California’s Coastline is one of the most spectacular and diverse regions in the world. While there are many incredible destinations to explore in California, the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) is undoubtedly one of the best. From jaw-dropping coastal views to inland wineries and plenty of great towns to stop at on the way, this California Coast road trip is a must-do if you’re planning on exploring the sunny state.
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We’ve had California on our bucket list for many years, and in early 2022, we finally had an opportunity to explore this beautiful region on a 2-week road trip! The incredible Pacific Coast Highway road trip was easily one of the most scenic drives ever.
The typical Pacific Coast Highway road trip stretches from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and includes some famous sights and attractions along way, including the Golden Gate Bridge, Santa Cruz Boardwalk, Big Sur, Channel Islands and Venice Beach.
By driving the California coastline, you’ll get to see the best that the state has to offer in one long drive. We loved our time exploring the west coast and have put together this 2 week Pacific Coast Highway itinerary, so you can begin planning your own road trip vacation.
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Essential Travel Info for California Coast Road Trip
Start and Finish
For the ultimate California Highway 1 road trip, we recommend that you begin your trip in San Francisco and drive down the Pacific Ocean coast toward Los Angeles. Along the way you can stop in many towns, including Santa Cruz, Monterey, Big Sur, Santa Barbara and Ventura.
The coastal route between San Francisco and Los Angeles is around 440 miles. While it’s easy to cover this distance in just 1 or 2 days, we highly recommend that you take your time on this California coast trip.
How many days should you spend on this California Coast Roadtrip?
The ideal amount of time would be around two weeks to enjoy all the different parts of the Pacific Coast in southern California. This would allow a stop in several towns along the way and a chance to see the main attractions, with a few detours as well.
Best Time to Road Trip Pacific Coast Highway
The best time of year to road trip to Cali depends on how warm and crowded you want the coast to be. While the summer months from June to August are undoubtedly warm and great to be on the beaches, it can be very busy and is usually more expensive.
We believe the best time to road trip up the coast of California is the shoulder season, namely Spring and Fall. April to May and September to October are the best months. The weather is still pretty warm on the central coast, and it’s far less crowded on the beaches.
Over winter, the coast gets a lot quieter, and you can often get some great deals with accommodation prices at their lowest. The temperatures are relatively mild, but can get cooler as you head south. This can be a great alternative time for a California Coast Road Trip.
How to Get Around
The Pacific Coast Highway is best explored by car! We recommend renting an electric car to help reduce your CO2 emissions and lower your impact on this California Road Trip.
As California has always been at the forefront of environmentalism and sustainability, it is known as one of the leaders in electric vehicles (EV) in the US. The government in California has implemented various policies to promote the use of electric vehicles and has a highly developed infrastructure to support electric vehicles.
Given that California was the birthplace of Tesla and has a very well-developed Testa charging network, we opted to rent a Tesla for California Coast Road Trip. Renting a Tesla is really easy in California. The vehicles are available for rent through almost every rental company, including Avis, Hertz and Enterprise.
Getting a one-way electric vehicle rental proved to be a bit more challenging, so we opted to do our Pacific Coast Highway trip as a loop, returning back to San Francisco.
The Ultimate California Coast Road Trip: Our Suggested Itinerary
As mentioned before, we recommend spending two weeks to complete this California coast road trip. Our west coast highway itinerary includes some of the most famous places on the California coastline, with plenty of recommendations to enjoy the local food and beaches on the way too.
Let’s jump in – here is the ultimate itinerary for California coastal road trips!
Would rather watch than read? Check out our California Vlog below!
San Francisco – 2-3 days
San Francisco is a natural first stop on the California Road Trip. It’s a destination that’s quick to steal the hearts of its visitors. Despite being one of the most densely populated cities in the United States, its fun and vibrant culture makes it one of the best places to visit in California.
While it does have its famous attractions, there’s a lot more to San Fran than the Golden Gate Bridge. You can easily spend a few days visiting San Francisco to explore the hilly streets, delicious restaurants, beautiful bay area and nearby beaches.
As the gateway to northern California and the Pacific Coast highway start point, it’s the perfect place to start or end your Pacific Highway road trip.
