Road Trip: Pacific Coast Highway
Road access to the California coast is largely provided by the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) Route 1. This famous route offers some of the most beautiful sights on earth.
I have explored every best place to discover along the Central California Coast for the past 30 years. Considering myself a self-imposed expert on this scenic coast I am revealing to you the ultimate places you should not miss seeing.
The road trip featured here takes you from Los Angeles to San Francisco, traveling from a south to north direction on the PCH, along the California Coast. Should you want to begin your route in San Francisco, simply reverse the order of places to see from the presentation in this article.
The amazing experience is equally rewarding whether you travel as a couple, family with children, group, or going solo!
Prepare yourself to indulge in some of the most spectacular sightseeing and travel memories of your life!
Every California visitor or traveler should have this iconic road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway on the list of mandatory places to discover.
The Central California Coast
The Pacific Coast Highway (PCH Route 1)
Like the famous Route 66, the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH for short) Route 1 is another staple in road structures edged into American history forever.
The stretch of the PCH that runs along the Central California Coast is the most scenic part of the route.
Contrary to popular belief, the PCH does not run from San Diego to Seattle:
- The PCH starts in Capistrano Beach, near Dana Point in Orange County (north of San Diego).
- In Northern California, the PCH ends in Legget, Mendocino County, where it connects to U.S. Route 101. Driving distance from San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge to Legget is 176.5 miles.
- The entire driving distance of the PCH, from Capistrano Beach to Leggett, is about 750 miles.
The green CALIFORNIA 1 shields (image above), which designates the PCH as a California State Route first appeared on the route in 1964. You will see plenty of these shields on the way.
The State, municipal governments, and local communities along the PCH have designated portions of the route with different names. You will see signs with name varieties, such as Cabrillo Highway, Shoreline Highway, Coast Highway. You will also experience the PCH intermingling or parallel with other highway segments, such as the 101, as you drive.
The origin of the route follows the path the Spanish missionaries and soldiers took when establishing the many missions along the California Coast.
Where to stay overnight
Do your own internet search to find the lodging best suited for your needs. I prefer to stay at the best place for the best price, like you probably do. In other words, I like to travel on a budget. Also, if you travel by RV there are several RV parks along your route.
There are many choices about where to stay on your trip, from affordably priced motels to super expensive hotels.
Red-colored links in this article have been added to give you more detailed information about the areas described if you wish to learn more:
A 5-day road trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco
On the PCH, memories for life
DAY 1: LOS ANGELES TO SANTA BARBARA
I would suggest you leave Los Angeles early in the morning and take the PCH north from Santa Monica. By leaving early you get the most out of the sights on your first day on the road. Enjoy the beautiful ocean and beach sights and check out the Malibu area.
When you get to Oxnard you may wish to drive by Camarillo to the Premium Outlets, a gigantic outdoors shopping complex. It’s a place where you may find great bargains on clothes and shoes.
On the PCH past Ventura, you will have great views of the Pacific while driving.
MUST SEE #1: SANTA BARBARA
The Spanish colonial heritage of Santa Barbara is clear as soon as you arrive. What is today an attractive resort-type city originated as Mission Santa Barbara in 1786. Downtown’s Mediterranean white stucco buildings with their red-tiled roofs carry lots of similarities to those found along the Mediterranean coast of Spain.
You can view the dramatic backdrop of the Santa Ynez Mountains regardless of where you are in the city. Turn in the other direction and the inviting beach welcomes you with a smile. On a clear day, you can see the Channel Islands on the oceanfront horizon.
After you check into your chosen place to spend the night it’s time to explore the place!
- Santa Barbara Downtown is great for discovering the city by foot. It has a lot of restaurants and boutiques. For the wine enthusiast, local wine selections are huge. State Street offers local wine tasting.
- A pleasant walk along the beach connects with the pier, the Stearns Wharf, built as a massive wooden surface. Cars drive on the pier. The pier has several eating places and shops. Ladies, please don’t wear high heels on the pier. Your shoes may get caught in the wooden planks!
