From historic, gastronomic, celeb-concentrated cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco to the snaking Big Sur shoreline with the most abrupt elevation change of the Pacific shore, a California road trip on the Pacific Coast Highway pleases city and nature lovers alike.
Californian cuisine could satiate any appetite, and the rugged and wild mountains of Big Sur stand 5,000 feet above the oft-misty ocean.
So hop in your car and prepare for the trip of a lifetime. To help you navigate, I’ve put together 16 unforgettable stops for your California road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway, beginning north in San Francisco and ending 500 miles south of there in San Diego.
Put the top down (you rented a convertible, right?) and turn the tunes up. It’s going to be one epic drive.
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Famous for it’s Golden Gate Bridge, hilly streets, year-round fog and hippy culture, San Francisco is a distinctly creative city.
If you’ve got some time to kill before starting your road trip, spend a few days exploring the city before driving south.
There’s a lot to do in San Francisco, but some favorite activities include a stop in Chinatown (the largest Chinatown outside of Asia), a jog through Golden Gate Park, a ride on the cable cars, a walk through the eclectic Mission District (one of San Francisco’s best neighborhoods) and eating just about anywhere.
San Francisco is a food fanatic’s heaven—the city lays claim to inventing everything from sourdough bread to fortune cookies, after all.
Don’t miss: Be sure to drive across the San Francisco Bay on the Golden Gate Bridge, California’s most idyllic landmark, to score a sweeping panorama of San Francisco.
2. Santa Cruz: Get Your Kicks on the Boardwalk
Located just over an hour south of San Francisco, Santa Cruz is the first stop on your California road trip itinerary.
Maybe it’s because Santa Cruz is home to the University of California Santa Cruz, or because the downtown streets are lined with vintage shops, vegetarian restaurants, colorful graffiti and skateboarders cruising down the street, but this coastal city has a youthful, “surf-city” vibe.
If you want a quick stop to stretch your legs, leave your car in one of the public parking spaces for a dollar and take a walk on the Santa Cruz Wharf, a long pier stretching out into Monterey Bay.
Don’t miss: Grab a coffee and watch the locals play beach volleyball on Main Beach where the volleyball competition is fierce. In the summer, Main Beach is one of the busiest (if not the busiest) beaches in Santa Cruz due to its many amenities, including lifeguards, restrooms, food options and amusement park rides and games.
Which leads to the next must-do activity: Stroll down the boardwalk to check out Santa Cruz’s iconic admission-free amusement park. Operational since 1907, this amusement park has been a staple of the Santa Cruz culture and skyline for over a century. It’s the only major seaside amusement park on the entire West Coast.
3. Carmel-by-the-Sea: The Most Charming Town
With its rugged coastal views from the scenic bluff path and also its quaint European-style architecture, there is no place in California like Carmel-by-the Sea—and that’s why it’s a can’t-miss stop on your Highway 101 road trip.
With its bay-windowed cottages covered in moss, gardens, cobblestone courtyards and secret passageways, this unique European-style village will make you feel like you’ve stepped into a fairytale. There are no mailboxes, addresses or parking meters.
It does, however, have boutique shopping and a burgeoning arts and wine scene.
Don’t miss: For some jaw-dropping coastal views and a glimpse into how the one percent live, pay the $10.25 admission fee (cash only) and drive the 17-Mile Drive through the gated community of Pebble Beach, famous for its world-class golf course. Trust me—it’s worth it.
4. Big Sur: Stunning California Coastline
One of the most picturesque views along the Pacific Coast Highway.
Perhaps one of the most rugged stretches on this California coast road trip itinerary is Big Sur, which is bordered by the Santa Lucia Mountains to the east and by the Pacific Ocean to the west.
Known for its sparse population and stunning natural beauty, don’t be surprised if this part of your Pacific Coast Highway road trip itinerary takes a while to navigate—not just because of the windy and mountainous road, but also because you’ll pull over every few minutes to snap pictures and take in the views of the rugged Pacific coast.
Don’t miss: For up-close and personal views of California’s redwood trees, make a stop at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. This park also features an 80-foot waterfall and panoramic views of the granite cliff coastline and the Pacific Ocean beyond.
