The Pacific Coast Highway is arguably one of the most famous drives in the entire world.
Travelers flock from around the globe to rent a car and set out along the sinuous highway that works its way up the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washingtcon. If you’re considering a drive down (or up) the western coast of the U.S., look no further. After making the trip myself in 2014, I’ve put together this comprehensive guide to the great stops, breathtaking sights, and sense of unbelievable freedom you can find if you drive the Pacific Coast Highway. The best part? You can do this road trip in just 10 days!
In this post, I’ve put together all my knowledge from driving the PCH, plus the latest and greatest updates and research on the state of the road and what to see and do. If you want the quick version of this post, sign up above and you’ll receive my two-page PDF version (trust me – it’s the quick version!). Otherwise, read on and by the end, you’ll be ready to plan your own Pacific Coast Highway road trip!
The Perfect Itinerary for a Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip
The most important thing you need to decide first is which direction you prefer to drive the Pacific Coast Highway (northbound or southbound). If I can make a recommendation? Southbound!
The reason I recommend driving southbound down the PCH is that you’ll be on the coastal side of the road. Driving south on the right-hand side of the road, you’ll have a great view of the ocean and coastline. When I drove the PCH in 2014, I drove northbound from San Diego to Seattle, and lament that I wasn’t on the “outer” side of the road.
Your second choice is where to start your road trip. The traditional definition of the Pacific Coast Highway is to drive California Highway 1; you can extend by adding on the Oregon and Washington coasts. Depending on whether you do only California or all three states, you can start/end your road trip at the various cities in this guide.
The Pacific Coast Highway is an ambitious road trip, but totally possible in as few as five days. To help you plan your road trip, here are two possible road trip itineraries you could take. As I mentioned above, both are southbound itineraries.
A Five-Day Pacific Coast Highway Itinerary
If you only have a few days to drive the PCH, as I did, a five-day itinerary is ideal. You won’t have as much time to spend in each city, or to take a few of the “long drives,” but you’ll see it all in a short span of time.
|1||Seattle to Portland||
Map via Google Maps
|2||Portland to Crescent City|
|3||Crescent City to San Francisco|
|4||San Francisco to Santa Barbara|
|5||Santa Barbara to San Diego|
A 10-Day Pacific Coast Highway Itinerary
If you have more time to drive the PCH, this 10-day itinerary is perfect. You can even stretch it out by spending a few extra days exploring some of the cities along the route if you want to.
|1||Seattle to Port Angeles||
Map by Google Maps
|2||Port Angeles to Long Beach|
|3||Long Beach to Newport, Oregon|
|4||Newport to Crescent City|
|5||Crescent City to Fort Bragg|
|6||Fort Bragg to San Francisco|
|7||San Francisco to Big Sur|
|8||Big Sur to Santa Barbara|
|9||Santa Barbara to Los Angeles|
|10||Los Angeles to San Diego|
Choosing a Car for the Pacific Coast Highway
Before you hit the road, you’ve gotta figure out your car situation!
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! I drove one and I hardly ever got to enjoy it!
If you know which car you want, I recommend renting from Fox Rent-A-Car, Sixt, or Alamo. They all offer budget rentals, run regular deals and specials, and have one-way rental options. If you’re not sure (or not loyal to any particular car rental company), consider using a tool like Momondo or TripAdvisor to compare a bunch of options (yes, TripAdvisor does rental cars!).
Okay, now you’ve got your car, you’ve got your basic itinerary. You’re all set to start filling in the gaps!
Washington Stops Along the Pacific Coast Highway
If you think I’m biased about visiting Washington, you’re right! It’s a beautiful state and driving along the Pacific Coast Highway in Washington is unique but as breathtaking as elsewhere along the coast. Here are some of the best stops to make along the PCH on your road trip through Washington.
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 road trip!
Seattle is perfect for a few days if you have the time. If not, spend your day exploring the Seattle waterfront to see all of the city from above.
