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When you think of iconic drives of America, what comes to mind? The Pacific Coast Highway, of course! It’s easy to picture – thanks to pop culture and a plethora of social media posts – the rugged coastline, the sweeping beaches, and the fresh seafood options on the table that could punctuate a truly bucket list-worthy road trip.
The Pacific Coast Highway is no small undertaking – it requires both time and the resources to make the most of it –, so I’ll be honest that I haven’t driven the entire PCH since 2014. Over the course of living in both Washington (2013-2017) and California (2017-2021), and making several trips back (including most recently in October 2023), I have driven the many pieces of the PCH since then; this post combines my experience doing the whole drive along with updated information from the portions I’ve done since.
If you’ve got both the time and resources, lucky you – and let’s get started planning. Below you’ll find a guide to what I consider the ideal length of time to drive the PCH: 10 days. You can do the drive in a shorter time (I also have guides for both 5 days and 7 days), but as you’ll see, this 10-day Pacific Coast Highway itinerary gives you enough time to enjoy each day and the stops along the way, without too much driving.
Ready to meander the winding coastal road, feel the chill of the marine layer, and bask in the SoCal sun?
Note (November 2023): As of the latest update to this post, California Highway 1 (the PCH) is closed between Limekiln State Park and Lucia in the Big Sur area of the route; you’ll need to bypass this closure inland on US-101. Be sure to check the California DOT website (Enter “1” in the field) for the latest updates.
In this post, I promote travel across lands that are the traditional lands of many Indigenous groups. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
Common Questions about Driving the PCH
Before jumping into my suggested 10-day itinerary for the PCH, I wanted to briefly address the most common questions I get asked about the Pacific Coast Highway in general.
- Where does the Pacific Coast Highway begin and end? As with so many answers in the world, that depends! The named “Pacific Coast Highway” actually only runs from Dana Point to Leggett (655.8mi), California, but many people want to drive the entirety of the Pacific Coast from Washington to the California-Mexico border. This post focuses more on the latter.
- Which direction should I drive the PCH? You can drive it in either direction, but I recommend driving southbound, and that’s the direction I’ve written this post in; I actually drove most of it northbound when I drove the Pacific Coast Highway in 2014. If you decide to drive northbound, just reverse the order of days I’ve suggested.
- When should I plan my PCH road trip? While you might think summer is the best time for this road trip, that’s not actually the case. The Pacific Northwest has the best weather between June and September, while Central and Southern California tend to have great weather year-round. Northern California, however, tends to have better weather in the autumn than in the summer. For this reason, I recommend planning your road trip in September or early October if you can.
- Where should I stay while driving the Pacific Coast Highway? Personally, I’m partial to hotels (and recommend hotels in this guide), but I know lots of people want to camp. If that’s the case, I recommend checking out this article which helps you choose spots to camp along the route.
If you have other general questions about driving the Pacific Coast Highway after reading the rest of my guide, please let me know in the comments at the end of this post. I can answer you directly and add those questions here too, to help other travelers.
Suggested 10-Day Pacific Coast Highway Itinerary
I consider 10 days to be the best length of time if you want to tackle the entire Pacific Coast Highway; it’s long enough that you can drive the entire length of the PCH without any long driving days and still have time to stop and see the sights. Here’s a quick glance at my suggested 10-day Pacific Coast Highway itinerary:
- Day 1 – Seattle to Port Angeles
- Day 2 – Port Angeles to Long Beach (WA)
- Day 3 – Long Beach to Newport (OR)
- Day 4 – Newport to Crescent City
- Day 5 – Crescent City to Fort Bragg/Mendocino
- Day 6 – Fort Bragg/Mendocino to San Francisco
- Day 7 – San Francisco to Monterey/Carmel-by-the-Sea
- Day 8 – Monterey/Carmel-by-the-Sea to Santa Barbara
- Day 9 – Santa Barbara to Los Angeles
- Day 10 – Los Angeles to San Diego
Below, I have a more detailed breakdown of each day; in my 5-day and 7-day PCH guides, I share the “fastest route” and “most coastal route” for each day – but in this one, I haven’t done that: 10 days is plenty of time to take the “most coastal route” each day and really enjoy the drive!
