The Final California Coast Highway Journey – All of the Finest Stops Alongside the PCH
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It’s hard to beat the views road tripping along the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH). It’s one of the most scenic drives in the world. The PCH (also referred to as State Route 1, Cabrillo Highway, Shoreline Highway, or Coast Highway) runs 655.8 miles between Orange County and Mendocino County, but we’re going to put a guide together that takes you up the entire coast.
Keep in mind that you can do any portion of this drive and split it up into multiple trips depending on how much you want to explore each area. We have suggestions for places to check out along the way and you can click the links to more in-depth guides of areas we’ve spent more time in.
THE ULTIMATE CALIFORNIA COAST ROAD TRIP
WHAT WE COVER [ CLICK LINKS TO SKIP AHEAD ]
- San Diego – Los Angeles
- Los Angeles – San Luis Obispo (SLO)
- SLO to Monterey
- Monterey to San Francisco
- San Francisco to Mendocino
- Mendocino to Crescent City
- Best Places to Stay
- A Map to Help You Get Around
- Essential Tips for First-Time Visitors
- California Coast Itinerary
We did our guide from South to North because we lived in both San Diego and LA and they’re both easy starting points to fly into. If you’re visiting from out of state and only plan on driving a portion of the coast, we suggest flying into SF and going from North to South to be closest to the coast and have easier access to pullouts.
SAN DIEGO TO LOS ANGELES
Distance: 132 Miles / 4 hr
Although the PCH doesn’t technically start until Dana Point, we’re going to start our guide in San Diego. Partly because it’s an easy place to fly into to start, but also because we lived there for a year and loved exploring the area.
SAN DIEGO – Mile 0
San Diego was one of our favorite places to live. The chill vibe, surfing culture, and beautiful beaches mixed with endless attractions make it a perfect place to start. Just try not to get stuck here. You may never want to leave.
- San Diego Zoo is rated one of the best zoos in the country.
- San Diego Zoo Safari Park – We love it much more than the main zoo, and our favorite part is the safari experience. This property can actually fit 180 San Diego Zoos!
- La Jolla – kayak through the caves, visit Sunny Jim Cave, and say hello to the seals at Children’s pool. You can also test your skills and become whiskey divers.
- Cabrillo National Monument Tide Pools – Visit the lighthouse, and go tide-pooling with your whole family. There are tons of sea critters to find.
- ALSO READ: The Ultimate San Diego Bucket List
CARLSBAD – Mile 35
- Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch – beautiful photo spot if you’re there in the spring
- Legoland California Resort – for the little ones, but we really enjoyed the miniature lego world.
- Blue Ocean Robata & Sushi Bar – delicious omakase
DANA POINT – Mile 64.5
- Ocean Institute/Pilgrim Boat – a Family-friendly spot where you can interact with sealife or participate in classes to learn more about the ocean.
- Pirate’s Cave – The 1.2-mile hike is only safe to do during low tide.
- Salt Creek Beach – popular surfing beach with beautiful cliffs on the north and south side.
LONG BEACH – Mile 105
- Queen Mary – Explore this amazing ship that’s popular amongst locals.
- Aquarium of the Pacific – See all things Pacific ocean, including penguins, sea otters, etc.
- Wayfarers Chapel (Palos Verdes) – beautiful glass church with views of the ocean and garden
- SS Dominator Shipwreck (Palos Verdes) – a coastal hike to see the remains of this shipwreck
- Point Vincente Lighthouse – beautiful coastal lighthouse
LA TO SAN LUIS OBISPO (SLO)
Distance: 219 Miles / 4 hr 15 min
LOS ANGELES – Mile 132
We’ll end day 1 in Los Angeles, which is another spot you can spend all week in, but a convenient stop since you’ll have everything you need nearby.
- Santa Monica Pier – classic west coast pier
- Venice Beach – great place to people watch
- Griffith Park – Griffith Observatory and the Hollywood Sign Hike
- ALSO READ: The Ultimate LA Bucket List, 49 Face Places to Eat in Los Angeles
MALIBU – Mile 150.4
- The Getty Villa – This is a beautiful museum focused on Greece and Rome.
- El Matador State Beach – 3 small beaches surrounded by cliffs
- Zuma Beach – quiet beach that’s popular with the locals
- Leo Carillo State Park – check out coastal caves, tidepools, or watch surfers and windsurfers
- Point Dume – climb to an amazing view
POINT MUGU / OXNARD – Mile 176.9
- Point Mugu State Park Hike – beautiful hike to great views of the surrounding hills and ocean
- Channel Island Maritime Museum – a great collection of maritime paintings, models, and artifacts
- Channel Islands Harbor – if you want to extend your trip, take a ferry over to Channel Islands National Park.
