There’s nothing like the freedom of getting into a car and hitting the open road. And here in California, the famed Pacific Coast Highway—California State Route 1—makes for one of the world’s best road trip opportunities. Passing through major cities and quaint towns alike, not to mention gorgeous natural scenescapes along the way, the PCH drive has become one of America’s most beloved journeys.
And though it’s possible to drive the 450 miles between San Francisco and Santa Monica in one day—it takes about ten hours if you follow the coast, and under seven if you stay inland—we always figure, what’s the rush? The entire drive is infinitely more enjoyable if you slow down and take the time to truly experience California’s stunning coastline.
Ready to grab the keys and get started? Follow our essential guide for the best places to stop on the Pacific Coast Highway along the way- in the ultimate California road trip.
San Francisco to Monterey
From San Francisco, cut across the verdant Santa Cruz Mountains and make your way to Route 1. Your first glimpse of the Pacific will take your breath away. Continue south on the two-lane highway, passing through San Gregorio and windswept Pescadero State Beach. Pescadero makes a great first stop to stretch your legs. There’s a short walk to an overlook on a cliff, plus easy access to the fine-sand beach.
From there, follow the highway for six more miles to Pigeon Point. You’ll want to hop off the road here for a quick photo-opp by the lighthouse, which stands on its own at the edge of the point.
Keep on heading south, with the Pacific on the passenger side, as you curve eastward and venture around the huge Monterey Bay. One of the world’s most wildlife-rich biomes, Monterey Bay is a bucket list destination for nature lovers. About three quarters of the way down the bay’s shoreline, and roughly three hours into the journey, Monterey makes for an excellent first stopover.
With Sanctuary Beach Resort as your home base, all of Monterey is at your fingertips. From epic whale watches and birding opportunities to stellar hikes and oceanfront running routes, it is an action-packed getaway. Stop by one of Monterey’s best coffee shops to get energized before venturing out for your Monterey adventures. Prefer to take things easy? Bring the family to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, one of the most respected marine research centers in the world—and the setting for Finding Dory. Filled with amazing sea-life, and interesting facts, it’s an ideal place to take go when you’re on a family vacation in Monterey. Another local spot: Fisherman’s Wharf, a historic pier with restaurants, bars and souvenir shops—where else in the country can you buy a postcard while watching sea lions frolic in the water? And if you think it looks familiar, you’re right. HBO megahit Big Little Lies is set in Monterey, and Celeste and Madeline’s favorite café is set right here on the wharf.
Of course, if you want to take things even easier, there are myriad ways to unwind right at Sanctuary Beach Resort. Overlooking both the Bay and protected sand dunes, the car-free resort lets guests disconnect. Read a book on the beach or in your own cottage, enjoy an indulgent spa treatment, and watch the sun set over the ocean—glass of wine in hand. For dinner, Salt Wood is a destination in its own right, and one of the best seafood restaurants in Monterey. Chef David Baron’s seasonal New American cuisine draws diners from across the region, with an oyster bar, live-fire open kitchen and ocean views.
Once night falls, listen to the sound of the waves crashing and the crackle of beachfront bonfires—a favorite nighttime tradition at Sanctuary Beach Resort—before retreating to a residential-style cottage.
Monterey to Santa Barbara
The next morning, wake up early and continue on Highway One for what will be one of the most scenic drives ever. Today’s journey takes you along the route’s signature attraction: Big Sur.
To get there, you’ll want to drive along the waterfront following the famed 17-Mile Drive. The coastal route is a slight detour, but entirely worth it for the dramatic turns and sweeping Pacific views. The Drive ends in Carmel-by-the-Sea, an adorably quaint arts colony. Take a few minutes to explore the charming downtown, which fronts a sandy beach, before continuing on the drive. The highway follows the coastline and begins to climb higher. Often, you’ll see whales spouting offshore as your car rises ever higher on the coastal highways. You’ve reached Big Sur, the largest stretch of undeveloped waterfront in the Contiguous 48. Nature lovers will have plenty to keep themselves busy here, including multiple fabulous hikes—some along the water, others into the rugged interior.
Continuing south, the mountains veer inland as you get towards San Simeon, home to the iconic Hearst Castle. Just before town, there’s a beach overlook that almost always has cars parked. What’s the attraction? An elephant seal colony. The massive, bizarre mammals camp out on the sands below in droves. Architecture fans will want to take the detour for a visit to the over-the-top Hearst Castle, built by media mogul William Randolph Hearst.
From San Simeon, continue along Route 1 along the coast, past sandy beaches and mountains dotted with sagebrush. After several hours you’ll reach the American Riviera, a scenic stretch of coastline centering along Santa Barbara.
Exploring Santa Barbara
Check into Hotel Milo, a beachfront hotel in the Spanish Revival style that’s quintessential to Santa Barbara. If you’re there in time for dinner, you’ll want to explore the crop of new restaurants in Santa Barbara that are helping the university town land on the foodie’s map. Have the kids in tow? We’ve got lots of family-friendly recommendations as well, from casual pizza spots to beachfront cafes.
The next day, take some time to explore the town itself. We love the Funk Zone, an arts district that’s become one of California’s leading cultural hubs. You can also see the historic Santa Barbara Mission, founded in 1786. For more adventure, spend the morning in one of the many nearby hot springs, or on one of myriad scenic hikes. Or, take to the sea, and get a look at Santa Barbara from the water, by sailing, paddleboarding, or even venturing to undeveloped islands. Back in town, the beach is a favorite spot to hang out, toss a frisbee, or simply read a book. And oenophiles will love the Urban Wine Trail, a series of wineries and tasting rooms in town that showcase the award-winning vineyards of Santa Barbara Wine Country.
Santa Barbara to Santa Monica
With most of the driving behind you, you can amble between Santa Barbara and Santa Monica, Los Angeles’s chic beachfront district. Driving through famed towns like Montecito, Ventura and Malibu, you’ll want to stop in the Santa Monica Hills National Recreation Area, a 156,671 acre preserve protecting rugged peaks and gorgeous shoreline. Do a hike or two before venturing the final few miles to Santa Monica.
Exploring Santa Monica and Los Angeles
Santa Monica is LA’s breezy beach resort town, a city that take California Chill to new levels. At The Ambrose, a boutique property in a leafy residential neighborhood just minutes from the sands. Drop off your bags—and car keys— and set off to discover this charming Southern California town.
One of Santa Monica’s most famous attractions is the iconic Santa Monica Pier, home to a historic rollercoaster and epic views up and down the coastline. It and the adjacent beach make up one of the best places in Santa Monica to bring the kids. Stay near the beach for lunch at our favorite waterfront restaurants, from rustic grills to upscale seafood restaurants. For shopping, you’ll want to check out two main drags: Main Street, along with the Third Street Promenade. Both are home to independent brands and major international names, making for an eclectic mix of shopping options. These are also two streets where you’re likely to spot celebrities in Santa Monica, either in one of the outdoor cafes or strolling amongst stalls at the farmers market.
Of course, after a few days driving, you’ll definitely want to take time to totally indulge. Southern Californians are pros at relaxation, and Santa Monica has several excellent day spas offering restorative treatments. You deserve it!
Feeling inspired? Check out other hotels we recommend staying with on your California road trip!
Sanctuary Beach Resort
The Ambrose Hotel