Things to do in San Francisco
Chinatown: The oldest and most established Chinatown in the country, this neighborhood has plenty of interesting streets to explore south of North Beach. From great authentic restaurants and karaoke bars to landmark Taoist temples, you could easily spend an afternoon exploring Chinatown on your visit.
Presidio of San Francisco: This historic military base turned public area is at the northern end of the city where the Golden Gate Bridge crosses over the strait. There are walking trails, beaches and plenty of good viewpoints of the bridge. It’s one fo the greenest areas in San Francisco.
Golden Gate Bridge: The iconic bridge is something you can’t miss while in the city. You can walk or cycle across the bridge, but we highly recommend seeing it from the water. You can also take a boat cruise in the bay area to get a unique view.
Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39: On the northern waterfront of the city, you’ll find this bustling pier within the Fisherman’s Wharf area. Here you’ll find plenty of restaurants, shops and a sea lion viewing platform. Yes, that’s right, wild sea lions can be spotted right here in San Francisco!
Lombard Street: A drive down Lombard Street is another iconic experience in San Francisco. The windy road includes eight hairpin bends with manicured gardens and beautiful Victorian buildings around the edges.
Ferry Building Marketplace: This market is located within the San Francisco Ferry Building on the edge of the financial district. You’ll find delicious local produce as well as some of the best restaurants in the city.
Twin Peaks: If you’re looking for a bit of a workout, then hike up Twin Peaks near the city center. The urban park rises up to over 900 feet, offering incredible views of the Bay Area from the top.
Watch a Golden State game at Chase Center: Sports fans will want to head to Chase Center during the NBA season to catch some live action of the Warriors. It’s located in the Mission Bay area on the east side of the city.
Half Moon Bay: If you’re looking for a day trip from San Francisco, the drive south to Half Moon Bay should definitely be on your list. The string of beaches is a stunning place, home to the Coastside Trail and the world-famous Mavericks big wave surf spot.
Where to Stay in San Francisco
Fairmont San Francisco
The Fairmont San Francisco is a stunning landmark hotel in San Fran. Located between Nob Hill and Chinatown, it’s perfectly situated for exploring the city. The hotel offers plenty of amenities and spacious, comfortable rooms with stunning city views of the city from the upper floors.
There are plenty of dining options as well. You can choose from a fine dining restaurant serving afternoon tea, a tiki bar with live entertainment, and a European-inspired cafe.
WORHTY DETOUR: Sonoma County – 2 days
San Francisco to Sonoma County: 1 hour / 44 miles
If you have extra time up your sleeve, we highly recommend detouring a bit north of San Francisco to Sonoma County. The detour will take you north from CA Highway 1, but it’s well worth it.
The county is known for beaches, rolling hills, redwood forests, world-class vineyards and farm-to-table dining.
There are plenty of things to do in Sonoma, so if you have the time, plan to spend at least a couple of days here while driving up the coast of California.
There are over 30 small towns and 400 wineries within Sonoma County, but you can easily get a taste of the area in just a few days.
Things to do in Sonoma
Wine tasting: There are so many wineries to choose from, including small family-run affairs or larger, world-renowned places. Some of the must-visit wineries include Buena Vista Winery – the oldest commercial winery in California, Medlock Ames Winery, Preston Winery and Jordan Winery.
Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Forest: If you don’t want to drive north to Redwood National Park, you can still enjoy the incredibly tall trees just north of the Russian River. There are some great walks in the reserve to stretch your legs and admire the trees.
Sonoma State Coast Park: This incredibly rugged stretch of coastline is just south of Jenner and Duncans Mills and is one of the top things to do for beach lovers. It consists of a series of beaches connected by a rocky coastline and is one of the most beautiful stretches of the coast north of San Francisco.
Visit The Barlow: This complex is home to many shops, restaurants and bars in one chic-industrial building in Sebastopol. There are so many great little food places and bars, that you’re spoilt for choice for either lunch or dinner.
Where to Stay in Sonoma County
Mine + Farm
Mine+Farm is a beautiful bed and breakfast that’s our pick for the region. The inn is housed in a 1906 farmhouse on over two acres of land. It’s located halfway between Sonoma’s Coast and Wine Country, just steps away from the Russian River and the Armstrong Redwoods Reserve.
