Is there anything more quintessentially American than the Pacific Coast Highway road trip? It’s an item that was on my bucket list for the last decade, so I’m glad to finally have checked it off. Although the trip wasn’t without its hiccups (you may have read about road washouts in this area), it’s a trip everyone should do at some point. The winding roads, prehistoric-looking forests, and dramatic cliffs are all part of the appeal. While I visited most of the places in this guide, some are based on research because of the previously mentioned weather conditions.
Planning Your Road Trip
Before you book your flight, first decide how long you want your trip to be and what destinations you’ll visit. It took us a few days, but I could easily have taken an entire month, stopping for a few days at each destination. Also, consider if you’ll do the whole highway or just segments. The most popular route is from San Francisco to Los Angeles, but you can also do a few days before turning back if you’re short on time, as we were.
And don’t forget to consider how you want to do it. Staying in luxury hotels, hostels or camping? Renting a car is almost required, so make sure you know how to drive (!) and can legally drive in the United States. Rent a car from a major city like San Francisco or Los Angeles to save money. I’ve found good deals on the AAA website as a member. You can also rent a campervan, staying at campsites along the way. Escape Campervans is just one company that operates here, along with Jucy.
When packing for a road trip down the Pacific Coast Highway, be prepared for just about any weather. I visited in February and it wasn’t too cold, but rained almost constantly. Layers are your friend, especially if you’ll be camping. Phone service can be spotty, so have backup plans like these old fashioned things called maps. Road closures are also common, or they were on our trip, so be prepared to find alternative routes. It’s smart to have AAA in the case of car troubles. Unless you’re visiting during the summer, high season, you likely won’t need to book each night’s accommodation in advance but have a few phone numbers written down.
Essential Road Trip Stops
North of San Francisco
Technically, the Pacific Coast Highway, or Highway 1, starts north of San Francisco closer to Mendocino. Since there’s not a major airport at the start, many people head south, but there are some unique towns to see in the north.
Bodega Bay and Bodega
I recently wrote a post about the towns featured in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. The towns have a few attractions, including the Potter Schoolhouse, Bodega Bay Trailhead, and The Children’s Bell Tower. The Tides (Bodega Bay) is a favorite eatery in the area. Dinucci’s Italian Dinners in Valley Ford is worth a detour. Stay at The Inn at The Tides or at the campground near the bell tower. For more tips on visiting Bodega, see my guide here.
Point Reyes Peninsula
The small towns in this area are worth exploring, including Point Reyes Station, Tomales, and Iverness, but most people pass through to visit the Point Reyes National Seashore for hiking and wildlife spotting. Point Reyes Lighthouse is a stunning photo op, especially when the fog rolls in. HI Point Reyes Hostel is one of the only places to stay unless you’re camping, but Nick’s Cove has cabins. The park has a few backcountry campsites with modest facilities. The National Parks System has an extensive list of restaurant recommendations in the area, including Tomales Bay Oyster Co., Nicks Cove, and The Cowgirl Cantina.
Just across the bay from San Francisco, Sausalito is a charming town that’s the perfect base for exploring Muir Woods National Monument and Marin Headlands. Stop by the marina and the downtown shops. Scoma’s Sausalito has the best views of the city and fresh seafood. Sandrino Pizza & Vino and Le Garage are also favorites. Casa Madrona Hotel & Spa is a stylish hotel near the beach. HI Marin Headlands Hostel is a cozy hostel with both private and dorm rooms in historic buildings overlooking the headlands. There are also a number of campgrounds within the Marin Headlands.
San Francisco and Surrounds
The San Francisco and Bay area is the perfect stopover for a few days. It’s easy to get caught up in the Fog City but wander to Berkeley and Oakland for the full experience. San Jose makes for another nice stop if you need to get off the highway, as do the wineries around Napa and Sonoma.
