The Pacific Coast Highway is arguably one of California’s most scenic roads. Even as a native Californian, I never get sick of driving along the coast and soaking in the view. Covering this road in a day or two is doable, but it’s best to spend longer making your way down the coast to get the most of your trip, and trust me you will want to take your sweet time on this iconic drive.
Here is a Pacific Coast Highway itinerary for 5 days, that will allow you time to exploring beach towns, eat plenty of seafood, and get a taste of two major California cities to bookend each end of the trip.
What is the Pacific Coast Highway?
Let’s get a bit technical for a moment, and discuss the name Pacific Coast Highway. This main stretch of coastal road is officially called California’s Highway 1 (starting a bit north of San Francisco in Mendocino County), where the Pacific Coast Highway, is the portion that starts from roughly Oxnard all the way to the end in Dana Point in Southern California. Though Pacific Coast Highway and Highway 1 are often used interchangeably and will be done so in this post.
When is the best time to drive the Pacific Coast Highway?
Contrary to popular belief it’s not always sunny in California. The best time to go is in September or October, when the summer crowds have gone home, and the weather is still warm. If you do decide to plan a Pacific Coast Highway trip in the late spring/early summer there’s a good chance the coastline will be foggy, especially in Southern California, which the locals lovingly refer to as June Gloom. Winter and spring can also be an option, if the weather is sunny, but be forewarned that if it’s rainy there can be road closures due to dangers like mudslides.
What are PCH roads like?
A lot of Highway 1 is a two-lane road, which can be quite narrow at times and have sharp drop-offs on one side. If you’re a nervous driver, have someone else in your party take the wheel. Spots like Big Sur are especially windy and if you are prone to carsickness make sure to take motion sickness meds like Bonine before heading out.
Please note: as of June 19, 2018 part of Big Sur is still closed from a mudslide starting around Gorda when you’re coming from the north. It’s tentatively going to open later this year, though the exact date is not yet determined. To check on the latest updates on road closures, check the Caltrans QuickMap website. An alternative route is to drive down to Bixby Bridge, and then come back up to Monterey and switch over to Highway 101 until you get down to San Luis Obispo and can jump back on Highway 1.
Okay, now that we’ve gotten logistics out of the way let’s go over how to plan the perfect Pacific Coast Highway road trip itinerary.
Day 1: San Francisco
There’s no better place to start than the City by the Bay, where you can rent a car from San Francisco International Airport (cheaper than in the city), and spend the day wandering around to your heart’s content. Make sure to pack a warm coat, since San Francisco can get chilly year round from the fog, especially during the summertime.
Things to do in San Francisco:
- hike in Lands End for unparalleled views of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Pacific Ocean and the Marin Headlands in the distance
- spend a day in Golden Gate Park, museum-hopping between the neighboring Academy of Science and de Young Museum
- indulge in a dim sum brunch at Dragon Beaux in the Outer Richmond
- go mural-hopping at Balmy Alley in the Mission and then grab a massive Mission-style burrito at La Taqueria
- eat delicious Burmese food at Mandalay Bay in the Inner Richmond (skip the line at Burma Superstar)
Where to stay in San Francisco:
Depending on where you want to be in the city, there’s Holiday Inn Express and Suites Fisherman’s Wharf if you prefer to be near the waterfront or the Marriott Courtyard San Francisco Downtown if you rather be closer to Union Square and the center of the city. If you want to get away from more touristy parts of the city, The Metro Hotel is located on lively Divisadero Street and has plenty of things to see and do that are within walking distance.
Day 2: San Francisco to Monterey (around 2 hours)
The first stop on this road trip is the city of Monterey, which boast rich history, including the wharf area that was made famous by novelist John Steinbeck. There’s also the neighboring seaside city of Carmel, to wander around that’s known for its strong artistic community, dog-friendly shops, and natural beauty.
Stops along the way to Monterey:
- pick up a sweet treat in the form of derby cake (chocolate and vanilla cake with whip cream and fruit) at Mazzetti’s Bakery
- stop at Half Moon Bay State Beach and witness the waters where the revered Maverick surf competition takes place every year
- take in the views at the rugged Pescadero State Beach
- walk around downtown Santa Cruz and grab lunch at The Buttery amid surfers and college students
- visit the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and ride the Giant Dipper, a historic wooden roller coaster
Things to do in Monterey:
- meet the local aquatic life including cute otters at the Monterey Bay Aquarium
- walk along Cannery Row, the city’s commercial street that used to be home to numerous sardine canneries
- make your way down 17-Mile Drive-a drive that features dramatic coastal views and lavish seaside mansions
- visit downtown Carmel, including the Carmel Coffee & Cocoa Bar for strong coffee and hearty sandwiches
- visit the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas to learn about the life of one of the area’s greatest authors
Where to stay in Monterey
The Casa Munras Garden Hotel & Spa, a historical hacienda-style hotel, is an affordable choice if you want to stay within walking distance of downtown. If you’re looking for a bit of luxury, the Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa boasts stunning views of the bay and is a quick walk to the aquarium.
