Whether you know it or not, you’ve probably seen a commercial (or two) featuring the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH). Few roads are more distinctive than this one, weaving along the rugged coastline with crashing waves and soaring mountains in the background. The Pacific Coast Highway, also known as Highway 1, is considered one of the nation’s most picturesque routes and, for many, remains the quintessential California road trip.
I’ve long had the Pacific Coast Highway road trip on my travel bucket list and recently had the opportunity to undertake a six-day journey from San Diego to San Francisco, with family in tow.
If you are looking for your Pacific Coast Highway road trip on a budget, read on for some notable stops you just can’t miss when you head out along this picturesque road. Most of the attractions below are free or cost very little to visit!
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Before Your Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip
When planning your own Pacific Coast Highway road trip, check California Highway 1 local advisories for current road conditions. Frequent mudslides along the coast have caused sections of the road (especially in the Big Sur area) to close for extended periods of time.
For the most current highway updates, go to the CalTrans website and enter the highway number (Highway 1) in the search bar, or call 1.800.427.7623 before you hit the road.
Also, make sure you have a good Pacific Coast Highway map, whether it is on your phone, or on good ol’ fashioned paper!
Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip: San Diego to San Francisco
Day 1: San Diego
Though the Pacific Coast Highway officially begins at its most southern tip, near Dana Point in Orange County, we decided to begin the journey a little further south, in San Diego.
With only 24 hours at our disposal, we wanted to explore as much as we could in this classic Southern California city with its warm weather, spacious parks, beaches, diverse culture, delicious food, and nightlife.
While in San Diego, we wanted to check out Balboa Park, having heard it’s nearly double the size of New York City’s Central Park. It did not disappoint. Balboa Park is a massive open space, known for its cultural attractions, including several museums and art venues, theatres, gardens, fountains, walking paths, and restaurants. It’s also where you’ll find the San Diego Zoo.
Admission to the park is free for the public and it makes a perfect spot for a relaxing afternoon with the family. You could spend an entire day strolling or biking the park while admiring the gorgeous Spanish-style architecture and lush, natural scenery. It’s also a great place to enjoy a picnic.
There is so much to see and do in this cultural haven, so be sure to map out the areas of most importance to you prior to heading out. Parking is free, and if you’re not up for walking all day, there’s a free tram that can take you from one end of the park to another.
The downtown Gaslamp Quarter is a lively 16 blocks, dotted with Victorian-style buildings and an eclectic mix of restaurants, bars and nightclubs, many with live music. If you’re into craft beers, you’re in for a treat!
It’s the destination for nightlife in San Diego and a great place to get a sense of the downtown vibe. Finding parking here can be a challenge.
Cabrillo National Monument
For a little history, some spectacular views of San Diego Bay and a glimpse of nature at its finest, check out the Cabrillo National Monument, located at the tip of Point Loma. Once you’ve paid the $10 (per vehicle) entrance fee, stop by the nearby visitor’s center for maps and information about the park. Make sure to check out:
- The Old Point Loma Lighthouse. It’s been lovingly restored to reflect its heritage, dating back to the 1880s.
- The adjacent interactive exhibit in the Assistant Keepers Quarters.
I must admit the highlight of this experience was the tidepools at the base of the ocean cliffs on the western end of Point Lomo. The sheer natural beauty on display as we watched the waves pound against the rock formations with such ferocity was impressive.
The sea caves and tidepool area can be accessed by foot (via several steep hiking trails). It was a little chilly, so we drove down instead. It gets cool here, so pack a lightweight jacket similar to these to keep warm and dry. Lots of photo opportunities and not to be missed in San Diego!
Old Town San Diego State Historic Park
We also wandered through Old Town San Diego State Historic Park for a glimpse into California’s first settlement. The state park features numerous museums, historical buildings, quirky specialty shops, and restaurants. I may be a little jaded, but personally, I didn’t get much from this experience.
Old Town has historical significance, but the park felt more like a tourist trap and wasn’t worth the trek to get there. Parking is nearly impossible, the dining options are lackluster at best and the area just feels inauthentic. On the plus side, it’s extremely well-kept for such a high-traffic area. I would have been okay with missing this stop entirely, but hey, it’s all part of the journey, right?
Children’s Pool – La Jolla
A few miles north along the San Diego coastline, in the hilly seaside community of La Jolla, you’ll find the Children’s Pool. It’s a popular spot to watch the harbor seals lounge on a small beach cove protected by a seawall. The beach is closed to the public during seal pupping season – December through May – but the seals are still visible along the sea wall.
Street parking is available along the coast, and you’ll find nearby paid lots as well. You’ll also find lots of sidewalk cafés and high-end boutiques in La Jolla’s village center.