The “city by the bay” has plenty to offer travelers, especially its unique neighborhoods like North Beach and the Mission. Give yourself a few days to explore the tourist side, including the Ferry Building, Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge Vista Point, and Fisherman’s Wharf. Coit Tower, the Painted Ladies in Alamo Square, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art are also worth a visit. Shop at City Lights Bookstore and Book Passage, two notable bookstores. You can also tour Anchor Brewing Company and 21st Amendment Brewery. When you’re hungry, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a bad place to eat. Brenda’s French Soul Food, Pizzeria Delfina, Rose’s Cafe, Tin Vietnamese Cuisine, and Tacolicious are just a few of my favorites from visits over the years. Also, catch the Off the Grid food truck events around town. There’s also an accommodation option for everyone. The Dylan at SFO is ideal for travelers staying on a layover while InterContinental San Francisco is well-located luxury. Hostelling International operates some truly unique properties, including Hostelling International-San Francisco City Center, HI Downtown San Francisco, and Fisherman’s Wharf. USA Hostel and Green Tortoise Hostel are also popular for budget travelers. AirBnB is an extremely popular option with plenty of properties to choose from. You can even camp at Rob Hill Campground in the Presidio! For more tips on visiting San Francisco, see my guide here.
The gateway to Silicon Valley, you’d be surprised at the unique attractions in San Jose. Winchester Mystery House is just one, owned by a former rifle magnate who felt haunted by those killed by the guns. She continued work on her house for most of her life until her death. San Jose Museum of Art is one of the city’s cultural offerings along with the scenic Japanese Friendship Garden. Intel Museum is just one of the museums devoted to the history of Silicon Valley and its companies. Cafe Stritch combines craft beer and live music while Adega is a casual Portuguese eatery. Hotel De Anza and The Row Hotel are two chic independent hotels, but you’ll find just about every chain here as well. Joseph D. Grant County Park outside of town has camping facilities.
San Francisco to Monterey
South of San Francisco, the landscapes start to change. You still have dramatic cliffs and beaches unfit for swimming, but the tall buildings and city noises fade away.
Half Moon Bay
One of the first stops south of San Francisco and the greater Silicon Valley area is Half Moon Bay, a quiet beach area with a few state parks and resorts. The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay is on one end of the spectrum, while the budget-friendly Comfort Inn Half Moon Bay is on the other. You can go to the Ritz to look around, walk down to the beach, and have a meal if you mention it at the gate. Comfort Inn was a short drive from the beach and included breakfast. There’s plenty of options in between like Point Montara Lighthouse Hostel, located nearby. The beaches in question include Roosevelt Beach and Dunes Beach. Joe’s is a roadside diner with breakfast all day. Grab wine and tapas from Seville Tapas or eat in a former train car at Dad’s Luncheonette. Hop Dogma Brewing Co. and Half Moon Bay Brewing Company are the area’s craft breweries. Cycling, golf, spas and visiting wineries are the main attractions, but there’s also the Half Moon Bay Distillery and Half Moon Bay Art Glass, where you can see glass blowing.
Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel is one of the most unique places you’re likely to sleep on the Pacific Coast Highway. The historic lighthouse has a museum as well as dorms and private rooms. Costanoa offers glamping as well as a spa and restaurant. Cook on your own or venture out for food at Duarte’s Tavern. Browse for produce and dairy at Pie Ranch or Harley Farms Goat Dairy. Highway 1 Brewing Company sells brews with a view. Go in search of elephant seals at Ano Nuevo State Park and the tide pools at Pescadero State Beach.
