Pacific Coast Highway Itinerary Featured Image

The Ultimate Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Guide

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 Washington. In fact, my blog post about which car to rent for the PCH is one of the most popular on my whole blog!

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.

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 left-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.

Once you’ve picked and where you’ll start and which car you want to drive down the PCH, it’s time to decide the stops you’ll make! 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, like 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.

Day 1 – Seattle to Portland

Day 2 – Portland to Crescent City

Day 3 – Crescent City to San Francisco

Day 4 – San Francisco to Santa Barbara

Day 5 – Santa Barbara to San Diego

Pacific Coast Highway - 5 Day Placeholder
Pacific Coast Highway - 5 Day

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.

Day 1 – Seattle to Port Angeles
Day 2 – Port Angeles to Long Beach
Day 3 – Long Beach to Newport, Oregon
Day 4 – Newport to Crescent City
Day 5 – Crescent City to Fort Bragg
Day 6 – Fort Bragg to San Francisco
Day 7 – San Francisco to Big Sur
Day 8 – Big Sur to Santa Barbara
Day 9 – Santa Barbara to Los Angeles
Day 10 – Los Angeles to San Diego

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Pacific Coast Highway - 10-Day

Ready to decide which stops are right for you? Jump down to see stops in:

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.

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Pacific Coast Highway - WA

Seattle Packing List Featured

Seattle

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, or splurge on a Seattle flightseeing tour to see all of the city from above. Rather than dive into all the amazing things in Seattle, I’ll just say: ask me in the comments if you need any recommendations!

Related: What to Pack for Visiting Seattle

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. Click here to book on Hotels.com.
  • 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!

Port Angeles Marina, Washington

Port Angeles

If you decide to do the loop around the Olympic Peninsula via Highway 101, be sure to plan a few hours (or an overnight) in Port Angeles. 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.

Related: Unmissable Road Trip Spots on the Olympic Peninsula

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. Click here to book on Hotels.com.
  • 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

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!).

Related: A Guide to Wandering the Washington Coast – 6 Stops Worth Making

Long Beach

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.

Related: The Cutest Small Town in Washington? A Guide to Long Beach

 Resources for Long Beach Peninsula:

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).

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Pacific Coast Highway - OR

Astoria along the Pacific Coast Highway

Astoria

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.

Related: A Goonies Tour of Astoria

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.

What to Pack for Portland, Oregon

Portland

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 have a collection of my favorite experiences that can more than fill a stop on your road trip. If you don’t have the time, plan an overnight 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.

Related: What to Pack for Portland, Oregon

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. Click here to book on Hotels.com.
  • 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.

Newport Oregon, Along the Pacific Coast

Newport

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!
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Pacific Coast Highway - CA

Crescent City

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, consider booking 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! From $75/night. Click here to book on Airbnb.
  • No time for an overnight in Crescent City? Opt for a meal stop and enjoy harbor views while you dine at Chart Room.
Fort Bragg Glass Beach along the Pacific Coast Highway

Photo by Lisa Nottingham via Flickr

Fort Bragg

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.

Related: Glass Beach – From Trash to Treasure

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!

San Francisco Along the Pacific Coast

San Francisco

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. When you’re ready to continue on your PCH road trip, make your way back to Highway 101 (overlapping with Highway 1 in SF).

Related: What to Pack for San Francisco

Pigeon Point Along the Pacific Coast Highway

Pigeon Point

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:

Pacific Coast Highway Itinerary Featured Image

Big Sur

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.

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.

Santa Barbara

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!

Related: A Guide to Santa Barbara, The American Riviera

Resources for Santa Barbara:

Los Angeles

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.

Related: One Magical Day at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hollywood

San Diego

For me, San Diego was the starting point of my Pacific Coast Highway road trip. For you, it may be the end. I chose San Diego because it has a major airport and I was able to find an affordable one-way rental car for my trip.

I haven’t spent time in San Diego, 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 updated in October 2017.
  • Joel

    Awesome, I’m hoping to do the PCH and NorCal next summer. I’ll have to stop at these places

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  • What a drive! I’m thinking of a four day road trip for easter next year but thinking along the lines of vegas to grand canyon and so. Still figuring it out.

    • It sounds like you’ll have a great trip no matter what! If you decide to drive the PCH, I’m happy to give you any tips!

  • Lauren Falardeau Pariseau

    This is such a great resource. I love Portland and San Diego. I would love to do a Pacific Coast Highway drive at some point in my life. I love all the details and recommendations!

    • Thanks for reading, Lauren! I hope you can make this trip someday (hopefully soon!).

  • Larissa Joassaint

    What a great and comprehensive post! One day, I would LOVE to make this road trip. I can’t even imagine how incredible it must have been to experience all this in person. I’m saving this post to reference when I think about doing this trip, because that has to happen! Also, I love your pictures!

    • Thanks, Larissa! I hope you can see it for yourself someday too. Let me know if you need any extra tips whenever you start planning!

  • You’ve put together one awesome road trip! Although I live in San Francisco, I’ve yet to visit several of these places on this list. Next time I have a few days off, I’ll have to change that!

    • You live in SF! I do too (ish – I’m in Oakland!). I hope you can do at least part of the PCH someday soon 🙂

  • Kathi Kamleitner

    Such a thorough guide! I drove part of this back in 2009 – from LA to San Francisco (northbound…..) and would also recommend stops in Morro Bay and Monterey – I enjoyed both very much! Especially watching the sun set over Morro Rock in the distance! Would love to do the northern parts of PCH though – I loved Portland and Seattle, but would like to see more of the coastal regions!

    • Great tips, Kathi! I haven’t been to Monterey but it’s high on my list! If you make it out this way, let me know, as I’m now in the Bay Area!

      • Kathi Kamleitner

        Will do!! <3

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