Road Tripping the California Coast

The thin stream of McWay Falls takes backseat to the dramatic rocky cove studded with pines.

McWay Falls at sunset in Big Sur, California. Photo © Andrew Zarivny/123rf.

Looking for the ultimate California road trip? The best and consistently prettiest drive in California runs up the craggy curving coastline on the Pacific Coast Highway. The Pacific Coast Highway starts in San Juan Capistrano as the PCH and terminates in Leggett as Highway 1. This route is sometimes a highway, sometimes a city street, and often a twisty slow road. Wherever you are, it shows off the edge of California as it meets the Pacific Ocean.

Day 1

Book your car rental and fly into either the San Diego or Long Beach Airport. From San Diego, you’ll head north along I-5 until meeting the Pacific Coast Highway in San Juan Capistrano; from Long Beach, the PCH starts 40 miles south at Dana Point. Enjoy the drive in either direction, and consider a quick detour inland to see some California history at Mission San Juan Capistrano. At the end of a day of touring, the resorts of Huntington Beach await.

Day 2

Begin your day with a morning tour of the famously haunted Queen Mary in Long Beach. Then spend the afternoon meandering up the PCH, through the L.A. beach towns of Manhattan, Hermosa, and Redondo Beach. Stop in Venice for tour of the Venice Boardwalk, finishing up with dinner at one of Washington Street’s amazing restaurants.

Day 3

From Venice, the PCH makes a big bend at Santa Monica; as you pass through the 22-mile long town of Malibu you’ll be driving straight west. Stop at Malibu Lagoon State Beach to frolic in the surf or watch the surfers at Malibu Pier. The road again turns north and takes you through the center of Oxnard in a sometimes-confusing series of jogs out to Harbor Boulevard. At Pierpont Bay just before Ventura, Highway 101 merges with Harbor Boulevard to again become the PCH. Turn off the car and take a break in the southern-facing city of Santa Barbara.

Day 4

Spend the day in Santa Barbara. Play a game of beach volleyball, take a swim in the ocean, go shopping, or enjoy the Spanish Colonial history in and around the Mission Santa Barbara. Have dinner at The Endless Summer, and cap the evening with a moonlit walk on the beach.

Day 5

Get back on Highway 101, which becomes the historic Mission road, El Camino Real, north of Santa Barbara. You’ll leave the coastline until Gaviota State Park (maybe stop for a picnic and a quick hike) before turning left away from El Camino Real and onto the next iteration of the PCH: the Cabrillo Highway. Things get a bit complicated as you drive through the middle of downtown Lompoc to pick up Highway 1 again. Highway 1 and Highway 135 merge briefly, then there’s not much to see until Highway 1 joins Highway 101 again just south of Pismo Beach. From Pismo, take the slower but more scenic Los Osos Valley Road and rejoin the PCH to spend the night in Cambria.

Day 6

Stop for breakfast downtown before heading north to San Simeon for a tour of famous Hearst Castle. Spend the night in one of the many abodes lining Moonstone Beach.

Day 7

Heading north, Highway 1 stops diverging for a while, clinging tenaciously to the coastline. Stop at Piedras Blancas to see the elephant seals in winter, or head directly into Big Sur. Make reservations to camp at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park or splurge on a room at Ventana Inn. Take an easy walk out to the famous McWay Falls waterfall that drops onto a cove beach. Do some more serious woodsy hiking in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, then clean up for a top-end meal at Cielo at the Ventana. If you’re still awake after midnight, take a dip in the cliff-top hot tubs at Esalen.

Day 8

Breakfast at Deetjen’s before continuing through the north end of Big Sur. Be sure to stop at the many pullouts to photograph the unbelievably beautiful rugged coastal panorama. Stop for a hike at Point Lobos before returning to civilization in Carmel. The 17-Mile Drive makes a great detour off the highway. Visit the hallowed greens and fairways of Pebble Beach, go wine tasting in nearby Carmel Valley, or take in a show at one of the local live theaters. After dinner, spend the night in Monterey.

Day 9

Get an early start to hit the Monterey Bay Aquarium before the crowds and stroll Cannery Row. Back on the road, lush, fertile farmland surrounds Highway 1 on either side up to Santa Cruz, a funky, liberal town—even for California. Kids love taking a break to ride the roller coasters and play the games at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Farther up the coast, stop at Davenport to watch the parasurfers, then continue on up to Half Moon Bay to stay at one of the charming B&Bs.