Day 1: Seattle to Port Angeles
- Route: I-5 to US-101
- Total Drive Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Seattle is one of my favorite destinations in the world. After all, I liked it so much when I first visited in 2012 that I moved there in 2013! Therefore, it’s an amazing place to start your Pacific Coast Highway trip! Technically, Seattle is not on the Pacific Coast Highway, but you can fly into Seattle and drive one hour south to Olympia to start your PCH road trip. Seattle is perfect for anywhere between one day and three days if you have the time.
It’s not a long drive from Seattle to Olympia, so I recommend just making a ‘waypoint’ stop here to stretch your legs before the rest of your driving today – whether that’s to Port Angeles or Portland. There’s a nice public parking area near a lake that overlooks the Washington State Capital building. You can stretch your legs with a short walk before getting back on the road.
If you’re planning a full 10-day PCH road trip, make sure you follow my guide and do at least one overnight on the Olympic Peninsula. Port Angeles is the place for that one-night stop.
There are loads of cool things to explore in/around this small PNW town, including Olympic National Park! Other cool attractions include Hurricane Ridge (a popular hiking spot), Elwha River Valley, and Olympic Hot Springs.
Accommodation Suggestions: My #1 recommendation is Colette’s Bed & Breakfast, which is a little way out of town and a bit spendy – but a real respite to get you relaxed for the rest of your trip. Rooms from $315/night, book directly on their website. Browse other Port Angeles hotels and vacation rentals.
Day 2: Port Angeles to Long Beach (WA)
- Route: US-101
- Total Drive Time: 4 hours, 45 minutes
Heading south down the Pacific Coast of the Olympic Peninsula, there are a number of great stops worth making between Port Angeles and Long Beach near the Oregon border.
- Located on the Pacific side of the Olympic Peninsula, Hoh Rainforest qualifies as a rainforest due to the amount of precipitation that occurs each year. In this incredibly verdant forest, you’ll find amazing old-growth trees, some over 500 years old! It’s a great spot for a short hike to stretch your legs.
- Ruby Beach is only a short drive from Hoh Rainforest but it’s the most picturesque beach on Washington’s Pacific Coast. You can look out over beautiful sea stacks that dot the northern part of the Pacific Coast and stroll along the sand covered with huge driftwood formations and seafoam.
- Aberdeen has one main claim to fame: it was the hometown of Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain. If you’re a fan, make sure to stop in Aberdeen to see the house where he grew up. You can find the Cobain House at 1210 E 1st St is a private residence you can admire from the outside, and right next door you can see a memorial to Cobain in Kurt Cobain Memorial Park.
Finally, you’ll arrive in Long Beach. While some other guides might recommend Astoria for your overnight (and Asotria is lovely), Long Beach is – and always will be – one of my favorite destinations in Washington. The little set of communities on the Long Beach peninsula is at the lower-left corner of the state and is home to cozy accommodations and surprisingly delicious restaurants. There are plenty of things to do in Long Beach for (more than) an overnight stop!
Accommodation Suggestions: For accommodation, stay at the historic but recently renovated Shelburne Hotel from $78/night) – or choose a funkier option by booking a trailer at the Sou’wester (from $128/night). Browse other hotels and vacation rentals in Long Beach.
Day 3: Long Beach to Newport (OR)
- Route: US-101
- Total Drive Time: 3 hours, 15 minutes
Day 3 takes you from the Washington Coast down the Oregon Coast; I drove a dedicated Oregon Coast road trip (autumn 2023) and it gave me a chance to dive deeply into this special part of the PCH… it’s worth more than the two days (Day 3-4) I’ve given it, if you have longer than 10 days to make the entire drive!
In any case, setting out southbound from Long Beach, you’ll first pass through Astoria, made famous by the cult-classic The Goonies; after driving across the famous Columbia River Bridge, stop and give yourself a self-guided tour of popular Goonies spots in Oregon’s northwest-most town.
Next, there are a number of lovely little towns and natural wonders worth stopping at if you want to stretch your legs:
- Both Seaside and Cannon Beach are nice – you probably won’t stop at both since they’re just a few minutes’ drive apart. Seaside is home to a beautiful beach and Atlantic Ocean-inspired storefronts and arcades, while Cannon Beach looks out over the iconic Haystack Rock.
