California Coastline Cruise
This Pacific Coast Highway trip from the Golden Gate Bridge to Santa Barbara is an RV adventure that you won’t want to end.
Traveling from Saint-Tropez, France to La Spezia, Italy is a wonderful trip although it’s not something that is easily done and it often takes years of saving, preparation and planning. But for those that want to experience a similar region more easily there is good news. Like the French and Italian Rivieras, Santa Barbara is known for both its Mediterranean climate and beauty. Affectionately called the American Rivieras, the seaside city and surrounding areas offer a variety of outdoor sports and activities, history and culture, shopping, fine dining, and exceptional wines.
Santa Barbara is accessible by car from the north, east and south, and by flying into Santa Barbara Airport. But you can turn a routine trip into an adventure by traveling there along a portion of the Pacific Coast Highway. With an RV as your home base you’ll experience features that exist nowhere else in the United States – that’s why the U.S. Department of Transportation classifies much of the route as an All-American Road. This four- to seven-day adventure starts in San Francisco and takes you through towns built around fishing and agriculture, along cliffs dropping precariously to the Pacific, and by inviting sandy beaches.
Campsites fill fast regardless of where you choose to stay along this route making reservations, a must. Some state parks offer one night “en route” stays in day-use lots, but you’ll have to arrive late and leave early. While route closures are usually not an issue, it’s always wise to check road conditions before you go, especially during winters with heavy rains.
Santa Barbara is accessible from the south and east, but we’re kicking this trip off from San Francisco so that you’ll experience the Pacific Coast Highway’s uniqueness. And what better landmark to begin your adventure than the iconic Golden Gate Bridge?
RV owners can easily get there from both the East and North bays. Those that want to rent an RV in the city, will have to maneuver through some pretty heavy traffic to get to the coast. If that sounds intimidating you can also rent from one of several locations outside of San Francisco. Go RVing can help locate a rental dealer with an RV suitable to your needs.
Once across the Golden Gate you’ll follow the signs to and through the Presidio of San Francisco – a former U.S. Army fort turned park. At Geary Boulevard turn right and keep going until you get to the ocean. A left on the Great Highway and you’re on your way. Once past the city you’ll get on Skyline, near Lake Merced, which takes you to Highway 1 just north of Pacifica.
Half Moon Bay
Pillar Point Harbor is at the north end of Half Moon Bay and one of California’s major fishing ports. Its riprap jetty provides protection while its berths are home to a relatively large commercial fleet. You may be able to pick up fresh salmon or Dungeness crab for dinner, depending on season, from fishermen selling their catch right off the boats.
Walking through downtown Half Moon Bay feels like a step back in time, with hints of the past preserved in several of its buildings. This is a great place to get out of your RV to discover some of California’s history. Either grab one of the History Association’s self-guided walking tour booklets, offered for a small donation, or visit shops and restaurants that simply pique your interest. Seascapes Gifts of the Sea is a local favorite where, when looking to decorate your home (or RV) with a nautical theme, you’ll find an assortment of shells, lighthouses and mermaids.
To the south of Half Moon Bay at Pigeon Point is one of the two tallest lighthouses on the West Coast. You won’t be able to go into the tower at Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park, but the grounds and views are worth a trip. There is also a visitor center and bookstore.
You’ll want to spend at least one or two days in the Monterey Bay area. Now part of a marine sanctuary, the ecological diversity of the bay, rocky shorelines and sandy beaches make it a prime destination for viewing wildlife.
Centrally located Sunset State Beach makes a perfect home base when exploring the area. Its pine tree sprinkled camp sites are both a short walk from the beach and protected from the wind by sand dunes.
Head to the north to visit Capitola and Santa Cruz, both resort towns influenced by surfing communities. The protected waters make these great spots for newcomers to surf for the first time. If getting wet isn’t your idea of fun you can visit a number of quirky shops, climb aboard the rides at Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, or fish from either of two wharfs – boat rentals are also available.
