We crossed the border into California with high expectations for the remainder of our road trip. We had been so amazed by the Oregon and Washington Coasts that we were starting to wonder if California would be a bit of a letdown. Of course, this wasn’t the case. All three coasts on the Pacific Coast Highway far exceeded our expectations. This is yet another reason why we highly recommend at least two weeks for this trip!
However, no matter how much time you have, our Pacific Coast Highway blog series should give you plenty of ideas for stops to make along the way. Below are our top suggestions for stops along the PCH in California.
Crescent City & Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park
Crescent City, California welcomes you almost as soon as you cross the border from Oregon. Crescent City is fondly known as the gateway to the Redwoods (when driving north to south) which is exactly what we had come to see. While in Crescent City, we made a stop at the Redwoods State Park Visitor’s Center; a detour we'd highly recommend if you’re looking for tips on exploring the area.
We learned that the Redwoods are comprised of four National and State Parks including Jedediah Smith, Del Norte, Prairie Creek, and Humboldt-Redwoods Parks. Jedediah Smith State Park is closest to Crescent City so we began our trip here at the recommendation of the Visitor’s Center staff. They also told us about the highly-rated Stout Grove Trail so we headed in that direction once we were inside the park.
The Stout Grove Trail is an easy one-mile loop that winds through hundreds of large Redwoods. The grove is located next to the Smith River which made for a very lush forest and some great photo opportunities! Stout Grove is the perfect trail for immersing yourself among these giant trees, but still allowing time to explore additional areas of the various parks. As a plus, the trailhead is not the easiest to get to (4x4 vehicle is recommended when coming from Crescent City) so even on a Saturday afternoon, we had no trouble finding parking and even had sections of the trail to ourselves!
The Avenue of Giants
Located in the Humboldt-Redwoods National Park, this 30+ mile scenic highway is the perfect way to explore the Redwoods. The northern entrance to the Avenue of Giants is about an hour south of Crescent City which makes it easy to visit both parks in one day. If you have limited time, this scenic drive offers plenty of jaw-dropping views of the Redwoods and even more places to stop for a picnic or to simply stand among the trees.
The Avenue of Giants is an old alignment of Highway 101 (aka The PCH), which made it that much more interesting to travel this alternative route. We also discovered that the current Highway 101 runs mostly parallel to the Avenue of Giants so we could see plenty of redwoods while still en-route to our next destination.
There are a number of places to explore between the four Redwoods National Parks, but these two stops are a great way to scratch the surface if you’re limited on time!
We should note, there are a handful of places in the Redwoods National Parks that offer a “Drive-through Tree” experience. This means you can drive your car through a hole in the trunk of a tall Redwood and take some pictures while it’s all happening (unless you’re the driver). We learned that this is an old tourist trap that is terrible for the Redwoods and their longevity. If you are exploring the parks, we recommend avoiding these attractions to help preserve the trees long-term.
Shelter Cove, CA and The Lost Coast Trail
We chose to visit Shelter Cove, CA after doing some research into backpacking treks along the California Coast. We found a route called the “The Lost Coast” which is a trail located just outside of Shelter Cove, CA. Quick disclaimer: Shelter Cove is about an hour drive west of Highway 101 and should be considered more of a detour than a “stop” along the way. We’d highly recommend making the drive out there, but this is not technically a point-of-interest along the PCH.
The Lost Coast Trail is aptly named due to its remote location in the King Range Conservation Area. This 25-mile trail is a rugged beach hike along a remote coastline that is untouched by civilization. The only way to see this beautiful stretch of coast is by hiking it! This fact alone makes it a popular trail for backpackers, but the gorgeous views along the trail are what truly draw the “crowds.”
Once we’d made the decision to backpack the Lost Coast, we, unfortunately, let too much time slip by and missed the chance to purchase an overnight hiking permit. If you want to hike, be sure to reserve your permit early as only 60 passes are available per day during high season (30 during low) and they sell out quickly!
Of course, this minor detail did not deter us from checking out the area so as soon as we finished driving the Avenue of Giants, we headed west to Shelter Cove. The road to this remote town is windy, steep, and full of switchbacks which made for an eventful, and long, drive. If you do decide to check out Shelter Cove, we suggest adding at least one day to your driving timeline as we wouldn’t recommend a drive out to the coast without an overnight stay.
We arrived in Shelter Cove and were surprised to find far more civilization than we expected after such a long drive out there. We not only found large homes but also hotels, restaurants, bars, and even a landing strip. After the drive, we understood why the locals preferred to arrive by private plane.
Once over our initial shock, we checked out the rest of the area before finding a campsite in town. If you backpack the Lost Coast, we recommend booking a campsite or hotel room at the various accommodations in Shelter Cove. It’s illegal to sleep at the Lost Coast Trailhead and it’d be hard to get an early start if you’re commuting in from Highway 101. We ended up staying in the center of town which was overpriced for the basic accommodation. Tolkan campground, located about 20 minutes outside of Shelter Cove, would be the most affordable option at $9/night for secluded campsites with fire rings, picnic tables, and pit toilets.
The next morning, we woke up early to begin our day-hike on the Lost Coast Trail. Since it’s a popular backpacking route, we were some of the only day-hikers on the coast, but we were determined to see it nonetheless! Of course, we’d recommend hiking the whole trail, but if you miss out on a pass or prefer not to sleep overnight, you can day-hike sections of the trail to check out one of the last remote and un-touched sections of the California coast.
