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best pacific coast highway stops

The 10 Best Pacific Coast Highway Stops: Exploring California’s Coastline

There are few places in California as celebrated as the Pacific Coast Highway. Spanning almost the entire length of the State from North to South, the PCH attracts tourists and locals alike. I’ve driven the entirety of the PCH at least fifteen times in my life and it is still as beautiful and charming as ever. 

The PCH is also a dream for any sustainable tourist – home to some of the best nature and environmental activities in California. Here I’ll cover the top Pacific Coast Highway stops that feature California’s most interesting coastal towns, hikes, and beaches. 

The Best Way to See the Top Pacific Coast Highway Stops? Take A Road Trip!

The best and easiest way to soak up all of the highway 1 attractions included below is to do a road trip. Driving along the coast of California is an experience you will not forget, and it gives you flexibility and freedom to see everything you want. 

The California coastline is filled with such diverse nature, from the classic white sand beaches in San Diego to the rocky, lush coastline of Big Sur. This is what makes driving the PCH such a treat- you get to see places you might never have discovered otherwise while easily meeting local people, and stumbling across great small businesses to support. 

It’s important to note that California is a very large state. Driving the entirety of the Pacific Coast Highway would take 10-12 hours depending on traffic and that’s with no stops. When it comes to deciding on how long you want your road trip to be, you’ll need to factor this distance in along with your personal travel pace and interests.

You can do the trip below in less than a week, or as long as a month- it’s really up to how many places you want to spend the night at, how fast you want to travel, and how many more stops you want to add on. 

The 10 Best Pacific Coast Highway Stops

San Diego, California coast
La Jolla, San Diego. Photo by Pexels.

San Diego 

San Diego is personally one of my favorite cities in California. Sprawling and diverse, San Diego is home to gorgeous beachfront neighborhoods like Mission Bay, or trendy, historic areas like downtown. 

San Diego has a lot to offer to any adventurous traveler. You can enjoy fantastic surfing, bike rides, hiking galore, and some of the best sunsets in California. 

Best Things to do in San Diego:

  • Have a beach day at the idyllic Mission Bay, or the more secluded Black’s Beach. 
  • Enjoy the sunset and admire the seals at La Jolla Cove. This is my favorite sunset of all the Pacific Coast Highway stops. 
  • Eat, drink and walk your way through Downtown. 
  • Embark on one of the many fantastic hikes in San Diego like Torrey Pines State Reserve, right off Highway 101. 
Laguna Beach, California
Laguna Beach. Photo by Pexels.

Laguna Niguel 

Laguna Niguel and its neighbor, Dana Point, offer some of the most beautiful natural and manmade sights in Southern California. This entire area is filled with incredible coastal hikes, oceanside restaurants and some of the biggest houses you’ve ever seen.

Unlike most of the top coastal California towns, you won’t find hordes of tourists or visitors in this private, largely residential area. 

Best Things to do in Laguna Niguel:

Santa Monica, California
Santa Monica boardwalk. Photo by Unsplash.

Santa Monica

You can’t do a Pacific Coast Highway road trip without stopping in Los Angeles. Santa Monica is the quintessential Los Angeles neighborhood, filled with palm-tree-lined and star-studded streets, massive beaches, famous boardwalks and the best shopping and eating around. 

You can enjoy a plethora of sustainable activities like going for a beach walk, eating at one of the many veggie restaurants or shopping at the local farmers markets and small boutiques. 

Best Things to do in Santa Monica:

  • Shop and eat your way through Main St. instead of the touristy Third Street Promenade. Main St. will give you a taste of more local spots and small businesses to support. 
  • Check out the artsy, eclectic and a little bit crazy, Venice Boardwalk.
  • Stroll through the photogenic Abbot Kinney. Shop at one of the many sustainable clothing boutiques or veggie eateries. 
  • Ditch the car and bike the oceanfront path from Venice to the Palisades. 
Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu
Malibu coastline off the PCH. Photo by Unsplash.

Malibu

Arguably one of California’s most famous coastal towns is Malibu- a beach lover or surfers paradise. So beautiful that those local to LA will willingly drive an hour each way just to enjoy the beaches there instead of the ones in their own backyards. 

This incredibly upscale community offers protected nature, beaches and some of the best hikes in Los Angeles County. Not to mention- the top seafood restaurants on Pacific Coast highway. Bring your hiking boots, bikini and your sundress for a day in Malibu. 

Best Things to do in Malibu:

  • Hike to the top of Point Dume and enjoy sweeping views of Malibu, then hike down to Little Dume for a wonderful swim. 
  • Check out the hippie vibes of Topanga Canyon and embark on one of the many hikes in the area. My favorite is Eagle Rock
  • Soak up the natural wonder that is off the beaten track El Matador State Beach and avoid the typical beach crowds of Malibu Beach. 
  • For some of the best seafood try Malibu Seafood. They catch their fish right outside each day. 
Santa Barbara, California
Downtown Santa Barbara. Photo by Unsplash.

