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  • Mother and child on a beach below the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California
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    San Francisco

  • Two surfers walking with surfboards at sunset in Santa Cruza, California
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    Felton and Santa Cruz

  • Teenagers admiring the view from Bixby Bridge in Big Sur, California
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    Big Sur

  • Paradise Beach outside Cambria, California
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    Cambria

  • Morro Rock in the early morning light in Morro Bay, California
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    Morro Bay

  • The History Center in San Luis Obispo, California
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    San Luis Obispo

  • Women jumping in Los Olivos, California
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    Los Olivos and Solvang

  • Santa Barbara cityscape on a sunny California day
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    Santa Barbara

  • Pacific Coast Highway in Los Angeles, California
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    Los Angeles

  • Two women taking a break from riding their bikes in San Diego, California
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    San Diego

Car driving on Bixby Bridge in Big Sur, California
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Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip

  • Route distance:
    951km
  • Suggested Time:
    6 days

Explore California’s stunning coastline from San Francisco to San Diego

The legendary Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) was first started in the 1930s, and remains a marvel of human effort that hugs over 900 kilometers (600 miles) of California’s rugged and beautiful coastlines. It is one of the most astoundingly scenic roads in the world, meant to be traversed slowly, while gasping at the mountains, towering trees, expansive beaches and endless sky. It also affords travelers an unparalleled opportunity to dip into all the character California has to offer: pioneer outposts, surfing villages, farm-fresh foods, local wine, roadside kitsch, Hollywood glitz and bohemia. You can drive the route from San Francisco to San Diego in a day, but why would you? You can easily make a meal of the Pacific Coast Highway and spend a few days, a week, or longer meandering its length.

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Mother and child on a beach below the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California
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San Francisco

Start your PCH road trip in San Francisco, a famously hilly swath of greenery and urbanity. Filled with lush settings, San Francisco’s jewel is Golden Gate Park, 1,000+ acres of grounds that include two world-class museums, a Japanese tea garden, a herd of buffalo, a windmill and much more. Stroll through the park before heading to North Beach, a one-time nexus of Beatnik and Italian culture. Browse the iconic and sprawling City Lights Bookstore before imbibing at perfectly cluttered Vesuvio Cafe (which, despite its name, is a cozy bar, right on Jack Kerouac alley.) Steps from North Beach you’ll find the oldest Chinatown in North America complete with décor and busy, local eateries. Head to the bustling waterfront Ferry Building, where you can take in bay views and stock up on epicurean local snacks before hitting the road.

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139 km
2 hours by car
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Two surfers walking with surfboards at sunset in Santa Cruza, California
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Felton and Santa Cruz

As you wind your way from San Francisco to Santa Cruz, make a brief stop at Devil’s Slide, a 2-kilometer (1.3-mile) stretch of land that was once a piece of Highway One, but is now a scenic walking path in Pacifica. If you had any doubts about your PCH trip, they’ll be washed away by sweeping ocean views as you slalom past seaside outposts. Before hitting surfer-centric Santa Cruz, stop in nearby Felton, a drowsy mountain town nestled among Redwood trees. Refresh at watering hole Monty’s Log Cabin (its rustic appearance lives up to its name) which offers a sunny back patio. Then pop by The Bigfoot Discovery Museum to learn all about California’s favorite cryptid. Finally, make your way to Santa Cruz, a friendly beach town with a university, gorgeous redwood trees and waves that surfers from all over flock to ride. Founded in 1907, the Santa Cruz Boardwalk boasts old-fashioned roller coasters (with Pacific Ocean views!), an arcade and the distinct scent of sea air, cotton candy and hot dogs. (Fun fact: Scenes of the '80s classic film “The Lost Boys" were shot here.)

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114 km
2 hours by car
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Teenagers admiring the view from Bixby Bridge in Big Sur, California
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People observing Northern Elephant Seals at the Rookery on the rugged Big Sur coastline, near Cambria, California
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Big Sur

You’ll see rugged mountains blanketed with dreamy redwood forests drop into dramatic coastline. While you can camp within the forests, those who prefer beds should consider Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn, which feels a bit like staying with your fabulous bohemian aunt. Explore the nearby Henry Miller Memorial Library and when you grow hungry from hiking, dine on classic California cuisine (local wine and farm-fresh produce, anyone?) on the lofty patio at Nepenthe while gazing out at the ocean.

