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CAli on the Run: My 7-Day Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Itinerary
I’m working on a post that’ll actually sum up the week I just spent road tripping from San Francisco to Los Angeles. That might take a little while. But by popular demand — really, a surprising number of people asked for this! — here’s exactly what I did during each day of the trip, plus some quick tactical tips at the end based on what I learned along the way.
A few things to note:
- I didn’t really care about food on this trip. I got so many restaurant recommendations, but food is still a tricky thing for me. Even though I’m feeling better coming out of this Crohn’s flare, I’m still trying to do mostly dairy-free, gluten-free, alcohol-free, and sugar-free. Obviously I was very lenient with that on this trip, but I wasn’t focused on eating my way through California. Maybe next time.
- This itinerary will take you from San Francisco to L.A., driving south on Highway 1 / the Pacific Coast Highway. I highly recommend going in that direction. More on that at the bottom.
- I’m sure I missed a lot along the way, but my goal was to “surround myself with beautiful things,” and what I ended up doing felt incredibly fulfilling. Mission accomplished!
Here we go…
FLY: Newark to San Francisco on Virgin America. I love Virgin America because it was the first airline to make an awesome safety video, and it’s filled with dancers whose careers I’ve covered since they were little competition dancers. This is why you should fly Virgin. For the safety video.
I opted for an early flight out of Newark that got me to San Francisco International Airport by 11 AM. That gave me tons of time to explore, so it was like getting a full day in San Francisco. Since it was my first time in SF, I didn’t want to feel rushed.
RUN / SEE: I took a cab to my hotel (the cabs in SF are required to accept credit cards!), dropped my bags at the bell desk, and changed into running clothes to get out and explore. I ran down to the Embarcadero (the waterfront), by the Ferry Building, Pier 39 (that’s where the barking sea lions play!), Ghirardelli Square, and Fort Mason. Eventually I turned around and took a detour on my way back to check out Lombard Street (that hill!). There were loads of public restrooms along the way. (Here’s the full route. You’ll notice that on all of these runs, my elapsed time is much longer than my moving time. These weren’t fitness-focused runs — they were explorations with lots of stops to see things, talk to people, take pictures, wander, etc. Just the way I like ’em!)
LUNCH: I wanted something “quick but classic,” so the hotel concierge sent me to John’s Grill around the corner. I was surrounded by older gentlemen talking about scotch (hi, Dad?), but the fish was good. (I got one of the daily specials, which was fish stuffed with more fish.)
WHERE I SAW THE SUNSET: In Alamo Square, which is where the Painted Ladies houses are. (Those are the ones from the Full House opening credits.)
DINNER: I was exhausted after my 4 AM EST wakeup, so I got a strawberry & Nutella crepe from Honey Honey Café & Crepery and called it a night. (About that sugar-free, dairy-free, gluten-free diet…)
SLEEP: Westin St. Francis San Francisco. I didn’t really know where to stay in SF, so I randomly picked this hotel. Turns out, Union Square was the central meeting location and starting point for SantaCon, which was going on that day. I saw so many naked men with little Santa hats on their…places. (And shout-out to my dear friend Chris Heuisler. I was excited to tell him I was staying at a Westin, and he surprised me by upgrading me to a “Starwood Preferred Guest” floor. The views from my room were awesome.)
RUN: Golden Gate Park! This run was amazing. Golden Gate Park is to SF what Central Park is to NYC, so I loved every inch of it. (And it was designed by the same person who designed Central Park!) I took an Uber from my hotel and had no idea where to start my run, so I just asked to be dropped off “wherever” and went from there. I was immediately overwhelmed by where to run and found a woman stretching nearby. I asked her to “point me in the direction of something cool,” and — despite already being done with her own run — she offered to run with me for a while. So to the wonderful, kind, gracious Rose Marie, thank you.
BREAKFAST: The Mill near Alamo Square. I got the pumpkin butter toast. It was pretty good.
SEE / DO: Bike to Sausalito! This was so fun! My friend Paul was an amazing (and very patient) tour guide. I rented a bike (there are tons of places to do this) and we rode 25 miles to Sausalito and back. (Here’s our route.)
We rode through the Presidio, over the Golden Gate Bridge (so windy! wear layers!), along the Marin Headlands, down into Sausalito, and then back “the long way” past Crissy Field and through Fort Mason.
LUNCH: Joinery in Sausalito. Get the brussels sprouts.
WHERE I SAW THE SUNSET: From Crissy Field during our bike ride.
DINNER: Another crepe.
SLEEP: Westin St. Francis San Francisco.
SWEAT: Orangetheory San Francisco. I love trying OTF in other cities! (OK so this was only my second time doing that, but still.)
BREAKFAST: I had a ton of work to do that morning before I got on the road, so I ordered room service breakfast. I got a crabmeat omelet, and I ate it in my hotel robe, and it was awesome.
