One of America’s greatest and most renowned road trips, arguably after Route 66, is California’s Pacific Coast Highway (PCH). Starting at Interstate 5 just south of San Juan Capistrano the highway winds 500 miles north to Mendocino County and flits from Highway 1 to Highway 101. On this epic road trip, we joined Highway 1 just south of Los Angeles at Laguna Beach and spent an exhilarating two weeks driving north to San Francisco enjoying endless sea-views as we went. Some people suggest the PCH should be driven from North to South so that the Pacific Ocean is always on your right-hand side making it easier to pull over at all the viewpoints, but this really isn’t necessary. Don’t re-arrange your trip just to have the ocean on your right-hand side; it’s just as good on your left! As for what vehicle to drive, everyone loves a classic Mustang but, though they look cool, they’re not the easiest to drive. As such, we decided to rent a campervan from Escape Campervan Hire so we could pitch up and sleep anywhere which gave us the ultimate freedom needed for the road trip of a lifetime.
- Some people suggest the PCH should be driven from North to South so that the Pacific Ocean is always on your right-hand side making it easier to pull over at all the viewpoints, but this really isn’t necessary. Don’t re-arrange your trip just to have the ocean on your right, it’s just as good on your left!
- When it comes to choosing your road trip vehicle everyone wants to look cool, but cool isn’t always comfortable or easy to drive (I’m talking about you, Mustang). I suggest opting for an RV, it saves you money on accommodation, food and gives you so much more freedom to create your own route.
- If you do this road trip in the summer be aware that campsites can book up fast and should be reserved in advance. If you’re super cool and just want to wing it, there’s certain areas across California where you can just sleep at the side of the road for free (but be sure to do your research on state laws beforehand).
- Don’t rush. There’s so much to see along the Pacific Coast Highway that you’ve got to go slow to really appreciate it. Some bits might not interest you so it helps to research each town, city and attraction before you set off and then organise your time accordingly.
After kicking off our trip amongst the affluent residents of Laguna Beach, we headed north into the vast metropolis that is Los Angeles. Goodbye open roads, hello traffic jams! Los Angeles is a city on the PCH that can’t be missed, but it’s not particularly car friendly, so your best bet is to dump your vehicle at a Metro Park and Ride station and catch the tube into the city. Some of LA’s biggest highlights are Hollywood Boulevard, Griffith Park, Beverly Hills and of course, the Hollywood Hills Sign. The sign is best visible from North Beachwood Drive in Beachwood Canyon but if you want to get up-close and personal with it then take the hiking trail from Canyon Drive. After a fun packed day in the city grab a bite to eat at the famous fast food restaurant In-N-Outs Burger before heading back to your vehicle. The day’s not over yet though as it’s time to hit the beach. Venice beach to be precise. Here you can blade or bike down the sun-kissed boulevard all the way north to Santa Monica Beach. This famous pier is brimming with amusement rides, and candy floss stalls to boot and you can spend a good hour here searching for the best joke holiday souvenir ever.
Escaping to Malibu
After a long day spent exploring the city and LA’s beaches, it’s time to escape the hubbub of the Los Angeles and head to the calm oasis of Malibu. Spend your first night here under the stars and, if you’ve got a campervan, head to Malibu Beach RV Park which sits atop a cliff and offers excellent views of the ocean. The next morning rise early and get back on highway 1 heading north again. If you didn’t manage to fit all of LA into a day, then you can always head back into the city and spend another day or two exploring.
Up next is Santa Barbara, this Mediterranean-style city sits on the glorious California coast and is home to swaying palm trees and bohemian boutique stores. There’s plenty of things to see and do here including Santa Barbara Zoo, the Botanical Gardens and Old Mission Santa Barbara. If you’re a beach lover then head straight down to West Beach to relax on the sands before heading over to Santa Barbara Sailing Centre where kayaking and stand up paddle board rentals are all the rage. After, take a stroll along the pier to Harbour Restaurant where you can dine on the freshest seafood around.
Solvang and San Louis Obispo
From Santa Barbara head north again still following Highway 1 up to San Louis Obispo stopping off at Solvang. This little city has heavy Danish influences and is full of quaint shops and Danish wind-mills and horse-drawn carriages line the street. It really is a world-wind away from the rest of California and, as such, offers a nice break from the cities. Make sure you head to the Copenhagen Sausage Garden for a cold beer and bratwurst sausage. After your pit stop here, head on up to San Louis Obispo where you’ll spend the night. If you’re lucky, you might land on a movie showing at Sunset Drive-In cinema which adds an all-American end to your day.
Make sure you’re up early today as it’s time to head to Big Sur, arguably the most picturesque section of coastline in all of California and the real highlight of your trip. People travel far and wide to drive the highway that winds its way through the forests of the Santa Lucia Mountains, and it quickly becomes evident as to why. McWay Falls and Bixby Bridge are the two ‘must-stop’ spots here, one a cascading waterfall and the other a famous road bridge. McWay Falls sits inside Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and can be accessed via a 2-mile hiking trail. If you’re not up for the hike, you can still get great views from the roadside of the waterfall cascading into the ocean. As you carry on further north you’ll eventually reach Bixby Bridge, make sure you park up and take the famous bridge shot! Spending a night in the state park is advised just to make sure you have plenty of time to admire the natural beauty, Big Sur Campground and Cabins is a favourite of mine and very RV friendly.
As you continue your journey north out of the State Park, you’ll gradually wind your way up to Point Lobos State Reserve, a hikers and photographer’s paradise, before finally reaching Carmel-By-The-Sea. This quaint beach city is brimming with juice cafes, art studios and fancy restaurants and was once home to Clint Eastwood who, for a short while, was mayor of the city. Carmel is no place to save money though so be prepared to splash the cash. That said, the town is incredibly beautiful, and it’s totally worth bringing some extra cash. Make sure you head down to Carmel Beach for a quick game of volleyball before heading to Saddle Mountain Ranch, the closest RV site located just a 15-minute drive east of the city.
The final destination on this mega west coast road trip is San Francisco. If you’ve got time to fit an extra stop in on your way north make sure you swing by San Jose, California’s bustling technology hub. As for San Francisco, this hilly city is brimming with quirky coffee shops, excellent fish restaurants and colourful houses. There’s so much to see here you’re going to want to allow at least three days for exploring the city and its surrounding area. You’ll want to drop your RV off at Escape Campervan San Francisco office as the best way to get about is by bike, and rental shops are dotted all over the city. Make sure you head out over the Golden Gate Bridge down to Sausalito, cycle through Golden Gate Park and spend a good afternoon exploring the neighbourhood of Presidio. For some evening entertainment head down to Pier 39 and the Bay area, home to fish markets by day and lively bars by night. For an artsy morning head to Haight-Ashbury before heading to the neighbouring district of Castro which has an active gay community and is home to the best café in town: Tartine Bakery. End your time in San Fransico watching the sun set over the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge.