Pacific Coast Highway, California: The All-American Road Trip Guide

Pacific Coast Highway, California: The All-American Road Trip Guide
Verena
Verena 
Updated

What better way to see all of California than by driving down the coast? California State Route 1, or better known as the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), is one of the most famous roads for a road trip in the U.S. Although the highway begins in Seattle, visitors usually keep their road trip within California. You can choose to start and end wherever you want, but the most popular route is to drive down from San Francisco to San Diego, for a total of approximately 600 miles (965 kilometers).

It would take at least 13-hours without breaks to drive along the Pacific Coast Highway. While there is a quicker way to get from Northern California to Southern California, you might as well enjoy the stunning views of the coastal route if you’re going to be making this drive. It is recommended that you spread your road trip out across 1 or 2 weeks, and make multiple stops to explore what the Golden State has to offer.

Stop #1: San Francisco

As the biggest city in Northern California, San Francisco is the ideal place to begin your road trip down the Pacific Coast Highway. It is also one of the most densely-populated cities in the country, known for its perfect year-round weather and famous landmarks. So before you set off on your drive, give yourself a couple of days to explore all that San Francisco has to offer first. Seeing the Golden Gate Bridge in real life should be enough reason to convince you to spend a few days in San Francisco. Not only the most iconic landmark of the city, and one of the most famous sights in the country, it is also the most photographed bridge in the world. The road that crosses the Golden Gate Bridge is actually a part of the highway, so it makes the perfect start to your adventure.

Tip: an additional toll of 7.25 USD is charged for a 2-axel vehicle to drive across the bridge if you’re heading southbound into San Francisco. Unlike most highways, there is no toll booth to collect cash on the spot. The bridge relies entirely on electronic tolling, whereby your payment has to be made online before, or within 24-hours of, crossing the bridge.

Golden Gate Bridge

Price: 7.25 USD

Contact: +1-415-921-5858

Website: Golden Gate Bridge Take a ferry ride from Fisherman’s Wharf out to Alcatraz Island. Located 1.25 miles (2 kilometers) offshore, this secluded island was formerly a military and federal prison. Walk around the island and explore this notorious prison that got its reputation as being one of the hardest prisons to escape from due to its surrounding waters. Alcatraz Island is also home to the oldest operating lighthouses on the West Coast.

Tip: cruises out to Alcatraz Island often sell out fast, especially during peak holiday season (June to August). Be sure to purchase your tickets online in advance.

Alcatraz Island

Hours: Ferries depart every 30 minutes from 9 am - 4 pm *Hours may vary depending on season

Duration: Around 1 - 2 hours

Price: 33 USD (adult), 20.50 USD (kids)

Access: Via ferry from Piers 31–33 at San Francisco Bay

Contact: +1-415-561-4900

Website: Alcatraz Island Known as being the location of other attractions, for example the sea lion colony at Pier 39, Ghirardelli Square, Fisherman’s Wharf is one of the main tourist attractions in San Francisco. While you are there, be sure to enjoy a delicious meal of seafood at one of the many restaurants. Because of its location near the waterfront, the area is renowned for having some of the freshest seafood you can find in the city, which is something you would not want to miss.

Fisherman’s Wharf

Website: Fisherman’s Wharf Skillfully maneuver your car down one of the most crooked streets in the world, Lombard Street. Featuring a series of 8 hairpin turns within a steep downhill one-block section of the road, Lombard Street should only be tackled by experienced drivers. If you are in the passenger seat, now is the time to pull out your camera and snap some scenic photographs of the city.

Fun Fact: Lombard Street is not actually the most crooked in the world, let alone San Francisco. The title goes to Vermont Street between 20th and 22nd Street, in the neighborhood of Portrero Hill. However, Lombard Street earned its fame for its astounding views of the city.

Lombard Street

Address: Lombard St, San Francisco, CA 94133, United States

Duration: Around 10 minutes

Click here for more info

2-hour drive (77 miles; 124 kilometers) to ...

Stop #2: Santa Cruz

Known for its beautiful natural coastline and redwood forests, Santa Cruz has established itself as a beach resort community. Compared to San Francisco, it is a much smaller city with less to explore. But since the Pacific Coast Highway passes through Santa Cruz, there is no excuse for you to not make a pit stop here, even if it is only for a couple of hours. Where the laws of physics do not apply, Mystery Spot is an illusion-based attraction just 4 miles (6.4 kilometers / 11-minute drive) outside of Santa Cruz. Question everything about our physical world as you watch a series of optical illusions. Demonstrations include water flowing upwards and people standing at an angle. While you are there, try to figure out the secret behind each of these illusions.

