Pacific Coast Highway is easily one of the best drives in the entire world. With tons of beautiful coastal views, two of the most famous cities in the country, some of the best seafood you have ever had and plenty to see along the way, it is a drive you have to experience once in your life. I have driven the entirety of Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) in California three times and many individual sections countless times. One of the questions I am most often asked is, “What is the best place to stop along Pacific Coast Highway?” This question is difficult to answer as PCH is different every time I drive it and depending on how much time you have, you can stop at 20 places or 200 along the way. This post was designed to help you plan and get excited for your own Pacific Coast Highway road trip. I have included a guide for taking a seven-day journey on PCH, a detailed history of the highway, and my recommendations for food and hotels below. Plus, I did the drive again in 2022 with my dad and made a 2 hour video on the entire route which you can watch as well. Hopefully, this helps when you plan your trip, and don’t forget to let me know what places I have missed in the comments.
Pacific Coast Highway 7 Day Road Trip Video
In June of 2022, I set out to drive all of Pacific Coast Highway with my dad over 7 days. I documented all of the stops along the way in a 2 hour video I made for my YouTube Channel. You can watch it below if you want to see how we explored Pacific Coast Highway.
24 Best Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) Stops
Here are my twenty five favorite stops on PCH from south to north. Click on the image to learn more about the stop.
Victoria Beach has the famous pirates tower of Laguna Beach, which is was built to allow the resident down from their home to beach below. It is no longer used but it is a awesome spot to see.
One of my favorite spots for people watching, this boardwalk and beach is a crazy area to explore for a few hours.
One of the most beautiful places in all of Southern California, the small hike up to Point Dume is not something you will quickly forget.
Point Mugu State Park
This state park has a lot of nice hiking, especially for a Southern California. Check out the Sycamore Canyon trail for amazing views.
McConnell’s Ice Cream
While all of State St is fun, especially for shoppers, McConnell’s ice cream is a spot I stop at on pretty much every road trip through the area.
La Purisima Mission State Park
This is a fantastic example of California’s mission history. The mission here is wonderfully recreated and it gives you a great taste of early California life.
Monarch Butterfly Grove
When the butterflies are actually here (Nov – Jan) this spot can’t be beat. There are literally tens of thousands of butterflies in this small grove.
Pismo Beach / Splash Cafe
The boardwalk and beach here are beautiful. Add to that the surfer culture and the amazing clam chowder at Splash Cafe and you have an easy recommendation.
This eclectic hotel is my favorite spot to stay on PCH. Every room is different and the men’s bathroom has a fountain urinal.
Morro Rock is overpowering and beautiful when you head up PCH near Morro Bay. This is a great spot to watch the sunset or to kayak in the bay.
Most people know what Hearst Castle is but it truly is a unique spot to visit and one that is easy to recommend. It will take at least a half day but you will be blown away by it all.
California’s waterfall that falls directly onto the beach has been seen in photos all over the world, so you should make a point to stop at it.
Pfeiffer State Beach
This may be my favorite beach in all of California. It has a massive rock with an arch, purple sand when it rains and a small parking lot that always makes it feel secluded.
One of the most photogenic spots on PCH, Bixby Bridge will take your breath away. It is a quick stop but one you will remember.
Probably the best aquarium in the entire United States, Monterey Aquarium has so much to look at you will be overwhelmed, in a good way
Giant Dipper Roller Coaster
Right on the Santa Cruz boardwalk, this fantastic old wooden roller coaster from 1924 is something that you really should ride while driving up PCH.
Natural Bridges State Beach
Santa Cruz has a lot of great spots and great food places, but Natural Bridges State Park is one of my favorites by far. This beach has a beautiful rock arch about 20 feet out in the water and is a great spot for sunset.
Palace of Fine Arts
European architecture in the heart of San Francisco, Palace of Fine Arts is one of my favorites spots for photography in the city.
Golden Gate Bridge
What do I really need to say about this bridge? Of course you have to visit it while on PCH as it is one of the most iconic spots in all of California.
Muir Beach Overlook
Another often skipped but yet beautiful quick stop, this overlook provides an awesome birds-eye view of the coastline.
