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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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 and Great Highway
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 from San Francisco to Monterey
Coastal drive nature
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.
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.
Mini barns for sale along Highway 1 to Monterey
More village views of the small community of Pescadero:
Typical country homes
Pescadero main street in the coastal California
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.
We just had to order hamburgers and join them!
Pescadero country store bar corner which we didn’t use
My wild west hamburger
Rocky Shoreline and Sea Birds
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:
Rocky coastline between San Francisco and Monterey
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 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…
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!
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:
Wallside succulents, Pigeon Point
A huge Californian succulent and pink ice plants
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:
Pigeon Point sea life along California’s coastal 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.
A big black bird at Pigeon Point
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.
Green rolling hills on the way from 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
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.
A huge Californian elephant seal
Ano Nuevo State Park shoreline, 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 north of Santa Cruz.
Natural Bridges State Beach
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
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
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, California
Surfers walking down the cliff
West Cliff Drive flowers
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 homes, California Highway 1
One of West Cliff Drive homes, California
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!
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.
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.
Santa Cruz flowers, seen from California Highway 1
More spring flowers in the flower state
More information on Santa Cruz and the area around it on the official Santa Cruz travel website.
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:
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.
Street view of Capitola, California
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
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
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.
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 the Fisherman’s Wharf, Monterey
California 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.
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!
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 Bay Marina along California Highway 1
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 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:
Goodbye from Monterey, California!