The Best Stops for a Road Trip on the Pacific Coast Highway
Sunny days, sandy beaches, incredible surf. The Pacific Coast Highway, part of California’s State Route 1, may be the best road trip out there—here are 16 places to stop on your ultimate California driving adventure.
Many parts of the United States have the ideal conditions for a road trip. Cruising along the country’s hundreds of thousands of miles of national and state highways and byways, travelers can see majestic mountain ranges and otherworldly geological formations, stop off at quirky museums and local dining spots, and take in the landscape at a slower pace.
Few states are as drive-worthy as California, home to the Pacific Coast Highway (or “PCH”), so named because it runs along the coast. (Technically, the PCH is officially designated as a southern part of State Route 1—also known as Highway 1—starting around Dana Point and ending in Ventura County. But people tend to call the whole highway the PCH.) Naming technicalities aside, the most popular road trip along the route goes from the greater Los Angeles area to San Francisco, and no matter what you call it, the drive is absolutely worth a trip. Need help planning or decoding car rental insurance options? From south to north, here are 16 of the best places to stop on this classic California road trip.
Where to stay: The Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel (from $800 per night, expedia.com)
The southern end of the PCH starts around the I-5 at Dana Point, a small city in Orange County, California. If you’re planning to fly into Orange County, book your ticket for John Wayne Airport and rent a car there (pro tip: making this drive in a convertible is totally worth the extra dough).
Though small, Dana Point has great beaches, an annual blues festival that has drawn top names like Al Green and Bonnie Raitt, and a lot of opportunities to see whales and dolphins. If you want to start your road trip off in style, book a night at the The Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel, where you can enjoy sunsets overlooking the Pacific and a good night’s rest before heading out on the road.
Only a 20-minute drive north, you’ll hit the upscale (and totally scenic) Laguna Beach, perhaps best known in popular culture for the short-lived MTV reality show of the same name. Get out on the water with La Vida Laguna, and then nab some oysters at Driftwood Kitchen. Art lovers should check out the Laguna Art Museum, which celebrated 100 years in 2018 and has more than 3,000 works in its collection—all by California artists.
Huntington Beach, also known as “Surf City, USA,” has a different feel than Laguna: The beaches are long and sandy, with fewer dramatic cliffs but plenty of opportunity to watch surfers. Drink afternoon tea or snack on lamb satay at LSXO, a Vietnamese restaurant hidden inside Bluegold.
Get some rest at Kimpton Shorebreak Resort, or, if you’re in the mood for a super local brew to break up your road trip, stop at Riip Beer Co. And if you’re there at the end of April, rock out to Blink-182 and Reel Big Fish at the Back to the Beach music festival.
Fifteen miles north of Huntington Beach is the laid-back enclave of Long Beach. Don’t let the name fool you, though—skip the beaches and check out some of the city’s other aquatic offerings. The Aquarium of the Pacific is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, with special events happening throughout 2019, including meeting some of the aquarium’s original critters like Charlie the sea otter. Also, its first major expansion opens on May 24, 2019. History lovers can get on the water at the Queen Mary, a retired 20th-century ocean liner. Stay in one of the hotel rooms onboard, take a tour, or participate in an ongoing paranormal investigation (the ship is rumored to be haunted!).
Although 30 miles north of Long Beach on SR-1, Santa Monica can feel worlds away (plus, with Los Angeles–area traffic, it can take two hours to drive there). Downtown, ride the Ferris wheel at the historic Santa Monica Pier and then walk 15 minutes to the Third Street Promenade, where you can shop at high-end fashion retailers like Louis Vuitton and find plenty of places to eat. Grab a slice of ’za with a side of punk rock attitude at the newly opened Paperboy Pizza, or check out the farm-fresh flavors at Nyesha Arrington’s Native. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, enjoy the farmers’ market in Downtown Santa Monica—it’s been going strong for nearly 40 years.
In November 2018, the Woolsey wildfire tore through Malibu and its surrounds, destroying 1,500 structures. But grass has begun to regrow on the hills and residents are rebuilding, so it’s still worth your time to stop for sunset on Zuma Beach or take a stroll down Malibu Pier. For a breakfast or lunch with a view of the Pacific, eat at Malibu Farm on the pier.
About 40 miles north, you’ll hit Ventura, another beach town where locals take advantage of their oceanside location. Watch the surfers at Ventura Harbor Cove or rent a kayak near Marina Park and paddle the waves on your own. If you plan ahead, you can also take a boat or seaplane to Channel Islands National Park. (Note: There are no services there, so be sure you’re prepared with provisions for the duration of your stay.)
