San Simeon - Santa Barbara
Hearst Castle, Cambria, Morro Bay, San Luis Obispo, Pismo Beach, Santa Barbara, Ventura harbor
3-12 hours/ I actually recommend 2 days for this section to cover all sights and would drive down to Santa Barbara the first day and discover the city, Ventura and the Channel Islands on the second.
Without any stop: 3 hours
Hearst Castle: + min. 2 hours
Paso Robles: + min. 2 hours
Cambria: + 1 hour
Morro Bay: + 1.5 hours
San Simeon – SB: 155 miles/ ca. 250km
SB – Ojai: 40 miles/ 65km
SB – Ventura: 30 miles/ 48km
Pismo Beach: + 1.5 hours
Solvang: + 1.5 hours
Santa Barbara: + 3-4 hours
Carpinteria: overnight stay
Ojai: + ½ day
Ventura/ Channel Islands: + 1 day
1st stop: San Simeon/Hearst Castle - http://www.sansimeonchamber.org/
San Simeon is mainly known for its closeness to Hearst Castle and as first bigger hotel area behind Big Sur. Although it is not very scenic elephant seals frequently occupy its shores. Piedras Blancas is the beach area you should look for. Coming from Big Sur the parking lot is one cove behind the Piedras Blancas lighthouse to your right and before Hearst Castle on the mountains to your left.
Hearst Castle was built from 1919 – 1947 for William Hearst, a newspaper magnate. Its design is based on European castles and other architectural masterpieces.
If you are planning to go to Hearst Castle make sure you are booking your tickets in advance since they sell out fast. http://www.hearstcastle.org/
The average tour length is 1hr and 45 minutes, including the bus transfer from the visitor center to the actual complex. Visitors can choose between guided tours through the inner castle and self-guided exterior tours.
By the way: passing the wide spread Hearst Estate you are not dreaming if you are seeing zebras. William Hearst was holding one of the largest private zoos in the country including exotic animals. Eversince his death the State Park is taking care of them.
2nd stop: Cambria/Moonstone Beach - http://www.seecambria.com/
As I mentioned before, I recommend staying in Cambria overnight coming from Big Sur. Cambria is 9 miles south of San Simeon and known for many art galleries and its proximity to the wine country.
Down at the ocean is a wonderful 2.5 mile coastal trail (roundtrip) that runs along eroded cliffs, tide pools and rock formations at Moonstone Beach. This trail is perfect during sunset or in the morning.
If you are not staying at the hotels along the beach but like to hike the trail, there is parking at Santa Rosa Creek lot at the trail’s northern end.
3rd stop: Morro Bay - http://morrobay.org/cm/Home.html
After leaving Cambria you will pass Cayucos, another coastal village, before you enter Morro Bay. In the distance you can already see the Morro Rock that is sticking out the ocean.
The harbor area that is facing the rock is scenic and offers many little waterfront seafood restaurants. The only downside is an ugly power plant that was built at the far end of the beach, but thankfully the good things outweigh this eyesore.
As I mentioned in the hotel section of HWY 1, Morro Bay contains many affordable hotels and is another good alternative to San Simeon as first overnight stop after Big Sur.
Morro Bay’s promenade, the ‘Embarcadero’, goes along the harbor and waterfront. It leads you from the restaurant area to Coleman Park and further up to the Northern Morro Bay State Park. Next to a walk along the promenade there are some other activities you can choose from such as surfing, kayaking, and biking. Along Embarcadero are several rental shacks where you get bikes, kayaks and even surfboards. Some of the companies offer ½ day tours through the southern State Park and the estuary including lunch breaks and all necessary equipment.
If you don’t have the time to spend more than an hour in Morro Bay, drive down to the harbor, stretch your legs along the waterfront and grab a coffee on your way back to the highway. My favorite coffee shop is the Morro Bay Coffee Co located at the HWY ramp at Morro Bay Blvd.