The rooms are decorated in a modern country style with eco-conscious amenities, artisan made bedding and organic products. There is also an outdoor hot tub, communal lounge, dining area and guest kitchen. A filling, organic breakfast is served each morning – another highlight of our stay here.
READ NEXT: Guide to Visiting Sonoma County
Tri Valley – Stop en Route
Sonoma County to Tri Valley: 1.5 hours / 65 miles
Before you get back to driving the California coast, consider stopping in Tri Valley. Lying just east of San Francisco, Tri-Valley comprises three valleys – Amador Valley, Livermore Valley and San Ramon Valley.
While not as known as Sonoma, this region is really beautiful with the perfect mix of rolling hills, wineries, great food and plenty of opportunities to enjoy the great outdoors. There are a few lovely towns to visit and plenty of things to do in the Tri-Valley region, so no matter how much time you have, you can spend it well in the Tri Valley.
Things to do in Tri Valley
Wine tasting: If you haven’t had enough in Sonoma, there are over 50 wineries in Livermore Valley Wine Country. It’s one of the oldest wine regions in California, dating back to the late 1800s. We recommend visiting Wente Vineyards, Concannon Vineyards and Darcie Kent Vineyards.
Ice Cream Trail: Aside from wine, the area is known for artisanal products, including ice cream! If you’re visiting in warm weather, we recommend driving around the ice cream trail to over 10 parlours and creameries.
Tri-Valley Caffeine Trail: If you’re after tea (or coffee) instead, then you can check out the collection of cafés, coffee houses, and tea rooms on the caffeine trail. Each cafe serves up something different, from coffee to artisanal teas.
Mount Diablo State Park: Just northeast of Danville, Mount Diablo is a worthy stop. You can drive all the way to the summit and find an observation deck with panoramic views. Or you can wander around on the many hiking and biking routes.
READ NEXT: Guide to Visiting Tri Valley
Santa Cruz – 2 days
Tri Valley to Santa Cruz: 1.5 hours / 60 miles
San Francisco to Santa Cruz: 1.5 hours / 75 miles
Once you start driving the California coast south of San Francisco, you’ll reach Santa Cruz. This vibrant city is worth exploring for a couple of days. It’s most famous for its historic boardwalk and lively surf scene, so if you’re a keen beach bum, then Santa Cruz is a must-visit on any California coastal tour.
The laidback surf town has plenty of natural beauty in and around the coast. You’ll find stunning beaches, coastal views and redwood forests to explore, along with the bustling nightlife of the wharf and boardwalk.
Things to do in Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk: As one of the oldest seaside amusement parks in the country, it’s one of the most iconic attractions of the city with a vibrant energy all year round. In summer, it’s particularly popular with plenty of events such as live music and movie nights.
The Wharf: Another lively beach attraction, the wharf is one of the longest piers on the West Coast. Take a stroll along the iconic pier and enjoy some of the seafood restaurants, beach shops and sea lions hanging about.
Go Surfing: The town is a famed surfing destination, so you should definitely try to get involved in this popular activity. Steamer Lane is the iconic surf spot next to the Lighthouse Field State Park, or you could try Pleasure Point to the east. There are plenty of places offering lessons if you’re just a beginner.
Natural Bridges State Park: If you’re a sucker for a dreamy beach sunset, Natural Bridges is the ultimate spot on any California coast road trip itinerary. Just west of town, it’s famed for its bridge rock formation. The colours at sunset make it such a stunning spot.
Where to stay in Santa Cruz
Pacific Blue Inn
Pacific Blue Inn is an eco-friendly bed and breakfast is within walking distance from many of the area’s attractions. Located halfway between the famous Boardwalk and the Downtown area, the hotel offers a quiet secluded courtyard environment to retreat to.
With sustainability at the forefront, it was built utilizing recycled, reused, and reclaimed construction materials and hotel dècor. They also installed renewable bamboo flooring and energy-efficient lighting and appliances.
Monterey County – 2-3 days
Santa Cruz to Monterey : 1 hour / 44 miles
Located on the south side of Monterey Bay, Monterey County has so much to offer. From whale watching in the bay to the delicious food and wine scene in town, there are so many things to do in and around Monterey.
