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Pacific Coast Highway

Greetings from western NC!

We had to cancel our Italy trip 😢 so now we’re thinking of a trip within the U.S. We are looking into a road trip along Pacific Coast Highway for 16-18 days including stops. Would love to hear about your past experience or advice.

We drove the New England tour/experience a few years ago and loved it. Would welcome alternate location or road trip suggestions. We’re in our early 50’s traveling without kids. Empty nesters loving to travel!

Posted by
6871 posts

It's one of the most beautiful drives in the US, so you're in for a treat. There is so much info out there written about this drive that I don't have much to add. It also depends on what your start and end points are. Here is a sample of a part of the road (the north): https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/road-trips/california-pacific-coast-road-trip/
Point Lobos State Reserve is one of the most beautiful parks I've been to, so I would highlight it as a "must-see".
Here is a good resource in general (the excellent Visit CA Tourism site) and the southern parts of PCH: https://www.visitcalifornia.com/road-trips/pacific-coast-highway-south

I think the hardest part is not getting detoured into some of the amazing National and State Parks, which are inland (Yosemite, Kings Canyon, Joshua Tree, Death Valley, the Sierras, etc). I would stick strictly to PCH (and the cities along the way) and do the other stuff on another trip.

This is a prior thread that covers PCH, in case you're interested: https://community.ricksteves.com/travel-forum/beyond-europe/pacific-coast-highway-touring-ideas

Posted by
5262 posts

You can have a great road trip up or down the coast in spring, summer, or fall, hopefully as soon as next year, in 16-18 days. But that would be in a rental -- driving out here and back would take too much of that time. There are a couple of threads about this from last year: https://community.ricksteves.com/travel-forum/beyond-europe/highway-101-pacific-coast-roadtrip-seattle-to-mill-valley-must-see-s and https://community.ricksteves.com/travel-forum/beyond-europe/pacific-coast-highway-in-january-are-we-crazy.

In spring, start south and move north; in fall, start north and move south; in summer, either way. There are highways along the shoreline almost all the way, the only exceptions being part of northern California where you go inland in redwood country, and Washington's Olympic Peninsula, where much of 101 is inland but there are wonderful detours to spectacular rocky shores. You may or may not want to spend time in major cities like San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco -- you can drive through them pretty fast if your goal is rural coastal scenery. As noted above, there are many inland distractions like national parks, wine country, and other major cities like Portland and Seattle.

Have fun planning this trip with the help of good maps and guidebooks.

Posted by
136 posts

We lived along or near the PCH for many years. Have traveled all of it from deep in Baja, Mexico to Vancouver, BC. From San Diego to Santa Monica, there are places to visit depending on your preferences, but the real PCH starts in Santa Monica. In CA, there are really 2 PCH highways: US101 and CA 1. The state highway is the curvy scenic one from Moro Bay to Pacific Grove (the Big Sur highway) and from Golden Gate Bridge to Leggett. US101 is the Redwoods Highway from Leggett to Oregon. US101 is near the coast all through Oregon to Astoria. US101 in Washington starts at Astoria, is occasionally inland a bit , heads north to the Olympic Peninsula and then south along Puget Sound to Olympia. 2-1/2 weeks is inadequate to do more than drive a lot. Just imagine 2-1/2 weeks to go from ME to FL. Just like the East Coast, a fantastic trip with scenery, seafood, frontier history, and friendly small towns. Good guide books are a necessity.

Posted by
48 posts

@joe32f
We’d definitely be flying out and picking up a rental. Thinking of starting in Portland and ending up in San Diego where we would fly home from.

Posted by
11246 posts

I've done the section from L.A. to Wine Country many times and once all the way into Vancouver. It's wonderful. But it's been a long time since that occurred.

When were you planning to go? How did you plan to get to the west coast? My suggestion would be to make as many reservations fully refundable as you can since events change daily with this virus.

And don't think you'll be alone. Travel trade publications report that Americans who might normally fly to a destination--domestic and international--are now considering road trips here at home.