Travel south to Moss Landing to rent kayaks and paddle up Elkhorn Slough where sea otters and seals thrive. Time this adventure to the tides and weather – avoid paddling back against wind and an incoming tide. Continue south and you’re in Monterey, Pacific Grove or Carmel. Activities include visits to Fisherman’s Wharf, Cannery Row and Monterey Bay Aquarium, a round of golf at a famed 17-Mile Drive course or a deep-sea fishing excursion.
This portion of the trip is a classic example of where the forest meets the sea. As you travel the Pacific Coast Highway southward you’ll continue to experience dramatic ocean views to the right, while immediately on your left lush, green woodlands seductively invite you in to explore. With a number of hidden spots along this stretch it’s important to know where you want to stop before getting there.
You’ll camp along or near the Big Sur River and hike beneath gigantic redwoods at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. There are seven wonderful hikes to choose from here, ranging in distance from a half-mile round trip to 23 miles one way. Most don’t treat this as a day hike, but if you’re up for a challenge you can tackle an arduous 20-mile round trip section of the Pine Ridge trail – you’ll be rewarded with a soak in Sykes Hot Springs halfway through.
A quick break to snap a few photos of McWay Waterfall is highly recommended. The turnoff is to the left at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park with trail access through a tunnel under the highway. The trail here is just over a half-mile long and easy to hike. You’ll be able to see the falls, which plummets 80-feet directly onto the sandy beach at McWay Cove, during the majority of the short walk. There is no beach access, but the view is worth the walk.
Newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst’s Central-California estate, that includes a twin-towered main building, guesthouses and acres of gardens, overlooks San Simeon on what he designated The Enchanted Hill. Hearst Castle is now a state park and museum offering public tours. Start with the Grand Rooms Tour if it’s your first time there. Reservations should be made online in advance.
San Simeon Pier sits across from the entrance to Hearst Castle and is a good spot for surfperch when there is bait in the area. The fishing here doesn’t get as much attention as other piers along the coast, making this a good place to wet a line without crowds. Your best bet is targeting barred and calico perch just outside the surf.
As you continue along the Pacific Coast Highway past San Simeon you’ll see signs for the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery. Pull into the parking area, grab your camera and telephoto lens, and walk out onto the wood-planked viewing area. The magnificent marine mammals that you’ll see travel thousands of miles, twice every year, to give birth, breed and rest. The northern elephant seal rookery here goes on in either direction for six miles.
This waterfront city has some of the most beautiful beaches that you’ll get to enjoy during this trip. So, it’s no wonder the place is known for water-related activities. Morro Strand State Beach is shielded from big waves and perfect for surf fishing, horseback riding and leisurely walks. Swimming and paddleboarding are options if you want to get wet. Deep-sea fishing or shopping and dining along the Embarcadero are quite popular too – the Mermaid Café serves the best hotdogs around.
You can replenish your supply of fresh fruits and vegetables at the Morro Bay Farmers Market, held every Thursday and Saturday afternoon. The Thursday market is in Spencer’s Fresh Markets parking lot just north of Highway 41 – turn left onto San Jacinto Street, then right on Main to get there. Saturday’s market is a bit further south at Main and Harbor streets and features homemade tamales and kettle corn.
Morro Bay is a good place to take a side trip if you’re ready for a break from the ocean and coastal activities. Santa Margarita Lake, one of a handful of California reservoirs offering lots of shoreline access, has largemouth and smallmouth bass, rainbow trout, bluegill, crappie and catfish. Big plugs may land that bass of a lifetime here. To get there cut over to US-101 at Osos Street, then head north. Take Exit 211 and follow Highway 58 to West Pozo Road. Travel another six miles and Santa Margarita Lake Road will be to the left.
Often overshadowed by Santa Barbara, Santa Maria is the largest city in the county. But don’t let its size fool you. This is winemaking territory that maintains a country feel. A drive down the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail takes you past nine outstanding wineries, each offering something a bit different. Stop and taste some of Rancho Sisquoc Winery’s award winning estate vintages and the quality of the region’s grapes will be evident.
