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 to see and where to stop.
To begin with, we will explore the rugged coastline and sandy beaches south of San Francisco and stop for a while in the tiny village of Pescadero. Further south comes a region with beautiful state parks with coastal flowers, seals and seabirds and redwood forests more inland.
North of Santa Cruz we will take a side trip to the scenic West Cliff Drive and before reaching Monterey there is still some time to stroll through the postcard-pretty seaside Capitola.
Things to see on Highway 1, California: West Cliff Drive ice plants
The drive will take you a day or less, depending on how much you stop, but Monterey itself deserves days. The historic core of the city offers great activities: Fisherman’s Wharf, Cannery Row, Aquarium, whale cruises…
But that’s not all the region offers. In fact it gets even better outside Monterey. You have to go and see the two fairy-tale towns Carmel-by-the-Sea and Pacific Grove, and then take to 17-Mile Drive.
Then drive inland to the Carmel Valley which is a wine-growing region. Or maybe you are driving on to Big Sur and on to Los Angeles?
Carmel-by-the-Sea building style
Now, let’s put the drive on the map:
San Francisco to Monterey Drive on the Map
Map of the coastal drive from San Francisco to Monterey
The map shows the San Francisco to Monterey drive along Highway 1. How long is the drive then? Not long, being only 130 miles it’s a three hours drive.
Yet this scenic stretch of US Highway 1 offers so much to see that you can easily spend a full day between Monterey and San Francisco. You will want to stop, many times, as you will like the scenery so much.
So we started our Highway 1 drive from San Francisco, heading south from the famous Golden Gate Bridge:
San Francisco, California
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 the same to you.
We have two separate posts on San Francisco (and some more on bay area attractions). Check out the two San Francisco posts here, and find the rest on the California posts page.
Presidio, San Francisco
Lands End, the seaside south of San Francisco
From the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway 1 takes you through Presidio to Golden Gate Park further south.
From Golden Gate Park the US 1 continues straight towards Daly City and US 280. This is the road that most people take when heading south. We, however, chose a smaller road following the ocean shore, Lincoln Boulevard to Sea Cliff and Lands End:
Visitors at Sutro Baths
Lands End is a popular hiking area that also contains an old bathing complex called Sutro Baths.
What about a small coastal hike in Lands End, in fresh, windy ocean air?
Hiking in Lands End, San Francisco
Ocean beach and the Great Highway
After the Cliff House complex the road turns inland. The Great Highway will first lead you to Golden Gate Park and from there to Skyline Boulevard. Follow Skyline Boulevard all the way to Pacifica.
A suspicious buffalo in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park
Approaching Pacifica Highway 1 narrows to a two lane road. A row of small towns will follow, like Princeton and Half Moon Bay, and some nice sandy ocean beaches between them.
Great Californian beaches – where no-one is in the water, absolutely nobody. Since the Pacific Ocean at these latitudes is cold all year round.
Never mind, people spend time on beaches without getting into the water – they enjoy Californian flowers:
Californian flowers, Highway 1 from San Francisco to Monterey
Nature beauty on the San Francisco Monterey coastal drive
San Francisco to Monterey: Pescadero
Driving from San Francisco to Monterey: the historic village of Pescadero
After some driving comes the old village of Pescadero, maybe a good place for a stop. The tiny village and farming community only has a church, country store, tavern and post office. But that’s basically what’s needed in a village. You can tell that we are in the American West:
What about a sandwich in Pescadero?
Compared to San Francisco, Pescadero is like from another world. So tranquil and so original the village is just a short drive from the business and crowds of San Francisco and Silicon Valley.
There are only two streets, both full of wild west buildings. And better still, one of the local farmers builds traditional American barns for sale. I’d just have to take one of these barns with me and put them to my back yard home in Finland, Europe! As a souvenir from Pescadero, California.
Sweet mini barns for sale along Highway 1 to Monterey
More village views of the tiny Pacific Coast community, Pescadero:
Typical Pescadero village homes
View of the main street
Country Store Hamburgers
San Francisco to Monterey: bying foodstuff in a country store
We dropped in the country store, to find out that it also containted a taverna were local farmers in their cowboy hats and leather booths were having their lunch. It looked so good that we just had to order hamburgers and join the crowd:
In a Californian country store
A bar corner which we didn’t use
My super good wild west hamburger
Rocky Shoreline and Sea Birds
Californian sea bird along Highway 1
In this region the landscape is flat farmland, not very special. Yet the Pacific shoreline looks very pretty with all the rocky cliffs and sandy coves.
