Insider Tips for Driving the Pacific Coast Highway in California

One of the most iconic things to do while in California is to drive the Pacific Coast Highway. Lucky for us, our Guide Architect of the Month, Cassandra Londono has all the insider tips for us in today’s post. She will go over her favorite route with stops and also some tips on fitting this into your next Cali trip along with the best Wild Bum guides to accompany you! Let’s dive in to Cassandra’s post, so you can begin to plan the most epic Cali road trip.

I personally prefer to drive the Pacific Coast Highway (California Route 1) from north to south but of course you can go either direction. The PCH runs between Leggett (about 180 miles north of San Fran) and San Juan Capistrano (about 55 miles south of LA).

The most convenient and popular way though is to simply go between San Fran and LA especially for those from out of state since the main airport hubs are there.

The Perfect 8 Day Pacific Coast Highway Itinerary

Day 1-

Land in SFO (arriving in the morning is recommended to make the most of your time)

My favorite spot to stay in San Fran is The Ocean Park Motel. It is a lovely locally run business by incredibly friendly people in the Ocean Park neighborhood. It was built in the 1930s and maintains its art deco style. They have a free parking lot (which is super helpful in the city), lovely gardens, room options with multiple bedrooms, room options with kitchens and is only a short walk to the beach and restaurants.

After arriving I would suggest walking to Java Beach Café and grabbing your choice of beverage and snack (I recommend the matcha latte and Irish soda bread with jam) walk down to the beach and sit and enjoy on a rock overlooking the ocean. 

The first day I liked to just enjoy the beach and Ocean Park neighborhood which is quiet but lovely, the zoo is also here. The neighborhood is full of colorful art deco homes and gardens, walking and biking paths and I can personally spend all day at the beach, but you’re a short ride from downtown if you wanted to head in on that first day. 

There’s plenty of great Asian and Mexican food in the area too, I recommend trying Underdogs Too (their Baja fish tacos are amazing).


Day 2-

Wake up early, grab breakfast to go from Java Beach Café and head to Baker’s Beach. You can drive and park there for free- note the area is a bit dirty but the beach has lovely views of the Golden Gate bridge and gives the perfect San Fran vibes- foggy sky, crashing waves and a sky full of ravens. It’s nice to enjoy your breakfast here and get a lesser known Golden Gate viewpoint. From here you can easily head downtown for a day of exploring. I recommend finding a central parking spot in the Mission Dolores district and then exploring by foot. Head to the top of Dolores Park for some amazing views of the city, When you’re ready Dolores Park Café across the street is a great spot for a sandwich- their turkey avocado BLT was delicious.  

Next head to Mission Dolores Basilica- if you’ve ever seen the movie Vertigo you will recognize this landmark! Unfortunately Carlotta’s gravestone was eventually removed so it is no longer there if you’re an Alfred Hitchcock fan and were hoping to see it.

San Fran is a great spot for simply walking and exploring, there’s tons of street murals and Victorian era homes. Golden Gate Park with the Japanese Tea Garden and De Young Museum are also great spots to visit. I recommend heading to the top of the tower in De Young for amazing city views from above and if you have time, take a stroll by the famed Painted Sisters. 

Day 3-

Get up early, make your final stop at Java Beach Café and start your drive on the PCH! Heading to Big Sur you’ll want to bring some snacks in your car for the ride, a great playlist and just enjoy! If you want to truly get into the Cali vibe pull up the “California Playlist” on Spotify. 

Set your GPS to Nepenthe. This is the place to stop for lunch and have the most amazing iconic Big Sur views. Unless you’re unlucky like me and arrive on the foggiest day ever lol. Either way, the food is great and it’s the perfect spot to stop. If you decide to stay overnight in Big Sur be aware it is quite pricey. Because of this, Glen Oaks is the place to be. On a budget you can grab an inexpensive tent on your way and tent camp at one of the many campsites. If you want to save the money you can just stop for lunch and views and then head straight to San Luis Obispo (under Day 4) and spend 2 nights there instead. 