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120 km
2 hours by car
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Paradise Beach outside Cambria, California
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Cambria

On the way into Cambria, stop at the Piedras Blancas Friends of the Elephant Seal rookery, where crowds of the bulbous-nosed pinnipeds rest, mate and fight. (But don’t get too close, these creatures can weigh over 4,000 kilograms or 8,000 pounds.) Continue to the charming seaside village, home to rocky shorelines, bluffs and tide pools teeming with sea life. Get a generous slab of warm ollaberry pie with vanilla ice cream at Cambria mainstay, Linn’s Restaurant.  

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33 km
1 hour by car
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Morro Rock in the early morning light in Morro Bay, California
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Morro Bay

Your chances of encountering California’s diverse fauna are high in Morro Bay, a small city on (surprise!) a large bay and estuary. At Morro Bay State Park, you may see any number of wild animals including blue herons, monarch butterflies, hummingbirds and – yes – adorable, fluffy sea otters. The park offers trails, a small museum and picnic benches, making it a perfect road trip stop for when you’re feeling peckish and need to stretch your legs.

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22 km
06
The History Center in San Luis Obispo, California
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San Luis Obispo

Cruise down the PCH to mellow college town San Luis Obispo, nicknamed SLO, where you can tour quirky attractions such as the colorful Bubblegum Alley. Before you go, be sure to sample local wines at one of more than 30 nearby wineries, or take a hike to the nearby Point San Luis Lighthouse for fresh air and stunning views. While the town has many great places to stay, the delightfully gaudy Madonna Inn offers themed rooms like Caveman and Showboat. You don’t need to stay there to enjoy the outrageous interior, which features Western murals, ornate chandeliers, flocked wallpaper – and pink, pink and more pink. Order a slice of (pink) cake at the counter and soak up the atmosphere.

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108 km
2 hours by car
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Women jumping in Los Olivos, California
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Los Olivos and Solvang

Perhaps you didn’t plan to stop in Denmark on your way down the coast, but here you are. Founded by Danish pioneers in 1911, Solvang is Denmark in miniature and home to many Danish bakeries. Wander among traditional architecture and check out faithful reproductions of Copenhagen's Little Mermaid statue and Round Tower, as well as homages to Hans Christian Andersen. A short drive from Solvang, you will find the rustically charming town of Los Olivos surrounded by expansive wineries in the Santa Ynez Valley. Make time for tastings at wineries like Demetria for lush roses with views of the rolling hills. 

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54 km
1 hour by car
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Santa Barbara cityscape on a sunny California day
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Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara is the perfect embodiment of California’s two personalities: Beachy casual meets glitz. (Oprah owns an estate here.) This is a city filled with adobe homes, Spanish Colonial Revival architecture and mansions. Shop and explore the city’s unpretentious arts district known as the Funk Zone after taking in the city’s colonial history at the Old Mission Santa Barbara. Get a scoop of Churros Con Leche or Boysenberry Rose Milk Jam ice cream at McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams and enjoy fresh seafood and ocean views at Enterprise Fish Co. where you can sup on $1.50 oysters during happy hour. If you’re feeling adventurous, cut 20 minutes inland to Cold Spring Tavern, a bar and restaurant established in 1886 as a stagecoach stop. Then take advantage of the balmy weather and catch a movie at the Westwind Drive-In.

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161 km
2 hours by car
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Pacific Coast Highway in Los Angeles, California
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Friends in convertible with surfboard arriving at a beach near Los Angeles, California
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Los Angeles

Let Neptune’s Net be your gateway to Los Angeles. Perched right on the PCH, this seafood and beer bar in Malibu is marked by its distinct retro sign and is a favorite among bikers and Hollywood celebrities alike. Since opening in 1956, it’s been featured in everything from Point Break to Gossip Girl. Head onward to Los Angeles, where you can sample the city’s seemingly limitless personalities: Old Hollywood glamour on Mulholland Drive and at the Chateau Marmont, hipster cool in Silver Lake and Echo Park, tarpits and first-class art museums, the nearby Disneyland, malls and old-fashioned food markets.

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200 km
3 hours by car
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Two women taking a break from riding their bikes in San Diego, California
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San Diego

A surf mecca, military outpost and home to a world-famous zoo, San Diego is a border city proud of its Mexican food. Asking which restaurant is the best may start a heated debate; you’d be smart to try a few, whether it’s the tried-and-true menus at established spots like Las Cuatro Milpas and Oscar’s Mexican Seafood or the reimagined offerings of modern outposts like Galaxy Tacos and Puesto. Walk off your taco intake with a stroll on the beach or a trip to the Cave Store, so named because for $5 you can access a 200,000-year-old sea cave via a 145-step tunnel. (At least once a seal has made its way through the tunnel and into the store, which sells an assortment of trinkets.)

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Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California
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