The Pacific Coast Highway—also known as PCH or, more commonly, Highway 1—runs north-south along most of the United States’ West Coast. The incredibly scenic California stretch is known for its oceanfront locales, rugged cliffs, hidden coves, and numerous beaches, making it one of the nation’s most popular road-trip routes. From San Francisco to San Diego and the many charming stops in between, it’s truly one of the most naturally beautiful places on the planet to take a drive.
Using major cities such as San Francisco or Los Angeles as a base, a trip up or down the PCH makes for excellent day trips. From beachside towns to national parks, there is plenty to do and see. If you’re going to drive the whole route, keep in mind that the Pacific Coast Highway is best suited for unhurried, leisurely driving. Leave enough time to make plenty of stops and to enjoy the scenic views along the way.
Things to Know Before You Go
- Though many stops along the PCH are best visited spontaneously, there are a few notable places or tours—including Hearst Castle—that do best with advance reservations.
- Nature lovers and beachgoers will enjoy Highway 1. Be prepared for amazing coastal vistas alongside empty beaches, dense forests, and foggy mountains.
- Views are often regarded as best driving from north to south.
How to Get There
The Pacific Coast Highway runs from the California-Oregon border to Orange County, though most travelers begin in San Francisco and end in Los Angeles or San Diego. Speed limits and road types vary along the highway. In some locations it can be a twisting, slow-moving two-lane road, while in other spots, the PCH is and moves like a freeway.
When to Get There
The weather in California is famously sunny year-round, though it can get chilly once the sun has gone down, especially up north. If you’re planning your trip around any particular stops, be sure to plan your time and visit accordingly.
Highway 1 Beach Towns
Besides the stellar ocean views, one of the great joys of driving the PCH is the number of beachside towns worth stopping in. From San Francisco, the towns of Carmel-by-the-Sea and Monterey—home to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Pebble Beach, and Cannery Row—are must-stops. Be sure to include a drive over the Bixby Bridge, a scenic spot just outside Big Sur. Santa Cruz (and its beach boardwalk amusement park), San Luis Obispo, Cambria, Pismo Beach, and Santa Barbara are more Central Coast highlights.
Hearst Castle, another favorite stop, stands in San Simeon, on the coast between Monterey and San Luis Obispo. Tours are required to visit the castle and can be purchased up to 56 days in advance—it is strongly recommended to do so. The state beaches in Oxnard and Ventura offer some of the best surfing in the US. And, of course, Malibu and Santa Monica are the jewels in the crown of classic California beach culture.