Does the history of flight interest you? If yes, you’re in for a treat thanks to the aviation collectables on display at the Santa Maria Museum of Flight. Some items on display are a full-scale 1902 Wright glider replica, movie memorabilia including a portion of the Rocketeer set, a working 1929 Fleet, and an F-4 Phantom jet. The museum is open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Santa Barbara hotels can be rather expensive, making your RV an affordable option for setting up camp in or near one of California’s most pristine seaside communities. You’ll have to choose between staying at a state park on the beach or at an RV campground right in town.
Gaviota State Park is on the water just off U.S. 101, 33 miles north of Santa Barbara, and known to be relatively windy. The 38 dry camping sites can handle RVs up to 28-feet. There are no electrical hookups or dump stations. Between October 1 and the end of March the campground is only open Fridays and weekends. There’s hiking here with outstanding views of the Channel Islands, nearby hot springs, a fishing pier, and a sandy beach for swimming.
Sunrise RV Park is the only option for staying right in Santa Barbara. Located adjacent to U.S. 101 at Salinas Street means you’ll hear some traffic – but you’ll be a short walk from the waterfront and downtown trolley with quick access to many of the places you’ll want to visit. All 31 spaces at this family-owned park have full electrical hookups, water and sewer, free Wi-Fi, and basic cable.
Things to Do
Santa Barbara’s oceanfront setting offers an almost endless assortment of outdoor-related activities. Add its Mediterranean climate, in-city attractions, world-class cuisine and winery-dotted outskirts and you’ll find enough to keep everyone happy for several days.
Leadbetter Beach, just west of the harbor, is where the locals hang out. It’s wide, sandy and perfect for sunbathing, swimming and just plain relaxing. The breeze tends to pick up in the afternoon, so bring along a kite with plenty of string. If you get hungry try lunch at the Shoreline Beach Cafe that sits about halfway down the beach.
Most of the coastline adjacent to Santa Barbara is sandy beach. Leadbetter is popular for families with kids. Photo Courtesy Visit Santa Barbara, Gabriela Herman
At the Santa Barbara Farmers Market you’ll be able to stock up with locally grown artichokes, asparagus and other vegetables and fruits for the final part of your trip. Take time to sample the food on hand, too. Photo Courtesy Visit Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara Adventure Company offers two-day and all-day surfing classes for beginners. Children must be at least 7 years old, and they classify the level of difficulty as easy to moderate. Photo Courtesy Visit Santa Barbara
Located on both sides of U.S. 101, the Urban Wine Trail is designed for tasting from a variety of wineries right in the confines of Santa Barbara. Most don’t require reservations, and do allow guests to bring their own snacks. Photo Courtesy Go RVing
Tide pooling is easy and fun for the entire family. You’ll see a variety of sea creatures including anemones, starfish, crabs and snails. But be sure to watch your step on the slippery rocks. Photo Courtesy Visit Santa Barbara, Mark Weber
An assortment of fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses and butters will be on hand every Tuesday and Saturday in downtown Santa Barbara at the Certified Farmers Market. The market runs from 4:00 to 7:30 pm on Old Town State Street on Tuesdays during summer, both opening and closing an hour earlier in winter. On Saturdays, the market runs from 8:30 am to 1:00 pm throughout the year on Santa Barbara and Cota streets.
The Santa Barbara Mission was the tenth founded by the Spanish Franciscans in California. The Mission, established in 1786, remains home to friars serving a large, active parish. The landmark sits on almost 13 landscaped acres overlooking the ocean and offers both docent-led and self-guided tours. The grounds include a church, cemetery and mausoleum, museum and gift shop.
