The San Francisco to San Diego drive via the Pacific Coast Highway can easily be called “the road trip of a lifetime.” A winding path that hugs a brilliant, undeveloped coast, endless lookout points, and vistas for days – you will find all this and much more on the PCH. In addition to the beauty, route 1 (an alternative name for the Pacific Coast Highway) is a convenient place for a road trip. Rental cars are plentiful, gas is cheap, and hotels come in every price range, from the most luxurious to the most affordable. Whatever kind of vacation you are looking for, chances are you’ll find it on the PCH. Let’s explore the coastline with this list of the best things to do along the Pacific Coast Highway in California.
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- What is the Pacific Coast Highway, the PCH and Route 1, California Highway?
- How Long Does it Take to Drive From San Fransisco to San Diego?
- Pacific Coast Highway Travel Tips
- San Francisco To Los Angeles Via the Pacific Coast Highway
- San Francisco
- Half Moon Bay
- Santa Cruz
- Monterey Bay
- Big Sur
- Elephant Seal Viewpoint
- Hearst Castle
- Morro Bay
- Santa Barbara
- Part 2 – Pacific Coast Highway – LA and Beyond
- Pacific Coast Highway Map
- Pacific Coast Highway Playlist
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The Pacific Coast Highway is a picturesque road that stretches down the entire coast of California. Built in stages, the PCH uses many different names. They all mean the same thing. Route 1 California, Pacific Coast Highway, and the PCH all describe the same winding road. For much of the 655 miles, the highway hugs the coast – and incredible views are only part of the fun. If you love road trips, be sure to add the Pacific Coast Highway to your bucket list.
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There are so many stops along the Pacific Coast Highway, you can easily take 2 or more weeks to drive its length, especially if you are going all the way from San Fransisco to San Diego. However, the most common Pacific Coast Highway itinerary calls for one week. Seven days should give you enough time to stop in all the big towns and many small ones, and spend some quiet time taking in the views. Be sure to build in extra time. There are so many lookout points and hiking trails, many find that driving from San Fransisco to San Diego takes much longer than you thought.
To plan a great trip along the Pacific Coast Highway, start with arranging your transportation. If you are flying into California, you’ll need to rent a car. The best way to do so is by using an aggregate site to find a good deal. Keep in mind, that unless you plan on driving all the way back to San Francisco, you’ll need a car rental agency that gives you the option of picking up in one location and dropping off in another.
If you are looking for a luxury trip, a convertible rental might be a good option. If you are looking to explore nature, a four-wheel-drive vehicle may be in order. However, most of the time on the PCH a sedan will do just fine. The road is a fun, winding path – if you enjoy a great drive you might wish to upgrade to a sports car.
Best Prices For Rental Cars From San Fransisco To San Diego:
We start our trip in San Francisco, the beauty on the bay. This thriving metropolis is famous for a few things – the Golden Gate Bridge, the oldest Chinatown in the United States, and the expensive lifestyle of the locals. Although I only spend 1 day in San Francisco you can easily spend 3 or more days exploring this town.
However, no matter how long you are here, there are a few things you shouldn’t miss on this day 1 of your Pacific coast highway stop. My first recommendation would be to explore the thriving Chinatown.
Explore San Francisco’s Chinatown – Best Things to Do on the PCH
Established in the 1850s, the oldest Chinatown still welcomes new arrivals today. There are many things to do in Chinatown. When you get hungry, stop by House of Nanking to dine on delicious Sesame Chicken. Follow that with a dessert from the tiny Golden Gate bakery. Then, stroll over to find Chinatown’s hidden temples (Ma Tsu and Tin How). And don’t forget to stop by the Golden Gate Cookie Factory to see how the fortune cookie crumbles.
Watch the Sun Rise Over the Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate bridge is no doubt, San Francisco’s most iconic landmark. One of the best ways to start on your Pacific coast highway road trip is with a view of the sun gently rising over the bridge. The best place to do so is from Hawk Hill, the park just north of the Golden Gate. Afterward, continue on the one-way road to Marin Headlands. On this winding park road, you’ll find even more incredible views of the bay, the bridge, and San Francisco.
Pacifica State Beach
Over the course of a road trip over highway 1, you will encounter countless beaches. I think you can travel the road for a month back and forth and you’ll find more beaches each time. One of the first beaches you will see, however, while driving the PCH from San Francisco, is the Pacifica State Beach. Mostly surfers and their four-legged companions visit this rocky and windy this beach. Stop here for a few minutes to enjoy the best of Northern California’s nature.
Things to Do on the Pacific Coast Highway – Grey Whale Cove
At the bottom of a dramatic drop, the Grey whale cove is technically closed – although I saw a few fishermen there. The parking lot is across the highway – which means getting to the cove is a bit sketchy. Above the parking lot, however, you’ll find the head of a trail. Hike here for a great perspective of the cove and the surrounding California shore.
A classic California beachside town, Half Moon Bay is the first place you might want to stop overnight while driving the Pacific Coast Highway. In half moon bay, you’ll find a series of beaches. Here too you can discover a small amusement park, a quaint downtown area, and some great eateries.
