Many parts of the United States have the ideal conditions for a road trip. Cruising along the country’s hundreds of thousands of miles of national and state highways and byways, travelers can see majestic mountain ranges and otherworldly geological formations, stop off at quirky museums and local dining spots, and take in the landscape at a slower pace.
Few states are as drive-worthy as California, home to the Pacific Coast Highway (or “PCH”), so named because it runs along the coast. (Technically, the PCH is officially designated as a southern part of State Route 1—also known as Highway 1—starting around Dana Point and ending in Ventura County. But people tend to call the whole highway the PCH.)
Naming technicalities aside, the most popular road trip along the route goes from the greater Los Angeles area to San Francisco, and the drive is absolutely worth a trip. From south to north, here are 16 of the best places to stop on this classic California road trip—so start planning.
1. Dana Point
Where to stay: The Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel
The southern end of the PCH starts around the I-5 at Dana Point, a small city in Orange County, California. If you’re planning to fly into Orange County, book a ticket for John Wayne Airport and rent a car there. (Pro tip: making this drive in a convertible is totally worth the extra dough.)
Though small, Dana Point has great beaches, a blues festival that has drawn top names like Al Green and Bonnie Raitt, and a lot of opportunities to see whales and dolphins. To start your road trip off in style, book a night at the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel for sunsets overlooking the Pacific and a good night’s rest before heading out on the road.
2. Laguna Beach
Only a 20-minute drive north of Dana Point is the upscale (and totally scenic) Laguna Beach, perhaps best known in popular culture for the short-lived MTV reality show of the same name. Get out on the water with La Vida Laguna, and then nab some oysters at Driftwood Kitchen. Art lovers should check out the Laguna Art Museum, which celebrated 100 years in 2018 and has more than 3,000 works in its collection—all by California artists.
3. Huntington Beach
Huntington Beach, also known as “Surf City, USA,” has a different feel than Laguna: The beaches are long and sandy, with fewer dramatic cliffs but plenty of opportunity to watch surfers. Drink afternoon tea or snack on lamb satay at LSXO, a Vietnamese restaurant hidden inside Bluegold.
4. Long Beach
Fifteen miles north of Huntington Beach is the laid-back enclave of Long Beach. Don’t let the name fool you, though—skip the beaches and check out some of the city’s other aquatic offerings. The Aquarium of the Pacific is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, with special events happening throughout 2023, including a special photo exhibit on connecting to nature and a film across the Great Hall dedicated to celebrating its conservation programs and achievements.
History lovers can get on the water at the Queen Mary, a retired 20th-century ocean liner. Stay in one of the hotel rooms onboard, take a tour, or participate in an ongoing paranormal investigation (the ship is rumored to be haunted!).
5. Santa Monica
Although 30 miles north of Long Beach on SR-1, Santa Monica can feel worlds away (plus, with Los Angeles–area traffic, it can take two hours to drive there). Downtown, ride the Ferris wheel at the historic Santa Monica Pier and then walk 15 minutes to the Third Street Promenade, where there are high-end fashion retailers like Louis Vuitton and plenty of places to eat. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, enjoy the farmers’ market in Downtown Santa Monica—it’s been going strong for nearly 40 years.
In November 2018, the Woolsey wildfire tore through Malibu and its surrounds, destroying 1,500 structures. But grass has regrown on the hills with a sense of rebirth—just look at the Hotel June, which was formerly the Malibu Riviera Hotel before debuting in 2022.
About 40 miles north is Ventura, another beach town where locals take advantage of their oceanside location. Watch the surfers at Ventura Harbor Cove or rent a kayak near Marina Park and paddle out on the waves. Plan ahead and you can also take a boat or seaplane to Channel Islands National Park. (Note: There are no services there, so come prepared with provisions for the entire duration of your stay.)
8. Santa Barbara
Known as the “American Riviera,” Santa Barbara landed itself on AFAR’s Where to Go list in 2019 due to its modern-day renaissance. It would be easy to spend the whole day strolling State Street, admiring the city’s Spanish colonial architecture (head to the county courthouse clock tower for a killer view), sipping wine from the Funk Zone, and eating fried oysters at the Lark. If you choose to stay the night and do it all over again, go chic at Hotel Californian.
