10 Stops for a Perfect Drive Along the Pacific Coast Highway (Los Angeles to San Francisco edition)

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a lover of road trips. There is nothing quite like driving along with the freedom to stop and explore whatever may catch your interest along the way. Recently I was able to indulge on a quick drive up the beautiful California coastline, and the road trip did not disappoint. I had embarked on the same route 4 years earlier, and had encountered ancient painted caves, waterfalls cascading into the ocean, quaint bed and breakfasts tucked away into the redwoods, and so much more. This time around, I again enjoyed the amazing coastline scenery but discovered a few new treasures that I hadn’t encountered during my first drive. 

Let me recap my Top 10 favorite stops during a drive up and along the Pacific Coast Highway -the PCH- from SoCal to NorCal…

1. Ventura

Ventura is a coastal town, not too big and not too small. The first time I came across this quaint town it was a rainy December night, but my travel partner and I decided to get out and explore nonetheless. We came across tons of cute stores, but the one that sticks out in my memory the most is the Wet Sand Surf Shop. Decked out with artistic displays made from beach debri and surfboards, and loaded with tons of comfy t-shirts and sweatshirts and other fashionable beach apparel, this store is definitely worth a stop if you’re passing through Ventura. The town is also packed with fantastic restaurants, but during my time in Ventura I ended up eating at two different diners. One was a charming 50s style diner called the Busy Bee Diner- You can’t ever go wrong with an old fashioned American hamburger-Frenchfries-milkshake combo! There’s also a great breakfast place called Pete’s Breakfast House. Apparently this place can get so busy in the mornings that there is live music playing outside to entertain the hungry folk waiting for a table. When we got there, we beat the rush and sat right down in one of the booths alongside a full wall mural of all things USA. With items on the menu like the pancake roll, biscuits and gravy, and a wide assortment of egg-inspired creations, there is something for everyone.

2. Santa Barbara

My first time in Santa Barbara, I went directly to the Mission. I will never forget watching some young kids skim-boarding on the beautiful grassy rose garden area outside the mission and seeing one of them get tasered by an officer! Presumably he was being a cocky kid and not listening to the cop, but still- I was shocked!!  After witnessing a little police brutality I explored inside the peaceful grounds of the mission, walking the gardens within and learning that the Mission was established on December 4, 1786 and represents the longest continuous presence of the Fransicans in the US. They still live, pray, and practice there today.

My second time visiting Santa Barbara I made my way down to the pier at Stearns Warf. The quantity of marine animals there was incredible- there were dolphin spottings, seals swimming alongside the pier, stealing fish from the nets of the fishermen, and pelicans galore. A quick walk along the beachfront is a delightful way to stretch your legs after a bit of a drive.

3. Painted Caves Road 

Somewhere in between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo there is a road, on your right hand side, as you’re driving up an incline. The road’s name is Painted Caves Road, and I am happy to say I let my curiosity be my guide, and I took a turn onto this side street. A few minutes of driving the winding road up into the woods and there they were- caves with walls full of ancient human paintings! The caves are barred off to the public to prevent vandalism, but you can still get up close and see everything. This place was a lucky find and is definitely worth a pit stop.

4. San Luis Obispo (SLO)

San Luis Obispo is a college town, but it’s such a fun town to walk around! There are tons of shops and restaurants, and from what I could see, there is always a lot going on. All store fronts were loaded with posters advertising concerts, fundraising walks, dance parties, potlucks…the list goes on. We stopped in SLO to grab a bite to eat at the cute Sidecar restaurant (the tater tots were amazing) and then we continued on to walk through a gum-covered alleyway, with the smell of gum still lingering in the air… San Luis Obispo, is also home to the delightfully tacky Madonna Inn. There are so many patterns and colors in this place that at first you don’t know where to look, but after your senses adjust it is fun to walk around and take in the restaurant, cafe, and wine tasting room. While there, make sure to take a break in the cafe and try a slice of the German chocolate cake. Our slice was the size of my face, and it was out-of-this-world delicious. 100% recommended.

5. Hearst Castle in San Simeon

This amazing feat of art and architecture cannot be missed if you are driving along the PCH. Designed back in the early 1900s by architect Julia Morgan and owner William Randolph Hearst, this mansion atop the hilltops in San Simeon is absolutely magical. Inside the “castle” there are art pieces and artifacts from countless countries (think Spain, Italy,

France, Egypt, China) and throughout the whole property there is a special Mediterranean feel. Outside, there is the spectacular Neptune pool with ancient roman columns and statues surrounding it’s entirety, and indoors there is another  pool with gold leaf tiles covering the ground you walk on. There are over 165 rooms in the main house and side cottages, as well as gardens that used to be home to a private exotic zoo. If you’re lucky (as I was upon my second visit) you may be able to see the zebras which still roam freely upon the ranch’s land.

6. Elephant Seal Beach

I don’t think this is officially the name of this beach, but it may as well be. Only a few miles up the road from Hearst Castle in San Simeon, you can find this Elephant Seal Beach full of the massive creatures. Elephant seals are a strange combination of walrus-proportioned mammals, with an elephant trunk-like nose. They grunt and bellow and play with each other in the waves…or they just sit like lard along the beach.

7. Deetjan’s Big Sur Inn

Deetjan’s Big Sur Inn is absolutely magical! Nestled into the redwoods, and across the road from the cliffs and crashing waves of the ocean, you will find Deetjan’s Big Sur Inn. All rooms are within the same few houses, but are decorated differently and exquisitely. While at Deetjan’s, we stayed in the Fireplace Room, complete with a personal fireplace, and there was a cool journal for people to write and draw in. To top it off, the restaurant is incredible and serves unique recipes making up some of the best food you will ever put in your mouth. I can’t say enough good things about this place- you absolutely must make a stop here if you’re driving the Pacific Coast Highway.

8. Each and every State Park along the coast – specifically Big Basin Redwoods and Pfeiffer State Parks

These state parks along this Pacific Coast Highway drive are breathtaking. Take each one as an opportunity to get out of the car and stretch your legs. Walk through the green, misty, moss-covered woods and emerge in front of the ocean. Breathe in the salty air and explore the coastline up-close and personal.

9. Carmel by the Sea

Carmel by the Sea is absolutely gorgeous. This town is a bit more ritzy than some of the others along the coast, with the prestigious Pebble Beach golf course attracting golf enthusiasts from around the world, but there is an undeniable charm throughout the area. My favorite place was a restaurant called Casanova. The ambiance of this place is wonderful, with the feeling of an open-air Italian garden inside, complete with beautiful tiles in the walls and a retractable rooftop. The French-Italian inspired cuisine is a little bit of heaven in every delicious bite…After a meal here, make your way down to the beach and take a walk along the water. I remember seeing one of the most spectacular sunsets my eyes have ever had the pleasure of viewing when I was relaxing along this beach.

10. Monterey

While driving up the coast, just before you arrive to San Francisco, stop off in Monterey and enjoy the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The jellyfish are massive and mesmerizingly enchanting. They alone will make this stop worthwhile.

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