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Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip: Where to Stop

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A road trip down the famous Pacific Coast Highway will delight anyone who loves outdoor adventures and beach paradises. You’ll drive through big cities, tiny towns, redwood forests, and state parks. Driving the entire length of the Pacific Coast Highway can technically be done in a day, but you should plan to make some stops along the way to get the full experience.

Set aside a minimum of 4 to 5 days. However, most people prefer to take closer to 10 to 14 days to explore everything this road trip has to offer. Some people prefer to rent an RV to help cut down on the costs of staying in a hotel, while others prefer to rent a car to help prevent wear on their personal vehicle. 

Before you can even begin thinking about hitting the road, however, you should plan out your stops. In no particular order, here are 12 of the most popular cities and destinations along the Pacific Coast Highway.

Big Sur

Big Sur Pacific Coast Highway road trip
Big Sur
Photo: Howard Ignatius

You could spend several days exploring Big Sur alone. This section of the PCH offers turquoise waters and rugged cliffs. A must-see location in Big Sur is McWay Falls. There you’ll find an 80-foot waterfall that flows off a cliff onto a golden sand beach before flowing into the Pacific Ocean. Other popular locations in Big Sur include Ewoldsen Trail, Bixby Creek Bridge, and Pfeiffer Beach.

Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara Pacific Coast Highway road trip
Santa Barbara
Photo: Eric May

Santa Barbara is often referred to as the American Riviera and has a climate comparable to the Mediterranean. After an earthquake in the 1920s, this city was rebuilt using a Spanish-Colonial style of architecture, which adds to its unique charm. Here you’ll find beaches, a downtown shopping corridor, and plenty of food. Restaurants cook with locally grown food year-round and you can go on a walking food tour to sample a variety of food.

Muir Woods

Muir Woods Pacific Coast Highway road trip
Muir Woods
Photo: Jason Toff

This national monument contains over 6 miles of trails that go through coastal redwoods. The hiking trails vary in intensity. You can either tackle the trails alone or as part of a tour group. There is no cell phone service in Muir Woods, so you get the chance to truly connect to nature without the distraction of technology.

Venice Beach

Venice Beach Pacific Coast Highway road trip
Venice Beach
Photo: Chris Goldberg

If you’re looking for an artsy beach town, make sure to stop at Venice Beach. You can go shopping at the Venice Boardwalk (which is filled with interesting shops and street performers), catch some rays on the beach, or participate in a variety of watersports. If you’ve never jet skied before, make sure to check the Jet Ski Tips website before heading to Venice!

Dana Point Harbor

Dana Point Harbor Pacific Coast Highway road trip
Dana Point Harbor
Photo: Chris Jepsen

Dana Point Harbor is the Whale Capital of the West. While there are many places to go whale watching in California, you’re almost guaranteed to spot a whale at Dana Point because there are year-round whale migrations in the area. If you don’t spot a whale, you’ll get the chance to spot other marine animals such as dolphins or sea lions.

Carpinteria Harbor Seal Preserve and Rookery

Carpinteria Bluffs Pacific Coast Highway road trip
Carpinteria Bluffs
Photo: Ken Lund

California only has four harbor seal rookeries and this is one of them. From bluffs above the preserve, you can watch the seals play, sunbathe, and tend to their cubs. You are not allowed to approach the seals, so be sure to bring a pair of binoculars for a good view. Currently, the preserve is home to almost 100 adult seals. Birthing season is from December to May.

Point Loma

Old Point Loma Lighthouse Pacific Coast Highway road trip
Old Point Loma Lighthouse
Photo: Wayne S. Grazio

Point Loma is a seaside community in San Diego, and there are a number of restaurants and activities to explore. One of the most popular tourist destinations is the Old Point Loma lighthouse. This lighthouse watched over San Diego Bay for 36 years, but fog and low clouds often obscured the light. This historic lighthouse now functions as a museum.

San Simeon

Hearst Castle San Simeon Pacific Coast Highway road trip
Hearst Castle in San Simeon
Photo: Jessica Merz

San Simeon is a prime tourist destination that offers a number of activities and sightseeing locations. One of the most popular locations is Hearst Castle, which is one of America’s most famous castles. There are also a number of beaches to visit where you’ll see a number of critters, such as otters and elephant seals.

Humboldt Redwoods State Park

Humboldt Redwoods State Park Pacific Coast Highway road trip
Humboldt Redwoods State Park
Photo: Daniel

This is California’s largest redwood state park. It is also the largest old-growth forest in the world. Redwoods in this location have grown over 300 feet tall. You can either choose to drive or hike through the park. If you opt to drive, you might even have a chance to drive through the massive Shrine Drive-Thru tree.

Glass Beach

Glass Beach Pacific Coast Highway road trip
Glass Beach
Photo: Images bu John ‘K’

If you want to search for sea glass, make sure to stop at Glass Beach. This sandy beach is covered in smooth colored pieces of glass. From the late 1800s until the 1960s, people used to dump their trash on this beach. Over the years, much of the trash has been washed out to sea. However, pieces of glass and pottery have remained on the beach, smoothed down by the waves.

The Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge Pacific Coast Highway road trip
Golden Gate Bridge
Photo: verygreen

There are plenty of locations to explore in San Francisco, but the number one tourist location is the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. You can walk, bike, or drive across the bridge while enjoying scenic views of San Francisco Bay.

Santa Ynez Valley Wine Country

Vineyard in Santa Ynez Valley Pacific Coast Highway road trip
Vineyard in Santa Ynez Valley
Photo: Harold Litwiler

If you’re a fan of wine, make sure to stop in Santa Ynez Valley. You’ll find some of the best large estate vineyards and small boutique wineries in the world located here. One of the most popular towns is Los Olivos; the streets here are lined with tasting rooms that you can travel around to.

If you’re planning a road trip down the Pacific Coastal Highway, you’ll need to put some serious thought into what locations you want to stop at. There are so many scenic and iconic locations to stop at. The ones listed above are just the tip of the iceberg! So start planning out your route, grab your road trip snacks, and get ready to explore.

This is a collaborative article.