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Pacific Coast Highway Stops

Updated: August 16, 2023
 By Britt

The Pacific Coast Highway has been called one of the best road trips in the world, and we completely agree!

On this page, we have included a list of some of the best Pacific Coast Highway stops to make.


Pacific Coast Highway stops on the drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles have everything a traveler can possibly want.

From incredible scenery of Big Sur and the Pacific Ocean, wine tasting in Solvang, incredible surfing in Malibu and Venice, world-class museums at Hearst Castle and the Getty Center, wildlife in Monterey, and historic and beautiful Spanish missions in Santa Barbara, driving the Pacific Coast Highway will be some of the most amazing time of your life.

Tripadvisor reviews give the Pacific Coast Highway a solid 5 out of 5 stars, with an astounding 1,400 reviews!

The best place to begin your drive down the Pacific Coast Highway is right here in San Francisco!

And since you have a car, make sure to go through the city and drive down our famous Lombard Street, the most crooked street in the world!

From there, you can drive just a bit up Columbus Avenue to go toward San Francisco Bay. Make a quick left on Bay Street, and you'll be heading right for the Golden Gate Bridge.

Be sure to check out our post on this, one of the world's most famous bridges, to see where to get the best photographs, learn about the bridge, and the best lookout spots.

Sutro Baths at Lands End

Once you finish with the Golden Gate Bridge, it's time to head south.

When you leave the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center, merge onto Highway 1 to go to Land's End, where North America ends and the Pacific Ocean begins.

Point your GPS to Sutro Baths and park your car for a little while, because this is one of the most picturesque spots of San Francisco and a great place to walk around for a bit.

The old Sutro Baths look like ancient Roman ruins but ruins you can walk around as you enjoy the view of the Pacific Ocean, the hills around you, and (at most times of the year) some beautiful San Francisco flowers.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Don't go straight down Highway 1, because that will take you through some really boring city streets. Instead, take Lincoln Blvd and head west to get to Great Highway and Skyline Boulevard to drive down the beautiful San Francisco coastline.

1. Half Moon Bay

Before even reaching Santa Cruz on your Pacific Coast Highway road trip, take a detour to Half Moon Bay.

This spot, often considered a gem on the California coast road trip, is famed for its scenic trails and state park beaches.

Half Moon Bay. Image source: Pixabay user David Mark.
Half Moon Bay. Image source: Pixabay user David Mark.

As you stroll along the coastline, you'll witness the Pacific Ocean's vastness, with the waves creating a rhythmic soundtrack to your visit.

Half Moon Bay promises a blend of nature's tranquility with the adventure of the California road trip experience.

2. Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz is just under 2 hours south of Land's End. And a little-known fact: Santa Cruz was the birthplace of surfing in the United States.

If we have any surfers among our readership, they will certainly know the O'Neill company.

Well, Jack O'Neill, the founder of the O'Neill company, lived in Santa Cruz for most of his life.

Santa Cruz Boardwalk

Back in 1885, a few Hawaiian natives brought the sport to California, and the state has never been the same since!

Santa Cruz is also home to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, which has a lot of amusement rides including a really nice roller coaster.

Elsewhere in the area, you'll find several great places to eat and shop.

3. Monterey

Originally a historic little fishing village, which you can still feel as you drive or walk around the area.

Easily the most famous aspect of Monterey is the Monterey Bay Aquarium. This is, without a doubt, the best aquarium in the entire United States.

Additionally, while in Monterey, don't miss out on visiting the picturesque Carmel-by-the-Sea and the renowned Pebble Beach.

Once you depart Monterey, you will quickly leave civilization behind you, as everything opens up to mountains, cliffs, sky, and ocean.

As you continue your journey, remember that the iconic Hearst Castle is located in San Simeon.

Monterey Bay

Once you depart Monterey, you will quickly leave civilization behind you, as everything opens up to mountains, cliffs, sky, and ocean.

As you continue your journey, remember that the iconic Hearst Castle is located in San Simeon.

4. Big Sur

It will be hard NOT to realize when you're in Big Sur. This is one of the steepest inclines in the world.

When you drive on the Pacific Coast Highway, you will see sheer cliffs straight down to the water. But the hills inland will go even steeper!

Big Sur

If you go to the Big Sur Crater, you will be a full one mile (1.6 km) above sea level while remaining only three miles (5 km) inland from the ocean.

You can get amazing views from here to the ocean and the intense fog of California.

There are many places that you can pull over for photographs of the area.

We would strongly recommend that you stop at one of these locations to enjoy the view and take advantage of your camera!

5. Bixby Bridge

No matter where you live, or whether you have been to California before, we can guarantee that you have seen Bixby Bridge in your life.

Bixby Bridge

This is one of the most photographed bridges in the entire world.

Have you watched many commercials for automobiles? Chances are, you've seen one of those cars driving over Bixby Bridge.

This is a 730-foot (220 meters) structure that is 280 feet (85 meters) over the cliffs of the Pacific Ocean.

Because the State of California knows how popular this bridge is, they have created some parking spots right next to the bridge.

