Tell me, what did your family vacations look like when you were growing up? Mine consisted of beaches, hiking, and Yosemite. I grew up in a utopia also known as California, where the weather is fine nearly all of the time, the coast stretches for 16 hours by car from the border of Mexico to the border of Oregon, constantly changing along the way. The mountains came along to play too, just to round things out as the most perfect place to grow up. I have a bit of hometown pride, can you tell? That’s why I put together this Pacific Coast Highway road trip itinerary, so you can see California’s beauty too.
More of California’s secret places here:
California has inspired countless poets, musicians, and writers. One of my favorites is Jack Kerouac, particularly in Dharma Bums. He spoke of California in the most enchanting run-on sentences I’ve ever read as he vagabonded across the state. Quotes from his books perfectly illustrate the quintessential California road trip:
*Note: it’s more popular to go from north to south on this route. You’ll be in the lane directly next to the coast and have better views, so if you’re able, reverse this trip. If you live in SoCal like I do, then this direction is great, too.
My Favorite Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Itinerary
Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Checklist:
Make sure not to start your trip before you:
- Get the best-priced rental car
- Do you have an extra charger?
- 4-person tent
- A couple of twin air mattresses
- And thick sleeping bags
- Plus, a head lamp
Ready? Let’s go:
Start in Los Angeles
Dean’s California–wild, sweaty, important, the land of lonely and exiled and eccentric lovers come to forgather like birds, and the land where everybody somehow looked like broken-down, handsome, decadent movie actors. –On the Road
Here’s a travesty – I had never done a road trip up California’s Pacific Coast Highway (AKA Highway 1, but locals call it PCH). I’ve lived along bits of it for most of my adulthood and as a young child, but never actually drove it up to San Francisco. Mom and I decided to change that this summer when I came back for a visit. The starting point was L.A. (though you could start in sunny San Diego which is about two hours south), with plans to make it to Santa Barbara, where I went to college, by mid-afternoon.
El Capitan Campgrounds, Santa Barbara
Happy. Just in my swim shorts, barefooted, wild-haired, in the red fire dark, singing, swigging wine, spitting, jumping, running—that’s the way to live. All alone and free in the soft sands of the beach by the sigh of the sea out there – Dharma Bums
I got goosebumps when I read this quote about the Santa Barbara coast while sitting half a world away on Tonsai beach in Thailand. I felt exactly what Jack was talking about as he referenced the place where I went to university, came into my own, and realized what I wanted out of life. It was never clearer to me than when I was sitting on those quiet beaches outside of Santa Barbara, looking up at the stars, listening to the gentle roll of the waves, and thanking the universe for creating such a beautiful place.
Jack was speaking of Gaviota State Beach, which is just a few campsites over from El Capitan. This is a favorite of mine located just north of Santa Barbara on PCH. The campgrounds are located directly on cliffs overlooking the ocean. Every single time I’ve looked out at the horizon, I’ve seen dolphins within minutes. That is not hyperbole. Every single time!
Once you leave El Capitan for the next day’s drive, there are tons of places worth stopping by on the way up to Big Sur. The best part is they only get more spectacular as you make your way north. The Morro Bay rock is one, and as you make your way up through San Simeon you’ll see more and more lovely views which almost always have space for pulling off the road for a quick photo:
You can’t really go wrong with which beach you choose to stop for lunch at – though Pismo Beach is a popular spot if you need suggestions. We elected to stop a bit before that in San Louis Obispo (at Old San Luis BBQ Company). They have been open for outdoor dining during much of the pandemic and have just opened indoor dining as well.
On soft Spring nights I’ll stand in the yard under the stars – Something good will come out of all things yet – And it will be golden and eternal just like that – There’s no need to say another word. – Big Sur
Jack’s work, Big Sur, spoke of his battle with alcohol addiction and finally succumbing to its grasp. His words in this quote remind me of the way I often feel when staring off into the distance. Things finally start to align when I’m given the time and space to think close to nature’s heart, far from big cities, crowds, and skyscrapers.
There’s something about staring at the California coastal horizon and imagining the possibilities that exist out there that result in the kind of clarity I can’t find elsewhere. I imagine he might have felt the same.