Day 4-

Keep driving south! This time on the way to San Luis Obispo. Along the way be sure to stop at the Piedras Blancas Beach and see the elephant seals! Hearst Castle is also near here and worth a visit if it is open. In San Luis Obispo, stay the night at the Madonna Inn. This place is heaven on earth in my opinion. It’s a gorgeous retro hotel with an on-site bakery (that makes pies to die for) the food is amazing, the rooms are unique and fun, there are lovely gardens to walk through, a pool with beautiful views and it’s surrounded by vineyards and wineries- what more could you ask for? 

You can take the afternoon relaxing at the pool or wine tasting. I chose to eat my meals on site since the food is so great.

I opted for a turkey burger for dinner followed by a slice of their homemade cherry pie- yum! 

Day 5-

The veggie frittata and biscuits with a chai latte (the best I’ve ever had if I say so myself) was how I started my day before heading into the historic downtown. It’s a small town but worth exploring on foot before continuing on. In town be sure to see the vintage pink Fremont Theater, the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa and Bubblegum Alley (like a mini version of the one in Seattle if you’ve been). Then hit the road to head to Ojai (pronounced Oh-Hi). Along the way I recommend stopping in Solvang, a Dutch town, to see the windmills and grab some traditional Belgian waffles at the Belgian Café. And along the drive be sure to pull over on the side of the road for some views of Lake Casitas, one of the bluest lakes you’ll ever set your eyes on.

In Ojai you’ll want to stay at Caravan Outpost, one of my favorite Airstream hotels (read more about Airstream hotels HERE). They have bike rentals too which is a great way to explore town. 

The town is a small desert bohemian haven. I recommend grabbing a delicious Vietnamese style coffee and meal at Hip Vegan. 

Day 6-

Head down to LA, only about an hour and a half or so drive. I recommend 2 nights here so you have some time to explore the city. You can leave Ojai at the Caravan check out time and should arrive in LA close to check in (depending on the property) so no need for an early morning.

I always like to relax on my arrival day so I’d recommend getting an absolutely delicious burrito and heading to Griffith Park to relax and enjoy. I like to bring a blanket and set up under a nice tree for some shade with a book or some people watching. 

There are TONS of places to stay in the LA area but I would recommend staying somewhere near the Hollywood Hills personally. The historic Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel is the place to be, tons of icons have passed through it’s doors including Marilyn Monroe. If it’s out of your price range Mama Shelter is another good option with a funky artsy vibe (that Mama Shelter properties are known for) and a rooftop pool.

If you’re a budget/hostel traveler USA Hotels also has a Hollywood location in this area.

Day 7-

This is the day to explore the area! Now what you want to see and do (because there’s so much) depends on you. Of course seeing the Hollywood Walk of Fame is a popular attraction but maybe you want to head to the famous Muscle Beach, or Venice Beach’s skatepark. Maybe you prefer driving through Beverly Hills eyeing the mansions or take a beach day and drive out to (my favorite) Malibu’s Zuma Beach. You could hike to the Hollywood sign or visit the La Brea Tar Pits.

I highly recommend getting Wild Bum’s LA GUIDE HERE so you can perfectly plan out your time in LA.

Day 8-

Your week in Cali has come to an end- head to the airport and return that rental car. Although if you’re like me you’ll want to catch a later flight so you’re in no rush to go home.

Top Tips for Driving the Pacific Coast Highway

  • Aim to drive during daylight hours
  • Plan for the drive to take longer than your GPS says
  • Stop along the way! Plenty of photo ops and beautiful spots along the way 
  • This is a route to enjoy, not just to get from one place to another 
  • Unless traveling with a large group or family I recommend aiming for a smaller 
  • Rental car since the roads are narrow and very twisty

Driving the Pacific Coast Highway in California is the ultimate way to take in the beautiful coastline of this state. Hopefully you’re ready to get planning your trip and these tips will make it a breeze to do so!

Cassandra Londono

Cassandra Londono