Day 3: Monterey to Santa Barbara (4 hours)
This day is going to be a long one, and it’s recommended that you start as early as possible. It’s also one of the most scenic portions of the road trip, since you are passing through Big Sur in all its regal beauty, and you definitely don’t want to rush your way through.
Stops along the way to Santa Barbara
- stop for the classic photo opp at Bixby Canyon Bridge on the Big Sur coastline with million-dollar views
- tour the palatial Hearst Castle in San Simeon
- make a stop at Morro Bay to witness the gigantic Morro Rock looming at the entrance of the harbor
- visit the charming college town of San Luis Obispo, where the tri-tip is not to be missed at Old San Luis Barbecue Company
- walk around the Danish-inspired town of Solvang and get some aebelskivers (pancake puffs) at Solvang Restaurant’s to-go window.
Things to do in Santa Barbara
- stroll down State Street in downtown and then drive to nearby Los Agaves for some solid Mexican food
- sip local wines on the Urban Wine Trail, including the Funk Zone, which is a revitalized industrial area of town that has numerous wine tastings, cafés and galleries
- get some sun at the city’s East Beach, while enjoying panoramic views of the Pacific
- wander around Ganna Walska Lotusland, a botanical garden located on the Montecito estate of a Polish singer
- get a scoop or two of ice cream at McConnell’s on State Street (Turkish Coffee or Eureka Lemon and Marionberries)
Where to stay in Santa Barbara
Hotels in this area are not cheap. That being said a good budge option for the city is Sunset Inn, which is located close to downtown, spotless and comes with a complementary breakfast. The Lavender Inn by the Sea, is another great option that is a bit more expensive, but is a few blocks from the beach and includes a free continental breakfast.
Day 4: Santa Barbara to Santa Monica (2 hours)
Welcome to Southern California! This is one of my favorite drives because it passes along the scenic coast of Malibu before entering Los Angeles. There is something about driving along the winding roads of the Pacific Coast Highway that always makes me daydream about driving it in a convertible. It’s one of those roads.
Stops along the way to Santa Monica
- walk along the Ventura Pier, where on clear days you can see the Channel Islands, and stop for fish tacos at Beach House at the end of the pier
- stop in Ox
- stretch your legs on Point Dume, a classic Malibu beach if there ever was one
- stop for fresh seafood at Malibu Seafood and eat your fish and chips al fresco with a view of the ocean across the street
- spend a few hours at the Villa Getty (reservations recommended) admiring the art and architecture (admission is free, but $15 parking)
Things to do in Santa Monica
- stroll along the Santa Monica Pier and the adjacent beach
- people-watch on the colorful Venice Beach Boardwalk
- browse boutique shops on Abbot Kinney Boulevard including Toms Venice for shoes and Burro for gifts
- find solace from city life in the beautiful homes along the Venice Canals
- grab fuel in the form of a lox bagel or egg sandwich from Gjusta
Where to stay in Santa Monica
If you want to stay close to downtown, The Gateway Hotel is a good choice and is less than two miles from the beach. For a splurge, the Lowes Santa Monica Beach Hotel is hard to beat being right on the beach and with a pool that has a front row seat to sunsets over the Pacific.
Day 5: Santa Monica to Laguna Beach
This final stretch is all about gorgeous Southern California beaches in Los Angeles and Orange County. As someone who has lived in both Northern and Southern California, So Cal beaches beat NorCal beaches by a long shot. Get up early so you have plenty of time to stop at a few of the beaches along the way.
Stops along the way to Laguna Beach:
- explore the Queen Mary, a permanently docked ocean liner that also has an on-board hotel and restaurant
- get out and stretch your legs at Huntington Beach Pier and watch the surfers catch waves in a city that’s nicknamed Surf City USA
- stop for some authentic poke at Jus’ Poke in Redondo Beach where you can mix and match flavors like spicy and shoyu (soy sauce)
- escape to Balboa Island and snack on a chocolate-covered frozen banana from Sugar ‘N Spice and do not forget the sprinkles
- take a stroll on Newport Beach’s iconic Balboa Pier which is perfect for people-watching and catching views of the picturesque beach behind you (but skip the retro Ruby’s Diner at the end-there are much better options like Mama D’s Italian Kitchen)
Things to do in Laguna Beach
- spend a day at Main Beach, steps away from the center of town
- head to Crystal Cove State Park if you want a more secluded beach
- learn how injured sea lions are nursed back to health at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center
- spend an afternoon at the Laguna Art Museum which features exclusively art created in California
- head over to Nick’s Laguna Beach for a classic brunch that features things like short rib benedict and warm butter cake for dessert
Where to stay in Laguna Beach
Stay at the Laguna Beach Inn, a central and affordable option that is located steps from the beach and includes a complementary breakfast. Laguna Beach House, is another great option, that is a short walk away from the beach and the center of town.
What would be on your Pacific Coast Highway itinerary for 5 days?