Road Tripping The Pacific Coast Highway

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The pyramids of Giza, the Taj Mahal, the Fjords of Norway… these are all things I would really love to experience in my life. What all of these have in common, however, is that I have never experienced any of them. But the Pacific Coast Highway, known to be one of the world’s most scenic road trips, is somewhere that (at the time of writing this post) I have had the pleasure of visiting.

And I mean it when I say this is ‘up there’ with some of the best things in the world you should experience at least once in your lifetime.

There are many different variations of how one can experience the Pacific Coast Highway – i.e. do you venture North or South? Should you start in LA or San Francisco? Should you spend one day, two days, four days or one week on the trip? There are plenty of questions, and I’m glad to say I’ve got your answers.

Here’s my experience from the Pacific Coast Highway

aka “Highway 1” – one of the world’s most scenic drives.

USA Road Trip

From The Bay to LA on the Pacific Coast Highway

Your first question will likely be:

Where should I start and end my road trip? Many choose to start in Los Angeles heading North, but you’ll find slightly less traffic by beginning the journey in San Francisco (“The Bay”), and heading South to Los Angeles. Some even choose to go further North or South, but the most popular route is to travel between San Francisco and Los Angeles on the Pacific Coast Highway.

Your next question will likely be:

How long should I take to do the Pacific Coast Highway? This of course is subject to personal preference and your availability, but I wouldn’t recommend any less than 2 nights in San Francisco, 2 nights on the Pacific Coast Highway, and 2 nights in Los Angeles. Most choose to stay longer in the big cities (San Francisco and Los Angeles), but for the road trip, you should spend at least two nights on the California Coast. Some choose to do the road trip in one day (not at all unachievable, but you will miss a lot of the magic that comes from taking your time and enjoying each moment).

Next I’m sure you’re wondering:

Where should I stop along the way? To which I would say it is hard to go wrong. Before I ventured off on my Highway 1 Adventure, I had a deafening fear of ‘missing out on something’. To combat that, I made a list of things I should absolutely in no circumstance miss along the way. These included:

Do Not Miss:

San Francisco – Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, Fisherman’s Wharf, Riding a cable car, and Union Square.

Read more: The top 10 things to do in San Francisco

California Coast – Santa Cruz Boardwalk, Monterey, Carmel, Big Sur, San Simeon, Pismo Beach, Santa Barbara, Ventura

Read more: 13 incredible sights on the Pacific Coast Highway

Los Angeles – Malibu, Santa Monica Pier, Beverly Hills, Hollywood Ave, Disneyland, Universal Studios, Warner Bros Studios

Read more: The Best of LA in One Day

And finally,

Where should I stay overnight? Another common question that will depend on how long you plan to stay on the coast. Generally speaking, I would not recommend staying the night inside Big Sur National Park. It is much more expensive here – in terms of accommodation, food, and gas. Sure, it is still beautiful, but if you have a higher budget I’d recommend splurging on some nice accommodations in the seaside village/town of Camel, or splurging on a night of luxury in time-warped Santa Barbara (this is California’s golden age). Most travellers choose to stay a night in Monterey/Carmel, and a night in Santa Barbara. If you’re on a budget, however, you might alternatively consider Cambria and Ventura.

San Francisco – Monterey/Carmel – Santa Barbara – Los Angeles

Car Hire California

The Logistics:

Renting a car – A common question regarding this trip was in relation to my car hire. I booked my car hire through the Skyscanner Car Hire app which gave me the best deal by comparing a range of operators who would allow:

a) one-way car rental; and b) under 25 car rental (I’m 23). There was no fee for the one-way car rental, but there was a small fee (around $25 per day) for being under 25 years of age. The lowest age for care hire was 21.

Should you go it alone? Yes! I had a blast driving down Highway 1 solo – which, I should also note, was a challenge in itself as in Australia we drive on the opposite side of the road. It took a couple of hours to get used to and be able to drive confidently, but after a while it all flows naturally.

Should I wait and go with friends? Yes! While I was happy to go it alone, I must admit I am a firm believer that road trips were made for a bunch of friends getting together and are much more fun this way. Thankfully I had Mr. radio station to keep me company on the journey.

Is it expensive? No. Before taking this trip I had read everywhere that this would be an expensive trip. However by using the “go everywhere” tool to book my flight, by using the care hire app to book the cheapest car rental, and by booking “last minute” accommodation, I saved a tonne of cash. I also saved money by grabbing snacks from local supermarkets to cover breakfast and lunch, and tried to eat out a couple of times for dinner to enjoy local cuisine (of which California has it COVERED!).

Next in this series: Where to Stop on the Pacific Coast Highway

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    Salim Ahmed
    January 14, 2016 at 4:27 am

    Wonderful post and the photography is lovely. Thanks for publishing

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    November 14, 2015 at 5:11 am

    nice photos and informative post .. thanks for sharing

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    April 13, 2015 at 2:17 pm

    I LOVE driving down the PCH and your photos have made me excited to return next to CA weekend (I’m visiting some friends in San Diego)! If you get another chance to continue down the coast I definitely recommend orange county beaches (newport and laguna especially – also, very close to disneyland) and san diego as well.

