March 16, 2015 by Viator Travel Team
Cruise along the Pacific Coast Highway
The 450-mile stretch of Pacific Coast Highway between San Francisco and Los Angeles is one of America’s most iconic road trips. And for good reasons: vast beaches, towering mountains and uninterrupted views of the Pacific guide you down the California coast.
Stops, whether for an hour or a day, in sleepy beach towns and energetic cities are more than just a way to break up the drive — they are experiences along the way, giving true meaning to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote, “life is a journey, not a destination.” Make the drive and see what it means to be in this California state of mind.
Recommended duration: 4 nights
A seaside road in Carmel
From the center of the City by the Bay, drive west until you reach the expanse of sand at Ocean Beach. This is where your journey along California’s iconic Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) begins. Soon after you begin cruising south, the chaos of the city shrinks until it’s barely a blip in the rearview mirror as the road ahead unfolds before you.
Upon reaching the funky beach town of Santa Cruz, you’ll want to stretch your legs at the classic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, a half-mile long beachfront amusement park. Take in the warm, salty breeze on any of the 34 rides, including a National Historic Landmark carousel and roller coaster, and then continue on to your next destination, Monterey. Here, one of the country’s best aquariums, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, awaits you on historic Cannery Row .
Peek inside the underwater world with mesmerizing jellyfish exhibits, penguin feedings and a hands-on tidal pool experience that replicates the marine life in the Monterey Bay. Drive just a stone’s throw down the road to your resting point for the evening, the charming coastal hamlet of Carmel-by-the-Sea, a serene beachside town known for famous residents like Clint Eastwood (who was once the mayor), artists, great food and plenty of wine tasting rooms showcasing renowned Monterey County wines.
Where to stay: La Playa Carmel
Oddscoots @ Duarte’s in Pescadero by Craig Howell (CC BY 2.0)
Don’t miss: Along the drive take time for a pit-stop at Pescadero, a quaint farm town in San Mateo County just south of Half Moon Bay where people drive from across the Bay Area for the artichoke soup at Duarte’s Tavern.
Start the morning off with a home-style breakfast at one of Carmel’s intimate cafés, then hit the highway. Trace the coastal bluffs on the leisurely ride, with the sapphire Pacific to your right and California’s rolling, tree-lined hills on your left. After about 20 miles (32 kilometers), the scenery transforms from gentle hills to the rugged cliffs of the Santa Lucia Mountain range when you cross the postcard-worthy Bixby Creek Bridge.
This signifies your grand entrance into the nature enclave of Big Sur. But don’t just drive through this scenic coastal gem — it’s full of some of the state’s best hikes, waterfalls and hidden beaches. In Julia Pfeiffer State Park, you’ll find an 80-foot tall (24 meters) year-round waterfall pounding into the golden sand along the McWay Falls trail, a short walk from the road.
Sunset at Cayucos Pier by Fred Moore (CC BY 2.0)
Refuel with homemade scones or wood-fired pizza at the local favorite, Big Sur Bakery, before continuing the serpentine drive down the coast. When you pull-up to the quaint coastal village of Cayucos, you’ve found your home for the night. Explore the mellow main drag that’s full of quirky boutique shops, taverns and restaurants. A few blocks west, you’ll find the beach, where smoked fish tacos await at Ruddell’s Smokehouse.
Where to stay: Cayucos Sunset Inn
Don’t miss: The view from the deck at Big Sur restaurant, Nepenthe, perched high above the Pacific Ocean. Order the burger.
Morro Rock in San Luis Obispo
The following day, veer from the coast and make your way inland to San Luis Obispo, a quaint Central Coast college town midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Its laid-back charm blends with worldly food and activities at the downtown restaurants and museums, like the popular San Luis Obispo Museum of Art.
Another 94 miles (151 kilometers) south on Highway 101, reconnect to the coast for some time in one of California’s most celebrated beach towns, Santa Barbara. Known as the American Riviera, Santa Barbara is a scenic city of white mission-style buildings with red tile roofs. People come as much for the postcard-perfect beaches as they do for the many outdoor activities, food and wine.
Santa Barbara’s small waves are a great way to try your hand at surfing during a lesson with a local surfer, or rent a beach cruiser or electric bike for a smooth ride along one of the area’s many bike-friendly paths. State Street is packed with world-class seafood and farm-to-table restaurants, or you can check out the up-and-coming arts district known as the Funk Zone, for food trucks and intimate wine tasting rooms that are ideal in the early evening.
Where to stay: The Canary Hotel
Beautiful Los Alamos hills by Rian Castillo (CC BY 2.0)
Don’t miss: The laid-back agricultural town of Los Alamos. Reap the rewards of a brief detour from the highway and stop at Full of Life Flatbread.
Start the final stretch of the PCH off right with a walk along Butterfly Beach in the morning, when the coastal winds are calm, the blue waters are glassy and the occasional dolphin might peek its head out to say hello.
Stop at some of California’s preserved beach towns on your drive south, like Carpenteria and Ventura, for a dose of SoCal surfer culture. Both cities offer small beaches, quirky local shops, and gourmet lunch dining options with outdoor seating to soak up the sunshine.
The rest of the drive to Los Angeles is one of the state’s most scenic highway stretches, so be sure to leave plenty of time for photo stops. Heading straight to downtown Los Angeles can be a bit of an urban culture shock, so take the longer route instead and continue along the coast for stops in chi-chi Malibu and Santa Monica. Don’t miss the Santa Monica Pier — the end of the iconic Route 66 and a perfect place to complete the day on the pier’s ferris wheel while watching the sun sink into the Pacific.
Find more things to do in Los Angeles
Where to stay: The Shore Hotel
Point Dume State Beach and Preserve
Don’t miss: Just before you reach Malibu, make a pit-stop at Point Dume State Beach for a walk along flower-covered coastal bluffs.