The Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) is one of the most iconic road trips in the world. It stretches from Washington to California and offers breathtaking views of the best landscape in the U.S., including the ocean, sea stacks, cliffs, and more. 

It’s a bucket list road trip for many, but the most significant barrier is time. If you have a week to two weeks available, this itinerary is perfect for making a road trip dream come true.

Starting from the south in San Diego, here are the best stops to make on U.S. Route 101. If you’re starting in Northern California, use this list in reverse order.

The Victoria Beach Pirate Tower

Victoria Beach Pirate Tower
Photo credit: Parker Diakite

Finding the Victoria Beach Pirate Tower may be the most challenging activity during your drive heading north. If you don’t mind a challenge, getting there means hiking over some rocks. 

The best way to get there is not by following Google Maps, which will prompt you to enter a neighborhood full of small streets. Residents don’t like the clutter or traffic. Instead, park your car along PCH next to the Montage Hotel. Next, take the stairs of the hotel to Victoria Beach. The steps are steep. From there, you will have to climb on the rocks and go around the cliff. The views and the pirate tower are worth the trek. Be mindful of the tide because it can get dangerously high.  

Victoria Beach is a little less than 1.5 hours away from San Diego.

Los Angeles

After your hard work at Victoria Beach, head up to Los Angeles – an hour north of Victoria Beach. However, all that can change with California’s traffic, so planning ahead is essential. Los Angeles is a great place to stop before you continue the journey up north. It’s also a great place to rest and stay the night, with fantastic hotels, museums, nightlife, entertainment, and more.

If you’re unsure where to start, consider getting into some of the once-in-a-lifetime things to do in Los Angeles.

Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara is where the sea and mountains meet. It’s been said by visitors that the sun feels more golden in Santa Barbara. Live life like the locals, and plan to spend every moment outdoors. It’s also a nice break from the fast pace of Los Angeles. You can explore its quirky arts and culture scene and the food and wine scene.

To explore Santa Barbara’s iconic views, hike Lizard’s Mouth to see the intersection of rocks and the ocean. Another gem in Santa Barbara is Channel Island National Park. The rock formations are iconic and extraordinary to see up close.

For a fun city photo, head to Santa Barbara’s happiest landmark: The Chromatic Gate. It’s adjacent to another photo-worthy location: East Beach.

Santa Barbara from Los Angeles is roughly 1.5 hours.

San Simeon – The Halfway Mark

When you reach San Simeon, pat yourself on the back because you’re officially at the halfway mark. You’ve also reached that stretch of rugged and beautiful coastline known as Big Sur.

San Simeon is the southern part of Big Sur and is home to Hearst Castle. The castle is the only art museum operated by California State Parks. Hearst Castle is worth visiting because of its beautiful towering terraces, picturesque pools, and art collection.

San Simeon from Santa Barbara is a little under 2.5 hours without traffic. 

Bixby Creek Bridge

Bixby Creek Bridge, Big Sur, California
Photo Credit: Cristofer Maximillan/Unsplash

There’s no shortage of beauty in California, especially along its iconic highway, but Big Sur is where road trip dreams are made.  You want to spend as much time as possible in Big Sur, so the next stop is Bixby Creek Bridge.

Built in 1919, Bixby Creek Bridge is the longest concrete arch bridge that connects Big Sur and Monterey County. 

Use Pop Bixby Bridge in your Google Maps and park at the small lot on the Northwest side. Do not illegally park on the highway. It’s dangerous. Sunrise is the best time to avoid the busy crowds who want the sunset picture.

McWay Waterfalls can be a pitstop before Bixby Creek Bridge with this itinerary, but there’s a $10 parking fee. It is also a crowded area, especially during sunset. For travelers who don’t mind the fee and getting up early, it’s better to go during the sunrise to avoid the crowds.

Bixby Creek Bridge from Sam Simeon is approximately three hours without traffic.

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

Known as the “crown jewel of the California State Park system,” Point Lobos is another breathtaking site along PCH. Located in Monterey County, the state park opens at 8 a.m., and the park service takes the last visitors at 4:30 p.m.

Locals say it’s the best state park in California, so plan to do more than snap a picture. You can take in the incredible views on a hike and even SCUBA dive in some areas.

Be sure to save your parking pass. You can visit other state parks on the same day with the pass. Point Lobos is roughly 20 minutes from Bixby Creek Bridge.

Halfmoon Bay As You Enter San Francisco

Located about 45 minutes away from San Francisco, Halfmoon Bay is a small and charming coastal town with beautiful beaches and good seafood. There are several beaches to choose from, but Poplar Beach is one of the most popular because it’s easily accessible.

From Halfmoon Bay, once you get into San Francisco, consider taking a walking tour to get the best of the city. San Francisco is approximately two hours from Point Lobos.

Point Reyes Lighthouse

Point Reyes Lighthouse, Califronia
Photo credit: Elenora Patricola

As you get closer to the end of your journey, take a moment to reflect at Point Reyes Lighthouse. 

The Point Reyes Lighthouse is located at the westernmost end of the Point Reyes Headlands and Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. Pack your good walking or hiking shoes. Once you park, you will walk mostly uphill (0.45 mi) to the Lighthouse Visitor Center. From there, you will walk down 313 steps. 

It’s a great reflection point and a fantastic place to watch for whales.

Point Reyes Lighthouse is approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes from San Francisco without traffic.

California Redwoods

This region gets its name from Redwood trees – some of the tallest and largest in the world. The Pacific Northwest is home to Sequoia and Sequoadendron varieties.

To find them, you can go through Redwood National and State parks.

Redwood National and State Parks are protected forests, beaches, and grasslands along Northern California’s coast. The parks are about 60 miles long, with four visitor centers from north to south.

The best Redwood trees are in the state park service. Jedediah Smith Redwoods is your best bet as you end your journey on PCH.

It’s about 9 miles east of Crescent City, California – your last city on PCH (or first if you’re starting from the north).