Where to Stop on the Pacific Coast Highway

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This is one of the most scenic, effortlessly beautiful road trips in the world. Buckle up, you’re in for one hell-uv-a ride! See here for more on planning your Pacific Coast Road Trip. For booking hotels last minute or on-the-go, I tried the Skyscanner Hotel App for the first time. For more ideas on where to road trip in the USA, see my guide to figuring out where you should road trip in the USA.

San Francisco

Starting Point: San Francisco

San Francisco is the cultural, commercial, and financial hub of Northern California. It is effortlessly cool, busier than it has ever been, and now so popular with tech start-ups that rent prices are out of control. In fact, it would be cheaper to live in Manhattan, NYC, than it would be to live in San Francisco nowadays.

But with great weather year-round, nearby beaches and surrounded by a body of water, San Francisco has a lot to offer visitors. The cafe culture is strong, the people are interesting, and there’s plenty of history/culture to keep you busy for a few days in San Francisco.

Don’t Miss: The Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf, Alcatraz, Union Square, Haight Street, The Castro, Riding a Cable Car, The Painted Ladies.

RCHMB Overlooking Pacific Ocean

Half Moon Bay

Though not your typical first stop on Highway 1, it is easy to see why I’d recommend a short stop at Half Moon Bay after enjoying a glorious evening of luxury at the Ritz Carlton Half Moon Bay to kick off my journey. Here in Northern California they’re all about wine country – with a twist. As the sun began to set around 7:30pm in the evening, the fires were lit and everyone gathered to enjoy a combination of wine, nibbles, and sunset by the fire. Bliss!

Drive Time from San Francisco: 45 minutes


Santa Cruz

Whether you’re young or young at heart, Santa Cruz is calling you. I saw photos of this place online and immediately put it on my list for places to stop on my Pacific Coast Highway journey. Its as colourful, fun, and crazy as it looks in photos… which is exactly what I wanted! You can pay for a day pass of unlimited rides or pay $4-$6 per ride if you only want to try a few. Parking is from $10 right by the Boardwalk.

Drive Time from Half Moon Bay: 1 hour

Carmel by the Sea

Carmel by the Sea

Just a short drive from nearby (bigger and more popular to spend the night) Monterey is the small seaside village/town of Carmel. If you can score a last minute deal on a hotel here, I’d highly recommend it. It is quite possible the most charming, romantic, cute and quaint little town on the California Coast. If you don’t stay here, perhaps schedule a stopover for brunch or dinner at one of the many cute cafes. The most popular in town is Dametra Cafe – cheap and unassuming with really good Mediterranean cuisine. Expect to queue.

Driving Time from Santa Cruz: 50 minutes

Bixby Bridge USA

Bixby Bridge

Ahhhhhh – the icon. Many will tell you this is the best photo opportunity on the Coast, but just as many will tell you it is overrated. The verdict? It’s great. But so is the rest of the Coast. This is but one memorable stop for a photo opportunity and a worthwhile spot to just sit and take it all in. Instead of stopping on the Coast side of the road, take the little dirt track on the opposite side of the road for a better photo that you’ll likely have all to yourself.

Driving Time from Carmel: 25 minutes

Big Sur California

Big Sur, California

Carry on past Bixby Bridge and you are inside Big Sur. You don’t really realise when you’re in it, you just are. All of a sudden you’re enjoying some of the most spectacular coast line — that’s about the time you’ve hit Big Sur. Sadly all good things come to an end – so enjoy it while it lasts. Another handy hint: there is no phone reception here! Be sure to tie up all loose ends before you loose service, as you won’t come back into service for at least a couple of hours. It is also handy to note that everything: gas, food, accommodation, is all much more expensive whilst ‘in’ Big Sur. Be sure to fill up your tank before entering to avoid breaking the bank.

McWay Falls

Mcway Falls

Aside from Bixby Bridge, the ‘other’ main attraction in Big Sur is the McWay Falls. Parking is a little challenging on the side of the road at times, so try to get an early start this morning if possible.

Driving Time from Bixby Bridge: 38 minutes

Hearst Castle

San Simeon – Hearst Castle

Some people will tell you this is a ‘must see’, others will tell you to ditch this stop. I couldn’t decide, ran out of time, and skipped it anyway. If you’ve been to Europe and seen a castle or two throughout your days, it probably isn’t worth the visit and entry fee. The most disappointing part about Hearst Castle is the strict policy to join a private tour – so don’t expect to roam free on your own accord. It’s totally up to you if you make this stop, but for $25, I thought I’d give it a pass.

