A drive down the Pacific Coast Highway was on my bucket list for years. It is California’s most scenic strip of coastline and many argue one of the most scenic road trips in the United States.
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We have driven PCH twice once in a car and once on a motorcycle, both times starting from San Francisco and driving south. Someday I would like to drive north of San Francisco to have completed the stretch.
Pacific Coast Highway or Highway 1 is over 650 miles stretching the coast of California. It spans from a tiny town of Leggett on the north end to Dana Point on the southern end. However, the National Scenic Byway is just a small section of the Big Sur area.
How long does it take to drive the Pacific Coast Highway?
If you don’t stop the drive is about 12 hours. Mother Nature sometimes changes the route, so if you’re planning a trip always check the road conditions first. If there are mudslides in northern California you may have to back track.
Of course you will stop, so the time increase. That is the whole point of the road trip. Stop. Explore. Get back on the road and repeat.
San Francisco to Dana Point: Pacific Coast Highway Itinerary
Our road trip took us from congested freeway, to rural roads through farms, to the infamous highway that runs along the ocean and through major cities.
Pacific Coast Highway Stops North to South
The most winding roads and rugged terrain is found in the first 10 stops south of San Francisco.
- Pebble Beach
- Big Sur
- Point Lobos Reserve
- McWay Falls
- Limekilin State Park
- Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Vista Point
- Hearst Castle
- San Simeon
- Morro Bay
- Santa Barbara
- Santa Monica
- Los Angeles
- Long Beach
- Huntington Beach
- Newport Beach
- Laguna Beach
- Emerald Bay
- Dana Point
Monterey was immortalized in John Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row. You can learn more about John Steinbeck by visiting the National Steinbeck Museum in Salinas, California. Once a canning district, Cannery Row is revitalized with cool historical buildings, the Monterey Aquarium, restaurants and shops are right on the Pacific ocean.
Cannery Row has tons of shopping and restaurants. We chose to stay close to this area, so we could walk to the ocean and the downtown area.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is located on Cannery Row
Cannery Row worker shacks located near the aquarium gives you a glimpse of how Cannery Row workers lived in the early 1900’s.
Waterfront on Cannery Row
Pebble Beach Scenic Drive
A few miles from Monterey is the infamous Pebble Beach 17-mile scenic drive. This well known area is accessible by paying a fee at a guarded gate.
For $10 cash you get a map and a pass to drive the famous 17 mile road that was once traveled by horse and buggy for hotel guests. The map is very detailed and easy to follow as you wind your way through the Del Monte forest and alongside the ocean. Even if you do not like golf, Pebble Beach offers some beautiful photography spots.
The infamous lone Cypress tree has been here for more than 250 years.
Just a few short miles and we are in one of my favorite cities in the USA, Carmel. Carmel is a small city of fairytale houses, a downtown village with art galleries, shops and resteraunts.
I love the architecture in Carmel. You can see fairytale theme houses throughout the city. Hugh Comstack built 11 houses in the Historic Hill District in the 1920’s.
Even the shops are cute in Carmel-by-the-sea.
In my opinion, Carmel Beach is one of the most beautiful white sand beaches.
Right before the parking lot on Carmel Beach you can turn down Scenic Road. This road takes you along the ocean to the Christian Walker Frank Lloyd Wright house to Carmel River Beach trail.
Point Lobos Reserve
Our next stop was at Point Lobos Reserve to hike “The Sea Lions” trail. This trail is a short half mile hike along the Pacific ocean.
Hwy 1 is well known scenic highway that runs along the California coast for good reason. It is an absolutely beautiful drive. The winding roads with sheer cliff drops and plenty of RV’s and others taking a road trip make for a slow drive. This highway is all about the journey though. The views are what this trip is all about.
You will cross many historic bridges along the way like the Rocky Creek Bridge, built in 1932.
Pfeiffer Burns State Park
McWay Falls is at Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park. Parking is $10 cash only. The hike to the falls is an easy 1/4 mile hike on a dirt path. that will lead you to a spectacular view of the 80-foot waterfall and the Pacific Ocean.
Limekilin State Park
Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Vista Point
While in this area stop to see the hundreds of Elephant Seals at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Vista Point
A few miles north of San Simeon you can see hundreds of Elephant Seals basking in the sun, playing and sleeping. It is a great spot to take a short hike and get pretty close to these amazing creatures.
Hearst Castle on Pacific Coast Highway
Continuing South we made it to San Simeon which was the “end of the trail” for our drive down scenic Hwy 1. We picked up the rest of the drive on subsequent visits.
San Simeon is very small town with a vast countryside and beautiful ocean views. The big attraction is The Hearst Castle.
The main entrance to the Hearst Castle is very ornate and very wide, so it was hard to take a full photo. The Experience Tour is a good overall tour of the property. You will take a bus up the long winding road to the Hearst Castle.
The tour will lead you through the gardens, the guesthouse (which I personally liked more than the main house), the beautiful Neptune pool, the Castle and the indoor pool.
The gardens are beautiful and the Neptune pool has a great view. The interior of the house is kind of dark and eclectic. To buy tickets and learn more about the Hearst Castle.
As you continue to drive south towards Los Angeles you will pass Morro Bay, Santa Barbara, Malibu, and Santa Monica. Highway 1 runs right next to LAX, through Long Beach, Huntington Beach and Newport Beach.
I prefer the rugged beauty of the northern part and the more laid back towns of Laguna Beach, Emerald Bay, Crescent Bay, and Dana Point.
One of the best scenic drives in the USA, Pacific Coast Highway is a great way to see the beauty on the California coast.