The PCH in 25 Breathtaking (& Bizarre!) Stops You’ll Adore

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Bixby Bridge Big Sur California PCH

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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!).

Ahhh, the stunning California Pacific Coast Highway.

Home to perhaps the USA’s most iconic road trip. Picture yourself with the convertible top down, salty Pacific ocean air blowing through your hair and California sunshine shimmering on your cheeks.

And one of the best things about an epic California coast road trip is that this winding west coast highway is a great drive any time of year.

I’m talking crisp ocean breezes, wide-open spaces, tasty treats, and breathtaking scenery that few places in the world can serve up quite like this dreamy California coastal highway does.

Considered one of the world’s most scenic drives, the Pacific Coast Highway is a classic American road trip. It also happens to be on my own personal list of the Top 30 Travel Experiences around the world.

Here are 29 more if you’re curious: Around the World in 30 Extraordinary Travel Experiences

I’ve personally made this California coast drive several times and discovering fun and quirky new stops along the way is always the best part!

My own Pacific Coast Highway road trip itinerary has varied each time. But I always try to work in some of my favorite stops that I’ve included below.

But before you start planning your own Pacific Highway road trip, let’s cover some basics…

Where does the Pacific Coast Highway start and end?

Also known as California Highway 1 (or Route 1 California), the Pacific Coast Highway is the longest state route in California at just over 656 miles. The PCH highway begins south of Dana Point in Orange County and ends at US 101 in Mendocino County.

Along the way, this Pacific highway passes through such beautiful spots as Monterey, Big Sur, Pebble Beach, Santa Monica, Malibu, and Santa Barbara, to name just a few. 

As you drive 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.

Pacific Coast Road Trip FAQ’s:

How long does it take to drive the Pacific Coast Highway?

To drive the entire coastal Highway 1 California 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.

What’s the best direction to drive on the PCH, north or south?

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.

What kind of car do I need for a PCH highway road trip?

My vote? A convertible, of course! All the better for feeling those salty breezes in your hair and California sunshine on your face.

Is driving the Pacific Coast Highway dangerous?

While curvy in many places, road conditions along the Pacific Coast Highway are generally good and the PCH drive is a safe adventure. However, if you have any concerns, you can check general road conditions for Highway 1 here and Big Sur specific road conditions here.

Is there a bad day of the week to drive the PCH?

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.

The Perfect 5-Day PCH 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 stops along the Pacific Highway in California 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, crank up the tunes, and let’s hit the road!

Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip
Your ultimate guide to an epic Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip – Pin it!

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.

Tip: For the best rates on rental cars, I love Discover Cars.

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.

Golden Gate Bridge San Francisco Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip
Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco – Starting point for a Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip

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. On Tuesdays and Thursdays it runs from 10:00AM – 2:00PM.

Check here for the most current Farmer’s Market hours and 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:

  1. Golden Gate Park
  2. 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 and are often sold out days or even weeks in advance.
  3. A trolley car ride to Fisherman’s Wharf
  4. The Painted Ladies
  5. 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.

PCH Road Trip Day 2: Muir Woods, Santa Cruz & Monterey

Redwoods, beaches, and gravitational mysteries, Day 2 has it all. 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 park hours are 8:00AM – Sunset. Advance reservations are now required to visit Muir Woods. The parking fee (standard vehicle) is $9.50 or shuttle reservations (from local transit stations) are $3.50 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.

Here’s what you need to know before you go.

Where to find it: Mill Valley, CA 94941

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.

Where to find it: 95 Kelly Avenue

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 for lunch (except Tuesday) from 11:00AM – 3:00PM, it’s a must on your drive down the PCH.

Tip: Don’t miss the famous cream of artichoke soup.

Where to find it: 202 Stage Road, Pescadero, CA 94060

4. Pie Ranch (Stop for a Snack!)

Continuing south along the PCH highway 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.

Where to find it: 2080 Green Oaks Way, Pescadero, CA 94060

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 that has been mystifying visitors since 1940.

Open daily from 10:00AM – 5:00PM and weekends until 8:00PM, tickets are $10 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.

Be sure to arrive 30 minutes before your scheduled tour time.

Where to find it: 465 Mystery Spot Road, Santa Cruz, CA 95065

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.

Monterey California
Fisherman’s Wharf, Monterey

Note: Tickets for the Moneterey Aquarium must be purchased in advance online. You cannot purchase tickets in person. Open 10:00am-5:00pm daily.

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 California Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip
Pebble Beach

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.

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).

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 California road trip.

