Pacific Coast Highway Guide: California Road Trip Tips

I love road trips, and my favorite in the entire United States is the stretch of Pacific Coast Highway between Southern and Northern California. This guide will help you plan the perfect ocean-side vacation along PCH, with a multi-day itinerary, tips for where to stay, what to do, dining, and more!

Formally known as California State Route 1, this is California’s major north–south state highway that hugs 659 miles of the state’s Pacific coastline. In various places, California State Route 1 (SR 1) is designated as Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), Cabrillo Highway, Shoreline Highway, Coast Highway, or California Highway 1.

While all of these names can be used interchangeably, most people know it as simply PCH or Highway 1. Pacific Coast Highway starts in Southern California at I-5 near Dana Point in Orange County and terminates in Northern California at U.S. Route 101 in Mendocino County.

I’ve done stretches of this dozens of times, including one-way trips from Los Angeles to San Francisco, before flying back to Orange County. Other times, we’ve driven sections of Pacific Coast Highway north, and then looped in to Central California for the return trip south. From a sightseeing perspective, I would not necessarily recommend this (long sections of the drive are quite dull), but it’s a good meandering option if you want to hit several National Parks in (meandering) succession.

Since posting a trip report about my family’s experience doing this a few years ago, I’ve received questions about the ‘great American road trip’ driving Pacific Coast Highway. My goal was to cover entirety of PCH and create an ‘Ultimate Guide to Pacific Coast Highway’ that offers a 7-day itinerary from San Diego to Redwood National Park. However, our plans to visit Redwood National Park has been dashed a couple of times, so I’m going to start with this, and build out the itinerary later.

My first recommendation would be to allot at least 3 days to the road trip portion of the trip, picking a town or two to slow down and spend another night. You’ll notice our itinerary below is 4 days, but you’ll also see that it jumps from Los Angeles to Malibu. (Not exactly a colossal leap, but still.)

We are partial to Laguna Beach as a quiet beachside town for decompressing, and Los Angeles is our favorite city in the United States. In Big Sur, you’ll likewise find a number of beautiful areas that are stunning and secluded, including camp grounds. Just a short drive north of there, the affluent Monterey Peninsula offers a wealth of options for all budgets.

Santa Cruz isn’t high on our list of places to visit, but it likewise has some draws. In the Bay Area, San Francisco is another obvious choice for a world-class destination with no shortage of things to do. You could easily draw this trip out to 2 weeks, but we think around 7 days is ideal, with more (overnight) time spent in the aforementioned places.

My second recommendation would be to do this Pacific Coast Highway road trip pretty much any time that isn’t between Memorial Day and Labor Day. This is California’s peak tourist and vacation season, and many of these beach cities are especially popular during the summer.

Add to this the fact that segments of California Highway 1 alternate between being a two-lane road and an urban freeway, and there’s the potential for slow-moving traffic. In fact, if you consult Google Maps, it will frequently advise you to avoid Pacific Coast Highway and instead use US 101 or I-5.

We lived about 5 minutes from Pacific Coast Highway in Laguna Beach for a few years, and this fact was borne out with regularity. This is arguably one of the worst stretches of PCH for summer traffic. Not only is it a two-lane road, but it’s one dotted with pedestrian crossings, and is a popular segment for leisurely drives.

However, there is a noticeable drop-off in traffic after Labor Day, which makes for a markedly better experience. Also noteworthy is that hotel rates are considerably cheaper in the shoulder and off-season, which is basically September through May, save for the weeks around major holidays and spring break.

You’re probably not going to swim in the Pacific Ocean anyway, so our strong recommendation would be to do this California Highway 1 road trip in the off-season when the weather is cooler and traffic is lighter. It’s an infinitely more pleasant experience. With that said, on to the itinerary…

Day 1: Dana Point/Laguna Beach to Los Angeles

Our recommendation would be to start with an overnight in Laguna Beach, which is the next city north of Dana Point, where Pacific Coast Highway begins. We’re biased to Laguna, but think it’s truly one of the most beautiful and pleasant places in Southern California. See our Laguna Beach, California Vacation Planning Guide for everything (probably more) that you’d ever want to know about Laguna.