Briefly, here are some of the other must-see attractions in Seattle:
- The recently renovated Space Needle with its all-new glass floor and paneling.
- The Fremont neighborhood and its resident Fremont Troll
- Gas Works Park or Kerry Park, both with stunning views of the Seattle skyline
- The Ballard neighborhood and the Chittenden Locks and Fish Ladder
If you want to spend a few days in Seattle, consider purchasing the Seattle CityPass. You’ll get access to five major attractions at a discounted price, so you can experience more of what Seattle has to offer for less.
Resources for Seattle
- Seattle’s most famous hotel, The Edgewater, is right along the waterfront, and a perfect way to relax before a long multi-day drive. Rooms from $159/night.
- I personally love staying in Airbnbs, so here are two I like in Seattle: a gorgeous 1-bedroom from $92/night or an industrial loft in SLU from $90/night. (Get $40 off your first Airbnb stay with this link!)
- Ivar’s is one of Seattle’s famous restaurants; you can dine in the restaurant, or go local and purchase fish & chips from the casual Fish Bar.
- Only have time to scale one tall structure in Seattle and considering the Space Needle? Instead, catch the elevator up to the Sky View Observatory in Columbia Tower. For $14 you’ll have a great city view with the Space Needle in it!
- Here’s what to pack for a trip to Seattle.
If you’re taking the full 10 days to drive the PCH, 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.
Resources for Port Angeles
- If you decide to spend a night in Port Angeles, my #1 recommendation is Colette’s Bed & Breakfast. I reviewed it in my post about FOMO-inducing B&Bs. Rooms from $195/night.
- For dinner, book a table at Alder Wood Bistro in nearby Sequim. I had an amazing four-course meal there on my last trip to the peninsula.
From Port Angeles, head west and south around the Olympic Peninsula on Highway 101. Make sure to plan stops at Hoh Rainforest and Ruby Beach to get a true sense of the beauty of the Pacific Northwest.
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, and right next door you can see a memorial to Cobain in Kurt Cobain Memorial Park (the house now a private residence, so don’t disturb the owners!).
Long Beach is – and always will be – one of my favorite destinations in Washington. The little set of communities on Long Beach peninsula are at the lower left corner of the state and are home to cozy accommodations and surprisingly delicious restaurants.
Depending on your schedule and route on the Pacific Coast Highway, I recommend staying a night in Long Beach; there is a variety of accommodation options. No matter what, stop for a meal and check out my recommendations below.
Resources for Long Beach Peninsula
- For accommodation, you can splurge on a stay at the beautiful Shelburne Inn, which changed owners and had a major renovation – or choose an alternative option by booking a trailer at the Sou’wester (from $128/night).
- For meals, here are some of my favorites:
Oregon Stops Along the Pacific Coast Highway
If you’re driving the complete PCH, the Oregon Coast is a must. With beautiful beaches and fascinating geologic formations, here are my recommendations on where to plan your stops along the PCH in Oregon (with one slight worthy deviation inland).
Astoria, like Aberdeen in Washington, is a great destination for lovers of pop culture. If you’ve ever seen The Goonies, you know exactly what I mean. 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.
Seaside & Cannon Beach
Seaside is a picturesque coastal town, a western interpretation of the East Coast summer destinations along the Atlantic. The huge sweeping beach is admittedly not warm enough for a swim – but it’s great for a stroll in the surf. Downtown is a series of taffy-colored storefronts filled with beach gear, kitschy coastal crafts, and the Funland Seaside Arcade, which harkens back to the heydays of coastal vacations.
South of Seaside, be sure to stop in Cannon Beach to admire Haystack Rock. One of the most famous sea stacks on the U.S. Pacific Coast, Haystack Rock is picture perfect while you stretch your legs.
Portland is the only city on this list that isn’t on the coast, and it’s definitely a trip extender if you want to visit Portland while driving the Pacific Coast Highway. If you’re driving southbound along the PCH, I recommend you drive inland from Seaside along Highway 26E.