The Mystery Spot

Address: 465 Mystery Spot Road, Santa Cruz, CA 95065, United States

Opening Hours: 10 am - 6 pm (weekdays), 9 am - 8 pm (weekends) *Hours may vary during the winter season

Duration: Around 1 hour

Price: 8 USD

Contact: +1-831-423-8894

Website: The Mystery Spot Whizz around on one of the most famous wooden roller coasters in the world, the Giant Dipper, at Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. While not the most adrenaline-pumping roller coaster in the world, it is a distinct feature in Santa Cruz and a must-do during your short stop there. You will not only be able to boast that you have been on a world-renowned wooden roller coaster, but also that you have been to California’s oldest surviving amusement park and one of the few seaside parks on the West Coast.

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

Address: 400 Beach Street, Santa Cruz, CA 95060, United States

Opening Hours: 11 am - 11 pm *Hours may vary; see website below for detailed schedule

Duration: At least 1 hour

Price: 39.95 USD (rides + attractions combo)

Contact: +1-831-423-5590

Website: Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

50-minute drive (43 miles; 69 kilometers) to ...

Stop #3: Monterey

Sitting at an elevation of 26 feet (8 meters) above sea level, Monterey is a historical Californian city. As the former state capital, it is known for having the first theater, public building, public library, publicly-funded school, printing press, and newspaper in the state. Recognized as one of the most beautiful coastal cities of California, you cannot drive down the Pacific Coast Highway without a stop here. Discover various species of marine creatures, including sea otters, stingrays, and kelp, at Monterey Bay Aquarium. Benefiting from a circulation of fresh ocean water that is pumped into its tanks directly from the Bay, the aquarium maintains healthy water conditions for its animals. Because of its location along the coastline of the bay, Monterey Bay Aquarium is the perfect spot for you to observe and admire California’s rich, diverse marine life.

Fun Fact: Monterey Bay also houses one of the largest underwater canyons in the world, Monterey Canyon.

Monterey Bay Aquarium

Address: 800 Cannery Row, Monterey, CA 93940, United States

Opening Hours: 9:30 am - 6 pm *Hours may vary; see website below for detailed schedule

Duration: At least 1 hour

Price: 49.95 USD (adults), 39.95 USD (seniors / students), 29.95 USD (kids)

Contact: +1-831-648-4800

Website: Monterey Bay Aquarium Divert off the PCH and head down the 17-Mile Drive for even better views of the Pacific Ocean coastline. A scenic road through Pebble Beach and Pacific Grove along the Monterey Peninsula, this 17-mile (27-kilometer) drive takes you through luscious forests of cypress trees and a rocky coastline overlooking the water.

Stop by the route’s most scenic attraction, the Lone Cypress. This tree has been deemed as an icon of the West Coast, and is also one of the most photographed trees in the US. So don’t forget to whip out your camera to snap a couple of photos of this unique landmark.

17-Mile Drive

Click here for more info

45-minute drive (29 miles; 47 kilometers) to ...

Stop #4: Big Sur

Easily the most popular stop along the PCH, Big Sur is known to offer some of the best views of the coastline. This stretch of the highway has an allure like no other. Home to one of California’s most unforgettable scenic views, Big Sur is where the sea, the mountains, and the sky come together to create an oasis.

Even though hiking and mountain climbing are available, it is not much a place of ‘doing’, but rather ‘seeing’. Feel free to hop out of the car at a viewpoint to soak in the beauty of California’s coastline. Due to its aesthetics, Bixby Bridge is one of the most photographed bridges in the world. Standing at 260 feet (79 meters) above the bottom of Bixby Creek canyon, it is also one of the tallest single-span concrete bridges. Pull over at any turnout for amazing views of Bixby Bridge, especially at sunset. The fiery golden sun shining over the coastline is one of the best representations you could get of California as the Golden State.