Hog Island Oyster Company
If you like oysters then you don’t need any more information, if you don’t like them then you need to try them here, fresh out of the water and mind-blowing good.
Point Arena Lighthouse
This 60 foot tall lighthouse right out on the cliffs is a great spot for views and for learning more about the lighthouses that used to dot the California coastline.
The beach where people threw trash and the ocean turned that trash into smooth pieces of glass. It is a crazy spot to see.
Chandelier Drive Thru Tree
Right where PCH ends is the Chandelier Drive Thru Tree in the town of Leggett. No trip down Highway 1 is complete without a photo of your car going through it.
Pacific Coast Highway FAQ
How long is the Pacific Coast Highway?
Route 1, AKA Pacific Coast Highway, is 655 miles.
Where does it start and end?
The official start of Pacific Coast Highway is in Orange County in the city of Dana Point. The end is at the intersection of Highway 1 and Highway 101 in Leggett.
When is the best time to drive Pacific Coast Highway?
The best time to drive the Pacific Coast Highway is in the spring or fall. If you’re traveling during summer, prepare for high temperatures and heavy traffic on the road.
How long should I plan for a Pacific Coast Highway road trip?
Since the drive is about 650 miles long and it takes most people 4-5 days to do it depending on how much sightseeing they do along the way. It’s not recommended to attempt it all at once because there are so many beautiful spots along the way that deserve more than a passing glance and you cannot drive fast on many of the narrow roads, so it takes longer than you would think. I recommend 7 days if you have it, but 4-5 days will allow you to see a lot as well.
How is the drive?
Driving along the PCH in certain sections like Big Sur is like driving on a roller coaster — there are lots of curves, narrow lanes and steep drop-offs. While most of this highway is two lane roads with limited shoulders and relatively straight, there are also few sections where it becomes four lane divided highways such as between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo, which allows drivers who want faster speeds access to passing lanes if needed.
Is it easy to follow?
Outside of the Los Angeles portion, which can be a little tough to navigate, the route is pretty straightforward and easy to follow.
What are the best sections of Pacific Coast Highway?
For me, here are the best sections from South to North
- Laguna Beach: The region is known for its breathtaking beaches and some of the best Southern Califronia beaches can be found here.
- Santa Barbara: An amazing California coastal town with great food, shopping and activities.
- Big Sur: This is the quintessential PCH experience with some of the most stunning coastal views you will ever see.
- Point Reyes / Tomales Bay: If you have the time to visit Point Reyes Seashore, do it. It has one of the most beautiful lighthouses on the drive and miles a hiking trails.
- Mendocino: This small town has some of the best coastal views in the Northern California section.
Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) Road Trip Day Guides
If you are interested in driving the 600+ miles that makes up Pacific Coast Highway, then check out how I broke down each of my 7 days below. These day itineraries are designed to give you an example of how you can do the drive but you may want to do less or more spots each day than I did.
Continue the Journey (Oregon and Washington)
Interested in continuing up to the Oregon state line or even all the way up to Seattle? Check out these other posts I wrote to help make the most of your journey along the coast of both Oregon and Washington.
Eureka to Oregon
Oregon & Washington Coast Stops
Pacific Coast Highway eBook
I created this ebook after my 2022 Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip. In the ebook it has FAQ, some of my top spots, a suggested itinerary and a link to the map with all of my stops on it. If you are interested, you can purchase it below.
Map of Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) Stops
The above ebook has a link to the map I created with all of the stops that I did on my last trip. It is a great resources for planning your trip along PCH since the stops are already added to the map for you.
Food on Pacific Coast Highway
Here are a few of my favorite places for food on Pacific Coast Highway.
- The Crab Cooker in Newport – Fresh shrimp cocktails and seafood. Review here
- Schooner or Later in Long Beach- A great stop for breakfast, get there early as the wait can be long. Order “The Mess”. Review here
- Neptune’s Net in Malibu – Seafood sampler and tacos with optional frozen yogurt after. Review here
- Spencer Makenzie’s in Ventura – You must have the Ahi Pockets, you simple must.
