California’s Highway 1 – or Pacific Coast Highway – runs right alongside the Pacific coast, boasting gorgeous views and incredible destinations along the way. Start south and make your way north, or vice versa; regardless of which direction you travel, these essential stops will make for the road trip of a lifetime.
The Perfect PCH Road Trip on California’s Coast
San Diego is the perfect way to start or end your trip, with plenty of beaches and sunshine year round. Get in on the local beer culture at Ballast Point or Stone Brewing, or popular local microbreweries like Half Door and Fall Brewing Co. Balboa Park is chock-full of things to do, including museums, performing arts shows, and restaurants, and can keep you entertained for an entire day alone.
Coronado Island is the best place to relax on the beach and escape downtown crowds, and is conveniently located a short 10 minutes away for the historic Gaslamp district – arguably the best place to get dinner and drinks with a great nightlife atmosphere.
The OC is typically known for it’s ritzy lifestyle and popular beaches, but the real gems here are a little less well-known. Ride the ferris wheel and ice skate outside at the Irvine Spectrum, attend the Newport Beach Film Festival, or enjoy quiet ocean views from Badlands Park in Laguna Niguel. If you’re up for an adventure, take a surfing lesson from a local in Huntington Beach! You’re not likely to do any camping here, so consider staying in San Clemente or Dana Point to avoid highly inflated hotel rates.
OC Beach Guide
Huntington: Known for it’s great surf and laid-back residents, Huntington is very casual in almost every aspect. Get some fish tacos at Wahoo’s or an AMAZING burger at Slater’s 50/50, and hit the beach! Expect to see swarms of surfers and some killer sunsets. Huntington does have bonfire pits but is first-come-first-serve and very crowded, so get there by 10-11am to secure a spot for the night.
Newport: Newport is probably the most popular beach in OC, and parking is extremely limited, so expect to spend 20-40 minutes looking for parking. If you’re looking to enjoy time at the beach, I would suggest steering clear of the main stretch of Newport Beach due to its sometimes overwhelming crowds, and instead head to more secluded spot like Corona Del Mar. The peninsula has lots of small eateries and bars and is popular among the younger crowd, so if you’re looking to get out and have a good time this is the place to go!
Laguna: Very “cool,” relaxed vibe with a walkable downtown and beach area. I’d highly recommend foregoing the main downtown beach and instead go to 1000 Steps Beach where there are sea caves that lead to a natural pool. Grab brunch at Nick’s, take a break with Yoga in the Park, and window shop at some of the chic, upscale boutiques. If you’re traveling during the holidays, Laguna’s Sawdust Art Festival is an absolute must!
Dana Point/San Clemente: These quieter beaches are my personal favorite, with a friendly small-town vibe and plenty of space for privacy. San Clemente has picture-perfect beach swings, while Dana Point has bonfire pits that are much more readily available than Huntington. I recommend trying one of the many wine bars in this area for dinner, wine, and beer tastings!
This wouldn’t be a true PCH road trip guide if I didn’t include Malibu and Ventura, both gorgeous day stops that offer amazing views of the Channel Islands. Embassy Suites Mandalay Beach is a great budget-friendly hotel in Oxnard (Ventura county) and it’s just a short drive to Malibu.
Santa Barbara is laidback and slow-paced – aside from the rowdy college crowd in Isla Vista (for your own safety you should probably avoid this area. Only slightly kidding). Take some time to walk down State Street and take in local art, and the beautiful Old Mission just blocks away.
You may even catch a glimpse of celebrities like Oprah or Brad Pitt that call Santa Barbara their home-away-from-home! Looking for outdoor activities? The entire town is bicycle-friendly, so take your bike along the coastal trails of East Beach or mountain bike the Tequepis Trail in the Santa Ynez mountains. Oh, and don’t forget all the wine tasting you could ever want.
I would recommend against visiting during wildly popular college events and parties, like Deltopia, so plan the timing of your trip carefully.
