The Ultimate Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip

Consider this your essential itinerary for an epic drive along this classic American route.

U.S. News & World Report

The Ultimate Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip

Man driving a convertible on Pacific Coast Highway.
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(Getty Images)

Take a spellbinding drive, packed with exciting twists and spectacular scenery.

When you imagine driving along the Pacific Coast Highway, you might think of the thrilling stretch of coastal road between San Francisco and Los Angeles. This is one of the country's most famous drives, and for good reason. But stick to this route and you'll only see a fraction of the spectacular scenery that lines the West Coast. For a real adventure, hit the road for a longer coastal journey, from Vancouver, British Columbia, to San Diego, taking in soaring redwood forests, hidden beaches, big cities and charming seaside towns. Read on for route highlights.
Part of the Vancouver skyline, seen from Olympic Village at the end of False Creek. In the foreground is the ramp down to the watertaxi dock, with the geodesic dome of the Science Museum behind, along with some apartment buildings and offices on Quebec Street.
Credit

(Getty Images)

Vancouver

Start your visit to Canada's western hub by orienting yourself from the top of the Vancouver Lookout Tower, which offers 360-degree panoramas of the city. Then grab a bike and pedal along the Seawall, a paved path that runs along the harbor and continues around Stanley Park. Stop in at the Vancouver Aquarium, which houses more than 50,000 animals. Also be sure to save some time to explore the city's trendy neighborhoods – Gastown's historic streets are lined with patios and twinkle lights hanging from the trees, while Yaletown's sophisticated, urban setting caters to the fashion-forward crowd.
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Take a spellbinding drive, packed with exciting twists and spectacular scenery.

When you imagine driving along the Pacific Coast Highway, you might think of the thrilling stretch of coastal road between San Francisco and Los Angeles. This is one of the country's most famous drives, and for good reason. But stick to this route and you'll only see a fraction of the spectacular scenery that lines the West Coast. For a real adventure, hit the road for a longer coastal journey, from Vancouver, British Columbia, to San Diego, taking in soaring redwood forests, hidden beaches, big cities and charming seaside towns. Read on for route highlights.

Vancouver

Start your visit to Canada's western hub by orienting yourself from the top of the Vancouver Lookout Tower, which offers 360-degree panoramas of the city. Then grab a bike and pedal along the Seawall, a paved path that runs along the harbor and continues around Stanley Park. Stop in at the Vancouver Aquarium, which houses more than 50,000 animals. Also be sure to save some time to explore the city's trendy neighborhoods – Gastown's historic streets are lined with patios and twinkle lights hanging from the trees, while Yaletown's sophisticated, urban setting caters to the fashion-forward crowd.

Vancouver to Seattle

For this leg of the trip, it's best to take a break and hop on the train. The scenic four-and-a-half-hour journey hugs the coast. Sit back – and get your camera ready for those views. In Seattle, swing through Pike Place Market to watch the fishmongers toss their wares, before making your way to the original Starbucks outpost a few blocks away. And coffee isn't the only thing brewing in Seattle. Make sure to sample the local craft beer scene Fremont Brewing and Cloudburst Brewing. If it's a clear day, take a trip to the top of the Space Needle, where you'll get a glimpse of the city, water and mountains.

Seattle to Portland, Oregon

Swing south and inland to Portland, another major Pacific Northwest hub. The city is about three hours south of Seattle, nestled between the Columbia and Willamette rivers. Portland is known as the Rose City, and it's easy to see why at the International Rose Test Garden, which includes a diverse range of test plants in different varieties of the flower. Other must-see sights include Powell's City of Books and the Portland Farmer's Market. And the best way to explore the city is to get lost in its eclectic local shops, art galleries, breweries and vibrant neighborhoods.

Portland to the Oregon Coast

From Portland, drive two hours northwest to Astoria, the prime starting point for a trip along Oregon's dramatic coast. At the top of town, climb up the Astoria Column, where you'll get a fantastic vista of the Columbia River. Then, head south along Highway 101, which meanders along the coast all the way to California. You can spend days exploring the small towns, hiking trails and beaches along the coast. Don't miss Ecola State Park, where the bluffs overlook Cannon Beach's iconic Haystack Rock; Oregon Dunes, where the forest makes way into sand dunes; and the Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor, a 12-mile stretch of coastal road where the sunsets are breathtaking.

Southern Oregon to Redwood National Park

Just south of the Oregon-California border, you'll enter the heart of redwood country. Redwood National Park offers hiking trails through groves of the world's tallest trees, bird and wildlife spotting and coastal views. And a little farther along, you'll find Avenue of the Giants, a 31-mile stretch of Highway 101 featuring some of the largest redwoods in the world. It's touristy, but guiding your car through a massive tree trunk is a worthwhile photo op.

Northern California Coast to San Francisco

The highway leads out of the redwood forest and emerges above the ocean. From here, you'll pick up the famed California State Route 1, also known as the Pacific Coast Highway. The drive hugs the coast as you move south, passing through seaside communities like Fort Bragg, home to the sea glass-strewn Glass Beach, and Mendocino, a charming town with a strong arts scene. Nature enthusiasts will fall in love with the seascapes around Bodega Bay in California's Sonoma County and the picturesque Point Reyes National Seashore. Spend some time and soak in the scenery before you make your way across the Golden Gate Bridge to San Francisco.

San Francisco to Big Sur

The heart of the Pacific Coast Highway, this scenic stretch is the stuff of road trip bucket lists. From San Francisco, Highway 1 passes by swaths of undeveloped coastline before reaching Monterey, a town that's famous for its aquarium and its connection to author John Steinbeck. Just south is the ritzy community of Pebble Beach, where you can cruise along world-class golf links and pristine beaches on 17-Mile Drive. The road then winds up and down along the cliffs past photogenic spots like Bixby Bridge, and offers plenty of places to get out and stretch your legs, including Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.

Big Sur to Santa Monica

As the Pacific Coast Highway continues south, the road's curves start to straighten out. Keep an eye on the hills as you pass through the small town of San Simeon. Drive on to Santa Barbara, a popular hub with a charming downtown and a delightful local wine scene. Not far south, Ventura and Oxnard are the departure point for daytrips to the picturesque isles of Channel Islands National Park.

Santa Monica to San Diego

A beach suburb outside of Los Angeles, Santa Monica not only sits on the Pacific Coast Highway, it's a hub for another great American drive: Route 66. Spend some time on the pier, with its iconic Ferris wheel or peruse the shops on the car-free Third Street Promenade. From here, you can head down to San Diego in about three hours, but you'll want to carve out some time to enjoy the coastal drive through communities, such as Huntington Beach and Laguna Beach. As you near San Diego, make a detour to La Jolla, where sea caves and sea lions draw crowds of onlookers.

Bonus: Mexico

If you've made it all the way from Canada to San Diego, you might as well push a little farther. About a half-hour south of the city is San Ysidro, where you'll find a border crossing into Tijuana, Mexico. Take the car (check your rental car agreement) and venture farther afield – Valle de Guadalupe is a popular wine destination. Getting into Mexico is fairly straightforward; getting back across into the U.S. takes time. Another tip: Global Entry members can use their SENTRI membership cards for a shorter wait.
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