Posted by
1557 posts

I’m very familiar with PCH/ 101 from San Diego to San Francisco. I haven’t done the trip north of San Francisco in over 30 years so I can’t give any advice for that portion. I do not agree with going one way in the spring and a different way inother seasons. Going south out of San Francisco is much nicer than going north to San Francisco on the stretch out of Moro Bay to Monterey. Driving south allows for a better view of the coast and ocean for both the driver and passenger.
Keep in mind that May and June can be foggy and cool. We call it the May gray and June gloom. The fog usually lifts early afternoon but I remember many years with overcast skies until very late in the afternoon. I’ve also been very cold in early July in San Francisco.
September and early early October offers the best weather along the coast from San Diego to San Francisco. I can’t speak for north of San Francisco though. Also, our rainy season can start in November and last well into the spring, if we are lucky enough! More rain definitely from Monterey northward than points south. The stretch of highway from Monterey south to San Simeon is subject to road closures during the rainy season and repairs can and have taken months. I would not recommend doing this portion in the winter. It would be wise to check road conditions on the outside chance portions of PCH is closed from winter storms.
I hope to convince my husband to take the PCH north out of San Francisco this September. He has never been.

Posted by
794 posts

Allow me to add my $0.02 worth. I have lived up and down the west coast from San Diego to Everett, WA. I'm making my home just south of Tacoma these days, but I've driven 101, 1, and 5 for over 30 years in all weather. I5 is for if you're in a hurry and need to get somewhere. The coast roads are for the drive. When tourist season hits the coast it's wall to wall RV's, and traffic sucks. Prices go up, and everything gets crowded.

Apparently this isn't clear to most folks; driving I5 and driving the coast roads are completely different! It takes most of a day of hard driving to get from one end of Oregon to the other. The coast road is mostly two lanes (one in each direction) and goes thru dozens of small communities with associated traffic and stops. Likewise, the California coast; it's a good days drive from Santa Cruz to Santa Barbara, and having driven it dozens of times I still stop to just sit and look at something on the way. South of SB you hit traffic, and unless you detour to the Freeway (I5 again) you're going to be in stop and go all the way to Mexico.

I'd fly into SeaTac and drive the route Olympia/Aberdeen/Long Beach/Astoria to get on 101. Seriously the Lewis and Clark Museum at Cape Disappointment is worth stopping for. Especially if it's not raining. Likewise I think driving over the bridge to Astoria is something everyone should experience, but I like bridges.

Take a couple weeks and do it slow. Take a hike in the rain. Realize there are people (like me) who go out to the coast just to sit on the beach and watch the storm. (Or better yet, in a condo just off the beach with a view.) Hiking the forest in the rain in nice too.

If you start in Seattle you have two options; go out and around the Olympic Peninsula or not. If you do decide to go the long way you should drive down to Olympia and then up to Port Angeles, from there to Forks, and then down the coast to Aberdeen/Grey's Harbor. You can easy make that loop in a day, but I usually stay over in Forks or out on the coast at La Push. You should be able to get a beach condo for $40-$50/night.

From Aberdeen you go along the coast to Long Beach. Most of that side of the coast was logged in the 60-70's and still has some going on. (They work in the rain.) There's a really good museum for Lewis and Clark in Long Beach. Then you have the bridge to Astoria. If there's weather that can be a ride. The bridge does move! That's one of the most dangerous river's in the world at that point. But Astoria is nice, an old fishing village. Just south is Tillamook, which is famous for cheese and ice cream. They have one of the best collections of old airplanes you can ever see in an old blimp hanger just outside town.

From Tillamook you come a little inland, but you can see signs to take you out to some of the lighthouses of you want. From Lincoln City to Newport is real pretty. And if the sun comes out you can probably see some seals or otters on the rocks. That stretch is famous for crab and lobster so make sure you eat local.

I love the drive from Newport to Coos Bay. You pass the best sand dunes north of Pismo Beach in that stretch. Coos Bay is a nice town to spend some time in too. But from there down to Klamath (in CA) is the most rural stretch of road you'll hit. It's the sticks, and services are few even in summer. Plan accordingly.

There are several good lighthouses you may want to stop at. Pt Arena in CA and Yaquina Head light in OR are among the best. Plan a walk at Pt Reyes too! The Sea Lion Caves are a tourist trap. If you want to see them for free go to Yaquina Head and look at the rocks at the base of the cliff. If the tide is out you can walk out a long way and there's all kinds of tide pools.

More to follow...

Posted by
794 posts

Just outside of Crescent City is Jed. Smith State Park. It's one of my favorite places to just be alone in the woods. Fabulous trees! South of there is Eureka, the big city for that part of the coast. And from there you probably want to stay on 101 and visit Humboldt for the redwoods. (You can go out along the coast there, but I wouldn't recommend it. The roads are pretty minimal.)