Santa Barbara

Often skipped over by tourists, passing by Santa Barbara without stopping would be a shame. A long time hideaway for the rich and famous, Santa Barbara is just starting to attract mainstream attention thanks to its well-renowned wineries, pristine beaches, European architecture and outstanding nature. 

Best Things to do in Santa Barbara:

  • Head up Highway 154 to explore the ruins of Knapp’s Castle and boulder your way through Lizard’s Mouth.
  • Enjoy a stunning sunset and have a picnic at Elings Park, or the Old Mission.
  • Hike through Douglas Park down to Hendry’s Beach. 
  • Enjoy some local wine tasting and brewery hopping in the Funk Zone. 
Los Osos, San Luis Obispo
Montana de Oro, SLO. Photo by Unsplash.

San Luis Obispo 

This lowkey Central california coast gem boasts endless farmland, grassy, sprawling mountains and a laid back vibe. Just a few minutes off the California 101, SLO's natural diversity makes it one of the best Pacific Coast Highway stops.

Few other areas have such incredible, wild coast lines paired with superb, untouched mountains and valleys. 

Best Things to do in SLO:

  • Hike, swim and camp at Montana de Oro. Hands down my favorite camping area in California.
  • Eat and shop your way through Downtown SLO- be sure to check out the many breweries, thrift stores and veggie spots. 
  • Here you can choose between coastal hikes or mountain hikes. My favorite is Bishop’s Peak. 
  • Keep an eye out for seals, soak up the views of Morro Rock, and enjoy some delicious seafood in Morro Bay.
pacific coast highway stops: Big Sur
Pacific Coast Highway along Big Sur. Photo by Unsplash.

Big Sur

When I think about driving the Pacific Coast Highway, I immediately think of Big Sur. There’s no stretch of this drive that compares to the epic beauty that driving through Big Sur provides.

With sweeping, cliffside coastal views, lush forests and little to no cars around, it’s paradise. Big Sur is home to some of the best Pacific Coast Highway stops, including some of the top camping and hiking in California. 

Best Things to do in Big Sur:

  • Camp at Pfeiffer National Park- be sure to reserve months in advance. 
  • Enjoy the purple sand and secluded wonder of Pfeiffer Beach. 
  • Check out some of the best views in the area, while supporting a local institution, at the renowned restaurant Nepenthe.They are super famous locally for their spiked hot cocoa, it even has its own menu! This is one of my favorite Pacific Coast Highway stops. 
  • If you have time for a full hike, check out Salmon Creek Falls, where you can boulder your way to the very top of a waterfall. 
Carmel by the Sea
Carmel-by-the-Sea. Photo by Unsplash.

Carmel

As upscale as it is quirky, Carmel is one of those sleepy towns most dream to retire in. With no addresses, and no street lights, Carmel strives to be as local and secluded as possible.

You can walk pretty much everywhere within town, but the places you can drive to are by far the most worthwhile. 

Best Pacific Coast Highway Stops:

  • Pay the $10 fee to drive throughout 17 mile Drive. Here you’ll find the best views, beaches, and landmarks in Carmel. 
  • Definitely spend half a day at Point Lobos State Reserve. This private and protected reserve offers wonderful hiking trails, seal watching, and waterfalls. This is definitely one of the prettiest Pacific Coast Highway stops. 
  • Pick up some takeout from one of the many local restaurants on Ocean avenue and walk down to enjoy it on Carmel Beach. 
  • Rent an e-bike and cruise along Scenic Road, soaking up the views. 
Santa Cruz boardwalk
Santa Cruz boardwalk. Photo by Unsplash.

Santa Cruz

This hippie and slightly edgy Northern California town is filled with contrasts. You have both picturesque beaches and lush, dense forests; cute, trendy shopping streets and graffiti covered alleyways.

While most famous for the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, if that’s all you see in Santa Cruz, you’ll be missing out. 

Best Things to do in Santa Cruz:

San Francisco, California
View from Twin Peaks, San Francisco. Photo by Unsplash.

San Francisco

Last but certainly not least is California’s biggest city, San Francisco. The heart of the Bay area, it’s hard not to fall in love with SF. The vibe, architecture, and bustling center is unlike any other city in California, which is why it tops so many lists of the best Pacific Coast Highway stops. 

While you would need years to see everything San Francisco has to offer, you can definitely cover some serious ground on a short trip with a little bit of planning. I’d also suggest ditching your car and choosing the wonderful public transit instead during your stay. 

Best Things to do in San Francisco:

  • Check out the markets, fresh seafood, and tourist sites at Embarcadero Pier and Fisherman’s Wharf.
  • Enjoy North America’s oldest and largest Chinatown. Support local businesses, check out the Fortune Cookie Factory and the first dim sum place in America- Hang Ah Tea House
  • Explore the bohemian and historic Haight-Ashbury neighborhood.
  • Enjoy the gorgeous views and less touristy spots in the residential, picturesque Sunset district.

Alicia Briggs

Alicia Briggs

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