top of page
  • Writer's pictureAmy Leggett

California Dreaming? How to Plan Your Epic Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip!

Updated: Dec 7, 2022



 

A drive along the California coast on Highway 1, known as the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), is an awe-inspiring journey that everyone should do at least once! The PCH runs from San Diego all the way to Washington State, but if you don't have time to do the whole thing you will still be amazed by the views of any portion you choose to do. One of the most famous sections of the PCH is the part between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Along this route you can see the famous Big Sur area and cruise through a number of awesome California coastal towns. This is the journey my friend and I took on a recent girls' trip to California. I will give you our itinerary as a starting point, but you can easily add many more stops or spend more time in some of the areas if you have the time. You can also eliminate some of our diversions if you don't have a full10 days or if you want to make it all the way down to San Diego on your epic California coastal journey.


Day One-San Francisco

You can view my previous post on our whirlwind day in San Francisco here. This is definitely a place where you can add more time if you have it. If not, use our plan to see as much of San Francisco as you can in ONE day!

Days Two and Three-Napa and Sonoma Valley

This was actually one of my favorite parts of the trip! View my previous blog post about my magical experience in California Wine Country here. Napa and Sonoma Valley aren't actually on the coast, but we wanted to make sure we could spend some time wine tasting before heading down the PCH and we are so glad we did!


Day Four-Half Moon Bay, Santa Cruz and the 17 Mile Drive from Monterey to Carmel-by-the-Sea

My friend and I are extreme planners, but on this trip we decided to go outside our comfort zone and try to "wing it" with hotels after we left Sonoma Valley. This new approach didn't last long once we tried to find accommodations along the coast in the summertime, especially during the post-COVID vacation boom. We couldn't find anywhere along our planned coastal journey to stay on Saturday night, so we grabbed the only room we could find in Emeryville located across the Bay from San Francisco by Berkeley. Even though it wasn't exactly on our agenda, it was a very nice hotel and gave us a comfortable place to rejuvenate after all the wine-tasting of the previous two days.

  • Half Moon Bay: We got up early the next day and headed back over to the coast to hop on the PCH down to Half Moon Bay. I always think of the band Train when hear about Half Moon Bay and if you are a Train fan you know what I mean. We stopped at the well-known Barbara's Fish Trap ( www.barbarasfishtrap.com ) for an early lunch. I am not a big seafood fan, but the crab cakes were delicious! TRAVELER TIP: Bring cash because they don't accept credit cards and go early because a long line will form and there aren't a ton of tables. We also saw long lines at Sam's Chowderhouse down the road, so if you can't get into Barbara's Fish Trap for your seafood fix this looks like a good alternative. After lunch we drove down the coast to Waddell State Beach to watch all of the surfers and kite surfers. If I was younger and more adventurous I would definitely try kite surfing because it looks awesome!



  • Santa Cruz: From Half Moon Bay we drove south on the PCH to Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz is a cute little beach town with a boardwalk and some beautiful cliffside walkways to take in the surrounding scenery. We parked on the street near the Natural Bridges State Beach and then walked along the West Cliff Drive scenic pathway that hugs the coastline. The pathway provides breathtaking views of Monterey Bay. If you want, you can walk the pathway all the way to the Santa Cruz wharf. It is generally flat so it is a very easy walk for everyone and you can go for as long (or as short) as you want. We didn't visit the wharf while we were there because it was a Saturday and it was extremely crowded, but it looked like a fun place! The Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park (http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=546 ) is also in Santa Cruz and is a great place to see California Redwoods. There is a vehicle day use fee of $10, with discounts for seniors and larger fees for tour buses. The Park is nestled in the Santa Cruz mountains and has 15 miles of hiking and biking trails. There is an easy walking loop that takes you through a grove of old-growth Redwood trees with the tallest tree towering 285 into the air and measuring 16 feet wide! The oldest trees in the grove are 1,800 years old.

  • 17 Mile Drive from Monterey to Carmel-by-the-Sea: Heading south on the PCH, you will find an entrance to the beautiful 17-Mile scenic drive from Monterey to Carmel-by-the-Sea. There are three other entrances so depending on where you are coming from another entrance may be more easily accessible. There is a $10.75 fee per vehicle to enter the 17-Mile drive and once you enter you will follow a map through several points of interest, forested areas, coastline views, beautiful mansions, and famous golf courses including the world-renowned Pebble Beach golf course. Depending on how long you linger at the various points of interest or scenic overlooks, the drive could take up to 3 hours. If you are heading south on the 17-Mile scenic drive you will end up right at Carmel-by-the-Sea which is where we planned to stay for the next three nights.