Bixby Bridge Big Sur California Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip
The Bixby Bridge – Big Sur, California

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.

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!

Where to find it: 48510 Highway One, Big Sur, CA 93920

12. Spend the Night in Big Sur

Alila 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, this Big Sur 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.

Where to find it: 48123 Highway One, Big Sur, CA 93920

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 truly unique experience.

Things not to expect: Wifi, TV, phones, cell service, online reservations. To make a reservation, call the inn directly at 831-667-2377.

Where to find it: 48865 Highway One, Big Sur, CA 93920

PCH Road Trip Day 4: San Simeon, Hearst Castle & San Luis Obispo

As you continue along this beautiful coastal highway, California’s got more fun in store for you on Day 4.

Start your morning 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 this Highway 1 road trip’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.

Where to find it: For the viewing points, enter “Elephant Seal Vista Point” in your GPS. The Visitor Center is located at 250 San Simeon Avenue, Suite 5A, San Simeon, CA 93452

Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Views
Road trip views along the Pacific Coast Highway

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 $30 for adults and $15 for children

Open daily at 9:00AM, tours can be reserved online up to 60 days in advance or purchased upon arrival based on availability. Advance reservations are strongly encouraged for this one.

Tip: Plan your time accordingly, the Grand Rooms Tour (the most popular) takes one hour.

Where to find it: 750 Hearst Castle Road, San Simeon, CA 93452

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.

Lunch served from 11:00am-3:00pm daily. Check their website (link above) for the latest info.

Where to find it: 6550 Moonstone Beach Drive, Cambria, CA 93428

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.

2023 Update: Sadly, Nit Wit Ridge was sold in late 2022 and is not currently open for tours.

17. San Luis Obispo (Stop for the Night!)

Madonna Inn – This iconic hotel is a must on any PCH California drive. 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 at the Madonna Inn are Daisy Mae and Rock Bottom.

Tip: Do NOT miss a stop in the bakery!

Where to find it: 100 Madonna Road, San Luis Obispo, CA 93405

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 post-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!).

18. Solvang

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.

Where to find it: 1639 Copenhagen Drive, Solvang, CA 93463

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.

Stearns Wharf Santa Barbara California
Pelican views from the Stearns Wharf

If you have an extra night to spare on your California coast road trip, Santa Barbara is a great place to spend it.

Here’s my favorite place for a fun overnight stay:

Cheshire Cat Inn & Cottages – 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 the White Rabbit Balcony room.

Where to find it: 36 West Valerio Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93101

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.

Where to find it: 1583 Spinnaker Drive, Ventura, CA 93001

21. Malibu

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.

Point Dume State Beach Malibu
Point Dume State Beach, Malibu

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. It’s worth noting that they do charge for parking, even if you’re dining in (welcome to Malibu).

Tip: Try the world-famous clam chowder and fish tacos.

Where to find it: 28128 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, CA 90265

Paradise Cove Beach Cafe Malibu
The beachfront at Malibu’s Paradise Cove Beach Cafe

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.  

Santa Monica Pier Los Angeles
Santa Monica Pier – Los Angeles, California

Open daily from 6:00am-10:00pm, check the official Santa Monica Pier website for updates.

Where to find it: 200 Santa Monica Pier, Santa Monica, CA 90401

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.

Where to find it: 22878 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, CA 90265

Pacific Coast Highway Sunset Views
Sunset views along the California coast

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 epic road trip ideas, here are a few of my favorite road trips across the pond:

How to Survive Driving in Ireland (& Actually Enjoy It!): A Perfect 4-Day Itinerary

The Bucket List Scotland Road Trip Itinerary in 7 Amazing Days

The Great UK Road Trip: Scotland, England & Wales!

And if you’re looking for other terrific vacation destinations in the good old USA, here are a few of my favorites:

The Top 5 Best Things to Do in Kauai (#1 is a must!)

7 Amazing Places in Oahu Hawaii to Make You Forget Traveling Abroad (for now)

The Beginner’s Guide to Whale Watching in Maui Hawaii

Washington’s San Juan Islands are the Best US Islands You’ve Never Heard Of

5 Awe-Inspiring Things to Do in Colorado Springs (3 are free!)

10 Marvelous Things to Do in Punta Gorda, Florida (Don’t Miss #7!)

3 Reasons Pensacola Beach is the Best of Florida’s Emerald Coast

Aspen, Colorado: Confessions of an Aspiring Ski Bunny

So what are you waiting for?

An epic Pacific Coast Highway road trip is the perfect escape!