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Driving Down the Scenic Coastal Highway CA-1 - California Road Trip

Parked at the Oceano SHAR

It was a long weekend coming ahead on Martin Luther King's birthday and we were without any plans. It would have been a dishonor had we spent the entire weekend being a couch potato. Hence, we started looking for ideas. Wifey recalled an old thought where we had planned for a Highway 1 road trip. The idea clicked and we got onto planning the trip. A three-day road trip from Sunnyvale (that is where we are put up) near San Jose to Santa Barbara. We bring our experience from the road trip and some nice stops to enjoy views for anyone taking the trip.

In this article, we will take you through our journey, right from planning for the trip to some of the stops we recommend and provide a detailed itinerary.

Day 0 - Planning and Preparations for the Santa Barbara Road Trip

As we got to the planning there were a few decisions we had to come up with. First was the destination. Do we do a complete trip and get to LA or just make it a notch shorter and return from somewhere earlier. We decided that we would reach out to Santa Barbara and stop short of entering Los Angeles. We had already been to LA a couple of times and knew we wouldn't be able to visit anything in LA while also hurrying on a couple of stops on the way. So it was decided that Santa Barbara is our destination and that is what this road trip would be called - Santa Barbara Roadtrip.

Deciding the Stops En-route Santa Barbara Road Trip

Next, we had to decide on the stops - we had two nights and we were traveling with a toddler. We generally like to plan our nights when we are out on the road with the kiddo. It is important that he is well-rested along with us to make the most of our day-times. We were juggling between spending the night at two different places - one enroute and other in Santa Barbara or to find a base enroute and spend both nights there.

When we sat down to assess distances, we realized it would make sense to find a good place and make it a base so that we could avoid an extra long journey on the way back. On quick research, we settled on Santa Maria - a beautiful farming town slightly off the coast. Location was perfect in terms of distances all around and accommodation was relatively affordable. We found a deal at the Radisson Santa Maria at 200 bucks for two nights - with breakfast thrown in.

Making Preparations and Packing Bags

Further, as part of the preparations, we downloaded offline maps of the entire region on Google Maps and Sygic. Large parts of the coastal highway are devoid of network connections so you want to be prepared. While the route is mostly straight but still if you are planning detours it is always a good idea to have maps handy. On that note, we also downloaded our best road trip playlists for offline use. This also included songs on our son's favorite list to keep him engaged if he grew restless. We also set out a broad itinerary on the Sygic Trip Planner to keep us on track at a broader level.

On the packing list, we included a lot of snacks to be ready on the go. This included a few munchies and some ready to eat packets which just needed some hot water. We got a carat of water bottles from Walmart as water tends to add up the cost on the road. Clothing was mostly for the kid along with a lot of toys. We packed all the chargers, the camera, memory cards, and power banks. We loaded the car the previous day, fueled the tank full and went to sleep - excited to get going on our Santa Barbara Road Trip as early as possible the next day.

The 3-Day Itinerary

The plan was ready - a three-day extended weekend trip along the Pacific Coast of the USA. Broadly, we would drive up to Santa Maria on the first day covering San Simeon and Morro Bay on the way. Day 2 would involve a day trip to Solvang and Santa Barbara. The final day would see us driving back to Sunnyvale covering Pismo Beach and San Luis Ospeaus on the way. That was our itinerary for the first trip of the year - our Santa Barbara Road Trip. We were excited and ready for the trip – rearing to go.

Three Day Itinerary - Santa Barbara Road Trip

Day 1 - The Forward Journey - Sunnyvale to Santa Maria

The first day of the road trip included our journey to the base in Raddisson Santa Maria. On the way, we would stop at San Simeon and Morro Bay. Also, there would be a number of stops on the way to capture the beauty of nature.

Sunnyvale to Hearst Castle - The Journey Through Scenic 101

We started from Sunnyvale at about 8:30 AM. We had been to Big Sur a number of times and hence we decided to take the 101 for certain parts of the route. This was to save on the time that it takes to drive through the Big Sur. However, we didn't know it had another advantage. The journey through 101 is scenic too with a different flavor altogether.

Once we crossed San Jose, we were greeted by green mountain slopes which were a nice change given most of the cities are a sight of barren trees just after the fall. We were mesmerized by scenic vistas and stopped quite a few times to capture pictures. Truly said, those pictures hardly captured the true natural beauty but we got them anyway.

Windmills, Hills and Snow - Enroute Santa Barbara Road Trip

Gilroy is a good stop for pictures across one of the garlic farms.