You could easily spend 2-3 days around the county depending on what you were interested in doing. The surrounding coastal scenery is certainly worth exploring, so we recommend getting out of town to visit Carmel Beach, Pebble Beach, Asilomar State Beach and Fort Ord Sand Dunes. It’s the perfect place to get active with plenty of hikes and cycle paths to take in the sights.
Things to do in Monterey County
Free Trolley around Monterey: The free electric trolley is a great way to get around and take in the sights. The route circles around Downtown Monterey, with stops at Fisherman’s Wharf, Cannery Row, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It runs daily in summer and on weekends in the off-season.
Whale watching: A highlight of California coast road trips is the chance to spot whales! Monterey is one of the best places to do it. The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is home to humpback whales, blue whales, fin whales, gray whales, and orcas throughout the year. Discovery Whale Watch is one of the best tours to do in Monterrey.
Visit Old Fisherman’s Wharf: As one of the most iconic spots, the waterside complex features some of the best seafood restaurants you’ll find on the coast. The famous dish to try here is the traditional Monterey Clam Chowder served at almost every establishment along the pier.
Follow the Monterey Bay Coastal Trail: This trail stretches for 18 miles from Castroville to Pacific Grove, following the old Southern Pacific Railway. You can walk the sands of Del Monte Beach before soaking in views of the Santa Cruz Mountains from Lovers Point Park. You can opt for either walking or cycling most of the trail.
Check out Carmel Beach: This beach is a stunning spot for sand and surf to the south of Monterey Peninsula in Carmel By The Sea. The perfect white sand beach is backed by cypress trees and boasts stunning sunsets all year round.
Where to Stay in Monterey
Portola Hotel is conveniently located near most of the main attractions in the central part of Monterey. You can easily walk down to the wharf and Del Monte Beach. The award winning hotel has a day spa, on-site restaurant and beautiful rooms with stunning views of the bay.
It’s the only LEED-certified hotel on the central coast and implements several sustainability practices including reducing waste, water and energy.
Big Sur – Stop en Route
Monterey to Big Sur: 45 minutes / 30 miles
The stretch of California coast highway from Monterey to Big Sur is one of the most picturesque drives in all of California. The incredible California Highway on this coastline is quite well known for its scenic views, but it really will blow you away.
The majestic coastline of Big Sur has many attractions and lookouts along the way. The 45 minute drive from Monterey will likely take you much longer as you stop to explore some of these stops. It is a busy route, so take your time and be cautious of other vehicles at all times.
Lunch at Sierra Mar: If you’re looking for a lunch spot that offers the best views of the coast, Sierra Mar at the Post Ranch Inn is perfect. We were pleasantly surprised to find the restaurant very reasonably priced. This is definitely a foodie highlight of the California coastal drive.
Bixby Bridge: You’ve probably seen images of this arch-shaped bridge before. It was once the tallest in the world when it was built in the 1930s. It now serves as a photo hotspot and an iconic part of driving up the California coast. There are viewpoints on the cliffs overlooking the bridge for a photo op.
Pfeiffer Beach: Famous for its purple sand, thanks to manganese garnets that erode off the hillsides, this beach is a popular stop. It’s a beautiful place to explore the scenery with stunning rock formations and coastal cliffs.
San Luis Obispo – 2 days
Big Sur to San Luis Obispo : 2.5 hours / 107 miles
One of the most underrated places on this coastal drive in California, San Luis Obispo (SLO) is rarely talked about. However, being a nice halfway point between San Francisco and Los Angeles, it’s a convenient town to explore for a couple of days.
San Luis Obispo County is known for its incredible beaches, just a short drive from SLO town itself. Meanwhile, the town centre has a vibrant nightlife, great shopping and many sought-after restaurants.
Things to do in San Luis Obispo
Elephant Seal Vista Point: On your way to SLO from Big Sur, take a few minutes to stop at this viewpoint to see elephant seals basking on the beach. There are a couple of lookouts to stop off the Pacific 1 Highway.
Visit the Opulent Hearst Castle Museum: Hearst Castle, located in San Simeon, just outside of SLO, is a historic estate built by William Randolph Hearst in the early 20th century. You can encounter the majesty and beauty of this historical treasure first-hand with a guided Hearst Castle tour.
