Up the Coast: A Road Trip From San Diego to San Francisco

A photo essay and practical tips.

This story originally appeared on Herewith and has been republished with permission. Words by Vivian Kim. For more stories, visit Herewith.

california coast road trip

Photo: Vivian Kim

“Five boys, two dogs, way too many boards, and a cooler with a questionable cold-beer-to-real-food ratio...”

The thought itself of driving from San Diego to San Francisco exhausted me. Of course, that all turned to excitement once we finally packed into our vehicles and hit the road. We shot north up the 101 and drove the long, windy roads of Nacimiento Canyon to get into Big Sur, due to the road closures on PCH. As we drove deeper along this route, we expectedly lost service and thus our music streaming privileges.

Luckily, we had an old Lumineers CD, the raw and slow melodies of which seemed to soundtrack the drive quite perfectly. Having already had spent the past couple of hours catching up and discussing plans, we began to slow down ourselves. Words and laughter phased out, and we soon embraced the silence that clouded us, only to be interrupted by the occasional camera shutters.

California coast road trip

Photo: Vivian Kim

Turn after turn, we sat patiently, both in awe of the unique forestry and in anticipation of the first ocean views. And when we finally broke through the tall trees, the cliffs that surrounded us, it felt like a never-felt-before breath of fresh air. Stunning--seeing the ocean in this way, dressed modestly in the marine layer, waves crashing both violently and elegantly against the rocky shores.

california coast road trip

Photo: Vivian Kim

The sun magnified the warm hues of the grasses (phragmites australis, as I later discovered) that blanketed the cliffs, and, in that moment, everything that was gold, even in the slightest, seemed to glisten. It was a magical beginning to a fun-filled trip. We set up camp on a ridge somewhere along the Pacific Valley and as darkness approached, the moon and stars arose shortly thereafter.

california coast road trip

Photo: Vivian Kim

The next few days consisted of water that was not as cold as we had expected, lots of last-minute-pulling-off-the-road surf checks, pouring coffee out of a craftily split Coors can (which would later be coined "the Coors-over"), over 5,000 calories of peanut butter (wish I was kidding), all documented on 7+ rolls of film and 3 minutes of Super 8 movie film.

california coast road trip

Photo: Vivian Kim

My Road Trip Tricks:

Pack light. You will probably end up wearing the same sweats for most of the time, to be honest.

Compartmentalize. Your trip will be a lot more enjoyable, your time much better spent, and your mind much more at peace if you can avoid digging through mounds of clothes to find what you're looking for.

california coast road trip

Photo: Vivian Kim

Talk to the locals. As long as you are wary and careful, meeting strangers is an adventure in itself. You'll be led to quaint new coffee shops, the best breakfast burrito, and possibly even be invited in for a warm, homemade meal.

Be openminded and embrace the unexpected. Your trip will most likely not go 100% as planned, and that's the fun of it. Road trips take us out of the monotony of our 9-to-5s, challenge us to step out of our comfort zones, and stretch the boundaries we often seem to set for ourselves.

california coast road trip

Photo: Vivian Kim

Deal with mishaps with a sound, productive mindset. Almost every problem has a solution, and it's much easier to change a flat tire without tears clouding your vision.

Traveling With Pets:

Pack enough food. It seems simple, but it's easy to forget when you're rushing to pack the car.

california coast road trip

Photo: Vivian Kim

Make sure to let them out to pee before you go to sleep, or they might pee inside the tent, on your friend, and out him of a sleeping bag for the few days following... Trust me on this one.

Keep your pets leashed. My dog, Brixton, is normally really good unleashed, but he started prancing around in excitement and 1) leaped into a bed of poison oak, and 2) came back COVERED in thistles, which took 4+ hours for me to individually pick out. Super fun for both parties involved.

california coast road trip

Photo: Vivian Kim

Places to camp/stop from SD --> SF:

We started off with coffee and breakfast bowls from OB Beans and Wailua Shave Ice, which are conveniently share the same space in Ocean Beach in San Diego. OB Beans works directly with small lot coffee farmers to source some of the yummiest coffee, and we used their beans to make coffee during our whole trip.

california coast road trip

Map by Vivian Kim

Wailua Shave Ice serves Hawaiian shave ice, made with fresh local fruit (not the typical artificial syrups), and super-topped chia/smoothie bowls. I watched Taylor craft my bowl layer by layer, starting with a fruit base, and adding on acai, coconut chia pudding, granola, coconut shreds, and almond butter (of course).

Anything tastes better when you watch someone put intention and effort into preparing it.

california coast road trip

Photo: Vivian Kim

San O (San Onofre), is San O for a reason. You drive into a section of the coast, full of rights and lefts, that makes you feel like you've found a portal into the ’60s. You can pull your car right up onto the sand for easy loading/unloading and frequent snack breaks.

california coast road trip

Photo: Vivian Kim

As we continued up the 101 North, we got a real itching for kombucha and luckily happened to be minutes away from SunLife Organics. They offer bowls, smoothies, juices, and more, including an extensive Kombucha selection! We had the Jasmine Bliss Whalebird Kombucha on tap. It's the ultimate healthy pitstop when passing through the LA area.

california coast road trip

Photo: Vivian Kim

Montaña de Oro in San Luis Obispo is remote and picturesque. There are tons of spots to surf around here, and it has some prime sunset watching zones (including on top of huge rock formations).

There are some great breaks within the Pacific Valley, Willow Creek and Sand Dollar Beach being two of them. Both are surrounded by grand, natural beauty and make you feel like you're in a painting.

california coast road trip

Photo: Vivian Kim

Kirk Creek is a just south of Big Sur and has first come, first serve spots, along with the typical reservation spots. It has trails down to a bouldered beach and almost all spots have an epic view of the coastline.

California Coast Road Trip

Photo: Vivian Kim

Pfeiffer Big Sur is a bit deeper into Big Sur and is definitely worth visiting. It is nested in huge redwoods and there are tons of campsites situated along the river! It has cabins too, so it's perfect for hardcore campers and glampers alike.

california coast road trip

Photo: Vivian Kim

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