Moon Coastal California


By Stuart Thornton

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From foggy cliffs and towering redwoods to warm sands and legendary surf, explore the best of the golden coast with Moon Coastal California. Inside you’ll find:
  • Flexible itineraries including six days in Central California, five days on the North Coast, and multiple road trip itineraries that can be combined into an epic two-week Pacific Coast road trip
  • Strategic advice for families, adventure seekers, romantic getaways, outdoor enthusiasts, foodies, and more
  • The top beaches for surfing, wildlife viewing, solitude, scuba diving, snorkeling, hiking, and more
  • Unique experiences and can’t-miss highlights: Soak up the solitude and rugged beauty of the North Coast beaches, or opt for sun and sand in San Diego. Explore the world-class museums and plunging city streets of San Francisco, sip your way through Napa and Sonoma, or gaze at skyscraping redwoods in Muir Woods. Catch a wave in a classic surf town, explore sea caves by kayak, or hike winding cliffside trails. Feast on local Dungeness crab, sample stouts at a coastal microbrewery, or find the best tacos in Los Angeles
  • Full-color photos and detailed maps throughout
  • Expert advice from Monterey local and surfer Stuart Thornton on where to stay, where to eat, and how to get around
  • Background information on California’s landscape, plants and animals, history, and culture
  • Handy tips for international visitors, seniors, families with kids, LGBTQ+ travelers, and travelers with disabilities
With Moon Coastal California’s local insight and practical know-how, you can plan your trip your way.

Hitting the road? Try Moon California Road Trip. Headed to the national parks? Check out Moon Death Valley National Park or Moon Yosemite, Sequoia & Kings Canyon.


Golden Gate Bridge from Baker Beach

view from the Pacific Coast Highway

DISCOVER Coastal California


Planning Your Trip

Pacific Coast Road Trip






Best Beaches



Romantic Getaways

golden poppies, Big Sur.

California exists on the edge of the continent, where land and sea collide. This primal collision is the source of stunning beauty and singular geologic phenomena like the volcanic dome of Morro Rock, the honeycombs of sea caves along the La Jolla headlands, and the sheer walls of rock falling to the ocean at Big Sur. Waterfalls decorate cliff faces like ribbons, and spring wildflowers paint the hillsides above the blue-green ocean.

This land- and seascape can push you to your physical limits. Catch your first wave in the surf at Santa Cruz. Dive into a Monterey kelp forest. Explore deep into a Channel Islands sea cave by kayak. Trek the wild Lost Coast Trail. You might spot condors swirling in the night sky like embers, elk appearing out of the fog on secluded beaches, or migrating gray whales sounding offshore. You’ll never get closer to the natural world than you can here.

Along the more placid sections of the coastline, the crashing surf smooths out into gentle waves lapping soft sands. This is the California coast that people all over the world know through popular culture, where sun worshippers share the shoreline with movie stars. Warm sunshine, colorful boardwalks, and easy access attract visitors seeking pleasure and relaxation.

organic wine grapes in Sonoma

Monterey coastline

Mount Tamalpais

California is also on the cutting edge of art, entertainment, and cuisine. Trends are born here before spreading to the rest of the country and the world. It’s where we first heard the music of The Doors, the Grateful Dead, Dr. Dre, and Beck. You can still catch performances by up-and-coming bands of all stripes at venues like The Fillmore in San Francisco, The Echo in Los Angeles, or The Casbah in San Diego. Or see the art of the avant-garde at world-class museums and galleries. California gave the United States its first taste of sushi and its first native-born wines, and it still offers one-of-a-kind culinary experiences. Enjoy authentic dim sum in San Francisco, or sample Mexican street tacos topped with kimchi in Los Angeles. Head to Carmel Valley, Santa Barbara, or Paso Robles to discover your new favorite wine. Or visit one of the North Coast’s many microbreweries for your first sip of oatmeal stout or tangerine wheat ale.

Drink it all in. You’ll return from your adventures on the edge of the continent with stories at the tip of your tongue.

Laguna Beach

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

common warning sign along California’s coast


1 San Francisco: Experience one of the country’s most unique cities by exploring its world-class museums, plunging city streets, and iconic sights (click here).

2 Wine-Tasting: The wines produced in California vineyards are known throughout the world. Sample these creations in Napa and Sonoma (click here), Carmel Valley (click here), Anderson Valley (click here), and Santa Barbara (click here).

3 California Cuisine: Whether it’s fresh seafood in Cayucos (click here), an upscale meal in San Francisco (click here), or an inventive taco served from an LA food truck (click here), California has a range of flavors as varied as its landscape.