- It’s easy to breeze through small Tillamook, but don’t miss the Tillamook Creamery – it’s a shrine to all things cheese and dairy and a perfect lunch stop.
- Lincoln City is known for its glass-blowing, among many things, and you can take advantage of this unique culture by signing up for a glassblowing class (I did one at Lincoln City Glass Center and they shipped my creation home!) or heading out to the beach to try and find a glass float in their “Finders Keepers” program.
- Sort of the “opposite” of sea stacks like Haystack Rock, Devils Punchbowl is another beautiful natural rock formation along the Oregon Coast.
Finally, you’ll arrive in Newport; depending on how long you take stops, you may/should have most of the evening to explore the town. For sure, enjoy dinner in the Newport Historic Bayfront which is lined with shops, restaurants, docks/boats, and fish processing plants; I had a lovely meal at Clearwater Restaurant during my recent visit. Sunset from Yaquina Bay Lighthouse is also a nice way to cap off the day.
Accommodation Suggestions: There are lots of delightful places to stay in Newport, but I spent my one night aboard the Newport Belle. This is an adults-only accommodation, but if that fits your travel group, you’re in for a real treat aboard this restored and converted sternwheeler in the harbor. Rooms start from $189 per night; book on Hotels.com. Browse other hotels in Newport and vacation rentals, too.
Day 4: Newport to Crescent City
- Route: US-101
- Total Drive Time: 4 hours, 45 minutes
Day 4 is another long-ish day on the road, but you can definitely start out by taking the time to explore Newport a bit more before heading south on the PCH; , the Oregon Coast Aquarium is a great option for families or curious travelers of all ages as it focuses specifically on the marine ecosystems of this part of the Pacific Coast.
Continuing on Sea Lion Caves is an essential stop, even in the “off-season” when there are no sea lions in the cave. It’s North America’s largest sea cave and offers a stunning view of Heceta Head Lighthouse, the most photographed lighthouse in the U.S.
I personally find the stretch from Florence to Port Orford to be less stimulating as the PCH turns inland for a while, but adventurous road-trippers might want to stop in Florence for sandboarding on the massive dunes or Gold Beach for a jet boat tour on the Rogue River.
If neither of those sound interesting, carry straight on to Crescent City at the northern tip of California’s Pacific Coast; this is my favorite California town and there’s so much to do that you can easily spend 2-3 days here! If you have the time, be sure to stop in Jedidiah Smith Redwoods State Park (part of Redwoods National Park), and explore the town. If you can, walk out to Battery Point Lighthouse (at low tide only) and Ocean World is a good stop for families – you might also split these activities between this evening and tomorrow morning before heading out of town.
Accommodation Suggestions: On one trip to Crescent City, Mr. V and I stayed at this gorgeous 3-bedroom oceanfront property on Pebble Beach Drive. It was huge and fully stocked, perfect for a family or for a couple who just want space to escape. From $295/night; book on VRBO. Browse other vacation rentals and hotels in Crescent City.
Day 5: Crescent City to Fort Bragg/Mendocino
- Route: US-101
- Total Drive Time: 4 hours, 30 minutes (Fort Bragg) / 45 minutes (Mendocino)
I’ve driven the route from Crescent City to the Fort Bragg/Mendocino portion of the California Coast, and I have to say: it never feels like a 6.5-hour drive. It’s such a beautiful route that the miles and time just seem to slip by!
As you make your way south, I highly recommend spending some time in Humboldt Redwoods State Park along the Avenue of the Giants, which is one of the best places in California to see old-growth Coastal Redwoods. It’s definitely one of my favorite parts of Northern California (of which, to be fair, there are many!).
Your destination for the night is either Fort Bragg or Mendocino (15 minutes further south). You really can’t go wrong with either one – though if you decide to stay in Mendocino, I would definitely stop in Fort Bragg along the way. (If you choose Fort Bragg instead, start Day 4 with a stop in Mendocino if you have time.)
The primary attraction in Fort Bragg is actually trash… specifically, broken glass. Fort Bragg Glass Beach is part of MacKerricher State Park; there’s also so much more to do in Fort Bragg, including riding railbikes or the historic Skunk Train up into the coastal mountains, visiting the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, and hiking along the many headlands in the area.
