You know that feeling when you cross a dream destination off your bucket list? That’s how I felt having finally completed my long-awaited Pacific Coast Highway road trip. Not only am I gonna help you achieve the exact same, I’m sharing my top insider tips and tricks for planning the most perfect road trip ever with everything you need to know from what to expect in terms of road closures to must-see stops and where to stay and what to eat.
Table of Contents
What You Need to Know
First and foremost, I did my Pacific Coast Highway road trip mid-February more so as a quick two-day drive from LA to San Francisco. (PCH is pretty long and I’ll get into detail about PCH versus California State Route 1 in a bit.) That being said, I only made stops that were along my way up north. Most of my guides are aimed at helping 9-to-5 travellers like myself plan weekend trips. However, I highly recommend doing this drive over a few day’s time at least so you can really enjoy the scenery. After all, what makes a road trip special isn’t rushing from point A to B, but rather, taking time to appreciate the beauties you come across!
Pacific Coast Highway vs. California State Route 1
I used to think these two were synonymous and in a way, yes they are, but PCH is only a small portion of State Route 1. While SR 1 runs along the entire Pacific coastline of California, PCH is solely that short section between south of Dana Point in Orange County and Redwood National Park. On Google Maps though, you’ll see both highlighted as Highway 1.
If you don’t already know, there was a massive landslide May of 2017 that caused parts of PCH to close. The reconstruction is an estimated $40-million project and last I’ve heard, it won’t be complete until end of summer this year. Again, like I said, I did my road trip in mid-February. For the most part we actually didn’t experience any problems driving along the coast since some sections were already fixed. The real pain in the butt was getting around Ragged Point. It’s fairly easy looping the area in-land, but it’s a much, much longer (and tedious) drive.
Seems like that region is still currently closed off. All in all, I suggest checking QuickMap to plan your detour routes in advance.
Download offline Google maps. I cannot stress how important this is. There will be very limited cell service along PCH so it’s important that you download offline Google maps in advance. That or you’re going to have to do it the old school way and rely on physical maps or ask your way around town.
Not sure how to download Google maps offline? Take a look at Google Maps Help.
Pacific Coast Highway Must-See Stops
Let’s get right into the meaty part of the post. What are the must-see spots along PCH? Below are my top recommendations as broken down by city/region.
Kicking off the list with the closest city to the PCH starting point, Laguna Beach is definitely a sight you do not want to miss out on.
My local LA friends may disagree, but I truly believe that this small coastal city has some of the MOST stunning beaches in all of California. I mean who isn’t wooed by turquoise waters and sandy feet? Read up on my “5 Best Hidden Beaches in Laguna Beach” post so you don’t have to be fighting for a spot on the beach with everyone else.
Other Coastal City Alternatives: Newport Beach & Long Beach. Both are gorgeous as well although depending on the length of your trip, I would probably only pick one of the three. Beaches tend to look the same after awhile too. I’d advise spicing things up and having more variety in your PCH road trip.
Santa Monica Pier.
I’ve been to LA at least four times now and have nothing but good things to say. There’s so much to do in the city that I’d even suggest visiting on its own for a separate trip. Regardless, you could most certainly still squeeze this in between your Pacific Coast Highway road trip by spending a day or two here.
For more info on LA, here are some helpful guides I’ve previously drafted:
Yet another beach city, but home to some of Los Angelenos’ favorite beaches – namely El Matador State Beach, which is the most famous known for its captivating rock arches.
Another popular weekend destination is Point Dume. More so a promontory than a beach but the coastal views here are simply spectacular.
I didn’t have time to check out either of the two despite both having been on my bucket list for quite some time now. 2018 July Update: I finally crossed El Matador off my list in June. Take a peak at my new fashion/lifestyle account @themingdiaries for more pictures. Shoutout to James Brag for the Point Dume shot.
Other Coastal City Alternatives: Ventura & Santa Barbara. I’m personally not as familiar with these two, but I’ve heard great things. Ventura, especially, is a nice option if you’re looking to explore off-the-beaten path.
