Top 35 Tips To Plan Pacific Coast Highway 1: San Francisco To Los Angeles

7:13 PM

Imagine a 100 feet Mcway Fall plunging into the pacific cove at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park while winds, narrow curves, sharp drop offs and cliffs of our road trip with the view of the restless ocean alongside takes our breath away - That's exactly what we are talking about in this post.

Mcway Fall at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
Do not forget to check my complete travel video on Pacific Drive

The drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles is about 550 miles however the the stretch of 147 mile of pacific coast highway from Monterey to Morro Bay is the most scenic. Said to be America’s one of the best road trips , a top favorite with the bikers, we take you to 35 tips and tricks of doing the Pacific Coast Highway 1 , also called CA1 or PCH.

Us, having a road trip time!

 1. Google Map Ignores PCH

The car that we rented, parked at one of the Vista Points at PCH

I wonder why, and still why! For the road so popular, why doesn’t google map show it as an option when we search from SFO to LA. It shows direct routes and other routes but not PCH.

So how we did search on Google Map was :

SFO - Half moon bay
Half moon - Monterey
Monterey - Pebble beach
Pebble beach - Carmel
Carmel - Big Sur
Big Sur - Julia pfeifer State Park
Julia pffeifer State Park - Peidras Blancas Elephant seal Rookery
Peidras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery - Solvang
Solvang - Santa barbara
Santa Barbara - Los Angeles

2. How Many Days For The Trip

3 days at leisure to see everything. You can do it in 2 days (as we did) but you might miss a place here and there. There are many state parks and most of them has access to beach. If you have very less time and do not wish to stay anywhere, you could do SFO - Julia Pfeiffer and Back to SFO in a day! That's the most scenic route.

3) The Drive Which Is Better: SFO to LA or LA to SFO

Leave early in the morning which ever way you start!

The drive from North to South (i.e SFO to LA) is more scenic than South To North because in the former case the best places come first ;) and also its said that while going from South to North, what I have heard is there’s a few extra feet of roadway between your car and jaw dropping cliffs. Also be careful driving, as you cannot overtake and speed on these roads as the roads are on cliffs and roads are narrow. It's also one of the famous routes for bikers to bike.

4) Car Rentals, Different Station Drop Off Rates, Insurance and GPS

That's a great tip to have!

For people new to US, priceline gives a list of the best rates of car rentals in categories Economy, Compact, Leisure etc.. from different companies depending upon the date you choose. If you are renting like we did, and dropping it at an airport different than the rental station and away, the charges add on extra. I also read it on priceline that one of either the pickup or the drop off should be an airport. Also do get insurance from the car rental company ( Collision Damage, 3rd party liability, Road side assistance) and gps. The total cost for us , for a car rental(mid size SUV) from budget car rental at SFO, was $550 for 2 days including insurance and Google map GPS(I prefer it over conventional gps). I would write a separate posts on rental cars.

5) Optional way to travel - Good old Viator

For guys, who do not own a car or do not fancy driving the rental car which I would highly recommend, Viator has couple of great tours of PCH from SFO to LA(1 day, 3 days), helicopter tours and the reviews are great so one could try that. But it would be best enjoyed as a self done road trip because there are so many places you would want to stop.

6) Essentials: Take route printouts and save Google Maps on phone

 Take the print of the route along with you or save the google map on your phone. The most scenic route from Pebble Beach to Big Sur had barely any network although its just one road. But just in case if you want to venture into State parks or Carmel or places to eat or see nearby or other places you need to search you might then be clueless if your network goes down. Also when we ventured a little inside by mistake, we realized that we were getting off sea, and we could have had just met the google recommended shortest route. The networks weren't working, and we had to trace back applying our minds back onto CA1.

7) Best Time to Visit

The best time to visit could be year around but preferably during Spring. I heard from someone on Istagram on ‘Wow it all looks green whereas when we went it was brown in Summers’. Winters could also have mudslides. And I am not sure what happens in rain, because the roads are narrow. It's great scenery nonetheless.Checking weather before you drive might be handy ( we in US check weathers very often online, I check it almost daily in Milwaukee)

8) Dress in Layers: Can get cold and windy

When we were on a cab in SFO and we told the driver that we are going to PCH tomorrow, his first response was carry jackets, because the winds come from Alaska and can get cold. So guys, weather wise, it could get a bit cold and windy. The day we were doing it was supposedly the windiest. It was so windy that we weren’t even able to close our car door without extra effort. Every vista point we had spend no more than 5 minutes because we were almost blown away with winds which someone said to us, doesn’t happen on normal days!