5. Hearst Castle
In 1865, George Hearst, a miner, rancher and eventual US Senator, bought 40,000 acres of ranchland overlooking the Pacific Ocean in an area outside of San Simeon, California.
Over 50 years later, William Randolph Hearst, George’s son, acquired even more land in the area and also began to build a retreat he called the “Enchanted Hill.”
Don’t miss: First-time visitors should make sure to take the 60-minute Grand Rooms guided tour ($25 adults/ $12 children). Highlights of this tour include the Billiards Room, Gardens, and numerous pools. Yeah, being a Hearst must have been tough.
6. San Luis Obispo: The SLO-est Town in the West
Any epic road trip on the California coast includes a stop at the Madonna Inn (and a convertible too)—it’s classic Americana.
One of California’s oldest communities, San Luis Obispo is located in the middle of California’s central coast wine country. And it’s as culturally rich as it is beautiful.
Stop by this stunning city for a breezy outdoor lunch or spend an afternoon touring the history museum and art galleries (The Madonna Inn might as well be an art gallery in itself—this place is a Pacific Coast Highway icon!). But no matter what you do in San Luis Obispo, you’ll probably find it hard to hit the road again.
Don’t miss: Mission Plaza is the heart of San Luis Obispo, and, on weekend, live concerts and other community events take place there. During the week, take a seat on a bench to enjoy the sun and people watch.
7. Pismo Beach: Surf’s Up!
Pismo is a cute beach town with amazing surf and plenty of coastline to explore.
Another California beach town known for its natural beauty, Pismo Beach is a great place to dip your toes in the surf.
Lovers of water sports could spend days at Pismo Beach, but even if you only want to ride the waves for a few hours (you did pack your surfboard, didn’t you?), Pismo Beach will not disappoint. If you prefer land over water, you can also make a stop at Dinosaur Caves Park, an 11-acre oceanfront park that’s a perfect place for a picnic lunch.
Don’t Miss: Open October through February, the Monarch Butterfly Grove in Pismo Beach is a natural wonder—it’s a gathering place for Monarch Butterflies as they escape colder weather to the north. The colony that gathers here is one of the largest in the nation and, if you visit while the butterflies are in town, expert volunteers will regale you with their butterfly knowledge.
8. Santa Barbara: A Little Bit of Luxury
Sometimes called “The American Riviera,” Santa Barbara is an upscale community on California’s central coast. It’s also widely known for its picturesque downtown of white stucco buildings and red tile roofs, along with its upscale shopping and dining, wine scene and luxury hotels.
You’ll feel like a celebrity in Santa Barbara, even if you’re just passing through.
Don’t Miss: Spend an hour or two leisurely strolling down State Street, the unofficial heart of Santa Barbara. On State Street, you’ll find over 300 shops, 160 restaurants and plenty of local art which, if I do say so myself, makes great souvenirs.
9. Malibu: A California Road Trip Must-See
Famously known as the place that many of Hollywood’s actors and actresses make their home (Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio, just to name a few), Malibu is another picturesque, upscale city along Highway 101.
With 21 miles of coastline, Malibu’s natural features are stunning, but the mansions and estates that line the coast and nearby canyons are equally fun to check out.
Don’t Miss: Spend a day at Zuma Beach and enjoy the great surf, sand, and (bonus!) potential celebrity sightings.
10. Los Angeles: The City of Angels
After quaint beach towns, the traffic and pace of Los Angeles might shock you. But after so much slow-paced solitude, why not also spend time in the City of Angels?
From high-profile tourist destinations like Universal Studios and Rodeo Drive to a hike in celebrity hot spot Runyon Canyon, Los Angeles is hip and beautiful. Much like the people that call the city home.
Whether you arrive by car, foot or horseback, the Hollywood Sign is an iconic symbol of Los Angeles. Perched in the hills high over the city, numerous hiking trails lead to the sign and views of the city.
You can take the Mount Hollywood Hiking Trail and reach the junction of West Trail and Mount Hollywood Hiking Trail. Just hike one mile with 465 feet of elevation change from Western Canyon. Another option is also 0.2 miles with 65 feet of elevation change from Griffith Observatory.