CAR: I rented my car from the Hertz inside the hotel. (Ask for Arleen! She just may upgrade you to a convertible for a very — eh, mildly — reasonable rate! Not only did Arleen walk me to the garage next door to pick up the car, she also gave me a hug when she sent me on my way. A hug! Arleen!)
DRIVE: To Half Moon Bay, roughly 45 minutes from SF. (Note: The driving times listed here don’t include the million stops I made to pull over and take photos. They are rough estimates.) (Second note: This entire route is very foolproof. Get on Highway 1 South and keep going. It’s hard to mess this up. Keep the ocean on your right and you’re good.)
SEE: Main Street, walk the Coastal Trail, sit on the beach, talk to the surfers.
QUICK STOP: Natural Bridges State Park. You’ll see lots of birds, if you’re into that sort of thing.
DRIVE: To Santa Cruz (1 hour from Half Moon Bay)
SEE: The Boardwalk.
LUNCH: Riva Fish House. I picked it because it was right there when I got hungry. I got spring rolls and fish tacos. The spring rolls were meh, but the tacos were good. (They did make my stomach a little active, though.)
DRIVE: Monterey (45 minutes from Santa Cruz)
WHERE I SAW THE SUNSET: I was halfway to Monterey when I saw the sky turn bright pink, then orange, then shades of blue. So I didn’t get pictures, but the mental ones came out great. #nofilter
DINNER: Schooners Coastal Kitchen & Bar. I got a crab cake. I wasn’t hungry.
SLEEP: Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa. This was my favorite hotel of the trip. If you go for a suite overlooking the ocean, this hotel can be a splurge, but check out the website for weekday deals! I was able to stay at this hotel for a very reasonable rate! But I have no shame in admitting that I’m not a “roughing it” type of girl. I don’t like bed and breakfasts, and I don’t really like staying at Airbnbs. I love staying at hotels. I love fancy hotels. I love hotel robes. And I love nice hot tubs and fire pits.
This is the #1 rated hotel in Monterey on TripAdvisor, and it’s clear why. Everything about it was great.
RUN: Through Monterey! I ran along the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail, and I saw sea otters, sea lions, seals (I think I saw all three, but it took me a while to figure out the difference…), Fisherman’s Wharf (where I found a lost puppy named Leroy and helped him get back to his dad!!!), the beach, and lots of public restrooms.
DRIVE / SEE: This was my big, beautiful driving day! I started with the 17-Mile Drive, which takes you along the water and past my future home probably and then through Pebble Beach. (The drive costs $10, FYI. Bring cash!) The hotel bartender had told me “not to bother” doing this, but I’m glad I ignored him because I loved it.
After that, I stopped to check out Carmel-by-the-Sea, which is a cute town where high heels are illegal! Public parking (free!) is easy to come by, and then I just wandered around the main streets.
Next I stopped at Point Lobos (another $10 fee — always happy to pay entry fees because I like supporting parks!) to walk around before continuing on to pull over for a million photos, including at least 700 of the Bixby Creek Bridge.
My next stop was at Pfeiffer Beach so I could see the purple sand and “The Keyhole,” and my last official stop of the day was at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, where I hiked around a little (because I went the wrong way…) and saw McWay Falls, a waterfall that runs directly into the Pacific Ocean.
LUNCH: Nepenthe. Everyone recommended this place. The views are unreal, so sit outside. I got the shrimp BLT, which was very tasty.
DRIVE: Back to Monterey. My original plan was to continue south to San Simeon, and to spend a night there so I could take a tour of the Hearst Castle the next day, but because of road closures, I wasn’t able to do that. (Shout-out to Rob the Hotel Bartender for giving me a heads up the night before so I could plan accordingly!)
WHERE I SAW THE SUNSET: Right over the Pacific Ocean from somewhere in Big Sur. I just pulled over and gawked.
DINNER: Schooners again. I got the seafood salad.
SLEEP: Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa. Bonus night! Bonus hot tub!
RUN: In Monterey again. I ran the other direction this time, through Pacific Grove, and saw lots of silly seals!
BREAKFAST: Schooners for the third time, where I got Eggs Benedict and the best croissant of my life. (Diet going great. But my stomach was fine, so YOLO!)
DRIVE: San Luis Obispo
LUNCH: Big Sky Café. I got the BLAT, which was good. I walked around downtown and saw Bubblegum Alley, which I thought was gross, but all the cute shops were great.
WHERE I SAW THE SUNSET: This may have been my favorite part of the whole trip. I asked the front desk staff at my hotel where to see the sunset, and they said, “From the pool area should be good.” “Not good enough,” I thought to myself. So I started walking along the path outside the hotel and realized I could keep following it up the little mountain behind the hotel. It’s called the Cerro San Luis Trail, and if you do it, go all the way to the top. Trust me. I thought the views were good within the first few minutes of the ascent, and I considered just staying put, but I’m so glad I kept going. It got so much better. (Heads up on the decline: It’ll be dark. Watch your footing. Especially if you’re sprinting because a giant four-legged something ran out in front of you…)
DINNER: I fell asleep instead.
