Inside: Everything you need to know for the perfect PCH road trip down California’s Highway 1 from San Francisco to Los Angeles (with every wild and wonderful stop in between!).
The Pacific Coast Highway. It is perhaps the USA’s most iconic road trip. Convertible top down, salty Pacific air blowing through your hair and California sunshine shimmering on your cheeks.
And in the current Covid-19 world, there’s no better way to dip your toe back into the travel pool than with an epic, socially-distanced California road trip. Now that California has begun a phased reopening to tourism, it’s time to start planning that trip!
The battered travel industry needs you.
And YOU need ocean breezes, wide-open spaces, tasty treats and a change of scenery from the same four walls you’ve likely been staring at for months.
Considered one of the world’s most scenic drives, the Pacific Coast Highway is a classic American road trip. The PCH passes through such beautiful spots as Monterey, Big Sur, Pebble Beach, Santa Monica, Malibu and Santa Barbara, to name just a few.
Along the Pacific Coast Highway, you’ll encounter jaw-dropping vistas, seaside villages, incredible wildlife, excellent dining, unique shops, mom and pop produce stands, quirky attractions and even America’s answer to Buckingham Palace.
But first, a few frequently asked questions:
To drive the entire coastal CA Highway 1 takes 10-12 hours without stops. But this road trip is all about the stops! Plan on a minimum of 3 days and 2 nights. However, a 5-day itinerary is ideal for the San Francisco to LA trip with the first and last night spent in each city.
Driving California’s scenic Highway 1 is best appreciated while driving from north to south. Why? Because you’ll have unobstructed views of the stunning coastline right out your window. Not to mention, it makes quick pullovers at photo-worthy spots hassle-free.
My vote: a convertible! All the better for feeling those salty breezes in your hair and California sunshine on your face.
While curvy in many places, road conditions along the Pacific Coast Highway are generally good. However, if you have any concerns, you can check general road conditions for Highway 1 here and Big Sur specific road conditions here.
The Pacific Coast Highway’s spectacular views are open and free to all travelers daily. However, you will find that many restaurants and roadside attractions are closed on Tuesdays. So if there’s a day of the week to avoid, it’s Tuesday.
Yes and no. It varies widely depending on the county. National Parks are not yet open, most restaurants are, and hotels are either already open or opening soon. Throughout this post, I’ve included each destination’s current status as well as the link to find the latest updates.
The Perfect 5-Day California Road Trip Itinerary
For the purposes of this post, I’ll focus on a 5-day road trip itinerary. However, as I mentioned above, the highlights can easily be tackled in a day or two.
If you have more time, I’ve indicated below where I’d suggest adding a day. But all of the following can be easily customized to cater to specific interests.
So whether you’re road-tripping solo, with your significant other or with the entire family…lower the top on that convertible, grab your mask & hand sanitizer, crank up the tunes and let’s hit the road!
PCH Road Trip Day 1: San Francisco
You don’t need a car in San Francisco (in fact, it’s more of a pricey hindrance) so if you’re picking up a rental car, plan to get it on your way out of town the next morning.
San Francisco is worthy of a week of exploration unto itself! However, as the starting point for your PCH road trip, we’ll assume you just have one day.
Start your day with breakfast…
Kick-off your San Francisco exploration at the Embarcadero for breakfast. Head straight for the majestic white clock tower of the Ferry Building Marketplace. This 1898 transit hub is now home to cafes, artisanal bakeries, cheese shops and even a mushroom shop.
On Saturday mornings, the weekly Farmer’s Market runs from 8:00AM – 2:00PM. Tip: For a cheesy treat, pick up a breakfast sandwich from Cowgirl Creamery.
COVID-19 Status: Open for business. Check here for more details.
