Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Tips

California's coastal route along the pounding Pacific is perhaps America's best-loved drive. Get our recommendations for the best sites and stops.

April 22, 2021
Pacific Coast Highway: Top 10 Locals List
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California's coastal route along the pounding Pacific is perhaps America's best-loved driving destination.

Many a honeymoon has been spent, a book born and a virgin road trip consummated along the Pacific Coast Highway's wonderfully winding route.

And when it comes to mind-blowing scenery, quirky stop-offs and that wind-in-your-hair serendipity of wondering what the next bend in the road will bring, few routes deliver like this one.

Also known as California State Route 1, the PCH was built in 1934 and took 15 years to complete. It runs for nearly 550 miles in California, stretching along most of the state's coastline.

For the most dramatic scenery packed into less than half the mileage, set your sights on the Central Coast and a journey of about 240 miles from Monterey south to Santa Barbara.

Driving the route from north to south is ideal, as you'll be on the ocean side of the road the entire way, allowing unobstructed views of the jagged coastline below. Three days is a minimum, and if time allows you could easily spend more.

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Photo by: Paul GIamou / Aurora / Getty Images

Paul GIamou / Aurora / Getty Images

About 115 miles south of San Francisco, Monterey epitomizes Northern California living with mild year-round temperatures, a marine sanctuary just offshore and good cultural attractions.

At the turn of the 20th century, Cannery Row was the site of a busy salmon and abalone canning industry. These days, the historic quarter on the peninsula is the go-to destination for dining and lodging.

Splurge on a room with a view at the Spindrift Inn, next to the aquarium and right on the beach.

You can't visit Monterey without hitting the Monterey Bay Aquarium, one of the best aquariums in the country. The psychedelic jellyfish display alone is worth the admission price, and don't miss the freshwater otters from around the globe.

Consider detouring along the private 17-Mile Drive to Pebble Beach, where the 7th hole is considered one of the most picturesque greens on the planet.

Back south on the PCH, a few miles from Monterey, is the artsy enclave of Carmel-by-the-Sea — the start of the most scenic stretch of coastline along the entire route.

The sound of barking sea lions carries inland at Point Lobos State Park, where rocky headlands are interspersed with jewel-like coves. Lunch on gourmet pizzas at a redwood table tucked into gardens at Forge in the Forest, before getting back on the road.

South of Carmel is where the route really reels you into its splendor. And while you never know when that ubiquitous coastal fog is going to lower a curtain over the views, when it lifts it's as if Oz is being revealed.

The road winds high on the cliffs, with the crashing surf below. Many of the beaches you'll see are inaccessible or require serious hikes in, making them all the more enchanting.

It's less than 30 miles from Carmel to Big Sur, but the going is slow, as the road snakes back and forth and travelers creep along to soak up the scenery.

While the beatniks can no longer afford Big Sur these days, the area retains much of that natural living and free loving vibe.

At Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, an 80-foot waterfall cascades from the granite cliffs onto the beach. If you stop at only one spot, make it Nepenthe Restaurant. There you can sip a glass of wine perched atop a cliff with the views beckoning below.

Before you get to San Simeon, pull off at Piedras Blancas Beach, where elephant seals pack the beach in the winter months.

Hearst Castle — newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst's enormous slice of paradise — is about 65 miles south of Big Sur, in San Simeon.

Yes, it's touristy. Yes, it's crowded. And yes, it's worth visiting.

Book tickets online in advance (Tour 1 is a broad overview of the property that lasts less than two hours, and is the best option for first-time visitors).

Balance out all that opulence with a different sort of attraction down the road, in the seaside village of Cambria.

Nit Wit Ridge is a folk art fantasy - a poor man's castle built from thousands of found objects (read: treasures from trash).

Cambria's idyllic forest-meets-ocean locale and small town setting make it a great stopover for the night. Lost in the woods, the Cambria Pines Lodge offers cabins and up-market suites.

Before cutting inland to San Luis Obispo, stop to fly a kite on the wide swath of sand at Morro Bay and hunt for anemones in the tidal pools.

San Luis Obispo is a college town (Cal Poly is here) with a surfy vibe, and home to one of the most kitschy-cool hotels ever. The Madonna Inn is over-the-top ornate, with 109 completely unique rooms that range from caveman-style to old English decor. Gents shouldn't miss a trip to the men's bathroom in the main lobby, where the urinal has a waterfall feature.

In the winter months, pull over at Pismo Beach to see the trees aflutter with orange and black monarch butterflies that winter here for the season.

Instead of continuing south on U.S. 1 from Pismo Beach, take the inland route to Santa Barbara along Route 101, and stop for some swilling in the Santa Ynez Valley's wine region. (If you've seen the movie Sideways, you'll recognize some of the vineyard views.)

Solvang, a Danish-style town that's become somewhat of a tourist cliché, is worth a quick stopover to pick up some Danish pastries and check out the odd gingerbread and windmill scenery, before pressing on to Santa Barbara.

Many native Californians consider Santa Barbara the best vestige of an early California atmosphere. Dubbed the 'American Riviera,' the city certainly gets tonier by the minute. However, you can still find old school pockets that pay homage to the Golden State's true surf-and-sand lifestyle. The city's walkability makes it a great destination for aimless wandering as you soak up the atmosphere.

Mission Santa Barbara, founded in 1786, still functions as a church. It is considered one of California's prettiest buildings, and the tourists come in droves.

Stearns Wharf is a tourist mecca, too, but a pleasant spot for a waterfront wander.

For an old California vibe, spend the night at Cabrillo Inn at the Beach. A 1950s-style hotel, it's one of the most economical oceanfront options (snag an upstairs room for the best views).

The Upham Hotel, a historic bed-and-breakfast downtown, is a touch more romantic.

When it comes to dining, you'll rarely go wrong with seafood or Mexican in Santa Barbara.

For the latter, try La Super-Rica Taqueria (622 N. Milpas St. - no website), where the Oaxacan-style eats earned acclaim from Julia Child herself.

For seafood in a romantic setting, check out Harbor Restaurant, on the wharf.

Finally, to toast your last stop on the PCH in true California fashion, hit one of Santa Barbara's breweries for a locally-brewed ale.

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