So if you're driving down the Pacific Coast Highway, you can stop at Bixby Bridge for some photos (or selfies!) along the way.

6. Pfeiffer Beach

If you decide to stop here (Note: $10 parking charge) and walk down to the beach, you will be treated to one of the best beach views in the world.

Pfeiffer Beach

From here, you have amazing restaurants, incredible views, and you can wade into the beach in a secluded area right along the coastline.

At Pfeiffer Beach, you'll get to see McWay Falls, one of the only times in the entire world that you'll see a waterfall into the ocean.

So be sure to enjoy it and get good photos if you can!

7. Hearst Castle

Just a bit down the highway, you will also be able to see the famous Hearst Castle.

Created by newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, this location has turned into one of the greatest museums in California.

Hearst Castle

This was originally the home of Hearst, and during the 1920s, this was a vacation spot for some of the richest and most famous people in the world.

You can see Spanish Revival architecture throughout the castle as you explore the various areas of the estate.

Although California is still a very young state, Hearst Castle is one of the few areas in America that will remind you of the oldest estates and churches in Europe.

In short: Hearst Castle is a must-do while you're driving down the Pacific Coast Highway.

Important Note: Remember to book a spot well before you leave San Francisco! Hearst Castle can book up very early, so be sure to get your tickets well in advance!

Driving south from Heart Castle is simply more beautiful scenery. 

8. Cambria

Cambria is the place where you'll be able to visit California's elephant seals!

Cambria Elephant Seals.

All along the waterfront, these elephant seals will visit the beaches and stretch out for relaxation or (in certain seasons) for mating.

If you want to hang out near the beach in Cambria, you can see dozens (or even hundreds, in the high season) of elephant seals spending time on the beach.

9. The Madonna Inn

Well, it's hard to explain exactly what this hotel is. I suppose the best we can say is that this is the most "interesting" hotel you'll ever visit.

Every room in the hotel has a different theme.

Do you want a blue room? You can have it! Do you want an entirely pink room? Go to the dining room and everything will be pink!

And do you want a really interesting bathroom? Well, in the men's public bathroom, the hotel has built a cave where you relieve yourself right down the rocks.

It is, to say the least, unique!

10. Pismo Beach

Throughout the 1900s, Pismo Beach was considered the clam capital of the entire world.

You could walk down the beaches, throw a rock down on the rocks, see where the clams were hiding, and dig them right out of the sand.

Pismo Beach

Unfortunately, because of the extreme hunting of clams up and down the coast of California, there are very few clams left.

However, it is still legal to go clamming on Pismo Beach, so if you'd like to give it a try, you are welcome to test your hand at the dextrous activity of clamming.

If you venture off into the town of Pismo, you'll see a giant clam statue welcoming visitors to Pismo Beach.

Solvang Windmill

11. Solvang

Any movie buff will have seen the movie Sideways. And if you have seen Sideways, you will have seen Solvang.

Solvang was originally a region filled with Danish immigrants who wanted to escape the harsh winters of the Midwest.

Because of this escape, the Danish people created a small Copenhagen-of-the-West in Solvang.

You can get all the Danish food you want, see the Little Mermaid statue (originally built in Copenhagen), explore the Hans Christian Anderson Museum, and more!

In Solvang, there are more windmills within a short trip of the town square than there are in any place in the world outside of Denmark!

12. Santa Barbara

This city offers an enormous number of reasons to visit. First, you will see incredible architecture around the neighborhood.

The Mission Revival style of architecture rules the town.

But you will also see why it is called "Mission Revival," because you will see the Queen of the Missions in this city.

Santa Barbara Mission

Back in the 1700s, Spanish explorers created a series of missions up the coast of this continent.

And the church they created at Santa Barbara was the most incredible of them all.

If you go to Mission Santa Barbara, we guarantee that you will not be disappointed.

If you continue exploring Santa Barbara, you will see that there are more world-famous sites in this area.

The Moreton Bay Fig Tree is the largest shade tree in the entire world! You should walk around this tree to see just how enormous it really is.

Driving south from Santa Barbara, you will feel like you're in a normal city.

But, once you go through 15-30 minutes of the road, you will quickly get to an area that offers excellent views of the incredible Pacific Ocean.

13. Ventura and Channel Islands National Park

As you traverse the Southern California stretch of your PCH road trip itinerary, don't miss out on Ventura.

This vibrant town acts as a gateway to the Channel Islands National Park.

Santa Cruz Island, part of the Channel Islands. Image source: Pixabay user benstorm.
Santa Cruz Island, part of the Channel Islands. Image source: Pixabay user benstorm.

A boat ride away, the park encompasses five distinct islands, each teeming with unique flora and fauna.

Here, you can witness species that have evolved in isolation, making it a detour from your main route that's well worth the time.

14. Malibu

You have probably already seen Malibu, even if you've never been here before.

Have you seen Iron Man? Grease? Planet of the Apes? She's All That? 50 First Dates? Pirates of the Caribbean? Letters from Iwo Jima? Karate Kid?