Driving further southward there are small natural preserves that are good for bird-watching. Above you can see a Californian sea bird and below one more coast view:
Rocky coastline on the drive between San Francisco and Monterey
San Francisco to Monterey: Pigeon Point
Pigeon Point Lighthouse, built in 1872
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 the most rural area has some accommodation!
It looked like the lighthouse was closed for visitors, but you are free to walk around in the hostel area:
Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel
Spring is maybe the best time for California travel. The weather is not yet too hot (but it can be misty at times).
In spring there are absolutely no crowds yet. No traffic problems and no waiting-times anywhere, we were almost the only ones on the road.
Spring is the time of flowers
In April-May Californian nature shows its best. Flowers exist in all places, colorful Californian spring flowers! Just look at these sweet Californian ice plants in bloom!
Californian ice plant
Due to the dry and misty climate zone, California also has a lot of succulents. Here they really flourish and grow into huge dimensions:
Wallside succulents at Pigeon Point, California
A huge Californian succulent and pink ice plants
One more Pigeon Point plant
The rocks off Pigeon Point are perfect places where to spot ocean life. Looking a bit towards the sea you will notice that there are a lot of seals around.
Some of them are swimming in the ice cold sea, others keep barking on the rocks and the rest of them are just resting:
Pigeon Point sea life along California’s coastal highway 1
A sleepy California seal off Pigeon Point
And of course there are water birds as well, whole huge colonies of them:
A big black bird at Pigeon Point
Californian water birds on Pacific Ocean rocks
But we have to continue south and not forget that our destination is Monterey. We still need to drive in a gently rolling, green landscape.
The next stop is another nature destination: Ano Nuevo State Park:
Green rolling hills on the way from San Francisco to Monterey
Ano Nuevo State Park
Drive from San Francisco to Monterey: hiking on the Ano Nuevo slopes
The stunning, green Ano Nuevo State Park covers a vast area of uninhabited coastline and extends to the western slopes of the coastal mountains.
There is a good choice of marked walking trails and picnic areas. Parts of the state park are farming land where many crops and herbs are grown, for example rosemary:
A Californian rosemary field
But Ano Nuevo State Park is not really famous for its rosemary or hills, but for the elephant seals that gather in the area in great numbers in winter that is their breeding season.
To see the Ano Nuevo elephant seal colony you will have to walk 3 miles (5 km) from the car park. There’s a well marked path from the car 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 many of them. During the breeding season you are only allowed to go and watch the colony together with the park ranger.
A huge Californian elephant seal
Ano Nuevo State Park ocean shore, California
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 located north of Santa Cruz.
Natural Bridges State Beach
San Francisco to Monterey: Natural Bridges State Beach sea birds
On Natural Bridges State Beach ocean waves have carved archways into sandstone cliffs. That made the cliffs look like bridges and also gave the beach its name.
There used to be many cliffs like that, but today there’s only one left, the one you can see on the photo. All others have collapsed with time. Luckily the only existing arch is just offshore and you can see it well.
Natural Bridges State Park sea birds
The state park itself consists of a small protected sandy beach, a very pretty one with unusual tidewater pools.
In addition there is 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 only stay here in the winter and when spring comes they move on to inland valleys.
San Francisco to Monterey: West Cliff Walk
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 next beach, Lighthouse Field State Beach in 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 of the drive is a good place for whale and dolphin watching, but you might also see big sea mammals elsewhere on the coast.
West Cliff Drive, California
Surfers walking down the cliff
West Cliff Drive spring flowers
A Californian ice plant
West Cliff is one of the northern residential areas in Santa Cruz. A very pretty area where each home is different.
West Cliff Drive homes close to California Highway 1
One of the many West Cliff Drive homes
West Cliff Drive ends at Santa Cruz. The town got badly hit by an earthquake but was rebuilt afterwards. That’s why there are exceptionally many new houses in the city.
Luckily some historic buildings still remain in the center, one of them the Mission of Santa Cruz, one of California’s historic missions (that for some reason all lie on the earthquake zone).
Santa Cruz is a university town and linked to Silicon Valley by a good and rapid road. So we have been traveling for hours and are next to Silicon Valley!
Neptune’s Kingdom in the Santa Cruz amusement area
Since decades, Santa Cruz is a popular tourist resort. The most famous place is the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk with an old style amusement park and other similar attractions for holiday fun.
As an example, there is the Santa Cruz roller coaster that has been taken on the list of National Historic Landmarks.
More amusement – and a sandy beach behind it
Behind the amusement park is the fine, wide sandy beach of Santa Cruz.