Things to do in Half Moon Bay
Boasting a long paved trail, Half Moon beach is great to explore on foot or a bike. In addition to the paved path, check out the long coastal trail, a family-friendly free hike with great views.
Later, check out Poplar beach where you can bring your pup and even a horse if you happen to have one.
Swing by the small amusement park in Lemos Farms. Featuring adorable rides and a petting zoo Lemos is an ideal stop for a family trip down the Pacific Coast Highway. If you are in the mood for something really different, check out their goat yoga offering.
Where to Stay in Half Moon Bay
No doubt, the most famous hotel in town is the tony Ritz-Carlton, located on Half Moon Bay’s cliffside. Featuring incredible views and impeccable service the Ritz can really up your California beach town game.
Where to Eat in Half Moon Bay
Sam’s Chowder House is famous for classic clam chowder and stunning seaside views. Enjoy a low key lunch or dinner in this classic California eatery before you continue down the shore on the Pacific Coast Highway.
Just down the road from Half Moon Bay, Santa Cruz is a large California beach town worth exploring. Santa Cruz is the home of the famous Boardwalk and the photographer’s favorite Natural Bridges State Park.
Things to Do in Santa Cruz
Probably the best-known attraction in Santa Cruz is the beach boardwalk. Packed with rides and unusual food options, this is a fun stop for the whole family. Spend the day exploring the boardwalk or take some time off and relax on the beach. The boardwalk is alive with a loud and crazy sort of fun you can only find in an amusement park. And don’t forget to check out the food – ranging from giant donuts to deep-fried twinkies, the weird just doesn’t stop.
After you’ve explored the boardwalk, don’t forget to stop by Natural Bridges State Park. You can park for just a few minutes in the lot and get a picture of the natural bridges or you can spend the entire day exploring Natural Bridge’s hiking trails. The lookout point is easy to get to by car, but for the best views take a few hours to do the hike.
Where to Stay in Santa Cruz
In a big beach town like Santa Cruz, hotel options are plentiful. However, many tourists rave about the Dream Inn. You’ll find this four-star property right by the boardwalk. In the evening you’ll get the chance to enjoy the hotel’s excellent views as well as a beachfront pool. The convenient location and excellent amenities make the Dream Inn an ideal hotel to stay on the Pacific Coast Highway.
Where to Eat in Santa Cruz
A unique option popular with the locals, Laili Restaurant is an Afghan/
When Steinbeck set “Cannery Row” here, Monterey Bay was a rough, industrial town. Large pipes, installed on the ocean floor, sucked millions of sardines a day to their involuntary, last swim. The packing plants (located in what today would be prime beachfront real estate) were operated around the clock by recent immigrants and locals.
Here, Steinbeck wrote lovingly of the rough and tumble town full of colorful characters, bordellos, and basic boarding homes. The big dreams of people, fueled by the smallest of fish.
Eventually, like so many other times, humanity exhausted the supply, and the fish disappeared. The last packing plant closed in 1972. It would take a miracle to bring the fish back to Monterey Bay, and a miracle arrived in
Things to Do in Monterrey Bay
You can’t come to Monterey Bay and not visit the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium. Pioneers in sea animal research, the Aquarium’s scientific efforts are as legendary as the 550 species on display. Build on a site of a defunct sardine cannery, it is perhaps poetic that the aquarium now focuses on sustainable seafood research. As a fun aside, the animators of Nemo spend months studying the animals and the aquarium before creating their animated masterpiece.
In addition to visiting the aquarium, be sure to stroll Cannery row. Although far from the Cannery Row that greeted Steinbeck, you can still learn plenty about the city’s history. Stroll the row and the seaside to discover how this small town helped feed a hungry world after World War II.
Where to Stay in Monterey Bay
Today’s Monterey Bay is a wealthy California beach town, and you’ll find no shortage of high-end hotels here. One of the favorites, however, is the Monterey Plaza and Spa. Conveniently located just minutes from Cannery Row and the Aquarium, the Plaza offers breathtaking seaside views and great service.
Where to Eat in Monterey Bay
The most famous part of the San Francisco to San Diego drive via the PCH is, no doubt,
Driving the Big Sur
Here, the lookout points come every 5 minutes. The road is narrow and winding. Be careful when hugging these curves. Make sure your playlist is loaded because you won’t have any cell connection for a few hours. Eventually, the narrow coastal highway will take you into a magical forest – here is your chance to get out and stretch your legs with a great hike in one of the
Hiking the Big Sur and Julia Pfeiffer State Parks
There is no shortage of great hikes in the Big Sur State Park, but no doubt the most famous hike in the area is McWay Falls, located in the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park right next door. Here you’ll get to observe a waterfall land on a beach – a spectacular view. Unfortunately, due to the unusual amount of rain when I visited, Julia Pfeiffer was closed. However, there are tons of other great hikes you can do in this area. Just ask a ranger in either of the parks for guidance.