Big Sur is one of California’s most famous parks, and usually books up well in advance, yet I got lucky by finding Ventana Campground (location noted in the map at the bottom of the post), which is a tranquil, tents-only campground in the middle of a patch of Redwood trees. It’s been open during the COVID-19 pandemic and continues to implement health and safety precautions.
If you’ve never seen them before, prepare to be wowed.
The Redwood tree only exists in California, Oregon, and China’s Hubei province. The first spot you’ll see them driving up the coast from Southern California is in Big Sur. My, what a sight they are.
The world’s tallest known living tree, named the Hyperion in Northern California, is of the Redwood variety and stands at 115.61 m (379.3 ft). It’s incredible to imagine how resilient these trees are. The average age of Redwoods is 500-700 years, with some living as much as 2000-2500 years!
Their fire-retardant bark and the way it splinters into tiny pieces when it hits the ground have helped them survive fires and logging. They still are victim to both, though. Thankfully, conservation efforts in California have protected some of the areas where they grow.
McWay Falls has a beautiful history. It’s right outside of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (park on the right side of the road if coming from the north in order to avoid paying park entrance fees if all you want to do is quickly see the falls).
The land where the park now sits was owned by an heiress Helen Chamblet Hooper, who married Lathrop Brown, a one term Congressman. McWay Falls is named after McWay Canyon, which was named for the first homesteader Christopher McWay who settled there in 1887.
Upon leaving Big Sur to head north keep your eyes open for the famous Bixby Bridge. It will be easy to spot as it’s a favorite amongst tourists for a quick photo.
Keep an eye on maps, as just south of Carmel-By-The-Sea, you’ll see a bunch of old trees lining the road and a few more cars pulled over. Stop to see if you can spot some whales from the shore. Much like the density of dolphins around El Capitan, spending some time scanning the water for clouds of mist from a blowhole may pay off. Mom and I saw two without binoculars.
If you’ve got time, the 17 Mile Drive between Carmel and Monterrey is a famous and beautiful one. It will set you back $15, though.
It seemed like a matter of minutes when we began rolling in the foothills before Oakland and suddenly reached a height and saw stretched out ahead of us the fabulous white city of San Francisco on her eleven mystic hills with the blue Pacific and its advancing wall of potato-patch fog beyond, and smoke and goldenness in the late afternoon of time. – On the Road
There’s one spot in San Francisco where you can actually camp – Kirby Cove – and it has a view of the iconic Golden Gate bridge. Just like Ventana, Kirby Cove is open during the pandemic and following CDC health and safety guidelines.
SF, as we Californians call it, is always a favorite of mine not because I go sight seeing at Fisherman’s Wharf, California’s old prison at Alcatraz Island, hang from cable cars or even wine taste. Alcatraz is now reopened and has limited capacity, so make sure to make a reservation before you visit.
It’s where nearly all of my best friends live now. Every time I go back, I’m reminded who my family away from my family is, and it’s a beautiful feeling.
San Francisco has a great vibe with a great many cultures coming together. I personally love poking around Haight and Ashbury, or lounging in one of the parks. If you want to go for a walk and catch some nature and coastal views, go for a walk along the Presidio.
South Lake Tahoe
I felt like lying down by the side of the trail and remembering it all. The woods do that to you, they always look familiar, long lost, like the face of a long-dead relative, like an old dream, like a piece of forgotten song drifting across the water, most of all like golden eternities of past childhood or past manhood and all the living and the dying and the heartbreak that went on a million years ago and the clouds as they pass overhead seem to testify (by their own lonesome familiarity) to this feeling. –Dharma Bums
I know it’s a deviation from the coastal road trip to hit up Lake Tahoe, but it’s so worth it. I couldn’t believe I’d never seen it before having grown up in this state. As I’ve come to find, there’s a lot worth seeing in my own backyard.
Though I didn’t hit South Lake Tahoe on the same road trip, it’s easy enough to make the jaunt over if you have the time. I drove up there several weeks later en route to Burning Man with a few friend. This time we took an RV, which was a game-changer.
It’s certainly different camping with an RV, and I love it for the convenience. Once you get over the initial, omigod this is huge how do I even drive this boat?! it’s not so bad, and can even be kind of fun to drive.