5 Things You Shouldn’t Miss in San Francisco
Whether you’re short on time or plan extra days for the City by the Bay, here are 5 things you shouldn’t miss:
- Golden Gate Park
- Alcatraz Island – If you’re short on time, you may have to skip this one. Plan on 2-3 hours for a guided tour of the infamous prison. Tour prices include the 10-minute boat ride to the island each way. (Covid-19 Status: Open for outdoor and exterior tours only as of August 17th, check here for updates.)
- A trolley car ride to Fisherman’s Wharf
- The Painted Ladies
- Lombard Street
Where to Spend the Night – San Francisco
The Argonaut Hotel – Located in the heart of Fisherman’s Wharf, this eco-friendly hotel boasts gorgeous views across San Francisco Bay. Nautically-themed rooms are large by San Francisco standards and the restaurants and shops of Fisherman’s Wharf are at your doorstep.
COVID-19 Status: Currently accepting reservations for stays starting November 1st, check here for the latest information.
PCH Road Trip Day 2: Muir Woods, Santa Cruz & Monterey
Redwoods, beaches, and gravitational mysteries, Day 2 has it all. ..now let’s get started on those 25 stops!
1. Muir Woods National Monument
Today’s first stop will have you backtracking a bit north of San Francisco, so if you have extra time in San Francisco you may want to include it in your exploration of the city. If not, it’s well worth the brief detour to walk among the soaring old-growth redwoods at Muir Woods.
Current summer hours are 8:00AM – 5:00PM with slightly shorter hours the rest of the year. Advance reservations are now required to visit Muir Woods. The parking fee (standard vehicle) is $8.50 or shuttle reservations (from local transit stations) are $3.75 per adult. Entrance fees are $15 per adult (free for children under 16).
Tip: Be sure to download your parking reservation or shuttle ticket in advance, there is no wifi or cell phone reception in the area.
COVID-19 Status: Re-opened on June 29th, get the latest updates here.
2. Half Moon Bay
Pull off the road for a quick picture from the cliff of the expansive Half Moon Bay State Beach below or follow the Coast-side Trail north to Pillar Point.
3. Duarte’s Tavern (Stop for Lunch!)
Since 1894, this family-run diner has been delighting road trippers along the PCH. Located in Pescadero between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz, Duarte’s Tavern is the perfect place to break up your day. Open daily (except Tuesday) from 7:00AM – 8:00PM, it’s a must on your drive down the PCH.
Tip: Don’t miss the famous cream of artichoke soup.
COVID-19 Status: Open for takeout and inside dining at 25% capacity, Friday-Sunday 12pm-7pm, Monday/Wednesday/Thursday 12pm-3p, closed Tuesday. Check the website link above for updates.
4. Pie Ranch (Stop for a Snack!)
Continuing south from Pescadero, you’ll spot it on your left before you reach Santa Cruz. More than meets the eye, Pie Ranch is part farm stand, part organic farming school which partners with local schools. Pie fillings on offer rotate with the fresh crops of the season.
Open weekdays (except Tuesday) from 12:00PM – 5:00PM, weekends from 10:00AM – 5:00PM.
COVID-19 Status: Open for business!
5. Santa Cruz
Start your afternoon tour of Santa Cruz with a photo stop at Lighthouse Field State Beach. Visit the Wharf for great restaurants and shops and soak up the old-school Americana vibe of the Beach Boardwalk.
6. Mystery Spot
File this one under bizarre. Located just outside Santa Cruz, this unusual gravitational attraction makes for a fun stop for the whole family (and endlessly amusing photo ops!). Discovered by surveyors in 1939, this roadside attraction is a California Historical Landmark and has been mystifying visitors since 1940.
Open daily from 10:00AM – 4:00PM and weekends until 5:00PM, tickets are $8 and parking will run you $5. Book tickets online in advance if you want to use a credit card, otherwise, it’s only cash at the door. Plan to arrive 30 minutes before your scheduled tour time
COVID-19 Status: Open for business with reduced tour sizes. Masks required.