Bixby Bridge

Click here for more into Hike along a half-mile (0.8-kilometer) trail to get the best view at McWay Falls, one of Big Sur’s best-known attractions. It can be seen via a trail that is only accessible by foot. Located in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, this 80-foot (24-meter) waterfall is one of the only 2 waterfalls in the region that drops directly into the ocean. Closed to the public, the beach at McWay Falls is the definition of perfection, with not even a footprint to ruin the sand.

McWay Falls

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2-hour drive (94 miles; 151 kilometers) to …

Stop #5: Morro Bay

In the recent years, Morro Bay has become an increasingly popular tourist destination. With countless beaches along the waterfront, it is especially recognized as a center for beach holidays. Filled with a range of family-friendly and daredevil activities, Morro Bay is a stop suitable for everyone of all ages. Standing at 581 feet (177 meters) tall, Morro Rock is the city’s most distinct feature. It is the most famous among a series of similar volcanic plugs in the area called the Nine Sisters.

Drive along a causeway to reach the base of the rock and look at this unique landmark up close. However, do note that climbing on the rock is against the law, for both your own safety and to protect the peregrine falcon habitat it preserves.

Morro Rock

Website: Morro Rock Climb up Black Hill at Morro Bay State Park. The second to last of the Nine Sisters, Black Hill is named after the tar steep on the north side of the hill. Accessible by a short and easy hike, the summit of Black Hill provides you with great views of the Californian coast. It should not take you more than a couple of hours to complete the hike, and continue on your drive to the next stop along the PCH.

Morro Rock

Duration: At least 1 hour

Click here for more info

30-minute drive (26 miles; 41 kilometers) to …

Stop #6: Pismo Beach

Woodbury Commons promenade
Source: Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Daniel Case used under CC BY-SA 3.0

Once abundant with clams, Pismo Beach was formerly known as the ‘Clam Capital of the World’. Even though it is primarily recognized as a beach destination today, the city still maintains the spirit of its iconic clam days. Expect to greeted by a giant concrete clam statue upon entering the city. If you happen to be road tripping in October, be sure to stop by Pismo Beach for its annual Clam Festival. Stroll along the beautiful white sand as you relax to the sound of the soft waves crashing in the background along Pismo Beach. Keep your eyes peeled; from Pismo Pier, you may be able to spot some sea creatures (e.g. sea otters, dolphins, whales) out in the ocean. And even if you don’t see any, the view of the sunset from the pier will more than make up for it.

Pismo Beach & Pier

Website: Pismo Beach & Pier If you need a break from the seaside, Pismo Beach Premium Outlets is the answer you’ve been looking for. As stunning as the views are, you may crave a sight other than the ocean and the sky. Just a short 20-minute drive (1-mile / 1.6 kilometers) south of Pismo Beach, this outlet mall covers a range of brands, including Coach, Calvin Klein, Levi’s, Nike, and Vans. While it is not the biggest outlet mall, it is the perfect midpoint shopping break you need.

Pismo Beach Premium Outlets

Address: 333 5 Cities Dr, Pismo Beach, CA 93449, United States

Opening Hours: 10 am - 9 pm (Monday to Saturday), 10 am - 7 pm (Sunday)

Contact: +1-805-773-4661

Website: Pismo Beach Premium Outlets

2-hour drive (102 miles; 164 kilometers) to …

Stop #7: Santa Barbara

As with most of California’s coastal cities, Santa Barbara is a renowned tourist resort destination. Because of its Mediterranean-like climate, the city has been coined as the ‘American Riviera’ after the Turkish Riviera. Don’t forget to visit Santa Barbara’s historical landmarks as well. It is recommended that you book a hotel for a night (or two) to explore Santa Barbara beyond its beaches. A trip to Santa Barbara would not be one without stopping at its most-visited landmark, Stearns Wharf. Once serving as a passenger and freight shipping wharf, it is now a tourist attraction, recognized as the longest deep-water pier between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Stroll along the pier to stretch your legs after the long drive. With many shopping and dining options available, don’t forget to grab something to eat while you’re there too.

Stearns Wharf

Address: 219 Stearns Wharf, Santa Barbara, CA 93109, United States

Opening Hours: 24 hours (daily)

Contact: +1-805-564-5530

Website: Stearns Wharf Built in a Spanish Colonial Revival style, Santa Barbara County Courthouse is the city’s architectural gem. Despite the fact that it is a fully functional courthouse, the building reflects the appearance of a Spanish castle. As impressive as the exterior is, the interior is also open to public visitors. If you are interested in learning more about this historical landmark, free 1-hour guided tours are offered once (weekends) or twice (weekdays) a day.

