Kevin and I are always on the lookout for fun places to explore. And one of our new favorite spots seems to be California’s central coast — an area that roughly stretches from Santa Cruz in the north to Santa Barbara in the south. This is now our third trip to the area in the past year. So clearly we are loving the central coast!
The area is known for it’s great wine (a definite must try!). And of course, a world-class aquarium in Monterey. But we’ll take you along our trip to some of the more hidden spots — from an iconic movie set recently discovered in sand dunes to a museum dedicated to all things bigfoot. It makes a great drive from LA or even San Francisco. Check out our full 5-day itinerary below.
DAY 1: Drive from Los Angeles to Carmel
Today is mostly a driving day where you’ll cruise the open road (well, once you get out of the LA gridlock). The total ride to Carmel from LA is about 5 hours. But the good news is that most of the long stretches of driving will be done after today. There isn’t a lot between LA and Carmel, but one unexpected find was a quick gas stop at Blackwell’s Corner General Store in Los Hills.
Kevin noticed the nearly empty gas station, which couldn’t be any further in the middle of nowhere! Plus, it makes a great bathroom break! But what we soon found out (right near the bathrooms!) is that this is the last spot where James Dean was seen alive. He infamously crashed his car in 1955 right near this spot. Amazingly, James Dean only starred in 3 films but clearly the legend lives on. Head to the back of the store to check out all the memorabilia.
You’re now only just 3 hours away from Carmel. If you time the trip just right, you’ll make it to Carmel in time for dinner. We highly recommend Dametra Cafe where you’ll likely need to put your name on a list. On a busy night, it can take well over an hour for a table for two. But it’s well worth the wait!
It’s all Greek food and the sampler plate gives you a nice selection of items to try. But our favorite part? The waiters and owner will break out in song and pull many of the patrons up to start dancing. Or you can be like us, and avoid eye contact at all cost!
If you’re up for some post-dinner exercise (or need to wait for your table like us!), Carmel has plenty of shops and art galleries to explore. While many of the shops close on the early side, you’ll likely find a few places open to explore including a bakery or two. Just try not to spoil your dinner!
It was a long drive – so likely you’ll be exhausted. Head just a few blocks away for the night inside the very comfortable hotel called The Hideaway (rates start around $300 a night). The location doesn’t get much better, in the center of downtown Carmel.
Day 2: Steinbeck Museum, Spotting Bigfoot and Other Hidden Gems
Start your morning right with the free breakfast at the hotel. Then head off to the National Steinbeck Center, located just 30 minutes away in Salinas.
We were so impressed by this museum and it gives a deep look into this somewhat reclusive author who was inspired by the region to write such famous books like The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row, among others.
After the museum, grab lunch at Ike’s Love and Sandwiches. This chain originated in San Francisco and we couldn’t believe it was in Salinas. You can’t go wrong with any of the sandwiches, but no matter what, be sure to order it on the dutch crunch roll (with the crunchy crust and soft doughy bread).
Now that you’re fueled up, head 1-hour north to Santa Cruz for a walk on the wilder side. Yes, I’m talking about the official Bigfoot Discovery Museum.
This remote spot, technically just north of Santa Cruz, feels just about where you might expect to find the furry creature. Keep expectations in check — the place is pretty small, but is chock full of bigfoot artifacts including footprint casts, local sighting map, Bigfoot videos, skulls and other bigfoot related pop culture items.
The museum curator is also a Stanford graduate, which I joked with Kevin probably hasn’t landed him on the cover of the alum magazine just yet. But perhaps one day when bigfoot is found!
By this point in the itinerary, it will be late afternoon. But you’re just getting started! Start making your way back south, first stopping along the boardwalk in Santa Cruz. Is it a little touristy? Dirty? And crowded? Yes. But we loved the energy and checking out all the carnival games.
Leave Santa Cruz around 3 PM, to time your arrival back at The Hideaway for their complimentary wine and cheese (4-6 PM). We love free!
For the night, grab dinner and explore downtown Monterey, just a short drive away. If you have extra time, you won’t want to miss the incredible Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Day 3: Get your Exercise on! And Enjoy Friendly San Luis Obispo
You’ll want to fuel up! Start your day off early and grab the free bike rentals at The Hideaway and hit the road and bike 17-mile drive. The hotel provides not just the bikes, but the locks and helmets as well.
We recommend riding from Carmel to nearby Pacific Grove with a quick stop in between at Pebble Beach. You likely won’t be hungry, but the resort has a gorgeous restaurant (in addition to a whole shopping strip!).
