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Best stops on the Pacific Coast Highway

The Pacific Coast Highway, affectionately known as the PCH, is one of the most iconic road trips in the U.S. This drive spans most of California’s coast, allowing you to visit many of the state’s top destinations in one trip. So I’ve rounded up the best stops on the Pacific Coast Highway.

THE PCH IS ONE OF THE EPIC ROAD TRIPS TO TAKE IN THE UNITED STATES!

If you want to visit more of California, make sure you check out my 2-Week California National Parks Road Trip.

Here are the best stops on the Pacific Coast Highway!

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Best stops on the Pacific Coast Highway
Best stops on the Pacific Coast Highway
Best stops on the Pacific Coast Highway

San Francisco

Pro Tip: When you’re driving from Point Reyes to San Francisco (or vice versa), make sure you drive over the Golden Gate Bridge and sop at Point Bonita Lighthouse.

San Francisco is one of my favorite cities in the U.S.! It’s got every kind of food, shopping, attraction, and experience you could want. My top activity recommendations are a stroll through China Town, take pics from the top of Nob Hill, visit Alamo Square, have a picnic at the Palace of Fine Arts, walk along Marshall’s Beach, and ride the famous cable cars.

The city’s best viewpoints are Pier 7, Coit Tower, Twin Peaks Summit, Hawk Hill, and Alcatraz Island. My favorite restaurants are Causwells (burgers), Breadbelly (brunch), Saucy Asian (Asian Fusion), Charmaine’s Rooftop Bar & Lounge (fine dining with a view), and Alamo Square Seafood Grill.

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Best stops on the Pacific Coast Highway

Point Reyes National Seashore

Point Reyes is a cape about 30 minutes north of San Francisco. This 71,028-acre preserve has some of the best coastal hikes I’ve ever done – my favorites are Chimney Rock Trail (1.6 miles, moderate) and Tomales Point Trail (9.5 miles, moderate-difficult).

When you’re here, you also need to visit the picture-perfect Point Reyes Lighthouse. Just be careful going down the steps!

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Best stops on the Pacific Coast Highway
Best stops on the Pacific Coast Highway
Best stops on the Pacific Coast Highway
Best stops on the Pacific Coast Highway

Monterey, Carmel, Big Sur

Monterey, Carmel, and Big Sur are some of the best summer destinations in the U.S. There’s so much to do in this region, so I’d recommend spending at least a couple of days here. My top recommendations for each of these areas are:

Monterey: 17-Mile Drive (my favorite photo stop was China Rock Vista Point), Monterey Bay Aquarium, River Road Wine Trail, Chart House (Seafood), Bistro Moulin (French), and play a round of golf.

Carmel: Ocean Avenue and Carmel Beach, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, Flying Fish Grill (Seafood & Asian), Carmel Craft Brewing Company (Pub), and Tor House and Hawk Tower.

Big Sur: Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park Waterfall Overlook Trail to McWay Falls, Bird Island Trail, Bixby Bridge, Pfeiffer Beach, Soberanes Canyon Loop Trail, Nepenthe (American food), and The Esalen Hot Springs.

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Best stops on the Pacific Coast Highway

Hearst Castle

Hearst Castle is a National Historic Landmark in San Simeon, about an hour and a half south of Big Sur right off the PCH. Built by media mogul William Randolph Hearst in the first half of the 20th century, only the rich and famous used to be allowed in.

But now anyone can tour this gorgeous mansion. I recommend booking your tickets ahead of time, especially during the summer months.

Pro Tip: Don’t fall into the famous pools taking selfies!

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Best stops on the Pacific Coast Highway

Morro Rock

Morro Rock, which is forty-five minutes south of Hearst Castle, dominates Morro Bay. This jaw-dropping rock was formed about 23 million years ago from now-extinct volcanoes. For the last 500 years, Morro Rock has been a navigational point for land and sea travelers, so it’s impossible to miss this stop on the PCH!

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Best stops on the Pacific Coast Highway

Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara is often called the “American Riviera.” The city’s Spanish colonial heritage is reflected in the Mediterranean-style white stucco buildings with red-tile roofs, and the Mission Santa Barbara (founded in 1786) is the crown jewel of the city.

I’d spend at least a couple of days here. Walk up and down State Street, taking in all the fantastic restaurants, shops, boutique hotels, and stunning architecture. Santa Barbara also has incredible beaches, famous nightclubs, the hippie neighborhood of Funk Zone, and the Santa Barbara Wine Country.

