driving in a gently rolling, green landscape. The next stop is also a nature destination: Ano Nuevo State Park.

Driving from San Francisco to Monterey

Green rolling hills on the way from San Francisco to Monterey

Ano Nuevo State Park

San Francisco to Monterey Ano Nuevo State Park

 

The beautiful Ano Nuevo State Park covers a vast area of almost uninhabited coastline and it also extends to the western slopes of the coastal mountains. There are many marked walking trails and picnic areas. Parts of the state park are farming land where many crops and herbs are grown, among other things rosemary:

Californian rosemary field

Californian rosemary field

But Ano Nuevo State Park is not famous for its rosemary or hills, it’s best known for elephant seals that flock in the area in great numbers in winter during their breeding season.

To see a colony of elephant seals you have to walk 3 miles (5 km) from the car park that is well marked and at the park’s south end.

Elephant seals can be seen in Ano Nuevo State Park at most times or the year, at least in small numbers, but during their breeding season you will see a lot of them. At that time you are for safety reasons only allowed to go and watch the colony together with the park ranger.

Californian elephant seal

A huge Californian elephant seal

Californian shoreline San Francisco to Monterey

Ano Nuevo State Park shoreline, California

Californian oat

Dry nature of California Highway 1

More information on Ano Nuevo State Park on the California Department of Parks and Recreation website.

A bit further down Highway 1 comes the next place to see: Natural Bridges State Beach north of Santa Cruz.

Natural Bridges State Beach

Natural Bridges State Park

San Franacisco to Monterey: Natural Bridges birds 

Natural Bridges State Beach is a place where ocean waves have carved archways into cliffs. This makes sandstone cliffs look like bridges which is what the beach got its name from.

There were many more cliffs like this but most of them have collapsed, only this one is left. You can see the arch well since it’s just offshore.

Natural Bridges State Park sea birds

Natural Bridges State Park sea birds

The state park itself has a small protected sandy beach with unusual tidewater pools.

In addition the park has a nature path in a grove where you can see Monarch butterflies at certain times of the year. If you have luck you can see up to 100 000 butterflies at the same time, but for that you’ll have to come here in winter. The butterflies stay here in the winter and when spring comes they move on to inland valleys.

West Cliff Walk

San Francisco to Monterey: ice plants along West Cliff Drive

San Francisco to Monterey: ice plants along West Cliff Drive

West Cliff Walk, also called West Cliff Drive, is between Natural Bridges State Beach and the Lighthouse Field State Beach which is just north of Santa Cruz. It is a 3 mile scenic walking or biking route (also a driving route) along the Pacific Ocean.

Lighthouse Point at the south end is a good place for whale and dolphin watching but you might also see big sea mammals while walking.

West Cliff Drive beach

West Cliff Drive, California

West Cliff Drive surfers

Surfers walking down the cliff

West Cliff Drive flowers

West Cliff Drive flowers

A yellow ice plant

A yellow ice plant

West Cliff is one of the residential areas in Santa Cruz. IT’s a very pretty area where each home is different.

West Cliff drive street view

West Cliff Drive homes, California Highway 1

West Cliff drive home

One of West Cliff Drive homes, California

Santa Cruz

West Cliff Drive ends at Santa Cruz. The city got badly hit by an earthquake but was rebuilt afterwards. That’s why there are exceptionally many new houses but the historic core still remains. One of California’s historic missions (that all lie on the earthquake zone) is located here, the Mission of Santa Cruz. 

Santa Cruz is a university town that is linked to Silicon Valley by a good and rapid road. So we have been traveling the whole day and are almost in Silicon Valley!

Neptune's Kingdom Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz amusement area

Santa Cruz is a popular tourist resort. The most famous sight is the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk with an old style amusement park and more attractions for holidaymakers. Santa Cruz roller coaster has been made a National Historic Landmark.

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

More amusement and a beach behind

Behind the amusement park is the fine sandy beach of Santa Cruz.

Santa Cruz also has a long wharf that is 1oo year old, full of shops and restaurants. From the wharf you can watch wildlife like sea lions, and free sea lion shows are regularly arranged at the end of the pier.

Californian nature flowers

 Santa Cruz flowers, seen from California Highway 1 

San Francisco to Monterey flowers

More spring flowers in the flower state

More information on Santa Cruz and the area around it on the official Santa Cruz travel website.

Capitola

Capitola riverside houses

Capitola, California

South of Santa Cruz is the postcard-pretty Capitola, an old-fashioned resort town that is the Pacific Coast’s oldest. Capitola was founded over 135 years ago and it has kept much of its old atmosphere.

There is a river, Soquel Creek, that has the remains of an old wooden railroad bridge above it. The river and the historic bridge split the village is two parts. And Capitola, too, has flowers:

Capitola flowers

Capitola flowers

This small town definitely has some Key West atmosphere, just like Key West Capitola has many pretty buildings in pastel colors. In addition there are some oceanside cafes and a long wooden pier.

Capitola street view

Street view of Capitola, California

Capitola shopping street

The center of Capitola, town on California’s Pacific coast

Capitola looks to me like an ideal resort for a relaxed weekend of why not a longer vacation. The town has a sandy beach, restaurants, small galleries and antique shops, and Santa Cruz and Monterey are just a short drive away.