As we approached Gilroy, a stong and peculiar garlic fragrance greeted us. Gilroy is the garlic capital of the world and is the center for extensive garlic farming. There are garlic farms all along the freeway and these are the source of the fragrance. Our first stop was a wayside town of Paso Robles at the juncture of Highway 101 and 46. This was a logical break as we had to get off the 101 and get onto 46 for our journey towards Hearst Castle.

Green Valleys and Hills - Nature and its Beauty

Highway 46 is a refreshing change

As we started on the 46, the scenery changes. You pass through the mountain pass to get onto the other side of the mountain range. The roads are narrow and have lower speed limits. However, you may not want to speed up either. We wanted to absorb each of the views and ended up spending quite some time pulling over. One of the most beautiful spots on the road was a viewpoint after crossing about two-thirds of the Green Valley Road (Highway 46). Once we reached the highway 1, it was a short drive northwards towards the castle. We drove into the castle parking at about quarter to noon.

Hearst Castle - A Glimpse into the Royal Lifestyle of a Media Mogul

We parked our car and proceeded to the visitor's center. Entry to the Visitors Center and adjoining areas is free. We took the Grand Rooms tour. The castle is built up a hill. There is a bus that takes you to the castle from the visitor center. This was set in amazing scenery and serenity. The views around were amazing the and the bus took us through the fruits plantation and wildlife before dropping us at the bottom of the stairs to the castle. on the way, we also saw the horse paddock.

Hearst Castle - Story of a Royal Lifestyle
Neptune Pool at Hearst Castle

The guide welcomed us as we deboarded the bus. She did a good job with an overview of the castle and took us around the gardens and the castle. After about half an hour exploring the exteriors, we entered the building through a small door. The tour covered the assembly room, the dining room, the visitors' room, and the billiards room. Before heading back, we passed through the indoor pool which was lined with gold artwork on the floors - we did actually walk on gold!

Read details of what to expect on your trip to Hearst Castle in our article Dive into Insane Royal Lifestyle of a Media Mogul at Hearst Castle

Elephant Seals Vista Point - Another Intriguing Sight on the Coast

Before leaving San Simeon, we had another site to cover - the elephant seals vista point. This is a bit further north on Highway 1 - about 5 miles from the Hearst Castle and took us about 10 minutes of the drive. There are hundreds or probably thousands of elephant seals in action - playing, juggling and protecting their new bords. You could also see some seals having their time in the water. The birthing season runs through the winter which is the best time for visiting this vista point.

Elephant Seals Vista Point

San Simeon to Morro Bay - Drive Down the Coastal Highway

Once we were done with the seals we began our journey southwards again - this time on the scenic coastal route - Highway 1. This is a great experience to have. The highway runs along the Pacific Coast and offers some of the most amazing views across the ocean. There are innumerable beaches along the way and you could choose to stop at as many depending on the time at hand and the mood.

Moonstone Beach, Cambria

One of the places to consider is the beautiful town of Cambria. We took a break at the Moonstone Beach. A walk across the Broadwalk is both refreshing and breathtaking. The views of the ocean on one side and the town on the other are stunning. You can either walk along, dig your feet in the sand or take a swim. We spent about half an hour there and took about an hour more to reach the city of Morro Bay.

Morro Bay - A Coastal Town with Raw Beauty

Morro Bay is another coastal town with raw beauty preserved from too much human intervention. The city has maintained the charm and gives a true countryside flavor to visitors. As we approached the town we stopped at a place which offered a clear and enchanting view of the Morro Rock. As we proceeded to the bay, there are two vista places - one is on the city side which provides the view of the bay, the boating activities, the harbor, and the morro rock. The other is right beside the Morro Rock which provides a glimpse into the city on one end and the view of the ocean on the other.

Morro Rock - Across the Bay
Beautiful Sunset across the Morro Bay

We also captured the sunset across the Pacific while enjoying the tea. It was about quarter past 5 when we were ready to move.

Morro Bay to Santa Maria - Last Leg of the Day

We again took the Highway 1 to stay on the scenic route until Guadalupe and then turned left on the CA 166 towards Santa Maria. As it was past the sunset and the light was almost out, there were limited views across. The only views were of small-town communities with their night lighting on. It took us about an hour to pull into the parking lot of Hotel Raddisson Santa Maria - our abode for two days - at about 6:30 in the evening.

Santa Maria and Hotel Radisson - Our Base and Abode during the Santa Barbara Roundtrip

As we drove through the city we realized it wasn't too small in size. While the population was sparse but the city had vast expanse. They had a couple of pretty large shopping arcade - crossroads for one was quite impressive for a small farming town. We took another pass of the city before leaving on the third day and it was a rustic town with a countryside feel. There are a number of parks if you are with kids and they would definitely enjoy a break for their purpose. The hotel was just across the airport and was pretty well located in that sense.

