The Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), known for its winding route and access to mind-blowing, unspoiled natural beauty along much of the California coastline, is considered one of the best drives in the world.
I’ve long wanted to road trip along this route. When the opportunity arose, I got down to business making an itinerary and thinking about what I needed to do in preparation.
With that in mind, here are some planning tips based on my own Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip to help you prepare for your perfect coastal adventure.
Check Current PCH Road Conditions
When planning your Pacific Coast Highway road trip itinerary, don’t get caught by surprise; make sure to check out California Highway 1 local advisories and 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. If that’s the case you’ll be forced to reroute inland for part of the trip.
For road closures and current highway conditions, visit the CalTrans website and enter the highway number (Highway 1) in the search bar, or call 800.427.7623 before you embark on your journey.
Which is it? Pacific Coast Highway, State Route 1, or Highway 1?
The short answer is, it depends. At over 600 miles, Highway 1 or State Route 1 goes by several names as it runs through towns, villages, and cities along the California coastline. Names include Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), Cabrillo Highway, and Coast Highway. It’s also the longest state route in California, with some sections merging with US 101.
The rundown: Highway 1 runs from Southern California at Interstate 5 (I-5) near Dana Point in Orange County to its northern point at Route 101 (US 101) near Leggett in Mendocino County.
Although much of the coast route is commonly referred to as the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), only a 123-mile segment between Dana Point and Oxnard in southern California is officially designated by the California state legislature as the Pacific Coast Highway.
Confused? Don’t get too caught up in the naming variations. It wasn’t much of a factor during our drive. Just make sure your GPS is set to follow the coastal route to your next stop and you should be fine.
Best Time to Road Trip the Pacific Coast Highway
The summer months – notably late June through August – are the busiest along the PCH with an influx of vacation crowds.
The temperature fluctuates based on the region. It’s warm and sunny year-round in Southern California, while mornings throughout Central and Northern California Coast area are damp, cool and foggy – especially in the summer months. In general, Northern California experiences less rain and more pleasant weather in the spring (April to May) and autumn (September to October), making these ideal months to road trip here.
Pacific Coast Highway Starting Point: North-or South-Bound?
Whether you start in northern California heading south, or Southern California heading north, the direction is a personal choice that comes down to convenience.
On our journey, we drove north (San Diego to San Francisco), meaning we were on the inland lanes of the PCH. While being on the ocean side of the highway allows direct coastline views and easy access to vista points, I found driving north didn’t take away from the experience. We were on the same route, had access to all the sights and attractions, and saw all the gorgeous views along the way. Is it easier to pull over on the ocean side? Yes. Did it take away from the experience? No.
The deciding factor should be based on what best accommodates your schedule, must-do list, finances, and personal preferences.
How Many Days Should I Plan for the Drive?
The Pacific Coast Highway route can be driven in one day—although not advised if your main purpose is to experience the drive and see the sights, attractions, and landmarks along the way.
You can easily spend a few weeks on this route and still not see or do it all. I say focus on the reason you’re doing the drive in the first place, take your time and embrace the journey, the coast and all its natural wonders.
To truly do the Pacific Coast Highway drive justice, allow a minimum of three days, but ideally, six days. I caution against rushing the drive. There are so many quaint towns, small cafés, hidden caves and landmarks along the way waiting to be explored. They are as much a part of the experience as the scenic views.
Ultimately, it’s a decision based on how much time you have, what’s important to you and what you want to experience. Try to limit your driving time to less than three hours per day for exploration.
One thing is inevitable: regardless of how long you’ve allotted for your trip, you’ll be longing for more time. We did the trip in six days and we definitely could have used more time to thoroughly cover our planned itinerary. So take it slow.
Where to Stop Along the Pacific Coast Highway?
There are numerous sights, attractions and discoveries to be made along the coast. Not even the most well-organized itinerary will provide enough time to see and experience everything on your list. Here are a few places that most will agree are worth a stop on a Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip.
- San Diego: Balboa Park, San Diego Zoo, Gaslamp Quarter, Cabrillo National Monument, Torrey Pines State Reserve, USS Midway Museum, La Jolla Cove
- Los Angeles: Griffith Observatory and Griffith Park, Rodeo Drive, Santa Monica Pier, Venice Beach Boardwalk, Hollywood Walk of Fame, TCL Chinese Theatre, Malibu, Getty Center, Disneyland, Universal Studios Hollywood, Warner Bros Studios
- Central Coast: Santa Barbara, Solvang, Pismo Beach, Morro Rock, Cambria, Fiscalini Ranch Preserve, Hearst Castle, Big Sur, McWay Falls, Bixby Bridge, Carmel-by-the-Sea, Monterey Bay, 17-Mile Drive, Santa Cruz Boardwalk, Half Moon Bay
- San Francisco: Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, Fisherman’s Wharf, Lombard Street, Golden Gate Park, Palace of Fine Arts, Cable Cars, Union Square
Where to Overnight Along the Coast?