Driving Time from McWay Falls: 1 hour, 20 minutes


Santa Barbara

Oh the charm! My final ‘pitstop’ on the drive (aka sleeping quarters), was in Santa Barbara. It is quite an expensive city to stay the night in, so if you’re on a budget I’d highly recommend nearby Ventura – less tourists and slightly more affordable, or even venturing a little further inland to Thousand Oaks to really save some dollars. Perhaps the most enjoyable part about my time in Santa Barbara was that I didn’t really ‘do’ too much. I just sat by the ocean, soaked it all up, and enjoyed the last stop on my adventure before hitting the hustle and bustle of LA.

Driving Time from San Simeon: 2 hours, 20 minutes

Casa del Mar Santa Monica

Santa Monica / Los Angeles

And like all good things, the adventure must come to an end! To keep things coastal, I decided to end the journey in Santa Monica. LA has a lot of great attractions to offer (particularly if you’re a first timer), but staying in Santa Monica will keep you outside of the hustle and bustle so you can continue to enjoy the California laid-back lifestyle.

If you’ve got an extra few days, be sure to check out nearby attractions like: Disneyland, Universal Studios, Warner Bros Studios, Hollywood, or maybe even check out a sports game in downtown LA. If the Lakers are on whilst you’re in time, don’t delay in getting a ticket. They don’t come cheap. You might also consider going to a Clippers Game (though recently they are just as expensive), or perhaps getting behind the LA Dodgers at a Baseball Match. The options are endless!

Driving Time from Malibu: 31 minutes


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    Virginia Bennett
    April 18, 2016 at 4:25 am

    Hearst Castle was worth every cent we paid. It is a guided tour because unfortunately in this era we cannot leave people on their own. There would be theft and destruction. Says so much for our society.

  • 10 Must-See Spots Along California’s Pacific Coast Highway | Vacania. com
    April 5, 2016 at 3:26 pm

    […] schedule a stopover for brunch or dinner at one of the many cute cafes. The most popular in town isDametra Cafe – cheap and unassuming with really good Mediterranean cuisine. Expect to […]

    February 26, 2016 at 1:05 am

    Nice article. Morro Bay is also a very nice place along the Highway 1.

    October 26, 2015 at 12:04 am

    I love this post and your blog. Like you, I was very hesitant about visiting Hearst Castle as I’m not a fan of guided tours but I’m so glad I did as it was really worth it. I have also done a post on ten places to stop on the PCH in my new blog. Some are the same as in your post – obviously San Francisco and Santa Barbara, but I also stopped at a few different places such as San Jose (and the Winchester Mystery House) and Solvang (which is slightly off the PCH but a lovely Danish village with beautiful windmills and great danish pastries!

      October 26, 2015 at 12:07 am

      Forgot to add my website in case anyone wants to look at my post on the PCH drive!

    Clipping Path
    August 7, 2015 at 3:44 am

    Dreaming to be there though it’s thousands miles away from where I am in but I will be cherishing the dream of being there if have the chance in my lifetime.

    July 8, 2015 at 12:02 am

    I’m heading out to a Pacific Coast Highway road trip from Denver in a couple of weeks and had saved this post to read as I’m planning. As always, thank you for the great recommendations and tips! I love the balance you find between the must-see tourist attractions, and the off-beat ones.

    May 19, 2015 at 12:53 am

    Loved your California Coast trip SF south. You should consider going north from San Francisco also. Very beautiful drive. MENDOCINO offers a type of Carmel. Near Arcata you have beautiful strands of redwoods. It is a long drive with accomodations from inexpensive and beautiful camping spots to B & B ‘s to expensive motels. Could also visit Napa-Sonoma wine country from coast.

    May 7, 2015 at 4:57 pm

    Hey Brooke!

    Not sure if you remember me or not, but I attended your reader meet up in LA. I’m the blonde girl from Laguna Beach! Anyway, you didn’t journey down PCH far enough because you didn’t reach Laguna, and this is a problem because we have the most beautiful beaches in the entire country (I’m not biased at all 😉 – but really, it’s true!).

    Let me know when you finally make it down here! I’m pretty sure you took down my email in your phone!!

    Maddy Cornelius

    April 17, 2015 at 7:05 am

    Big Sur has to be my absolute favorite, I’m still dreaming of the time I spent there two years ago. A little paradise!

    And Hearst Castle has a place in my heart, my dad and I used to visit all the time when I was younger. I always wanted to jump in and take a swim in that blue water! 🙂

    Brittany Stopa
    April 15, 2015 at 2:01 am

    Wow it all looks so beautiful! There is endless beauty in California, that’s for sure. I want to see all of these and other Pacific Coast highlights on a bike tour of the coast!

    Lindsey Morningstar
    April 14, 2015 at 10:53 pm

    I lived in Santa Barbara for several years so your guide brings back so many memories! I’ve gone to all the places you listed and loved every one of them! Two other awesome stops are Santa Ynez and San Louis Obispo – small towns nestled in the foothills that have great vineyards and awesome local eateries. I need to book my trip back to the west coast asap!

