One Week California Road Trip On Pacific Coast Highway
Updated: Jul 31, 2019
Although I've lived in Southern California much of my life I've never made the iconic drive up the Pacific Coast Highway until my Australian friend came to visit me in San Diego. To maximize her trip to the West Coast she wanted to drive from San Diego to Seattle hitting all the stops along the way. Since I'm an entrepreneur and can work from anywhere I jumped at the chance for a Thelma & Louise girls trip adventure along gorgeous Hwy 1.
Below is my ultimate guide for a 7 day adventure on the Pacific Coast Highway.
Day 1: Carlsbad - Malibu - Santa Barbara - San Luis Obispo
Stop 1: Malibu
Despite all the hype that tourists have when visiting California I suggested we blow through LA & make it to the gem of the area - Malibu. We started with brunch at Dukes Malibu on the water, perused the boutiques at the Malibu Lumber Yard & Malibu Country Mart, strolled around the campus of Pepperdine (my alma mater), and finished with some sun on our face at Zuma Beach.
Stop 2: Santa Barbara
We made a quick stop in Santa Barbara for a stroll around downtown and a walk along the pier. Both of us had spent time there before hence the short stay.
Stop 3: San Luis Obispo
Day 1 finished in San Luis Obispo. We stayed at the Avenue Inn Downtown to be close to all the breweries, restaurants, & shops on Higuera Street. We had an incredible dinner of paella on the stunning patio at Luna Red. When we asked our waiter where we should go for a drink after he said just walk down Higuera & listen for music that you like. Funny enough we found that almost all the restaurants turned into dance clubs and we were drawn into Novo by the old school hip hop playing. That one drink turned into a super fun night of bootie shaking to a great DJ. Who knew a night in SLO could be so much fun! Oh and a trip to SLO wouldn't be complete without a visit to Bubblegum Alley.
Day 2: Morro Bay - Cambria
Stop 4: Morro Bay
After a morning of breakfast & shopping in San Luis Obispo we hit the road for lunch in Morro Bay, a quaint little fishing village. A local advised us to have lunch at The Great American Fish Company where we could sit on the water with gorgeous views of Morro Rock. We were not disappointed! I am a self proclaimed fish taco connoisseur and the ones I had there may have been the best I've ever had (the clam chowder was also incredible). After stuffing ourselves to the gills we took a walk around the docks and saw a sea otter having a little snooze. These are my favorite sea creatures and I had never seen one in the wild so I was stoked. From the dock we journeyed the short path to Morro Beach on the other side of the rock where we watched surfers catch some great waves & squirrels jump about the rocks. Morro Bay was not on our original agenda but I'm so glad we stumbled upon it as it was one of my favorite stops.
Stop 5: Cambria
From Morro Bay we drove the short drive to Cambria and checked into the Castle Inn, a great spot right across from Moonstone Beach. Instead of jumping around from hotel to hotel we chose to make this our home to explore the surrounding areas (Paso Robles, Hearst Castle & San Simeon). We spent the afternoon walking along the Moonstone Beach Trail and ended with a sunset dinner at Sea Chest. A local had given me a tip to head there around 4:30pm to put my name down for sitting at the Oyster Bar (they don't take reservations). On my run I popped by to put our name in and then ran back to the Inn to get ready. At 7pm we were seated at the Oyster Bar - greeted by fantastic service, the freshest seafood, a beautiful sunset, even some free wine & samples. The experience was so wonderful we went back our second night too.
Day 3: Paso Robles - Hearst Castle - San Simeon
Stop 6: Paso Robles
The next morning we drove 45 minutes from Cambria to Paso Robles to spend the afternoon wine tasting. I have a friend in the wine industry who recommended we hit Bodega De Edgar , Halter Ranch , and Tablas Creek. All three had lovely wines and gorgeous grounds but hands down the stand out was Halter Ranch. Not only is it one of the most stunning wineries I have been to but I was blown away by how much they do to use nature to help their property be as environmentally friendly as possible (owl boxes for pest management, lamas for weed control, roofs to catch water for the vines, etc). Our tasting guide, Ray, was phenomenal as he taught us about the practices of the winery. Unfortunately we didn't get there in time but they also do winery hikes, cave tours, and horseback wine tasting. Let's just say I loved it so much I joined the wine club!
Stop 7: Hearst Castle
After a wonderful afternoon relaxing in Paso Robles we headed back to the coast to make our 5pm reservation at Hearst Castle. We booked the last tour spot of the day and I'm so glad we did. It allowed us to avoid the heat as well as the slew of tourists. We spent the first hour on The Grand Rooms tour which left us an hour to explore on our own. It was such a treat because no more tours were arriving and we basically had the place to ourselves. As someone who does not like to do super touristy things I'm so glad I didn't skip this. It was absolutely mind blowing (not to mention Instagram worthy) and so fun to hear all the stories of the glitz & glamor days.
Stop 8: San Simeon
Just a 5 minute drive north of Hearst Castle we stopped at The Piedras Blancas Rookery to awe at the gigantic elephant seals. This is the only elephant seal rookery in the world that is easily accessible, free, and open to the public every day of the year. As we watched the sunset we laughed as our new friends played and made noises that sounded like farts & burps. It was so cool00 to see them close enough to know they are stinky but far enough to not disturb their habitat.
