California is full of hidden gems and beautiful towns, landscape and delicious food. For the longest time we have dreamt about a road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1 or 101), probably California’s most popular road trip, visiting Santa Barbara, Big Sur, Monterey and San Obispo. The scenic route runs along the California coast with stunning viewpoints, state parks, and wildlife.
The entire Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) is about 475 miles and it can take 8 hours to drive, but you will need at least a week to fully enjoy it as you would want to stop along the way as it offers a little piece of everything that has made California popular along travelers.
Another trip you could add to your ultimate Pacific Coast Highway getaway is a road trip from San Diego to Joshua Tree National Park. It takes about 2 hours 30 minutes and it is about 164 miles. On your way, you should stop at La Jolla’s Torrey Pines for a quick and breathtaking hike.
Other stops you could add to your trip are Temecula for a quick wine-tasting and/ or the Desert Hot Springs for a quick soak in hot mineral water pools. In Joshua Tree National Park you can go for a variety of hikes and drives within the park that showcase Joshua Tree’s strange rock formations, stunning landscapes, and beautiful sunsets.
Highway 1 starts in San Diego and ends at the border between California and Oregon, but for this guide we started the trip in Costa Mesa and finish it in San Francisco passing through Big Sur. If you are starting your trip from the start of Highway 1 make sure to check out this guide with the best things to do and see in San Diego.
Map with the best Pacific Coast Highway stops from Los Angeles to San Francisco including Big Sur:
In this map you will find all the stops we mention in our blog post. The stops we deem as California highlights are marked with a star. To send the map to your phone make sure to click on the save icon.
How long do I need for a Highway One Classic Road Trip?
We spent three full days completing the Highway One road trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco and wished we had several more days as an ideal itinerary is 5 to 7 days. It all depends on what you want to do and see along with how long you wish to spend in each town or natural park.
If you have less time you can still drive CA Highway 1 as it is only a 7 hour drive, but do not expect the same experience as you will miss many of the stops along the route.
Tips to drive the Pacific Coast Highway route:
- Make sure you leave Los Angeles with a full tank of gas. While gas is not cheap anywhere in California, along the Big Sur gas is more expensive, especially in Gorda.
- Bring snacks to save money and enjoy picnics at the viewpoints.
- The best direction to complete the road trip is from San Francisco to Los Angeles as you are driving along the water side of the highway. Either way we never had any problem finding parking or stopping at the viewpoints.
- Download the map and any blog posts you are using as notes as cell phone service can be limited for a big part of the trip.
Road trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco along the Pacific Coast Highway
Now that you have some of our general California road trip tips it is time to pack your bags, put on some sunglasses and get ready to cruise. If you are looking for the ultimate Pacific Coast Highway experience, go all out and splurge on a convertible rental.
Day 1: Arrive to John Wayne Airport and spend the night in Costa Mesa
Arriving to Costa Mesa via the John Wayne Airport you will find yourself only a few minutes away from Costa Mesa’s main attractions. Even though Costa Mesa does not have a beach it is pretty close to spectacular beaches such as Newport Beach and Long Beach. It is also close to some of the biggest attraction parks in the state such as Disney and Buena Park.
Our favorite things to do in Costa Mesa is to enjoy of its delicious cuisine and spend the afternoon at any of the city’s many unique shopping areas like the Anti Mall or The Camp. If you are looking for more luxurious and international brands, you must visit the biggest mall in the West Coast, The South Coast Plaza.
Read More about: What to do in Costa Mesa in two days
Day 2: Spend the day exploring Los Angeles
You can spend countless days in Los Angeles and still not have enough time to fully explore the city. However, in one day you can see the main landmarks that LA has to offer.
Our favorite things to do in Los Angeles are to visit the Griffith Park for a panoramic view of the city and the Hollywood Sign, take photos at LA’s famous murals, and of course visit the urban light exhibition at the Wilshire Boulevard entrance to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. You can also visit Hollywood and Beverly Hills.
Read More about: What to do in Los Angeles on the weekend
Day 3: From Los Angeles to Ventura
Venice Beach is one of the most iconic spots to visit in California to just go for a walk and chill. With its man made canals, boutique shops and the Venice Boardwalk, there is a great vibe to put you in the California mood.
Get ready to spend your time right on the water in Santa Monica. Home to the Santa Monica Pier with the Pacific Park amusement park, Looff Hippodrome Carousel and Santa Monica Pier Aquarium. Right next to that is Muscle Beach, an open air gym.