We camped at Fallen Leaf Campground in South Lake Tahoe. At the time it was not permitting fires due to the dryness induced by California’s current 4-year drought. No matter, because we had a stove, and even an oven, right inside the RV. Like the other campgrounds, Fallen Leaf is open and following health and safety protocol.
One big reason we had the RV was for Burning Man (covered in The Day I Finally Became Enough, if you’re curious about the desert festival). I would honestly never go to Burning Man without an RV. I sleep at odd times during the festival and tents turn into ovens during the day. Sleep is too important during a week-long festival, as are showers. It also provides good shelter from the crazy dust storms and a place to hang out, store costumes and get ready for the day, and to cook easily. I normally don’t mind roughing it, but during Burning Man is one time that I’m just not willing to.
In the past we had rented from someone off of Craigslist, and this year, went with Apollo RVs instead. I didn’t realize what I had been missing. The old RV leaked water constantly and we had a crisis almost every year. This is very bad news when you’re at a festival in the desert where you can’t refill. It also had nice hard floors rather than the ridiculous carpet in the last one, and looked pretty classy inside with all the dark wood. I’ve learned my lesson here – go for the newer models that aren’t going to break super easily.
Camper van photos thanks to my lovely partner in crime, Yvonne. If you speak Deutsch check out her road trip tips.
Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgandy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries. – On the Road
Most people don’t go all the way to the far north of California on their road trips, but it’s actually my favorite spot. I love Humboldt county so much that I’ve returned four times.
It’s nicknamed the Lost Coast since it’s so sparsely populated and receives way less tourism and attention than the rest of the state. I imagine that has been its saving grace. Take a walk along any of the beaches, especially at sunset, and you’ll feel a profound connection to the coast in a way you haven’t felt at any other spot – that’s a promise. If you find yourself in this area, definitely head to Fort Bragg and Mendocino if you can.
The California road trip is one I’ve wanted to do my whole life. I can’t believe it took me traveling to the ends of the world to finally make the time for my home state.
I can only close with gratitude, and with yet another passage from Jack Kerouac:
And I said, “God, I love you” and looked to the sky and really meant it. “I have fallen in love with you, God. Take care of us all, one way or the other.” To the children and the innocent it’s all the same. – Dharma Bums
Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Camping Tips
Directions: Click here for a map with all of the destinations plotted out for an easier journey.
- Camp food: For easy eating, I suggest hobo stew, which is a mix of veggies (I like to put squash, zucchini, broccoli and/or cauliflower, and tomato in mine, layered in that order), plus ground turkey, beef, chicken, or pork, BBQ sauce on a large square of tin foil. Scrunch it up around the sides and pour in a bit of whiskey. Then throw it on the grill and, depending on how big the fire is and how quickly the veggies cook, you’ll have an easy meal within 30 minutes to an hour.
All you really need to make this is a cutting board, decent knife, and a campground that will allow camp fires. Sometimes, especially due to the recent drought, they’re not allowed, so look on the campground’s website to be sure.
- Fill up on gas before getting near Big Sur. It gets hideously expensive in national parks
- Book ahead: Camp slots in California, especially in the summer, book up way ahead of time. Get your spot early! This is especially necessary during the pandemic as there is even more limited capacity at the campgrounds.
- Get an awesome tent for tent-only campgrounds. Mom did a great job of making our 4-person tent (for two people, naturally) feel like a palace. We each had our own twin air mattresses. I suggest these over one queen because if one person moves the other feels it too much on a queen. Also bring thick sleeping bags (it gets cold at night, especially on the coast, at any time of year), and a nice big tent that is easy to put up. I slept like a baby.
- For the comforts of home, get an RV. Most of the time, I’d much rather have an RV if possible for long road trips like these. Setting up camp takes up a lot of time, especially when moving quickly. In an RV, not only do you have more people and more potential drivers, but there’s a spot for cooking if campfires are not allowed, an oven, showers, a toilet, and an essential for Burning Man – air conditioning.
*Apollo and I collaborated to bring you this post (Two other bloggers and I provided them with photos of the RV for their marketing purposes). I genuinely loved the RV and am serious that I would never go to Burning Man without one. Opinions expressed in this article are genuine. Please also note that there are some affiliate links in this article. Anything you purchase through them helps keep the content on this blog coming at no extra cost to you.