The following day, either get up early to beat the rush hour commute heading north on Pacific Coast Highway through Newport and Huntington Beach, or have a leisurely breakfast (there’s no shortage of oceanside options) and get started after the traffic subsides. We’d recommend the former approach, as there’s a lot to see in Santa Monica and Los Angeles.

While much of it’s outside the scope of a Pacific Coast Highway road trip, we’d highly recommend following the second day of our 2-Day Los Angeles Itinerary. Essential (and easier) diversions from Highway 1 are the Getty Villa and Getty Museum, both of which we highly recommend.

If time allows, cherry-pick a few stops from our 1-Day ‘Best Of’ Los Angeles Itinerary to see more of the City of Angels’ highlights. For those who are ambitious and willing to drive a bit more inland, Griffith Observatory is our top recommendation for Los Angeles things to do.

End the day by heading to Malibu for sunset. For the most photogenic beach, we strongly recommend El Matador Beach, which is “Malibu’s Megastar.”

If you have time before sunset, do dinner at Malibu Seafood Fresh Fish Market. Hotel options in Malibu are limited, so you’ll either want to continue north to the Oxnard area or inland to Calabasas.

Day 2: Malibu to Morro Bay

This day could arguably be broken up into two days if you want to take a slower pace–or if you want to visit the Channel Islands. The first stretch would be Malibu to Santa Barbara, with Santa Barbara to Morro Bay (or Monterey) the following day.

Regardless, you’ll want to spend a good amount of time exploring Santa Barbara. The city bills itself as the American Riviera, which is a sufficient and apt way of describing Santa Barbara’s historic architecture, Mediterranean climate, mountain-meets-ocean setting, and overall vibe.

While you won’t find many must-do points of interest in Santa Barbara, it’s a wonderful city to explore. We enjoy wandering the Presidio, waterfront, and downtown without any real agenda. If you’re looking for something specific, a great option for continuing your ‘explorations’ is Old Mission Santa Barbara.

For lunch, you can’t beat Lilly’s Taqueria. This spot serves authentic Mexican soft tacos with some interesting menu items, including beef tongue, lip, cheek, and eye–all of which are delicious. Follow that with dessert at McConnell’s, which is my absolute favorite ice cream.

If you decide to stay overnight in Santa Barbara, consider making the short drive inland to Solvang, California. This Danish village is a tad touristy and kitschy, but it’s also charming and lovely. La Purisima Mission State Historic Park is another nearby stop that’s worthwhile. 

Once you get north of Santa Barbara, you’re in for a long scenic drive devoid of major cities or even beach towns. We typically do this in a straight-shot, without stopping for sightseeing.

Day 3: Morro Bay to Big Sur

The stretch of California’s Central Coast around San Luis Obispo is its own thing, with a slower-paced way of life and less development than its neighbors to the north or south. There’s some natural beauty along this stretch of Pacific Coast Highway, but most of the towns are charitably described as “sleepy.”

We’d recommend stopping in either Pismo Beach or Morro Bay. In both, you can find a range of hotel options, including chic boutique offerings and very basic motels that are perfectly safe. Both are nice options, but we prefer Morro Bay; in particular, somewhere within walking distance of the embarcadero. (See our Tips for Visiting Morro Bay State Park for hotel and dining recommendations.)

The main purpose of stopping in this area is being near Hearst Castle, which is the iconic and must-do stop in the Central California Coast region. We absolutely love Hearst Castle and highly recommend it. If the evening or twilight tours are offered when you visit, do one of those on your arrival night. Otherwise, try for the very first Grand Rooms tour the following morning.

Driving north on Highway 1, Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery in San Simeon is another worthwhile stop. In fact, this entire area is known for seals, sea lions, and otters, so don’t be surprised if you see other aquatic life while stopping in Pismo Beach, Cambria, or San Simeon.

Following that, it’s on to Big Sur. In terms of the drive, this is the highlight of our Pacific Coast Highway road trip. My favorite stop in Big Sur is Pfeiffer Beach, which we love year-round for its purple sand, but especially during the annual Keyhole Arch “Light Show.”

Much of Big Sur is protected as Julia Pfeiffer Burns and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Parks, making for a sparsely-populated drive that is beyond stunning. Bordered on the east by the Santa Lucia Mountains, this stretch has winding turns, seaside cliffs, and stunning views of the Pacific coast.

