Planning to see the California coast? Get ready for some curvy roads, adorable little beach towns, amazing food and some of the most breathtaking scenery you will find! Whether called Hwy 1, Cabrillo Hwy, PCH, or Hwy 101, this stretch of road will take you to see some pretty awesome things. We drove it from Point Reyes National Seashore down to Los Angeles, from north to south and actually did the Big Sur portion in both directions. Either way is great and in my opinion is a matter of preference. Here are some of our favorite, must see destinations.
Point Reyes National Seashore
While technically not on Hwy 101, the road that takes you there is. This national seashore has over 150 miles of trails, beautiful coastline, a lighthouse and tons of wildlife opportunities. Being our first stop on our coastal trip, we had only allowed for one day here, but this place could be an entire destination all on its own. Check out our Point Reyes post to see what you can accomplish in a day and tips for navigating the area. Note there is little cell reception here, and very few gas and food options available, so plan ahead!
Drive time from Point Reyes: approx. 1 hr 15 mins
Located north of San Francisco, if you’ve ever wanted to see coastal redwoods, here’s your chance. While there are tours available, we recommend going early(they open at 8 am) to ensure you get a parking space and enjoying the serenity that the early morning and lack of other tourists can give you. Ahhhh so peaceful.
Drive time from Muir Woods: 25 mins
The highway brings you right across the Golden Gate Bridge. I hate driving on bridges because, well, quite honestly I’m terrified of them, but this bridge is really more amazing than any photos you may have seen and driving across it(or riding a bike!) is definitely something you’ll want to check off your bucket list. While there are many places to view the bridge, we loved seeing her from Baker Beach and the Marin Headlands. There’s so much to see and do in San Francisco, but if its your first time there, we recommend Fisherman’s Wharf, Lombard Street, Alcatraz, Chinatown, the Emberecado and Ghiradelli Square. Yes they are all touristy things, but hey, you’re a tourist! So why not!? I recommend at least a day here but if you have the time, aim for three days.
Drive time from San Francisco: 1.5 hrs
Drive time from Santa Cruz: 50 mins
One of my favorite stops on the entire road trip, I may need to live here one day. So beautiful, with so much to do, this was another place we could have stayed for a week. Talk to the locals and they will give you tips on where to spot whales, otters and dolphins. Stop at the Monterey Bay aquarium, Cannery Row, Fisherman’s Wharf and if you need to stretch your legs a bit, take the Monterey trail into Pacific Grove to Lover’s Point Park where you can see blankets of pink flowers in the spring.
Drive time from Monterey: 10 mins
Probably the cutest little seaside town you may ever see, known for its storybook architecture, Carmel is quaint and very walkable. Park in the public parking areas(we found free parking), and walk the town. Grab a coffee and a snack from Carmel bakery and walk to the beach, check out the shops or explore a cool art gallery.
Point Lobos State Reserve
Drive time from Carmel: 10 mins
Once described as “the greatest meeting of land and sea”, Point Lobos deserves at least half a day. It will cost you $10 to get in, but it’s well worth it. We recommend the Cypress Grove trail, China Cove, Gibson Beach, Sea Lion Overlook and South Shore trail. Although I’m pretty sure you can’t go wrong with any of it. Check out how we spent a day there for more tips!
Drive time from Point Lobos: approx 40 mins
Probably the most famous stretch of coastal highway, Big Sur deserves a whole day if you can manage. We loved Pfeiffer Beach and McWay Falls but be sure to check out our Big Sur post for a list of our favorite things to see and do while driving through!
Drive time from Big Sur: approx. 1.5 hrs
From Big Sur, drive down to San Simeon where you will find Piedras Blancas elephant seal rookery. Its literally right on the highway and you will see it before you get to the parking lot. Stop for a few minutes and check them out, they’re hilarious! Hearst Castle is the main attraction here and while I had read yays and nays for this place online, we thought it was a must see on this trip if you have the time. It is only accessible via tour, which you should allow at least 2 hrs for, possibly even a half day if you have the time. I’m usually not a tour kind of person, but this place is like nothing I’ve ever seen before and offers some pretty interesting history, especially if you like classic Hollywood.
Drive time from San Simeon: less than 10 mins
While I think Cambria is often overlooked, we originally only stopped here because we were hungry after our Hearst Castle tour. This small town is quaint and walkable and we actually ended up falling in love and staying here for a few hours. Parking is easy and free. Stop at Moonstone Beach, watch surfers and admire the interesting “sand”, grab a coffee or a light lunch at Lily’s coffeehouse, pie at Lynn’s or just walk around the town where you will find unique shops and galleries.
Drive time from Cambria: 25 mins
Known for the huge Morro Rock, this is definitely a must see. Pictures don’t do it justice and it is so much bigger than I had realized! You can’t go on the rock, but you can drive pretty close to it and park for free. There is also a nice, soft sand beach here as well as restrooms. So beautiful! This is a great place to stop for clam chowder and check out their cute little town.
San Luis Obispo
Drive time from Morro Bay: 20 mins
Head to SLO, park your car and walk. They have street and garage parking available and plenty of shops and restaurants. We loved Scout Coffee for some refreshments; Bubblegum alley is here if you want to “leave your mark” and the iconic Madonna Inn is right off the highway outside of town, which is worth checking out even if you’re not staying there. We loved the cake! If you have more time available, we were told there are some amazing hiking opportunities here as well.
Drive time from SLO: 15 mins
Stop at Pismo Beach for Mo’s BBQ, soft sand beaches and beautiful sunsets. Parking here is free and the beach is easy to get to. If you have more time, Oceano Dunes is nearby where you can ride horses and off road vehicles right on the sand.
Drive time from Pismo Beach: 50 mins
While technically not on the PCH, it’s worth the detour to see this little piece of Denmark. Grab breakfast at Paula’s pancakes, try the Avelskier and check out the unique shops and bakeries. Parking is free and easy.
Drive time from Solvang: 50 mins
Keep heading south and you’ll find Santa Barbara, known as the American Riviera. We loved Santa Barbara and wish we had more time here. Explore the beaches, walk along the palm tree lined paths, go shopping on State St, visit the Santa Barbara mission or drive the scenic 17 mile drive and admire beautiful homes that are probably way out of your league. If you have more time, book an excursion to the Channel Islands, where you can kayak and explore sea caves.
Drive time from Santa Barbara: 1 hr 40 mins (depending on traffic!)
LA is pretty expansive and the traffic can be slightly nightmarish. If you don’t want to see LA, we recommend taking an alternate route around the city as traffic can set you pretty far back regarding time. If you do want to see the sights, there’s plenty. Bike from Venice Beach to the Santa Monica pier, hang out in Malibu, see the Hollywood sign and check out Rodeo Drive.
Be sure to check out our tips for driving the Pacific Coast Highway to make the most of your trip! If you’re looking for some quick stops to enjoy on the way to these incredible destinations, check out our suggestions here. Wanna find a great place to get your caffeine fix? Check out some of our favorite coffee shops on this route here!! Happy road tripping!!