Guide to the Pacific Coast Highway in California, USA
The United States is the proud home of many iconic roads and highways. Worth a mention is, of course, Route 66, Great River Road and Overseas Highway, but the most classical of them all is probably the Pacific Coast Highway in California – or as it is also known: Highway 1.
This blog post is a mix of my own experiences and more generic information – but hopefully, it gives you a glance of what a road trip along Highway 1 is like.
Although the full Pacific Coast Highway stretches between San Diego and Seattle this post will only cover the most well-driven part between Los Angeles and San Francisco, simply as it is what I personally have experiences from.
How much time do I need?
The natural answer to this question is of course that it depends – you could rush it through in a few hours, or you could spend years exploring every winding bend of the coast. However, to answer the question, it is reasonable to spend between 3-7 days on the route, with 2-4 of those being driving days. This gives you plenty of time to take photos, as well as diving into the little towns along the California coast. Do not forget to add a couple of days on each side of the Highway 1 road trip, in order to explore Los Angeles, San Francisco and the areas beyond.
Is renting a car necessary?
Well, it is not necessary, as it is possible to go by bus for some parts of the trips and cab/Uber on the rest. However, unless you lack a driver’s license it is, in my opinion, not worth the planning, time and money that will be needed for such a logistic challenge. To, on the other hand, have rented a car gives you the freedom and flexibility which no other means of transport can give you on this particular trip. Choose where to stop for photos, where you would like to spend another night or take a detour into the national park of Big Sur – in many ways the possibilities are endless.
Preferably rent a car for Los Angeles, as it is still hard to get around in the City of Dreams without it, but if it is possible to return it before you arrive/after you leave San Francisco, do it! San Francisco has more than sufficient options regarding public transportation – and with a car, you will most likely spend your days in the Bay Area in traffic. For instance, you can return/pick up the car on the San Francisco Airport, from where the BART network makes it easy to get into town.
Will I have to book accommodation in advance?
Generally not, unless you are rather picky or if you are travelling in the peak season (early summer to early fall). Of course, there will be places that are full, but you should be able to find accommodation at least on the day you arrive. This gives you a freedom to stay where you want to, and you will not have to plan everything from home, where you have no idea what the weather is going to be like or what places you will enjoy. Other rules are applicable for San Francisco and Los Angeles though, where it is better to book as long in advance as possible in order to get the best prices available.
What time should I go?
All seasons have their respective pros and cons, but overall I would recommend going in the spring. Sure, the weather might be unstable, but compared to the summer there will be fewer tourists, cheaper to find accommodation and therefore also easier to be flexible with your road trip. Also, the foggiest months in San Francisco, and also along Highway 1, are during the summer – so going in the spring could be positive in many ways. If you are looking to swim, however, it might still be too cold.
Where should I stop?
These following tips are fully subjective but were some of the places I enjoyed the most when I did this road trip in 2016.
Morro Bay is definitely a place worth a visit. A small-ish town with 10 000 inhabitants, Morro Bay has everything you could want from a Californian fishing town. A laid-back attitude, amazing sunsets and a feeling of yesterday. Most famous for its giant rock, it is also worth a detour to see the wild sea otters living and playing here.
The elephant seals of San Simeon is one of the most famous attractions of Highway 1. It is for a reason, the enormous amount of seals enjoying the gazing sun is a fascinating experience, but as expected it is crowded. Oh, and if you think you can skip these seals for the ones on Pier 39 in San Francisco, you are mistaken. Those are sea lions, and to be honest the crowd is San Simeon is like a Sunday League football game compared to the Premier League attendance of Pier 39.
Big Sur is undoubtedly the most beautiful part of the Pacific Coast Highway. Steep falls, azure water and conifers lining the road makes this stretch of the Californian coast a contender for one of the most beautiful roads in the world. Sure, the rest of Highway 1 is beautiful, but if it is one part you should not drive through during the night it is this one. The beauty is simply astonishing.
Fly to either San Francisco or Los Angeles.
Hopefully, this guide gave you some insight into what a road trip on the Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1) is like. For more content like this from California and the rest of the world – give Swedish Explorer a like on Facebook or follow me on Instagram, @swedishexplorer.