Known as the “American Riviera,” Santa Barbara landed itself on AFAR’s Where to Go list in 2019 due to its modern-day renaissance. It would be easy to spend the whole day strolling down State Street, admiring the city’s Spanish colonial architecture (make your way to the county courthouse clock tower for a killer view), sipping wine from the Funk Zone, and eating fried oysters at the Lark. If you choose to stay the night and do it all over again, go chic at Hotel Californian.
Drive up the 1 for a couple hours and make a stop at Pismo Beach for the Oceano Dunes State Recreational Vehicle Area. It’s the only state park in California that allows vehicles to be driven on the beach—although a four-wheel drive (or all-wheel drive) is recommended. If your trip takes place between October and February, be sure to pull over at the Monarch Butterfly Grove to see thousands of the beautiful, flitting insects during their migration.
San Luis Obispo
The 1 curves inland around Avila Beach and takes visitors through the city of San Luis Obispo. For a quirky road trip activity, find the 700 block of Higuera Street, also known as “Bubblegum Alley,” and leave your mark. History buffs should peek at Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, founded in the late 18th-century by Franciscan friar Junípero Serra.
Where to stay: Oceanpoint Ranch (from $175 per night, expedia.com)
The town of Cambria (pop.: 6,032) makes for a relaxing stop. Pull in for a slice of pie at Linn’s before exploring the locally owned shops downtown (or maybe make an appointment to ride a Clydesdale). Its location near the San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport (45 minutes) and Hearst Castle (15 minutes) also makes the small town a good overnight stopping point, depending on how many nights your drive is. For family friendly lodging (or for anyone who appreciates s’mores, fire pits, a game room, and the Pacific Ocean across the street), stay at the renovated Oceanpoint Ranch.
Two very different things make San Simeon worth a stop on any Highway 1 road trip: seals and a castle. Watch the former at the Piedras Blancas Rookery, just north of San Simeon; it’s free and accessible to the public year-round. There, you’ll see elephant seals, who, depending on the time of year, may be mating, giving birth, or molting. Questions? Look for the volunteer docents in bright blue windbreakers.
Not far is Hearst Castle, a majestic National Historic Landmark with a fascinating history. Developed by publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, the castle is located on 250,000 acres and has 165 rooms. The pièce de résistance is the Neptune pool, which was unveiled and refilled in fall 2018 after two years of restoration. Oh, and you might spy zebras roaming the property, too.
Where to stay: Ventana Big Sur (from $2,200 per night, expedia.com)
Past San Simeon begins longer stretches of winding road. There are dramatic bluffs and cerulean waters, but also towering redwoods as you leave northern San Luis Obispo County and enter Monterey County. As long as you’re careful and mindful of other drivers, pull over to take in the incredible views as you make your way up the coast. You might recognize Bixby Bridge from its starring role in car ads or shots in HBO’s Big Little Lies, and the 80-foot McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is stunning.
If you want to slow down for more than a selfie, have lunch at Nepenthe, which has been offering seaside views and tasty meals for decades, or book a room at Ventana Big Sur. Bookworms will find their bliss at the Henry Miller Memorial Library. Options for camping and hiking abound, too, but be sure to check local trail conditions; seasonal weather may result in mudslides or closed routes.
The expansive Monterey Bay Aquarium has been teaching delighted visitors about Pacific marine life for more than 30 years. Catch a penguin feeding or learn about the resident giant Pacific octopus, before wandering Cannery Row (for great pizza, check out Gianni’s). Get your fresh seafood fix at local favorite Monterey’s Fish House. If you want to spend some time on a world-famous green, tee up at Pebble Beach, only a 15-minute drive from Monterey.
The laid-back vibe of Santa Cruz is thanks in part to its college campus and history of being a hippie haven. Families with kiddos will get a kick out of the games and rides at the historic boardwalk, where anyone over 50 inches tall can ride the Giant Dipper, one of the country’s oldest still-functioning wooden roller coasters. Or grab a hearty salad or sandwich from the Picnic Basket and take your food to the beach across the street, where locals play beach volleyball year-round.
Ah, the city by the bay. Home to world-class dining, art, theater, and, of course, AFAR. You’d be wise to spend at least a night here, if not a few (plan your trip to San Francisco with our guide). Sticking to Highway 1 (which turns into the 101 at certain junctures), wind through Golden Gate Park (keep your eyes peeled for bison) and enjoy the greenery and cool architecture at the Palace of Fine Arts in the Presidio. Pull off at Crissy Field to get marvelous views of the historic Golden Gate Bridge before driving across it and admiring the 82-year-old suspension bridge from the other side (or from your balcony at Cavallo Point).