Once in Portland, it’s easy to spend a few days exploring; I have been to Portland repeatedly and there are so many experiences that can more than fill a stop on your road trip. If you don’t have the time, plan an overnight stop and make a late start after brunch at one of Portland’s many amazing restaurants.
Whenever you’re satiated with all Portland has to offer, hit the road southbound again by way of Highways 99W/18W, which will take you southwest back out toward the coast.
Resources for Portland
- Portland has loads of great hotels, but my favorite is the Hotel DeLuxe near downtown. Their themed lobby and movie nights make my inner movie nerd happy, and the “lobby bar” is so good that locals frequent it. From $143/night.
- For Airbnb options, this studio is in the heart of the Pearl District (Portland’s main shopping area) from just $79/night or stay in this Goose Hollow studio, which is next to my favorite neighborhood (the Alphabet District), from $93/night. (Get $40 off your first Airbnb stay with this link!)
- Portland is a foodie’s heaven. For brunch, it’s hard to go wrong, but some of my favorite spots are Clyde Common, Tilt, and Tasty & Sons. Don’t miss Portland’s famous food trucks too, for lunch or dinner.
- Here’s what to pack a trip to for Portland, Oregon.
Newport is a great destination to stretch your legs for a few hours once you arrive back on the Pacific Coast (you can also drive straight down Highway 101 from Cannon Beach if you decide to skip a stop in Portland). The Oregon Coast Aquarium lets visitors explore the marine ecosystems around this part of the Pacific Ocean.
If you prefer to see nature in its raw form, stop at Devil’s Punchbowl to admire how the ocean has carved a beautiful arch and hole into the coast. Or, head to Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area to look across the Pacific from the point and lighthouse, which dates to 1870.
California Stops Along the Pacific Coast Highway
When you hit the California coast, it’s like driving in a postcard. Jagged coastline, infinite blue water, sunny days, gorgeous sunsets… these are just a few of the reasons California Highway 1 became a popular route in the first place!
Crescent City, California is the first city you’ll enter when driving southbound into California along the Pacific Coast Highway (or last if you’re headed northbound). Located on a beautiful crescent-shaped bay, Crescent City is along part of the PCH where California Highway 1 and U.S. Highway 101 overlap – hence this guide referring to both Highway 1 and Highway 101 as the “PCH” in different states. The coast near Crescent City is dotted with the gigantic rock formations out at sea that characterize most of the northern and central California coastline.
Crescent City is a great spot for an overnight stop depending on your itinerary. There are some great little restaurants, but the Airbnb I stayed at (listed in Resources below) served homemade pizza – so I’m biased to say that is the best meal in town!
Resources for Crescent City
- If you’re adventurous or budget-conscious, book the private room Patree has listed on Airbnb. She’ll prepare fresh sourdough pizza for your arrival, welcome you with a great conversation, and give you recommendations for the rest of your road trip… all from $75/night! (Get $40 off your first Airbnb stay with this link!)
- No time for an overnight in Crescent City? Opt for a meal stop and enjoy harbor views while you dine at Chart Room.
Humboldt Redwoods State Park
After Crescent City, the Pacific Coast Highway starts to navigate in and away from the coast at times, which includes chances to experience one of California’s natural wonders: the Redwoods. It’s easy to make a stop in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, so take the opportunity!
Old Highway 101 is now called the Avenue of the Giants, and I highly recommend slowing down to enjoy this 31-mile stretch through some of California’s oldest living – and tallest! – trees.
Resources for Humboldt Redwoods
- On my weekend trip in the Redwoods, I stayed at the historic Benbow Inn, which has brand new modern rooms I’m dying to visit. Rooms start from $160/night.
My stop in Fort Bragg was relatively short, but it was worth it! Fort Bragg is home to a beautiful glass beach, pictured above, where the entire beach is made of sea glass from past trash dumps. While the glass is technically part of MacKerricher State Park and you can’t take it home – you can still spend time out of the car searching for different colors and shapes of beautiful sea glass that wash up from the Pacific Ocean.
