A Complete Guide To Driving the California Coast Solo in 2022

Is there anything as quintessentially American as a road trip along the California Coast? Consistently immortalized in movies and TV, it is on nearly everyone’s travel bucket list. Everyone that I want to know anyways. Just a six-hour drive winds you through beaches, mountains, forests, and awe-inspiring cliffs all along the winding Highway 1 between Los Angeles and San Francisco. It’s stunning.

I’ve driven the Cali coast in its entirety multiple times – all solo – and while I imagine it is an amazing trip to take with a partner, friend, or family, there is something freeing about being on the open road alone. Whether you’re solo or not, it helps to have a guide. With that aim, I’m laying out my full guide to driving the California coast in 2022.

Start in LA

I’d recommend starting your trip either in Los Angeles or San Francisco and traveling to the other. Of course, this isn’t the full coast, but just this portion can easily fill an entire week or more.

I have traveled both ways, with my last trip starting in LA. I chose it as a starting point mostly because flights are usually fairly cheap and easy from many other domestic locations, and the rental car process has always been smooth for me.

If you love beaches, consider starting a tad further south — down in San Diego — and doing a few beach days before heading north.

CA Road Trip
Emily Hart

Solo Traveler Tip:

Rental cars are expensive and scarce already, add to that a usually higher fee for one-way rentals and it clearly pays to do your research in advance before any other bookings. The flights and accommodations can be moved around much easier.

Stop 1: Channel Islands National Park

Channel Islands
Emily Hart

Channel Islands National Park is a bit of an anomaly. The visitor center in Ventura and boat harbor are less than 70 miles from LA, but I have only met a handful of people – even Southern California natives – who have ever actually visited any of the islands in the park. Despite its location and easy access for millions of people, it continues to be one of the less-visited National Parks in the US. You can only visit the islands by boat or plane, and once you arrive there are no modern amenities on the islands.

This is the perfect place to go solo – trust me. Despite being rugged, it is an island, so you can’t really get lost on your own. You also have to arrive and leave with your tour group meaning that it never gets overcrowded – and you have built-in new friends, if that’s what you’re after.

There are five islands that make up the National Park, with Santa Cruz Island being the largest and also most popular. You can camp overnight on the islands or just stay for the day and enjoy hiking, whale watching, kayaking, snorkeling or just laying in the grass like I did for most of my visit.

It feels a million miles away.

Solo Traveler Tip:

Book your transportation far in advance – Island Packers is the official park concessionaire and travels from Ventura and Oxnard harbor daily with a limited schedule – but weather affects the schedule very frequently, so make sure to call and check in that your trip is still as planned. If the boat is sold out, you can take your chances and show up when they open hoping for a cancellation or no show.

Stop 2: Santa Barbara

The Douglas Family Preserve
Emily Hart

After a day spent on the island, I’d head up to Santa Barbara. I spent many years passing by the town, thinking it was only for the bougie and coupled up – then quickly realized I was wrong after deciding to stop for some lunch on a recent trek.

I recommend stopping at The Douglas Family Preserve – a small but gorgeous public park in the city limits with 70 acres of shaded trails and unobstructed ocean views (you can actually see Channel Islands National Park – just 22 miles off the coast – from the preserve). Other hiking options are Inspiration Point and La Cumbre Peak.

Hendrys Boathouse
Emily Hart

Solo Traveler Tip:

After a hike I’d stop for lunch at the Boathouse at Hendry’s Beach – which is just over a mile from The Preserve and right on the beautiful and more secluded Hendry’s Beach. It is the perfect place to bring a book (or a prop book to use while you simply people watch), enjoy a glass of wine and enjoy some fresh seafood.

Stop 3: Avila Beach

I am a huge fan of the Central Coast. Huge. It’s quieter and less traveled for sure, but that’s the beauty of it – especially for a solo retreat. The sea-scapes are pristine and the pace of life feels slow enough to actually enjoy it.