SANTA BARBARA – Mile 217.3
- Shoreline Park – oceanside park atop a mesa
- State Street – historic area with shops and restaurants
LOMPOC – Mile 289.9
- La Purisima State Historical Park – the most completely restored Mission of California
- Wine Ghetto – collection of 50 wineries
- The Murals of Lompoc – check out the murals in downtown
PISMO BEACH – Mile 337.8
- Monarch Butterfly Grove – if you are visiting between late October and February, stop by to see the thousands of monarch butterflies that fill the Eucalyptus trees
- Pismo Beach Pier – 1,200-foot pier great for watching surfers and kite surfers.
photo of us by Jeff Newsom
SLO TO MONTEREY
Distance: 146 Miles / 4 hr 20 min
After leaving SLO, there are fewer major stops and amenities on this route until you reach Big Sur, but the coastline is incredible.
SAN LUIS OBISPO – Mile 351
- Gum Wall – take photos in an alleyway covered in gum
- Bishop Peak – hike to an amazing view of the city and valley around
- Avila Valley Barn – pick up some fresh fruits or snacks at their sweet shop, u-pick fruits during certain seasons, and stop by to see their farm animals.
- Moro Rock – This is technically north of SLO in Morro Bay. Stop by to see this behemoth rock sitting in the cove.
CAMBRIA – Mile 384.3
- Moonstone Beach/Leffingwell Landing – serene spot with an overlook to Leffingwell Cove
- Nitt Witt Ridge – crazy collection of art
- Hearst Castle (San Simeon) – a spectacular estate overlooking San Simeon
BIG SUR – Mile 473.5
Our favorite place along the California coast (and top 10 in the United States). We could spend an entire week enjoying the views here, but here are a few highlights.
- McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park – famous waterfall that goes into the ocean
- Pfeiffer Beach – a beach with purple sand and “the window”
- Bixby Bridge – It’s one of the most iconic bridges on the west coast.
- ALSO READ: 11 Things You Can’t Miss in Big Sur
MONTEREY TO SAN FRANCISCO
Distance: 118 Miles / 2 hr 45 min
You can spend the morning exploring Monterey before heading up to San Francisco. There are a lot of great quick photo stops along the way, or you can spend more time at each spot doing hikes.
MONTEREY – Mile 497
- Carmel-by-the-Sea – cute town south of Monterey with lots of shops and wineries to check out
- Monterey Bay Aquarium – one of our favorite aquariums located right on the ocean
- 17-Mile Drive – iconic drive with the famous lone cypress tree
- Kayak Monterey Bay – experience Monterey from the water
- ALSO READ: 15 Amazing Things to Do in Monterey
SANTA CRUZ – Mile 540.6
- Seacliffs State Beach – pier with a sunken ship at the end
- Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk – great for the family with lots of games and rides
- Mystery Spot – if you like those weird and gimmicky touristy spots
- Natural Bridges State Park – beautiful beach with natural bridges and also a hotspot to see monarch butterfly migrate
- Seymour Marine Discovery Center – interactive marine science museum and aquarium
DAVENPORT – Mile 550.7
- Swanton Berry Farm – farm stand with fresh berry pies, strawberry shortcakes, and hot soup
- Shark Fin Cove – cove with a giant rock shark fin formation
PESCADERO – Mile 562.1
- Pigeon Point Lighthouse – built in 1871, it is the tallest lighthouse on the West Coast
- Ano Nuevo State Reserve – home to tons of sea lions with a 3-mile trail that takes you close to them
PACIFICA – Mile 602.6
- Devil’s Slide Trail – used to be the most dangerous portion of PCH, but is now a trail for hiking and biking
- Pacifica State Beach – beautiful beach popular among surfers, plus you can eat at the most picturesque Taco Bell in the country – seriously!
- Mori Point – 110-acre park located on a bluff giving you great views of the coastline
SAN FRANCISCO TO MENDOCINO
Distance: 170 Miles / 4 hr 20 min
I recommend spending a couple days exploring SF and the surrounding area. If you are, go ahead and drive up to Point Reyes Station as well. Otherwise, when you’re ready to leave, continue heading north.