Resources for Fort Bragg
- If you decide to do an overnight in Fort Bragg, this studio near the beach (from $100 night) looks like a beach house dream come true.
Point Reyes & Marshall
Point Reyes is arguably my favorite part of the Pacific Coast Highway – and that is saying something as it’s really hard to choose favorites from over 650 miles of California coastline! The drive south from Fort Bragg to Point Reyes is hours of winding coastal highway that will take your breath away at times (yes, it’s a little terrifying!)
While driving southbound, you’ll approach Marshall first. From the perspective of California Highway 1, it might seem like just a few buildings alongside the road. Next, you’ll pass through Point Reyes, which again seems underwhelming. Both have way more to explore once you stop or pull off the road.
In particular, plan a long foray out to Point Reyes State Park and Lighthouse. This 20-mile (one way) detour will take you out on Point Reyes, and has stark and beautiful landscape because it’s so far out “at sea.” Additionally, you’ll get a sense for the magnitude of the San Andreas fault line, which comes inland along the northern part of Point Reyes. Just be sure to plan your trip on a day the lighthouse is open for tours, so you can climb the steps down to the lighthouse and look out beneath the clouds across the sea.
Resources for Point Reyes & Marshall
- If you’re hungry, stop for lunch at Nick’s Cove (pictured above). If you really love oysters, swing by Hog Island Oyster Company and purchase some to shuck and eat right then.
- The Point Reyes Lighthouse is only open to visitors from Fridays to Mondays (weekends) from 10am-4:30pm. Plan accordingly when you design your PCH itinerary. It’s worth it!
It’s impossible to reduce all of the amazing things to do in San Francisco down to a small paragraph or overnight stop on a Pacific Coast Highway road trip. Now that I’ve moved to this part of California, I know this is true.
If you’re planning a PCH trip and want to pass through San Francisco, you can either skim over along the side of the city as you drive down the coast, or dive in for one night knowing it will only make you want to come back for more.
No matter which you choose, you’ll enter SF by driving across the Golden Gate Bridge; you can either stay along the coast and drive down Ocean Beach or head east into the city. In the city, be sure to spend time wandering along Fisherman’s Wharf, catch a boat ride out to Alcatraz, and explore the famous Chinatown neighborhood. Another good option is the San Francisco CityPass – I used this on a recent staycation and was impressed with how helpful it was for getting around and seeing the sights.
When you’re ready to continue on your PCH road trip, make your way back to Highway 101 (overlapping with Highway 1 in SF) and head south.
Resources for San Francisco
- 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 the Victorian glory with modern amenities. Rooms start at about $500/night.
- San Francisco has tons of cool neighborhoods, so it’s hard to choose which Airbnbs to recommend… Stick in the heart of the city with this modern studio from $135/night or get to know the Mission by staying in this condo room from $130/night. Yes, SF really is that much more expensive than everywhere else. (Get $40 off your first Airbnb stay with this link!)
- For food, head to Chinatown or Fisherman’s Wharf. Both are heavily trodden by tourists (like you), but Boudin Bakery makes the best bread in town, you’ll find the most authentic xiao long bao this side of the Pacific, and Li-Po Lounge has a great Chinese Mai Tai and was a favorite haunt of Bourdain’s.
- Here’s what to pack for your time in San Francisco and how to spend 3 days in San Francisco if you decide to stay a little longer.
Pigeon Point can be a fun rest stop along the Pacific Coast Highway or a quirky one-night stop depending on your itinerary. As the tallest lighthouse on the U.S. Pacific Coast, Pigeon Point Lighthouse is picturesque, and you can view it from several different angles along the nearby coastline. Unfortunately, you can’t climb the lighthouse steps as it has been closed for restoration since 2001.
Resources for Pigeon Point
- You can spend a night at the Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel. This cozy hostel offers funky, budget-friendly accommodations starting from $30/night, and it’s literally in the shadow of the lighthouse.