Day 5-Carmel-by-the-Sea, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, Monterey and Big Sur

As I mentioned above, our well-intentioned plan of "winging it" on our California road trip didn't work so well. So much for us trying to be more relaxed about our travel planning! When we discovered that we were going to have trouble finding reasonably priced hotel rooms along our route, we got right to work planning out our accommodations for the rest of our journey. We decided to stay in Carmel-by-the-Sea for three nights as it was centrally located to many of the sites we wanted to see. It was actually kind of nice to have a home base for a few days and not have to pack up and move every morning. I guess Ann and I are not the relaxed, "go with the flow" travelers we had hoped to be! But it all worked out in the end and the moral of the story is that we are going to continue with our natural state of being super planners.


  • Point Lobos State Natural Reserve: We started our day with a beautiful six mile hike at the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. The Reserve is just a mile or so south of Carmel right off the PCH. You can see my more detailed blog about visiting this "Crown Jewel" of the California State Park System here.

  • Carmel-by-the-Sea: After our hike, we stopped in downtown Carmel for some lunch and shopping. There are several excellent restaurants in downtown Carmel, it just depends on what you are in the mood for. We ate at the Mission Bistro (https://missionbistrocarmel.com ) right in the middle of the downtown area. I had a Burrata Salad with grilled chicken that really hit the spot after our morning hike! The shopping in downtown Carmel is equally as satisfying with many exclusive shops and boutiques to find whatever you may be looking for or discover that thing that you didn't even know you needed!

  • Monterey: Next we drove north on the PCH back to Monterey to check out some of its highlights, including spots made famous by HBO's hit show "Big Little Lies". We drove through Cannery Row, a cute little shopping area in the area's old cannery buildings. It looks like there are mostly touristy shops in Cannery Row as opposed to the boutique shopping in the downtown Carmel area. After cruising through Cannery Row, we set off to scope out the various location shots from Big Little Lies. First stop was the Fisherman's Wharf in Monterey (not to be confused with the giant tourist attraction Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco). There we ate at Palace Trattoria which served as the set for Blue Blue's Cafe, the quaint coffee shop overlooking the harbor where the main characters met to drink coffee and spill tea. Apparently the restaurant has been mobbed with BLL fans since the show aired so they can sit at an outside table and share their own gossip. Of course Ann and I had to do the same and get a picture! Next stop was to Lover's Point Beach in Pacific Grove where we learned that the Blissful Drip coffee shop from BLL didn't actually exist but was a set constructed at the Lover's Point Beach. The set is long gone, but we snagged a picture at the Beach anyway. The final BLL location to scout was the Bixby Creek Bridge in Big Sur so we headed south on the PCH to check it out.

  • Big Sur: From watching Big Little Lies, I was under the impression that Big Sur referred to a beach town along the California coast. While there is a small unincorporated village with a collection of small roadside businesses and homes called Big Sur, when you hear someone talking about Big Sur they are most likely referring to the rugged stretch of California coast between Carmel and San Simeon. It is bordered to the east by the Santa Lucia Mountains and the west by the Pacific Ocean. You travel through the area by the narrow 2-lane PCH. Hold on as you take sharp turns, veer toward seaside cliffs and try to take in the spectacular views of the coastline. It is not for the faint-hearted...just ask Ann who got very nervous as I drove the winding road. It is totally worth braving the journey as it is some of the most picturesque scenery in the world. The opening credits of Big Little Lies shows just a glimpse of what it is like driving over the Bixby Creek Bridge.

Day 6-Capitola City Beach, Ragged Point and Morro Bay

  • Capitola City Beach: We headed back north to the northern end of Monterey Bay to the Capitola City Beach. This a small urban beach known for the bright, colored hotel rooms built right on the sand that offer a beautiful backdrop to the beach. There are several shops and restaurants along the Esplanade right by the beach. We ate at the Margaritaville restaurant that sits right on the beach looking out at the ocean and the colorful buildings.

