Explore California’s stunning coastline from San Francisco to San Diego
The legendary Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) was first started in the 1930s, and remains a marvel of human effort that hugs over 900 kilometers (600 miles) of California’s rugged and beautiful coastlines. It is one of the most astoundingly scenic roads in the world, meant to be traversed slowly, while gasping at the mountains, towering trees, expansive beaches and endless sky. It also affords travelers an unparalleled opportunity to dip into all the character California has to offer: pioneer outposts, surfing villages, farm-fresh foods, local wine, roadside kitsch, Hollywood glitz and bohemia.
Before you get started on your road trip, some helpful tips: Without stopping, it takes approximately 10 hours to drive the entire length of the Pacific Coast Highway, but on this route, it’s recommended to take your time to see the sights and stay overnight along the way, stretching your vacation out to at least six days. Thanks to California’s mild weather, you can drive the Pacific Coast Highway at any time of year. The best weather is expected from late spring through fall, with the busiest travel season in July and August.
Starting Point: San Francisco
Start your PCH road trip in San Francisco, a famously hilly swath of greenery and urbanity. Filled with lush settings, San Francisco’s jewel is Golden Gate Park, 1,000+ acres of grounds that include two world-class museums, a Japanese tea garden, a herd of buffalo, a windmill and much more. Stroll through the park before heading to North Beach, a one-time nexus of Beatnik and Italian culture. Browse the iconic and sprawling City Lights Bookstore before imbibing at perfectly cluttered Vesuvio Cafe (which, despite its name, is a cozy bar, right on Jack Kerouac alley.) Steps from North Beach you’ll find the oldest Chinatown in North America complete with décor and busy, local eateries. Head to the bustling waterfront Ferry Building, where you can take in bay views and stock up on epicurean local snacks before hitting the road.
Felton and Santa Cruz
As you wind your way from San Francisco to Santa Cruz, make a brief stop at Devil’s Slide, a 2-kilometer (1.3-mile) stretch of land that was once a piece of Highway One, but is now a scenic walking path in Pacifica. If you had any doubts about your PCH trip, they’ll be washed away by sweeping ocean views as you slalom past seaside outposts. Before hitting surfer-centric Santa Cruz, stop in nearby Felton, a drowsy mountain town nestled among Redwood trees. Refresh at watering hole Monty’s Log Cabin (its rustic appearance lives up to its name) which offers a sunny back patio. Then pop by The Bigfoot Discovery Museum to learn all about California’s favorite cryptid. Finally, make your way to Santa Cruz, a friendly beach town with a university, gorgeous redwood trees and waves that surfers from all over flock to ride. Founded in 1907, the Santa Cruz Boardwalk boasts old-fashioned roller coasters (with Pacific Ocean views!), an arcade and the distinct scent of sea air, cotton candy and hot dogs. (Fun fact: Scenes of the '80s classic film “The Lost Boys" were shot here.)
You’ll see rugged mountains blanketed with dreamy redwood forests drop into the dramatic coastline. While you can camp within the forests, those who prefer beds should consider Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn, which feels a bit like staying with your fabulous bohemian aunt. Explore the nearby Henry Miller Memorial Library and when you grow hungry from hiking, dine on classic California cuisine (local wine and farm-fresh produce, anyone?) on the lofty patio at Nepenthe while gazing out at the ocean.
On the way into Cambria, stop at the Piedras Blancas Friends of the Elephant Seal rookery, where crowds of the bulbous-nosed pinnipeds rest, mate and fight. (But don’t get too close, these creatures can weigh over 4,000 kilograms or 8,000 pounds.) Continue to the charming seaside village, home to rocky shorelines, bluffs and tide pools teeming with sea life. Get a generous slab of warm ollaberry pie with vanilla ice cream at Cambria mainstay, Linn’s Restaurant.
Your chances of encountering California’s diverse fauna are high in Morro Bay, a small city on (surprise!) a large bay and estuary. At Morro Bay State Park, you may see any number of wild animals including blue herons, monarch butterflies, hummingbirds and – yes – adorable, fluffy sea otters. The park offers trails, a small museum and picnic benches, making it a perfect road trip stop for when you’re feeling peckish and need to stretch your legs.
San Luis Obispo
Cruise down the PCH to mellow college town San Luis Obispo, nicknamed SLO, where you can tour quirky attractions such as the colorful Bubblegum Alley. Before you go, be sure to sample local wines at one of more than 30 nearby wineries, or take a hike to the nearby Point San Luis Lighthouse for fresh air and stunning views. While the town has many great places to stay, the delightfully gaudy Madonna Inn offers themed rooms like Caveman and Showboat. You don’t need to stay there to enjoy the outrageous interior, which features Western murals, ornate chandeliers, flocked wallpaper – and pink, pink and pinker. Order a slice of (pink) cake at the counter and soak up the atmosphere.
Los Olivos and Solvang
Perhaps you didn’t plan to stop in Denmark on your way down the coast, but here you are. Founded by Danish pioneers in 1911, Solvang is Denmark in miniature and home to many Danish bakeries. Wander among traditional architecture and check out faithful reproductions of Copenhagen's Little Mermaid statue and Round Tower, as well as homages to Hans Christian Andersen. A short drive from Solvang, you will find the rustically charming town of Los Olivos surrounded by expansive wineries in the Santa Ynez Valley. Make time for tastings at wineries like Demetria for lush roses with views of the rolling hills.