Looking for the ultimate California road trip? The best and consistently prettiest drive in California runs up the craggy curving coastline on the Pacific Coast Highway. The Pacific Coast Highway starts in San Juan Capistrano as the PCH and terminates in Leggett as Highway 1. This route is sometimes a highway, sometimes a city street, and often a twisty slow road. Wherever you are, it shows off the edge of California as it meets the Pacific Ocean.
Book your car rental and fly into either the San Diego or Long Beach Airport. From San Diego , you’ll head north along I-5 until meeting the Pacific Coast Highway in San Juan Capistrano; from Long Beach, the PCH starts 40 miles south at Dana Point . Enjoy the drive in either direction, and consider a quick detour inland to see some California history at Mission San Juan Capistrano . At the end of a day of touring, the resorts of Huntington Beach  await.
Begin your day with a morning tour of the famously haunted Queen Mary in Long Beach . Then spend the afternoon meandering up the PCH, through the L.A. beach towns of Manhattan, Hermosa, and Redondo Beach. Stop in Venice  for tour of the Venice Boardwalk , finishing up with dinner at one of Washington Street’s amazing restaurants.
From Venice, the PCH makes a big bend at Santa Monica ; as you pass through the 22-mile long town of Malibu  you’ll be driving straight west. Stop at Malibu Lagoon State Beach  to frolic in the surf or watch the surfers at Malibu Pier . The road again turns north and takes you through the center of Oxnard in a sometimes-confusing series of jogs out to Harbor Boulevard. At Pierpont Bay just before Ventura, Highway 101 merges with Harbor Boulevard to again become the PCH. Turn off the car and take a break in the southern-facing city of Santa Barbara .
Spend the day in Santa Barbara. Play a game of beach volleyball, take a swim in the ocean, go shopping, or enjoy the Spanish Colonial history in and around the Mission Santa Barbara . Have dinner at The Endless Summer , and cap the evening with a moonlit walk on the beach.
Get back on Highway 101, which becomes the historic Mission road, El Camino Real, north of Santa Barbara . You’ll leave the coastline until Gaviota State Park (maybe stop for a picnic and a quick hike) before turning left away from El Camino Real and onto the next iteration of the PCH: the Cabrillo Highway. Things get a bit complicated as you drive through the middle of downtown Lompoc to pick up Highway 1 again. Highway 1 and Highway 135 merge briefly, then there’s not much to see until Highway 1 joins Highway 101 again just south of Pismo Beach. From Pismo, take the slower but more scenic Los Osos Valley Road and rejoin the PCH to spend the night in Cambria .
Heading north, Highway 1 stops diverging for a while, clinging tenaciously to the coastline. Stop at Piedras Blancas to see the elephant seals in winter, or head directly into Big Sur . Make reservations to camp at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park  or splurge on a room at Ventana Inn . Take an easy walk out to the famous McWay Falls waterfall that drops onto a cove beach. Do some more serious woodsy hiking in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park , then clean up for a top-end meal at Cielo  at the Ventana. If you’re still awake after midnight, take a dip in the cliff-top hot tubs at Esalen .
Breakast at Deetjen’s  before continuing through the north end of Big Sur . Be sure to stop at the many pullouts to photograph the unbelievably beautiful rugged coastal panorama. Stop for a hike at Point Lobos  before returning to civilization in Carmel . The 17-Mile Drive  makes a great detour off the highway. Visit the hallowed greens and fairways of Pebble Beach , go wine tasting in nearby Carmel Valley, or take in a show at one of the local live theaters. After dinner, spend the night in Monterey .
Get an early start to hit the Monterey Bay Aquarium  before the crowds and stroll Cannery Row . Back on the road, lush, fertile farmland surrounds Highway 1 on either side up to Santa Cruz , a funky, liberal town—even for California. Kids love taking a break to ride the roller coasters and play the games at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk . Farther up the coast, stop at Davenport to watch the parasurfers, then continue on up to Half Moon Bay  to stay at one of the charming B&Bs.
Be sure Devil’s Slide is open before taking Highway 1 from Half Moon Bay  up into San Francisco . Here, Highway 1 is also called 19th Avenue, and takes you across the Golden Gate Bridge in about 30 minutes. But Skyline Boulevard (Rte. 35) makes a prettier drive, letting you see Ocean Beach  and some of the city’s most stunning mansions. At the Golden Gate Bridge , Highway 1 and U.S. 101 merge before taking you into Marin , where plenty of restaurants and hotels welcome weary travelers.
From Marin, Highway 1 hugs the rough, rocky coastline as towns become scarce and the scenery amazing. Wend your way through Muir Beach , past Stinson Beach , through Point Reyes , along Tomales Bay, and up to Bodega Bay. Lunch at Hog Island Oyster Company and continue north to Fort Ross for some largely overlooked history of the California coast. Spend the night at Sea Ranch, or push on to the B&Bs and inns that dot the roadside up into Mendocino and Fort Bragg.
Continuing north, you’ll see fewer cars on the road. Highway 1 turns inland at Leggett and terminates at U.S. 101, skirting the wilderness area known as the Lost Coast. To get the best possible view of this remote and beautiful region without actually backpacking the Lost Coast Trail, take slow and twisting Mattole Road through the wilderness to the Victorian town of Ferndale and stay at a B&B.
Take U.S. 101, now called the Redwood Highway, north to slow down and spend some time in the fabulous Redwood National and State Parks. Patrick’s Point State Park boasts a re-created Native American village, while farther north Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park offers lovely, shady day hikes through the trees and down to the beaches. Or, head south on the Redwood Highway to visit the Avenue of the Giants in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Camp in the park or treat yourself to a night at the Benbow Inn and dine in the excellent restaurant.
It’s a 3–4-hour drive south on U.S. 101 to San Francisco  for your flight home. Stay on Highway 1 (19th Ave.) for a last glimpse of the coast from the Cliff House for lunch before continuing to SFO.