On the road. Scenic places to go along Cali coastline on a roadtrip?
December 28, 2011 3:40 AM   Subscribe

I'm in the middle of a road trip and going to be in California (for the first time ever!) this week. Looking for some recommendations for places to hit along the coast, specifically beaches along the southern end, and scenic places to stop and eat/drink further north.

So really, my question is for two separate days of my trip-

1) I want to spend one day on a beach. I know it will be too cold for swimming and/or sunbathing but I can at least sit out there and read books- forecast for San Diego says low 70's this week. Good enough for me. So, I want to go someplace really nice and peaceful and pretty. Hopefully not too crowded, etc. I've got a bottle of wine in my trunk too, so a beach where drinking is allowed is great (but if it's not, I can always just be discreet about it.) I'm willing to go to pretty much any location along the coast, although obviously I'd like to keep it south-ish because it's warmer. So anything within a wide radius of San Diego is cool with me. I'm coming from far away and it's going to be my only day spent on a beach, so I want to make it count.

2) After this, I'm going to drive up Highway 1 through Big Sur and then continue on to the Bay Area, where I'm visiting a friend. Sadly, I had to bring some work with me on this trip and I want to find as nice a place as possible to . . . get some work done during this particular leg of my journey. I'd like recommendations for places (preferably restaurant/ bar, but non-bars, coffee shops, etc are fair game too.) The thing I want most is an amazing view, preferably involving the ocean. This would have to be a place where I could sit and hang out for a few hours without pissing anyone off. So, if there's booze that helps because I can just keep ordering drinks. If the place had awesome food that wasn't too expensive, that would be great too, but it's not absolutely necessary. The more chill and quiet the place is, the better (but I have earplugs/ headphones just in case.) Anyway, pretty much anywhere between Santa Barbara and the southern end of the bay area would be great. Although further south= earlier in my day= still daylight, so that would probably be better. Maybe I could even time it for watching the sun set, that would be awesome. In any case, I'm not particularly committed to any one route either, aside from that part of Highway 1. So anything else scenic you can throw out there, I'd love to hear. (Scenic routes, that is. Sadly I don't have much time to stop anywhere to get out and do stuff above and beyond what I've already planned for. But I have set aside enough time to meander around and look at stuff on my way driving there, because, I like to do that. It's just the stopping and getting out that gets me in trouble because I always spend way too long . . .)

I'm going to have to just plug this stuff into my GPS so links to the address/information for places would be much appreciated. Any other random tips you might have for such a trip up the coast and particularly driving on Highway 1 are welcome too! Hopefully this question isn't too rambling and dumb, I've just stopped for the night after driving all day and I'm exhausted! - but I wanted to get this question out there before I went to sleep so there's more time to get some great answers! Thanks in advance.
posted by GastrocNemesis to Travel & Transportation around California, CA (13 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Book a tour to see the Elephant Seals at Ano Nuevo if you have time, otherwise try to see them at Piedras Blancas for a quicker look-see.

Duarte's Tavern for Olalliberry Pie and artichoke soup in Pescadero is great, but no beach view.
posted by benzenedream at 3:52 AM on December 28, 2011

Dana Point is pretty nice. It's just south of Laguna Beach and it's got all of the beach with none of the crowds (and free parking!). There are a few nice places in the harbor to eat, get coffee, and hang out.
posted by Garm at 5:23 AM on December 28, 2011

How many days do you have for the second part of your trip?
posted by letitrain at 6:10 AM on December 28, 2011