9) Book Stays in advance or do camping in State parks

Our cosy cottage stay at Ripplewoods

During Summers, most of the resorts / stays at Big Sur gets booked(It’s a popular drive after all). An alternative then could be booking in advance or booking camping sites in the State Parks. If you don’t get it anywhere in these, the next bet could be Carmel or Monterey. Unfortunately, not all are listed on and there are very few options on even for Big Sur although there are many boutique / budget hotels. Also note that, camping sites are never listed on so you have to search for them on either Google or State parks. We stayed at RippleWoods in Big sur and booked directly through website which was amazing!

Some of the links which gives you ideas on where to stay on budget are here

Also do not expect wifi’s and signals in this part of the world. It may come if you are lucky ;) that’s all I can say. Its a place to be enjoyed in seclusion.

10) Your First stop:Monterey , CA

You first great halt on the drive could be Monterey. A great place to visit would be Monterey Aquarium ($39 admission , 10 am - 5pm) which has tanks of fishes, touch pools, marine life, sea otters. It also contains two massive tanks. One of those tanks on its own contains 1.2 million gallons of water as well as one of the largest single-paned windows on earth.

The good thing with this though is if you are leaving on a road trip from SFO, ideally you must be leaving early at around 7, and by the time you’d reach Monterey it would be around 9:30 so you could quickly get in the aquarium and out.

You can also take a walk down the touristy Fisherman’s wharf. You can also learn surfing at Half Moon Bay before Monterey with Sea, Surf and Fun.

11) Pebble Beach, CA

 Your next stop could be Pebble Beach Resort. Pebble Beach Resort has a toll for the car. You’d have to follow the red dashed on the road thereafter to be at 17 mile road.They’d give you a map too with which vista points to stop.

12) Gates To Enter 17 mile

 There are three gates to enter 17 mile road - Highway 68 gate, Carmel gate and Pacific Grove Gate.

13) The Scenic 17 mile Drive

That's Lone Cypress(see that lonely standing tree - that's  as old as 250 years) - located between Cypress Point Golf Course and Pebble Beach

17 mile drive is a beautiful drive, where you can stop at Vista Points like Cypress Point Golf Course, Lone Cypress(Its a lonely pine tree on the rocks), Bird Rock, The Inn at Spanish Bay(golf course and restaurants).

You'd love the sea here..its so restless, it creates foam in whites.

..And wild flowers

14) Carmel By The Sea

Then comes, Carmel By the Sea which is an artsy town with boutique shops and nice looking homes. Surfing can also be learnt at Carmel by the sea.

15)Point Lobos State Park

Since for us, time was short, we had to miss Point Lobos State Park but later we got to know that that’s where you see Sea Otters! So we missed them in the wild on the ocean.

16) Garrapata State Park

 After Point Lobos comes Garrapata State Park which has two miles of beach front with coastal hiking and a 50- foot climb to the beautiful view of pacific. We couldn't do this one either.

17) Palo Colorado Road - Hobbit Homes

Palo Colorado Road is a narrow diversion just before Bixby Bridge where there are Hobbit Homes. I didn't find them that interesting though - may be we could have driven more inside. The road is very narrow.. and there are homes like these or smaller on both sides.

18) The Bridge before Bixby

Us, at the vista point of the bridge before bixby. To know the inspiration behind what I am wearing and the brands click here

The sea is beautiful..

The bridge before Bixby Bridge is not Bixby Bridge. When you see the crowd and the board that says Bixby Bridge 1932 that’s when its Bixby Bridge.

19) Bixby Bridge : The Most Photographed

One of the most photographed bridge along the pacific coast

 No other bridge along the trip is more famous than the Bixby Creek Bridge and very well said so because the view is outstanding! Prior to the opening of the bridge in 1932, residents of the Big Sur area were virtually cut off during winter due to the often impassable Old Coast Road that led 11 miles (18 km) inland. It is one of the tallest single-span concrete bridges in the world and one of the most photographed bridges along the Pacific Coast due to its aesthetic design and location.

20) California Sea Otter Game Refuge

Img Source:

I came to know about this place recently when I was searching for Sea Otters that there is California Sea Otter Game Refuge just 10 minute ahead of Bixby Bridge where you could see Sea Otters. Sea Otters may be the cutest mammal but they are wild and known to be temperamental..

21) Andrew Molera State Park

 Then would come Andrew Molera State Park which has beach and redwood forests and a walk down to Big Sur river.

22) Food at Big Sur

Us having Lollys Roast Chicken Dinner(half chicken served on a bed of sage stuffing with gravy and house-made cranberry sauce) at Nepenthe,Big Sur

By this time you would be hungry. You would reach around 2-3 pm depending upon how much have you stopped at 17 mile and other vista points.Then would come Big Sur. The best places to have food in Big Sur is Big Sur Bakery & Nepenthe. Big Sur Bakery was closed at 3pm but I guess it reopens during dinner time. So make sure you check timings of both on google before you go! I couldn’t eat at Big Sur Bakery because it opens at 8 am in the morning and we had to leave but Nepenthe had yummy food though a bit expensive($50 for 2) but considering that it’s a cut off place the rates are high everywhere. The food at Pebble beach is expensive too.