Santa Cruz also has a traditional 100 year old wharf full of shops and restaurants. From the wharf you can watch wildlife like sea lions and maybe even see whales. Free sea lion shows are regularly arranged at the end of the pier.
Santa Cruz flowers, seen from California Highway 1
More spring flowers of the flower state of California
More information on Santa Cruz and the area around it on the official Santa Cruz travel website.
San Francisco to Monterey: Capitola
Then, south of Santa Cruz, comes the postcard-pretty resort town of Capitola, old-fashioned and the oldest on the Pacific Coast. Capitola was founded over 135 years ago and has kept much of its old atmosphere.
There is a river, Soquel Creek, with 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:
San Francisco to Monterey: Capitola flowers
This small town definitely has some Key West atmosphere. Like in Key West, many Capitola buildings are in pastel colors. Moreover, there are pretty oceanside cafes and, of course, a long wooden pier.
Street view of Capitola, California
The center of Capitola, a holiday resort on California’s Pacific coast
To me Capitola looks like an ideal, relaxed weekend resort, or why not even for a longer vacation. The town has a sandy beach, restaurants, small galleries and antique shops, and the location between Santa Cruz and Monterey is good, with the two cities just a short drive away.
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?
View of Capitola, approaching from California Highway 1
California flowers on the coastal Highway 1 drive
Fisherman’s Wharf, Monterey, California
Then comes Monterey, our destination, and we will soon look at the city.
Did you know about the city’s exceptional history? Monterey got its name from a Spanish explorer who came to the city in 1602 and became years later the capital of the Spanish California.
They city also saw the gold rush, after which time the capital was moved to San Francisco. That was in 1848.
What to see in Monterey:
What to have for lunch? Fisherman’s Wharf, Monterey
Like Santa Cruz, Monterey is a fishing port with a long wharf. The Monterey wharf is called Fisherman’s Wharf.
The wharf has been the local center for fishing and whaling, being today more famous for its souvenir shops, seafood restaurants and whale watching tours.
Views of the Monterey Fisherman’s Wharf
As we are not interested in souvenirs when we travel, nor do we like candies, what was there for us on Fisherman’s Wharf?
Whale wathcing tours. We took one, which I very much recommend! Even in a bad, rainy weather it was a huge nature experience as we saw so many whales.
To read about the whale watching tour check out another post Things to Do in Monterey and Carmel, and the same posts shows you more about the region.
On a Monterey Bay whale watching tour
A Fisherman’s Wharf candy store
California Sea Lions
Monterey sea lions on the breakwater
What else was there for us? Sea lions. In Monterey Harbor they exist everywhere. In hundreds and thousands, they clearly outnumber their cousins in San Francisco.
Look how many sea lions there 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 will see them floating in the sea.
California sea lions make a loud noise and smell bad, but are so cute to look at!
A Monterey Bay sea lion sitting on a stone
Did you know that the Pacific Ocean outside Monterey is very rich with sea life? That’s because Monterey Bay has a vast underwater canyon, almost like the Grand Canyon but below the water line.
The deep Monterey Canyon also makes it possible for whales to live and find food close to the shore.
Due to their rich sealife the Monterey Bay waters have been proclaimed the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
Monterey Bay Marina along California Highway 1
Then there is the Cannery Row complex:
Monterey Cannery Row visitors
In earlier days Cannery Row used to be an industrial street full of sardine canneries, so in those days it was definitely not a tourist area. Then, like many other industrial areas in the world, Cannery Row gradually transformed to a shopping and tourist area that today also houses 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
This exceptional place got its name from John Steinbeck’s well-known book. Steinbeck wrote two of his novels, Cannery Row (1945) and Sweet Thursday (1954) in Monterey, after spending some time observing the harsh life of fishermen and cannery workers.
Cannery Row souvenirs for visitors
Monterey and its Cannery Row will complete this post on the drive along Highway 1 from San Francisco to Monterey. We have reached Monterey, California, and will stay here for a while.
What else is there to do in the Monterey Bay area? I will show you:
What to Do in the Monterey Bay Area?
Lovers Point, the beach of Pacific Grove
We have a separate post on Monterey Bay destinations: Pacific Grove, 17-Mile Drive, Carmel-by-the-Sea, Point Lobos and Carmel Valley
For more Monterey travel information check out the official Monterey travel website.
More on California Travel
These California posts might also interest you:
Explore San Francisco:
San Francisco day trips:
- Napa Valley Day Trip from San Francisco
- Exploring the Historic Sonoma
- Day Trip to Muir Woods Redwood Forest
South from Monterey:
Goodbye from Monterey, California!