WRITTEN BY Rachael Medina
Rachael Medina is the staff writer and content manager for California.com. She was born and raised just outside the Mojave Desert in Southern California and moved to the redwood forests of Humboldt C…See full bio
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“It is all very beautiful and magical here—a quality which cannot be described. You have to live it and breathe it, let the sun bake it into you.”
― Ansel Adams
Brisk, salty air flows through your hair, sweeping curves captivate your senses, and cliffside views take your breath away. Taking a road trip down the Pacific Coast Highway feels like a right of passage and reminds us that it’s as much about the journey as it is about the destination.
So, load up on your favorite California-made snacks, fill the gas tank, secure your surfboard, turn on the radio, and get ready for the ultimate Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) road trip. Whether you've recently gotten your car repaired by a mechanic or you’re fresh off the lot, there’s no better way to show off your whip than to take it for a ride along 655 miles of California’s coastline.
Known as one of the most scenic drives in the country, the PCH—also called Highway 1—runs next to the ocean’s crashing waves, from Leggett in Mendocino County all the way down to Dana Point in Orange County. With so many miles to cover, considering all the potential Pacific Coast Highway stops can seem daunting—but we found the best road trip sights along the way, so relax and make the most of every minute.
Start your journey where Highway 1 begins: just north of Capistrano Beach in Dana Point. Cruise for 45 minutes—past the enviable Laguna Beach, alongside Crystal Cove State Park, and near the Newport Beach Pier—before arriving at Huntington Beach.
Dubbed “Surf City USA”, this stop is a must on any true California coastal road trip. Pull over, grab your surfboard, and jump into the swells to really experience the Golden State. After catching the perfect wave, it’s time to climb back into the car, roll down the windows, and breathe in the fresh air as you make your way up the state.
After driving on Highway 1 for about two hours, you’ll come upon Venice Beach. Between the street performers, local artists, eclectic shops, and gorgeous views of the pier in the distance, this destination is well worth the time spent off the road. Appreciate the quirky culture of the Venice Beach Boardwalk and explore the iconic Venice canals to stay along the water’s edge.
If the beach is not calling, however, head inland to grab a slice of vegan pizza, visit the art museums of downtown Los Angeles, see the Hollywood Walk of Fame, or admire the architecture of Beverly Hills mansions.
Once you’re done exploring Venice, make your way to Santa Monica. The Santa Monica Pier is worth a trip, so take a ride on the ferris wheel at Pacific Park and grab a bite to eat for dinner. With a long day under your belt, spend a luxurious evening in town, rest your head at one of the nearby hotels, and get ready for the adventures awaiting on the next leg of your trip.
The following morning, make the short drive up to Malibu to look at the coastal homes and enjoy breakfast at one of the local restaurants. Stop by the rocky coves, cliffs, and headlands at Point Dume, and practice your skills at one of the most scenic rock-climbing spots in California. Then, take in the views of the San Fernando Valley from Topanga Overlook before continuing on.
Drive north to Ventura to take a surf break at Surfers Point, see the long Ventura Pier where fishermen cast their lines, walk around Ventura Harbor Village, visit the town’s historical sights, and discover beauty within the art galleries.
From Ventura, it’s a short jaunt to Santa Barbara, where the rolling hills and sweeping vineyards show the agricultural power of the California coast. Indulge in the local goods, dine alfresco, and hike around the varied landscape before hitting the road again.
Spend some time getting to know the Central Coast’s surf scene to see how it stands up to Southern California’s reputation. Then, explore Pismo Beach’s oceanside parks, farmers market, shopping outlets, and butterfly grove before enjoying a picnic on the sand. After walking around this beloved beach town, head slightly inland to San Luis Obispo. Admire the Spanish architecture, meander through the museums, snap a pic in the quirky Bubblegum Alley, and check in to the vibrant Madonna Inn for a charming overnight experience unlike any other.
Drive for 45 minutes and start the day with a 15-minute excursion inland to San Simeon to tour the elaborate Hearst Castle. While mansions are anything but rare in Southern California, this opulent residence showcases the impressively lavish life of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, whose home included 165 rooms on 127 acres complete with pools, fountains, and precisely landscaped gardens. Savor the ocean views from the balconies before heading into town to check out one of the industry-changing surf shops: Hobie Surf Shop. Add another surfboard to your collection, then find your way back onto Highway 1 to experience more of the breathtaking coastline.
In the morning, venture on toward the hot springs, rolling dunes, and unbeatable seafood of Big Sur. Take a short hike to see McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, then continue on to cross the oft-photographed Bixby Bridge and experience the rugged coastal views from atop one of the tallest single-span concrete bridges in the world. Just north of here, you’ll find the quaint town of Carmel-by-the-Sea, followed by the popular destination of Monterey.
Take some time to explore the aquarium, Cannery Row, and Old Fisherman’s Wharf that make Monterey one of the best stops along the coast. Just on the other side of Monterey Bay, you’ll find the adorable town of Capitola, followed by the ultimate beach-bum town.
Take the opportunity to surf the waves and ride the roller coasters that epitomize the Santa Cruz lifestyle. Stroll around to see the boutiques and eateries that exude the coastal vibe and the California dream before continuing north.
For a slight detour, jump on Highway 17 to San Jose to witness the incredibly unusual Winchester Mystery House. This supposedly haunted mansion has been under continual construction since 1884, due to Sarah Winchester’s wishes and the upkeep that comes along with having the eccentric home open to the public.
After exploring the unique San Jose landmark, take Highway 9 south toward Santa Cruz and drive through Castle Rock State Park, or travel north through Mountain View to catch Highway 84, which meets up with Highway 1 again at San Gregorio. Either road will lead you to Half Moon Bay for exclusive beaches and decadent seaside eateries. Once you’ve had your fill of adventures for the day, check in to a nearby hotel and catch the sunset before turning in.
A Highway 1 road trip isn’t complete without a stop in San Francisco. Enjoy sumptuous spoonfuls of clam chowder from a sourdough bread bowl; indulge in a bar of Dandelion Chocolate; and say hello to Karl the Fog (who will undoubtedly stop by). Then, drive across the iconic Golden Gate Bridge and visit Sausalito for stunning views of the city before traveling west toward Point Reyes.
Soon, you’ll find Muir Woods National Monument, which provides the perfect scenery for a forested hike. Continue your outdoor adventure in nearby Stinson Beach and walk around Point Reyes before driving through Bodega Bay.
Pull off the road in the seaside town of Bodega Bay, and go on a horseback ride to take full advantage of the environs. Sit on the sand to admire the waves, bluffs, and beauty that surrounds you before you tackle the curvy section of the PCH, which eventually leads to Timber Cove Resort—one of the best places to stop on the Pacific Coast Highway.
Check in for the evening, capture the view with a photograph or two, and savor the flavors of sustainable seafood and local produce at Coast Kitchen. Listen to a record and enjoy a pour-over by the fireplace to experience a truly decadent evening in.
Spend the morning relaxing in your room, then set out toward Mendocino. Watch the waves become rougher as the inland scenery incorporates denser brush and taller trees. Get out of the car in Mendocino to look at the historic architecture, making sure to drive north to Fort Bragg to see the intriguingly beautiful Glass Beach.
Cruise northeast for just over an hour and you’ll find yourself in Leggett, completing the last portion of the drive. When Highway 1 ends, turn around, and prepare yourself as you begin the Pacific Coast Highway road trip from north to south. Stop by the colorful fruit stands, fishing villages, intimate beaches, and bustling towns that caught your eye on the way up. Returning home with a happy car and even better memories will leave you eager to plan your next California road trip.
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