Malibu sign

No matter what age you are, you will have seen movies that show you Malibu.

This area is so beautiful that dozens upon dozens of movies have been filmed here.

When you drive through the region, it's almost guaranteed that you will see things you recognize.

Also in Malibu is an extremely famous surfing spot called Point Dume.

Point Dume (pronounced "doom") is an incredibly famous "right break" in the Pacific Ocean (and if you are a surfer, we don't have to explain that to you).

15. Getty Villa

We will be the first to admit that most museums around the world are more famous.

Everybody knows about the Louvre in Paris, the Met in New York City, and the British Museum in London.

Getty Villa

The greatest part of the Getty Villa?

It's free! Everybody can come to enjoy some of the most incredible works of art in one of the most beautiful settings in the world, and it doesn't cost anything. 

16. Finish in Los Angeles!

From here, you can explore this incredible town wherever you'd like.

From the Santa Monica Pier to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to the Hollywood Sign, there's something for everybody here!

Here are a few sights you must visit in LA:

  • Huntington Beach
  • Newport Beach
  • Orange County
  • Dana Point
  • Laguna Beach

The 4 Best Pacific Coast Highway & Monterey Tours

While there are no companies that will take you on a day trip all the way down the Pacific Coast Highway to Los Angeles, many companies will take you to some of the best areas in the northern part of the PCH.

We have looked through all the Pacific Coast Highway tours and have created a list of the best Monterey and Carmel day tours for you.

Unless otherwise noted, each of these tours will pick you up from your hotel (as long as you're in Downtown San Francisco or Fisherman's Wharf).

They'll drive you down the Pacific Coast Highway, stopping at the best photo and lunch spots along the way, returning you back to your hotel in the evening.

It makes for a long day, but an extremely fun one!

Here is our list of the best Monterey tours available from San Francisco.

1. City Sightseeing Tour

If you have walked around San Francisco at all, no doubt you will have seen many City Sightseeing buses driving around the city full of passengers.

Although our awesome free walking tours will show you the best sites on the ground, sometimes you just have to take a bus tour to see a larger portion of the city!

City Sightseeing tours are the most popular in San Francisco, and they also offer tours of the Pacific Coast Highway.

Tour cost: $109.99 for adults, $71.99 for children ages 4 - 11

TripAdvisor Rating: 3.5 Stars (3,173 reviews)

2. Extranomical Tours

Extranomical is normally the highest-rated bus tour in the city and for day trips. However, they also tend to be the most expensive tour among the industry leaders.

If you are looking for the best trip and are willing to spend a bit more money, Extranomical is a great option.

However, this tour will not pick you up from your hotel--you will have to meet them at their offices in the South of Market (SoMa) area.

The office is easy to reach by BART or other public transportation.

Tour Cost: $105 for adults, $95 for children under age 12 (with optional Monterey Bay Aquarium ticket for an extra cost)
Tripadvisor Rating: 4.5 Stars (1,787 reviews)

3. Gray Line Tours

Gray Line is another popular option, though not as commonly used as the tour groups above.

And although the price is lower than some other options, there is no lower price for children on the bus. But if everybody in your group is older than 12, this is a great pick for you!

Tour Cost: $75 per person
Tripadvisor Rating: 3.5 Stars (1,146 reviews)

4. Toast Tours

Toast Tours started in 2018, after 10+ years of guiding experience in Napa & Sonoma, as well as Barcelona, Spain.

In addition to having years of guiding experience, the tour operators have both passed our Intro Sommelier certification and are studying for higher levels of WSET.

Because of this, they are focusing our tours on going more in-depth into wine and the art/science/history behind each bottle, while still having lots of fun of course.

Toast Tours is currently offering two local group experiences, our Toast Together tour which visits 3 wineries and then finishes in Tin City, and Hearst Castle & Wine tour which departs from both San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles and visits Hearst Castle, Cambria & 2 wineries plus Tin City.

You can also find private tours, charters & transportation, which are completely flexible and offer full concierge services.

You can find more information about our tours on their website:

Where does the PCH start and end?

The PCH starts in Oregon and ends in San Diego, passing through places like Carmel-by-the-Sea and many other sites on our list.

How long is the PCH?

The PCH spans a vast distance, covering iconic spots from Glass Beach in Fort Bragg to the scenic 17-mile drive near Pebble Beach.

In total, the entire stretch of highway is approximately 655.8 miles.

What is the best time of year to drive the PCH?

The best time of year to drive the PCH is during spring or fall, ensuring clear views of Point Reyes, Muir Woods, and the pristine Mendocino County coastlines without the heavy traffic that comes from summer crowds.

About The Author


Britt is a San Francisco Bay Area native, and has spent 25 years in this magical city. He has traveled to over 30 countries, and has never found a place he loves as much as this one! If you come to San Francisco, you might join one of Britt's tours of the city. A graduate of the University of Maryland and University of Southern California, he has been leading tours for Free Tours by Foot since 2015.
Updated: August 16th, 2023
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