4 Redwoods: Crane your neck at skyscraping redwoods at Redwood National and State Parks (click here), along the Avenue of the Giants (click here), in Muir Woods (click here), and in Big Sur (click here).

5 On the Bay in Monterey: Test your surfing skills in Santa Cruz (click here), kayak or paddle off Cannery Row (click here), or go whale-watching in Monterey Bay (click here).

6 Hike Big Sur: The Big Sur Coast Highway (click here) offers access to some of the state’s best parks and hikes.

7 Hit the Beach: Enjoy the solitude and rugged beauty of the North Coast (click here), or opt for sun and sand on the popular beaches of Los Angeles (click here) and San Diego (click here).

8 Los Angeles: This world-class city is known for its iconic Hollywood sights a vibrant culinary scene, coastal enclaves, and a renewed downtown (click here).

9 The Coast Unplugged: Experience the raw beauty of California’s natural world. Camp under redwoods on the North Coast (click here) or in Big Sur (click here). Escape to Channel Islands National Park (click here) to get a feel for the rugged coastline.

10 Craft Beer: California’s craft beer scene has exploded with excellent breweries across the state. Sample the state’s best suds in San Diego (click here) and on the North Coast (click here).

Planning Your Trip

Where to Go
San Francisco and the Bay Area

The politics, the culture, the food—these are what make San Francisco world-famous. Dine on cutting-edge cuisine at high-end restaurants and offbeat food trucks, tour classical and avant-garde museums, and bike through Golden Gate Park or stroll along Fisherman’s Wharf. The surrounding region is as diverse as the city itself. To the north, Marin offers wilderness seekers a quick respite from the city, while ethnic diversity and intellectual curiosity give the East Bay a hip urban edge. Meanwhile, the beaches of Coastside are a short drive away.

North Coast

For deserted beaches, towering redwoods, and scenic coastal towns, cruise north along the Redwood Coast. Explore Russian history at Fort Ross on the grassy bluffs of the Sonoma Coast, and fall in love with Mendocino’s small-town charm and nearby wineries. Detour west to the Lost Coast to experience coastline barely touched by human development.

Monterey and Big Sur

Some of the most beautiful and most adventurous coastline in the world is along the Pacific Coast Highway. Go surfing in Santa Cruz. Witness gray whales and sea lions off rugged Monterey Bay, and also explore their environment at the world-class Monterey Bay Aquarium. Wander around in the art galleries of Carmel-by-the-Sea and then take a stroll on the light sands of Carmel Beach. If you are a wine lover, be sure to head out to Carmel Valley to taste some of the region’s best varietals.

the Monterey Bay Aquarium

Camp and hike the unspoiled wilderness of Big Sur, and then tour grandiose Hearst Castle in San Simeon.

Santa Barbara and the Central Coast

Take in the picturesque Santa Barbara Mission and then stroll down the city’s State Street, which is lined with shops, restaurants, and bars. Enjoy the lonely coastline of Jalama Beach County Park or, to truly get away from it all, take a boat ride out to Channel Islands National Park. Bask in Santa Barbara’s abundant sunshine at nearby Refugio State Beach on the Gaviota Coast or visit the wine-tasting rooms of downtown Santa Barbara and the nearby Santa Maria Valley. Farther south, Ventura offers visitors a historic mission, a vibrant downtown, and a reliable surf break. For a relaxing getaway, head to one of the region’s beach towns: Cayucos, Morro Bay, or Pismo Beach.

Los Angeles and Orange Country

For a taste of the iconic California dream, you can’t beat Los Angeles. From the glitz and glamour of Hollywood and Beverly Hills to the camp and kitsch of Santa Monica Pier, L.A. is all California culture, all the time. Kids of all ages come to visit Walt’s original Disneyland, while sun and surf worshippers ride the waves or relax on the sugar-sand beaches.

San Diego

For the sun-drenched, soft-sand California beach experience portrayed in endless films and TV shows, come to San Diego. Maritime museums ring the downtown harbor, while across the bay in Coronado, vibrant and historic Hotel del Coronado creates a centerpiece for visitors to the city. Gorgeous beaches stretch from Point Loma north to La Jolla and the North County coast, begging surfers, swimmers, strollers, and sunbathers to ply their sands.

Know Before You Go
When to Go

California’s best feature is its all-season appeal. Summer is the coast’s travel season; expect crowds at popular attractions, wineries, beaches, and campgrounds. (Although the quote, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco,” falsely attributed to Mark Twain, still holds true, as the wind and fog that blows through the city June-August surprises unsuspecting visitors.) In fall, the summer crowds have mostly left but the weather is still warm. It is also the time when some of the best waves occur along the coast for surfers.