  • Ragged Point: We then headed back southbound on PCH and drove along the Big Sur coastline again (once is not enough!) until we got to the south end of Big Sur. There we pulled off at the PIedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery which is home to more than 7,000 Northern Elephant Seals which are the second largest seals in existence. You can see the stats on the picture above!

  • Morro Bay: Next stop...Morro Bay! Morro Bay is a quaint little village right off the PCH. It is known for a large volcanic mound at the end of Morro State Beach called...what else...Morro Rock. Morro Rock is 576 feet tall and is the dominating feature of the town. There are several eateries along the harbor if you want to make this a lunch stop on your road trip!

Day 7-San Luis Obispo

After Morro Bay we headed to San Luis Obispo (or SLO as the locals call it) to crash for the night. We stayed in a charming family owned hotel called the Apple Farm Inn (www.applefarm.com). The Inn has 106 unique and charming rooms and is centrally located for easy access to SLO's many sights. After we dropped off our bags, we headed over to Avila Beach to relax from our travels and catch a few rays. That night we strolled along the bustling Higuera Street to check out the shops. I made several purchases at an adorable store called The Junkgirls (www.junkgirls.com) which was filled with unique and handcrafted gift and decor items. I highly recommend a stop here! Off Higuera Street is the infamous Bubblegum Alley where pieces of chewed gum cover the walls (see pic below). Gross or cool? Only you can decide. Other sites in SLO we didn't get a chance to check out are various wineries, the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa (a 1700s Spanish mission with a museum), the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo campus, and of course nearby beaches and hiking trails. SLO has a very cool vibe and I wish we could have spent a little more time checking it out!


Day 8-Solvang and Santa Barbara

  • Solvang: After a restful night sleep at the charming Apple Farm Inn, we hit the road to head to a spot a little inland from the PCH. Ann had done some research and suggested we check out Solvang, a small city in the Santa Ynez Valley known for its Danish architecture and wineries. We are so glad we took this side trip! Solvang, which is Danish for "sunny fields", is an adorable destination known as the "Danish Capital of the World". You may recognize the name as it has been featured or mentioned in several different TV shows or movies. Most notably it was the setting for the movie Sideways starring Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church as two men traveling through the Santa Barbara wine country. They stay at the Hitching Post so we had to snag a picture of that landmark!


You feel as if you have been transported to a European village as soon as you enter the Main Street that goes through the middle of town. You can take a leisurely stroll down Main Street and take in all of the shops that fill every nook and cranny of the buildings lining the street. Of course you can't leave Solvang without trying some of the delicious danishes that can be purchased at any of authentic Danish bakeries in the area. We also hit the Sunstone Winery, a Santa Ynez Valley winery, on our way out of town. What a great day...Solvang was definitely one of my favorite stops on this trip!



  • Santa Barbara: Santa Barbara is a short 45 minute drive from Solvang and where we planned to stop for the night. We stayed at The Eagle Inn ( www.theeagleinn.com ) and I highly recommend it. It has a perfect central location and a delicious free breakfast in the morning. After checking in we strolled along the harbor and checked out the city. Santa Barbara has a great vibe and is a place I would even consider living! The lively downtown features an outdoor shopping area that runs along State Street with tiled courtyards, fountains, chain retailers and small boutiques. Artwork is sprinkled around the town including bronze statues and wall murals. There are several hip cafes and outdoor restaurants, breweries and wine bars. We ate at a brewery called The Cruisery located at 501 State Street, Santa Barbara, CA ( www.thecruisery.com ) which gets its name from "Brewery + Beach Cruiser = Cruisery". The Cruisery has an awesome outdoor eating space to provide for entertaining people watching in the historic downtown area while we relaxed with good food and drinks. After dinner we took in more sites and caught a beautiful sunset over the harbor to cap off an incredible day!