Dana Point Sea Caves
On the way to the Dana Point Sea Cave, we officially got on Highway 1 (the Pacific Coast Highway), so this technically marked the beginning of our highway-themed road trip.
I’m not sure of the parking situated close to the sea caves, but we parked in the lot adjacent to the Ocean Institute. From there, we walked behind the Ocean Institute to the beach, down the fenced staircase and took a right along the rocky path. Note: this trek should only be attempted during low tide. The large wave swells can be dangerous during high tide and there’s nowhere to seek cover. Lucky for us, it was low tide!
It took us about 20 minutes to get to the main cave. The narrow hiking path to the cave is roughly a mile – round trip – but it can seem longer because of the rocky coastline.
Make sure you’re wearing sneakers or shoes that can get wet. We did the short hike during sunset so the sun wasn’t an issue, but if you’re going to attempt it in the middle of the day, I suggest wearing a sun protective hat and applying sunscreen. This is truly a hidden gem and a definite highlight along the coast!
Day 2: Los Angeles
We continued north to Los Angeles, California’s largest city, home to Hollywood and the center of the entertainment industry. This expansive city has plentiful beach access, as well as museums, cultural attractions, and a mind-boggling selection of shopping and dining options to appreciate.
These include the Original Farmers Market, Griffith Observatory and Griffith Park, Rodeo Drive, Hollywood Walk of Fame, TCL Chinese Theatre, Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood. The possibilities are almost endless but beware of Los Angeles’s notoriously nightmarish traffic.
Amongst the inland hills of Rancho Palos Verdes, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, you’ll find the Wayfarers Chapel, also known as “The Glass Church.” The small glass and wood structure is a stunning example of modern architecture. Surrounded by towering trees and a gorgeous California landscape, it captures the essence of bringing the outdoors in.
The entire visit only took about 15 minutes, but the architecture, Zen-like grounds and alluring ocean views make it a noteworthy stop! Added Bonus: the Abalone Cove Shoreline Park is located across the street from the Wayfarers Chapel.
Venice Beach Boardwalk
The Venice Beach Boardwalk is a wild and high-energy tourist spot with an anything-goes, live-and-let-live, eclectic vibe. For those who love people-watching, there’s no shortage of entertainment here!
On one side of the boardwalk, you’ll find a variety of shops, while on the other, vendors, street performers and in the distance, the beach. You’ll see characters ranging from jugglers, mimes, singers, and dancers to acrobats, contortionists, tarot card readers and sand sculptors. Come for fun, admire the diversity, but be prepared to be a little out of your comfort zone.
Santa Monica Pier
A stop at the Santa Monica Pier seemed fitting. The pier is about a quarter-mile long and is lined with bars, eateries, shops, street performers, arcade games, an aquarium, roller coaster, indoor merry-go-round, and the famous solar-paneled Ferris wheel.
It’s an overcrowded tourist spot with carnival rides, but it’s an iconic landmark, so if you’re in L.A. for the first time, it’s something to check off the list.
The views of the beach and the mountains in the distance are pretty decent here as well. You can bike (rentals are available) or walk along the paved path from the pier to Venice Beach.
Ventura – Channel Islands
We’d hoped to spend some time in the coastal city of Ventura but sadly had to pass through without stopping. Ventura would have been our access point to Channel Islands National Park, a remote group of five islands referred to by some as the North American Galapagos.
The Channel Islands are only accessible by boat or small plane. There are no lodging accommodations, stores or restaurants, but visitors can kayak, hike or camp. Making this stop would have required more than half a day to appreciate the full experience, so we reluctantly skipped it. It is, however, definitely on the itinerary for our next Southern California visit. I’ll keep you posted!
About 90 miles north of Los Angeles, you’ll find Santa Barbara, a laid-back, yet upscale community often referred to as the American Riviera. This jewel, anchored by a blend of mountains and coastlines, is an ideal place to spend some time taking in red-tiled roofs, Spanish colonial architecture, pristine beaches and everything from quaint cottages to waterfront mansions. While here, make sure to…
- Visit the still-active Old Mission Santa Barbara.
- Explore Stearns Wharf for exquisite views of the city, coastline, and mountains.
- Stroll down pedestrian-friendly State Street for culture, people-watching, or to shop to your heart’s (or wallet’s) content.
- Explore the city’s local art galleries, craft breweries, and wine scene.
- Or just grab lunch somewhere along the California coast, with the Santa Ynez Mountains serving as the backdrop.
Note: Santa Barbara is a rather expensive place to stay overnight, but definitely a must-stop along the coast.