Santa Barbara has plenty of surfing opportunities, ranging from large-swell North County beaches to quiet southern waters suitable for beginners. If you thought about but didn’t bring a board along on the trip because you’ve never surfed before, there will be no better time to start than when in Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara Adventure Company offers two-hour introductory classes for beginners. Instructors choose beaches based on conditions, with lessons including full body wetsuits, surfboards and a break for lunch.
Santa Barbara County has a number of wine tasting routes complete with art galleries, cafés, boutique shops, and, of course, vineyards and tasting rooms. But if you don’t want to leave the city, try walking Santa Barbara’s very own Urban Wine Trail. You won’t see any vineyards, but you’ll get to sample from a variety of tasting rooms, all within a short walk of the beach. If you’re more of a craft beer enthusiast there are a handful of breweries, too.
There are six 18-hole public courses in Santa Barbara County and most of them are within a half hour of downtown. There are also a handful of 9-hole courses and driving ranges. Each offers a unique experience. And reservations are recommended at all of them.
Locals consider Santa Barbara Golf Club’s beautifully maintained par-70 course their hidden jewel. The 18-hole regulation course is open every day from dawn to dusk. Glen Annie Golf Club’s championship course is nestled in the foothills, with awe-inspiring views of the Channel Islands – even if you don’t golf you’ll want to visit to take in the scenery and eat at the Frog Bar and Grill. Rated one of the top 100 public courses in the country, Sandpiper is considered by many to be the most beautiful club in Santa Barbara. It’s the only course in the area on the water, and it has had the honor of hosting several professional tournaments.
Tide pools are pockets of water that get trapped in rocky depressions along the shoreline when the tide recedes. Exploring them at low tide is a great way to see critters up close in their natural environment. As tempting as it may be, it’s important to not step in the water to avoid injuring the creatures that call the pools home. You also shouldn’t pick animals up, but put them back in the same place if you do. In Santa Barbara head to Shoreline Park, where there is plenty of parking, an hour or so before low tide to maximize the time you have to explore.
Harbor & Seafood Festival
If you’re there in October a definite stop is the annual Santa Barbara Harbor & Seafood Festival, held on Harbor Way off Shoreline Drive. You’ll meet local fishermen, tour boats and listen to live music. But best of all you’ll get to eat. Some favorites include barbequed albacore, fresh fish tacos, clam chowder and roasted corn.
Extend your trip
After seeing what the Pacific Coast Highway has to offer you may not want to head home. You won’t be hugging the coast as closely, but Los Angeles is less than two hours away via US-101 if you have the flexibility to keep going. And San Diego is just under four hours from there. Jump on Interstate 5 from either location to be back in the Bay Area in a day.Click to view the gallery
Marine Emporium Landing
Treat yourselves to a stop at Oxnard’s Marine Emporium Landing on your way to LA. Spend the morning exploring on a rented bicycle or in a kayak. Then take a late morning wildlife-watching trip to the Channel Islands National Park with Island Packers. Once you’ve worked up an appetite, sit down to stunning views of the harbor and a great meal featuring local ingredients at The Waterside Restaurant & Wine Bar.
36 miles (59 minutes from Santa Barbara)
Dockweiler State Beach
Dockweiler State Beach’s full hook-up RV Park is the only place where your parking spot will be right next to the water. Although tolerable, the one drawback here is the sound of jets on their way out of Los Angeles International Airport. In addition to all of the usual beach-related activities you’ll benefit from being freeway-close to attractions that include Universal Studios, Disneyland and Venice Boardwalk.
72 miles (1 hour and 39 minutes from Oxnard)
At Mission Bay RV Resort in San Diego you’ll also be a short drive away from several worthwhile destinations. SeaWorld’s killer whales and dolphins are always a favorite and only a four-mile trip. Other options are Balboa Park, featuring gardens, theaters, museums and the San Diego Zoo, waterfront shopping at Seaport Village, touring the USS Midway and an evening on the town in the Gaslamp Quarter.
119 miles (2 hours and 28 minutes from Los Angeles)