Where to Stay in Santa Barbara: Hotel Indigo
Read more: Weekend Guide to Santa Barbara
San Luis Obispo
Hearst Castle may be SLO’s main attraction, and for good reason – the 90,000 square foot estate, estimated to be valued at approximately $240 million, is perhaps the most stunning and intricately designed piece of architecture you’ll see in California, maybe in the entire U.S. Given the property is now a protected state park, access to the castle is limited to guided tours, but don’t let the thought of crowds or tourists deter you.
Roaming zebras and an unrivaled collection of statues and antiques might make this the highlight of your trip. For a little local culture, catch a movie at the historic Fremont Theater and be sure to get a picture at Bubblegum Alley.
When in the city of San Luis Obispo, without a doubt book a room at the Madonna Inn. It’s eccentric to say the least, but there a few other opportunities to stay in such a unique hotel with authentic rock features in almost every room!
Read more: 48 Hours in San Luis Obispo
Big Sur is all about natural beauty, so take in the scenery from Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and Pfeiffer Beach. The state park features a variety of trees, marine animals, hiking trails, and McWay Falls — an 80-foot waterfall that tumbles off of granite cliffs directly onto the beach. Pfeiffer Beach, about 30 minutes north of McWay Falls, is also a must-see spot known for its purple sand and keyhole arch (gorgeous at sunset!).
Big Sur’s iconic Bixby Bridge is one of the most photographed bridges in California, maybe due to it’s gorgeous coastal setting; the northern end of the bridge makes for the best place to photograph, so if you’re traveling south be sure to pull off the road and take pictures before crossing!
Campsites and cabins are scattered around the state parks as well as many which are centrally located near Hwy 1. Given the many areas to explore, I would highly recommend making this an overnight visit.
Read more: Best Places to Camp in Big Sur
Monterey and neighboring Carmel perfectly encompass central California’s sleepy coastal charm, with cool foggy summers and balmy spring and autumn months. Fisherman’s wharf is the first place to visit, especially for the fresh clam chowder! Whale watching boat trips are unique to Monterey and definitely worth it, so free up a few hours of your day and pack warm clothing (scarves and beanies in addition to a warm jacket are recommended). Monterey Bay Aquarium and seaside dining in historic Cannery Row are also musts.
Carmel boasts the stunning Point Lobos State Preserve and Carmel Mission, and the cozy, romantic setting is the perfect place to settle in for a few days and enjoy some art and wine.
Where to Stay in Carmel: Hofsas House
Santa Cruz is a quirky, eco-friendly area with LOTS of places and things to explore, so take in the view and have some fun! The Boardwalk is basically a year-round carnival and amusement park, with free Friday night concerts in the summer to enjoy on the beach. Santa Cruz is also known for its Mystery Spot – a well-known tourist attraction, but so much fun nonetheless.
The walkable streets of the almost village-like downtown are charming, and unique stores and restaurants will keep you busy for many hours. Be sure not to miss the awesome Natural Bridges’ tide pools!
Where to Stay in Santa Cruz: As a previous Santa Cruz local, I highly recommend staying in the small town of Capitola at one of the following hotels. Capitola is charming, the locals are friendly and you’ll find some of the prettiest beaches here! Monarch Cove Inn or Inn at Depot Hill
San Francisco’s got it all, but there are a few key places you can go to get a real feel for this beautiful city. Polk Street is a shopping hotspot and probably the best place for dinner and drinks, so you’ll kill two birds with one stone. Fisherman’s Wharf can provide you with all of your tourist essentials (seafood, bay cruises, souvenirs) and is where the private ferry to Alcatraz embarks from.
If you have the time, head a couple of hours north to the Redwoods National and State Parks. If you don’t have time, don’t worry, you can still experience NorCal’s great redwoods at Muir Woods, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Packing Essentials for California
Comfortable flip-flops or sandals Forget the trendy footwear and slip into something comfy; casual attire is the norm in beach cities! A pair like these are perfect for wearing anywhere up and down the coast.
Sun Protection: Sunglasses and sunscreen are going to be your best friends on this trip, regardless of the season. California’s coast is known to have varying temperatures all year long, but even in overcast or cool weather you’re likely to get a little burnt outside. Prevention and UV protection is key!
Beach Bag/Cooler: This insulated tote bag doubles as a beach bag AND a cooler. Perfect for beach days.