Laid-back Santa Cruz is a popular college town known for its bustling downtown with independent shops and restaurants. Make the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk your first stop, where you’ll find shops, restaurants, rides, and a loud family of seals snoozing below. Santa Cruz Surfing Museum details the history of the sport, while you can also get out on the water with Chardonnay sailing charters. Mount Hermon Adventures has ropes courses for the whole family. Browse the selection at Sockshop & Shoe Company and Bookshop Santa Cruz. Natural Bridges State Beach has a stunning vista point worth a quick photo op. You’ll have no difficulty finding something to eat and drink in Santa Cruz. New Bohemia Brewing Co. is just one of the town’s breweries. Betty Burgers is a vintage-inspired burger joint. Saturn Cafe crafts hearty vegetarian fare and weekend brunch, while Caffe Pergolesi is a beloved local coffee shop in a Victorian home. Grab some pastries and sandwiches at Kelly’s French Bakery. Soif is the perfect spot to end your night with a glass of wine. Stay in one of the chic oceanview rooms at Santa Cruz Dream Inn or the boardwalk-adjacent Carousel Beach Inn. Hotel Paradox, Autograph Collection is on the luxury end of the scale, while HI-Santa Cruz is best for any budget. Camp at Santa Cruz Harbor RV Park or Santa Cruz / Monterey Bay KOA Holiday.
Monterey to San Luis Obispo
There’s no shortage of cute towns in this stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway. Some are worth a short detour while others allow you to linger longer. We couldn’t get from Notley’s Landing to Ragged Point because of the roads but still saw plenty.
Most recently seen on HBO’s Big Little Lies and in one of John Steinbeck’s classic novels, Monterey is equal parts tourist district and locals area. Browse the shops of Cannery Row, the former sardine canning district, The Wharf Marketplace, and visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Tickets are steep, so get the AAA rate. A free trolley takes you around town, specifically to the Old Fisherman’s Wharf, where the whale watching tours leave from. I recommend Princess Whale Watching, but bring your motion sickness tablets! When you’re ready to get out of town, spend the $10 to make the 17 Mile Dr, which winds through Pebble Beach. Start your day with a bite from Cafe Lumiere, Old Monterey Cafe, or First Awakenings. Alvarado Street Brewery & Tasting Room serves house-brewed beer and elevated bar food. Whaling Station Steakhouse is ideal for a nice night out, which you should top off with Revival Ice Cream. Sample area wines at A Taste of Monterey – Wine Market & Bistro. Stay in luxury in the heart of it all at InterContinental The Clement Monterey, a short walk from the aquarium. Inn By The Bay Monterey is cozy and quaint, while HI – Monterey has dorm rooms and a guest kitchen. Monterey Veterans Memorial Park has campsites and trails.
Carmel is the next place you’ll stop, much smaller than Monterey, but easily walkable. Check out the shops in town and stop for a bite. La Bicyclette is cozy and French-inspired, as is Lafayette Bakery & Cafe. Grab a jolt at Carmel Valley Coffee Roasting Co. Hog´s Breath Inn was owned by Clint Eastwood for over two decades. For a nice dinner out, there’s no finer place than Aubergine at L’Auberge Carmel. Taste local wines at Holman Ranch Vineyards & Winery and Smith Family Wines tasting room. Refuge offers luxury treatments and hot pools when you’re tired from hiking and exploring. Drive south to the Bixby Creek Bridge and Point Lobos. Spend the night in town at one of Carmel’s inns, like Carmel Wayfarer Inn or The Vagabond House. Camp at Garland Ranch Regional Park.
Credit: Henrique Pinto
While I didn’t make it to Big Sur, I researched places I wanted to go beforehand. So these are a few places I’ll check out next time. Point Sur has a famous lighthouse that can be viewed on a moonlight tour. Andrew Molera State Park and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park are closed until further notice, but hopefully will be accessible soon. Henry Miller Memorial Library is devoted to the life of the writer. Soak in Tassajara Hot Springs, a zen facility inland from Big Sur. There’s no better view than Nepenthe, which has been open since 1949 for fresh California cuisine. Parker-Lusseau Pastries has locations all around the coast, but Big Sur Bakery and Restaurant is another favorite, although closed because of the roads. Stay in the unique resorts that are meant for rest and relaxation. Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn has been a Pacific Coast Highway stopover since the 1930s. Big Sur River Inn has both lodging and a restaurant andVentana Inn & Spa is an adults-only resort. Esalen is a retreat known for its sulfur baths and workshops. Treebones Resort has funky yurts and tents. Camping is also a popular option, although it depends on if the roads are open. Big Sur Campground & Cabins and Ventana Campground both have both sites and cabins.