Winter is the rainy season, with lots more precipitation falling on the northern section of the coastline than in the south. Spring is the best time of year for spotting wildflowers and waterfalls. It’s less crowded than summer (except for spring break).


The easiest airports to fly into are San Francisco (SFO) and Los Angeles (LAX). If you’re flying into San Francisco, you can avoid some of the hassle by flying into nearby Oakland or San Jose. Similarly, Los Angeles offers several suburban airports—Burbank, Long Beach, Ontario, and John Wayne—that are less congested. If you are visiting the United States from abroad, you’ll need your passport and possibly a visa.

Advance Reservations

Book hotels early and buy tickets for big-name attractions in advance. Visitors to the California coast are frequently surprised at how much is already booked up during the summer months. Purchase tickets to Alcatraz in San Francisco and Hearst Castle in San Simeon at least two weeks in advance during the summer. Save money buying advance tickets for Disneyland online. Make early reservations for big-name restaurants. Lodging and campground reservations are essential in Big Sur.

What to Pack

Summer fog is likely along the coast, and guaranteed in San Francisco. Bring layered clothing, especially a wind-resistant coat and a warm sweater. Expect warm temperatures and even desert heat in Los Angeles and San Diego in the summer. Bring sunscreen; that coastal fog doesn’t stop UV rays.

Pacific Coast Road Trip

The ideal way to experience the California coast is to hit the road. Following this legendary road trip will take you through California’s bustling cosmopolitan cities, small beach towns, redwood forests, and sandy beaches.

For the most part, you’ll cover this stunning 850 miles by following the legendary Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1) and U.S. 101. You can switch back and forth between the two routes depending on your pace and your interests. Highway 1 is generally more scenic; U.S. 101 is usually faster. A few diversions onto other routes are necessary to cover the entire coast (for example, you’ll be driving I-5 between San Diego and Los Angeles).

The day-by-day routes below begin in Southern California, but you can just as easily start in Central or Northern California, or reverse the route (from driving north to driving south) if that works better for you. Combine all three itineraries to make a 16-day tour of the coast. If you’re pressed for time, choose just one or two of the itineraries.

Five Days in Southern California
San Diego

Easygoing San Diego is a great place to start any vacation. Upon arrival, orient yourself by driving to the top of Mount Soledad Veterans Memorial, a small mountain that has views of the entire city. After that, head down to La Jolla Cove to go kayaking or snorkeling; or just lie on the beach.

In the afternoon, visit Balboa Park, where you’ll spend most of your time at the San Diego Zoo. End your day with a craft beer at one of San Diego’s many breweries, like the giant Stone Brewing Co., followed by a meal in the Gaslamp Quarter. Try the historic Grant Grill or the nearby Café Chloe.


The fastest way to reach the North County beach towns of Encinitas, Carlsbad, and Oceanside is to take I-5 north out of San Diego. Or, to cruise along the coast, opt for North Coast Highway 101 (also called Camino del Mar, San Elijo Boulevard, and Carlsbad Boulevard as it travels from Torrey Pines State Beach to Oceanside). Make sure to stop for a surf or a swim since the ocean temperatures cool as you head up the coast.

Continue north on I-5 to visit Huntington Beach before turning off toward Long Beach for a paranormal ship walk on The Queen Mary, an ocean liner that is now home to restaurants, a hotel, shops, and a museum. If you are daring enough, book a room for the night in the haunted ship.

Los Angeles

Jump on I-405 to save some time and drive about 30 miles north, exiting toward Venice Beach. Park your vehicle and take a stroll along the Venice Boardwalk to take in the local wildlife that includes bodybuilders, street performers, and alternative-culture types. Without getting back on the highway, take the local roads paralleling the beach 10 minutes north to Santa Monica. Enjoy the amusement park rides of the Santa Monica Pier or just take a break on Santa Monica Beach. For dinner, get a taste of the Caribbean at Santa Monica’s casual but popular Cha Cha Chicken or backtrack to Venice for a hearty Italian meal at C&O Trattoria.

beach houses north of Malibu


Consider heading inland for a day of culture (and pop culture). For aesthetic stimulation, visit the world-famous Getty Center or the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Less rigorous on the mind is a walk down the star-studded Hollywood Walk of Fame and a stop at the historic TCL Chinese Theatre, where you can find the handprints of your favorite movie stars. End the day in downtown Los Angeles with tacos from B.S. Taqueria followed by a cocktail with city views at the Upstairs Bar, the rooftop space atop the Ace Hotel.