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Best stops on the Pacific Coast Highway

Channel Islands National Park

This is one of the least-visited national parks in the U.S. because the five Channel Islands are only accessible by ferry. You can catch a boat from the mainland visitor centers in Santa Barbara or Ventura. It’s not difficult to visit the islands, but it does take some pre-planning. So this is the one-stop on this road trip that you’ll need to plan in advance.

Once you get to the islands, you can do a variety of activities, from hiking to paddling to snorkeling to surfing. The National Park Service website has an extensive list of what you can do on each of the islands.

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Best stops on the Pacific Coast Highway

Santa Monica & Venice Beach

These two beachside communities are only a couple of miles apart, so you can easily explore them together. Both of these areas have incredible shopping, beaches, and restaurants. Santa Monica has the Third Street Promenade and the Santa Monica Pier, and Venice has its famous canals and the Venice Boardwalk.

Both of these neighborhoods also make great home bases for exploring more of the greater Los Angeles area.

Plan Your Trip

Need help planning your road trip? Then you should use Roadtrippers, my favorite app for mapping-out road trips and finding Roadside America stops. If you’re going to rent a car, then I recommend Momondo, and if you want to rent an RV (which would be SO much fun for a California road trip), you should use RVshare.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • What should you not miss on the Pacific Coast Highway?

    Best Stops on The Pacific Coast Highway:

    1. San Francisco

    2. Point Reyes National Seashore

    3. Monterey, Carmel, and Big Sur

    4. Hearst Castle

    5. Morro Rock

    6. Santa Barbara

    7. Channel Islands National Park

    8. Santa Monica

    9. Venice Beach

  • What is the best section of the Pacific Coast Highway?

    You can’t go wrong with any section of the Pacific Coast Highway! But my favorite part of this road trip is from Point Reyes National Seashore down to San Francisco, then down to Monterey, Carmel, and Big Sur.

  • Where should I go on the Pacific Coast Highway?

    Can’t-Miss Stops on The Pacific Coast Highway:

    1. San Francisco

    2. Point Reyes National Seashore

    3. Monterey, Carmel, and Big Sur

    4. Hearst Castle

    5. Morro Rock

    6. Santa Barbara

    7. Channel Islands National Park

    8. Santa Monica

    9. Venice Beach

  • What is the best time of year to drive the Pacific Coast Highway?

    Summer has the best weather for driving the Pacific Coast Highway, but this is the busiest and most expensive time of year for this road trip. Going in the Spring and Fall will let you avoid most of the crowds and save some money, and you should still have a good chance at sunny weather most days.

    The winter is the off-season for The Pacific Coast Highway, so you can score some great accommodation deals during these months. But the weather can be hit-or-miss, especially in the northern part of the state. So come prepared with layers and rain gear.

  • Where should I stay when driving on the Pacific Coast Highway?

    The Best Hotels along The Pacific Coast Highway:

    1. Pelican Inn (Muir Beach)

    2. Fairmont San Francisco

    3. Bernardus Lodge & Spa (Carmel)

    4. Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa

    5. Ventana Big Sur, an Alila Resort

    6. Hotel Californian (Santa Barbara)

    7. Hotel Erwin (Venice Beach)

    8. The Queen Mary (Long Beach)

  • Is it better to drive north or south on the Pacific Coast Highway?

    The Pacific Coast Highway is one of the best road trips in The U.S., no matter which way you drive it. But if you have a choice, then opt to drive it from North to South because you’ll be on the right side of the road for uninterrupted views of the coastline, and it’ll be easier to pull over at viewpoints, famous sites, and attractions.

  • How many days do you need to drive the Pacific Coast Highway?

    Give yourself at least 10-14 days to drive the Pacific Coast Highway. This will give you plenty of time to explore the cities, hike in the state parks, pull off at quirky Roadside America Stops, and enjoy this incredible part of the state.

  • What is the best road trip in California?

    The Pacific Coast Highway is the best road trip in California, followed closely by a road trip to California’s national parks!

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This article about the best stops on the Pacific Coast Highway is not a sponsored post. And, as always, the thoughts and opinions expressed in this article about the best stops on the Pacific Coast Highway are entirely my own. Some of the links in this article about the best stops on the Pacific Coast Highway are affiliate links. And, at no cost to you, I may earn a small commission.

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