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.
This post may contain affiliate links, where we receive a small commission on sales of the products that are linked at no additional cost to you. All opinions are always our own. Read our full disclosure for more info. Thank you for supporting the brands that make Local Adventurer possible.
Last Updated: November 9, 2021
The Ultimate California Coast Road Trip
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 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.
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.
- Surfing Heritage & Culture Center – largest collections of surfing artifacts (tip: chat with the staff to get even more insight).
- Killer Dana Surf Shop – friendly and knowledgeable staff to help you get the gear you need.
Where to Eat:
- Bear Coast Coffee – popular spot with locals that serves small bites and great coffee.
- OverVue – great views with indoor and outdoor seating.
- AVEO Table & Bar – amazing sunset views with a resort-like feel.
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
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
SANTA BARBARA - Mile 217.3
- Rincon Beach – a popular beach for surfing just south of Santa Barbara.
- Shoreline Park – oceanside park atop a mesa.
- State Street – historic area with shops and restaurants.
- Santa Barbara Maritime Museum – fun, interactive museum with a permanent exhibit on surfing and maritime culture.
- Sunset Sail with the Santa Barbara Sailing Center – perfect way to relax and enjoy the evening.
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.
- Pismo Beach Surf Shop – Eccentric surf shop that can outfit you for any beach activity.
Where to Eat:
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
- Bubblegum Alley – take photos in an alleyway covered in gum (pick up some gum at Rocket Fizz just around the corner).
- 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.
- Morro Rock – This is technically north of SLO in Morro Bay. Stop by to see this behemoth rock sitting in the cove.
- Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa – founded in 1772, the stunning Mission has gardens with cacti, succulents, roses, and more.
- Kynsi Winery – Edna Valley is full of wineries and we enjoyed relaxing and doing a tasting flight at Kynsi.
- Arroyo Grande – a small historic village with wild roosters and antique shops to explore. They also have a swinging bridge that is one of a kind in California.
Where to Eat:
- TASTE! Craft Eatery – fun menu giving you plenty of options to create your perfect meal.
- Copper Cafe at Madonna Inn – very instagrammable restaurant with delicious pink champagne cake.
- Mason Bar & Kitchen – try their lobster corn dogs.
- Brown Butter Cookie Company – north of SLO in Cayucos, known for their brown butter cookies. Our favorite was the honey one!
photo of us by Jeff Newsom
CAMBRIA - Mile 384.3
- Harmony – just south of Cambria, the town of Harmony has a population of 18. Check out Harmony Glassword, Harmony Valley Creamery, and you can even rent the entire town for your next event.
- 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
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.
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.
SANTA CRUZ - Mile 540.6
- Seacliff 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
PESCADERO - Mile 562.1
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.
- 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
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 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
MYERS FLAT - Mile 877.8
- Shrine Drive-Through Tree – another drive-through tree. They also have a drive-on tree and some other photo ops.
- Humboldt Redwoods State Park (Weott) – an amazing park where you can see massive trees – drive through the Avenue of Giants and check out Founders Grove.
KLAMATH - Mile 992.4
- Trees of Mystery – unusual tree formations and a giant Paul Bunyan & Babe out front
- Tour-Thru Tree – another chance to drive through a tree
- High Bluff Overlook – beautiful overlook
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.
What to Pack for Your Road Trip
Best Places to Stay in California
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.
- San Diego: Fairmont Grand Del Mar (luxury) or Blue Sea Beach Hotel (mid-range)
- Los Angeles: The Beverly Hills Hotel (luxury), Magic Castle Hotel (mid-range), USA Hostels Hollywood (budget)
- Santa Barbara: Kimpton Canary Hotel (luxury) or the Eagle Inn (mid-range)
- SLO: Avila La Fonda Hotel (mid-range)
- Big Sur: Post Ranch Inn (luxury), RVing at Fernwood Resort (budget)
- San Francisco: Golden Gate Hotel (mid-range), Cavallo Point (luxury)
- Mendocino: Brewery Gulch Inn (luxury), The Blackberry Inn (mid-range)
- Fort Bragg: North Cliff Hotel (mid-range), Pomo RV Park & Campground (budget)
- Crescent City: Ocean View Inn & Suites (mid-range)
Have you driven the California Coast? Which parts were your favorite? Anything else we’re missing?
Did you enjoy this post? Pin it for later
See More Epic Road Trip Guides
“Discovery consists not of seeking new lands but in seeing with new eyes” – M. Proust
Esther + Jacob
Esther and Jacob are the founders of Local Adventurer, which is one of the top 5 travel blogs in the US. They believe that adventure can be found both near and far and hope to inspire others to explore locally. They explore a new city in depth every year and currently base themselves in Las Vegas.