Tips for Driving the Pacific Coast Highway
The stretch of highway that runs along the Pacific coast is a must-see for any ambitious traveller. While it may be overwhelming, a road trip down the Pacific Coast Highway is definitely a trip I would recommend a hundred times over. And after recently returning from our Cali road trip, I thought I’d share some of the things we learned along the way! So here are 15 tips for making your Pacific Coast Highway road trip run a little smoother.
- Shop around for your rental car.
Depending on whether or not you need to “drop” the car at a different location than where you picked it up from can literally cost you a couple hundred extra dollars. On occasion I have seen rental car places waive the drop fee during one day sales and its always a good idea to inquire about waiving the fee. The worst they can say is no. If you can avoid dropping the car, you’ll save quite a bit of money. If not, just be aware that it will cost you extra. And p.s. you don’t need a convertible. I always said when I did this trip, I would only do it if I could get the convertible, but honestly we went in May and it was too cold for the top down on anything. So I’m glad I didn’t spend the extra cash for a convertible I wouldn’t have used.
- Get gas when its cheap
And don’t even think about getting gas in Big Sur. $6 per gallon, anyone? Anyone? Buehler?? While Big Sur is definitely the most expensive place for gas (or probably anything for that matter), we noticed a pretty big difference across the board for gas prices. Sometimes it would fluctuate as much as $1/gallon between cities. So fill up when its cheap. You never know what it might be in the next town.
- Bring cash
Many of the state parks require a $10 parking fee upon entrance and some only take cash. Some of the smaller businesses only take cash as well, so its good to have on hand.
- Don’t rely on your phone
Many places along the Pacific Coast Highway don’t have reliable cell phone reception. Big Sur is probably the worst, however Muir Woods, Point Reyes and the Marin Headlands also had either very spotty reception or none at all. Its best to bring a set of printed directions, screenshot your directions from google maps or bring a regular old paper map to help you avoid getting lost.
- Bring hand sanitizer
One thing we noticed (a lot) was that while a lot of the state parks had restrooms(yay!), many of them were lacking soap or even sinks. Luckily, I have a friend who’s completely a germophobe, so I’m basically always prepared with hand sanitizer. Make sure you’ve got it on hand.
- Don’t be afraid to stray from your original plans
While its definitely good to have a plan on this trip, don’t be afraid to occasionally ditch those plans in pursuit of something more intriguing. We had no intention of stopping in Cambria, yet once we did, we fell absolutely in love with it and ended up staying there for a few hours. It worked out well because we had allowed for a lot of extra time that day. Just make sure wherever you travel, that you know how to get back to your final destination because, remember, you might not have cell phone service.
- Plan for traffic
While you may be on vacation, keep in mind that the roads you will be driving on the Pacific Coast Highway are roads that people use every day to get to work. Plus you will have to share those roads with all of the other tourists as well. I recommend pulling up traffic for your specific route prior to your trip to see when the best time will be to be on the road. We were lucky enough to escape Bay area traffic by leaving the city a little earlier on a Saturday morning, which I was only able to plan because I had done a lot of research prior. LA traffic can add an additional few hours to your trip if timed incorrectly. Outside of the usual traffic, its best to allow extra time in case of accidents or construction. We ran into construction several times while driving highway 1 and ran into one accident that set us back about 45 mins.
- Its not that scary
When I was researching our trip, there were all kinds of posts written about the hairpin turns and the terrifying, narrow cliff-edged roads of the Pacific Coast Highway drive. While I will say there are some areas that have some pretty scary roads, I will also say it’s a matter of perspective. Follow the speed limit signs, pay attention and you will be fine. The scariest roads we drove in Cali were not on the PCH. Honestly, the scariest part of this roadtrip were the drivers, not the road. And keep in mind, the entire HWY 1/PCH drive is not all windy roads and coastline; the road goes through farming areas as well as stop and go traffic in cities.
- Pull over
Speaking of scary roads, it is important to know that the law in California states if you have five or more vehicles behind you, that you must pull over to let them pass. There are plenty of safe, legal turnouts throughout the route to pull over which also give you a chance to take in the scenery and take a few photos.
10.Talk to the locals
While this is always my #1 tip for every trip I take, I found this to be especially useful on this trip. Talk to your server, your barista, the concierge at the hotel, the guy sitting next to you while waiting to be seated at a restaurant….these people will have invaluable information about where to spot whales, where to grab a great breakfast, the interesting weather habits of the coast. I always feel the locals are an untapped resource that many people overlook, but they were extremely helpful and made our trip down the Pacific Coast Highway that much more enjoyable.
11.Expect the unexpected
And, speaking of the weather, expect the unexpected. We all know that California is currently experiencing a drought. Don’t think that means it doesn’t rain. It rained twice in 3 days while we were there which was lovely but unexpected. And don’t get me started on the fog. The day we drove Big Sur, it was so foggy that we actually drove over the Bixby bridge without even knowing it! Luckily, we had met a local the day before who had mentioned this sometimes happens and that the fog usually clears out or moves by early afternoon. So we were able to go back and get our slightly less foggy bridge pictures in the afternoon.
12.Dress in layers
We went in May, so maybe the weather isn’t always like this, but it was chilly in the morning and would usually get pretty warm by lunch time. It can get pretty windy by the beach and at higher altitudes so it’s a good idea to have a jacket on hand.
13.Drive north to south. Or south to north
Both drives are beautiful, theres no wrong way to do it. North to south, you will be on the coast side but we noticed more traffic in this direction. South to north, you will be on the land side, which can put the nervous drivers more at ease. Either way, the Pacific Coast Highway drive is amazing.
14.Consider Dramamine for motion sickness
Well obviously not for the driver , but the passengers may appreciate it, especially during the Big Sur portion of the drive. I did this drive myself, so I couldn’t try this one out, however it was the most common recommendation I heard when talking to the locals.
As I stated in my post about tips to help plan your trip, stay flexible! Not only with intended plans, but also with your hotel reservations. Be sure to book hotels that will allow a generous cancellation policy. Most we found we were able to cancel by 4:00pm that day if needed, which was pretty perfect because we knew by then where we would be and if we would have enough time to make it to the hotel without rushing too much. I have a child so I’m always in hyper planning mode when it comes to those things, but another option is to be spontaneous and not book any hotels until that day! There are many websites and apps these days that can help you do just that and you can usually find some pretty good deals.