Santa Barbara County Courthouse

Address: 1100 Anacapa Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93121, United States

Opening Hours: 10:30 am - 11:30 am (Monday to Friday only), 2 pm - 3 pm (daily)

Price: Free

Contact: +1-805-882-4520

Website: Santa Barbara County Courthouse

1-hour drive (67 miles; 107 kilometers) to …

Stop #8: Malibu

Nicknamed “The ‘Bu” by locals, Malibu is famous for its sandy beaches, unforgettable sunsets, and spectacular oceanfront homes. Overlooking the Pacific coastline, Malibu provides some of the most scenic views from the PCH.

Watch surfers ride some of the most perfect waves on Surfrider Beach. Enjoy lunch with a view from Malibu Pier. Spot migrating gray wales from Point Dume during the winter time. Every inch of Malibu is literally picture-perfect; you will never want to leave this zone of tranquility once you have immersed yourself in it. You cannot go to Malibu without spending some time at one of its many beaches. While all the beaches are equally praise-worthy, Zuma Beach is one of the largest and most popular beaches in the area. It has also been venerated for having some of the cleanest water conditions in the country.

Unwind from the days of driving on Zuma Beach’s long, wide sands. This will be one of the only times you can enjoy the Pacific coastline from the shore, rather than from a car or along the road. If you are a surfer, Malibu is also a great place to surf, unlike other beach towns above that have dangerous currents.

Zuma Beach

Website: Zuma Beach Apart from beaches, the Getty Villa is one of the only other attractions in Malibu. A museum dedicated to ancient Greek, Roman, and Etruscan arts and culture, the Getty Villa is an attraction that should not be missed. It features approximately 44,000 antiquities that date all the way back to 6500 BC. Even if the artifacts don’t appeal to you, the sophisticated contemporary interior design of the museum will undoubtedly blow your mind.

The Getty Villa

Address: 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Pacific Palisades, CA 90272, United States

Opening Hours: 10 am - 5 pm (Wednesday to Monday), 10 am - 9 pm (Saturday). Closed on Tuesdays

Price: Free *Note that even though admission is free, an advance timed-entry ticket is required

Contact: +1-805-882-4520

Website: The Getty Villa

50-minute drive (33 miles; 54 kilometers) to …

Stop #9: Los Angeles

As the most prominent city in the state of California, Los Angeles is an obvious stopover choice for most visitors. Also known as the ‘City of Angels’, this global and diverse city is a force to be reckoned with in all aspects of life, including entertainment, media, science, technology etc. Much like San Francisco, there is so much to see and do in Los Angeles that you may want to spend a couple nights here before heading for your last stop. Located on Mount Hollywood in Griffith Park, Griffith Observatory features an array of space and science-related displays. The peak where the observatory is situated provides a great view of the Los Angeles basin, including the iconic Hollywood sign.

If you aren’t exhausted from all those hours spent in the car, you can drive up the mountain to see the observatory. But if you would like a break from the car, hike up the Griffith Observatory Trail. It is an easy route that will not only take you to the top, but also give you a chance to exercise and enjoy being surrounded by nature.

Griffith Observatory

Address: 2800 E Observatory Rd, Los Angeles, CA 90027, United States

Opening Hours: 12 noon - 10 pm (Tuesday to Friday), 10 am - 10 pm (Saturday to Sunday). Closed on Mondays

Price: Free

Contact: +1-213-473-0800

Website: Griffith Observatory It is probably safe to say that you have heard of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one of the most classic landmarks in Los Angeles. Comprising over 2,500 terrazzo and brass stars embedded into a sidewalk along Hollywood Boulevard, this strip of road pays homage to the hard work of people in the entertainment industry.

Try to spot your favorite celebrities’ stars along the road while you are there. Running for a total of 1.3 miles (2.1 kilometers), you would have to be pretty lucky to spot the exact celebrity you are looking for.

Hollywood Walk of Fame

Address: 7018 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90028, United States

Opening Hours: 24 hours (daily)

Price: Free

Contact: +1-323-469-8311

Website: Hollywood Walk of Fame You have probably seen the legendary urban lights structure displayed outside of Los Angeles County Museum of Art, often shortened to LACMA. Even though many people only visit for the exterior lights display, don’t miss out on everything else the museum has to offer.