If you do decide to spend an overnight in the area, I recommend stopping in historic downtown Mendocino first and walking around the Mendocino Headlands to stretch your legs before heading to my recommended overnight accommodations (which is also where you can eat).
Fort Bragg Accommodation Suggestions: There are definitely options in Fort Bragg, but I really enjoyed our stay at the Noyo Harbor Inn, down near the marina. You’ll definitely get Newport vibes if you stay here! Rooms start from $266 per night; book on Booking.com or Hotels.com. Browse all hotels and vacation rentals in Fort Bragg.
Mendocino Accommodation Suggestions: A few minutes south of the main part of Mendocino, the Little River Inn is one of my favorite hotels along the PCH. It’s self-contained with a spa, golf course, and everything else you need – don’t be surprised if you want to stay more than one night. Rooms start from $240 per night; book directly on their website. Browse other Mendocino hotels and vacation rentals.
Day 6: Fort Bragg/Mendocino to San Francisco
- Route: CA-1
- Total Drive Time: 5 hours
Whether you start the day in Fort Bragg or Mendocino, your end destination is the same: San Francisco. The inland route is faster, but – unsurprisingly – I prefer to spend the extra hours by driving the coastal route, which begins to change from being rugged and forested to more sweeping low hills, dunes, and cypress groves – this is part of what defines the central coast of California (though all San Francisco folks always correct me that SF is in Northern California.)
If you drive the coast, some of my favorite places to stop include Point Reyes National Seashore (which can add a few hours to your day if you really want to explore it, making for a very long day!) and Muir Woods for more time among the Redwoods. I also love to stop in Marshall for lunch, either at Nick’s Cove or Hog Island Oyster Company.
If you take the inland route, you can zip down more quickly to reach San Francisco and spend some time exploring the city’s top attractions – the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf, the Ferry Building, and the city’s many great museums are all worth your time if you decide to prioritize more urban time versus driving on the coast.
Accommodation Suggestions: Blow your budget and stay the night at the Fairmont San Francisco, one of the nicest hotels in town. This gorgeous building mostly survived the 1906 earthquake and captures Victorian glory with modern amenities. Rooms start from $179/night, book on Booking.com or Hotels.com. Browse other San Francisco hotels and vacation rentals.
Day 7: SF to Monterey/Carmel-by-the-Sea
- Route: CA-1
- Total Drive Time: 2 hours
Day 7 is a relatively short day of driving; that’s a good thing as it gives you plenty of time to explore the two endpoints of the day: start your morning in San Francisco (perhaps with a tour out to Alcatraz or by exploring along the Embarcadero), then turn your wheels south and begin meandering toward your final destination of either Monterey or Carmel-by-the-Sea. I love them both and couldn’t choose – so it’s up to you!
Starting with Monterey, you probably recognize the name of this community for its iconic Monterey Bay Aquarium which is named for the Bay on which you can take a whale-watching cruise. It’s also worth taking a stroll on Cannery Row, even though it’s really touristy, because it gives you a sense of this community’s maritime history.
If you opt to spend the night in Carmel, be sure to visit the Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo to learn about missionary history in California. You can also stroll on Carmel Beach, which is picturesque and explains why so many artists are inspired by this part of the California coast. Another popular activity is wine tasting and window shopping in Carmel’s historic and quirky “downtown.”
Monterey Accommodation Suggestions: The Spindrift Inn is located right on Cannery Row and has a classic design with waterfront views. From $199/night; book on Booking.com or Hotels.com. Browse other Monterey hotels and vacation rental options.
Carmel-by-the-Sea Accommodation Suggestions: Every time I’ve visited Carmel, I stay at the Hofsas House Hotel; it’s a little further from town, but has historic charm and the rooms are delightfully cozy. Rooms start from $135 per night, book on Booking.com or Hotels.com. Browse other Carmel hotels and vacation rentals.
Day 8: Monterey/Carmel to Santa Barbara
- Route: US-101 & CA-1
- Total Drive Time: 5 hours
Okay, we’ve reached the day of my Pacific Coast Highway itinerary that I’m least excited to share: as of writing in late 2023/early 2024, you cannot make the coastal drive from Monterey/Carmel to Santa Barbara. Due to landslides and road closures between Limekiln State Park and Lucia in the Big Sur area of the route, you have to head inland and take US-101 instead of CA-1 through the most iconic part of the drive. (I’ll be sure to update this once/if the road re-opens.)