Or you could also take the Wonder View Trail or Aileen Getty Ridge Trail. They’re about three miles round trip and begin near Lake Hollywood Drive. Just don’t actually touch the sign once you reach it—or at least don’t get caught touching it!
11. Huntington Beach: Classic California Vibe
If you’re looking for a city that fully embodies southern California’s beach culture: Huntington Beach. It’s also known as “Surf City USA.” You’ll find board-toting surfers, smoothie shops and plenty of flip-flop clad locals. In fact, this city is so surf-centric that it’s home to the International Surfing Museum!
Don’t miss: If surfing isn’t your thing, consider spending an afternoon on a whale-watching trip. Both whales and dolphins are often spotted in the waters outside of Huntington Beach.
12. Laguna Beach: Tide Pools and Marine Life
Laguna Beach is a small coastal city well known for its natural beauty, public beaches and coves. Downtown has blocks of quaint and charming shops, galleries and restaurants. They boast outdoor seating and are perfect to stop for a coffee or a cocktail.
For some beach time, check out the tide pools at Main Beach.
Don’t miss: The waters outside of Crystal Cove State Park are designated as an underwater park and make a great place to scuba dive or snorkel. The park is also popular with swimmers and surfers. And, on land, mountain bikers take advantage of 2,400 acres of undeveloped land.
Oceanside is an active, outdoorsy town and recreation opportunities abound here. Visitors can sail, fish, surf, swim, kayak or paddleboard. Or they can bike, walk, run and even skydive on land. In fact, Oceanside is so committed to outdoor recreation that they even host California’s annual Ironman 70.3 competition.
If you feel like ditching four wheels for two, one of Oceanside’s most popular attractions is biking. Keep an eye out for companies offering bike rentals and bike tours. The most popular, SoCal Bike, is located at the Oceanside Transit Center.
Don’t miss: Oceanside’s Sunset Market is held every Thursday evening in downtown Oceanside. This open-air market is half farmers market, half artists market, and it sells produce, crafts and hot meals. It’s the place to be on Thursdays in Oceanside.
14. Encinitas: Laid Back and Low Key
Just as you’d expect in southern California, there’s no shortage of surf towns in these parts. Encinitas, however, is the only one that was recently named by National Geographic as one of the 20 best surf towns in the world.
This town is an eclectic mix of surf shops, record stores, and sidewalk cafes. It has long attracted surfers and hippies with its low-key, laid-back vibe. It’s certainly a must on your California road trip itinerary.
Don’t miss: Encinitas is known as “the flower capital of the world,” not just for the bright and beautiful flowering plants that grow wild throughout town but also because of the San Diego Botanic Garden, which includes nearly 4,000 kinds of plants.
15. La Jolla: Come for the Food, Stay for the Beauty
It’s well known for its natural beauty, coastal walking trail, and quaint La Jolla village. But what really stands out about this southern California town is the food. That’s because there are high-end restaurants and beachfront brunch spots galore. And locals in La Jolla don’t mess around with their food.
Make your California road trip last a little longer by lingering at one of La Jolla’s restaurants. And thanks to the balmy weather, you’ll be able to snag a seat outdoors year round.
Don’t miss: Walk off your meal at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, a pristine wilderness reserve area along La Jolla’s famously rugged coastline. The short trails in this park are accessible, easy and lead to amazing views.
16. San Diego: The Last Stop of Your California Road Trip
Well, you’ve done it. Five hundred miles of coastline later, you’ve made it to the final stop. And what better city to end your trip than San Diego, known the world over for its perfect weather and quintessential Californian lifestyle?
Celebrate your California road trip with one of San Diego’s famous microbrews. Or grab a cocktail at one of the Gaslamp District’s rooftop bars. There you can also take in the beautiful San Diego skyline and start making plans for your next road trip.
Don’t miss: Balboa Park is San Diego’s 1,200-acre urban oasis. Seventeen museums, lush gardens, San Diego’s famous zoo, and over a dozen restaurants and cafes pack into it. It’s the perfect place to wrap up a trip to remember.
Once you have reached the end of an epic road trip, you might be bummed. Consequently, no more sun, sand, towering peaks and (maybe!) a celebrity sighting or two. But do not fret—there’s still over 1,000 miles of Pacific Coast Highway to explore. You’re not even close to done with the West Coast, yet!