Matador beach is located right after the city of Malibu. Malibu is a nice stop as it has a beautiful pier and is home to many movie stars. Some famous beaches in Malibu are the Zuma Beach and Surfrider but we decided to just stop at Matador Beach and it honestly is mind-blowing. It has a cliff and several rock formations that make it the perfect place to take photos! We made it for sunset and it is absolutely beautiful.
We kept driving to Ventura where we slept, as the next day we planned to visit the Channel Island National Park. The park is beautiful but you need to spend a full day to explore any of the islands. After the day You can keep driving or sleep again in Ventura. While you are in Ventura make sure to stop at the Outlet Premium of Camerillo.
Day 4: From Ventura to Morro Bay
Santa Barbara is one of my favorite stops along the Pacific Coast Highway. Our first impression of the city is that it is a mix between a Mediterranean city and an American city with a view of the Santa Ynez Mountains. You can still see the influence of the Spanish conquest which lasted until the early 1800s. The main things to visit in Santa Barbara are the Old Mission Santa Barbara, to take a stroll along State street, the Stearns Wharf Pier and of course the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, where you can go up the clock tower and see a 360 degree view of the city.
Solvang transports you all the way to Denmark! It is the most unique town you will see in the route from Los Angeles to San Francisco along the Pacific Coast Highway. The town has a strong Danish culture as it was founded by Danish settlers in the early 1900s. Solvang is known for its windmills, beautiful Danish architecture and of course delicious food, wine, and craft brew culture. My favorite things to do in Solvang are visit the Little Mermaid replica, take a photo with the big red shoe, go to any of the many wine tasting rooms, and visit the windmills.
Pismo Beach is known as the Clam Capital of the world as they used to have the famous Pismo Clams. Make sure to walk along the pier and take a photo of the gigantic concrete clam statue on the end of Price Street.
San Luis Obispo
We did not stay too long in San Luis Obispo (SLO) as we were running out of daylight and we wanted to catch sunset at Morro Bay, but it is a beautiful town with its own California vibe. In a way it reminded me a lot of San Francisco but smaller. Things you must see in San Luis Obispo are the Moon Tree, which is a sequoia that was born from a seed that traveled to space in Apollo 14 and of course take a photo at the Bubblegum Alley. The Alley is covered with gum and is such a cute photo opportunity. Some of our favorite things to do in San Luis Obispo is trying new craft beers, wine tasting or enjoying the outdoors in the nearby nature reserves.
A good place to go to sleep is the Madonna Inn as it is a very photogenic with a unique personality but unfortunately, it was fully booked so we kept going to Morro Bay, which is an amazing spot to catch the sunset!
Tip: Fill up the gas tank here so you do not have to worry about getting stranded for the next leg of the drive.
Morro Bay was founded in 1964 and its highlight is the big rock near the ocean called Morro Rock, which is a volcanic plug that is part of the nine sisters. The Nine Sisters or the Morros are a chain of nine volcanic mountains and hills in western San Luis Obispo County which are over 21 millions years old.
We recommend taking several photos from the pier or even get close to the rock and walk away from the beach to get a panoramic view. The best place for sunset is at the beach near Morro Rock.
We ended up staying at the Best Western San Marcos Inn and it was fantastic! We even got a balcony. The hotel also has a hydrotherapy spa which is perfect to relax after a day of exploring and driving.
Day 5: From Morro Bay to Monterey going through the Big Sur
One of most popular things to do in California is visiting the Hearst Castle. It was built as the private estate of media mogul W.R. Hearst but today this state park features lavish furnishings and authentic art pieces. We were running out of time on our road trip so had to skip Hearst Castle as the tour takes at least two hours.
The Big Sur is famous for its California cliffs with breathtaking views. Some of the spots you must visit while in the Big Sur are Bixby Bridge, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park & McWay Falls, Piedra Blancas and Garrapata State Park.
Cayuco is a small town with a beautiful pier and ocean view. The best thing to do in Cayucos is just to walk around the downtown and appreciate the houses, as they are adorable.
Moonstone Beach is located in the small town of Cambria and is famous for having colorful pebbles instead of sand. It is a nice stop if you would like to see a different type of beach. We recommend to take a stroll along the rustic beach boardwalk and just enjoy the amazing view of the crashing waves.
Our favorite stop of the day was to to see the elephant seals! There is a specific viewpoint, Elephant Seal Vista Point, along the road where you can park and just watch these precious creature.
Tip: The best time to see these magnificent animals are between the months of December to April as it is when the majority of them are resting in Piedras Blancas. However, they are there all year round.
There are several signs pointing to the viewpoint so you will not miss it and there is plenty of parking! The only thing to be aware is that from this point on you might lose cell phone service all the way to Carmen by the Sea.
