The Ultimate California Coast Road Trip – All the Best Stops Along the PCHPin

The Ultimate California Coast Road Trip – All the Best Stops Along the PCH

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.

California Coastal Highway Road Trip - All the Best Places to Stops on the Pacific Coast Highway - from San Diego to Crescent City including stops in Los Angeles, San Luis Obispo, Big Sur, Monterey, San Francisco, Mendocino and more //

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Last Updated: Jun 15, 2019 // Originally Published: Jan 22, 2018

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.

Where to Stay: Fairmont Grand Del Mar (luxury) or Blue Sea Beach Hotel (mid-range)

The Flower Fields in Carlsbad + All the Best Places to Stop on the Pacific Coast Highway California // Local Adventurer

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.
Where to Stay: Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort & Spa – Beautiful hotel with great amenities, including two pools, pickleball courts, yoga in the park, and multiple restaurants.

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

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.

Where to Stay: The Beverly Hills Hotel (luxury), Magic Castle Hotel (mid-range), USA Hostels Hollywood (budget)

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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

Where to Stay: Blue Sands Inn – cute property in a great location and features local art || Kimpton Canary Hotel (luxury) or the Eagle Inn (mid-range)

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:

  • Surfside Donuts – try the donut breakfast sandwich.
  • Splash Cafe – one of the oldest Pismo Beach restaurants with delicious award-winning clam chowder.

Where to Stay: Cliff’s Hotel and Spa – amazing oceanside views and one of our favorite hotels we’ve stayed at on the coast.

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.


  • 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:

Where to Stay: Avila La Fonda Hotel (mid-range)

SLO / San Luis Obispo + All the Best Stops on Your California Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip // Local Adventurer

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.

Where to Stay: Post Ranch Inn (luxury)

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.

  • 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
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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

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.

  • 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

Where to Stay: Golden Gate Hotel (mid-range), Cavallo Point (luxury) 

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  • 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

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

Where to Stay: Brewery Gulch Inn (luxury), The Blackberry Inn (mid-range)

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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

Where to Stay: North Cliff Hotel (mid-range). If you’re RVing, Pomo RV Park & Campground

LEGGETT - Mile 838.4

GARBERVILLE - Mile 861.4

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-Thru Tree – another chance to drive through a tree
  • High Bluff Overlook – beautiful overlook


  • Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park – another chance to walk amongst giants
  • Battery Point Lighthouse – quick stop for lighthouse chasers
  • Ocean World – small aquarium

Where to Stay: Ocean View Inn & Suites (mid-range)

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.


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.

Have you driven the California Coast? Which parts were your favorite? Anything else we’re missing?

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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.

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