4th stop: San Luis Obispo/Bubble Gum Alley - http://www.visitslo.com/
Behind Morro Bay, HWY 1 starts to drift off the shoreline and runs through a hilly landscape towards San Luis Obispo. In SLO HWY 1 merges onto HWY 101, which sounds easy, but I have to warn you: it isn’t.
The routing is chaotic and goes from a main street through a residential area before it ends at HWY 101 ramp. Please don’t get confused or think you got lost. This is how the way continues and the signposting is actually right - don’t worry!
I would only drive through the town without a stop unless you have plenty of time. For those interested in a longer visit here is some background info:
San Luis Obispo itself is one of the oldest communities in California and its most famous sights are the Madonna Inn, which you can see from HWY 101 and the Bubblegum Alley. The Madonna Inn was opened in 1958 and is known for it’s eccentric interior. If you are planning to stay there overnight, start saving your money. http://www.madonnainn.com/
The Bubblegum Alley consists of two walls located in the downtown area where visitors started sticking their chewed bubble gums against it in the 1960s. Since then the walls were cleaned twice until the majority decided to stop the cleanings and let the tradition continue. You probably think this is disgusting but the alley seems to have a worldwide fan base. It is located between 733 and 734 Higuera Street.
5th stop: Pismo Beach - http://www.classiccalifornia.com/index.html
Behind San Luis Obispo HWY 1/101 leads back to the ocean and to the clam capitol of the state: Pismo Beach. This classic Californian beach town is not only popular because of the clams but also for very long white, sandy beaches, miles of dunes, and its pier. There are plenty of beach trails to hike and you can rent buggies to drive through 8 miles of sand dunes.
More info about the Pismo Beach Trails is listed under:
More info regarding the buggy rentals is available under: http://www.sunbuggy.net/pismo/
I definitely recommend to go to the pier from where you have a nice view view over the ocean and the town. If you consider staying here overnight it’s a great place since it’s less crowded and many hotels and restaurants are located along the waterfront.
6th stop: Solvang/Lake Cachuma - http://www.solvangusa.com/
Further along HWY 101/1 you will continue along a hilly landscape until Santa Barbara. Since the scenery isn’t that impressive I recommend a scenic detour through the foothills of Santa Ynez Mountains. Turn onto Route 246 to Solvang and later Route 154 through the Santa Ynez River Valley to Santa Barbara. It is not only more scenic route but also more relaxing than the HWY 1/101 section to Santa Barbara. Plus: You would otherwise miss Denmark on your way!
Solvang, a former Danish colony, attracts nowadays many visitors since it totally looks like a mini profile of Denmark. Next to a copy of Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid you have windmills, and thatched homes here and the bakeries and restaurants offer Danish pastries and dishes. Even the sales people are dressed in traditional costumes. Entering the town it’s like being soaked in a time machine. I recommend parking for an hour, walking the streets and finishing your short stop with a visit in a bakery having a coffee and pastry.
Since you are already in Solvang follow Route 246 to the intersection of 154. Turn right onto 154 and drive down the winding and hilly road with its beautiful landscape passing Lake Cachuma (about 10 miles south east of Solvang).
Although it looks natural the lake is an artificial reservoir flanked by the San Rafael and Santa Ynez Mountains. If you have time think about renting a boat or buy a ticket for the 2-hr lake cruise guided by a park naturalist. Details for boat rentals http://www.countyofsb.org/parks/parks05.aspx?id=23658
Details for the 2-hr cruise:
7th stop: Santa Barbara - http://www.santabarbara.com/
Following Route 154 to the end you either have to turn left into Foothill Road going to the Santa Barbara Mission or you continue on 154 until you reach the ramp of HWY 101 towards L.A.
As many other cities along HWY 1/101 Santa Barbara was part of the Chumash Indians territory before Portuguese, Spaniards and Mexicans came to California to evangelize, banish or kill the native tribes.
