The Dream Road Trip – Pacific Coast Highway

The United States is filled with an array of road trips, whether taking the historic Route 66, driving through National Parks or along coast sides. But there is one that eclipses them all and that is taking a road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway in California.

From San Diego to San Francisco you’ll find breathtaking views, quaint towns, delicious food, fun activities and, of course, California wines. You can spend just two short days doing the drive or more than a week.You can drive both ways or just one. You can get in the water or just enjoy the view. You can hike along the coast and hillsides. Or you can relax and enjoy the luxury of spas and hotels.

Road tripping along the Pacific Coast Highway offers the perfect getaway for just about any interest and timeline. Today starts a series of posts I’ll be running over the next two months highlighting much of what California’s Pacific Coast Highway has to offer. Looking in-depth to cities on HWY 1, tips on planning your trip, and stops you should make along the way. For now, keep reading for an overview guide to trying the Pacific Coast Highway.The perfect road trip. Driving along the Pacific Coast Highway on the California Coast. San Diego to San Francisco. Where to stay, stop and explore.

Note: Some tours, accommodations, passes, and meals were provided at no cost to the author. All opinions remain my own. Also, you’ll find affiliate links in this post which allow me to continue to improve Traveling Nine to Fiver. I hope this article is useful for you. 

San Diego to Laguna Beach

While there are benefits to doing the drive either up or down the Pacific Coast Highway, for me there is something that just makes sense in starting with the South. If you’re taking five days or so to do the drive it’s worth starting all the way down in San Diego.

Take in their beautiful sandy beaches and opportunities for some of the best snorkeling and kayaking in Southern California. Visit La Jolla Cove for a chance to witness sea lions gathering up on the beach.

If you’re looking for a unique animal experience, though, pop right off the Pacific Coast Highway, and visit the San Diego Zoo. Known for its world-renowned conservation and large size.The perfect road trip. Driving along the Pacific Coast Highway on the California Coast. San Diego to San Francisco. Where to stay, stop and explore.

Stay the night at the La Jolla Riveria Inn, just a short walk from the beach, where you can relax on your patio before starting your drive up HWY 1. Make sure before you leave to dig into some fish tacos, the food in San Diego is amazing but if there is only one thing you eat that’s it.

As you head up the Pacific Coast Highway into Orange County one stop I always enjoy is visiting San Clemente. Head down to the pier where you can wander a bit and even grab breakfast or lunch by the pier. Plus, if you love Rainbow Sandles you must stop at the outlet in San Clemente.

For more on this leg check out the in-depth post. 

Laguna Beach to Santa Barbara

Beyond the beach itself, one of my favorite things to explore in Laguna Beach are the art galleries. My personal favorite is Wyland Galleries, which you’ll find right along the Pacific Coast Highway. Pop in to view the artwork and the great view of the back deck.

Watch the sunset and great a bite at the Rooftop. A perfect place to take in the views Laguna Beach has to offer, plus their menu is delicious.

There’s a wide variety of places to rest your head for the night but one of my favorites is the Pacific Edge Hotel. While prices rise higher in the summer you can find some good deals during the winter stays for as low as $140.  Make sure to enjoy brunch the next morning a the Driftwood Kitchen before you head off.The perfect road trip. Driving along the Pacific Coast Highway on the California Coast. San Diego to San Francisco. Where to stay, stop and explore.

On your drive up to Santa Barabara, enjoy the long sandy beaches of Southern California. Stop at the Santa Monica Pier or Venice Beach to enjoy some of the quirkiness that takes places on the coast.

Also, take your time cruising through Malibu, you might even want to stop and watch the surfers if you pass them at the right time.

Santa Barbara to Cambria

The perfect spot to stay right off the Pacific Coast Highway (also the 101 at this point) is the Goodland Hotel. This Kimpton property takes the old California motel feel and brings it up a notch. With fire pits to relax by near the pool and a casual bar atmosphere, it’s a great spot to relax after a long drive. Plus you’ll find a record player in your room, and where else can you find that.

Head into Downtown Santa Barbara where you can wander both local and big named shops. Make your way down to the pier for a nice walk on the beach and even watch the sunset over the marina. Head back up Anacapa this time and you’ll run right into the Urban Wine Trail. You’ll find quirky places with quality wine along the way. My favorite was Municipal Winemakers.The perfect road trip. Driving along the Pacific Coast Highway on the California Coast. San Diego to San Francisco. Where to stay, stop and explore.

For a casual but flavor-packed dinner head over the American Ale. Here you’ll find mouthwatering burgers with a variety of creative toppings. Find some more places you should grab a bite in town here.

On your way up to Cambria, you’ll drive through a good chunk of agricultural land, seeing another important side of California. When you make it back to the coast stop in Morro Bay for a chance to see “the rock” and even take a kayak out on the bay to visit it.