    April 14, 2015 at 1:26 pm

    Such a clear mini guide! I’ve done this trip with my parents before, but didn’t stop by all the normal now-trendy spots. I’ve been really wanting to go to Santa Cruz & Big Sur though!

    Characters & Carry-ons

    April 13, 2015 at 10:31 pm

    We did this trip in 2013 and it was amazing! Every time we’ve been to San Fran it’s been incredible. We stayed in Santa Barbara & in Carmel/Monterey for the 4th of July and it was a great experience. Such charming little places. Can’t wait to go back to California some time soon.

    April 13, 2015 at 8:47 pm

    Looks like so much fun!
    Such great photos *-*


    April 13, 2015 at 6:46 pm

    Oh Half Moon Bay is amazing.. Everything on PCH is amazing but I spent most of my weekends in Half Moon Bay 2012!! Love your article and pictures!

    Jane Hill
    April 13, 2015 at 2:59 pm

    I agree we stayed at a lovely little youth hostel at San Luis Abispo with gabled windows. It is very easy to stay cheaply and well using the youth hostel process in California and especially on the Pacific Highway.

    Karen Farber
    April 13, 2015 at 2:59 pm

    LOVE THIS! I did this same road trip last summer, but missed Santa Cruz and I too didn’t go to Hearst Castle. I would like to see it next time though!

    Jane Hill
    April 13, 2015 at 2:58 pm

    I agree we stayed at a lovely little youth hostel at San Luis Abisbo with gabled windows. It is very easy to stay cheaply and well using the youth hostel process in California and especially on the Pacific Highway.

    April 13, 2015 at 2:16 pm

    I need to do this again as part of the road was closed when I drove from San Fran to San Diego three years ago and we had to turn around. Stress due to the lack of gas stations (and the expense of buying it at Big Sur is a great point) really ruined the amazing scenic drive for me!

    Marie @ Marie Away
    April 13, 2015 at 8:20 am

    Awesome itinerary! I hope to follow it some day!

    Francesca @onegrloneworld
    April 13, 2015 at 7:30 am

    I’m doing this exact trip in two weeks and I’m SO EXCITED!! It’s funny because I’m a California native but it took me this long to realize how many amazing places are within my reach!

    Love Yourself
    April 13, 2015 at 6:56 am

    Big Sur, CA looks beautiful! Would love to go there one day

    April 13, 2015 at 6:11 am

    Cairo travel guide at my blog-Comprehensive tour information of places I visited like museum, pyramids, sphinx, restaurants which are not to be missed & tips to save!!

    Claire @ TallGirlBigWorld
    April 13, 2015 at 5:47 am

    Thank you for including the travel times! This seems like the perfect road trip to start with because it doesn’t involve 9 hour drives (which I’ve done before and loved, but 9 hours of driving is 9 hours of driving, ya know?).

    April 13, 2015 at 5:13 am

    If you’re making a trip down the coast you should plan on doing the Southern California coastline as well. Some really beautiful and historic spots; Venice beach for the funky artsy different crowd scene, Huntington Beach for surfing junkies, Newport Beach for Balboa Island and catching a boat to Catalina Island, Crstal Cove for their beach cottages,hiking, and the cottage for the movie ‘Beaches’, Laguna Beach for the art crowd, and the San Diego Mission Bay and Coronado Island for Hotel del Coronado…..enjoy!!!!

    Sarah Park
    April 13, 2015 at 4:22 am

    I just took a day trip with my family to Big Sur, I’m so glad you were able to experience the beautiful Pacific Coast 🙂

    Betty Louise
    April 13, 2015 at 2:52 am

    Inormation nicely format to enhance the beauty of the California coastline. The Pacific Coast is a lovely drive.

    April 13, 2015 at 2:33 am

    This looks so so beautiful! I would love to do this roadtrip : )
    Céline blogging on

    April 13, 2015 at 1:50 am

    Looks like it would be so much fun!

    April 13, 2015 at 12:54 am

    Went approx. the same route 2 years ago and YAAS. Your tour is on point. As for the being European part – I skipped the castle, and seems to have been a good idea.. 😀

    Lily (Recipes and Random)

    Vanessa Rivers
    April 12, 2015 at 9:17 pm

    Brooke!! I love this post!! But wanted to share with you that there are some very cute and AFFORDABLE places to stay in Santa Barbara. Here’s a little post I did on the best of SB: -Casa Del Mar Inn is one block off the beach, walking distance to everything, and only $130/night! XO

    April 12, 2015 at 5:49 pm

    These all look like fantastic places to stop by!
    I’d love to go to San Fran, obviously, more than anywhere else.