Take the Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1) out of Santa Monica as it heads away from sprawling Los Angeles and into Malibu. Stop at Malibu’s Surfrider Beach to watch the surfers compete for its famously peeling waves (or catch one yourself). After a morning outdoors, feed your mind with ancient art at The Getty Villa in Malibu. (Admission is free, but you’ll need to reserve a ticket in advance.) Finish the day by watching the sun slide into the Pacific from the outdoor deck of Neptune’s Net while enjoying fresh seafood.

If you want to spend more time in the Los Angeles area, you can easily fill a couple of days enjoying Disneyland Resort.

Six Days in Central California
Santa Barbara and the Central Coast

Wake up early and drive north on the scenic Pacific Coast Highway. Thirty-five miles from Malibu, at Oxnard, merge onto U.S. 101. Head north on U.S. 101 to Ventura and take the exit toward Ventura Harbor, where you can catch a boat out to Channel Islands National Park for a day of hiking, snorkeling, or kayaking on Santa Cruz Island or Anacapa Island. (Make boat reservations in advance.) Return to Ventura and eat dinner at one of its seafood restaurants, such as Lure Fish House or Spencer Makenzie’s Fish Company. Or have an Italian meal and cocktail at hip Café Fiore.


Take U.S. 101 north a half hour (28 miles) to Santa Barbara. Get a history fix at the Santa Barbara Mission, which might be the most beautiful of the 21 Spanish missions in California. Then taste some local wines on the Urban Wine Trail, comprising six tasting rooms on lower State Street, or head north for a day at palm-lined Refugio State Beach, 20 miles west of Santa Barbara on U.S. 101.

If your schedule is flexible, you might consider another full day in Santa Barbara, another day of wine-tasting in the nearby Santa Maria Valley, or a day on the Gaviota Coast. Whatever you do, stop at Santa Barbara’s State Street for a fine meal or cocktail at a restaurant like the local favorite Opal. Or head off State Street for superb Mexican food at La Super-Rica Taqueria.


Drive 1.75 hours (92 miles) north of Santa Barbara on U.S. 101 to San Luis Obispo’s Madonna Inn, where you can take in its kitschy decor during a restroom-and-stretch-the-legs break.

Outdoor enthusiasts will want to head off the highway and go west on Los Osos Valley Road just 20 minutes (12 miles) to Montaña de Oro State Park, one of the state’s best coastal parks. Picnic at Spooner’s Cove or hike to the top of 1,347-foot-high Valencia Peak. Then head back to U.S. 101 North, but be sure to turn onto Highway 1 north to take in the sunset over Morro Rock, known as the “Gibraltar of the Pacific.”

Another option is to drive an hour north (44 miles) to opulent Hearst Castle. Tours of this “ranch” built for newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst offer insight into the lifestyle of the rich and infamous.

However you spend your day, end it with a meal in one of the Central Coast’s unassuming beach towns: Morro Bay, Cayucos, or Cambria.

Big Sur

Head north on Highway 1 for what might be the most scenic day of driving on your whole trip. The two-lane highway here winds along the mountains of Big Sur with plentiful views of the ocean. From Cambria to the heart of Big Sur is 75 miles, but the scenery, winding roadway, and frequent road construction can make the drive last well over two hours. Be sure to make multiple stops to take in the scenery at places like Salmon Creek Falls, Sand Dollar Beach, and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Or opt for a comfy cabin by the river at Glen Oaks Big Sur or a rustic room at the charming


On Sale
Nov 13, 2018
Page Count
500 pages
Moon Travel

Stuart Thornton

About the Author

Stuart Thornton fell in love with California while working the Big Sur Ranger Station after college. At work, he provided visitors with all sorts of information about the region, from the best places to camp to the best meal in the area. On his days off, he took his own advice and regularly sought out the top spots for hiking, backpacking, surfing, and snorkeling along that striking coastal region.
Stuart later moved to nearby Monterey to become a staff writer for the Monterey County Weekly, where he is still a contributor. He is the proud author of Moon Coastal California, Moon Santa Barbara & the Central Coast, and Moon California Road Trips. In addition, Stuart has contributed to National Geographic Education, and Relix Magazine.
Stuart spends his time off searching for the next secluded beach, uncrowded wave, or mountaintop vista. Learn more about his adventures and projects by visiting
Kayla Anderson is a freelance writer based in Northern California. She grew up in Redding, received a journalism degree from California State University-Chico, and now lives in North Lake Tahoe. For the last 10 years, she has been writing press kits for ski resorts and golf courses as well as articles about businesses, people, and places in Lake Tahoe and Northern California.
Currently, she contributes to Enjoy Northern California Living magazine, Tahoe Weekly, the Sparks Tribune, and the Nevada Travel Network. She continues to be impressed by what she discovers in Redding, Humboldt County, Yosemite, Sacramento, and the lesser-known places like Weaverville and Mono Lake. You can find her work at

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