Avila Beach is a town of just over 1,300 people, but I always make a point to stop there when I’m in the area. Just ten miles from San Luis Obispo (another underrated destination), it has it all. Quaint downtown on the water, beautiful beaches, water sports, hiking, biking, and a surprising number of wineries.

Some of my favorite spots are Kelsey See Canyon Vineyards, Alapay Cellars, Avila Paddlesports, and Avila Valley Barn.

Solo Traveler Tip:

Book an hour in a cliffside private mineral springs tub at Sycamore Mineral Springs. It feels like a luxe treat to sip some wine while soaking under the trees.

Stop 4: Montaña de Oro State Park

Montana De Oro
Emily Hart

California is home to 280 State Parks, and just over 20 miles northwest of Avila Beach is one of my favorites: Montana de Oro. Set 6 miles Southwest of Morro Bay, Montaña de Oro is a gem that is somewhat hidden in plain sight. With seven miles of dramatic shoreline, 8,000 acres of cliffs, beaches, campgrounds, hiking, and mountain biking trails – it has it all and has surprisingly not been crowded at all when I’ve visited.

I recommend Spooners Cove, Bluff Trail, and Sand Dunes Bluff Trail.

Montana de Oro Sand Dunes
Emily Hart

Solo Traveler Tip:

Detour to the Sand Dunes in the park. There are dunes along most of the coast with zig-zagging trails to reach them. As I hiked up the dunes, the only other people I saw were fellow solo travelers laying in the sand reading, napping, and biking. I could have stayed there all day. Next time I think I will.

Stop 5: Big Sur

“This is the California that men dreamed of years ago, this is the Pacific that Balboa looked out on from the Peak of Darien, this is the face of the earth as the Creator intended it to look.”
-Henry Miller

Between Carmel and San Simeon, Big Sur magically appears as if you’ve entered into a mirage. It is mythic and fantastical and truly one of the only places I’ve visited that is deserving of its legendary status. Below the Santa Lucia Mountains, Big Sur is a long undeveloped stretch of coast that just cannot be described by words or photos alone. You have to see the sweeping views for yourself — along with the redwoods, ample hiking, sandy beaches, and eclectic eateries. Known for its limited cell service, a trip to Big Sur feels not so much like moving back in time but transcending time itself.

I recommend taking the short hike to McWay Falls, browsing the Henry Miller Memorial Library, and taking your chances at landing a parking spot at Pfieffer Beach. The beach is famous for its purple sand and Keyhole Arch (try to visit in winter when the sunset lines up in the arch). It’s my favorite stop in Big Sur, but with only 60 spots to park down a winding unmarked road it is hard to get to during peak times. But bonus: it’s never crowded once you get there.

Stop at the infamous Bixby Creek Bridge on your way north out of town to get the perfect Instagram shot.

Nepenthe Big Sur
Emily Hart

Solo Traveler Tip:

Nepenthe is a Big Sur staple and the perfect place for a solo lunch with a view. The outdoor bar seats have the best view of the Pacific in the house, and the South Coast Margarita is worth the 30+ minutes you are likely to wait to get it.

Stop 6: Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

On the way up north from Big Sur, I always stop at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. The shoreline is dramatic and its beauty rivals anything I have ever seen. Whalers Cove is a great spot for scuba diving, kayaking, and snorkeling – but any trail you take will lead you somewhere worth going.

Solo Traveler Tip:

Try to hit the trail at sunset! But be mindful of the operating hours – now it’s only open from 8 am to 5 pm.

Stop 7: Shark Fin Cove

The last stop on the trek back to San Francisco is probably also the easiest to get to – Shark Fin Cove. Just 10 miles North of Santa Cruz and 0.7 miles from Davenport, the shark fin-shaped rock is visible from the road. Park north of the Bonny Doon Beach Lot – there is a dirt pullout – and follow the steep trail down to the beach and sea cave.

Solo Traveler Tip:

The trail is steep so proceed cautiously if no one else is around. The views from above are also gorgeous and super Instagrammable if you’re hesitant.

End in SF

Head back home from San Francisco. Try a few of these bars, perhaps. While you drink, spend time dreaming of your next trip to explore the rest of the coastline.