Rancho Guadalupe Dunes Preserve.
Prior to my road trip, I’d read up on plenty of Pacific Coast Highway guides myself. It absolutely blows my mind how no one seemed to ever mention about the magnificent sand dunes that are here! So between me and you, Rancho Guadalupe Dunes Preserve is a hidden gem that’s worth making a stopover.
Perfect waves for surfing.
What’s special about these sand dunes is that they are situated right along the shore. A lot of locals come here not only to surf, but also to fish. Be sure to make your way here early in the morning because parking is extremely limited.
The reason why I even discovered this was because I was literally studying Google Maps and looking at all the parks and lookout points there are to see in case the blogs I’d read missed out on any jaw-dropping sceneries. I’ve obviously only done the PCH road trip this one time and didn’t get to visit every single attraction sight along the way. That said, I encourage you to do the same as well. Study the map a little and get to know the area you’ll be driving through!
What’s Nearby: Guadalupe is a fairly small city. Besides the sand dunes, there really isn’t much to see or do. Located a short 15-minute drive away, you will find Santa Maria, which is well-liked for its vineyards. Please don’t drink and drive, but if you’re staying in the city overnight and won’t be back on the road, by all means, a wine tour would be fun too.
Roman Pool in Hearst Castle photographed by Justin Brown.
Hearst Castle is perhaps the number one reason people stop by in this town.
Originally named La Cuesta Encantada (Spanish for “Enchanted Hill”), this 250,000-acre land was newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst’s vision of a luxury retreat. Due to his fragile health, however, Hearst moved away from the estate and thus the project was never finished. Today, you can tour the 165 rooms that are here and admire its pristine terraces, pools, and gardens.
William Randolph Hearst’s private library photographed by Trey Ratcliff.
Isabella’s Jewel Box photographed by Trey Ratcliff.
Tickets are $25/person for adults. I did this road trip with my dad and he’d already done the tour countless of times before. Not to mention, the exquisite Neptune Pool was being renovated hence despite having made our way here already, I figured I’d come back some other time. Note that you’ll need to park your car then take their shuttle bus to the actual castle. Make sure to reserve plenty of time for this in your schedule.
Apart from Hearst Castle, another point of interest is Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery. You can key in Friends of the Elephant Seal Gift Shop in Google Maps and this will bring you to the popular boardwalk viewing area established by the non-profit organization Friends of the Elephant Seal. It was way too crowded for us though. As a result, we ended up driving further down the road and actually found a much quieter spot. There are basically seals everywhere along the coast so you won’t miss them.
When planning a Pacific Coast Highway road trip, one of the top items on everyone’s itinerary is probably McWay Falls. There are no words to describe how magical this secluded beach is and you’re probably dying to ask whether or not you can physically hike down to the waterfalls. The answer is no. I’ve seen people who have, but I don’t recommend disrupting the ecosystem here. (It’s beautiful for a reason.) Plus, some things are better observed from afar.
When trying to find the falls, our GPS told us to turn into Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Yes, McWay Falls are technically in the park, but it’s opposite of the park gate. There are stairs you can take down and once you reach the wooden walkway, the falls will be in your view on the left.
Keyhole Arch at Pfeiffer Beach photographed by Mike Mezeul.
Purple sand stream photographed by Tom Grubbe. The mesmerizing color comes from manganese garnet particles that get washed down from nearby hills.
One of my biggest regrets was skipping Pfeiffer Beach. Even though this was on my list, we simply didn’t have time. Again, I urge you to spread your trip out over a few days rather than being overly ambitious and cramming everything together like we did.
Bixby Creek Bridge.
If you’re a flower lover like me, you’ll like what you see at Calla Lily Valley.
The lilies were just starting to bloom during our mid-February visit. Therefore I would suggest coming here around first week of March for the full bloom. The lily field is also very easy to miss. There’s no real sign for it, but you’ll see a mini wooden gate. Follow the zigzag trail and the lily field will be down a flight of stairs.
Garrapata State Park.
