The Pacific Coast Highway is chock-full of the magic and mystery of America’s past, present, and future (hello, Silicon Valley). If you’re longing for beachside views, and wild and weirdness by the bucketloads, you’ve found your road trip.
But before you put your keys in the ignition, here are a couple of moments worth saving up for.
Gas money is important, obviously. But there’s a larger debate behind the gas number you see below. Here’s what’s going on.
The “official” Pacific Coast Highway spans 130 miles from Dana Point in Northern California to Oxnard in Southern California.
But if you limit yourself to this brief stretch, you miss out on 90% of the gems that make the Pacific Coast Highway such a well-loved route. Most road trip aficionados and online resources recommend a trip that spans over 646 miles from San Francisco in the north to San Diego in the south. If you drove their PCH, you’d miss out on 90% of the gems on this list.
Sure, you’ll pay a little more in gas, but we promise it will be worth it.
Be sure to buy gas as far from the more remote tourist attractions like Big Sur as you can. There’s not a lot of competition to drive down prices around these remote yet popular spots. Be smart, don’t be afraid to ask a local, and always always over-budget for the big things. (Free life tip.)
There’s so much to do in San Francisco—and the city changes so quickly!—that the best thing to do is to ask someone who lives there where to go. We recommend spending some time at the Mécanique, a museum of weird old arcade games. When your co-pilot can’t stand to lose another game of air hockey, hop back into the car and head over the Golden Gate Bridge to begin your journey south.
Half Moon Bay
Don’t pay the $10 parking fee at Half Moon Bay State Beach. Instead, park by the Half Moon Bay Farmer’s Market. Take a leisurely walk around the booths, buy yourself a couple of sandwiches, and carry your wares the half-mile or so to the beach. Spread out a blanket and viola! Beachside picnic time, aka heaven on earth. Just don’t go into the water until 30 minutes after eating. Mom says you’ll get cramps.
Next stop, San Jose! Stop by the San Pedro Square Market, where you can stand in line with Silicon Valley techies at various food and drink vendors. It’s like a fancy food court for adults—there’s even a karaoke ice cream truck!
If you’re more into weird history than singing with a mouthful of dessert, check out the Winchester Mystery House. Aside from boasting one of the best trailers of any historical site ever, it also features staircases that lead to nowhere and doors that open into walls. Pay the mansion a visit to find out why rifle-heiress Sarah Winchester went to $20 million worth of great lengths to keep spooks away from her.
You can’t beat the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Channel your inner child with funnel cake and Tilt-A-Whirl rides. Once you’ve made yourself sufficiently queasy, it’s time to dust off the powdered sugar and take a long walk on the beach. The cool sea breeze will settle your stomach, but the excitement of feeling 10 years old again will have you buzzing for weeks.
Apart from living in the ocean, there are no other places where it’s as easy to see marine life all in one place than at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The jellyfish tank is a fan favorite, and don’t pass up your chance to touch a stingray.
Ahhh, Carmel-by-the-Sea. Not a single chain store blots the quaint landscape of this seaside town. It’s all cute homes and curio shops as far as the eye can see. Put yourself up in a bed-and-breakfast in one of the many quaint little cottages. Then, take the time to explore every nook and cranny on foot.
Big Sur lives up to its name by boasting a sizeable landmark. The Bixby Creek Bridge is one of the tallest single-span concrete bridges in the world. After you’ve taken a slow drive across its expanse, you may also choose to partake in the arty, hippy vibe of the town of Big Sur.
Just when you think you can’t be any more blissed out, go ahead and top it all off with a healing late-night soak at the natural hot spring baths at Esalen Institute. Just make sure you get enough sleep to drive safely the next day.
What do Lady Gaga and Spartacus both have in common?
Yes, “gladiator sandals,” but also both Lady Gaga and the cast of the movie “Spartacus” filmed at the pools of the beautiful Hearst Castle.
There are several tours of Hearst Castle—one of the upstairs, one of the downstairs, and one of the cottages and kitchens on the grounds. If you have the time and the interest, you can do all three.
San Luis Obispo
Swing by Bubblegum Alley if you can stomach it. Just be sure to bring a pack of Double Bubble if you want to leave your mark. Once you’re done participating in the ritualistic defacing of a public space, wait until dusk to go see an old favorite movie at the Fremont Theater. The lights outside and the decor inside make for a fun vintage feel.
Take a break from beaches and cliffs to check out clusters of cacti and other incredible flora. The Ganna Walska Lotusland biological preserve boasts 90% of the cacti species in the world in addition to citrus trees, a Japanese garden, and—of course!—lotuses.
Unfortunately, you can’t wander around by yourself. Make sure you book a tour ahead of time to secure a spot for you and your co-pilot(s).
If you’ve ever wanted to try surfing, now’s the time. Ventura is the spot to take a private surfing lesson. Can your body handle it after so many hours in a car? Definitely. Engaging all of the muscles required to stand up on your board will give you some well-deserved exercise.
It’s time to live it up. Check AirBnB for specials on beachfront weekend homes.
While some properties can run you up to one or two thousand dollars, there are many reasonably priced condos farther inland with equally incredible views. It’s not the most necessary of the Goals on this list, but if you’re traveling with friends and want to gift yourselves a night to remember, $200 per person can put you up in a pretty incredible spot.
On your way out of Malibu, cement your Hollywood royalty experience by checking out Topanga Canyon and Topanga Overlook for any views you may have missed while drinking piña coladas in your condo.
First stop, Santa Monica Pier. Eat a snowcone, and buy a visor. Get some cash from an ATM to spend on mix tapes and weird spray-paint artwork of the moon.
Then, assemble a look that’s as close to business casual as you can manage (if your nicest outfit is a little rumpled, just give it a good shake), and head to Sunset Boulevard for a long, contemplative dinner. Think back over all the places you’ve been, and the places left to go. You’re like a new person.
Then, find a place where you can see the Hollywood sign from a perch on top of your car. Sit and howl at the moon and know you’re not even close to the weirdest thing happening in L.A. right now.
After passing the neighboring shores of Laguna Beach, where hopefully you’ll get your MTV geek on, head off the main route just slightly to visit the Long Beach Museum of Art. If you time it right, you can go for Free Friday and spend your money on brunch at Claire’s at the Museum (try their Bloody Marys).
Located in a 20th-century mansion, the museum features a variety of eclectic artwork, including work by a rotating artist in residence. Be sure to call and double-check that the museum is open on the day you show up, since it’s often booked for weddings and other private events.
You made it! You’ve driven the Pacific Coast Highway! Float through San Diego in a daze, bopping around downtown and heading out to the Cabrillo National Monument at the top of Point Loma for a parting snapshot. Selfie-stick recommended.
If you have the time and energy, be sure to visit Balboa Park for acres of greenery and museums like the Museum of Man or Museum of Art.
The prices in this article are just informed estimates. Your adventure cost may vary depending on what you’re driving, who you’re driving with, and how far you go.