Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip
The Experience of a Lifetime!
The Pacific Coast Highway is one of the most amazing (if not THE most amazing) road trips you can possibly take in the U.S. The drive itself contains some of the most gorgeous views, and California has so much to offer that you could spend weeks exploring the coast alone!
For me, though, travel isn’t about just the sights or just about the hotels. For me, travel is about the experience.
Anytime that I’m planning a trip, the first thing I look at is how to take the bullet points of the trip and turn it into an experience. When a client tells me they want to avoid delays, that tells me that time is important to them. When they tell me they want dining suggestions and reservations, that tells me that food is an important part of the experience for them. So the first question I ask myself is, “How can I make this trip the experience of a lifetime for them?”
The difficult part of answering that question is that it varies for each person. The perfect experience for you is not the same as the perfect experience for me. My goal with this list is to spark your imagination and help you turn a road trip with amazing views into the experience of a lifetime! So let’s get going! (Note: all lists are organized from north to south.)
Step 1: Stay at awesome places!
People have all different kinds of expectations when it comes to places to stay. Some prefer camping and spending time in nature, some prefer to spend more time (and money) on the road or at attractions and just find someplace cheap to crash. For some people the hotel or resort is the most important part of the trip and they want someplace totally amazing!
Regardless of which of those people you are, a place to stay is an opportunity to curate a unique experience. Here’s a list of accommodations for a variety of travel preferences up and down the California coast.
Hotel Vertigo - a unique boutique hotel in San Francisco that served as the setting for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. The hotel is just a little quirky with a lot of character and can be a great value, with rooms starting from just $120/night
Hofsas House - a cute family-owned inn with just a small flair of German style in Carmel-by-the-Sea. Hofsas House is another value hotel, and includes amenities like a heated swimming pool, dry sauna, continental breakfast, and a deck with views of the ocean.
Treebones Resort - a little further beyond Carmel in Big Sur is the Treebones Resort. This resort offers a little something for everyone, with options ranging from campsites, to a twig hut, to “glamping” in yurts, to a luxury autonomous tent! It’s a beautiful spot, with a chance to get away from the bustling cities and spend some time in nature, with some beautiful views of the ocean to enjoy.
The Madonna Inn - a super quirky, whimsical inn located in San Luis Obispo. Each of the rooms has a different theme, ranging from Caveman to Safari, and from Traveler’s Yacht to Pioneer America and so many things in between. The Inn also offers activities like live music and dancing, on-site wine tasting, horseback trail rides, tennis and basketball courts, and more!
Santa Barbara Auto Camp - an “urban airstream getaway” (according to their website), Santa Barbara’s Auto Camp is a unique camping experience located only 3 miles from the beach in luxury airstream trailers. Amenities include spacious patios, flat screen TVs, electric BBQ on patio, and bikes to ride to beach or in town during your stay.
The Queen Mary - an actual ship docked at Long Beach where you can stay in one of their deluxe staterooms or suites. Amenities include guided tours, shows, and exhibits, a fitness center, spa, and rooms larger than an average cruise ship room. It’s also a very reasonable accommodation option, with rates starting from just $95/night.
Step 2: Find something totally unique and different to do!
While it’s always fun to see the bucket list places and iconic locations, it can also be fun to find something just totally different, unique, or even completely ridiculous to do! These are the experiences that can really create fantastic memories! Here’s my list of totally unique, wacky, and unique things to do along the Pacific Coast Highway.
Winchester Mystery House - a house built by Sarah Winchester (of the Winchester rifles). As the name insinuates the huge mansion is full of mysteries and oddities to experience. Whether or not the house is haunted is something you will have to visit and decide for yourself. (This is in San Jose, so a bit off the Pacific Coast Highway, but worth checking out if you decide to venture off a bit.)
Sunken ship at Seacliff Beach - this ship was repurposed after WWI as an amusement park of sorts, but the company that created it went bankrupt and the ship has cracked, sunk further, and remained at the edge of the pier ever since. You can no longer go on the ship, but you can go down and view it from the beach or the end of the pier.
Spanish Mission - there are several historical Spanish missions in California, including the Carmel Mission Basilica Museum not far from the Pacific Coast Highway in Carmel-by-the-Sea. This 1700’s era Spanish mission is full of history and is a beautiful place to visit!