In terms of PCH icons, Garrapata State Park isn’t exactly one of them. Still gorgeous nonetheless with amazing coastal views and lush trails. Don’t forget to pack your hiking boots for an adventurous afternoon here.
Point Lobos view point overlooking Whaler’s Cove.
In addition to the two mentioned above, another destination in Carmel that you’ll want to add to your itinerary is Point Lobos, which is a relatively large area of natural reserves. Head on over to Roadtrippers for a more in-depth guide.
Photo of Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo from tripsavvy.
Adding to my unfortunate list of things I did not get to see, Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo is a charming Roman Catholic mission church – perhaps one of the most authentically restored in California. Admission is $9.50 for adults.
Cute shops in Carmel-by-the-Sea.
Vibrant flowers in each and every corner.
And of course… You can’t visit Carmel-by-the-Sea and not go window shopping in Downtown.
Every building has its own unique door full of character!
The whole city center is so lively and filled with adorable Medieval inns and shops that it’s as if you’re being transported to a different space in time. By the way, did you know that Clint Eastwood was once elected mayor of Carmel?
View along Ocean View Boulevard.
Can’t talk about Monterey and not mention the scenic 17-Mile Drive in Pebble Beach.
First thing’s first, you’ll need to know that the area is actually gated and admission is $10.25 per vehicle. We were literally driving along the coast (Ocean View Boulevard) thinking we were already doing the 17-Mile Drive until we reached the gate and realized how wrong we were hahaa.
The Ghost Tree.
The two most common stops people make are at Bird Rock and The Lone Cypress. Bird Rock, as the name suggests, houses shorebirds and harbor seals as well as sea lions. The Lone Cypress, on the other hand, is a 250-year-old tree that has withstood both weather and time. (It is believed to be one of the most photographed trees in the world.) There are 21 viewpoints in total and more information can be found on Pebble Beach’s online brochure.
Apart from the famous 17-Mile Drive, Monterey is known for its aquarium. I’m personally not crazy about visiting aquariums, but if this is your cup of tea, Monterey Bay Aquarium is for you.
Half Moon Bay
Half Moon Bay State Beach.
Very small city, but it’s got enough to keep you busy for one afternoon.
My top pick for what to see here is Half Moon Bay State Beach. The views are absolutely phenomenal and there is nothing more relaxing than listening to the music of waves crashing against shore.
Other Coastal City Alternatives: Santa Cruz. After all these fantastic PCH views, I really didn’t see anything worth stopping for in Santa Cruz. That’s my own opinion though because I have heard others who recommend paying a visit. You just might like it too.
“Until you cross the bridge of your insecurities, you can’t begin to explore your possibilities.” – Tim Fargo. ➳➳➳➳➳➳➳➳➳➳➳➳➳➳➳ Thanks to Caroline from @picturesandwordsblog, I was able to discover this gorgeous spot in #SanFrancisco. Go show her feed some love and she’s got some amazing guides on her blog as well if you’re ever planning to #VisitCalifornia 😉 ➳➳➳➳➳➳➳➳➳➳➳➳➳➳➳ #goldengatebridge #goldiethebridge #unlimitedsanfrancisco #ilove_sanfrancisco #sanfranciscoworld #sfpulse
Palace of Fine Arts Theatre.
This was actually my second time here in SF. First time was with my high school band where we basically only got to see Union Square and Golden Gate Bridge. Fast forward a few years later and I still haven’t explored much beyond that. My good instafriend Caroline from Pictures & Words has an extensive list of 120+ free things to do in San Francisco. Go give that a read and oh, she’s a local so you can trust her expertise 😉
OR if you’re looking to visit alone, Isabel has a great guide to “8 Intriguing Solo Travel Experiences Not to Miss in San Francisco!”
Dining Along the Coast
Apologies if my organization seems a little odd. The reason why I’m not grouping everything together by cities is because we didn’t necessarily stop by everywhere mentioned above to eat or spend the night. So without further ado, here are my Pacific Coast Highway restaurant recommendations.