With such a vast stretch along the Pacific Coast Highway route – covering both big cities and small towns – there are plentiful lodging options, including budget hotels, luxury resorts, bed & breakfasts, ranches, campgrounds, and RV parks.
The options vary widely along the coast, but the larger or more popular the city, the heftier the price. Book your lodging accommodations (regardless of the type) well in advance to avoid properties selling out, especially during tourist season.
I found Booking.com had a large inventory and competitive pricing of properties along the coast.
Popular Overnight Cities/Towns:
- San Diego – lodging options in all price ranges
- Los Angeles – the city is vast with lodging options for all budgets
- Santa Barbara – lodging options are rather expensive in this upscale town
- Pismo Beach/San Luis Obispo/Cambria – Various options including camping
- Big Sur– lodging options are extremely expensive; if on a budget, consider camping here
- Carmel and Monterey – towns are close to each other, but Monterey has more affordable lodging options
- San Francisco – lodging options to accommodate all budget types
What to Know, Expect and Do in Advance of the Drive
Have a plan. Prior to starting your Pacific Coast Highway road trip, have at least a broad planned itinerary. Whether you follow it or not is another thing, but having a general strategy helps to outline the drive and your expectations.
Know in advance where you’re starting the drive, how many days you plan to be on the road, what you want to see and do. Plot your intended overnight stops and make reservations for lodging accommodation.
Be sure to check opening hours for popular sites/attractions and book tickets ahead of time—especially during peak tourist season. It’s good to be flexible, but having a plan can help you stay on schedule and on budget.
Be safe and alert at all times. While on the PCH, driving can be challenging. The Big Sur area has frequent narrow, sharp turns—particularly for RVs and oversized vehicles—above steep ledges and cliffs.
Highway 1 gets foggy, especially during summer mornings, which can make driving conditions a little intimating as drivers navigate around blind, hairpin curves. Extra caution should be taken at night, as some areas are not lit and sharp turns appear rather quickly with what sometimes seems like a little warning. Once you approach the Big Sur area, the magnificent views will come one after another, with many vista points. As indicated earlier, those vista points are mostly on the ocean side. To avoid any incidents, pull over in designated areas to enjoy the views.
Get off the route and go inland. The PCH route is about the entirety of the experience: the sights, people, small towns, views, wineries, etc. There are tons of seaside towns, state parks and beaches requiring slight deviation inland.
Divert from the highway a little and enjoy the vineyards, redwood forests, nature trails, rolling hills, mountainsides and urban landscapes along with the scenic views. You’re on the road trip of a lifetime; take advantage of all that’s available. You’ll be glad you did.
Big Sur. The Big Sur stretch is definitely the highlight of the route; plan to be in the area for at least half a day to fully enjoy the lookout points, state parks, hikes, and all the natural beauty.
But the remote natural beauty comes with a price. It is a dead zone. Download offline maps or screenshot your maps before entering the area, as your phone will most likely not work.
Also, most things are more costly in the Big Sur area: gas, food, and lodging! So fill up before entering the area – gas stations are infrequent and prices are considerably higher. Restrooms are also limited, so take advantage of rest stops when you can.
Stock up on snacks and entertainment. Driving between stops and cities, you’ll be in the car for long periods of time. Be sure to pack your USB phone charger and ensure it’s accessible at all times. Stay hydrated, pack snacks, tablets, games for downtime and don’t forget to create that oh-so-important catchy playlist to keep entertained as you cruise along the PCH.
Be patient and flexible. One thing you can count on is getting off-schedule due to weather, traffic delays or just being captivated by all the beauty and points-of-interest along the coast.
You’ll stay sites longer than expected, run behind schedule and probably skip planned stops altogether. Even weather and traffic delays will dictate unexpected stops along the way. Try to plan your drive to account for interruptions, but don’t stress. Accept that delays are part of the experience.
As you embark along the Pacific Coast Highway for one of the world’s greatest rides, remember: road trips are about the moments that make up the journey. Plan ahead, take your time exploring the small towns, taste and eat your way along the coast, feel, see and embrace the journey. Be safe and enjoy the ride. Happy road tripping!
Are you considering or have you driven along the California Pacific Coast Highway? Have I left anything out? Share your pointers in the comment section below.
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