    Clipping Path Outsource
    April 12, 2015 at 4:23 pm

    Well contain again!
    🙂 I can’t stop 🙂

    Everybody Hates A Tourist
    April 12, 2015 at 1:19 pm

    Great list! I also highly recommend Piedras Blancas, near Hearst Castle. You can see elephant seals in their natural habitat on the beach.

    April 12, 2015 at 11:17 am

    I love Carmel! Such a gorgeous little town!

    April 12, 2015 at 10:04 am

    Bummer you missed San Luis Obispo! Oprah named it
    The happiest town in American! Looks like you drove
    Right through in between San Simeon and pismo!

    April 12, 2015 at 9:26 am

    my friend was recently killed by a stray bullet, could you please donate to his fund

    Nicola Easterby
    April 12, 2015 at 8:11 am

    I’m doing a super similar route this June with Topdeck and I’m so excited! All looks like so much fun.

    Isabella Dams
    April 12, 2015 at 7:47 am

    Ahh wow, Big Sur looks amazing! I would love to go on a trip like this <3

    April 12, 2015 at 7:14 am

    Went to a meeting today where someone talked about their company which focuses on road trip tours. It had me all excited about the American road trip and then I read this – I think it’s a sign!!

    April 12, 2015 at 6:42 am

    Quite disappointed that San Luis Obispo isn’t on the list. It’s a lovely town with a California mission and a beautiful main street full of great coffee shops and boutiques. Not to mention there are a ton of fun wineries in the area. Also, Hearst Castle is worth the $25.. Especially if you go on the tour at sunset.

    April 12, 2015 at 6:01 am

    My friends and I are planning on road tripping on the Pacific Coast next summer, so we’ll definitely be stopping on these places.

    April 12, 2015 at 6:00 am

    uhh really want to visit Santa Cruz!!

  • awanderlustblog@OUTLOOK.COM'
    April 12, 2015 at 5:58 am

    great post, i’d love to do this trip have been to san fran and vegas, which i loved but nothing in-between (yet!), great pics too !

    April 12, 2015 at 2:26 am

    Yes!! I did most of these stops on my PCH trip a couple of weeks ago. Also stopped at Solvang, a cute little Dutch town. So unexpected!

    Jennifer @ This Off Script Life
    April 12, 2015 at 1:30 am

    I’ve always wanted to drive the Pacific Coast. I have a sister in San Francisco and a brother in San Diego, so I definitely need to do this trip one day (perhaps when I move back to the U.S.).

    April 12, 2015 at 1:08 am

    I agree that you missed much of the coast North of San Francisco. It is much less touristy and home to some of the most underrated places on the West Coast. Up North giant trees meet the ocean for some of the most beautiful landscapes you will ever see. I do love Carmel though and agree that anyone doing the drive south must stop there!

    April 12, 2015 at 12:36 am

    I really enjoyed reading this! I’ll keep for reference on future road trips.

    Silly Medley: Lifestyle and Travel

    Steve Manning
    April 12, 2015 at 12:07 am

    You should have done Hearst Castle you really missed out on that one and many other great spots. Slow down and spend more time is my advice.

    April 12, 2015 at 12:00 am

    I lived in Santa Cruz for seven years, and before that I’ve lived all throughout Northern California (North of San Francisco). I have to say that you’ve got some good stops on this list, but you’ve sadly eliminated almost half of the California coast that is equally as impressive, with fewer people…

    April 11, 2015 at 11:37 pm

    So amazing!! Definitely want to visit Santa Cruz… and all the other places too!

    xx Cheyenne

    April 11, 2015 at 10:57 pm

    Woweeeee this looks incredible! Love the pictures!! I have so many friends I’ve been meaning to visit over in the U.S, looks like a roadtrip might the best way to see them all! I loved my New Zealand roadtrip so much that I’d love to do it in the U.S!

    Jake Ryan
    April 11, 2015 at 9:19 pm

    Looks incredible. Great detailed post too. So excited for my road trip across the US reading this 😀


    April 11, 2015 at 9:04 pm

    don’t forget the Monterey bay aquarium, this aquarium is big and really awesome to go to!! i really recommend it!

    Sarah Lynn
    April 11, 2015 at 7:28 pm

    It looks like one epic road trip!
    Ever since I moved to the West Coast (Vancouver) I have been dying to take this exact trip but I guess it will have to wait upon my return from Europe.
    Thanks for including places, like Carmel and Half Moon Bay, that normally don’t get talked about but are stunning!

    April 11, 2015 at 7:25 pm

    Wow! That Coastal drive must be so stunning! Thanks for sharing all that, I would really love to go to California one day!!! Beautiful beaches, nice people… oh! With love,

    | Bloglovin

    April 11, 2015 at 6:42 pm

    Thanks for the wonderful tips and the breathtaking pictures!
    xx from Germany/Bavaria, Rena
    International Giveaway: Zatchels Bag as Thank-You for the Supporter of my Hobby