Day 3: Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip
Pismo State Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove
Pismo Beach is known for its sandy shores, surf, and wineries. All of these are appealing, but we were drawn here to see the largest colony of monarch butterflies, which migrate to Pismo State Beach for winter hibernation.
When you immediately enter the park, it’s hard to spot the butterflies as they blend in with the large eucalyptus trees. Park officials, thankfully, have set up multiple telescopes around the park for a close-up view. Many people also bring their own binoculars. You’ll be amazed by the thousands of colorful butterflies nestling in and surrounding the trees.
We were told the best time to view them is from late October to February. After viewing the butterflies, if you’re interested in taking a stroll, there are easy walking trails around the grove leading down to the beach.
Morro Bay & Morro Rock
As you approach the quiet seaside village of Morro Bay, you’ll undoubtedly notice its easily recognizable landmark, Morro Rock, from miles away. Morro Rock, sometimes called the “Gibraltar of the Pacific,” is at the end of Morro Rock Beach.
The rock itself cannot be climbed, but you can spend time in and around the protected bay biking, fishing, bird watching, paddleboarding or kayaking. You’re likely to spot sea otters and other wildlife in the area.
The Village of Cambria is another great stop with lots of art galleries, antique shops, restaurants, seaside vistas, and lodging options. This charming village is surrounded by pine forests, rocky cliffs, and beaches.
We stopped here to refuel and grab lunch and were completely taken with this Central California town’s artsy vibe, quaint shops, bakeries, simple cafes, and the nearby Moonstone Beach. We had lunch at Café on Bridge Street and thoroughly appreciated the fresh ingredients and generous portions.
Another added treat was the Cutruzzola wine tasting room, located on the north end of Main Street. The lovely wines, knowledgeable sommelier and laid-back, welcoming vibe made the stop in this quaint town an even better experience.
Fiscalini Ranch Preserve
Near Cambria’s Main Street is the 430-acre Fiscalini Ranch Preserve, a protected habitat that separates Cambria’s East and West Villages. The ranch features some of the best hiking in the area with pine forests and trails along the coastline leading to a bluff that rises 400 feet above the ocean. We were not able to make the hike due to time constraints, but it sure sounds lovely!
Hearst Castle in San Simeon
Only four miles from Fiscalini, the number-one attraction in San Simeon is the Hearst Castle. We were on the fence about this stop and when time became an issue, it was an easy decision to skip it.
That being said, it’s one of the largest historic house museums in the US and offers several daily guided tours covering the estate’s grounds and the mansion. If you’re a history buff and have the time to spare, it might be worth a stop.
Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, San Simeon
A few miles north of the Hearst Castle, right off Highway 1, is the Elephant Seal Rookery at San Piedras Beach in San Simeon.
The northern seals are on the beach year-round, but the best time to see the largest number of them is typically December through February when they’ve migrated along the coast to birth, breed, molt and rest.
There is a dirt road lot with parking spaces and a designated viewing area with great visibility to watch the seals play and fight each other on shore. It’s quite the scene!
Day 4: PCH Road Trip San Diego to San Francisco
Riding north between San Simeon and Carmel, you’ll start to notice the landscape changing into the most dramatic and naturally beautiful scenery so far along the coast … and you’ll know you’re in Big Sur. You’ll probably be able to tell by your almost-useless cell phone reception, too.
Big Sur is all about the astonishing California redwood trees, miles and miles of mountainous coastline with winding roads and waves crashing along the unspoiled seaside cliffs. It’s like a scene from a movie with plenty of photo opportunities along the way, and fortunately, many vistas point to take advantage.
If you’re looking to include camping or hiking during your trip, this is the area to do it! Pfeiffer Beach, McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Bixby Creek Bridge, and Point Lobos State Reserve are all along this stretch of the coast, with plenty of great trails, waterfalls, and beaches.
This stretch of the coast is the main feature of the PCH route. It will likely take you longer than anticipated, as you’ll undoubtedly stop often for the views and some photo opportunities or slow down as you navigate the winding, curvy road. I recommend giving yourself at least a day to explore this stretch.
McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park can easily be spotted by the numerous cars parked alongside Highway 1. If you’re there just to see the waterfall, I suggest parking along Highway 1 (it’s free!). Make sure your vehicle is completely off the road—no part on or over the white line—to avoid a citation. From the highway, there is a path that leads to the waterfall.
The waterfall itself is removed from the overlook vantage point, and visitors aren’t allowed to head down the beach for a close-up view. The area’s scenery and beach views are breathtakingly beautiful, but the 80-foot waterfall flowing off the cliffs and onto the beach, while striking, is a little bit of a letdown.