The city was destroyed two times through earthquakes and a tsunami. In 1812 an earthquake destroyed the new erected mission, which was rebuilt afterwards and survived ever since.
100 years later in summer 1925 when another major quake hit Santa Barbara the city was damaged and almost completely destroyed. This time the city decided to go for a new architectural style called Spanish Colonial, today the characteristic feature of Santa Barbara’s downtown.
Santa Barbara is easy to explore by bike. Most local hotels rent them for free to their guests. However, if you are not staying in Santa Barbara overnight you can see all sights, that are spread all over the city, in steps by using your car.
Santa Barbara Tour
Mission Santa Barbara - http://santabarbaramission.org/
Coming from HWY 154 the closest sight is Santa Barbara Mission. If you are planning to visit “the queen of the missions” make a left onto Route 192 (Foothill Road) that leads you to Mission Canyon Road to your right (about 3 miles from the intersection). Make another right into Mission Canyon and follow the road up to the mission.
There is plenty of parking in front of it. In case you haven’t visited a Californian mission yet, I highly recommend doing it now. Santa Barbara’s mission is by far the most beautiful. It has a large garden, exhibition and church. The first mission was built from 1782 to 1786 and - as I mentioned before - destroyed through an earthquake and tsunami in 1812. Today’s mission was finally completed in 1820 and preserved since then.
State Street/ Santa Barbara County Courthouse/ The Presidio of Santa Barbara
Coming from the mission you can either drive down Laguna Street or you follow Mission Street until you get to Garden Street. No matter which street you take make a right into Ortega Street. At Ortega and State Street is a shopping center with a large parking structure where you can park your car for free for the first 75 minutes.
After parking your car, walk up State Street to your left/North (assumed the shopping center is behind you) until Anapamu Street. Turn right and make another right into Anacapa Street. Now you are standing in front of the courthouse and its beautiful garden. Visitors are allowed to take the elevator up to the clock tower from where you have a nice vantage point over the city.
A stone’s throw away is the Presidio. Walk two blocks down Anacapa Street and turn left into Canon Perdido Street.
The Presidio was one of four former Spanish military fortresses in Alta California. Its function was to protect missions and settlers in the area. Today only two sections of the original building are remaining but they are in a good shape. If you are interested, the Santa Barbara Trust of Historic Preservation offers an exhibition and guided tours: http://www.sbthp.org/presidio.htm
Casa De La Guerra - http://www.sbthp.org/casa.htm
Return to State Street over De La Guerra Street where the Casa De La Guerra, another historic building at the opposite of Santa Barbara’s city hall is located. The Casa was the political, social, and cultural center in former times holding celebrations and weddings for the townsfolk.
El Paseo Shopping Center
Next to the Casa de La Guerra is the El Paseo Shopping Center, the first shopping center in California. It was built in 1920 and has a beautiful architecture with inner courtyards. Get more impressions at J. Dickson’s community guide: http://www.santabarbara.com/community/shopping/el_paseo/
Back at State Street turn right and stroll down along various shops, restaurants and coffee shops. If you came to Santa Barbara on a Tuesday or Friday you will run into the popular Farmer’s market.
Usually many students are hanging around State Street since University of California Santa Barbara is just around the corner.
By passing the shops and restaurants it might occur to you that there are many expensive ones amongst those. The reason is that the city is slowly changing into a high society town and with a bit of luck you might see some celebrities.
If you are dying to see celebs you will have the highest chance by driving to Montecito’s Coast Village Road and it’s shops and coffee shops. Step by step Montecito is overtaking the star factor from Beverly Hills.
Shoreline Drive/ Stearns Wharf - http://www.stearnswharf.org/index.php
Unfortunately, Santa Barbara’s wharf is further away than you would expect although it’s also located on State Street. You better drive there instead of walking over. The advantage is that you can extend the route with a shoreline tour until you end up at the pier.
