Everyone dreams of driving down the PCH. It’s easily one of the most iconic road trips, arguably more than Route 66. The Pacific Coast Highway stretches 655 miles from south LA all the way up to Mendocino county. It passes through some of the most picturesque landscapes with dramatic seaside cliffs and unique biomes to visit along the way. But with the idyllic sights comes the reality of the PCH–traffic, dangerous conditions, and sections even falling straight into the ocean itself (yikes)! Thinking about the Ultimate Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip? Make sure you stop at these spots.
Los Angeles/Venice Beach
Whether you start in LA or end in LA, dropping by Venice Beach is worth it just for the people watching. You won’t get more stereotypical California than the Venice boardwalk, where just about everyone in Southern California comes at some point to see and be seen. There’s biking, skateboarding, surfing, and of course weightlifting at the famous Muscle Beach. Just off the boardwalk, you can escape the chaos and take a stroll through the Venice canals, a mini SoCal take on the Italian versions (though you won’t find any gondolas). Downtown and East LA can also be a lot of fun, and usually a little less packed than the westside.
Two hours north of Los Angeles is Santa Barbara, a mid-sized beach town that buzzes year round. In the winter you’ll find Santa Barbara overrun with surfers, as the town’s coastal location receives a brunt of large, wintertime swells. In the summer, the waves and wind quiet down, and beachgoers descend on the sand. The water is always a bit cooler up in Santa Barbara, so be sure to bring a towel. There’s also lovely architecture, old mission-style houses, and a handful of colleges and universities that make Santa Barbara a great place to explore, whether it’s for an afternoon or a weekend.
Most people drive the PCH just to get to Big Sur. Despite being in central California, “Big Sur” is a shortening of the original name “El pais grande del sur”, which translates to “The big country of the south”. Here, you’ll find the dramatic, sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean along massive cliffs and steep mountains. You’ll definitely be pulling over a lot, and also switching drivers. This section of the PCH is one of the most harrowing and dangerous. It’s not uncommon for sections to be closed, especially due to fog, landslides, or adverse weather conditions. Still, the white-knuckle drive is worth it to experience one of the longest stretches of undeveloped coastlines in the world.
A PCH road trip isn’t complete without stopping by the Bay Area and seeing San Francisco. There’s too much to do, from strolling in Haight-Ashbury to taking a tour of Alcatraz, to singing the Full House theme song at the top of your lungs, San Francisco has it all. The weather is fairly mild year round, but bring a coat! One spot of the city can be sunny and warm while foggy and cool just a few blocks away. Regardless, San Francisco’s charm is undeniable, and you’ll understand why it’s become a breeding ground for tech company after tech company.
Humboldt Redwoods State Park
Deep in the forests of northern California lie the giant redwoods of Humboldt Redwoods State Park. These towering trees are the tallest in the world, though you’ll have to visit the Sequoias to see the biggest (by volume & weight). You won’t find the Redwoods anywhere else in the world, they only grow in this (relatively) small coastal area from central to northern California. It truly feels like you’re stepping back in time when you walk among the cool, lush forests of ferns and gaze upward towards the canopy. Jurassic Park, eat your heart out.
Ending your Pacific Coast Highway road trip
Don’t forget to come back! Driving the entirety of the PCH is a once-in-a-lifetime road trip. Though it’s not without its fair share of planning and obstacles, the payoff is 100% worth it. There are plenty of off the beaten track places to see and experience, along with secret spots where you and your friends can still find solitude, especially as you venture farther north. However you choose to do the PCH, make sure to stay safe and get a reliable set of wheels to get you there.