Skip to Navigation Skip to Content

Five Beautiful Coastal Drives Near San Francisco

Five Beautiful Coastal Drives Near San Francisco

Occupying so much of the western seaboard, it's no wonder why California is full of beautiful coastal drives. However, with a coastline that stretches for over 800 miles, many of California's drives aren't exactly accessible. Nonetheless, many of these beautiful drives are within a short distance from San Francisco and make for a great day trip. Below, I highlight five beautiful coastal drives near San Francisco.

The Great Highway in San Francisco

This is one drive you won't even have to leave San Francisco for. To the naked eye, the Great Highway is nothing so great, since it only stretches a few miles, starting at Ocean Beach and heading south through the Sunset district toward Lake Merced. However, once you hit Lake Merced, keep going south on Highway 35 past the Olympic Club and onto Highway 1. Highway 1 being California's most famous coastal highway, although the most scenic parts of it are  further south. This part of Highway 1 meanders through the hills and takes travelers through the small beach towns of Pacifica, Montara, and Half Moon Bay. This is a great sunset drive and one that can be completed in a couple hours.

West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz's West Cliff Drive is another short drive that can be completed in less than an hour from start to finish. For that reason, it's likely to be a part of a bigger day or weekend trip to Santa Cruz. The drive begins just south of downtown Santa Cruz past the Santa Cruz Wharf and winds its way west along the rugged coastline. It drives past the famous Steamer Lane surfing spot, Lighthouse Field State Beach, and the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, before ending just short of Natural Bridges State Park. On a trip to Santa Cruz, consider coming from the East Bay and going down Highway 17 over the hills into Santa Cruz and then taking Highway 1 up the coastline back to San Francisco.

Highway 1 through Big Sur

This is the daddy of drives in California. While it can be accessed on a day trip from San Francisco, visitors should really give Big Sur a weekend, since it's a couple hours to get to where this drive really starts, just south of Carmel. Make sure the first part of the drive through Big Sur includes a stop at Nepenthe Restaurant for apps and drinks while enjoying views looking out across the Pacific Ocean from its perched patio. While the first 30 miles offer some of the most beautiful coastal scenery in California with expansive views that look out across the Pacific Ocean and rugged coastline, it's worth it to continue all the way down to Cambria, which is another 60 miles, and just south of Piedras Blancas, an elephant seal rookery off Highway 1.

Point Reyes National Seashore

With so much natural coastal beauty just south of San Francisco in Half Moon Bay, Santa Cruz, Mendocino, and Big Sur, Point Reyes can sometimes be overlooked. That and it doesn't have the same accessibility as some of the other drives on this list. Much of the drive is through the rolling hills of the area. Travelers getting off Highway 101 shortly after the Golden Gate Bridge at Highway 1 will be met with sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean near Stinson Beach and Bolinas before heading further inland. Once to Tomales Bay, Sir Francis Drake Boulevard cuts west toward the Pacific Ocean, ending at the Point Reyes Lighthouse.

Highway 1 through Mendocino County

What Mendocino County has that these other drives doesn't is vineyards. While most of Mendocino County's vineyards are further inland along Highway 128, it's just a short, but curvy, drive to Highway 1 and the Pacific Coast from these vineyards. Coming from San Francisco, most visitors would likely take 128 at Cloverdale and drive through the hills and valleys before hitting Navarro River Redwoods State Park, which sits on the banks of the Navarro River and empties into the Pacific Ocean. The drive then continues north to the town of Mendocino. Fort Bragg is just a 10-mile drive from Mendocino and is worth the extra drive, if for no other reason then a visit to the famous Glass Beach.

Where is your favorite coastal drive?