I  would highly suggest carrying a bit of snacks with you for the whole trip.

23) Chevron Gas Station: Expensive at Big Sur

The rates of car fuel is high in Big Sur. The next best bet is to fill up at Morro Bay. Big Sur is a tourist trap after all. 

24) Pfeiffer State Park

Pfeiffer State Park comes first and then Julia Pfeiffer National Park.So Pfeiffer State Park has redwood trees, big sur river and Pfiffer beach with an arch.We didn't go as far as into the beach but we saw the trees and the river.

25) Julia Pfeiffer State Park: Mcway waterfall with sea

Julia Pfeiffer State Park has the Mc Way waterfall with the beach.Julia Pfeiffer has a hiking trail of about 5 minutes and no, that trail doesn’t end up getting you wet in the waterfall. The trail takes you to a point where you can view the waterfall best with the ocean! I am really not sure if you can go down beyond that point.

View from Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

26) State Park Entries and Closing Times

When you buy parking at Julia Pffeifer State Park, the entry is valid for all state parks in big sur from sunrise to sunset that's what the lady at the ticket counter told us.

27) Where are the washrooms?

 Washrooms are there in State parks , Resorts and on Pebble beach lodge.

28) That thing call Vista Points

Now you are getting the idea on the roads with the cliffs we were talking about!
Here you can see a more sober sea

There are many vista points on your scenic drive where you can park you car and click as many pictures. After about an hour of Big Sur would come pastureland and the gradual descent and the road wouldn’t be just with the cliffed sea. You will see the sea but a little farther.

29) Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery - Elephant Seals in the wild!

Then would come Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery which has a good trail to see 100 of seals on the beach doing their own thing. Seals are wild, have teeth and can bite, and they can run faster than you think (but they look so lazy and cute but the warning board says these) so don’t try to go into the beach where they are laying for the selfies. You can take selfies from the trails. Elephant seals are forever moms and I am sharing this interesting information here.

On a good day, if you are lucky, you could spot Humpback Whales here.

30) Hearst Castle at San Simeon

Then would come Hearst Castle at San Simeon which sits atop a hill of the Santa Lucia Range overlooking the Pacific Ocean about an hour and a half from big Sur. Hearst Castle is a historic landmark mansion.

31) What Happened to the crashing waves?

As you go further, the sea has calmed and so the views have changed. Now you would start feeling that you are missing the ruggedness of sea with the rolling hills and cliffs but you get used to it.

32) Morro Bay

Then would come Morro Bay. We went to Morro Rock which was okay(not as great as we thought), you could have your breakfast here or lunch. Galley Seafood Grill & Bar(if you reach by 11), Frankie and Lola’s(if you reach by breakfast which opens at 7am). Since we arrived early we had breakfast at Frankie and Lola.

33) Solvang for Danish Everything and Santa Ynez Valley

Paula's Pancake House has finger licking pancakes..

Then would come Solvang a pre danish settlement. Do not forget to take a stroll around the city which has windmill homes and cute danish style architecture and danish flags and bakeries.  Get some danish homemade cookies for your friends. Try different smoothies. There’s lot to do here! Then would come Santa Ynez Valley with Vineyards and lake Cachuma .If you have time, stop.

34) Santa Barbara

At Santa Barbara County Courthouse

If not, then go ahead to Santa Barbara which has Stearns Wharf and Santa Barbara County Courthouse from where you can see the whole city.

Stearns Wharf, Santa Barbara

Stearns Wharf has amazing Coastal Jewellery at one of the stores called 'Coastal Treasures' with shells and all. Its a beautiful collection they have. I don’t know how much of this is true, but I read online somewhere that the coastal drive from Santa Barbara to Carpinteria is scenic but we found no coastal route on google map. The only route it was showing was US-101S.

35) Brave the LA traffic Starting from Santa Barbara during peak hours

And last but not the least, the traffic jam in Los Angeles is Aweful! And it starts right from Santa Barbara during peak hours. Although its distance of 1.5 hours on the highway ( the cars just weren’t moving), it took us 4 hours to reach with the snail pace to Long Beach where our friend lives. Considering the fact that we live in Wisconsin(traffic in wisconsin is nonexistent in comparison), traffic jams this massive were a shock to me!

 But guys,we loved California and our drive through it. I guess it opened our eyes to the possibilities California can offer. And hopefully, I squeezed as much information for you guys. Comment if you know more about PCH or want me to add more places along the way! I’d love to hear.

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  1. Very scenic. I can see that GoPro is put to good use. Have fun

    1. Thanks Shrinidhi :) It's a nice drive. Yup still in the process of knowing GoPro, but we used suction mount for this one for the first time, and we were a bit apprehensive if it would fall off but it didn't and so there have the pictures and the videos :)


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