- Johnny’s Tacos in Ventura – Awesome deep fried crispy tacos at this tiny Mexican place.
- Tupelo Junction in Santa Barbara – Amazing stop for breakfast, I recommend the Crab Cakes or Pumpkin Waffle. Review here
- Santa Barbara Seafood Company in Santa Barbara– The onion rings are to die for, as are the oyster shots and great Cioppino, right on the pier. Review here
- McConnell’s Ice Cream in Santa Barbara – A must stop in Santa Barbara, try the Churros Con Chocolate and the Salted Carmel.
- Splash Cafe in Pismo Beach and San Luis Obispo– Simply my favorite place for clam chowder, it is amazing. They have locations in Pismo Beach and San Luis Obispo. Review here
- Black Cat Bistro in Cambria- Very high-end dinner spot, but amazing food if you are a foodie like me. Order anything with scallops. Review here
- Linns Bakery in Cambria – You must go here for the Olallieberry pie, it is fantastic and not a fruit you see often.
- Old Fish Grotto in Monterey – Great restaurant on the pier with fantastic clam chowder. Review here
- LouLou’s Griddle in the Middle in Monterey – Pancakes bigger than your plate. It’s an amazing breakfast spot. Review here
- The Little Chihuahua in San Francisco – Try the fried plantain burrito for something totally unique. Open late. Review here
- Brenda’s Soul Food in San Francisco – One of my favorite places in all of California, try the shrimp and grits and the crawfish beignets. Review here
- Mama’s in San Francisco – Another amazing breakfast spot, but you have to get there early it is small and gets so packed. Get the Eggs Benedict. Review here.
- Hog Island Oyster Company – Fresh Oyster right out of the water, pretty much the only way to eat them. Review here.
Where to Stay on Pacific Coast Highway
This is not a definitive list of where to stay but here are some of the great state parks you can camp in (arranged from South to North) and hotels at the end.
- Leo Carrillo State Park – Camping information
- McGrath State Beach – Camping information
- Emma Wood State Beach – Camping information
- Carpinteria State Beach – Camping information
- El Capitan State Beach – Camping information
- Refugio State Beach – Camping information
- Gaviota State Park – Camping information
- Oceano Dunes Recreation Area – Camping information
- Morro Bay State Park – Camping information
- Hearst San Simeon State Park – Camping information
- Limekiln State Park – Camping information
- Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park – Camping information
- Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park – Camping information
- Manresa State Beach – Camping information
- Half Moon Bay State Beach – Camping information
- Sonoma Coast State Park – Camping information
- Salt Point State Park – Camping information
- Manchester State Park – Camping information
- Van Damme State Park – Camping information
- Mackerricher State Park – Camping information
- Standish-Hickey State Reserve – Camping information
- Richardson Grove State Park – Camping information
- Benbow Lake State Reserve – Camping information
- Humboldt Redwoods State Park – Camping information
- Patrick’s Point State Park – Camping information
- Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park – Camping information
- Del Norte Redwoods State Park – Camping information
Here are my suggestions. I have either stayed at all of these myself or they have been recommended to me by people I trust. These links are affiliate links so if this post was helpful, consider booking a hotel through one of these links.
- Los Angeles
- It is hard to recommend a hotel here as the city is so big and there are so many great options. Browse this list and pick one that is in your budget and location.
- Santa Barbara
- Pismo Beach
- SeaVenture Beach Hotel – A fun little hotel right on the beach with a unique style and only a 10-minute walk from downtown Pismo Beach and the pier.
- San Luis Obispo
- Madonna Inn – One of my favorite hotels on this entire drive, it’s super eclectic and fun.
- Sea Otter Inn – Relaxing hotel with breakfast delivered in the morning and a great location next to the water.
- Big Sur
- Big Sur River Inn – Fun little hotel, and a cheaper option in Big Sur. Rooms are nothing to write home about but a super fun vibe and a great location.
- Santa Cruz
- Ocean Pacific Hotel – A no-frills hotel with a fantastic location. Walking distance from the famous pier but you can rent bikes form them as well.