7. Monterey (Stop for the Night!)
Intercontinental The Clement Monterey – This waterfront resort and spa is a great choice to rest up before hitting Big Sur the next day. Located on Cannery Row next door to the legendary Monterey Aquarium, it’s the perfect location for shopping, dining, or just soaking in the harbor views from Fisherman’s Wharf.
COVID-19 Status: The Intercontinental Clement Monterey is open and accepting new reservations. The Monterey Aquarium remains closed. Check their Twitter feed for the latest updates.
PCH Road Trip Day 3: Pebble Beach & Big Sur
Today is the day your Instagram account has been waiting for.
Between Pebble Beach and Big Sur, be sure to plan lots of time for impromptu photo stops on today’s itinerary!
8. Pebble Beach 17-Mile Drive
Start your day bright and early from Monterey to make the “17-Mile Drive” through the exclusive coastal resort of Pebble Beach.
Dating back to 1892, the 17-Mile Drive was created by a consortium of railroad companies as an excursion for guests of their nearby hotel. The road meanders along beaches and forested areas between Monterey and Carmel and remains a popular activity for visitors to the area.
Pebble Beach is home to seven public and private golf courses, the most famous of which is Pebble Beach Golf Links – arguably the best golf course in the western United States and five-time site of the U.S. Open.
COVID-19 Status: Hotel, restaurants, and golf courses are open. Get the latest updates here.
9. Point Lobos State Nature Reserve
Stop just long enough for a photo op or visit the Whaler’s Cabin Museum (open daily from 9:00AM – 5:00PM).
COVID-19 Status: Walking trails and parking lots are open as of September 17th, get the latest updates here.
10. Big Sur
Landscape artist Francis McComas once called Big Sur the world’s “greatest meeting of land and sea” and I’d have to say those are the best words I’ve heard to describe it.
The 90-mile stretch of untouched, ruggedly-beautiful coastline features gravity-defying bridges, inaccessible stretches of golden sand, and pounding surf. During the winter months, even the occasional whale sighting from December to May.
Keep a sharp eye out for the Castle Rock Lookout Point (plug it into your GPS so you don’t miss it!). This is the spot to capture the iconic image of the Bixby Creek Bridge that is essential to any PCH road trip.
The winding highway is dotted with areas to pull over to soak in the view and listen to the crash of the surf and the bark of the sea lions. After the Bixby Bridge, don’t miss Point Sur State Historic Park, Pfeiffer Beach, and McWay Falls.
COVID-19 Status: Most of the park areas and trails re-opened over the summer from Covid-19 closures, unfortunately, many areas are now closed again due to damage from the Dolan fire, updates can be found here. Luckily, the views from the Highway 1 lookout points are always open!
11. Nepenthe (Stop for Lunch!)
For incredible views, casual dining, and a terrific shop featuring unique Big Sur souvenirs, don’t miss a stop at Nepenthe for lunch. Open daily from 11:30am-10:00pm. Reservations are only accepted for parties of 5 or more. Tip: Try the Ambrosiaburger!
COVID-19 Status: Open for takeout and outdoor dining. Check the website link above for updates.
12. Spend the Night in Big Sur
Ventana Big Sur Resort – If you’re searching for a romantic splurge on your road trip, look no further than this epic adults-only luxury retreat. After a complete renovation in 2017, the resort features luxurious villas, a decadent spa, and a restaurant with awe-inspiring views of the glimmering Pacific. With rates hovering around $1,000/night, the Ventana is more of an “experience” than just a hotel choice. But, if you’ve got room in the budget for a one-night splurge, this is the place to do it.
COVID-19 Status: Open for business.
Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn – For a more rustic option (and I mean really rustic), this historic inn will give you a true “off the grid” experience. Things to expect: Quaint, individually decorated rooms, thin walls, a unique experience. Things not to expect: wifi, TV, phones, cell service, online reservations. To make a reservation, call the inn directly.
COVID-19 Status: Currently closed, no reopening date has been announced. Their Facebook page is the best place to check for updates.
