The Perfect Road Trip Down the Pacific Coast Highway

Doug Steakley/Getty Images

From Big Sur glamping to Hearst Castle to the Santa Barbara wineries, driving down the Pacific Coast Highway is one of the best ways to see California.

Departures is published by Meredith Corp. and owned by American Express. While American Express Card Member benefits are highlighted in this publication, including through the links indicated below, the content of this article was independently written by the editorial staff at Meredith. Other Departures content paid for by American Express is explicitly marked as such.

The Pacific Coast Highway, affectionately known as the PCH, is California State Highway 1 and is arguably one of the best highways in the country. The ocean-and-cliff scenery that lines the PCH rivals some of the world’s best coastal drives. A true California bucket-list trip, the hands-down best parts of the coast are Big Sur and the stretch of Northern California beyond San Francisco. And of course, so many landmarks on the Pacific Coast Highway have become cultural fixtures. Monterey recalls scenes from Big Little Lies, while Big Sur is where Don Draper takes refuge during the Mad Men finale, and the northern stretch of coast along Bodega should thrill Hitchcock fans—they’ll recognize the area as the setting of The Birds.

The Pacific Coast Highway starts south of Dana Point, in Orange County, and extends beyond San Francisco to just north of Mendocino. It cuts off about 200 miles south of the California-Oregon border. If you’re planning a road trip down the Pacific Coast Highway, here’s your readymade itinerary: 

Fly into San Francisco and rent your wheels of choice

If you’re heading down the coast, SFO is the most obvious airport to fly into. At the airport, you’ll want to rent your ideal PCH ride. For some people, that means scouting out a classic VW Van, which you can rent with VW Surfari for your California road trip. For the convertible faithfuls, rent a classic top-open mustang from Sixt in San Francisco. 

Tack on a Northern California loop


Walter Bibikow/Getty Images

Consider this an optional add-on for your road trip down the Pacific Coast Highway. If you have the extra time and want to spend a couple days winding north, the stretch of coast just beyond San Francisco is the unsung hero of CA-1. With jaw-dropping views at every turn, and less tourists crowding the road, it’s a spectacular coastal experience.

That being said, it’s not as easy a drive. The roads are windy, and the closures require detours at a few junctures. If you do want to tack on a NorCal loop, leave two days for this excursion. You can wind up to Bodega Bay, with a stop at the Muir Beach Overlook, and a lunch break at Hog Island Oyster Co. Spend the night at Bodega Bay Lodge, where you can follow in Hitchcock’s footsteps and scout the local birds. Traveling north from Bodega, experience the 20 coastal miles of Salmon Creek State Park before cutting inland to the Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve. From Armstrong Redwoods, it’s just an hour and a half back to San Francisco.

Head through Santa Cruz to Monterey and Carmel


Toms Auzins/Robert Harding/Getty Images

The stretch of coast before you hit Big Sur is home to three magical places: Carmel (which is actually Carmel Valley and Carmel-by-the-Sea), Monterey, and Santa Cruz. You’ll hit Santa Cruz first—it’s just an hour and a half down the PCH from San Francisco. An eclectic surf town, Santa Cruz exudes culture, a true diamond-in-the-rough town. Have lunch beachside at The Picnic Basket before peeking into downtown Santa Cruz.

Wine and dine in Carmel and Monterey


Jeff Greenberg/Getty Images

Stay the night at Carmel Valley Ranch, an American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts property, in a vineyard oak studio with an outdoor tub overlooking Carmel wine country. Their full-service Spa Aiyana is known for hypno-health and wellness for those looking to cleanse their insomnia aura. Have a sumptuous breakfast at Valley Kitchen, which serves cheese, eggs, fruit, and vegetables from The Ranch’s organic garden. Then head to the Carmel Valley wineries (start at Georis Wine) before popping over to Monterey proper to stroll historic Cannery Row. You may want to make time to see the Monterey Bay Aquarium, visit Point Lobos Nature Reserve, and of course, cruise the 17-Mile Drive. For dinner, make a reservation at Aubergine, the local’s favorite fine dining spot in Carmel, with views of Point Lobos.

Align your mind and body in Big Sur


Danita Delimont/Getty Images

Once you leave Carmel and Monterey, it’s on to the true highlight of the Pacific Coast Highway: Big Sur. It’s home to miles and miles of jagged cliffs overlooking the Pacific, scenic lookouts at every turn, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, and of course, Bixby Creek Bridge. Many PCH roadtrippers take a day to drive through Big Sur and fully appreciate its beauty. But the real trick is to stay for a couple of nights at a glamping resort, hike in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, take in the coastline from every angle, and try the area’s best restaurants. 

Stay at Ventana Big Sur, an American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts property. It’s an adults-only retreat that emphasizes mind-body-soul experiences. The property boasts a clothing-optional Mountain Pool, Japanese hot baths, and an ocean-view dining terrace at The Sur House restaurant. They also offer mind-body-soul workshops like their Alila Experience Program that includes Star Bathing and meditation, or hiking tours like their Wild Foraging Hike or Photography Hike Workshops.

While in Big Sur, reserve at Nepenthe for dinner, which overlooks Big Sur’s coast. And stop in at Big Sur Bakery for a quick morning coffee or a leisurely lunch. 

Tour Hearst Castle as you travel from Big Sur to Paso Robles


Hiroyuki Matsumoto/Getty Images

The historic Hearst Castle in San Luis Obispo sits in full view of the Pacific Ocean. Not only does Hearst Castle celebrate their centennial in 2020, it connotes a Versailles-like atmosphere as a museum within an expansive estate. The Neptune Pool, one of the famed sights within the castle, finished a two-year restoration in August 2018. Another favorite sight in the estate is Hearst’s Gothic Study, where he would review the next day’s newspaper before signing off for printing and publication.

Once you’ve wrapped up at Hearst Castle, head inland to spend the night in Paso Robles, where you can have dinner at Firestone Walker Brewing Company—one of California’s best craft breweries—and then spend the next day exploring the center of town and the Paso Robles wine scene.

Check out the Santa Barbara wineries before spending the night in waterfront luxury

From Paso Robles, you’ll drive your second-to-last stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway down to Santa Barbara. A favorite weekend trip amongst LA, San Diego, and even San Francisco locals, Santa Barbara has it all: great food, lovely wineries, a charming downtown, and a magnificent coastline. Roam the Funk Zone, stopping in at Pali Wine Co. for a tasting (on E Yanonali Street) and grabbing classic Southern California tacos at Mony’s Mexican Food. If you’re in Santa Barbara for dinner, head to The Lark for upscale, mod-American fare.

Right on the Santa Barbara-adjacent waterfront, stay the night at Rosewood Miramar Beach, an American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts property with over-the-top ocean view suites. As your trip is winding to a close, set aside a day to experience Sense, A Rosewood Spa at Miramar Beach. After several days on the road, pamper yourself with a Himalayan Salt Stone massage and a Miramar organic facial.

Celebrate a successful road trip when you get to Los Angeles


Don Riddle/Courtesy Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts 

From Ojai, you’re less than two hours away from Los Angeles. Head to the coast to hop back the Pacific Coast Highway down to Santa Monica, where you can have a celebratory drink on the rooftop of the new Santa Monica Proper Hotel. Then head to Beverly Hills to celebrate in style. After the charms of smaller city life, revel in the pace of LA, and spend a lavish couple nights at Beverly Wilshire, Beverly Hills (A Four Seasons Hotel)—another American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts property. Walk right outside your door at Beverly Wilshire to some of the city’s best shopping on Rodeo Drive. For your final celebration of a successful Pacific Coast Highway road trip, reserve a table at Spago.