The Ultimate Road Trip Guide To Pacific Coast Highway
America’s greatest scenic highway is back open after being closed for a year and half from a winter 2017 washout, and with that in mind, I wanted to provide you with my Top 10 things to see and do along this majestic stretch of road along the drop-dead-gorgeous California Coast.
Known Pacific Coast Highway, PCH and California Highway 1, it is a two-lane stretch of highway that hugs the coast – and the cliffs – with the most dramatic part being from Carmel to Morro Bay.
This will take you anywhere from one day to a week to drive, depending on your pace and your time. I’ll tell you this – no matter how much time you allot to it, it will take three times as long because you’ll be stopping so often getting out to take photos and selfies and just to admire the view, you’ll forget all about the time.
There are accommodations in Big Sur, San Simeon, Cayucos and Morro Bay. You can also do day trips to certain parts of it from Carmel and San Simeon/Cayucos.
Note that is very important to depart with a full tank of gas. Somewhere near Big Sur is the most expensive gas station in California. They have no electricity to have to use a gas-powered generator to pump the fuel.
The guide goes south to north, which is the best way to enjoy it because all the Pacific Ocean scenery will be on your right.
1.) Bixby Bridge
This is the iconic landmark of PCH, the beautifully designed arch bridge not too far south of Carmel. You’ll stop for photos on either side of it and there are also some interesting angles available from across the street.
2.) All Scenic Lookouts Around Bixby Bridge
The “oh my gosh PULL OVER” scenery starts almost the second you drive past Carmel Valley Road just south of Carmel. From here to just past Bixby Bridge is the area you’ll be stopping seemingly every 100 yards because it’s so spectacular.
3.) McFall Waterfall, Big Sur
This is an 80-foot waterfall in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. The trail is 2 1/2 mile path from the parking area. The entrance is approximately 37 miles south of Carmel or 12 miles south of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park (don’t get confused!) From the south, the entrance is about 48 miles north of Ragged Point and about 60 miles from San Simeon.
4.) Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park Redwoods
Something that is sure to amaze you as much as the dramatic scenery of the Pacific Ocean is that through Big Sur you’re also driving through a forest. Stop and check out the redwoods.
5.) Big Sur To Hearst Castle
This is the least-scenic part of the highway but it’s still a very nice drive. The dramatic cliffs flatten out and the road turns inland and you’re on a highway with a lot of ranches on the inland side of the road. If you’re running behind, this where to make up some time by not stopping. But careful if you’re the speeding type.
6.) Elephant Seat Rookery
By now, you’ll be yearning to stop and stretch the legs so don’t overlook this place along the coast (you may find yourself skidding to a halt in the parking lot if you’re not on the lookout for it). The giant elephant seals hang out on the sand and at the shore here and it’s a good stretch-the-legs stop for a few minutes. Signs provide a kind of a guide to the seals and you’ll see – and smell them – but you’re wisely instructed to keep your distance.
7.) Hearst Castle
The spectacular former home of William Randolf Hearst sits high on a hill overlooking, well, pretty much everything. Daily tours take you through some of the rooms and the grounds, then you’re left to drool at the grounds and the view.
The tour, riding up to the tour and walking the grounds will take about four hours. To learn more about the tour, click here.
8.) Hearst Castle Winery/Sebastian’s Store
After the tour, go directly across the street for a rustic lunch at Sebastian’s Store – where you eat a burger and onion rings at a picnic table – then step inside for some wine tasting. And while you’re there, walk on the wooden pier. When you look back across PCH, high on the distant hill you’ll be able to (barely) see Heart Castle.
If you’re still in the wine tasting mood, be on the lookout a few miles down the road (it’s a left-hand turn if you’re headed south) to Harmony Cellars. Here’s PubClub’s guide to wine tasting along this part of Highway 1.
PubClub loves this little no-stoplight town about 20 minutes south of Hearst Castle. Stay at the Inn On The Beach where you’ll drink more local wine than you imagined without leaving the hotel, great food at the full-of-character Schooners or anything from pizza to grilled salmon at the Caas House and of course have beers and interesting conversations in the Cayucos Saloon.
10.) Morro Bay & ‘The Rock’
The famous landmark here is a rock. That may not sound like much, but it’s a big deal here and this small town has places to stay, eat and have some wine to wind down after a spectacular road trip.