We’re not going to lie. This is a pretty tough bike ride — especially if you decide to take the “short cut” on the way back, which was basically a full-scale mountain! But 17-mile drive is mostly free of cars given the high toll cost to drive (where biking is free!). We loved seeing the animals just wandering down as we rode our bikes among the multi-million dollar homes.
I like having a destination in mind — and you can’t have a better one than Pavel’s Bakery in Pacific Grove. We ordered some BLT sandwiches with avocado, coffee and one of the best chocolate chip cookies I’ve ever had. I really didn’t want to bike back!
You’ll be ready to sit and do nothing after that tiring ride! Luckily, the next part of the trip is driving further south to your next overnight stop in San Luis Obispo. It’s a 2.5 hour drive, so make sure you leave Carmel by 2:30 PM, so you time it just right for another free cheese and wine hour at Petite Soleil in San Luis Obispo (going from 5-6:30 PM).
If you’re in San Luis Obispo on a Thursday, you’ve really lucked out! From 6-9 PM on Thursdays, San Luis Obispo shuts down all the streets downtown for their evening farmer’s market.
We were fully stuffed from the free cheese and wine at the hotel. Well, okay, I couldn’t help but buy cookies at the market! After perusing the market (and eating the cookies), we finished the night relaxing in the lounging chairs at The Movie Experience, right in the heart of San Luis Obispo. A perfect way to end the night!
Day 4: Getting our Hike on, Exploring Movie Sets and A Historic Mission
The snacks and cheese are amazing at Petite Soleil, but what’s even better? Their homemade breakfast! We recommend waking up early for the breakfast and head out early for a hike at 9 AM of the Cerro San Luis Trail, just a 10 minute drive from the hotel.
We got our start around 9:30 AM, before the blazing sun really came out. In total, it takes just slightly over 1 hour. The beginning is the hardest part, as you climb the hill to get some pretty spectacular views.
You’ll pass in front of a giant “M” on the side of the mountain for the local high school — keep going and make your way down the wooden ramps that take you through some tree cover. After the hike, head back to Petite Soleil to shower. It’s time for more driving! Hit the road around 11 AM, and head 1 hour north to visit La Purisima Mission State Park.
La Purisima is considered the most extensively restored mission in the state. But it’s more than just a mission. They have live animals along with a visitors center with extensive history about what life was like during its heyday. Best of all, admission is just $6.
We explored the mission for about 2 hours and departed around 2 PM for our favorite stop along the entire 5-day trip: the Dunes Center in Guadalupe, just a 30 minute drive north.
Filmmaker Cecil. B. DeMille built the largest set in movie history in the dunes near Guadalupe, CA, for his silent (and early Technicolor) epic, The Ten Commandments. It was called “The City of the Pharaoh.” After filming was complete, DeMille ordered that the entire set be dismantled and secretly buried in the dunes. And it was forgotten until the Dune Center raised enough money to get a team of archeologists to start digging. And what they found were intact sets from the original classic movie from more than 90 years ago.
The center has much more than just the film set pieces — and be sure to ask for a guided tour to learn about all the interactive exhibits. After our visit to the Dunes Center, we naturally had to visit the real dunes and drove to Oso Flaco per the recommendation of the Dunes Center.
We could see why Hollywood has used these sand dunes for so many movies we all have probably seen like Pirates of the Caribbean, Hidalgo and Rocky and Bullwinkle (okay, maybe I somehow missed that last one!). After the long day, you’ll be ready to relax back at the comfy Bath Street Inn in Santa Barbara, located 1.5 hours south.
Day 5: Santa Barbara
After enjoying some breakfast at the Bath Street Inn, head straight to the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum. We were truly blown away by this tiny museum and all the interesting tidbits we learned about the area and its strong maritime history.
Allow at least 2 hours to get through the museum and learn how Earth Day actually came about from the massive oil spill occurred in Santa Barbara in 1969. It was one of the largest spills in U.S. waters at the time and is still only third behind the 2010 Deepwater Horizon and 1989 Exxon Valdez spills. A U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson, visited the spill site and was inspired to establish the first national Earth Day on April 22, 1970. Who knew?
Before heading back to LA, enjoy a drink and harbor views at The Endless Summer Cafe, located above the museum and inspired by the vintage surfing movie. And enjoy the views of the Santa Barbara Harbor. Afterall, you’ll need the zen moment before hitting the congested road back to LA!