If you are doing this route between November to April make sure to stop at the Whales Watcher Cafe as you will have a big chance to see whales on migration.
Sand Dollar Beach
Sand Dollar Beach is a cool beach down a cliff. We did not trek down to the beach but enjoyed the view from the top of the cliff. You will spot several surfers as it is a great surfing spot due to the waves.
Parking is $10 but if you want to avoid paying for parking you can pull off on the side of the road. We asked the person in charge who said this is allowed.
Big Creek Bridge
Even though the Big Creek bridge is not as famous as the Bixby Creek bridge, it is honestly more impressive and beautiful. It has several arches that makes this bridge a masterpiece. Make sure to pull over at any of the different viewpoints along the route before crossing the bridge to get the best photo.
Driving along the Big Sur is surreal. It is by far the best spot on the entire California road trip. The views from the cliffs to the beach were breathtaking and it is one of the areas in California with more State Parks ready for you to explore. You can easily spend several days exploring many of the state parks and enjoying the beaches.
The best State Parks along the Big Sur are the Limekiln Beach State Park, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, and Andrew Molera State Park. Make sure to stop by McWay Falls, take a quick drive along the Ventana Big Sur for views of huge sequoias and make a quick stop at the Henry Miller Library. My favorite beach along this part of the route is the Pfeiffer Beach but keep in mind that it is a popular spot so finding parking is almost impossible. We had to wait for almost 2 hours to get in.
- Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park: In Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park you will find the McWay Falls. You can see the waterfalls from the road or actually walk into the park and along a boardwalk to the main viewpoint. If you want to park in the state park there is a $10 fee. The best thing to do to avoid paying for parking is to park on the side of the road, many people do it and from what I asked it is a common behavior. The reason why this waterfall is so special is because the water from the fall goes straight to the ocean or the sand depending on the time of the year.
- Henry Miller Library: It is a library in memory of the famous writer Henry Miller. It is a cool place to make a quick stop and even buy a new book.
- Ventana Big Sur: It is one of the few accommodations along the Big Sur. What we love the most is driving through the campground to see the Sequoias forest. It is magical.
- Pfeiffer Beach: The beach is famous for having a big rock with a hole that looks like a cavern. We tried going into the beach twice but unfortunately there was no parking available and you are not able to park along the road. There is not a sign showing where the beach is located so drive carefully so you do not pass it. Parking is $12.
- Bixby Creek Bridge: Make sure to stop at Bixby Bridge for the iconic photo in Big Sur. It is famous for being one of the few bridges with only one big arch in the world. The bridge was built in 1932 and is over 75 meters high. You can park your car on either side of the bridge, I would recommend stopping to both sides to get the best photo possible depending on the time of the day.
Point Lobos Natural Reserve
Point Lobos Natural Reserve is one of the best parks to see marine wildlife in California. We were not able to make a stop as we were running out of time but everyone we asked leaving the park said that it was beautiful!
Carmel-by -the-Sea is one of the most charming, artist-friendly, and quaint seaside town in California. Highlights include walking around the city centre, visiting the beach and driving the 17 Mile drive. It is a popular day trip option from San Francisco.
Fun Fact: The local law declares that you cannot wear high heels without a permit. This is crazy right?
17-Mile Drive takes you along a private scenic road through an exclusive neighborhood. The entrance fee is $10.50 per car. Along the road you will pass coastal cliffs, mansions, two golf courses and the iconic Lone Cypress at Pebble Beach.
Monterey became famous after its music festival in June 1967, the Summer of Love. The best things to do in Monterey is walk along the Cannery Row and the Fisherman’s Wharf.
Cannery Row used to be sardine canning factories that now are Monterey’s waterfront shopping and restaurant street. Here you will find cinemas, pubs, live music venues, and the fantastic Monterey Bay Aquarium. Make sure to do the Jellies Experience for a glowing jellyfish encounter or the Open Sea exhibit during feeding time.
The Fisherman’s Wharf is a historic pier where you can spot sea lions!
San Francisco is one of the most iconic cities in all of California and by far my favorite city in the United States. What makes San Francisco unique is its distinct vibe and just how powerful it is as a city. It makes for an amazing end point for your complete road trip along CA Highway 1.
The best things to do and see in San Francisco is to take a food walking tour though Chinatown to taste the delicious food, visit Seaport Village and Pier 39 for waterfront entertainment, dining, and shopping, visit the Golden Gate Bridge viewpoints and take a day trip to Marin Headlands for even more viewpoints of this iconic bridge and explore the city. If I have not convinced you yet on why San Francisco is so beautiful you should definitely read this blog with 7 reasons why to love San Francisco.
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