Road trips are a classic American vacation. Everyone should go on one once; it’s like going to the beach or on a camping trip or to a national park. You can’t call yourself well-traveled until you’ve been on a road trip.
There are tons of preferred road trip routes around the country, but for those on the West Coast, there’s hardly any route more scenic or beloved than the Pacific Coast Highway. Below we will share how to plan the best trip along the Pacific Coast Highway.
Determine Your Trip Length and Route
The first question you’ll want to ask yourself when planning a trip along the Pacific Coast Highway is, do you have time to see the entire highway. Your answer, of course, will all depend on what you consider to be the Pacific Coast Highway. There’s no one hard and firm definition.
For some, the Pacific Coast Highway just runs from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Others say it runs from San Francisco to San Diego. Others will tell you it runs from the Canadian border to the Mexican border, or from Seattle to San Francisco.
Driving from the Mexican border to the Canadian border, or vice versa, can take an entire week of hard travel. However, if you want to take the popular San Francisco to Los Angeles route, you’ll only need six hours of driving only.
Pick your route according to the length of time you have to get away, as well as where it would make the most sense for you to begin and end your journey (maybe you already live in San Diego, so it makes sense for you to start there and go to San Francisco).
The San Francisco to Los Angeles route, though it only requires six hours of driving, would be a good long weekend excursion, as it would give you lots of time to stop and see the sights. If you have two or more weeks, you might want to consider driving the entire length of the U.S. West Coast, from Mexico to Canada.
If you can pick between driving north or south, go with driving from north to south. This will put you on the coast side of the road the entire trip, so you can more easily pull over to take photos and you’ll get great views without having to worry about passing cars blocking your line of sight.
Gathering the Essentials
As with every road trip, if you’re traveling the Pacific Coast Highway, you’re going to need some gear.
Firstly, there’s the car. The classic car choice for a Pacific Coast Highway road trip is, of course, a convertible. Just imagine it — zipping along the winding road, right next to the ocean, the wind in your hair. A convertible, though, is not always a feasible option for everyone.
If you’d rather be more sensible, go with a roomy car (you will be spending a lot of time in it, after all) that gets good gas mileage.
Then, choose who you travel with carefully. You want to be sure you pick (a) people who you can stand in the car for more than a few hours and (b) travelers who are interested in seeing and doing similar things.
Absolute must-packs for a Pacific Coast Highway road trip?
- Beach gear (in case you see a spot to stop off and just can’t resist)
- Camera equipment (you’re going to want to photograph this scenery)
- Binoculars (to check out the plentiful marine life along the shore)
- Clothes you can layer (the temperature will change a bit along your route)
Picking a Trip Theme
You can plan a Pacific Coast Highway itinerary just around the major sights to see, but you could also go with a theme that fits your interests.
Potential themes that are totally possible on a Pacific Coast Highway road trip?
- Breweries, Wineries and Distilleries
- National and State Parks
- All Things Beaches (spend as much time as possible on those beautiful beaches)
- Hiking, Kayaking and Climbing (adventure activities abound!)
- Historical Sights
- Shopping and Staying Local (fill your itinerary with stops at local shops, boutiques, inns and more)
Can’t-Miss Sites Along the Pacific Coast Highway
Regardless of how you plan your trip, there are a few can’t-miss spots you should try to work into your itinerary.
If you don’t have a ton of time in San Francisco, make sure you see the Golden Gate Bridge (you can get some unique views from Point Bonita Lighthouse). If you have more time, try to fit in stops at a few of the city’s most notable locations, such as Alcatraz Island and Fisherman’s Wharf.
The Winchester Mystery House is a good spooky spot to check out in San Jose.
Carmel-by-the-Sea is entirely worth a day-long stop. The charming town is filled with quaint shops and restaurants, as well as luxurious accommodations.
Big Sur is likely one of the most popular Pacific Coast Highway stops. Incredibly scenic, you’ll want to stop at nearly all the lookout points. Make sure to get a photo of Bixby Bridge and, if you’re in the mood for a beach visit, definitely swing by Pfeiffer State Beach.
For history lovers, Hearst Castle in San Simeon is a must-visit. The National Historic Landmark is a huge mansion built by the Hearst family. While in San Simeon, make sure to spot the wildlife at Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery.
As you get closer to and around Los Angeles, there are plenteous fun neighborhoods to stop in.
Choose from Malibu, Ventura, Santa Monica, Laguna Beach and Long Beach if you want to stay somewhere a bit less hectic than Los Angeles. However, if you have the time, it’s worth hitting up LA’s top spots, too, from the Hollywood Walk of Fame to Griffith Observatory.
Need an Easy Pacific Coast Highway Route?
If you’re taking the popular San Francisco to San Diego route, here’s how to break it down for easy drive times over eight days.
Day 1: Check out San Francisco, spending a day in the city if possible
Day 2: Drive to San Jose (an hour’s drive) for the morning, spend a little time there and then head on down to Monterey (another hour’s drive)
Day 3: Spend a day soaking in Monterey, Carmel-by-the-Sea and Big Sur; they’re all adjacent to one another
Day 4: Drive down to San Simeon and enjoy the views along the way (Less than 2 hours of driving time)
Day 5: Spend the morning exploring San Simeon, before driving down to Ventura (approximately 3 hours of driving time)
Day 6: Spend the day exploring Los Angeles and the surrounding neighborhoods
Day 7: Drive from LA to San Diego (approximately 2 hours of driving time)
Day 8: Spend a day exploring San Diego before you head home
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