- Half Moon Bay
- The Ritz Carlton – If you can afford it then this is the place to stay. It is one of the most famous hotels on the entire drive as it sits out on the bluffs looking over the bay, but of course, it is far out of my price range. If you are not staying here I would stay in Santa Cruz or push onto San Francisco.
- San Francisco
- Like Los Angeles, there are so many hotels here and most are fantastic, I would just browse this list and see what is in your price range.
- Hill House Inn – Beautiful old hotel that I stayed at and recommend. The hotel itself is historic and it is a 5 minute walk from the main downtown street.
- Eureka (past the end of PCH but a good town if you visit Avenue of the Giants)
- Carter House Inn – If you are looking for a historic place to stay than the Victorian style of the Carter House Inn is a winner. However, it is a more expensive option.
- Eureka Town House – This is another no-frills cheap hotel, but it has a fantastic location near the old town so it is a good spot to stay.
History of Pacific Coast Highway
Construction of the Pacific Coast Highway, California State Highway 1, started in the 1920’s as a planned 1,400-mile link between the Mexican and Canadian borders. The road now runs nearly continuously from San Juan Capistrano in Orange County in the south to United States Highway 101 near Leggett in Mendocino County in the north.
The highway might not exist today had a single determined Malibu landowner prevailed in her long struggle to enjoin Los Angeles County from starting it. Since at least the 1890s, a primitive carriage road had run the rocky coast north from Santa Monica only to end at a barrier at her property line. A formidable opponent, in 1906 she forced the Southern Pacific Railroad to run its tracks around rather than through Malibu to reach Santa Barbara.
In 1907 when the county proposed to extend the coastal road through Malibu, she challenged the county’s exercise of eminent domain and stalled it for years. The court in 1923 finally awarded title of the Malibu right of way to the government and $107,289 to the tenacious challenger as compensation.
Construction of California Highway 1 was piecemeal; the first part completed was the central segment that passes through Big Sur. This is probably the most famous for its scenery. Authorized in 1919 by a state bond measure and constructed over 18 years with some labor from San Quentin prison inmates (paid 35 cents per day), it opened in 1937. Although popular for its scenic beauty, the Big Sur segment can be hazardous. Landslides and erosion have caused several closures for repairs.
The rugged terrain of the 100-mile Big Sur segment of California Highway 1 between Carmel and San Simeon required construction of 32 bridges. The first, small timber structure over Salmon Creek about 19 miles north of San Simeon opened in 1928. The Bixby Bridge about 13 miles south of Carmel, completed in 1932, was the most difficult to build. Its deck, 356 feet long and 260 feet high, rests on two concrete abutments fastened to sheer cliff walls at a point 140 feet above the ground. The National Register of Historic Places lists seven concrete arch bridges between Point Sur and Carmel.
In 1925, construction began to extend Route 60 between San Juan Capistrano and Oxnard farther north to Ventura. At Point Mugu, the construction cut a path through the coastal mountains, creating Mugu Rock in the process. Then, in 1931, work on Route 56 progressed south from Cambria to San Luis Obispo.
A 1933 expansion of the state highway system extended Route 56 southward from Pismo Beach through Guadalupe and Lompoc to Las Cruces and northward along the coast from Carmel through Santa Cruz to San Francisco. Part of this segment between Pacifica and Daly City suffered major earthquake damage in March 1957 and unfortunately became unusable.
Several segments north of San Francisco completed the Pacific Coast Highway: one from the Golden Gate to Valley Ford in Sonoma County, a second from Jenner to Westport in Mendocino County, and a third from Westport northeast to Leggett, where California Highway 1 now joins United States Highway 101.
The Pacific Coast Highway and its segments have had numerous names and numbers. The Big Sur segment was initially the Carmel–San Simeon Highway or Route 56. The Highway 1 designation first appeared locally in 1939. After construction and joinder of all segments, the official designation of California Highway 1 followed in 1964.
Route 56 along Big Sur became California’s first state scenic highway in 1965. In 1966, Lady Bird Johnson led an official ceremony at Bixby Bridge as the federal government designated the California Highway 1 as an All-American Road.