PCH Road Trip Day 4: San Simeon, Hearst Castle & San Luis Obispo
Start your morning on Day 4 with a visit to the elephant seals of San Simeon before enjoying a tour of sprawling Hearst Castle. Stop for a seaside lunch in Cambria and end with a visit to one of Highway 1’s most eclectic homes.
13. San Simeon
Over 15,000 elephant seals migrate to the Elephant Seal Rookery on San Piedras Beach each year. Peak season is December to March. Viewing areas are open every day and there’s no fee required. There’s also a visitor center and gift shop.
COVID-19 Status: Viewing areas and parking lots are open and San Luis Obispo County is welcoming tourism again as of June 12th. The visitor center and gift shop remain closed. Check here for updates on what’s open and what’s not.
14. Hearst Castle
Conceived by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst and inspired by his European travels, Hearst Castle is a sprawling 250,000- acre compound of rooms, kitchens, cottages, gardens, pools and more. Now a State Park and historic museum, the castle offers a variety of tour options with tickets starting at $25 for adults.
Open daily at 9:00AM, tours can be reserved online up to 60 days in advance or purchased upon arrival based on availability.
Tip: Plan your time accordingly, the Grand Rooms Tour (the most popular) takes one hour.
COVID-19 Update: Currently closed, get the latest info here.
15. Moonstone Beach Bar & Grill (Stop for Lunch!)
After your morning at Hearst Castle, stop in at Cambria’s Moonstone Beach Bar & Grill for a seafood lunch with an ocean view. After lunch, make time for a stroll down beautiful Moonstone Beach.
COVID-19 Status: Open for dine-in and takeout. Lunch served from 11:00am-3:00pm daily. Check their website for the latest info.
16. Nit Wit Ridge
Definitely one more for the bizarre files!
Part of the fun of a PCH road trip is the opportunity to visit wacky California destinations just like Nit Wit Ridge. Arthur “Art” Harold Beal was a reclusive artist in the 1920’s. After buying this hillside lot in Cambria in 1928, he spent decades carving out terraces using only a pick and shovel.
The result? His own unique “castle on a hill” which visitors can tour today.
COVID-19 Status: Open for business.
17. San Luis Obispo (Stop for the Night!)
Madonna Inn – This iconic hotel is a must on any Pacific Coast Highway road trip. Each of the hotel’s 110 distinct rooms is decorated in a uniquely whimsical way. With room names like Captain’s Bridge, Italy, California Poppy, and Desert Sands, the options are endless and so is the fun. My favorite rooms: Daisy Mae and Rock Bottom. Tip: Do NOT miss a stop in the bakery!
COVID-19 Status: Open for business, including the bakery, shops and dine-in service at the restaurant. Check their Facebook page for updates.
While in town, check out the Fremont Theater, Soda Lake, and nearby Pismo Beach. Like Seattle, San Luis Obispo is home to a bubblegum attraction called Bubblegum Alley. It’s a 70-foot-long alley lined with discarded gum from various passersby.
Yes, it’s gross. Yes, it’s a literal nightmare in a Covid-19 world.
And yes, you know you still want to see it.
PCH Road Trip Day 5: Solvang, Santa Barbara, Malibu, LA
It’s the final day of our 5-day Pacific Coast Highway road trip and this will be an ambitious one!
If you have more than 5 days, this is the place to add in an extra day. My suggestion would be an overnight stay in Santa Barbara before moving on to LA (more on that below!).
One of the quirkier stops on the PCH road trip itinerary, the historic Danish village of Solvang requires a short detour off Highway 1 but is well worth the stop. Take a ride on the Solvang Trolley or stop for a pastry at an authentic Danish bakery. Stroll the antique shops and boutiques while enjoying the Euro-architecture.
Tip: Start your day the California way with an avocado toast at the Fresco Valley Cafe.
COVID-19 Status: Shops and restaurants are open. Check their Facebook page for the latest updates.
