Road trip guide: Driving the Pacific Coast Highway
What to know before you hit the road.
With nearly 650 miles of coastal views, it’s no wonder that State Route 1 — more commonly known as the Pacific Coast Highway — is considered one of the most scenic drives in the United States. It’s the longest state route in California and, undoubtedly, the state’s most popular road trip destination.
Where to find the Pacific Coast Highway
This highway begins in Orange County’s Dana Point, and stretches north to “The City by the Bay,” San Francisco. You can complete the drive in just under eight hours, but there's more to the Pacific Coast Highway than just sweeping views. And if you stop at every worthwhile attraction and landmark along the way, you could easily make this drive last for weeks.
Where to stop
There are many major stops that should be considered non-negotiable on your Pacific Coast Highway travel agenda: the laid-back surfer town of Huntington Beach and the action-packed city of Los Angeles, where endless ocean views give way to a sprawling urban metropolis. In the north, you can’t miss Big Sur and the famous 17-Mile Drive, or charming Carmel-by-the-Sea: one of America's favorite beach towns. And that's just scratching the surface.
About two hours into your trip (if you’re driving from the south to the north), you’ll find yourself in Malibu. This spot is popular with Hollywood’s A-listers, but that doesn’t mean it’s off-limits to everyday travelers. For an experience that’s more about scenery than celebrity, head to Topanga State Park: one of the largest open space preserves surrounded by a city in the entire world. The top of the Topanga Overlook boasts unbeatable views over the San Fernando Valley and makes for a picturesque pit-stop.
After getting back on the highway, continue for a few more hours until you’ve reached Santa Ynez Wine Country. Relax with a glass of your favorite Chardonnay in-hand (or whatever kind of grape you prefer). Just north of Santa Barbara, this region of California is the perfect place to unfold your legs and unwind after hours behind the wheel.
Before you buckle up and head back to the highway, take a quick detour just a few minutes west to the charming town of Solvang. This Danish-influenced village was settled by immigrants from Denmark in the 20th century, and you'll feel transported to Europe while walking down Main Street. Purchase a strudel for the road at one of the several bakeries.
Just two hours north, pull over to visit Hearst Castle. This National Historic Landmark, located in San Simeon, was the grand estate formerly owned by newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst. With 165 rooms and almost 130 acres of property, you can spend an entire day here and still not see every garden, terrace, or living space filled with Hearst’s personal art collections.
Keep in mind that this site attracts millions of travelers each year, so purchase tickets well in advance to ensure you get a tour.
With about one hour left in your journey, give your legs a stretch by stopping at the Muir Beach Overlook in Marin County. It takes only a few minutes to walk down the steps to this cliff-side park and see the uninterrupted ocean views . If you’re traveling between November and June, you may even spot migrating blue whales along the horizon.
Good to know
Though this road trip is considered a bucket list drive by many because of its beautiful coastal views, the frequency of landslides and erosion along California’s coast has led to portions of Highway 1 being closed for long periods of time. To avoid being re-routed further inland, be sure to check the current conditions before departing.