Farmers Markets: SLO is known for its incredible markets. On Thursdays, you can find the Downtown Farmers Market. Meanwhile, on Saturdays, another can be found near Madonna Plaza Shopping Center.
Pismo Beach: A worthwhile 15-minute drive outside of town is to Pismo Beach on the coast. This town is a popular summer destination with a vibrant pier and boardwalk.
Morro Bay: Another beachside town just a 15-minute drive away, Morro Bay is known for its coastal state park which is home to interesting volcanic rock formations.
Where to Stay in SLO
Hotel Cerro is housed in an old 1920s brick building with a stunningly modern interior. This chic hotel is perfectly located in Downtown SLO, within walking distance from all the fun attractions in town.
There are a variety of rooms to choose from, including some offering balconies, hot tubs, fireplaces and garden patios. The hotel has a rooftop deck with a pool and bar for soaking in the warm California weather.
The hotel meets California Title 24 energy efficiency standards. It has a comprehensive sustainability policy to reduce water, waste and energy use. One of the coolest features is the on-site Edible Garden where guests can enjoy freshly picked produce.
Santa Barbara – 2 days
San Luis Obispo to Santa Barbara: 2 hours / 95 miles
As you continue driving down the coast of California to Santa Barbara, you’ll reach this quintessential California beach town. Santa Barbara is all about sun-soaked days on the beach and crazy nights at the clubs.
But no matter what you enjoy doing with your time, it’s worth spending a couple of days here on your coastal California road trip.
The town strikes a nice balance between upscale cool and laid-back beach vibes. You’ll also find world-class wineries not far off the coastal highway, plus lots of farm-to-table restaurants to sample.
Things to do in Santa Barbara
Mission Santa Barbara: Founded in 1786, this old Spanish Mission is an interesting place to learn some of the history of town. There are artifacts, artwork, gardens and a gift shop to explore.
State Street: The main thoroughfare running right through Downtown. This is where you’ll find all the best shopping in town from big-name brands to independent boutiques.
Stearns Wharf: The historic pier is found on West Beach. It’s a nice place for an evening stroll with shops, restaurants, and a small aquarium.
Santa Barbara Botanic Garden: Inland from Downtown, it’s worth exploring this stunning 78 acre park with 5.5 miles of walking paths through native California plants. It’s the perfect place to take a break from driving the Pacific Coast Highway 1.
Where to Stay in Santa Barbara
Riviera Beach House
Riviera Beach House is just two blocks away from the beach in Santa Barbara and boasts views of the Santa Ynez Mountains. The European-inspired rooms at this trendy adobe-style hotelare all decorated with modern art and splashes of color.
There is a chic Mexican restaurant with an outdoor patio on-site, featuring a cocktail bar, art gallery and meals inspired by locally sourced ingredients. It’s the perfect place to enjoy a California coast vacation in style.
Ventura – 2-3 days
Santa Barbara to Ventura: 40 minutes / 27 miles
Another great stop on this California coastal road trip is the charming town of Ventura. The classic beach town is just an hour from LA on Pacific Highway 1. It has everything we love about the CA West Coast.
With laid-back surf vibes, natural beauty, a vibrant Downtown area and a stunning national park at its doorstep, it’s a charming place to spend time.
It’s the perfect ending to the Pacific Coast Highway road trip. Also, it’s a great place to spend a few days unwinding from all the driving.
Things to do in Ventura
Ventura Pier and Promenade: Another vibrant pier on this CA coast road trip, the Ventura Promenade has an old wooden pier and a long paved bike path if you’re up for a cycle out of town.
Surfers Point Beach: Enjoy some surfing or windsurfing at this popular beach. It’s the best place for all sorts of watersports, with a picnic area just back from the beach for sunbaking.
Channel Islands National Park: A highlight of any PCH road trip itinerary is a day trip out to the Channel Islands National Park. The ecologically rich area is home to incredible sea life and stunning views. A ferry from Ventura Harbor runs out to the islands. So, you can explore this part of the coast on an easy day trip from Ventura.
