Highway 1 is arguably one of the best road trips travelers can take in the United States. Along the way you’ll have the blue, and sometimes roaring, Pacific Ocean on one side, and verdant valleys or rugged cliffs on the other. It’s a beautiful contrast that must be experienced at least once in your lifetime, but there’s a very good chance you’ll fall in love with it and make a return visit. For those who haven’t done the route before, Big Sur is everyone’s go-to stop, but along the coast there are several other towns worth visiting. Three of those underrated destinations are Santa Cruz, Cambria, and Avila Beach. For your next vacation, whether you’re traveling with kids or with fellow adults, this trio of beach towns should be on your list.
Below, a guide on what to do, where to eat, and where to stay in Santa Cruz, Cambria, and Avila Beach for your next Highway 1 road trip.
The best way to thoroughly enjoy your Highway 1 road trip is to drive from north to south so that you’re hugging the coastline. Most visitors will start in San Francisco, but if you’ve already spent some time in the Golden City and want to hit the beach right away, Santa Cruz is the best option. About an hour drive from San Francisco International Airport, this surf town has recently caught the attention of Silicon Valley tech workers as an alternate place to live. And for good reason. In addition to its proximity to the Bay Area, it has a laidback vibe that encourages relaxation. Here, it’s not about the flashy cars or designer clothing, but an easier way of life without pretense.
If you’re traveling with little ones, Santa Cruz is an incredibly family-friendly destination. In addition to spending time at the beach, the city’s boardwalk is home to an amusement park, filled with rides fit for all ages, an arcade, mini golf, laser tag, and food options that range from sit-down restaurants to stands selling corndogs, funnel cakes, and cotton candy. Next to that is the wharf, where at the end of the pier you’ll be able to spot dozens of sea lions sleeping on the beams or frolicking in the water. And if you head downtown, you’ll find several murals that comment on marine environmental issues, a project put together by Sea Walls Santa Cruz.
But Santa Cruz is so much more than just sun and sand. Drive along the scenic West Cliff Drive and make a stop at Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse, where there’s a dedicated surfing museum and watch as wave riders carve their way around the water. Further down the road you’ll hit Natural Bridges State Park, a local favorite for sunset views, whale spotting, and magical sights of thousands of migrating monarch butterflies in the winter. And if you head north about 20 minutes, you’ll be fully ensconced in nature at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, where numerous hiking trails are shrouded by towering Redwoods.
If you’re visiting without kids, or have a babysitter for the evening, this is also a great place to enjoy some adult beverages. For fans of craft distilleries, Venus Spirits makes their own whiskey, gin, aquavit, vodka, rum, and agave spirits. There’s a tasting room where you can sample all their offerings as well as a restaurant that serves the best cocktails in town. Beer drinks should head over to Humble Sea Brewing Co. for craft IPAs, pilsners, pale ales, and more. And for those who prefer wine, Lester Estate in Aptos is the preeminent place to visit. The vineyard sits on 210 acres and is able to grow different expressions of pinot noir, syrah, and chardonnay thanks to the area’s unique microclimate. Unlike other estates, owners Steve and Patty Lester employ several winemakers to create a diverse portfolio of vino to appeal to different palettes. Their wines have consistently earned high marks and awards, and while that’s undoubtedly what you’ll come here for, you’ll end of loving the museum-like tasting room even more. Housing collectibles that range from a WWI propeller to taxidermy insects, there are countless stories to be told and the staff are more than happy to share them. Lastly, if you’re a glassware enthusiast, Annie Morhauser’s studio is about 45 minutes east of Santa Cruz. Known for her work with gold, she has caught the eye of high-end stores like Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale’s, and the now defunct Barneys New York. Tours will resume as the pandemic eases up, but for now you can view her full collection at her Watsonville studio, pick up a few pieces, and possibly even have a chance to meet the artisan.
