Long Weekend Getaway: California’s Central Coast

Whether you’ve done it before or it has been on your bucket list for years, a drive up California’s Pacific Coast Highway (known to many by its initials, ‘the PCH’) is an absolute must. One of our editors recently took the drive from Los Angeles to Monterey over Labor Day Weekend, stopping into must-see towns & destinations along the way. Read more about her picturesque & relaxing trip below!

DAY ONE: Los Angeles to Cambria [4 hour drive]

If you have the ability to break up your drive up the coast to Monterey into two different days, do it! There is just so much to see along the way. Starting in Los Angeles, take the 405 North to the 101 North – you’ll pass the San Fernando Valley, including Calabasas (this might sound familiar if you keep up with the Kardashians), Thousand Oaks, Camarillo (great for shopping at the outlets!), Oxnard & Ventura. Next you’ll hit Santa Barbara, which is a destination all in itself. If you’re hungry at this point, stop into Los Agaves for a delicious burrito – you can’t go wrong with a chimichanga topped with their perfectly pink chipotle sauce. Next, you’ll veer off inland a bit on the 154 through the Los Padres National Forest & then past Los Olivos (definitely stop for a wine tasting or strawberry picking!).

Next you’ll pass Pismo Beach. If you didn’t have lunch in Santa Barbara, drive through San Luis Obispo (aka SLO). The downtown area is super cute & Libertine Brewing Company has delicious food & refreshing brews – try the falafel burger and one of the sour beers they are known for. Once you’re ready to hit the road, keep driving a bit towards Cambria and stop by Morro Bay to see the giant rock (technically a volcanic mound) you’ve seen in pictures.

At last you will arrive in Cambria! The sleepy town boasts a ton of cute inns situated along Moonstone Beach – while you can’t go wrong, Pelican Inn & Suites was quite charming & comes with a breakfast buffet complete with serve-yourself mimosas. After checking in & refreshing a bit, drive fifteen minutes north to visit the famous Hearst Castle. The ‘Grand Rooms’ tour is recommended for first timers, and it did not disappoint. After the hour-long tour is over, guests are encouraged to walk through the gardens & visit the pools at their leisure. At this point, the sun should be close to setting & it’s time to get back to Moonstone Beach for perfectly lit photos during golden hour. For dinner, you can either go into town & dine at one of the many restaurants on Main Street, or walk or drive to Oceanpoint Ranch, another hotel that offers a great menu at their restaurant, The Canteen.

Grand building at Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California
Hearst Castle outdoor pool, Roman columns and statue
Female visitor at Hearst Castle in front of Egyptian Ra (sun god) statue.
Moonstone Beach driftwood structure at sunset golden hour.

DAY TWO: Drive the PCH to Monterey [2 1/2 hour drive]

Start the morning with a nice breakfast – as we mentioned, Pelican Inn & Suites offers a great buffet breakfast (complete with waffle maker!) & serve-yourself mimosas. Make sure to take a walk down Moonstone Beach before you depart – you’ll find moonstones (if you’re lucky!), jade, jasper & more. Pro tip: You may find some rocks that are littered throughout the sandy beach, but if you keep walking towards a large rock, you’ll find thousands & thousands of rocks washed up behind the big rock onshore.

Although the drive from Cambria to Monterey is only 2.5 hours – it will likely take you longer than that due to all of the beautiful stops in Big Sur along the way. If you’re afraid of heights or curvy roads, you’ll take solace in knowing that the cars coming the opposite way are the ones along the edge of the cliff – not great for easy photos free of cars, but great for the nerves. You’ll definitely want to stop at McWay Falls, and if you have the time, be sure to explore the Limekiln Falls and Pfeiffer Falls & Valley View trails to view those giant trees that Big Sur is known for. Luckily, the fee for a day pass that you pay at McWay Falls will also get you into Big Sur State Park where the Pfeiffer Falls hike is! For lunch, you can’t go wrong with The Sur House for the best view, Big Sur Smokehouse for BBQ, or Big Sur Taphouse for big portions! You’ll know you’ve made it to Monterey when the traffic gets a bit heavy & you notice that everyone is stopped to take photos of the stunning Bixby Bridge that you’ve seen in photos (and in the opening credits for Big Little Lies).

Once in Monterey & after checking into your hotel to change out of your dirt-ridden clothes, be sure to visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium! Although the restaurants surrounding the pier & Cannery Row seem inviting, consider walking along the water or down the pedestrian + bike path towards Alvarado Street. You’ll find plenty of delicious (& not so touristy) restaurants, including our favorite – Alvarado Street Brewery. Can’t decide which beer to try? Get the Mai Tai IPA!

Moonstone Beach morning stroll along boardwalk
Moonstone Beach tumbled rocks and stones – moonstones, jade, jasper, and more.
McWay Falls lookout point en route through Big Sur
Pfeiffer Falls at Big Sur State Park redwood tree in forest
Bixby Bridge en route to Monterey, California after Big Sur

DAY THREE: Carmel by the Sea

Carmel-by-the-Sea is Monterey’s little sister & being just over one square mile, the town is beyond charming. Located only 15-minutes from Monterey via the inland route, we highly suggest paying the $10.50 toll to take the longer route via 17 Mile Drive. You will pass by the beautiful Pebble Beach golf course that weaves into & off shore, visit white sand beaches, see the famed Lone Cypress & be envious of the people who get to look out at these views from their living rooms every single day. If you plan on staying all day, the best thing to do is park a few blocks away from the main drag where the parking is plentiful & unrestricted.

Take a relaxing walk into town & dine at La Bicyclette for lunch. As per one of our favorites Ashley Kane, you can’t go wrong with a margherita pizza & glass (or bottle!) of rosé. Next up, visit one of the many tasting rooms & wine taste at your leisure. We highly recommend Scheid Vineyards, Albatross Ridge, and our favorite, dog-friendly Kori Wines. When you’re ready to walk off a bit of your wine, take a long stroll to the outer edge of Carmel-by-the-Sea and visit Clint Eastwood’s Mission Ranch Inn. The grounds are gorgeous & the restaurant + bar is lively. You might even get lucky & spot Clint himself! For dinner, head back into the main part of town & visit Dametra Cafe for Mediterranean or Little Napoli for Italian. Both have quite the wait times, so get there early & peek into the shops & art galleries while you wait.

Margherita pizza and rose from La Bicyclette in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California.
The Tuck Box quaint architecture in Carmel, California
17 Mile Drive stop at The Lone Cypress

DAY FOUR: The InLand Route + Paso Robles [5-6 hour drive]

We highly suggest having an early brunch in Monterey or Carmel before heading back to Los Angeles. If you leave before noon, you’ll likely only have a five hour drive via the inland route, which is awesome! If you’re not in a rush to get back, stop in Paso Robles for wine tasting and/or lunch! On your drive back, you’ll even pass the intersection of Highway 46 and 41 where James Dean passed away in his infamous car crash. Definitely eery, but worth seeing! The gas station down the road even has a huge cutout of James Dean if you want a photo op of the gone-too-soon heartthrob.

Have you made the drive from Los Angeles to Monterey? What were some of your favorite spots? Let us know in the comments or send us a DM on Instagram! The vibe in Monterey & Carmel was so relaxing – we will definitely be back!

Looking for other travel destination ideas? Check out our roundup of 15 US cities perfect for a weekend trip, get inspired by these gorgeous Airbnbs + choose your destination based on which you like best or dream of visiting the Jenni Kayne lake house in Lake Arrowhead.

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