Day 4: Big Sur - Carmel By The Sea
Stop 9: Big Sur
Oh we picked the perfect day to leisurely drive & chase waterfalls on our way through the jewel of the Pacific Coast Highway - Big Sur. I must say it truly is all it's hyped up to be! Our first stop on the drive was Salmon Creek Falls Trail - just a short stroll from Hwy 1 and you're standing in front of a 120 foot waterfall. From there we stopped at Pfeiffer Burns State Park to check out McWay Falls a plume of water that drops 80 feet from the top of a granite cliff to a sandy cove below (not even footprints on the sand mar the perfection, as this beach is closed to the public). After quite a few stops at picturesque viewpoints we ended our Big Sur adventure with a hike in Andrew Molera State Park, an undeveloped state park that winds through the woods, over a river, and ends up on a remote beach (thank you Mr. Park Ranger for telling us about this secret).
Stop 10: Carmel By The Sea
Just like the name sounds Carmel By The Sea is a charming, boujie little town. Driving in we couldn't stop squealing "this place is sooooooo cute!" When we arrived at the Normandy Inn
our excitement continued as we were greeted with homemade cookies, a huge selection of teas, and a sherry toast. It literally felt like we were staying somewhere in Europe. After exploring all the streets downtown our hearts were set on adorable La Bicyclette for dinner as it had the cutest ambiance as well as great food. Luckily we saved room for dessert as we stumbled upon the Cottage of Sweets on our walk home. Oh my goodness this place was to die for! We bought an assortment of fudge, truffles, & gummies which barely lasted us a few moments as all were divine. The next morning I enjoyed a beach run on beautiful Carmel Beach before hitting the road.
Day 5: Monterey Bay - Santa Cruz - San Francisco
Our first stop of the day was at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. We spent 3 hours walking around exploring all the incredible exhibits. Each area had its own unique features that made a trip through all of exhibits worth it. As expected the sea otters were my favorite as I just love watching the "dogs of the sea" frolic around. I also loved the jelly fish area as it was almost meditative watching their bodies light up and gracefully float through the water (think lava lamp from the 80s). My most memorable moment of the day was catching the short film/lecture on Nina the Sea Otter, who was rescued & then raised at the aquarium by a surrogate before returning back to the wild. I was also very impressed with how much the Monterey Bay Aquarium focuses on education for sustainability & environmental impact.
The second stop of the day was for a quick stroll through Santa Cruz before making our way into San Francisco for a couple days in the city.
Day 6: San Francisco
We spent 4th of July in SF and what a interesting day it was. For one, it was way less crowded than I expected. I guess it makes sense as we saw all the locals heading out of town to enjoy their holiday elsewhere when we were driving in. The day started out with exploring Pier 39 and an early lunch on the grass near Fisherman's Wharf. It was a fun scene as they had a stage set up with live music to celebrate the holiday. From there we rented bikes at Blazing Saddles and headed out on an 18 mile adventure that took us through Golden Gate Park, over the Golden Gate Bridge, and cruising through the adorable towns of Sausalito & Tiburon. From Tiburon we took the ferry (with our bikes) back to Pier 39 just in time to run home grab some layers before the fireworks show. We settled into a nice grassy section right on the water near Fisherman's Wharf to enjoy the festivities. Little did we know that a fireworks show in San Francisco does not guarantee you get to see fireworks. Instead we were treated to faint pops of color behind the fog. Ah now it makes sense why 4th of July is so dead in the city. However, based on my experience it's a great way to enjoy SF without all the tourists.
Day 7: Crescent City
Our last leg of our California coast exploration was to Crescent City. After a long 6.5 hour drive we arrived at our hotel Ocean Front Lodge. We relaxed at a picnic table and watched the sunset over the lighthouse. After sunset we walked a block to Seaquake Brewing the biggest hit in town. This brewery was so much fun - a super cool restored old building with yard games out front, a vibrant scene of friendly people inside, delicious farm to table food, and beers that could rival any of the trendy craft beers around. We loved it so much that we went back for a brewery tour and lunch the next day. We also hit up a nice redwoods hike just outside of town recommended by someone we met at Seaquake.
Our Pacific Coast Highway adventure did not stop in California. We continued into Oregon spending a night in Newport before heading over to Portland for a couple of days and eventually ending up in Seattle where we flew out from. Some of the additional highlights included:
Sunset at Newport Beach followed by dinner at Local Ocean. This was the best meal I had all trip - I'm still dreaming about the Brazilian stew!
McMenamins Edgefield - my favorite discovery in Portland. This huge property is open to the public to walk the gardens, wine taste in the vineyards, pop around for craft beers & food at a number of different restaurants, catch a concert in the grass, & explore the historic hotel & other buildings. I will definitely head back for a stay there!
Blue Star Donuts - Portlanders love their donuts so we joined the fun. This was recommended to us by locals who advised that Voodoo Donuts is not worth the hype.
Tusk - this trendy restaurant (who's slogan is locally sourced, aggressively seasonal) was recommended to us by numerous people and it lived up to it's reputation. We enjoyed a delicious tapas style meal on their cute patio.
Dog Mountain Trail - this was the most difficult hike we did the entire trip. It's a 6 mile loop with the first 3 miles being a total leg burner (straight up hill for 3000 feet). At one point there is the option to take the "difficult" or the "more difficult" path. Unfortunately we just missed the wildflowers which would have made an already spectacular view out of this world. I loved the challenge and beauty of the hike but it is definitely not for beginners.