When hunger strikes, in addition to the aforementioned options on the Boardwalk and Venus Spirits Cocktails & Kitchen, there are plenty of dining options in the area. Copal by chef Ana Mendoza serves up Oaxacan cuisine; Home offers handmade pastas, meats sourced locally, and seafood from Monterey Bay; Bantam is a beloved spot for wood-fired Neopolitan pizzas; Shadowbrook has been around since 1947 and is a local institution; and both the Picnic Basket and Gayle’s Bakery and Rosticceria are great spots for a quick breakfast or lunch. Lastly, for those with a sweet tooth, make sure to stop at the Penny Ice Creamery for artisanal frozen treats.
For accommodations right on the beach, look no further than Dream Inn Santa Cruz. The 165-key hotel has a retro surfer vibe with a jukebox in the lobby and colorful surfboards on display. Accommodations are colorful and all have a private balcony or patio with views of Monterey Bay. It boasts an outdoor pool right on the sand as well as a surf rental shop for those who want to hit the waves. And to keep you satiated, the all-day Jack O’Neil Restaurant uses fresh-caught seafood and local ingredients for their dishes. If you plan on going for dinner, just make sure to call in for a reservation as it’s a highly popular spot for sunset vistas.
For those who have done the Highway 1 road trip before, it’s likely that you’ve passed through Cambria without even noticing. If you’re headed south, it’s right past Piedras Blancas Rookery, where you’re able to spot colonies of elephant seals, and Hearst Castle, a historic estate dating back to 1919 that was originally owned by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. The latter is a particularly popular attraction in the area due to its rich history, varied European architecture including a Roman-style pool, and lush gardens. For those who’ve always wanted to stay overnight after visiting, aesthetically driven accommodations were nonexistent until recently.
Opened November 2020, White Water transformed two motor lodges into a chic boutique property. Designed by Nina Freudenberger, it has a modern California coastal style with a focus on natural materials a neutral palette that’s accented with pops of indigo and contrasting textures. Each of the 25 rooms are equipped with the finest amenities, such as Aesop toiletries, a Smeg refrigerator stocked with a curated mini bar, and a Bodum kettle for your Steven Smith tea or Reborn coffee. All of the accommodations have a gas fireplace and boast at least partial water views, but for a front-row seat to the waves, book either the Ocean View King, which is also furnished with an outdoor soaking tub and sunbed, or the Premier Ocean View Suite for some extra space. To help you get around, the inn offers complimentary Linus bikes if you want to leave the car behind. But make sure you spend some time in the lobby lounge at sunset, where beverages and small bites are served and picture windows allow for incredible vistas. And after you’ve had a good night’s rest, wake up to a picnic basket at the door, filled with coffee, juice, and pastries for a light breakfast before you head out for the day.
For hotel enthusiasts, White Water is well worth coming to Cambria alone, but the charming town is also a gem. Downtown is separated into two sections—East and West Village—and you’ll find numerous shops and restaurants at both. If you’re looking to pick up a few things, Slabtown Mercantile sells locally handmade home goods; the Love Story Project has anything and everything related to affection; the Shops at the Garden Shed houses a myriad of items for green thumbs along with an extensive collection of succulents; and Sweet Offerings is an old-fashioned candy shop with retro confections and chocolate. And once you’re feeling a little peckish, pay a visit to Robin’s Restaurant for an eclectic menu that highlights Thai, Indian, and more cuisines; Indigo Moon for a great wine selection and nightly seafood specials; and 927 Beer Company for local brews. But whatever you do, make sure you pay a visit to Linn’s Restaurant. This family-owned establishment utilzes produce from their farm, supplemented by local providers, for their dishes, but the star are their desserts. Majority of the sweets are made using owner Aaron Linn’s mother’s recipes and their pies are phenomenal. Olallieberry, a cross between a blackberry and raspberry, is the most popular, but you really can’t go wrong with any of the options.
