One of the best ways to experience the adventure of a lifetime is by taking an impromptu road trip. Not only will you get the chance to explore a variety of sights and sounds, but you have complete control of your itinerary when you travel by car. One of the most scenic and culturally enlightening routes out there (check out more of the best road trips in the US here!) is along the Pacific Coast Highway in California, starting in northern California and making its way south. Before you hit the road check out these 7 must-see stops along your Pacific Coast road trip.
Top 7 Pacific Coast Road Trip Stops
The best place to start your Pacific Coast road trip is in San Francisco. Whether you’re from the area and using your own car, or flying into the San Fran International Airport and renting a vehicle, it’s a perfect starting point for many reasons. What better way to begin this epic journey than by taking a drive over the iconic Golden Gate Bridge into the city. If you do in fact choose to rent a car for your trip, make sure to secure renters insurance from a reputable company – for more details on car renters insurance click here.
If you’re wanting to hang out here for a few days, be sure to take in the many tourist attractions, such as Alcatraz Island and the famous Fisherman’s Wharf. Or just relax in some of the city’s trendy local hotspots, like Union Square or Lombard Street. But keep in mind that San Francisco is just the first of many stops of your road trip – it’s easy to get comfortable here and stay longer than expected!
Driving south from San Francisco, you’ll eventually run into the stunning Santa Cruz. This is an amazing stopping point for experiencing the America of the past. Many people feel this small town is stuck in the 1960’s, so do your best to enjoy this old-school vibe. The main attraction is the famous Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, where you’ll find an amusement park right on the beach. It is home to the iconic Giant Dipper wooden roller coaster, which was built back in 1924. People love riding this roller coaster since it overlooks the water and wharf.
If you spend more time here rather than just passing through, be sure to hit up the vintage shops along Pacific Avenue, or enjoy the nightlife scene on Palomar. For nature lovers, the best spot to explore is Wilder Ranch State Park for hiking and birdwatching. Ocean lovers should consider experiencing the whale watching scene here, or sign up for a tour on a fishing charter. For more suggestions check out this list of 101 things to do in Santa Cruz.
Next stop is Monterey, which is about an hour south of Santa Cruz. There’s no need to spend a ton of time here, but it’s a great place to explore for the day. You can spend a few hours in Point Lobos State Natural Reserve for some hiking, then head to Old Fisherman’s Wharf for a meal along the water – make sure to try clam chowder offered by most of the restaurants here. You can also do some whale watching or kayaking from the bay. You might even see some seals sunbathing and playing on the rocks along the wharf, so bring your camera!
If you’re just wanting to peruse through boutique stores and stop in one of the cute cafes or coffee shops, take a stroll along Monterey’s Cannery Row. This is home to the popular Monterey Bay Aquarium – perfect if you’re travelling with kids – and the streets are lined with tons of hotels, bed and breakfasts, restaurants, souvenir shops and boutiques.
Read more: Guide to the Monterey Peninsula
Big Sur is where the real adventure begins. You’ll want to stop before or after you travel over Bixby Bridge – it is famous for being the tallest concrete bridge in the world and is one of the most photographed in the western United States. Big Sur is definitely a spot for nature and outdoors lovers; some of the best spots to take in natural beauty are McWay Falls, Pfeiffer Beach, and Ragged Point.
If you choose to spend some time here, relax at the hot springs at Esalen Institute; the springs are thought to bring healing qualities both mentally and physically. Art and culture lovers will love spending time in the heart of Big Sur. There are several art galleries to stroll through and tons of opportunities to take in the overall culture of this area.
Before getting to the craziness of cities like Malibu and Los Angeles, enjoy some relaxation with the laid back vibes of Santa Barbara. Beach lovers should immediately head to Stearns Wharf and East Beach, while nature lovers in general will enjoy Botanic Gardens and Lotusland. If you’re travelling with kids, spend the day at the impressive Santa Barbara Zoo. You can learn about the city’s past by checking out the Historical Museum.
Even if you just choose to pass through on your way down south, you’ll be more than impressed with the views. The city is known for its Mediterranean-inspired stucco buildings, giving you the impression that you’re in a simpler time. The Santa Ynez Mountains can be seen in the background throughout your drive, which is a stunning contrast against the white buildings with red roofs. Here is a guide with more things to do in Santa Barbara.
Next comes Malibu, a destination known for its luxuriousness. You might even get lucky during your time here and have a celebrity sighting or two, as many famous celebrities own beach houses here. Although the city is filled with trendy stores and upscale restaurants, nature lovers won’t feel out of place in Malibu. There are many outdoor attractions here, including Malibu Creek State Park, Paradise Cove, Point Dume State Beach and Preserve, and Malibu Lagoon State Beach.
Last but not least, the Pacific Coast road trip ends with the tourist hotspot of Los Angeles. Similar to Malibu, you might experience a few celebrity sightings, especially if you sign up for a tour to see celeb’s houses or choose to explore Universal or Warner Bros Studios. This is an amazing ending point for your trip, mostly because you can stay busy here for days – or weeks – and can find cheap flights home from LAX if you flew into San Fran at the start of your road trip.
Fashionistas willing to spend some cash should check out the designer stores lining Rodeo Drive, but don’t be surprised by the outrageous prices. If you’re looking for a more laid-back L.A. experience, grab a coffee on the nearby Santa Monica Pier or stroll along the eclectic Venice Beach Boardwalk.