As the largest art museum in the West Coast, LACMA holds over 150,000 pieces of art ranging from ancient times to contemporary times. Unless you are on an extremely tight schedule, don’t forget to take some time to appreciate the art, and also the special film and concert series features.

Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)

Address: 5905 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90036, United States

Opening Hours: 11 am - 5 pm (Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday), 11 am - 8 pm (Friday), 10 am - 7 pm (Saturday and Sunday). Closed on Wednesdays

Price: 15 USD (adults), 10 USD (seniors/students), free (kids under 17 years old)

Contact: +1-323-857-6000

Website: Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) Even though Santa Monica is technically another city, its proximity to Los Angeles results in the constant association between the two cities. Since you will already be in LA, why not spend a day exploring Santa Monica as well?

Apart from its popular hangouts (i.e. Santa Monica Beach and shopping street, 3rd Street Promenade), its most iconic destination is Santa Monica Pier. Popular among both locals and tourists, the pier features a family amusement park, Pacific Park. From the top of its one-of-a-kind solar-paneled Ferris wheel, you can admire even more impressive views of the Californian coastline.

Santa Monica Pier

Address: 200 Santa Monica Pier, Santa Monica, CA 90401, United States

Opening Hours: 24 hours (daily)

Contact: +1-310-458-8901

Website: Santa Monica Pier

3-hour drive (130 miles; 211 kilometers) to…

Stop #10: San Diego

Congratulations on making it to the last leg of the road trip! Located in the far south of California, not far from the Mexican border, San Diego is the ideal destination to end your journey. Although San Francisco is often assumed to be the second-largest city in California after Los Angeles, San Diego actually takes that honor. As bittersweet as the end of your road trip may be, don’t forget to have fun exploring San Diego before you jet back home or on to your next adventure. Stroll through one of the oldest public recreational parks in the US, Balboa Park. This urban cultural park features open spaces, gardens, walking paths, museums, and the San Diego Zoo. Whether you are interested in arts, history, space, photography, auto-motives, or something different entirely, there is something in Balboa Park for you.

If you are seeking a break from life, don’t worry about visiting every attraction. Just sit back and enjoy the atmosphere of the park. Nothing beats ending your long drive than with a breath of fresh air in a peaceful park.

Balboa Park

Address: Balboa Park Visitors Center, 1549 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101, United States

Opening Hours: 24 hours (daily)

Price: Free *Admission prices may apply to individual attractions (e.g. museums); see individual websites for attraction of choice

Contact: +1-619-239-0512

Website: Balboa Park Be sure to visit the small but picturesque La Jolla Cove while you are in San Diego. Due to its rich underwater marine life, La Jolla Cove is a popular spot for swimmers, snorkelers, and scuba divers. If you are just looking to lounge in the sun, don’t forget to bring a towel to lay on the ground as the sand can be rather gritty.

Do not be deterred by the rocks you will need to step on to get down to the sand. Your trek will be worth it. Once you are in the cove, you won’t want to climb back up for at least several hours. In case the beach gets boring, the La Jolla Sea Caves are located just north of the cove and are open to the public. It is not only a great way to explore the Californian coastline, but also to kill a couple of hours.

Tip: the swells in the water at La Jolla Cove can be strong, making it not a suitable environment for people who can’t swim well. It is also advised to exercise additional caution if you plan to go into the water.

La Jolla Cove

Address: Coast Blvd, San Diego, CA 92037, United States

Contact: +1-619-221-8899

Website: La Jolla Cove

Coast down the Californian coast

The Pacific Coast Highway is sure to be a drive like no other. If it is not on your bucket list yet, add it on right now! This legendary all-American route is the only way you can safely say that you have seen all of California. And if you think you will never need to come back to California after this road trip of a lifetime, you are wrong! With a trip like this, you will want to do it over and over again. It is impossible to ever feel tired of the spectacular views of California’s coastline. So next time you’re in California, don’t spend all your time in one city. Rent a car, and start this epic journey down the PCH.

Disclosure: Trip101 selects the listings in our articles independently. Some of the listings in this article contain affiliate links.

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Verena is currently a journalism student in New York City. Having to move around a lot throughout her childhood triggered her passion for traveling at a young age. She believes that exploring new...Read more

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