And if you’re looking to get out into nature, go for a hike at Fiscalini Ranch Preserve or take a stroll along Moonstone Beach, located right across from White Water, and watch as the waves break and tide pools swirl. For equine lovers, Covell’s Clydesdales also offers trail rides through open pastures and pine forests Monday through Saturday in the morning and mid-afternoon.
Less than an hour south of Cambria you’ll find the small bayside community of Avila Beach. It’s a quaint and family-friendly beach town that also offers opportunities to connect with nature. For starters, there’s the popular Bob Jones Trail, a paved, three-mile route that takes you along the San Luis Obispo Creek down to the sandy shores. It’s mostly flat, making it fit for all levels of hikers and bikers, and offers views of the town’s golf course, bridges, and the Pacific Ocean. For those who enjoy being in the water, Avila Beach Paddlesports rents out kayaks and standup paddleboards for self-guided tours to the Port San Luis Lighthouse. Make your way along the bay, which often includes sea otter sightings, and arrive at a secluded beach from where you’ll hike up to the historic, Prairie Victorian–style landmark. The area is also known for gray whales, which can often be seen from the pier, but for a closer look you may want to book a tour with Avila Beach Whale Watching.
Once you’ve worked up an appetite, make sure to head over to Avila Valley Barn. The farm has an accompanying stand that’s open daily, where you can pick up fresh produce alongside baked goods and honey straws, as well as a sweetshop that serves ice cream, taffy, and fudge. But if you’re here from Thursday through Monday, it’s their Chicken Shack & Smoke House that you won’t want to miss. This lunch spot whips up some of the best friend chicken you’ll ever have the pleasure of getting your hands on—it’s perfectly seasoned, crunchy, and the meat is nice and juicy. Other offerings include smoked trip tip and pulled pork, but whatever your protein of choice is, make sure to also order a side of mac and cheese to go along with it. As for dinner, head down to the pier where you’ll find plenty of options. For French fare and a front-row seat to the sunset, opt for Blue Moon Over Avila. It has a rotating menu of seasonal and signature dishes—order the escargot and catch of the day—alongside a robust wine list that draws from nearby Paso Robles and far-flung France.
For accommodations, adults should head over to Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort & Spa. The hotel has an incredible spa program that includes 24 open-air, naturally heated mineral spring hot tubs and a private lagoon complete with a waterfall that can be rented by the hour. The property offers a range of accommodations that range from standard rooms to three-bedroom guesthouses, but no matter which category you book, each one features a patio with a hot tub for private soaks. But if you’re traveling with kids and hoping to be close to the beach, Avila Lighthouse Suites is located just steps away from sand and may be a better fit.
If you’re from out of town, more than likely you’ll be ending your trip in Los Angeles. Over the past couple of years the city has welcomed several new properties, but for boutique hotel enthusiasts, Downtown L.A. Proper Hotel is one that’s worth noting. Designed by Kelly Wearstler, the eminent woman worked with local, emerging artists to create vibrant and modern spaces with contrasting textures and a cornucopia of hues. There are 147 accommodations in total, but the most spectacular is the pool suite, where an indoor pool from the building’s YMCA days is set against a ceramic tile mural by Los Angeles artist Ben Medansky. In addition to the eclectic aesthetic, the hotel has also tapped James Beard Award winners Suzanne Goin and Caroline Styne to lead the food and beverage offerings that include the Portuguese-influenced Caldo Verde and Cara Cara, a rooftop lounge and restaurant with stunning vistas of Downtown Los Angeles, complete with a very Instagrammable fire pit.
While you’re here, there’s plenty to keep you busy in the surrounding area. Downtown Los Angeles is home to some of the city’s best museums and architecture, including the Broad, Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall designed by Frank Gehry. For shopping, the Row DTLA houses numerous boutique stores that sell everything from clothing to home goods. And when it comes to food, there’s no shortage of options, especially if you’re a fan of Asian cuisines with Little Tokyo, Koreatown, and Chinatown all nearby.