When you picture the Pacific Coast Highway, it’s Big Sur that comes to mind. The most easily accessible and breathtakingly stark part of the PCH is a short drive (about 3 hours) sound of San Francisco, so many people in the Bay Area do it as an overnight or weekend trip.
Big Sur is defined as the stretch of coastline and adjacent state park between Carmel and San Simeon. Here, California Highway 1 carves a sinuous path along steep cliffs; the road is beautiful at a price, since mudslides aren’t uncommon along this stretch of highway, and can close the highway for months. (As of July 19, 2018, the PCH is open after a 2017 mudslide!)
If you want to spend part of one day during your Pacific Coast Highway road trip beachcombing or hiking, Big Sur is the place to do it.
Pismo State Beach
Pismo State Beach is another great stop during a day of driving from San Francisco to Santa Barbara (or reverse). I stopped here to eat a to-go lunch I had purchased earlier in the drive, with my toes in the sand.
Pismo is a popular camping destination, so the most common amenities you’ll find if you decide to stay longer than a few hours are camping-oriented. There are a few restaurants in town and 17 miles of beautiful beach to explore. If you happen to do your PCH road trip in the winter, Pismo State Beach is also home to the largest colony of migrating monarch butterflies during the winter months.
Lastly, Pismo is a great stop for a midday workout on the road, with the huge stretch of beach to walk/run on. Here are other tips on staying fit on a road trip.
Santa Barbara was the biggest surprise I had on my PCH road trip in 2014. I was, for the most part, ambivalent about the cities along the PCH. I was far more interested in the hundreds of miles of coastal roadways.
My overnight stop in Santa Barbara changed my mind. 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. I enjoyed it so much that I wrote a whole article about the experiences I recommend in Santa Barbara!
Resources for Santa Barbara
- Plan an overnight in Santa Barbara so you can soak in the charm. For accommodation, try a small hotel like the Eagle Inn ($115 per night).
- When it comes to Airbnb options, this detached guest studio from $105/night is funky and offers good privacy. (Get $40 off your first Airbnb stay with this link!)
- For dinner, try to make it to Happy Hour at Enterprise Fish Company. Oysters, calamari, and other fresh seafood small plates are on sale!
- Want to do some sightseeing in Santa Barbara? Be sure to put Old Mission Santa Barbara and Stearn’s Wharf on the list. If you have time, the view from the Santa Barbara Courthouse is nice too.
Los Angeles is the last major city on my list of Pacific Coast Highway stops, and though I have a guide to spending one day in L.A., you can and should spend as much time as you like. Whether you just want to see the top highlights and sightseeing hotspots or want to dive into L.A.’s booming food scene, you can find it all in Los Angeles.
Depending on the timing of your itinerary, you may want to do an overnight here. If you’ve just stayed overnight in Santa Barbara or started your road trip in San Diego, that may not make as much sense. I haven’t stayed at any L.A. hotels, so I don’t feel comfortable recommending any. That said, there are plenty of nice ones depending on which part of town you want to stay in.
San Diego was the starting point of my Pacific Coast Highway road trip. For you, it may be the end. San Diego is high on my must-visit-longer list, so I’m again a bit short on recommendations here. San Diego is known for its Zoo and was made Instagram famous for Potato Chip Rock. Whether you stop to take a few Instagram-worthy spots or ogle the pandas, there’s plenty of experiences to choose from in San Diego.
That’s it! PCH bucket list road trip… done! Driving the Pacific Coast Highway is a trip that’s definitely worth putting on your bucket list. As you plan your trip and stops, there are plenty of options – almost too many! If you have any questions about where to stop, what to see, or what to do/eat along the PCH, pop them in the comments.
This post was originally published in August 2014. and was updated in October 2017. Some links and details were updated in March 2018 and again in February 2019. Some links in this post are affiliate links, which provide income to me at no cost to you.