Iconic must-see landmarks include Bixby Creek Bridge, a feat of engineering that rises 270 feet above the canyon floor. McWay Falls offers equally impressive natural beauty, as this 80 foot waterfall cascades down granite cliffs into a tucked-away ocean cove.

Some of California’s best camping is in Big Sur’s state parks, and that’s where we’d recommend staying during this stretch of the trip. Even if you aren’t up for tent (or car!) camping, most of these also offer rustic cabins (or, in some cases, chic) that are a great change of pace option. Failing that, there are plenty of hotels north on Highway 1 in Monterey.

Day 4: Big Sur to San Francisco

This day will start by going through Carmel-by-the-Sea, after which Highway 1 cuts inland to bypass the Monterey Peninsula. Instead of following PCH, we’d recommend continuing along the iconic (and paid) 17-Mile Drive, which is famous for its views, and offers popular stops at Pescadero Point, the Lone Cypress, Crocker Grove, Bird Rock, Fanshell Beach, and Del Monte Forest before arriving at the world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Even though you presumably just spent most of the previous day in Big Sur, we’d recommend lingering in this area. Spend a couple of hours doing 17-Mile Drive, and spend a few more at Monterey Bay Aquarium followed by a stroll around Old Fisherman’s Wharf and Cannery Row. This area is really nice, especially as compared to the stretch following it.

Once you leave Monterey and head towards Santa Cruz, it’s not nearly as nice. Admittedly, I’m not a fan of Santa Cruz, though. With that said, I really like Natural Bridges State Beach, which features an iconic sea arch natural bridge and is also famed for monarch butterfly migrations (we’ve never seen that). For something more secluded, I also absolutely love Shark Fin Cove (or Shark Tooth Beach), which is named for its massive rock formation resembling a shark fin.

The next worthwhile stop on the Pacific Coast Highway road trip is Pigeon Point Lighthouse. After that, it’s on to either (or both) Martins Beach and Half Moon Bay. The former is a stunning beach that’s infamous for the lawsuit brought by surfers to ensure public access. The latter is another affluent beach town, which features a Ritz Carlton perched atop stunning bluffs.

If you’re a high roller, staying at the Ritz Carlton Half Moon Bay is a great option. If not, continue north on Pacific Coast Highway to San Francisco. As with Los Angeles, we’d recommend spending more time here (it’s also outside the scope of our Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip guide, but we have some San Francisco posts here). This is where our journey ends!

If you’re planning a trip, check out our California category of posts. If you enjoyed this post, help spread the word by sharing it via social media. Thanks for reading!

Your Thoughts

Have you done a California Highway 1 road trip? If so, what did you think of experience? Any additional tips or places to stop you’d add that we didn’t cover? Would you do it again, revisiting favorites along the way, or do you think a PCH road trip is a ‘one and done’? Was it worth your time, patience in traffic, and money? Hearing feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!

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6 replies
  1. Corene
    Corene says:

    Thinking about a possible road trip from Vancouver down the coast for our son’s spring break. Going through all of your SoCal posts now. Thanks for all the insight!

    Reply
  2. Marc T.
    Marc T. says:

    Why does Tom say “You’re probably not going to swim in the Pacific Ocean anyways”? Not even in the beach towns? Is it not safe, too cold, too rough?

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      The water is freezing, ground tends to be rocky, plus undertow, large waves, and rip currents make many of California’s beaches less safe.

      This is not to say they’re all unsafe–there are still plenty of ‘traditional’ beaches where people do swim. It’s just less common, especially outside of peak summer tourist season, in many beaches.

      Reply
  3. Ian
    Ian says:

    My wife and I have driven most of the PCH, though not all in one go. Our favorite stretch is definitely from Monterey to SLO, with the top spots being Point Lobos and Big Sur. Plenty of fantastic shops and little restaurants in Cambria, which we like to stop at on most of our trips from the SF Bay Area down to Anaheim.
    Other great stops are Año Nuevo State Park and an unmarked but public beach in Pescadero.
    As for Santa Cruz, I definitely recommend going to Natural Bridges during butterfly season; if you get there when the temperature is just right, it’s truly stunning. We’ve also done a sailboat cruise in the bay there and would definitely recommend that. Lots of other off-the-beaten-track things I could mention along the cost, but I’ll stop there for now.

    Reply

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