DAY 2: SANTA BARBARA TO MORRO BAY
Leaving Santa Barbara go north on the PCH. Past Gaviota, at Las Cruces, do not get on the Route 1 split. Rather, stay right to continue on the 101 until you get to Buellton. At Buellton turn east on the 246 Highway. 10 minutes later you will be in wonderful Solvang!
MUST SEE #2: SOLVANG
“Der er et yndigt land’’ (Translation: “There is a lovely country”) is one of the national anthems of Denmark. These words are also being used as a slogan for the country of Denmark’s tourism industry. The same slogan could be used for Solvang, U.S.A.
Solvang is an idyllic and quaint town, founded by immigrant settlers from Denmark in 1911. Known for its Danish-style architecture, Danish pastry, coffee shops, and souvenir shops, the Danish heritage remains as strong as ever. Everything downtown is within walking distance.
The town is also the site for the Elverhøy Museum, a Danish heritage museum. You will also find a Spanish Mission here, right in downtown Solvang: The Old Mission Santa Ines.
For those interested in casinos, the Chumash Casino and Resort is just 10 minutes by car east of downtown Solvang.
Interestingly, the State of Washington has a Swiss “Solvang”, called Leavenworth. Leavenworth is a Bavarian-inspired town. You can read about it HERE.
Leave Solvang going west on the 246 Highway until you get to the Purisima Road exit, which will take you to the La Purisima Mission State Historic Park.
MUST SEE #3: LA PURISIMA MISSION
Arriving the La Purisima Mission is like stepping into a time warp from California’s Spanish pioneer days, founded in 1787. This Mission has the look of the era.
Filled with authentic items and artifacts, you can explore the church and the many rooms the complex consist of. The Mission functioned like an isolated community, with all the necessary amenities available at the time. Living rooms, kitchens, living and sleeping quarters, amenity rooms are all located here. Unmarked graves are next to the church.
Sent by the King of Spain the Spanish missionaries came to convert the Native American Chumash Indians to Catholicism. The Spanish soldiers accompanied the missionaries to protect, expand and enforce Spanish colonialism and rule in the new land.
Today horses are grazing peacefully inside a fenced in area in front of the complex. This is in the very same spot where the Chumash Revolt of 1824 took place, between Spanish and Mexican soldiers against the Chumash Indians.
Head west on Purisima Road to the PCH Route 1 when you leave the Mission. You will pass Vandenberg Air Force Base and later reconnect with the California coast at Oceano and Pismo Beach. When you get to San Luis Obispo take the PCH Route 1 split, west to Morro Bay.
As you arrive Morro Bay you a great view of the ocean and the Morro Rock will come to view. Having stayed at many of the hotels in Morro Bay over the years the Blue Sail Inn has emerged as my favorite. It is reasonably priced, they have free breakfast, and the place is perfectly situated by the Fisherman’s Wharf.
DAY 3: MORRO BAY
MUST SEE #4: MORRO BAY
Called the Gibraltar of the Pacific, Morro Bay’s 576 feet tall rock is actually a volcanic plug. When arriving here in 1542, Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo named the rock “El Morro”, meaning a crown shaped bluish hill.
Long gone are the heydays of Morro Bay’s role as an important port for commercial shipping trade, or as a navigation marker for ships. The city’s significant albacore industry is also long gone. Today the town is a sleepy place, perfectly suited as a “get away from it all” place, offering visitors plenty of rejuvenating atmospheres, rest, and crisp, fresh air.
To get to the Rock, follow Embarcadero and turn left on Coleman Drive. There is plenty of parking available. Morro Bay’s temperature tends to lean on the cool side, but there is a nice sandy beach right next to the Rock.
Along the Embarcadero the Fisherman’s Wharf offers plenty of restaurants, shops, and souvenirs. On weekends you can sometimes find live entertainment, from blues to karaoke and other music. An evening outing on the Wharf is a pleasant experience. The sea lions camping out on the Wharf is a sight to see, constantly barking.
Tidelands Playground is a park at the south end of the Embarcadero. Great for kids, here you can feed the seagulls, the ground squirrels who will eat out of your hand, or the pelicans. To feed the pelicans please feed them fresh fish only. There is an Albertson’s grocery store just up the hill on Quintana Road.