SAN FRANCISCO – Mile 615
- Fisherman’s Wharf / Pier 39 – tourist spot in SF with stores, restaurants, and sea lions
- Golden Gate Bridge – can’t visit SF without seeing the Golden Gate
- Palace of Fine Arts – beautiful monumental structure and park that houses art exhibits as well
- Muir Woods National Monument – walk among massive trees
POINT REYES STATION – Mile 655.8
- Point Reyes National Seashore – need more time to explore it fully but you can schedule safaris, explore by kayak, or hike
- Cypress Tree Tunnel – super popular photo spot located in Point Reyes National Seashore
- Tomales Point Trail – 9.4-mile hike that gives amazing views from both sides
BODEGA BAY – Mile 687.8
- Bodega Head – nice quick stop with views of the ocean and cliffs
- Potter Schoolhouse – where The Birds was filmed
JENNER – Mile 698.4
- Fort Ross State Historic Park – former Russian fur trading outpost and native redwood forest
- Salt Point State Park – tons of trails that take you to a beautiful bluff and beach
POINT ARENA – Mile 750
- Point Arena Lighthouse – beautiful lighthouse popular amongst photographers
- Bowling Ball Beach – located just north of Schooner Gulch State Beach, this beach has bowling ball-like rock formations that appear only at low tide. Don’t forget to check the tide tables. We had to come back twice!
- B Bryan Preserve – preserve focused on African hoof animals
MENDOCINO – Mile 785
- Van Damme State Park – great short hiking options
- Jug Handle State Reserve – 2.5-mile staircase trail exploring wave-cut terraces
MENDOCINO TO CRESCENT CITY
Distance: 229 Miles / 4 hr 45 min
The rest of California feels different. There are some great kitschy touristy stops, lots of hiking, and beautiful scenery. You’re technically off the PCH by this point, but it’s still worth seeing how the scenery changes as you are surrounded by massive redwoods.
FORT BRAGG – Mile 795
- Glass Beach – a colorful beach with colorful glass along the beach
- MacKerricher State Park – trails with beautiful tree tunnels
- Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens – for the flower and plant lovers
- Pudding Creek Trestle – unique wooden bridge great for photos
LEGGETT – Mile 838.4
- Chandelier Drive-Through Tree – a fun drive-through tree
- Standish-Hickey State Recreation Area – check out a river canyon with year-round camping, hiking, and swimming
GARBERVILLE – Mile 861.4
- Richardson Grove State Park – walk amongst redwoods on one of the hikes
- One Log House – see a house made in one log
MYERS FLAT – Mile 877.8
- Shrine Drive-Through Tree – another drive-through tree
- Humboldt Redwoods State Park (Weott) – amazing park where you can see massive trees – check out Founders Grove & Avenue of Giants
EUREKA – Mile 928.8
- Sequoia Park Zoo – oldest zoo in California
- Carson Mansion – large Victorian home (considered the grandest in America)
- Humboldt Bay – second largest enclosed bay in California
KLAMATH – Mile 992.4
- Trees of Mystery – unusual tree formations and a giant Paul Bunyan & Babe out front
- Tour-Through Tree – another chance to drive through a tree
- High Bluff Overlook – beautiful overlook
CRESCENT CITY – Mile 1014
- Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park – another chance to walk amongst giants
- Battery Point Lighthouse – quick stop for lighthouse chasers
- Ocean World – small aquarium
CONTINUE TO THE OREGON COAST HIGHWAY
From Crescent City, you’re only 20 miles away from the Oregon State line and more amazing coast to explore. Check out our Ultimate Oregon Coast Road Trip guide.
WHERE TO STAY
We’ve done SD to LA and LA to SF countless times but mostly stayed with friends. When we did it in its entirety, we were in an Airstream, which means most of our accommodations were campgrounds and RV sites. We’ll continue to add in more recommendations for hotels and Airbnbs once we get a chance to check more out.
- Big Sur (Fernwood Resort)
- Fort Bragg (Pomo RV Park & Campground)
MAP OF THE CALIFORNIA COAST
ESSENTIAL TIPS FOR FIRST TIMERS
- When to Go: Spring and Fall will have the fewest crowds and great weather. If you go during the winter, SoCal will stay warm but will be colder as you go north. The popular spots will bring in tons of tourists in the summer.
- Be Flexible: You never know what area you’ll discover and love. Make a plan on how many days you want to spend on the road, but give yourself flexibility in case you want to spend more time in a specific area. If you have more time, we highly recommend staying more than a day in San Diego, LA, Santa Barbara, SLO, Big Sur, and SF. Other spots you can more or less get the gist of the area in one day.
- Consider Driving North to South: That will keep you on the side of the coast and makes it easy to take advantage of pullouts.
- Clothes to Wear: Dress in layers. It can get windy on the coast and it also helps to have waterproof layers in case it rains.
- Park Passes to Pick Up: Pick up a California Parks Pass and America the Beautiful Pass to save money on the parks. America the Beautiful Pass covers National Parks, BLM, National Forests, and National Wildlife Refuges.
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ESTHER + JACOB
Esther and Jacob are the founders of Local Adventurer, which is one of the top 50 travel blogs in the world. They believe that adventure can be found both near and far and hope to inspire others to explore locally. They move to a new city every year and currently live in Portland, Oregon.
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