The Various California Headlands
We may have been exhausted from our hike on The Lost Coast (beach hiking is not for the faint-of-heart!) but the stunning headlands we passed as we drove south were calling our names. We finally stopped somewhere north of Mendocino, CA and walked the short trail along the towering coastal cliffs to the sea. Many of these headland hikes can be accessed from the rest stops and pull-offs along the highway. They’re the perfect place to take a break and enjoy the quintessential coastal views for which the California coast is famous.
Point Arena Lighthouse
In Part II of our PCH blog series, I mentioned my obsession with lighthouses which inspired stops at various ones along the PCH. There are plenty to choose from along the route, but we were drawn to the Point Arena Lighthouse for its remote location and jagged sandstone cliffs beneath its perch. If you arrive before 3:30 pm PST (4:30 pm PST in the summer) you can check out the lighthouse museum located on-site. We also learned that a hostel had been built on the grounds next to the lighthouse so you can even spend a budget-friendly night on the point if it aligns with your route!
At this point in the trip, we realized we’d timed our drive somewhat poorly. We had plans to stay with friends in San Mateo that night so we drove straight through the quaint towns north of San Francisco, as well as through the city itself, to arrive at our friend’s place at a normal hour. Luckily, we’d spent a week in San Francisco at the start of our trip, so we have plenty to recommend if you stop in SF along your route (and you should)!
We recommend devoting 1-2 days to the city to explore some of the amazing spots for which it’s known. Of course, a stop at the Golden Gate Bridge is a must! We found three ways to enjoy this San Francisco icon but suggest starting with a birds-eye-view from the Marin Headlands. You can also check out some of the old batteries from WWII while you’re up there.
Once you’ve seen the bridge from above, you can check it out from below on the shores of Baker Beach. Just be warned, the further you walk from the entrance, the more nude beach-goers you’ll see!
Lastly, a walk along the bridge is a must! You can choose the short out-and-back route or make a day of it and walk all the way to Sausalito then take the ferry back to downtown. Even though we chose the shorter route, it was enough time to see some whales swimming around under the bridge (apparently this is not common so we’re considering ourselves lucky), as well as watch the many boat and helicopter tours that circle the bay.
For the nature-lovers, a hike through Muir Woods is a great way to spend an afternoon in San Francisco. You can read more about our recommendations for the Muir Woods here. Of course, no trip to San Francisco is complete without a visit to Wine Country. You can read our suggested itinerary in the Napa Valley Vineyards here. If you’re driving the PCH from the south, Napa Valley is a perfect place to stop as you continue your route northbound.
The drive down the PCH changes drastically once you leave San Francisco. The winding one-lane roads we’d grown to enjoy were replaced with multiple-lane highways and more traffic than we’d seen in over a week. We also realized that stopping along the way now meant exploring larger coastal towns instead of remote coastal shores.
Luckily, we eased into this busier route with beautiful Santa Cruz. This seaside town gives off a relaxed ‘beach-life’ type of vibe with plenty of shoreline for the residents to enjoy. Even with a large population, we were surprised at how quickly we found such a low-key, relaxed location not too far from the bigger city.
We took time to walk the pier (touristy) before heading to the beach to watch the surprisingly organized beach volleyball games. The beach lifestyle was immediately evident as soon as we got out of the car but if you enjoy the ocean, sand, and surfing, then you’ll love Santa Cruz as much as we did.
Carmel-by-the-Sea, Monterey, & 17-Mile Drive
We had high hopes for the remainder of the drive after our quick stop in Santa Cruz. The next seaside towns on the itinerary were Carmel-by-the-Sea and Monterey. We’d heard great things about these quaint towns, and we also wanted to check out the infamous 17-Mile Drive and Pebble Beach Golf Course.
In short, we’d recommend spending time shopping and eating in these two adorable towns, but you can give 17-Mile Drive a miss. The fact that you had to pay to drive around neighborhoods full of mansions was not our idea of fun and we quickly realized we’d fallen into an unfortunate tourist trap. Driving south from Carmel-by-the-Sea, your next destination would typically be Big Sur. Unfortunately, we had to divert around Big Sur due to the landslide and drive back out to Highway 101 from Monterey.
We, unfortunately, didn’t spend much time in this town but we’d recommend a stop through if only to join back up with Highway 1 after the Big Sur detour. Morro Bay’s point of interest is Morro Rock, a large volcanic sea stack that rests on the shoreline. We arrived in Morro Bay after dark so we didn’t get to enjoy it, but if you have time to explore we’d recommend a visit to the national park to check it out.
Santa Barbara was the last stop on our itinerary and thankfully it did not disappoint. Santa Barbara’s main street is surprisingly long and offers plenty of shops, restaurants, and bars to enjoy on your drive toward the beach. We stopped at the Santa Barbara Brewing Company for some pints with a side of football, but we know this beautiful town had even more to offer.
Even with only a few hours to enjoy, it was easy to see why Los Angeles locals choose Santa Barbara as a beloved weekend escape. We’d highly recommend a stop here on your way up or down the coast, even if just for a pint ;).
After this final detour, we may our way into Los Angeles to end the trip. If you have time, we'd recommend continuing the route all the way down to San Diego to truly complete the full drive. We ended in LA to spend time with Derrick's family and enjoy our final few weeks in the states before we took our travels abroad! Huge shoutout to Jordana (Derrick's sister) for housing the various Kotlii for a week! Our trip down the PCH would've never happened without you!
Overall, our Pacific Coast Highway road trip lived up to the hype. This iconic drive was even better than we imagined and was the perfect way to end our 3-month long road trip around the U.S. and Canada. The coastal views are endless, the campgrounds are beautiful, and the highway is one of the most scenic we’ve ever traveled. If you haven’t driven the PCH, then start planning your summer road trip now (with the help of these guides – of course)!