I was born and raised in SoCal (San Diego specifically); unfortunately I am living in the Netherlands at the moment so my memory may be a little rose-tinted, and you might want to fact-check my suggestions as I am not one to keep up on details :-). These are a few noteworthy favorites:
  • Little Italy (specifically that peninsula) in Long Beach. It's a bit cramped but beautiful and crammed with character. The sailing area with that weird, small island near the Port of Long Beach is very cool at night.
  • Balboa Park (http://g.co/maps/uyps7) in San Diego. Lots of museums in a picturesque setting -- spotting movie, TV, or soap opera crews filming there is not uncommon.
  • Oceanside Beach (near the pier) in Oceanside. (http://g.co/maps/qh9p9) There's an (endangered) amphitheater next to the pier that has appeared in a lot of movies -- Bring It On is the biggest one that comes to mind (though I recently spotted it on an MTV surfing program here in Holland). Speaking of, both surfing tournaments and X-games roll through (I believe).
  • There are a handful of strategically placed scenic overlooks on the stretch of the 5 freeway that rolls through otherwise-barren (and military-only) Camp Pendleton. If you are passing through in the afternoon or early morning you could be in for a treat if you stop at these. Unfortunately they are easy to miss and opportunities to turn around are few -- though highway signs will announce their presence -- so keep a look out. (They're usually accessible from southbound 5, if I recall correctly, and theres a particularly nice one after a bend to the right, just after the customs checkpoint.)
  • Speaking of Pendleton, San Onofre Power Plant is cool to drive by if only for the fact that it looks like a particularly spherical set of breasts, complete with nipples :-)
  • Do yourself a favor and, if you are driving the 5 freeway in San Diego County, get off of it and follow Coast Highway. (You mentioned you were following the 1; I didn't realize that PCH was stil called the 1 in SD) It's easy to find -- exit the freeway, turning towards the ocean, and you will undoubtedly cross it soon thereafter. The street signs say "Coast Highway" (though in Oceanside it used to be called Hill St) -- you can't miss it. You can follow Coast Highway all the way to San Diego, though it starts to get a bit convoluted once you pass the Del Mar Racetrack.
  • There's a large, controversial cross on Mt. Soledad in San Diego (http://g.co/maps/9q9ad) that provides an excellent view of the city. Worth checking out.
  • Oceanside Harbor is nice, if touristy. (http://g.co/maps/7xz27) The beaches are usually less crowded than Oceanside Beach, and the are maybe a mile or two apart. My friends and I sometimes jog between the two; they're that close together. There's space for RVs, fire pits, and even a dingy little McDonalds in a far corner. It's a little kitschy and touristy, though, and I don't really care for those things
  • Stone Brewing Co. (http://g.co/maps/ubpgp) in Escondido. A little out of the way (and hard to find) but this is the brewery that is putting North San Diego County on the map for independent brewers (we're seeing an unexpected surge of new beer-related businesses popping up, much of it because of how close they are to Stone)
That's all I can think of for now. I know some of this isn't really relevant to your specific trip, but
posted by luciphercolors at 7:47 AM on December 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Letitrain- just one day. I plan to stay approximately around Santa Barbara overnight post-beach day, then spend one day driving from there to the bay area. So, I know that's a lot- 300 miles, 5 hours according to Google- but it's a lot less than what I've been averaging on this trip which is about 600-800 miles per day. I figure it will take a bit longer because of heavier traffic, and/or because I'm taking slower roads, and because I'm planning to stop for a few hours in one place. But that's about all I have time for is one place, so, the more awesome the better.
posted by GastrocNemesis at 9:16 AM on December 28, 2011

Avila Beach or downtown Morro Bay your second day.
posted by rhizome at 10:14 AM on December 28, 2011

Best answer: While in San Diego, head out to North Island/Coronado and park near the Hotel Del Coronado. It's a historic, beautiful, and some say haunted hotel. Great beach to boot... just north of the hotel is the public beach.

While driving north, PLEASE drive up the Pacific Coast Highway from Los Angeles through Malibu up to Camarillo/Ventura where you'll rejoin the 101. Along that drive, just south of Camarillo, stop and eat at Neptune's Net. It's something of a biker dive, but the atmosphere is relaxed with a great view of the ocean. I used to be stationed at the Naval Base near there, and the area is always my idealized version of Southern California.

Have fun!
posted by matty at 10:25 AM on December 28, 2011

Best answer: Gastro, assuming you're sticking to Highway 1 from San Luis Obispo to SF (what I'd do), you're in for a very long drive not even counting stops.

We're getting around ten hours of daylight this time of year, so assuming you start at 7:00 and pause a few times to eat, work a bit and look around, you'll be lucky to get to SF before dark. Most people don't realize that Highway 1 between Ragged Point through Monterey and into SF can be excruciatingly slow (although absolutely beautiful). Get stuck in a line behind an RV or stop to work for more than an hour or so and you'll end up driving on challenging roads in the dark. That warning aside, you can always turn inland at Monterey and jump on an interstate.

Here are a couple of options for stopping:

- Old Port Inn in Port San Luis / Avila Beach. Great spot for lunch with a beautiful view of a cove (not much beach), and I doubt they'd mind if you plugged in for a hour or two. Not sure about wifi.

- Lucia Lodge a bit south of Big Sur. Great view from the restaurant patio, and if that's full, they have a huge outdoor grassy area with park benches. Maybe grab a coffee / drink and enjoy some sunshine. Glare would be an issue, but the view is superb. I know they have wifi, but I'm not sure about public access.

- Nepenthe in Big Sur. Wonderful food and stunning view. They are popular, so sticking around might be an issue. Definitely call ahead to check. Lots of indoor and outdoor seating with a view.

Post a followup to let us know how it goes!
posted by letitrain at 10:50 AM on December 28, 2011

I suggest Scripps Park in La Jolla. The park is almost entirely surrounded by water - including the Underwater Park where you will see crazy people swimming, diving, and snorkeling, and then kayakers out past the park - and partially surrounded by beach (the one bit of beach with water access is down some stairs and fairly well-protected, but it's still very windy), plus you have seals by the park and also down the sidewalk at the Children's Pool, and there's some sheltered vantage points around the perimeter.