The Cliff (Laguna Beach)
Mexican food doesn’t always photograph well but I guarantee you these chilaquiles were bombbbbb.
Address: 577 S Coast Hwy, Laguna Beach, CA 92651, United States
Phone Number: +1 949-494-1956
Reservation: 1-hr waitlist call ahead available; reservations not accepted
Dress Code: None
You can never go wrong with incredible views and delicious Mexican cuisine. Read more about it in part 2 of my “9 Best Places to Eat in LA” post.
Bottega Louie (Los Angeles)
Belgian waffles served with fresh berries, Chantilly cream, and Vermont maple syrup.
Address: 700 S Grand Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90017, United States
Phone Number: +1 213-802-1470
Reservation: Does not accept reservations
Dress Code: Smart casual
Definitely one of my new favorite LA restaurants. Great spot for weekend brunch and afternoon tea with the girls. For more info and to find out my other LA faves, check out my two restaurant guides below:
Mastro’s Ocean Club (Malibu)
Address: 18412 Pacific Coast Hwy, Malibu, CA 90265, United States
Phone Number: +1 310-454-4357
Dress Code: Dressy casual
In case you haven’t noticed already, I have a thing for restaurants with a view. Again, more info can be found in my previous post “here“.
Nepenthe (Big Sur)
Views from Café Kevah.
Smoked wild salmon, Manhattan clam chowder, and 12oz Ribeye steak.
Address: 48510 Highway One, Big Sur, CA 93920, United States
Phone Number: +1 831-667-2345
Reservation: Preferred if you’re in a large group
Dress Code: Casual
Finally something that I haven’t already previously recommended. Nepenthe is a collection of three restaurants/stores. You got the main restaurant – Nepenthe – that is open 365 days a year. And then there is your outdoor café – Café Kevah. Last but not least, a gift shop – Phoenix Shop.
Unfortunately, the food wasn’t the best I’ve ever had, but it was decent. I’d say their main selling point is the panoramic views here. Whether you come for lunch or dinner, or even a quick coffee break, you’re in for a visual treat!
Scales Seafood & Steaks (Monterey)
Outdoor display and clam chowder sample.
Address: 30 Fishermans Wharf #1, Monterey, CA 93940, United States
Phone Number: +1 831-375-1331
Reservation: Not necessary
Dress Code: Casual/smart casual
Funny thing with Monterey Bay restaurants is they all have this clam chowder sample stand outside. We tried a couple but nothing really wow’ed us until we came across Scales.
New England clam chowder, complimentary calamari, seafood carbonara (BEST I’ve ever had, no joke), and twin 6oz lobster tails.
Now where do I even begin… The food, the service, the views… Everything was top-notch. Since we stayed at Monterey Hotel, we received a complimentary appetizer voucher, which I presented to our waiter upon sitting down. Within seconds, he brought out a plate of steaming hot calamari – before we even ordered anything at all. We were famished so this was totally perfect. (Seriously why don’t more restaurants do this and not let their customers wait on empty stomachs!? I’d probably tip better if they didn’t leave me hangry for that long hahaa.)
Overall the food was divine and because it was around Valentine’s season, they also gave me a lovely rose to take home. 10/10 would come back again. Heck writing this post makes me wanna hop on a plane over for that carbonara! (Brb, gotta wipe all them drool off my keyboard.)
New England Lobster Market & Eatery (San Francisco)
Twin tails & lobster roll with house-made chips and coleslaw salad.
Address: 824 Cowan Rd, Burlingame, CA 94080, United States
Phone Number: +1 650-443-1559
Dress Code: Casual
Is it obvious that we love seafood?
This one was suggested by Papa Chen. He has been to San Francisco more times than me and each time he visits, he will stop by New England for their impeccable lobster rolls. It’s super close to the airport and apparently a local favorite. Parking in the area is very difficult to find, however, and the shop becomes quite busy during lunchtime. I’d advise coming early or in the afternoon to avoid the crowd.