While this detour is unfortunate, it does have one benefit: it gives you the chance to stop at Pinnacles National Park should you choose; this is my favorite national park in California (and one of my all-time favorites!) and offers some awesome hiking, caving, and California Condor-spotting opportunities.
Cutting back out to the coast at the earliest opportunity (via CA-46 to meet the coast south of San Simeon) adds a bit of time, but allows you to pass through beautiful Morro Bay, well-equipped San Luis Obispo (if you need any amenities), and quirky Lompoc, where you can stop for wine tasting or to watch a rocket launch. A short detour over to Solvang is also fun if you have the time; this Danish-inspired town has windmills and European architecture that feel decidedly un-Southern Californian.
Santa Barbara is your overnight destination; it was the biggest surprise I had on my PCH road trip in 2014. (I was, for the most part, ambivalent (or didn’t know much) about the cities along the Pacific Coast; my overnight stop in Santa Barbara changed my mind.)
In particular, I loved the harbor and wharf, was surprised by the food scene, and lightly dabbled in the historical significance of Santa Barbara enough for me to want to return; Mission Santa Bárbara is a must-visit. I haven’t made a return trip yet to update my recommendations, but when I do, I look forward to writing a dedicated article with more tips.
Accommodation Suggestions: Plan an overnight in Santa Barbara so you can soak in the charm. For accommodation, try a small hotel like the Eagle Inn. Rooms start from $115/night, book on Booking.com or Hotels.com. Browse hotels and vacation rentals in Santa Barbara.
Day 9: Santa Barbara to Los Angeles
- Route: US-101 & CA-1
- Total Drive Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
This day of your whirlwind Pacific Coast Highway road trip is actually the shortest in terms of driving – it’s all about exploring the iconic coast that so many Hollywood stars are drawn to call home and sample what Los Angeles has to offer. Your goal here is to make it from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles, and given how bad the traffic in Malibu/L.A. is, I would just take the shortest route rather than heading deeper into the chaos.
I would spend the morning enjoying Santa Barbara before heading south. Once you’ve made it into the city, I have a guide for spending one day in L.A.; you could split this guide into an afternoon (I’d do the Santa Monica and Venice Beach portions) and save the rest for tomorrow morning.
Accommodation Suggestions: If you decide to stay in L.A., check out if the budget-friendly Wave Manhattan Beach Hotel is available. Rooms from $113/night, book on Hotels.com. Browse the many, many Los Angeles hotels and vacation rentals you can choose instead.
Day 10: Los Angeles to San Diego
- Route: I-5
- Total Drive Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Here’s another short day – and it’s the final one, so you’re not in any rush (though hopefully, you manage to avoid “rush hour” (aka almost all day) traffic.
While you can take CA-1 the whole way, it’s actually pretty slow-moving, so I recommend taking I-5 until it rejoins the coast south of Los Angeles. Then, you can easily make stops in seaside communities like Dana Point, Huntington Beach, and Encinitas before you reach the end of your road trip in San Diego. From there, you can either fly home (if you rented a car) or drive home.
I don’t have a specific guide for San Diego yet – I really want to spend some time here but haven’t had the chance yet, beyond the short time I spent during my own PCH road trip.
How to Choose a Car for the Pacific Coast Highway
Speaking of cars… you’ve gotta figure out your car situation! Maybe you are planning to drive your own vehicle to the start of your Pacific Coast Highway road trip and home afterward – or maybe you don’t want to put that mileage on your vehicle. In that case, you’ll need to rent a car.
When I drove the PCH, I rented a car and drove it as a ‘one-way rental’ (meaning I dropped it off in a different city than I picked it up). This was more expensive than a round-trip rental, but I didn’t want to drive the Pacific Coast Highway both ways!
I’ve put together some tips on how to choose the right car for the PCH, but in short, I recommend an automatic car with a low center of gravity – but skip the convertible or SUV. Both of these vehicle types will either slow you down or you won’t get the use out of it for the extra cost.
Have any other questions about how to plan your 10-day Pacific Coast Highway road trip? Let me know in the comments below, or check out my complete PCH guide which has tons of details to help you plan your trip!