There are restaurants and cafes within walking distance (not a feature of many beaches around here), some of them must have wifi. It is, frankly, butt-ass cold at the beaches here, you need somewhere to get out of the wind eventually. We have breakfast at Brockton Villa once a month or so (they make a nice fancy coffee and have a great view of the water; try the Coast Toast), and then walk around the park down to the Children's Pool and back. It's one of my favorite places here, even if it's not cool to like La Jolla because rich people.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:20 AM on December 28, 2011

Response by poster: Letitrain, I am probably not going to take it the whole way up the coast, just for the reasons you described. I was only planning to stick to it through the big sur area and then get off and probably try to find a faster way into town because, yeah, that sort of driving becomes excruciating after several hours! And there is no way I'm driving on that thing in the dark. I figured I'd start my morning driving on it and then once I've had enough hop off and take an interstate the rest of the way.

Thanks for all the suggestions everyone! I will update you on how it goes.
posted by GastrocNemesis at 8:01 AM on December 29, 2011

You've gotten some decent suggestions for San Diego beaches (except, ugh, Oceanside Pier) but I'd really suggest Carlsbad State Beach (Tamarack specifically) for your peaceful and pretty requirements. As a San Diego native, I highly recommend it.

This is what Cbad State Beach looked like Christmas Eve day this year when I took a quick shot with my iPhone.

Be warned that drinking is not allowed on basically any San Diego beach and they patrol it a bit (less so now--I drank a bottle of champagne on the beach one recent New Years' Eve--than summer, but it's still something to be aware of).
posted by librarylis at 6:28 PM on December 29, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks Matty- Coronado was perfect!! I did decide to open up my bottle of wine and no one said anything to me- I kept it in my bag and just poured it into a solo cup (classy.) But it was nice, I watched the sunset, got drunk, then walked over to the downtown-ish area and had a steak. Probably a little overpriced, but what the hell, I was on vacation. Anyway I had a little folding chair and a sleeping bag, which turned out to be good because it got cold pretty fast. But I wrapped up in my sleeping bag and actually spent a pretty long time out there and it was nice! I did not park at the hotel- coming from Chicago I'm a little wary of anything that might get me a ticket or towed!- but after about 10 minutes of circling around I was able to park pretty much right next to the beach, and it was great.

Anyway, due to some minor unforeseen issues with my car I got a late start on my second day and only reached San Luis Obispo about an hour before sunset. So although I got to see another really amazing sunset, by the time I got to the REALLY scenic part it was starting to get dark so it was kind of a waste. Argh! But for some reason I can't explain I decided to drive up the coast a bit more anyway, in the dark. It was such a tease, I could make out the outlines of mountains and stuff but didn't get the full effect. I did pull off at several of the vista points and it was actually pretty cool- the moon and stars were bright enough to see the ocean. The stars out there were pretty amazing. Just being out there was great- it was foggy and humid and the air just smelled amazing. So even though I didn't get to spend as much time out there as I wanted, I still got enough of a taste of it to decide that I absolutely want to come back for like, a week, and camp out there.

I saw all the places Letitrain mentioned, but didn't end up stopping at any of them :-( However for those people who have never done this drive- you do not need to worry about missing any of them. Pretty much all the places people mentioned in this thread, are the ONLY places you'll see when driving up the highway! So, they are not hard to find. Oh, and there are very few gas stations as well so don't be a dope like me and fail to fill your tank up before heading up Highway 1. I paid like, $6 bucks a gallon at some evil gas station along the way because I didn't realize they'd be able to get away with that. (They can.)

Anyway, later in my trip my friends took me to Half Moon Bay (closer to San Francisco) and that place was also gorgeous! I highly recommend it if you're in the area. Seeing the beaches in California was a great decision, I'm so glad I did it. They are not like beaches in Florida or any other place I've been. There are cliffs, and big rocks in the water for the waves to crash against- just really beautiful. If you like to swim and sunbathe, I don't know, but if you're like me and just like to sit back and watch nature be beautiful while you're wrapped up in a sleeping bag, this is a great place to be. I wish my trip was longer- I can't wait to go back!

(Final note- make sure you go the speed limit when driving back home from California! I got pulled over at 2 am in Wyoming for going 4mph over the speed limit because the cops were looking for people transporting drugs. He was a complete jerk and the whole thing kinda freaked me out. So, watch out for that.)
posted by GastrocNemesis at 7:57 PM on January 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

Hah, if they were "looking for people transporting drugs," they were probably pulling people over for going too close to the speed limit. More likely you were pulled over for not having Colorado plates. "Looks like you got a taillight out" [smash with nightstick]
posted by rhizome at 4:07 PM on January 18, 2012

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