At Ft Hunter Leggett you can pick up Hwy 1 and head down the famous Mendicino Coast to Ft Bragg, and Point Arena. This is the drive everyone talks about, and yeah, it's best in a little roadster with the sun out, but it's pretty good anytime. If you want a treat stay at Sea Ranch, but be prepared to pay, as this is very popular. If the weather is good a picnic at Ft Ross is always nice too. Plan on some wine tasting south of Leggett. (Check with your airline, most will ship wine as uncharged baggage. The wineries will pack it if you ask.)

Now you have to make another choice of routes; stay on 1 south of Bodega, or cut over the hills to Petaluma and then to Napa Valley. Myself, I'd do the detour to Napa, because a little wine country will be nice after all the seaside. Napa in January is great, because during the week the tourists are minimal (they never completely stop). If you go that way let me know and I'll give you a locals list of stuff to do. (I lived there 5 years too.)

From Napa you can cut over to SF (which you'd hit if you come south from Bodega). Do the tourist thing there, and make sure you are back on the coast at Santa Cruz. Then you have Monterrey, Carmel, Big Sur, San Simeon, and Morro Bay, and then down into Santa Barbara and the start of the L.A./ San Diego metroplex. It's only a days drive, but you can easy spend a week on that stretch alone.

If you want more details on the stretch below San Jose let me know. I can write more. But to me the best stretch is between there and Seattle. (I'm posting a southbound itinerary, but it works just as good going North with one exception. Passengers have the best view southbound.)

Posted by
6349 posts

Native Californian here. Have driven all of Hwy 1 off and on for over 50 years.

Take to heart the mentioning of June Gloom as well as coastal fog. Was out and about last Saturday driving back to LA from Camarillo. Had needed to get out so pre dawn drove up the 101 to Camarillo and cut over through the strawberry fields and farm land to the 1 just on the outskirts of the Pt Magu Naval base. As you descend on the 101 past Thousand Oaks into the Camarillo and the farm land there is often a gray coastal haze that creeps in from the Pacific.

Snapped some pics of the roadside Missile Park, and hopped on 1 heading South. Hit Sunset Blvd and turned left heading home to Hollywood.

I will say from my youth my favorite part of Hwy 1 was from Santa Cruz to Half Moon Bay solely because of Waddle Creek, Anno Nuevo and Bean Hallow. All beaches my Mom and Dad and I would visit to wander, tide pool and watch the huge sea lions. If you travel before Halloween and want a pumpkin stop at Aratas farm. Later during college days discovered the Purisima redwoods and Butano state park. Lunch at Duarte’s Tavern outside Pescadero still a favorite sojourn when I’m North. Then a slow drive up to Skyline Blvd ( a favorite route for motorcyclists ) over to Hwy 9 and then back down into Saratoga. Learned to drive on that route thanks to my father and his belief I needed to experience driving on 2 lane roads in the Santa Cruz mountains.

After visiting the impressive Hearst castle stop at Pt Lobos State Park and hike out to China Cove. Then lunch in Pacific Grove before heading to Carmel and Monterey.

If into wooden roller coasters ride the Big Dipper at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. Capitola has its own charm. The venerable Zeldas is good for a nosh. If you seek a town in the redwoods head to Felton and visit Henry Cowell State Park. Then take the twisty Bonny Boone Rd back down to Hwy 1. You’ll come out south of Davenport.

Much further North after crossing the Golden Gate Bridge take time to enjoy Bodega Bay, Pt Reyes and Dillion Beach, wharf Rock outside Elk, the Navarro Estuary and lastly, Pt Cabrillo. All different, all worth the adventure.

My suggestions for Hwy 1 are to visit Morro Bay and explore Montana Del Oro State Park. Wonderful spot to eat is the Bayside Cafe in Los Osos. Be sure to stop in at the Slo Roasted coffee company. Great coffee to buy. The nearby Glorias Garden cafe serves it. Have a cup.

You will need patience, a vehicle that gets good gas mileage, a stellar paper map to compliment your GPS, money for state parks enterance fees, water and snacks, and either good music via Spotify or at a minimum an interesting audiobook.

BTW and an odd but real nomenclature south of Santa Barbara is that Southern Californians refer to the Pacific Coast Highway as PCH. Northern Californians don’t often do that. Most always it’s just 1. As in take 1, get on 1, follow 1... I grew up in the Bay Area but have been in LA for a long long time due to my work. It remains Hwy 1 for me. Never PCH. Northern Californian at heart till I die!

