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Blue Hour, California Highway 1, Big Sur | © Vadim Kurland/Flickr
Blue Hour, California Highway 1, Big Sur | © Vadim Kurland/Flickr
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America's Most Famous Drives: Pacific Coast Highway

Picture of Alexia Wulff
Updated: 9 February 2017
From San Francisco to San Diego, the Pacific Coast Highway is arguably one of the most beautiful drives in America – even the world – boasting stunning ocean views, quaint towns, chic restaurants, and untouched forest accompanied by a cool, salty breeze and warm sunshine. PCH, while it takes about ten hours to complete from start to finish, is best driven at a leisurely pace, stopping at the different lot of seaside villages, wine-making regions, and historic attractions that make California so special. For tips on what to see and where to stay, read on.

Background

The Pacific Coast Highway, also known as Highway 1, was constructed in the early 1900s as part of a plan to provide a coastal route for motorists traveling from San Francisco to Los Angeles. The road was built piece by piece, with its initial stage beginning with the road between Ventura and Santa Barbara, completed in 1913, and the road along the Big Sur coast, completed in 1937. Over the next few decades, many expansions followed, albeit it wasn’t until 1964 that the entire route was dedicated as Highway 1. Known for its bluff-side drives and scenic vistas, PCH is a memorable drive, to say the least; however, landslides and erosion along the cliffs have caused portions to be closed for repairs.

Pacific Coast Highway at Night | © John McStravick/Flickr
Pacific Coast Highway at Night | © John McStravick/Flickr

What To Do & See

San Francisco

For those departing from San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge is the perfect launching point to this epic road trip. If you’ve got some extra time on your hands, be sure to take advantage of the city’s many notable attractions – Alcatraz, Fisherman’s Wharf, Union Square, Chinatown, Haight-Ashbury, and Lombard Street. Before heading on your way, grab a bite from Tartine, SF’s legendary bakery, and a coffee from Blue Bottle Coffee; or head to the Mission District for the city’s claim to fame, the Mission-style burrito.

Santa Cruz

On the way to Santa Cruz, must-stops include Half Moon Bay, a picturesque cliff with stunning ocean views, and the Ano Nuevo State Park – a marine park. Once you’ve made your way into the 1960s hippie village known as Santa Cruz, head to the Boardwalk for a relaxing stroll to the lighthouse, beach views, and people watching. For lunch, head to the Wharf; then spend some time perusing the vintage stores on Pacific Avenue, or opt for a hike in the Wilder Ranch State Park. Be sure to dress warmly as this coastal town is usually plagued with cold temps and a layer of fog.

Half Moon Bay | Public Domain/Pixabay
Half Moon Bay | Public Domain/Pixabay

Monterey

About an hour later, find Monterey Bay – renowned for its aquarium, this seaside community makes for a pleasant stop to enjoy the marine wildlife, discover natural beauty at the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, or a grab a quick bite at the Old Fisherman’s Wharf. Plus, there are plenty of outdoorsy activities – such as sailing, kayaking, golf, and biking – for those who want to make an extra long pit stop. Not pressed for time? Head to Carmel-by-the-Sea, a quaint, little coastal town with cafés, shops, and restaurants.

Big Sur

Passing over the famed Bixby Bridge (be sure to stop and snap a photo!) on the way to Big Sur, keep in mind this isn’t the only beautiful landmark along this section of the route. Once in Big Sur, revel in the scenic vistas from Point Sur State Historic Park, Ragged Point, Pfeiffer Beach, or McWay Falls, or get your history on at the Henry Miller Memorial Library. If you’re planning to stay over in this artsy town to enjoy its serene beauty, check out the Fernwood Resort or Big Sur River Inn for budget-friendly stays, or splurge at the Bernardus Lodge & Spa or the Post Ranch Inn. With extra time on your hands, head to the Esalen Institute for natural hot spring baths – an unusual, but memorable, experience. For indulging, reserve a table at Sierra Mar for epic views, Big Sur Roadhouse for global cuisine, or Nepenthe for rustic dishes. Come morning, pop into Big Sur Bakery for a pastry before hitting the road.

Bixby Bridge | Public Domain/Pixabay
Bixby Bridge | Public Domain/Pixabay

San Simeon

As you continue down Highway 1, be sure to stop in San Simeon for a look at the Elephant Seal Rookery, where over 15,000 migrant elephant seals sit upon San Piedras Beach. From here, head to Hearst Castle for a bit of history – a famous 250,000-acre estate on The Enchanted Hill.

Santa Barbara

On the way to Santa Barbara, stop to explore the Danish town Solvang, tucked within the Santa Ynez Valley, a wine-making region nestled just behind the Santa Barbara mountains. Here, get your hands on authentic Danish cuisine at Olsen’s Danish Village Bakery or the Red Viking Restaurant, or experience upscale, local cuisine at Root 246 or First & Oak. Plus, the historic downtown boasts plenty of shops, wine bars, and cafés to keep you busy should you decide to meander. Once in Santa Barbara – a posh, coastal village lined with palm trees, Spanish architecture, and sandy shorelines – check out the Stearns Wharf where seafood and wine tasting are kind; the Santa Barbara Botanical Garden or Lotusland for lush flora; and the historic Arlington Theatre. If you’ve got extra time, be sure to wander through the Funk Zone – an urban district filled with wine bars, breweries, and chic restaurants such as The Lark.

Santa Barbara, CA | Public Domain/Pixabay
Santa Barbara, CA | Public Domain/Pixabay

Los Angeles

Once en route, make your way down the coastline past Ventura – in Oxnard, take the signs to Point Mugu. This will realign you with the coastline as you enter Los Angeles County, so be sure to make a stop in Malibu, filled with beautiful beaches, beachside restaurants, and rocky coves. Walk along the Malibu Pier, go wine tasting at Malibu Wines, or grab a bite at Tra di Noi before proceeding into Los Angeles. After cruising into LA, act like a tourist and walk along the Walk of Fame, visit the Kodak Theatre, gaze at the Hollywood sign, drive down Sunset Boulevard, or window shop along Rodeo Drive, but don’t miss the vibrant Santa Monica Pier, downtown’s Grand Central Market, or the Getty Museum.

If you’ve worked up an appetite, go for tacos at Guisados or upscale cuisine at Bestia; other favorites include Pink’s, Gjelina, and Genwa Korean BBQ. This would make a good place to sleep for the night; for a budget-friendly overnight stay, check out the Hollywood Inn Express South, or kick it up a notch, and stay at the Sofitel in Beverly Hills or The Ace downtown.

Santa Monica Pier | Public Domain/Pixabay
Santa Monica Pier | Public Domain/Pixabay

San Diego

The final stretch! Once in San Diego, head to the Gas Lamp District for an eclectic array of restaurants, shops, and bars, or check out Balboa Park, Point Loma, and Old Town for authentic Mexican cuisine. Don’t miss the views from Cabrillo National Monument or Coronado Island – the perfect end to your trip.