SLEEP: The Madonna Inn. This was another thing everyone said I “had to” do, so I did. I stayed in the American Beauty room, which I chose because it was all pink, like most of the hotel. The hotel is cheeky, but it was admittedly not my favorite. Sorry, “everyone.”
RUN: Montaña de Oro. Every run on this trip was amazing, but this one — along the Bluff Trail — was my favorite. I definitely did more stopping and picture taking than running, and I saw (and befriended, and named!) 100 bunnies and 200 birds, roughly.
BREAKFAST: Copper Café at the Madonna Inn. I got an omelet and some fruit.
DRIVE: Solvang! This cute Danish town is filled with bakeries and windmills, and I saw the Little Mermaid fountain (which is famous, though I forgot to Google why). There are lots of public restrooms (which are also cute) and plenty of public parking. But because of the nearby fires, Solvang was also pretty smoky and there was a lot of ash everywhere. The streets were lined with fire trucks ready to deploy, and the town was overrun by on-call firefighters. It was definitely eerie.
DRIVE: Santa Barbara. I didn’t make any stops along the way because it was a very smoky drive.
WHERE I SAW THE SUNSET: From the Goleta Beach Pier. I didn’t stay out long because it wasn’t really safe, according to the locals. Pretty much everyone was wearing masks, and the smoke cover was so thick you could barely see where the land turned to water. You also couldn’t see the mountains in the distance. Just lots of smoke.
DINNER: Outpost, the hotel restaurant. I got more brussels sprouts. I love brussels sprouts.
SLEEP: The Kimpton Goodland. I booked the wrong hotel, TBH. I thought this was the Kimpton in downtown Santa Barbara, but it was a Kimpton in Goleta, the next town over. It was totally fine since you couldn’t really be out exploring anyway, but oops!
SWEAT: Orangetheory Santa Barbara / Goleta. This was right next to my hotel, so how could I not?!
BREAKFAST: Acai bowl from Backyard Bowls.
DRIVE: Malibu. Again, this drive seemed unreal. I drove through Santa Barbara and Ventura, which is where the Thomas Fire — one of the worst fires in California’s history — is still burning. I didn’t see fire, just lots of really thick, seemingly unreal smoke. (I simply cannot fathom being in the path of something like this. Sending so much love to all the people who have been affected, and gratitude to the firefighters working tirelessly to try and control them. It’s absolutely heartbreaking, and many of the fires are still burning.)
SEE: Point Dume Beach. I don’t know why I did this. Someone must have recommended it, and it was lovely.
DRIVE: Los Angeles
DO: Hike Runyon Canyon! I loved this! People go all-out for this hike. No one wears shirts! Most of the women were in skimpy bra tops and almost every dude was shirtless. And everyone looked very done. Lots of makeup, hair, etc. Apparently that’s a thing! The people watching was great. The hike took around an hour, not counting the two hours my friend Conroy and I spent hanging out afterward because we were locked out of her car and had to wait for AAA. Oops!
WHERE I SAW THE SUNSET: From the roof of Conroy’s apartment. This is not helpful, I know. But Runyon Canyon would be a good sunset spot, or Griffith Observatory.
DINNER: Farfalla in Los Feliz with my sister-in-law!
SLEEP: At Conroy’s apartment. Probably ranked #1 on TripAdvisor. Excellent service.
RUN: Through Santa Monica and Venice. I’ve done this run many times, and I always love it, so this was a nice way to end the trip. Parking at the pier is free if you get in early enough! You can go for miles and miles and miles in either direction.
BREAKFAST: Acai Nation in Brentwood. (This is where I had my first ever acai bowl last year!)
DRIVE: To the airport. Boo! But yay because this trip was perfect.
If you’ve made it this far, wowza, congrats! After all that, here are a few quick (probably obvious) tips based on stuff I learned along the way:
- Drive north to south. You’ll be driving closer to the water, and it will be easier to pull off the road frequently.
- Bring cash for admission to the parks. The ones I visited were $10 each, but that fee covers you at all the state-owned parks.
- Don’t leave valuables in your car. I parked and left the car way more than I anticipated.
- There are gas stations in Big Sur. The gas is expensive, but it’s there. I’d still head out with a full tank, though. (I didn’t and started to get nervous once I dipped below half a tank, but I was fine.)
- There are three Pfeiffer State Parks in Big Sur. So just putting “Pfeiffer State Park” on your list isn’t specific nor helpful enough. My bad.
Oh and one last tip: Get the convertible.