Posted by
1765 posts

You've received wonderful advice/suggestions. I would just add that I don't think 16-18 days is long enough to enjoy the trip from Portland to San Diego. As others have mentioned, the driving is slow. and there's just too much to see and do. I would pick either Washington/Oregon OR California. You might consider flying into Seattle and out of Medford, OR. Or into Medford and out of San Diego. And then do the other trip "next time." Heck, I could (and have!) easily enjoy(ed) two weeks in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, San Diego and a week in numerous other places. (Former Coos Bay resident)

Posted by
5784 posts

Another alternative reduced route is to start from Portland (PDX), and then drive south from Astoria (mouth of the Columbia River) following US 101 to Leggett, CA then continue on California Highway 1 if you want coastal scenery. Alternatively, stay on US 101 to Santa Rosa and tour the Northern California wine country. From Santa Rosa, follow the Russian River (California 116) to Pacific Coast Highway 1 at Jenner. Then Highway 1 south to the Golden Gate bridge and San Francisco. Continue on Highway 1 to Santa Cruz, Monterey (two nights, the Aquarium is a must see). Continuing south etc. ending in LA or San Diego.

Travel Oregon: https://traveloregon.com/things-to-do/trip-ideas/scenic-drives/the-pacific-coast-scenic-byway/

Posted by
128 posts

I was so happy to see this post today. After our European travels for this Sept were canceled, I have planned a 2 week trip down the Oregon Coast. We have lived in the PNW for over almost 12 years and this has been on our list of “trips to do”. Everything I reserved is refundable and since half the fun for me is planning, if CV circumstances prevent from going this year, I already have a plan for another year. We are going to take it slow down the coast, spending 2 nights at each stop. After we reach CA, we will head inland and go to Crater Lake And then make our way to Mt. St. Helens after a stop in Eugene, OR. Our European trip would have been about 2 weeks, so I am excited to be able to travel for the same amount of time this year (hopefully). And, although I have loved previous travels to Europe, it’s wonderful to have beautiful, amazing places to explore in the US. From my experience on previous trips to different parts of the Pacific Coast, I must say, this part of the US is stunning!

Posted by
1 posts

Having bicycled from Seattle to San Francisco, you should know that's a very popular bicycle trip also, and many more cyclists go south bound than north, with a wider road shoulder and more tailwind going south. So if you drive, be ready for more cyclists going south and please give them enough room passing to be safe, ideally at least 3 feet. And there are some tunnels, three I think, where there is NO shoulder or sidewalk, so there and the whole way, you will have to "share the road" to keep everyone safe.

Posted by
131 posts

In Oregon, we suggest you travel South on Hwy 101, because the many turnouts for views and photo opportunities will be on your side of the road. That way you don't have to cross opposing traffic. If you're traveling during the summer, expect slow traffic with not many passing opprotunities. Sea Lion Caves only has sea lions in the winter.

Posted by
19 posts

I am so excited for you!! Driving the PCH is a DREAM. My husband and I lived in SoCal for 4 years and did this as much as we could.

I highly recommend:

John Muir woods to see the Redwood Trees, just outside of SF.
Big Sur!! GORGEOUS VIEWS!
Carmel area: vineyards, beautiful beaches, the famous 21 mile drive, darling downtown, a meal at Clint Eastwood's ranch...it's the most beautiful little seaside village.
Santa Barbara
San Diego for a few days if you have never been there

I am going to send you a link to the AirBnB I stayed in last spring in the wine country of Carmel. It was an absolutely magical stay. I highly recommend spending a day or two in Carmel.

Casa Bonita in Carmel-By-The-Sea

Posted by
205 posts

Everyone has such great advice! I would add that, between Newport Beach/Corona Del Mar and Laguna Beach, you might stop at Crystal Cove State Park. It’s a historic area ....an early movie set as well as a place where “free thinkers” from Los Angeles built cottages with whatever drifted up on the beach. Those beach cottages are being restored one by one as funds become available and are available to reserve through the California park system. It’s charming and there’s a wonderful little restaurant on the beach. Parking is on the inland side of PCH, and you can take a shuttle or walk through a passage under the highway. The raising of the martini flag at 5 pm is a tradition dating back to the 40’s! Not sure how the Covid issue might be playing out there, however.

Posted by
7696 posts

Consider your flights carefully. Avoid American Airlines. Take food and buy water before boarding. We endured a terrible experience flying cross country.