Driving the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) in California is likely one of the top five road trips in the world. Twisting, winding roads hug the dramatic coastline. Every bend offers a view of cliffs and sandy beaches merging into the Pacific Ocean. Small towns pepper the coastline offering a mix of fishing towns, surfers’ paradises and hoity-toity villages where the wealthy gather. Add in the fact that the weather forecasts are almost always “sunny with no chance of rain” – which is perfect convertible weather – and you’ve got the recipe for a smashing good road trip. Who wouldn’t want to take this trip?
We couldn’t resist.
Note: Most red markers on the map below indicate an overnight stay for at least one night. The exception to this is in southern California (LA to San Diego) where the cities we stopped in where closer together. Click to go to Google Maps.
Prior to leaving we did our research like good little travelers and pin pointed certain must-see’s. At the time of publishing, this trip was over three years ago and we still reminisce about how fun this PCH road trip was. That being said, we would have changed a few things. The purpose of this post is to help you learn from our mistakes. We applied some of these tips below to our trip. Others, I wish we had known. These tips will take your PCH road trip from just plain ol’ awesome to superCALIfragilisticexpialidocious. (Are you spell checking that!?)
Tip #1 – Book hotel rooms that allow (free) cancellation. We booked hotels at points along the coast where we believed we would stop each night. Innocent enough, most travelers book hotel rooms before leaving, right? The issue in this lies in the fact that there is so much to see and explore on the PCH. What is normally a three-hour drive took us all. day. long. That being said, we ended up having to drive longer distances than we wanted to, in order to not forfeit our already-paid-for-hotel room. Learn from us. When possible, find lodging that has a friendly cancellation policy, just in case you find a certain piece of paradise you’d like to get to know better along the way.
Tip #2 – Do not reserve a one way rental car. If you take Interstate 5 north from San Diego to Sacramento you are looking at, roughly, an eight-hour drive. This eight-hour drive easily adds one whole day to your trip. Yes, we know this. However, we also know that a one way convertible rental from Sacramento to San Diego for 14 days cost us $1,200.00. The same rental for a car returned at the same place as pick-up is only around $575.00. A one-way rental is double the price! We could have saved some serious coin had we not done a one-way rental. Duh!
Tip #3 – Rent a convertible. This brings us nicely to tip #3. This tip is a non-negotiable. Seriously. Fork over the extra cash for a convertible. I just told you how to save 50% on your rental car fees in tip #2 anyway.
Tip #4 – Avoid Los Angeles traffic by using highways at off-peak hours. Plan accordingly to avoid rush hour in LA. We had no desire to stop in LA, so we just stayed on the PCH, through LA. Bad choice. The PCH is US 1 in Los Angeles. The road is traffic light after traffic light after stop sign. We crept along crowded, noisy, not-so-pretty streets for hours. The highways around LA are notoriously congested, but since we approached Los Angeles around 10 am we would have likely hit less traffic and moved through LA more quickly. If you want to see Hollywood, Santa Monica, Venice Beach or Long Beach, you should stay on US 1 like we did. But, if you are just trying to get back to the open road and the views of the ocean, hop on the highway, cross your fingers and say a prayer that the traffic gods are on your side. You will (hopefully) zip through the city quickly.
Tip #5 – Drive north to south. We began our PCH in Sacramento and ended in San Diego. We decided to drive north to south for the single reason that when driving south you are in the lane closest to the ocean. Trust me, you will be pulling over to snap photos and stare at nature’s beauty more than a the highway patrol on a holiday weekend. (Ba-dum-chhhh!) You will want to drive in the lane closest to the ocean.
Tip #6 – The PCH is a flippin’ long road. Our two-week trip only covered California. Two weeks to cover approximately 600 miles. That is only half of the PCH. There are still hundreds of miles to the north through Oregon and Washington. Do not expect to see it all. Do not expect to do it all. Instead, cherish what you are able to see and do.
We did not see it all. In fact, I am itching to go back to the west coast and drive through redwood forest, see large boulders off the coast in Oregon and sip coffee in Seattle. One day. Hopefully sooner than later!