Capitola pier, coastal drive from San Francisco to Monterey

Capitola pier, coastal drive from San Francisco to Monterey

These photos show the long pier Capitola Wharf where you can fish or even have a meal, or why not rent a kayak?

Capitola San Francisco to Monterey

View of Capitola, approaching from California Highway 1

California flowers

California flowers on the coastal Highway 1 drive

Monterey

San Francisco to Monterey California

Fisherman’s Wharf, Monterey, California

Monterey is our destination. Did you know it’s a city with an exceptional history? Monterey got its name from a Spanish explorer who came to the city in 1602 and years later Monterey became the capital of the Spanish California.

They city also saw the gold rush after which the capital was moved to San Francisco in 1848.

Fisherman’s Wharf

Monterey Fisherman's Wharf sandwich store

What to have for lunch? Fisherman’s Wharf, Monterey

Like Santa Cruz Monterey is a fishing port with a long wharf. Monterey’s wharf is called Fisherman’s Wharf.

The wharf has been the center of fishing and whaling but is today more famous for all its souvenir shops, seafood restaurants and whale watching tours.

 

Views of Fisherman’s Wharf

What did we do on Fisherman’s Wharf? Me and my husband don’t buy any souvenirs when we travel neither do we like candies.

Instead we took a whale watching tour which I very much recommend. It was a huge nature experience and we spotted many whales. I am telling about the whale watching tour in my other post Things to Do in Monterey and Carmel so if you are interested in whales you can read more about them there.

On a Monterey Bay whale watching tour

On a Monterey Bay whale watching tour

Monterey Fisherman's Wharf candy store

On the Fisherman’s Wharf, Monterey

California Sea Lions

Monterey sea lions

Monterey sea lions on the breakwater

In Monterey Harbor you can see sea lions everywhere. Hundreds and thousands of sea lions, they are much more than in San Francisco.

Monterey harbor seals

Look how many they are!

Monterey Bay sea lions climb to the breakwater and on rocks and you can find them below the pier. They even climb on boats and of course you can see them in the sea. They make a loud noise and they smell a lot, but despite all they are so cute and nice to look at!

Monterey harbor seal

A Monterey Bay sea lion 

The Pacific Ocean outside Monterey is rich with sea life. Monterey Bay has a vast underwater canyon, it’s like the Grand Canyon but below the water.  The deep Monterey Canyon also makes it possible for whales to live their life very close to the shore.

Due to this Monterey Bay waters have been proclaimed the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

Monterey harbor

Monterey Bay Marina along California Highway 1

Cannery Row

Monterey Canning Co

Monterey Cannery Row visitors

Cannery Row used to be an industrial street lined with sardine canneries so in those days it was everything else than t a tourist area. Like many other industrial areas Cannery Row gradually transformed to a shopping and tourist area that today also has the world-famous Monterey Aquarium. The aquarium is located in one of the canneries at the north end of the shopping district.

 

Coastal drive from San Francisco to Monterey: Monterey Cannery Row 

It was John Steinbeck’s well-known book that gave this exceptional place its name. Steinbeck wrote two of his novels, Cannery Row (1945) and Sweet Thursday (1954) in Monterey, after observing the harsh life of fishermen and cannery workers.

Cannery Row Monterey

Cannery Row souvenirs for visitors

Monterey and its Cannery Row will complete my post on our drive along Highway 1 from San Francisco to Monterey. So now we have reached Monterey, California and we can stay here for a while. But what else is there to do in the Monterey Bay area? I will tell you:

What to Do in Monterey Bay Area?

I made a separate blog post on Monterey Bay area travel destinations: Pacific Grove, 17-Mile Drive, Carmel-by-the-Sea and Carmel Valley.

And you will also get more information on Monterey and its area on the official Monterey travel website.

More about California Travel

For more about California travel check out my other California posts. Behind this link you will find a list on my all California posts:

Monterey Fisherman's Wharf

Goodbye from Monterey, California!

12 comments

  1. Thanks for the tour. Thinking of doing it while in Cali next month

  2. Wow thanks for the detailed plan.

  3. Dymphna Gallagher

    This is fantastic!
    My daughter I are doing this exact route this June. Thank you!

  4. How long is the drive from San Fran to Monterrey on route 1 with minimal stops?

  5. Hi
    Where and when is the best time to see hump back whales, also any good places to stay close to the area

    • I think the best season to spot humpback whales is from late spring to fall but as you can see in my post they were around earlier in spring as well. Where to stay: I would recommend Carmel Valley. It’s a bit off the coast but driving only takes a few minutes time.

  6. THANK YOU!! Great for planning our trip!

  7. This is great! I am in San Francisco now with my daughter on vacation, and wanted to take one day to go out and do something outside the city, and along the coast! Thank you for sharing…it looks like this is our one day adventure! 🙂

  8. We re in our 70s and don t feel comfortable driving in large cities. We want to visit San Francisco and then the Monterey Peninsula. We d rent a car outside of San Francisco. Any advice?

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