Nitt Witt Ridge - this eccentric house near the coast in Cambria is built almost entirely out of trash and recycled materials. It definitely makes for an interesting and different stop along the way.
Pismo Beach Sand Dunes - officially the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, these dunes are not something you’d imagine finding in California, but they make for a fun addition to a California road trip! You can rent ATVs and Dune Buggies, or simply explore the area on foot.
Solvang - Solvang requires a slight detour off the Pacific Coast Highway, but makes for a neat stop along the way. Solvang is a Danish village about 33 miles northwest of Santa Barbara. It is full of Danish architecture, bakeries, boutique shopping, and more!
Time Travel Mart in LA - Los Angeles has all sorts of awesome things to do, as well as many quirky options. Among those quirky things it the Time Travel Mart. Their motto is “Wherever you are, we’re already then.” Their eccentric collection of products doesn’t make any more sense than their motto does, but if you’re looking for something different and fun to check out, definitely make a stop here!
Pirate Tower - while the pirate tower located at Victoria Beach may not have any actual pirate history, it’s definitely enough to stir the imagination! Be sure to visit at low tides to explore around the tower and the cliffs and caverns nearby.
Step 3: Check some items off the bucket list and get some amazing Instagram-worthy shots!
Part of creating an amazing experience includes incredible pictures to remember it by. Plus, let’s face it, what good is experiencing an amazing trip if you can’t brag about it to your friends? And nothing brags better than pictures of you with famous places and amazing backdrops! Here’s some of the most famous and/or most gorgeous places to stop and take a photo along the Pacific Coast Highway (or in the cities along the way).
Glass Beach at Fort Bragg
Mendocino Headlands State Park
Fort Ross (great area to get some pics of the PCH itself)
Golden Gate Bridge (and views from Golden Gate Bridge Vista Point, Baker Beach, and Battery Spencer)
Other San Francisco sights: Lombard Street, Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39, Chinatown, Union Square
Half Moon Bay (book a meal at the Ritz Carlton and go for a walk on the grounds after eating for some amazing views)
Shark Fin Cove
West Cliff Drive
Cannery Row in Monterey
17 Mile Drive (Pebble Beach)
Bixby Creek Bridge
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and McWay Falls
Hearst Castle in San Simeon
Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery for elephant seal viewing
Morro Rock at Morro Bay
Montaña de Oro State Park (and hike to Valencia Peak if you’re feeling adventurous)
Santa Barbara Courthouse and Gardens (beautiful architecture)
Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara
El Matador State Beach (sea caves, large rocks, beautiful panoramas)
Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles
Venice and Venice Beach
Other LA sights: Hollywood Boulevard (theatres and Walk of Fame), Hollywood sign, Griffith Observatory, Rodeo Drive, Warner Brothers Studio Tour, Universal Studios, Disneyland, Union Station, The Getty, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Beverly Hills
Shaw's Cove Tide Pools
San Diego sights: Coronado, Balboa Park, San Diego Zoo and Safari Park, Sea World San Diego, La Jolla
Obviously there’s no way that anyone could see and do all of these things in one trip! The beautiful part of California is that there’s something for everyone. Work your way through this list and make a note of the things that interest you, sprinkling in some bucket list items, some beautiful Instagram-worthy picture locations, some quirky stops, and some fun places to stay, and forget about the rest - this is how you can take a normal road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway and turn it into the experience of a lifetime.
Written by: Sarah Beth Marts
Sarah Beth Marts is a travel addict, planner, and blogger with Simple Journeys Travel. She caught the travel bug her freshman year of college when she stepped on a plane for the first time to travel to Belize and has not stopped traveling since! She has since traveled to 19 different countries on 4 continents (and counting) as well as traveled around the US. Her favorite destinations are Europe, Israel, and California.
As Sarah Beth began sharing stories of her travels with her friends and family the most common reaction was "I wish I could travel like that!" This inspired her to start her blog, where she shares tips for planning travel, guides for traveling out of the country, and personal experiences. It also inspired her to start her business where she plans custom trips with awesome experiences for busy families to destinations in the US and around the world.
In addition to planning and blogging, Sarah Beth teaches Spanish and English part time. In her spare time she enjoys spending time with her husband and their fur child, watching college football, and planning their next trip!
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