Although it isn’t accessible, the enchanting views make up for it. Overall, I would still say McWay Falls warrants a stop, if only for the views.
The Bixby Bridge, as seen in numerous ads, is said to be one of the most photographed bridges along the coast, and deservedly so. It’s an incredible display of what man and nature have engineered. At 714 feet long and 260 feet high, it’s one of the tallest concrete bridges in the world, and another beautiful photo spot along the lovely coast.
There’s a designated overlook with parking spots on the coast side of the road and an unofficial dirt lot on the opposite side offering views of the bridge with the ocean in the background.
Day 5: Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip
Exploring the one-square-mile, cypress tree-lined streets of Carmel-by-the-Sea was a pleasant surprise. It’s a charming, upscale seaside town with cobblestone walkways, secret passages, quaint cottages, boutique shops, art galleries, cafes, and cozy bed-and-breakfasts.
Taking in the town’s allure is pretty much the big attraction here, and a great way to spend a laid-back afternoon. Be sure to spend some time strolling the dog-friendly Carmel Beach, within walking distance of the town’s main square (Ocean Avenue).
Fun fact: There are no mailboxes or street addresses in Carmel, which means residents have to pick up mail at the post office. There are also no parking meters or streetlights. Talk about a throwback!
A few miles north of Carmel is the seaside town of Monterey, where you’ll find hotels, shops, bars and restaurants in what used to be fish-packing plants along Cannery Row. In the distance, the bay stretches out for a gorgeous seaside view.
Venture out on a whale-watching expedition, or kayak alongside sea otters in the bay. You’ll also find the popular Monterey Bay Aquarium, featuring plenty of marine life and interactive, family-friendly exhibits. Purchase your tickets online in advance to avoid long lines.
Make sure to treat yourself to fresh clam chowder at one of the restaurants on Old Fisherman’s Wharf. Sailing, golfing and biking are also popular things to do in Monterey.
The 17-Mile Drive is a scenic roadway along the Monterey Peninsula from Pacific Grove to Pebble Beach. It’s marked by impressive sights, including coastal cliffs, vista points, and beaches. To enter the community, it’s $10.25 per vehicle (cash only, biking and walking are free, and motorcycles are not allowed).
Once at one of the entrance gates, you’ll be handed a map. The red-painted dash lines on the road will guide you through the various points of interests including Spanish Bay, Crocker Grover, Stillwater Cove, the iconic Lone Cypress, and the well-known Pebble Beach golf courses.
There’s plenty to see along this beautiful stretch, so give yourself time to take it all in. Note: The gate fee is refundable with a purchase of $35 or more at the Pebble Beach Resorts restaurants.
Located about 35 miles north of Monterey is Santa Cruz, a classic coastal city best known for its surfing and iconic beach boardwalk with a seaside amusement park dominating the skyline.
The city’s lively vibe includes an atmospheric downtown along Pacific Avenue with wide-ranging shops, restaurants and lots of people-watching opportunities.
To get a feel for the city, check out the Santa Cruz Wharf for the sea lions, the West Cliff Drive, and Natural Bridges State Beach to see surfers in action and the gorgeous Pacific Ocean views.
Day 6: Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip
For our final stop, we drove across the Golden Gate Bridge and headed into the heart of vibrant San Francisco. If you’re wrapping up your trip in San Francisco, you’ll find many things to do in this lively hilly city, like shopping in Union Square, riding on the cable cars, browsing Fisherman’s Wharf, touring Alcatraz or walking down Lombard Street.
Exploring Golden Gate Park is a must, as is visiting the Palace of Fine Arts, viewing the Painted Ladies in Alamo Square and exploring the city’s many neighborhoods (The Castro, Mission, Haight-Ashbury, Chinatown, etc.). How about biking across the Golden Gate Bridge or satisfying your hunger with any number of eclectic cuisines? With so much to keep you busy in San Francisco, you’ll need a few days to discover it all.
Additional Pacific Coast Highway Stops
We had a plan and daily must-see sites and stops along the way, but with so many discoveries, we easily got off schedule and were forced to skip some stops. Maybe our itinerary was a little too ambitious, or maybe there’s just way too much to see and experience in one trip.
Nonetheless, below are just a few additional stops along the PCH—listed from south to north as they emerge along the route—to consider including in your own Pacific Coast Highway road trip plans.
- Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
- San Luis Obispo
- Ragged Point
- Point Lobos State Reserve
- Half Moon Bay
The long, winding Pacific Coast Highway route passes through lively cities and small towns, with lots of postcard-worthy rugged coastlines and dramatic landscape photo opportunities. It definitely calls for a return trip.