Day 10

Be sure Devil’s Slide is open before taking Highway 1 from Half Moon Bay up into San Francisco. Here, Highway 1 is also called 19th Avenue, and takes you across the Golden Gate Bridge in about 30 minutes. But Skyline Boulevard (Rte. 35) makes a prettier drive, letting you see Ocean Beach and some of the city’s most stunning mansions. At the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway 1 and U.S. 101 merge before taking you into Marin, where plenty of restaurants and hotels welcome weary travelers.

Day 11

From Marin, Highway 1 hugs the rough, rocky coastline as towns become scarce and the scenery amazing. Wend your way through Muir Beach, past Stinson Beach, through Point Reyes, along Tomales Bay, and up to Bodega Bay. Lunch at Hog Island Oyster Company and continue north to Fort Ross for some largely overlooked history of the California coast. Spend the night at Sea Ranch, or push on to the B&Bs and inns that dot the roadside up into Mendocino and Fort Bragg.

Day 12

Continuing north, you’ll see fewer cars on the road. Highway 1 turns inland at Leggett and terminates at U.S. 101, skirting the wilderness area known as the Lost Coast. To get the best possible view of this remote and beautiful region without actually backpacking the Lost Coast Trail, take slow and twisting Mattole Road through the wilderness to the Victorian town of Ferndale and stay at a B&B.

Day 13

Take U.S. 101, now called the Redwood Highway, north to slow down and spend some time in the fabulous Redwood National and State Parks. Patrick’s Point State Park boasts a re-created Native American village, while farther north Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park offers lovely, shady day hikes through the trees and down to the beaches. Or, head south on the Redwood Highway to visit the Avenue of the Giants in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Camp in the park or treat yourself to a night at the Benbow Inn and dine in the excellent restaurant.

Day 14

It’s a 3–4-hour drive south on U.S. 101 to San Francisco for your flight home. Stay on Highway 1 (19th Ave.) for a last glimpse of the coast from the Cliff House for lunch before continuing to SFO.

Excerpted from the Second Edition of Moon California.

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  1. Joanne says:

    I’ve experienced the journey along the Pacific Coast Highway three times in my life and will do it again I am certain.; it’s the most breathtaking scenery anyone can experience in our country.
    The second time I did the trip I had mentioned it to one of my vendors. He and his wife had just done the trip and gave my husband and I their complete itinerary that mentioned every place they stopped for restaurants and unique hotels . I was wondering if this might be considered to your Moon Travel Guide. My one recommendation would be the Highlands Inn and so many other fabulous places to stay as one travels North from San Diego to San Francisco.

    • Kimi Owens (admin) says:

      Hi Joanne,

      At this time, we don’t accept unsolicited blog posts, however you’re more than welcome to share any highlights here in the comments for other travelers!

  2. laura says:

    this is amazing. I’m in southern california and want to drive along the coast all the way up to vancouver. any tips for continuing on from sf to there?

  3. Chris Leonard says:

    Hi Liz,
    Sounds a fabulous trip.
    Joanne and myself are planning a trip in summer but for 11 days (inc. flight in and flight out)do you have a guide that covers this time span?
    Also when in summer is it best to go – avoiding school holidays? Would you fly in and out of the same airport or seperate ones.
    Any help would be apprechiated.
    Best regards Chris

  4. monica zalaket says:

    Hi Liz,

    Is this itinerary reversible? if we wanted to start in the north to the south?

  5. Danny Hanson says:

    Hi Liz, I was reading your article and I was wondering how I can get from Phoenix, Arizona to to San Diego going through PCH. Me and my family are going and we think that it would be a way easier way to take PCH. any way hope you can help us. thank you! 😉

  6. Lai Chan says:

    hi Liz,

    I was reading your Road Tripping the California Coast and I wanted to see if you can give me an ideas on how to drive from Mission Viejo, CA to San Francisco going through PCH. I wanted to take a road trip with my daughter and we love scenery and the beaches and someone has suggested that we drive through PCH. I would love to hear from you soon.


    • Kimi Owens (admin) says:

      Hi Lai,

      Jamie Jensen, author of our Road Trip USA books, suggests that if you’re in a hurry, to take the 405 to the I-10 to Santa Monica to hit the PCH which you can then follow all the way to SF. While you can certainly cut over earlier, the sections where Hwy-1 follows surface streets (like Lincoln Blvd) can add a lot of time to your trip, and many of the best views of the coast start north of Santa Monica.

      Hope this helps you plan your trip with your daughter!

      • Lou Ricci says:

        Why do you recommend South to North? I was thinking of ending in San Diego so we could relax in warm weather after trip.