After unpacking and changing we had our dinner and put the kid to sleep before calling it a day ourselves. We ended the day at 300 miles on the odometer.

Day 2 - Solvang and Santa Barbara - Two Beautiful Californian Towns

The second day of the Santa Barbara road trip included a trip to two beautiful California towns - Solvang and Santa Barbara. The journey would take us to the destination of the road trip and bring us back to our base.

Solvang - The Beautiful Danish Town

Solvang is a beautiful Danish Town founded by European settlers. It has a charm of the old world. The city has consciously limited outside corporates and franchise to encourage local businesses. The locals have made every effort to provide a Danish experience to the visitors. Solvang is about half an hour of drive from Santa Maria. As we approached the town, views of ostriches along the road welcomed us. We were right at the Ostrichland, one of our to-dos of the day. We enjoyed the unique experience of feeding the birds. It took us another 5 minutes to pull the car in the Solvang Visitor Center's parking. This is a small town and most places to explore can be reached on foot. There is ample parking at the visitor's center and that is where we based out.

Solvang - The Danish Capital of the USA
Windmills bring the Old World Charm

We took a map from the visitor's center and went along the Copenhagen road to explore windmills, the round tower, the red clog. A detour gave us the chance to see the Mission Santa Ynez and the Little Mermaid Fountain. We were back at the visitor's center in time for the horse-pulled trolley ride. It is a bus-shaped wheeled carriage pulled by 2 giant horses and takes you across this Danish town. If you are in the town, we recommend, you take the time for the tour.

Read more about our experience and the beautiful Danish town at Solvang – A Beautiful Danish Town in California

Santa Barbara - Our Destination of the Trip

We took the beautiful hill route on the CA 154 highway to Santa Barbara. The highway takes you through the mountainous curvy roads that provide great views across the highs and troughs on the way. We had to stop at a couple of places enroute to get the pictures. Two of the prominent stops were at the Bradbury Dam and Lake Cachuma Recreation Area. We were at Santa Barbara by around 2:15. We visited the Stearns Wharf for a relaxing stroll and panoramic views. Next, we walked through the funk zone and absorbed the lively feel around the place.

Bradbury Dam Vista Point - Enroute Santa Barbara Road Trip
Exhibitions Across the Beach in Santa Barbara

We did a quick round of the Chromatic Gate and the Mission Santa Barbara before coming back and parking by the beach. The day was good to us and we had an hour or so before starting our return journey to be at the hotel at the planned time. We walked along the beach and then across the promenade walkway. There was a sale cum exhibition along the grassed promenade where artists had displayed their creations. The talent on display was simply amazing. 

We left at around 5 and took the 101 route this time to return to Santa Maria. We did a quick dinner in Goleta which is a center for a number of eateries. The day ended at 450 miles on the odometer.

Delve deeper into this town with our detailed blog - Lost in the Art, Santa Barbara - The American Riviera - The Old World Charm

Day 3 - The Return Leg - Pismo Beach and San Luis Obispo

This was the last day of our trip and included the return journey. We had planned to spend some time at Pismo Beach and exploring San Luis Obispo on the way back. We started the next day with a morning walk around the hotel after an early breakfast.

Oceano Beach Dunes

Our first stop of the day was the Oceano Dunes which is one of the few beaches which allow you to take your car on to the sand. The SVRA is a cool thing to try and while we did it we would be frank enough to say that it was a risk with our Ford Fusion. We would recommend at least an AWD vehicle or better a 4WD to try the area. Next, we went to Pismo Beach. The beautiful white sands of the beach and the views from the pier were marvelous.

San Luis Obispo - An Interesting University Town

Next, we traveled to San Luis Obispo as our last destination of the road trip. We parked the car in the downtown area and covered the town on foot. We visited the bubblegum alley, Mission San Luis Osbesu and spent some time on the trail through the city. It is a beautiful town. We left for our return journey at around 2 and took the 101 for the return leg. We drove straight home and were back in our nest by around 6 PM. Time to get some dinner and rest after the eventful weekend. The Santa Barbara Road Trip ended with 690 miles on the meter.

For detailed blog on San Luis Obispo, please read - San Luis Obispo & Pismo Beach - Five Engaging Experiences To Look Forward

Bubblegum Alley - San Luis Obispo

Please refer to the official website for more information on the route and additional stops you could consider - Highway 1 Discovery Route.

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