9. Pismo Beach
Drive up Highway 1 for a couple hours and make a stop at Pismo Beach for the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area. It’s the only state park in California that allows vehicles to be driven on the beach—although a four-wheel drive (or all-wheel drive) is recommended. If your trip takes place between October and February, be sure to pull over at the Monarch Butterfly Grove to see thousands of the beautiful, flitting insects during their migration.
10. San Luis Obispo
The 1 curves inland around Avila Beach and takes visitors through the city of San Luis Obispo. For a quirky road trip activity, find the 700 block of Higuera Street, also known as “Bubblegum Alley,” and add to the collection (or not). History buffs should peek at Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, founded in the late 18th-century by Franciscan friar Junípero Serra.
Where to stay: Oceanpoint Ranch
Start your visit in Cambria with a slice of pie at Linn’s before exploring the locally owned shops downtown (or maybe make an appointment to ride a Clydesdale). Its location near the San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport (45 minutes) and Hearst Castle (15 minutes) also makes the small town a good overnight stopping point, depending on how many nights the drive is. For family friendly lodging (or for anyone who appreciates s’mores, firepits, a game room, and the Pacific Ocean across the street), stay at the renovated Oceanpoint Ranch.
12. San Simeon
Two very different things make San Simeon worth a stop on any Highway 1 road trip: seals and a castle. Watch the former at the Piedras Blancas Rookery, just north of San Simeon; it’s free and accessible to the public year-round. There, you can see elephant seals; depending on the time of year, they may be mating, giving birth, or molting. Questions? Look for the volunteer docents in bright blue windbreakers.
Not far is Hearst Castle, a majestic National Historic Landmark with a fascinating history. Developed by publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, the castle is located on 250,000 acres and has 165 rooms. The pièce de résistance is the Neptune pool, which was unveiled and refilled in fall 2018 after two years of restoration. Oh, and you might spy zebras roaming the property, too.
13. Big Sur
Where to stay: Ventana Big Sur
Past San Simeon begins longer stretches of winding road. There are dramatic bluffs and cerulean waters, but also towering redwoods when leaving northern San Luis Obispo County and enter Monterey County. Be careful and mindful of other drivers when pulling over to take in the incredible views along the way: Landmarks include Bixby Bridge, which you may recognize from its starring role in car ads or shots in HBO’s Big Little Lies, and the 80-foot McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.
If you want to slow down for more than a selfie, have lunch at Nepenthe, which has been offering seaside views and tasty meals for decades, or book a room at Ventana Big Sur. Bookworms will find their bliss at the Henry Miller Memorial Library. Options for camping and hiking abound, too, but be sure to check local trail conditions; seasonal weather may result in mudslides or closed routes.
The expansive Monterey Bay Aquarium has been teaching delighted visitors about Pacific marine life for more than 30 years. Catch a penguin feeding or learn about the resident giant Pacific octopus, before wandering Cannery Row (for tasty pizza, check out Gianni’s) or getting fresh seafood at local favorite Monterey’s Fish House. Travelers who want to spend time on a world-famous green can tee up at Pebble Beach, only a 15-minute drive from Monterey.
15. Santa Cruz
The laid-back vibe of Santa Cruz is thanks in part to its college campus and history of being a hippie haven. Families with kiddos will get a kick out of the games and rides at the historic boardwalk, where anyone over 50 inches tall can ride the Giant Dipper, one of the country’s oldest still-functioning wooden roller coasters. Or buy a hearty salad or sandwich from the Picnic Basket and take it to the beach across the street, where locals play beach volleyball year-round.
16. San Francisco
Ah, the city by the bay. Home to world-class dining, art, theater, and, of course, AFAR. It’d be wise to spend at least a night here, if not a few. Sticking to Highway 1 (which turns into the 101 at certain junctures), wind through Golden Gate Park and enjoy the greenery and cool architecture at the Palace of Fine Arts in the Presidio. Pull off at Crissy Field to get marvelous views of the historic Golden Gate Bridge before driving across it and admiring the 86-year-old suspension bridge from the other side (or from a balcony at Cavallo Point).
This article originally appeared online in February 2019; it was most recently updated on June 28, 2023, to include current information.