The main attraction to the town of San Simeon is Hearst Castle, the home of William Randolph Hearst. It sits atop a breathtaking hill and has acres of wild animals. Go on one of the home tours and learn about the family at the visitor’s center. SEBASTIAN’S is on the northern side of town but is a tourist favorite. Sea Chest Restaurant is kitschy but serves fresh seafood. The Morgan at San Simeon has all the amenities for an overnight stay. You can also camp at San Simeon State Park.
A hidden gem on highway 1, Morro Bay is the perfect place to spend the afternoon. Morro Rock is the first thing you see, a massive rock made from an extinct volcano. Rent a kayak or paddleboard to paddle around the bay or walk around town in search of souvenirs. MCV Wines is one of the better tasting rooms in town. The French dip sandwiches at Hofbrau der Albatross came highly recommended and did not disappoint. Opt for a healthy meal at Kravabowl with juices and acai bowls. The Libertine Pub brews beer and kombucha and also has a restaurant. Gray’s Inn and Gallery overlooks the water and also has its own art gallery. Embarcadero Inn is stylishly decorated with bay view rooms. There are a number of campgrounds to stay in, but Bay Pines RV Park and Morro Bay State Park both have space for RVs and tents.
San Luis Obispo
Funky San Luis Obispo is like nowhere else on the coast. Hearst Castle is a short drive away, but closer to town, check out the Bubblegum Alley, pictured above, before browsing downtown shops like Ruby Rose and Ambiance Clothing Boutique. San Luis Obispo Museum of Art has a diverse collection and is the perfect rainy day activity. Visit the nearby Paso Robles wineries or venture out on a hike to Bishop Peak. There’s no shortage of delicious eateries downtown. Grab breakfast at House of Bagels Central Coast. Linnaea’s Cafe is a beloved garden cafe offering fresh organic vegetarian and vegan fare. Novo Restaurant & Lounge is a pet-friendly establishment with global cuisine and craft beverages. For cozy cocktails, brunch, and dinner, head to Sidecar. There’s nowhere better to stay the night than Madonna Inn Resort & Spa, an offbeat hotel and spa located on the bike trail to downtown. HI San Luis Obispo feels and looks like home. Camp at any one of the county parks, including Coastal Dunes RV Park & Campground.
San Luis Obispo to Los Angeles
While our trip ended in San Luis Obispo, where we headed back north to San Fransisco, you can also continue south to Los Angeles. Along the way, take in the Scandinavian town of Solvang and relaxing Santa Barbara. Check out the beaches of Pismo Beach, Santa Monica, and Malibu before arriving in the city.
Los Angeles has plenty of attractions for visitors, especially those interested in television and film. Explore the city’s unique neighborhoods, like Koreatown, Santa Monica, and Venice. Kodak Theatre, Mann’s Chinese Theater, and El Capitan Theatre are worth a photo op. Griffith Observatory was featured in Rebel Without a Cause as well as recently in La La Land. Take a film noir tour with Esotouric or go to a Dodgers game. There’s also no shortage of museums to explore. Dine in an LA classic like Philippe the Original, home of the French dip, or Mexican favorites at Mission Cantina. Chego by chef Roy Choi is another favorite. Stay at one of the city’s hip hostels like the new The Freehand Los Angeles. USA Hostels Hollywood has free pancakes for breakfast and Hostelling International Santa Monica is just one of the brand’s locations in the city. Hostels are also found in Fullerton and Venice. Ace Hotel Los Angeles is another favorite for its chic rooftop pool.
If you’re planning your own California Road Trip, follow my inspiration board on Pinterest.
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