It is easy to get lost in all there is to see in California. Most people will visit San Francisco, Los Angeles, or San Diego, but what about Santa Barbra, Malibu, or Big Sur? All I am saying is there are plenty of other spots to see, and driving is the best way to experience them all. I say this because flying can be expensive, but renting a car and driving around California can save you money and give you a better view of the state.
In that case, If you want to drive up or down California, I recommend driving Highway 1/The Pacific Coast Highway (PCH). For one, it is majestic; most of the drive is along the pacific ocean, with mountains in the background. What I love about this trip is you can make it as long or short as you want. We did this in 2 days. But it can be a week-long or even just one day if you make a few stops.
As a California native, I've always known that driving down the PCH was the thing to do, but I never did it until recently because it is a very long drive. I'm talking 10 - 15 hours from Sacramento to San Diego if you make no stops. In that case, I recommend taking your time on this trip. Trust me, I recently made this trip in two days, which was exhausting. So the more days, the better!
I also recommend going in the summer months, specifically July and August, for better weather and clearer views. I went in early June, and "June Gloom" was in full effect.
Day 1: Northern California
Day 2: Southern California
Where to Start
So we began our trip in Sacramento, the state capital, mainly because I was already visiting friends there. Still, you can start anywhere in Northern California to go south, or, San Diego to go north.
We also rented our car in Sacramento. For about $700, we rented a Nissan Murano from Hertz for 8 days...such a great deal!
Stop 1: 17 Mile Drive
We left around 4 am to make it to the 17-Mile Drive, about a 3-hour drive. We would've stopped in San Francisco (SF), but we visited SF the day before as a day trip and went back to Sacramento, but if you want to see SF, that would be your first stop, where you can spend a day or more there. I've spent 5 years in SF and can tell you now there is so much to see, and one day is not enough to get a complete feel of the city.
Once getting to the 17-Mile Drive, there is a $11.25 fee per vehicle to get in, and if you have never heard of this area, well, The 17-Mile Drive is literally a 17-mile drive down the coast, and it's captivating. There are also places to exit if you don't want to drive the entire 17 miles! It is a scenic toll road along the Pacific Ocean that is open 24 hours a day. Don't skip this spot, but be prepared for foggy and drizzly weather if you arrive super early! A mistake we learned from.
Stop 2: Carmel-by-the-Sea
We then visited Carmel-by-the-Sea, a small beach city on the California peninsula about 15 minutes from 17 Mile Drive. It has cute little cottages but is expensive and a bit seclusive. We also grabbed breakfast here at a delicious spot called From Scratch, which I thoroughly loved and would go back to.
Stop 2: Bixby Creek Bridge
From there, it was about a 25-minute drive to Bixby Creek Bridge, one of the most photographed bridges in California. There are plenty of photo opportunities here, so be prepared.
Stop 3: Pfeiffer Beach/Big Sur
We then drove through Big Sur, where I recommend spending a day, something I didn't do. There is so much to do in big sur, from hiking, surfing, or even relaxing on the beach.
From Big Sur, we stopped at Pfeiffer Beach, which took us about an hour to get to, and there was a $15 fee. This was one of my favorite stops, mainly because of its stunning views. Aside from that, getting to the beach is tricky due to the very narrow roads that might be unsafe to drive on if you're not experienced.
Also, be mindful that if you do need to use the restroom in this area, there are bathrooms but no running water or toilet tissue...so yea, if you're a lady maybe hold it if you can, but if not, bring hand sanitizer and some wipes...lots of it.
Stop 4: McWay Falls
About 20 mins later, you'll run into McWay Falls, where there is an 80-foot waterfall near a beautiful beach. You can either park on the side of the road and take pictures or go on a short hike if you have more time.
Stop 5: Morro Rock
This portion of our journey had one drawback, which was that part of Highway 1 was shut down. So, we had to drive back up to Carmel and head back down on a different freeway to our next destination; this added another 2 and a half hours of driving to our day. Apparently, Highway 1 is notorious for shutting down in some areas, so do some research beforehand to be prepared.
Once we made it to Morro Rock, we weren't that intrigued by what we saw; if you're into rock formation and its history, you might enjoy this, but other than that...well, it was a rock. There are also some places to eat, fish, or relax by the ocean in this area.
Stop 6: Santa Maria/ Pismo Beach
You don't have to start here, but I figured this would be a great place to stop and stay in a hotel for the night. Driving can be tiring, and taking breaks for safety and comfort is good. So, after Morro Bay, we stopped in Santa Maria, an hour's drive away, and we got lunch at Pismo Beach nearby. Pismo Beach is a well-known area with some great wineries. Check out Hoagies to get some delicious local wraps and sandwiches too.
Stop 1: Santa Barbra
The next day we drove about 1 hour to Santa Barbra. We didn't see much due to rain, but seeing the Mediterranean and Spanish influence on the city through our window was still fascinating. We were able to get some lunch at The Santa Barbra Public Market, where I got some good sushi, and there is also free underground parking, but with limited spots! I also highly recommend spending a day here; I hear The Funk Zone is the place to go or visit Deep Sea Tasting Room if you like wine!
Stop 2: Malibu
We headed to Malibu from Santa Barbra, which took another hour and offered gorgeous views throughout the drive of the mountains and ocean. Spending a few hours in Malibu is recommended, especially if you're into surfing, relaxing on the beach, and eating some good seafood.
Stop 3: Santa Monica
It's a straight shot from Malibu to Santa Monica Beach, about 30 minutes away. Stop here for an hour or two at the pier, get food, walk on the beach, and enjoy the good vibes.
Stop 4: Los Angeles/ Hollywood
Once in the LA area, spend at least a day or two here because you can do so much; it just depends on your liking. You can go to the Griffith Observatory to see the Hollywood sign, drive down Hollywood Blvd, go to Beverly Hills, visit the movie sets, go to Universal Studios, hit up Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles, or hang by one of LA's many beaches. I also recommend trying Bludsoes BBQ, where I went on my last trip. It's black-owned, and they have some of the best BBQ I've tried in California.
Stop 6: Anaheim/San Diego
Once done in LA, you can stop in Anaheim and visit Disneyland or head straight to San Diego. It's about a 2-hour drive to San Diego from LA, and with traffic, it can be more. Check out the Gaslamp Quarter, La Jolla, the San Diego Zoo, or even take a train to Tijuana, Mexico, for street tacos!
Make sure you fill up your tank where ever you start or wherever you see one because once you get into specific areas on the PCH, gas stations are minimal and very expensive.
Bring some blankets and pillows in case you want to sleep in your car or you're a passenger princess (like me) and want to be comfortable.
For my social media people, make sure you have your phones and cameras ready because there is plenty to see along the way. There are spots to stop and park safely to get your videos and pictures.
Be mindful of the other drivers and pedestrians trying to drive through and experience the coast. Just remember, it's easier to be nice!
Phone signal / Internet is spotty throughout the highway, so have your directions and music saved offline.
Ultimately, driving down the PCH is an experience worth taking at least once in your life. You can make it as short and long as you want, just don't forget to have fun and enjoy all that California offers!