Exiting the parking structure at State Street follow State or Chapala Street to the north and turn left into Carillo Street 3 blocks later.
Follow the street that changes into Meigs Road and finally becomes the Shoreline Drive towards the ocean. Shoreline Drive is framed with very high palm trees, which are characteristic for Santa Barbara’s waterfront. On your way you are passing Santa Barbara’s harbor before you end up at Stearns Wharf.
Before the pier was built it was a big effort for visitors getting ashore. They had to change from a steamboat into a smaller boat first before they were able to land in Santa Barbara. When Stearns Wharf was finalized in 1872 steamboats where finally able to land directly at the pier, which attracted even more visitors to the city.
Today the wharf is holding several restaurants and souvenir shops for its visitors.
Close by the pier you will find several parking lots where you can leave your car, a cheaper alternative than paying $12 to enter the pier.
If you are staying in Santa Barbara overnight, many hotels offer their guests bikes to explore the waterfront or city – as I mentioned before.
Moreover, there are plenty of hiking trails around Santa Barbara with great views over the Pacific and the Santa Ynez River Valley. A really good source is Diane Soini’s webpage: http://www.santabarbarahikes.com/hikes/index.shtml
If you are leaving Santa Barbara at the same day, the easiest way getting back to HWY 1/101 is following Cabrillo Blvd until Garden Street to your left. Along Garden Street is the highway ramp towards L.A. Take the first ramp to your right. If you want to enjoy the shoreline a bit more, there is another entrance at South Milpas Street (to your left). Follow the road until Alisos Street to your right, which merges automatically onto HWY 1/101.
The tour from San Simeon down to Santa Barbara features many nice coastal towns and stops. This is why I recommend finishing the day in Santa Barbara and block another day to explore more of the city and maybe a third day to visit one of the Channel Islands. In case you are early or still have energy, feel free to explore Carpinteria and Ventura.
8th stop: Carpinteria/Ventura
12 miles south of Santa Barbara follows Carpinteria, another coastal town along the highway. The town itself does not offer much but a nice long sandy beach and less expensive accommodations than Santa Barbara.
If you are looking for a place to stay I either recommend the Motel 6 Carpinteria South or the Best Western since you easily can save some money. Detailed info about both hotels can be found in the HWY 1 Hotel section.
As said, the beach is very nice and - if you still have time left and didn’t spend it in Santa Barbara - I recommend a walk along Carpinteria Beach during sunset. You will have a nice view over the open ocean and towards the Channel Islands. But I have to warn you; it can happen that you are walking into an oil spill since there are oilrigs along the shore. If you tapped into a spill the best way getting rid of it is using either baby oil or body lotion.
If you are hungry there is a nice seafood restaurant located at the beginning of the town coming from SB called The Beach Grill at Padaro.
If it’s not past their hours there is a great brewery at Linden Ave behind the rail tracks called Island Brewing Co. It is local hang out and you might get some looks as a tourist but just don’t bother and enjoy their brews. Please note that they don’t serve any food except peanuts.
Ventura is another coastal mission town about 30 miles south of Santa Barbara. Especially the harbor village is very beautiful and offers some nice accommodations and restaurants. The Marina Park invites visitors to stroll along the beaches and pier, which open nice views towards the Channel Islands (http://www.nps.gov/chis/index.htm).
Most people are passing Ventura and the other towns being on the rush to L.A. without even realizing the hidden gems that are lined up along the way.
In Ventura for example ferry companies offers daily boat trips to the Channel Islands http://www.nps.gov/chis/index.htm. The islands are known for its natural beauty that was thankfully preserved due to its remote location. All islands are only reachable by boat or plane. If you have enough time on your trip you should consider spending half a day at one of the islands with hiking, snorkeling or kayaking.
If you are hungry, two of the favorite seafood spots in Ventura are Andria’s, a fish market and restaurant and Brophi Brothers with huge portions for little money.