Day 9-Ojai and Santa Monica

  • Ojai: Ann suggested we take another detour off of the PCH to check out Ojai (pronounced "OH-hi") which is a small city in Ventura County located in the valley of the Topatopa Mountains. Ojai sits in one of the few east/west valleys so the early morning sunrise fills the valley with sunshine and the late sunsets create a "Pink Moment" painting the surrounding peaks in rosy hues. There is a strong Bohemian vibe to the city and spirituality is a big part of the culture. Apparently the valley lies in a geomagnetic vortex zone where energy fields arise from deep within the earth's core and visitors come to visit the many wellness retreats and meditation centers. The restaurants and cafes in Ojai are all locally owned and serve artisan food using local organic produce. The views driving into the valley were stunning. We parked at the head of a hiking trail that took us up above the city looking down into the valley. (SIDE STORY: I didn't see the sign advising not to leave ANY valuables in the car due to high theft and left my purse in the car. When Ann mentioned the sign I freaked out and rushed to get back to the car so I didn't fully enjoy the hike and the beautiful views. So, travel tip...make sure to read all warning signs and take any valuables with you if you hike so you can leisurely enjoy the beauty surrounding you!). After the hike and heart-racing return to the car, we stopped in town to have a quick drink at the Topa Topa Brewery. I had a hard Kombucha which was very tasty and made me feel a little healthy while drinking.


  • Santa Monica: Feeling calm and restored after our visit to Ojai, we headed to Santa Monica where we planned to stay for our last night before flying out of LAX the next day. In all honesty, Santa Monica didn't feel particularly relaxing or safe. We walked around and checked out the famous (or infamous) Santa Monica Pier. It felt like something we had to do, but it wasn't really our scene. Lots of typical boardwalk food and the traditional boardwalk rides and games. We came, we saw and we quickly left. From there we walked over to the Third Street Promenade which is a three block car-free, open air shopping area. We strolled up and down the street and checked out the Santa Monica Place mall located at the south end of the Third Street Promenade. While it was nice enough, there is nothing especially noteworthy or unique about this area. We were getting travel weary from our epic 10-day long journey, so we returned to the hotel room to rest up for our long journey home the next day. The next morning we got up early to walk along the ocean and it became clear why so many people look fit and healthy in California. The beach volleyball courts were already packed, the boardwalk was filled with runners, walkers and roller bladers, various exercises classes were being held up and down the boardwalk and beach including HIIT and Spin classes. It would be so awesome to take a spin class on the beach looking out at the Pacific Ocean! New experience for my bucket list.


Day 10-Hollywood, Beverly Hills/Rodeo Drive and HOME!

After our early morning walk in Santa Monica, we jumped in the car and drove towards LA. Even though I lived in San Diego for several years and frequently took day trips to LA and surrounding areas, I had NEVER seen the Hollywood sign in person so that was on my agenda. We first went to the most popular viewing spot in Griffith Park. Griffith Park is one of the nation's largest urban green spaces (5 times the size of New York's Central Park!). There are several hiking trails up to the Griffith Observatory that has a great view of the Hollywood sign. You can also drive up to the Observatory, but this spot is EXTREMELY crowded and parking is difficult if not impossible. Since we had limited time and were not prepared to hike, we needed to find an alternative viewing spot. With the help of Google and Ann's stellar research, we found that there is a lesser known viewing spot from Lake Hollywood Park. To get there you drive through a residential neighborhood up a steep, hilly road. You will know once you get there because although not the most popular, it is still crowded. Snag the first parking spot you can find and walk over to the park for a perfect viewing spot! After all this time I finally can check this sight off my "to do" list. Before leaving California, we stopped at the iconic In-N-Out Burger one last time. Can't visit California without stopping at least once. Delicious and inexpensive!


After lunch we drove around Beverly HIlls and stopped to walk on Rodeo Drive. The 90210 zip code has a reputation for a reason. The streets are beautiful and the homes are amazing. Rodeo Drive is crazy and it kept bringing up "Pretty Woman" vibes for me. I wanted to go into a shop and say "Big mistake! Big! Huge!", but unfortunately wasn't planning to go in and drop a load of cash shopping. Since shopping on Rodeo Drive wasn't in our budget, we wrapped up our sightseeing and headed to the airport to catch our flight home.



CONCLUSION

This was an amazing journey that cannot be completely captured by words and pictures. However, I hope that by sharing some highlights from our trip you will be inspired to plan your own California Coast road trip. I felt like I got to do it twice...first in person and then by reliving it when creating this blog post. Both times I felt awed, overwhelmed and grateful for the experience. If you have had your own amazing California Coast trip, please comment with additional input and ideas for those currently planning their epic adventure! Let's go!

Comments


bottom of page