Kayak, surfboard, canoe and paddleboat rentals are available, to explore the sand banks surrounding the harbor.
Great for adults and children alike, the Museum of Natural History is only 10 minutes away from the Wharf. The area’s natural history shows in a fabulous way, with exciting displays.
DAY 4: MORRO BAY TO CARMEL-BY-THE SEA
Today you are about to embark on the part of the trip offering the most stunning views of the California coast!
Please start early in the morning, since it’s a lot to cover in one day.
After a 20 minute drive from Morro Bay, the Hearst Castle rises majestically from the horizon in the hills above San Simeon.
MUST SEE #5: HEARST CASTLE
Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst Built his opulent castle after inheriting thousands of acres of land following his mother’s death in 1919. It soon became a retreat for the rich class of the era’s “who is who” and Hollywood celebrities. However, you could only be a guest there at the personal invitation of Hearst himself.
TIP: Order tickets for your tour before you come here since the tours are often sold out in advance.
BIG SUR AREA:
MUST SEE #6: PFEIFFER BEACH
The Big Sur area has different locations with the name “Pfeiffer” included, encompassing the very large Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. This is often confusing to people trying to go to specific spots in this huge area. To get to Pfeiffer Beach, take the Sycamore Canyon Road off the PCH.
Pfeiffer Beach is famous for its purple-colored sand. Although most of the sand’s composure is quartz a garnet mixture is responsible for the purple color.
MUST SEE #7: POINT SUR LIGHTHOUSE
The Point Sur Lighthouse hugs the gigantic cliff of Point Sur. The cliff is prominently visible from Route 1. Take the Point Sur State Historic Park exit to get there.
MUST SEE #8: BIXBY BRIDGE
The Bixby Bridge is the second most famous bridge on the California Coast, after the Golden Gate in San Francisco. Coming from the south the bridge kind of appears abruptly as you exit the turning road just before the bridge, so plan your stop ahead.
By the way, should you wish to add a night of luxury in the Big Sur area, there is a 5-star hotel called Post Ranch Inn. Staying just one night at this beautiful place could easily set you back a thousand dollars from check in to check out. But, if you wish to splurge on one of the nicest road trips of a lifetime, why not?
To be ready for the drive tomorrow I’d suggest you spend the night in the charming city of Carmel-By-The-Sea, the city where actor Clint Eastwood served as Mayor.
DAY 5: CARMEL-BY-THE-SEA TO SAN FRANCISCO
MUST SEE #9: THE 17-MILE HIGHWAY
The 17-mile drive is a spectacular drive along the Monterey Bay Peninsula. Here are some important facts you should know:
There is an entrance fee for driving the route.
The sights worth viewing does not really start until you get to Spanish Bay.
You will see famous sights, such as The Lone Cypress tree and the Pebble Beach Golf Course.
Motorcycles are not allowed on this route.
Click on the 17-mile drive official website for a map further information for this route.
MUST SEE #10: MONTEREY
The City of Monterey expanded its fishing industry in the early 1900’s, by giving birth to fish canning and the area that would become Cannery Row. In the 1940’s the once abundant sardines decreased in Monterey Bay, which brought Cannery Row to an economic disaster.
Today the city thrives on a booming tourism industry. The Fisherman’s Wharf is the pier where fishing and whale-watching boats dock. Less than a mile north-west of the Wharf is the Cannery Row and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. With both areas on the waterline, you will find restaurants, gift shops, and hotels here.
Experiencing the Cannery Row and the Wharf before going to San Francisco is well worth the time.
Leaving Monterey continue on The PCH Route 1 until you get to Santa Cruz. From here you can either go on the 17 Highway (the fastest route, in about 2 1/2 hours), or you can continue on the 1 via Half Moon Bay to digest the last beautiful view of the California Coast before arriving in San Francisco. The latter route choice would add another hour of drive to the end of your road trip.
If you plan on driving back to Los Angeles: Take the 5 Freeway all the way from San Francisco. This is a 6-hour route, at legal speed limits.