Stretching all the way from Washington State down to the beaches of San Diego, the Pacific Coast Highway (California State Route 1) is jam packed full of attractions and scenic views. We made our way south on the PCH from San Francisco to Los Angeles to get a feel for why this route is so well loved by road trippers.
Convertible Top Down + Mega Playlist + PCH = Must Do All-American Journey
While the route can be taken in either direction, we chose to go north to south to give us the ocean view for the duration of our drive. There are a lot of different options for doing the PCH. You can technically drive the length of the California route in a day, but it is ultimately about the journey and the fun stops along the way. We chose to spend two nights on the Highway to soak up the sights each day in a relaxing way – one in the seaside village of Carmel and the other in the quaint town of Morro Bay.
You won’t be able to see and do every stop along the way – so choose what interests you, create a wish list and be flexible along the way. Here are some of the stops we did.
//DAY 1: SAN FRANCISCO TO CARMEL
Our first leg of the road trip was a bit of a wash. A foggy drive over the Golden Gate Bridge followed with rain pretty much the whole of the way to artsy Carmel-By-Sea. Luckily this portion of the route isn’t where the California coast boasts its best views. We decided to fast forward with a small number of stops (including Neptune’s Kingdom in Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk) to allow for more time in Monterey. The must-see here on everyone’s list is the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Not really sure why people refer to this as the best aquarium in the country. We found it expensive, not well maintained, and were unimpressed with the aquarium’s offering. After our short visit we strolled along the historic quarter of Cannery Row – which has a lot of shops and restaurants.
After lunch in Cannery Row, we headed a few miles further south to our stop for the evening – Carmel By The Sea – and checked into our super cute bed and breakfast – Carmel Firelight Inn. This seaside town has wine bars, galleries, boutique shops, and trendy restaurants galore. After a stroll on the beach, we checked out the one-square mile town by foot, soaked up the Northern California atmosphere, and enjoyed a lovely Mediterranean meal at Yaffa. If you go – deffo get the baked artichoke as a starter.
//DAY 2: CARMEL TO MORRO BAY
Once you leave Carmel, the most beautiful part of the PCH begins. We started out early, as we knew there was a lot we wanted to see along the coastline. The roads are windy, often on very high cliffs, and leave you in anticipation of what you’ll see around the corner. I often found myself getting distracted by the views and had to remind myself that I was driving.
We didn’t have much luck at the start of day 2. We had planned to visit the sea lions at Point Lobos State Reserve but the paths were closed for conservation efforts. We then made our way further south to Garrapata State Park to visit the beach and check out some of Big Surs hiking trails. I’ve read that the State Park is quite hidden – so hidden in fact that we couldn’t find it – whoops. Our drive continued along to Bixby Bridge. Keep an eye out for Rocky Creek Bridge – Bixby and its vista point will follow. We then made our way to Pfeiffer Beach. Note it isn’t a state park so you’ll need to pay the $10 entrance fee per car. The crashing waves up against the rock formations made for a nice pause to stretch our legs and have a snack on the beach.
Further south we stopped with the intention of visiting Nepenthe – a cliff top restaurant that boasts lovely views of the PCH. We ended up enjoying the same views at Cafe Kevah – the café located on the same grounds. A nice alternative if you find you aren’t ready for lunch. There is also a nice one-stop shop on the grounds that has quirky gifts if you want to take a slice of Cali home with your. We then made our way to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park to McWay Falls – an 80-foot waterfall that rolls off granite into a beautiful, inaccessible beach. The parking lot tends to be full – so park on the street and spare yourself the extra parking fees.
After a pit stop in Gorda for lunch, we continued along PCH to Ragged Point. If you need gas, a restroom, or more souvenir shops – stop in. If not, keep going – not much else to see and the views aren’t as good as what you have already seen. One of the highlights of this leg, and our last stop before we hit Morro Bay, is the Elephant Seal & Boardwalk Trail. The trail is hardly a trail, but it does get you pretty close to these sea giants. Be sure to take advantage of the volunteer’s onsite – they love the animals and will answer questions you have during your visit.
Known as the Gibraltar of the Pacific, Morro Bay was our final destination of the day and where we rested our heads. We took a stroll along the boardwalk, checked out Morro Rock, and enjoyed the calmness of this sleepy seaside town.
//DAY 3: MORRO BAY TO LOS ANGELES
The last leg of our PCH trip started with a coffee stop in college-town San Luis Obispo. It felt almost naughty passing casually through as the locals were making their way into work. After enjoying a nice muffin and getting caffeinated, we made our way south to Pismo to check out Pismo Beach. Personal Training sessions were being held on the beach, groups of people were preparing for what looked like a beach volleyball tournament and tons of surfers were catching their pre-work waves. While a typical beach town, it had a tangible energy about it.
We then continued our way to Santa Barbara – trading the coastline for rolling hills and vineyards. We had lunch at Finch & Fork – which was an extension of the Kimpton Canary Hotel. The staff was super friendly and we had an amazing lunch. Santa Barbara is full great restaurants and wineries. We actually popped over to the Grassini shop to pick up a bottle of their sauvignon blanc we had with lunch. After strolling along the shopping street to the end of the Santa Barbara Pier, we hopped back into our car and continued on to Los Angeles – where our PCH trip ended. Santa Barbara deserves an overnight. If you have the time, treat yourself and enjoy the southern California atmosphere.
Like Route 66, the Pacific Coast Highway is another USA road trip rite of passage. There are a lot more places that tend to get on PCH must-see lists (i.e. Hearst Castle) that we didn’t make time for. Like any trip, it’s not possible to see it all and nor should you try. Enjoy what you can, be ok with not stopping at every location, and be sure to pull over into the many dedicated vista points along the way. It’s the journey that matters with this one, not necessarily the destination. Happy Road Tripping.