For those who have been following my blog for awhile now, despite the fact that I usually review luxury hotels, I personally don’t care much for where I stay on road trips. As long as the accommodation is safe and clean, I ain’t picky. After all, you’re really only there to shower and spend the night.
Going in order again from where we started our road trip, below are my hotel recommendations.
JW Marriott Los Angeles L.A. LIVE (Los Angeles)
Deluxe guest room with 1 king bed for 1 guest, 2 nights priced at $195.54USD (~$271 CAD). Please note that I received an employee discount price from my friend.
Address: 900 W Olympic Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90015, United States
Phone Number: +1 213-765-8600
Check-In Time: 4:00PM
Check-Out Time: 12:00PM
Parking: Valet parking USD $49/night
Hah. I probably just slapped myself in the face. JW Marriott is more or less on the luxurious side, but keep in mind that I visited this hotel a few years ago on my first LA trip (not a road trip). If you prefer splurging for a quality night sleep, read my full hotel review “here“.
Pacifica Suites (Santa Barbara)
Traditional suite with 1 king bed for 2 guests, 1 night priced at $273.53 CAD. Booked through expedia.ca.
Address: 5490 Hollister Ave, Santa Barbara, CA 93111, United States
Phone Number: +1 805-683-6722
Check-In Time: 3:00PM
Check-Out Time: 12:00PM
Hotel suite & bathroom.
Complimentary breakfast at the Garden Terrace.
This was no doubt our most enjoyable stay of the entire trip. Friendly staff and our room was exceptionally big. All breakfast items are made to order and we even received a 2014 Lapostolle Merlot as a free welcome drink for being an Expedia VIP guest. (Not an expensive wine, but it’s the thought that counts? And don’t ask, I have no idea when I became a VIP guest, but I’ll take it lol.)
The Stanford Court Hotel (San Francisco)
Standard room with 1 queen bed for 2 guests, 1 night priced at $280.25 CAD. Booked through expedia.ca.
Address:905 California St, San Francisco, CA 94108, United States
Phone Number: +1 415-989-3500
Check-In Time: 4:00PM
Check-Out Time: 12:00PM
Parking: Valet parking USD $52/night + tax
Cute keycard holder and view from room.
Stanford Court is an adorable boutique hotel on Nob Hill that recently received a makeover. They are a green hotel and are pet-friendly. A lot of SF hotels are expensive and don’t necessarily have good reviews. This one, in comparison, is a great little gem with reasonable pricing.
Hotels to Avoid
Is it just me or do a lot of Californian hotels charge more than they should? I mean is the land more expensive or what? I swear we paid $$$ for crappy hotels that were really only 1 or 2-star hotels. Here are the hotels that we stayed that you should avoid:
- Hotel Angeleno in LA
- Although the hotel looks new and has a chic urban design look, our room’s window sill was broken and lying in the middle of the suite upon arrival.
- Sheets had stains and tears.
- Literally right beside the road and very noisy.
- Monterey Hotel in Monterey
- Friendly staff but overall sketchy vibe.
- Hotel design is whack. We took the elevator because of our suitcases and had to walk through an endless renovation area to reach our room even though our room was literally by the stairs, easily accessible from main the lobby area.
- Old furniture and stains everywhere.
- Felt like an abandoned hotel that you’d see in horror movies – that’s how dated it was.
And that concludes my Pacific Coast Highway road trip guide…
Phewww that was a lot of information to take in all at once eh! Hopefully this will help you in preparing for the best possible Pacific Coast Highway road trip experience ever. I’ve captured plenty of video footage during this trip as well that you can find on my YouTube channel and I’ll see you next time for a brand new series on my Tulum adventures!
*Disclaimer: To my knowledge, drones are not allowed in national parks as a result I did not fly my Spark there. However, I’ve since been told that NOAA also bans drone flights pretty much all along the entire Big Sur coast/Monterey Bay due to wildlife conservation. Please note that in no way am I promoting or encouraging drone flights here. Fingers crossed my videos won’t get me in trouble because the breathtaking views here were beyond words could describe and it would be a shame not to share it.