Bixby Bridge, Big Sur
If the Big Sur is the most famous portion of the Pacific Coast Highway, the Bixby Bridge is the most photographed part of Big Sur. And no wonder – the bridge gracefully rises over a ravine almost 300 feet deep. Be sure to stop here for a picture before you proceed down the PCH. Here is my version:
As you proceed down route 1, right before our next big stop – Hearst Castle in San Simeon, stop at Elephant seal viewpoint. No doubt one of the coolest parts of this road trip, the Seal Vista gives you an opportunity to watch a large colony of beached seals. Here you’ll find hundreds of Elephant Seals and in the springtime seal babies. Most males are out at sea so unless it’s the mating season you’ll mostly see moms and pups. Several state guides are on hand to ensure nobody gets too close to the seals and answer your questions.
Hearst Castle was built by an American entrepreneur and philanthropist William Hearst, on the site of a still functioning today family ranch. His initial humble intentions of “building a permanent home” were quickly overshadowed by Mr. Hearst’s ambition. The extensive labor of love took more than 30 years to complete. In partnership with a brilliant architect Julia Morgan, Mr. Hearst put up an extravagant castle complete with a zoo, two pools and priceless works of art.
From the very beginning, Mr. Hearst intended that the castle will become a museum one day. And so, today Hearst Castle is one of the most visited attractions in California. To visit here, be sure to book your tickets in advance. The entrances are timed and in high season they do sell out quickly. The tour takes several hours and afterward, you can wander the castle on your own for as long as you wish.
Protected from the winds, Morro Bay has a different feel than many other places you’ll encounter on the Pacific Coast highway. The most famous landmark of Morro Bay is the Volcanic plug (the big rock) located in its harbor. In the bay, you’ll find calm waters ideal for water sports.
Things to Do in Morro Bay, California
Kayaking, stand up paddleboarding, boating and other water sports are popular in the calm Morro Bay. Alternatively, if you are traveling with a family, consider a boat cruise. Sightings of otters and sea lions are common on the cruises – to everyone’s delight. If water is not your cup of tea, Morro Bay offers a variety of dry land outdoor activities – hiking and bicycling along the shore are very popular.
The bay is home to many art galleries but perhaps the most interesting art-oriented activity is the Mural Mile. As you walk along downtown and waterfront you’ll discover dozens of large murals. In the same area, you’ll find quaint boutiques and little restaurants.
Perhaps the most unexpected stop on the PCH is Solvang, a Danish-inspired town a few minutes off route 1. Boasting old-world architecture complete with a windmill, and, of all things an Ostrich farm at the entrance, this is a fun place to visit if you have the time. In addition to all things Danish, Solvang boasts more than 20 wine tasting rooms and a year-round Christmas store. As I said, it’s an odd one.
Often called “the American Riviera” Santa Barbara is legendary for a wealthy lifestyle and a Mediterranean-like climate. A popular tourist destination and located just north of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara offers a variety of activities, great hotels and no shortage of delicious food options.
There is plenty to do in Santa Barbara, so plan on spending some time here. Perhaps the most popular activity is to tour the Mission Santa Barabara. Build over 200 years ago, the mission continues to serve as a parish church today. You can tour the grounds on your own seven days a week. However, the most interesting tours are docent-led and those take place Monday through Friday at 11:00 a.m., Saturday at 10:30 a.m. and Sunday at 12:30 p.m. While touring with a docent you’ll get to learn about the Mission’s extensive history and its impact on California – and the world.
In addition to The Mission, another great attraction to visit in Santa Barbara is Stearn’s Wharf, a little seaside paradise on the coast. In the wharf, you’ll find several family-friendly attractions – the Natural History Museum and Sea Center
Where to Stay in Santa Barbara
Conveniently located a 6-minute walk from the Wharf, Hotel Californian is a luxury seaside venue boasting 3 restaurants and countless amenities. Well known among the Hollywood who is who, the Californian is a great place for celebrity spotting.
Where to Eat in Santa Barbara
Located inside Hotel Californian Blackbird serves the freshest seafood in town a fancy setting. The locals especially rave about the oysters and octopus. For a more down to earth meal visit Julia Child’s favorite – La Super Rica. Here you’ll find delicious Mexican in a no-nonsense setting.
For many people who do the Pacific Coast Highway, Los Angeles is the last stop. The drive does get lets picturesque after Santa Barbara. However, there is still a great many amazing things to do on the PCH all the way to San Diego. If you are continuing with your journey, my next article picks up where this article leaves off. Drive the PCH to Los Angeles and beyond with Pacific Coast Highway – Los Angeles to San Diego.
Here is whats on my driving the Pacific Coast Highway playlist:
- Hotel California
- Joshua Tree
- California Love
- Wonderful World
- Dream On
- Body Like a Backroad
- Fast Car
I hope you have enjoyed this article. There is no doubt that the Pacific Coast Highway is one of the most beautiful drives in the world. I think its a terrific vacation that provides something for everyone. Thank you for reading, and see you on the road!