19. Santa Barbara
Known for wide, sandy beaches, Santa Barbara is a great place to stop and soak up the California sunshine. East Beach is a popular spot for beach-lovers, while State Street boasts plenty of shops and restaurants. Stearns Wharf is California’s oldest working pier and the city’s most iconic landmark.
If you have an extra night to spare on your PCH road trip, Santa Barbara is a great place to spend it. Here’s a fun place to stay:
Cheshire Cat Inn – This charming B&B is the perfect overnight choice. Like the Madonna Inn, rooms are whimsically-themed yet in a more understated and elegant way. With room names like Mad Hatter, Queen of Hearts and Tweedle Dee, the Alice in Wonderland theme extends beyond the hotel walls and throughout the lovely grounds.
Tip: For a room with a beautiful terrace overlooking the grounds, choose Alice’s Balcony or White Rabbit Balcony room.
COVID-19 Status: The Santa Barbara South Coast is open to leisure travel as of June 12th. Here’s what you need to know.
20. Ventura Beach
The gateway to the Channel Islands National Park, head to Ventura Harbor Village for seaside dining and shopping (and to book a day trip to the Channel Islands if you have some extra time!). Don’t miss a stroll down Ventura Pier.
It’s the most famous 21-mile stretch of prime Pacific coastline in southern California.
Nicknamed, “the Bu,” Malibu is home to both warm, sandy beaches and many of Hollywood’s biggest movie stars and moguls.
Framed by the Topanga Canyon to the East, the Santa Monica Mountains to the North and the Pacific Ocean to the South, Malibu’s natural beauty makes it almost impossible to believe you’re just a few miles from the city.
While this exclusive community is home to the rich and famous, almost all of its beachfront remains open to the public. Don’t miss Point Dume State Beach.
22. Paradise Cove Beach Cafe (Stop for Lunch!)
Paradise Cove Beach Cafe – Serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, it’s the perfect place to soak up the Malibu sunshine and views. If you’ve got some extra time, beach chair rentals are also available. Tip: Try the world-famous clam chowder and fish tacos.
COVID-19 Status: Open for outdoor dining and takeout. Check their website link above for updates.
23. Santa Monica Pier
Within a few years of its opening in 1909, the original Santa Monica Pier soon had a neighbor. Famous carousel manufacturer Charles I.D. Looff purchased the land immediately south of the pier and developed one of the area’s first successful amusement parks.
Ultimately, the two piers were joined and in 1996 the opening of Pacific Park reinvigorated the pier by introducing new rides and creating the vibrant entertainment complex we know today.
COVID-19 Status: The pier and beach are now open, rides remain closed, check their website for updates.
24. Manhattan Beach
With just over 2 miles of sandy California beachfront, Manhattan Beach is known for a more laid-back vibe than LA heavyweights Santa Monica or Venice Beach. The downtown area is home to high-end boutiques, restaurants, and bars. And The Strand is a wide, paved path often filled with cyclists and joggers.
Don’t miss a walk down the Manhattan Beach Pier for some of the best views of LA’s prime oceanfront real estate.
25. Spend the Night in Malibu!
Malibu Beach Inn – If you’re seeking the Hollywood-star-Malibu-home experience, try a night at this beachfront oasis. All rooms feature coastal decor and ocean views (though only some are truly oceanfront). Every room has direct access to a private beach.
End of the Road: Wrapping Up 5 Days on the Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco to LA
Driving the Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco to Los Angeles is definitely one of America’s greatest road trips. And while it can be done in 3-5 days, it’s even more rewarding if you can spare a whole week!
And if this PCH road trip left you craving other terrific road trip ideas, here are a few of my favorite road trips across the pond:
If you’re not ready to dust off that passport yet and looking for other terrific vacation destinations in the good old USA, here are a few of my favorites:
So what are you waiting for?
Let’s be honest, the whole world could use a vacation right now. A Pacific Coast Highway road trip is the perfect place to start.
Just don’t forget your mask.