Cambria to Carmel

Once you arrive in Cambria check-in at the Sand Pebbles Inn. Right on Moonstone Beach Drive, you’ll find yourself right across from the ocean. They’ve got a handful of rooms facing the ocean and they are entirely worth it. You can even sit on a couch in your room or on your private patio watching the sunset.

In town don’t miss exploring their local wineries that highlight the coastal varietals grown nearby. Right off the Pacific Coast Highway you’ll find a handful of tasting rooms to pop into, my favorite was Cutruzzola Vineyards.The perfect road trip. Driving along the Pacific Coast Highway on the California Coast. San Diego to San Francisco. Where to stay, stop and explore.

Whether it is dinner at Robin’s or breakfast at Linn’s Restuarant, make sure to enjoy some of the local food in Cambria before you head up to the next stops.

Just north of Cambria, you’ll find Hearst Castle. If you haven’t visited before it is a must do stop to see this architectural masterpiece. There really isn’t anywhere like it in the world and while it might take two hours out of your trip but it’s worth it. Just make sure you get a reservation ahead of time to ensure the times you want aren’t sold out. And pop across the PCH for lunch at Sebastian General Store, where you can enjoy some Hearst Ranch Beef.

Just a few more miles up, make sure to stop at the Elephant Seal Beach Vista point. You’ll find some combination of them there all year long and it’s a great chance to see a different side of nature in action. The winter is a particularly good time to see moms, dads, and babies on the beach.

For me, this was the most breathtaking part of the drive. So take you time, enjoy it and stop at every and any vista you want. Two places you really shouldn’t miss are Pfeiffer Beach, where you can see the waterfall right on the beach, and Bixby Bridge. Also, if one of you gets carsick, let them do the driving for this leg.The perfect road trip. Driving along the Pacific Coast Highway on the California Coast. San Diego to San Francisco. Where to stay, stop and explore.

Carmel to San Francisco

You’ve arrived in Northern California and it’s time to relax for a bit. We loved staying at the Edgemere Cottages. This 1920s property has all the comforts of home and the sweetest hosts you can find. Relax by the fire in your room or walk a block out to the beach. Plus, you’ll get treated to a lovely breakfast in the morning.

Take a walk down Scenic Drive and enjoy the beach, or set up your own firepit in the sand. Relax as you can view along the bay al the way up to Pebble Beach and 17-Mile Drive.

Head into Downtown where you can shop, eat and enjoy the Carmel Wine Walk. You’ll get a book of 9 tickets to local wine tasting rooms for just $65. Since tasting fees are $10-15 around town it’s a great deal.

For dinner take a look at Forge in the Forest. Here you can get everything from tasty pub food like artichoke and a burger to elevated pasta dishes and entrees.

As you head up the coast one stop worth making is visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Take the time to explore what’s on the other side of the Pacific Coast Highway just under the surface.

Next up, choose your adventure in Santa Cruz. You can go explore the boardwalk, stop by Natural Bridges Beach, or turn just a few miles off the coast and wander through the Coastal Redwoods.

Wrap up at Bakers Beach taking in the Golden Gate Bridge. Then head off and explore San Francisco. A few of my favorite things to do and places to stay in the city.The perfect road trip. Driving along the Pacific Coast Highway on the California Coast. San Diego to San Francisco. Where to stay, stop and explore.

Take Your Time And Relax

My biggest tip on taking a road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway is don’t rush and take it all in. The drive will be slow at times, you’ll want to stop, you’ll want to explore more places than planned and others will drive slowly. As long as you go into the trip with a rather flexible schedule and a mindset to enjoy the journey, not just the destinations, you’ll have a great time.

If you’re trying to do it in just two days I suggest waiting for the summer where you have longer daylight, in the winter you’ll want to get the driving down by 4 pm, but that leaves you time to enjoy and evening in each city. There is also nothing wrong with staying a couple nights in one place and none in others. Relax, eat, drink, soak up some sun and take in those awe-inspiring views. Make up your own itinerary that fits your favorite activities, or don’t plan at all. While I recommend only doing this in off seasons, you can even just drive for the day and figure out where you’ll stay along the way.

The perfect road trip. Driving along the Pacific Coast Highway on the California Coast. San Diego to San Francisco. Where to stay, stop and explore. I’m just getting started on highlighting all the Pacific Coast Highway has to offer. I’ll be linking back to this post with expanded guides on each of the cities along the way and more tips for planning your trip. If you want to stay up to date make sure to sign up for my newsletter here and you’ll get an update each week in your inbox.

The Pacific Coast Highway doesn’t end in California, hopefully, one of these days I’ll get to explore the Oregon and Washington pieces with you as well. And if you get the chance to let me know your favorite parts.

Additional posts in the Pacific Coast Highway series:

About Megan

Megan MacNee is the founder of Traveling Nine to Fiver. From nine to five she works in the non-profit world in California. She focuses on exploring the world from her own backyard to across the globe. You'll find her sharing about explorations through food, books, travel, and more.