Lake Casitas Recreation Area: Just 20 minutes north of downtown, it’s a great family-friendly place to spend a day. There are plenty of things to do at Lake Casitas, including walking, cycling, kayaking, fishing, and bird watching.
Where to Stay in Ventura
Located next to Ventura Pier and overlooking the beach, Crowne Plaza is a great place to base yourself on a trip to Ventura. The hotel offers a wide range of comfortable rooms to suit any kind of traveler. Our favourite part of the stay here was the incredible views of the beach and Ventura Pier right from our bedroom window.
Bonus points! Crowne Plaza Ventura Beach is part of the IGH Green Engage System, which measures and tracks its environmental impact. This helps the hotel measure and assess its environmental initiatives and policies.
READ NEXT: Guide to visiting Ventura
Los Angeles – 1-5 days
Ventura to Los Angeles: 1.5 hours/ 68 miles
The end of your Highway 1 California road trip is the great city of Los Angeles. While the huge metropolis can be an overwhelming place to explore, it’s still essential to leave at least a couple of days free for LA.
There’s much more to the city than the Hollywood Sign and Hollywood Boulevard. If you take some time to really get around to some of the best spots, you’ll soon realize why people flock to the city chasing their dreams.
If you’re not sick of beaches yet from the drive up the coast of California, then you’ll find plenty of iconic coastlines around LA. While we could write a whole post on the best things to do there, we’ve rounded up the must-visits here.
Things to do in and around Los Angeles
Griffith Park: Located at the eastern end of the Santa Monica Mountains, this is one of the largest urban parks in the country. The park features popular attractions such as the Los Angeles Zoo, the Autry Museum of the American West, the Griffith Observatory, and the Hollywood Sign. You’ll also find plenty of great hikes and trails to explore there.
Venice Beach: One of the most famous beaches in the world, Venice Beach is known for its bohemian vibe near Santa Monica Pier. You must take a stroll down the beach, and people watch along the way.
Manhattan Beach: If you’re looking for more laid-back beach vibes, Manhattan Beach is just south of Venice Beach. It’s popular with outdoor enthusiasts, with cycle paths, beach volleyball and surfing.
Huntington Beach: East of Long Beach, Huntington is a popular spot amongst surfers with the International Surfing Museum located just back from the beach.
Laguna Beach: A small coastal town south of LA in Orange County, Laguna Beach is worth visiting for its art galleries, boutique shops, stunning beaches and surf spots.
Dana Point: Another spot in Orange County, Dana Point, is south of Laguna Beach and is known as a jumping-off point for whale-watching tours. It has stunning coastal scenery and walking trails to explore.
Where to Stay in Los Angeles
1 Hotel West Hollywood
1 Hotel West Hollywood is a luxurious eco-friendly hotel located in West Hollywood, Los Angeles. The hotel has 285 rooms. This includes suites and residences with stunning views of the city or hills. Furnished with organic cotton linens and nature-inspired decor. The rooms are equipped with modern amenities such as a flat-screen TV, a mini-fridge, a Nespresso coffee machine, and complimentary Wi-Fi.
The hotel offers a unique and eco-conscious experience with its sustainable design and amenities. It has a variety of dining options including the 1 Kitchen restaurant. The restaurant serves farm-to-table California cuisine. And then the Juniper Tree rooftop bar, which offers breathtaking views of the Hollywood Hills. Guests can also enjoy the Lobby Lounge, which serves light bites and craft cocktails.
The hotel is located within walking distance to popular attractions like the Sunset Strip, Melrose Avenue, and the Beverly Center, making it convenient for guests to explore the city.
Don’t want the adventure to stop?
Visit San Diego
If you want to continue your drive down California coast, you can visit the city of San Diego. Close to the Mexican border, it’s known for its warm weather, more beaches and Balboa Park, home to San Diego Zoo.
A road trip along California’s Highway 1 is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It offers a unique blend of natural beauty, history, and culture. This scenic drive offers breathtaking views, charming towns, and unforgettable experiences. Whether you’re a seasoned traveler or a first-time visitor, a Pacific Coast Highway road trip promises to be an adventure of a lifetime, filled with memories that will last a lifetime. So pack your bags, buckle up, and hit the road – California is waiting!