    I’m going to have to check out the skyscanner car hire app – didn’t know they had that – and it’s especially helpful to know it was only $25/day for you! I’m also 23 and have never rented a car because I assumed the extra fee would be astronomical…so happy I stumbled upon this post 🙂

    April 12, 2015 at 6:03 am

    I really can’t wait to finally go on this road trip now!

    The Dame
    April 11, 2015 at 10:07 pm

    Fantastic blog post, can I just say, I am loving how well written this is for both reader and SEO! This has also hit me in the wanderlust hard! Altho I think I would do this trip in a camper van and really take my time 🙂 xo

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    April 11, 2015 at 4:34 pm

    Roadtrips are honestly the best way to see a scenic countries like that! I did a month in a van around New Zealand 2 months ago and it was one of my favourite trips to date. And I’ve been on a few! Great tips xo

    Itzel Nájera
    April 11, 2015 at 3:27 pm

    I did Highway 1 last summer on a road trip from Vancouver, Canada to Guadalajara, Mexico and even though it really is quite something, I think north from SF is where you should go. The most beautiful and scenic route we drove was Highway 101, specially the Oregon part (it starts in Washington and ends in SF). Oregon is such a beautiful state and the beaches that go along the 101 are just surreal. We ended up spending almost a week in Oregon even though we had only planned to stay there for 3 days.
    I really recommend doing 101 next time!

    A Life Passport
    April 11, 2015 at 3:14 pm

    Great inspiration – I’d love to do this when I’m in the US in July!

    April 11, 2015 at 12:45 pm

    Actually did this road trip last month. We did the part from Cayucos to SF in one day…not bad! Cayucos is also a nice place to stay overnight and the neighboring Morro Bay is also pretty and has restaurants and bars!

    April 11, 2015 at 12:16 pm

    Now that my friend has her license, I’m hoping we can both get inspired by this post and head out on the Pacific Highway ourselves! Always up for a new adventure. It looks like a scenic and enjoyable drive!
    Andrea |

    April 11, 2015 at 10:14 am

    Sounds really nice and exciting! Cant wait to do the trip!

    April 11, 2015 at 7:06 am

    what an exciting trip! I wish I could go to cali and take this road 🙂 Thank you so much for sharing, I love seeing peoples’ travels.

    Brooke | brookewrote

    April 11, 2015 at 6:55 am

    I live in Idaho (just a hop away from Cali) and I’ve never done this!! I seriously need to…great post!

    Jake Ryan
    April 11, 2015 at 4:45 am

    This is great, I’m road tripping in America later this year but am flying into New York and going to make my way to New Orleans before flying to Las Vegas 😀

    Will have to check out SkyScanner Car Hire for sure!


    April 11, 2015 at 4:20 am

    I’ve done this like 13 years ago when I first came to the US with friends. It was the most amazing experience ever. I think the highlight was the 17 mile drive. So beautiful. I still go up PCH often up to Malibu. I recommend stopping by Neptune’s Net for seafood lunch with a view. They filmed fast and furious there. 🙂

    April 11, 2015 at 3:51 am

    This sounds so amazing, I’ve always wanted to do this trip but either didn’t have enough time or the right company. Seeing that you did this alone makes me think I should just do that the next time.
    Thanks so much for sharing all of this info.

    xx Cheyenne

    Angie Silver (@SilverSpoonLDN)
    April 11, 2015 at 3:51 am

    I did this for my honeymoon, Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur is gorgeous!
    Lots of love,

    Lisa @ Strum Simmer Sip
    April 11, 2015 at 3:42 am

    You have got to hit up Diddy Riese in LA when you get there. Best ice cream sandwiches ever!!

    Growing Positive
    April 11, 2015 at 3:35 am

    Love the photos! Skyscanner is so good isn’t it! Can’t wait to be making the most of it during the summer 🙂

    Growing Positive

    April 11, 2015 at 3:27 am

    Great post Brooke! I live in Newport Beach and my friends and I do a Big Sur camping trip every year in February. I highly recommend camping in Big Sur. Sleeping among the Redwoods is an experience like none other. Some people’s worst nightmare is camping so I would suggest checking out some of the lodges in the park. My favorite spots along the PCH are Cambria, Carmel and Santa Cruz. If you’re traveling south try to stop in San Diego! Much prettier than LA 😉

    April 11, 2015 at 3:26 am

    Alone or with friends, you are so right — this is a must do trip at least once in your life. Growing up in California I was fortunate enough to do this road trip a few times. Each time brings new stories to share and great memories. Great tips you’ve shared. One of my favourite stops along the way is the Hearst Castle in San Simeon. Not sure if you got a chance to visit there, but I would recommend it if you like castles.

    Susan the farm quilter
    April 11, 2015 at 2:49 am

    Olsen’s Danish Bakery at 1529 Mission Drive in Solvang has the highest rating from the most reviewers. I haven’t been for years, so I am trusting the reviews here!!

    Susan the farm quilter
    April 11, 2015 at 2:46 am

    I sure hope you stop and visit Hearst Castle in San Simeon – truly NOT. TO. BE. MISSED.!!! If you want to experience some awesome pastries, check out Solvang, CA – just north of Santa Barbara!