How to take a California Pacific Coast Highway road trip

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Have you ever experienced a Pacific Coast Highway road trip before? If not, then you definitely should! Fall is here and right now is the best time to do so. Why?

Because not only is fall the perfect time to go, but the beaches are not crowded crazy so there is more beach camping spots available and fewer people. Yay!


There is so much you can see on your California road trip. The California Pacific Coast Highway Road trip has become one of the most popular yet. The gorgeous coast scenery feels endless and along the way you can hit the most iconic travel destinations!

So really… what are you waiting for? 

Don’t be caught off-guard like many others. Equip yourself with our top favorite 5 essential beach must-haves and avoid common beach pitfalls! 🏖️🌞🌊

1. YETI Wheeled Cooler: Keep your drinks and snacks chilled under the sun.

2. Kelty Tent: Seek refuge from the sun with a lightweight, easy-to-set-up beach tent.

3. BeachBub Umbrella: Stay cool and protected with a durable, stylish UPF beach umbrella.

4. Trailhead Chair: Sit back and relax with a comfortable and sturdy beach chair.

5. CGear Sand-Free Mat Sand Blanket: Keep the sand at bay and stay comfortable with a sand-resistant blanket.

With the weather cooling down, the best times to drive the Pacific Coast Highway is definitely around mid-fall, right before Christmas.

Learn more as I breakdown the perfect itinerary to get you started. We’ll mention some must-see places while your at it and definitely take advantage of these California beaches along the way.

So … then let’s dive in…

The best times to take the California Pacific Coast Highway Road trip

You can practically take the California road trip any time of the year. There really is no perfect time. But if you want to push for the best weather and time then I say go in the fall.

The temperatures are perfect and there is no scorching weather to deal with. With cooler temperatures you can definitely enjoy the car ride while making the most of the nicer weather. There are less crowds on the beaches which is always a plus. And camping is mostly open during these times.

Keep in mind that temperatures are definitely cooler so make sure you bundle up for that camping trip. 

The Itinerary to taking a Pacific Coast Road Trip

Bus on the highway
A photo of a bus in the Pacific Coast Highway

Depending on how long you want to go, an ideal road trip can be anywhere from 3-7 days. The timing is really up to you and how many days you can give yourself. Anywhere from 3-7 days is the perfect window time.

Take the time to explore and have fun along the way. Don’t rush your road trips. A road trip should be fun and feel free!

Exploring all of the California coastlines is the best experience you will ever have. Take the time to get through L.A. traffic while exploring the gorgeous weather and scenery. This itinerary I made was for 7 days.

I spent a week exploring the beaches, and stayed for a day in each beach. Of course, it is up to you to see how long you want to stay in each beach.

If you are taking a shorter trip then be sure to leave some beaches out. But these beaches listed below are definitely worth checking out along the way.

Day 1-2: San Diego Beaches

aerial view of cardiff-by-the-sea in Encinitas California
Aerial View of the Cardiff by the Sea in California

Start your trip in southern San Diego. Some of the nicest beaches exist in San Diego County alone. You can explore anything from family beaches such as Moonlight State Beach, San Diego dog beaches such as Ocean Dog Beach, quiet beaches, nude beaches, hiking beaches or anything in between. 

Even starting your Pacific Coast Highway road trip in the northern beaches of San Diego may be what you’re looking for to kick start your trip.

If you are bringing family then consider starting at Moonlight State Beach or even La Jolla Beach in San Diego.

If you do have a dog then definitely check out any of these dog friendly beaches in San Diego. You won’t have to worry about leaving fluffy at home. 

If your trip will be a camping beach trip then definitely learn the most popular camping beaches in San Diego. Anywhere you start is really up to you and how many beaches you like to see through out. 

Day 2-3: Malibu Beaches

Zuma Beach
Zuma Beach in California on Sunny Day

Make your way up to the Malibu Beach area. Not only is Malibu Beach known for its panoramic beach lifestyle, but it is also known for its very hip town and vibe. This beach along with others around the L.A. area are well known and popular among families and celebrities.

There are some nice quiet beach areas such as Zuma Beach in Malibu. It is one of my favorite places to visit!

I say spending anywhere from a day or two to really explore the nicest beaches of Malibu is all you need.  

Day 3-4: Santa Barbara

Swarm of butterflies at Goleta Butterfly Grove

As you continue on your California Road Trip, the next stop should be Santa Barbara. Whether you want to check out this city or not it is still a perfect place to take a break from driving.

The city is made of mostly retired folks and a mix of college students due to the university’s location. But don’t disregard this city because the beaches are amazing and gorgeous as they are quiet.  

Every time I stop in the Santa Barbara area, I make sure I check out the butterfly garden in Goleta, keep in mind this place is seasonal. The best time to visit the Monarch Butterfly Grove would be anywhere from November to February.

It is a nice walk to the butterfly garden area and what is really cool is when you actually get to the location. If you observe the trees you will spot butterflies it’s really a neat sight to see.

In addition, be sure to check out the nice downtown area. It’s the perfect place to shop since there are many boutiques and local shops in the area. 

Day 4-5: Pismo Beach, Dinosaur Cave, Morro Bay, Hearst Castle

Sunset at Dinosaur Cave Park
Sunset at Dinosaur Cave Park

Pismo Beach is definitely on my top list of beaches to check out along the Pacific Coast Highway road trip. This beach is not only amazing and gorgeous, but the downtown area is also neat.

There is so much you can see while visiting this beach including the one and only famous Dinosaur Cave.

Have you ever wondered why they call it the Dinosaur Cave? Then be sure to read The Guide to Dinosaur Cave here, as we breakdown everything you need to know before visiting.

 It is definitely a popular family-orientated beach destination, but it doesn’t matter whether you have friends, family or yourself. The scenery from Dinosaur Cave makes you really appreciate how gorgeous nature really is.

Morro Bay

Morro Bay is practically the neighboring beach of Pismo. If you do have time to check out one or both of these beaches then do so. Morro Bay is iconic for having a large ancient volcanic stone in the water.

The cool thing about this beach is that if you’re a photographer then you can definitely benefit from amazing photography here. Wait for the sunset if you can. The colors are just gorgeous.

If you want to spice up your Instagram then definitely consider it a go-to destination. You don’t need a fancy camera, any phone will do too.  Nowadays, who isn’t a photographer?

The neat thing about Morro Bay is that you have the beaches to check out, which include over six miles of sand to play in, and you have the harbor side of it.

Here you can find a lot of fishermen looking for the catch of the day, which makes up a lot of the local seafood found in restaurants.

Let’s not forget the sea otters that love basking in the sun.

Finally, you have the bay where you can do some paddle boarding and kayaking throughout the calm waters. One of the best activities you can do is the bike ride. Whether you brought your bike or you have to rent one, it is definitely on the top things to do while here.  

Sunset at Dinosaur Cave Park

If you also love incorporating some cool travel along your California road trip then I highly suggest you also check out some cool sight seeing along the way.

Chances are, you are taking the 1-North. This highway is the most scenic you can take when you take a road trip to the California coast. 

Hearst Castle

Hearst Castle
Hearst Castle View from outdoors

One of the nice places to check out with a small detour along the way is Hearst Castle! This neat location is a museum and an iconic mansion where one’s man’s dream started on a hill.

I have definitely been here several times and I love to hear the story of William Hearst. If you tour the mansion you will definitely see the place he had always dreamed of building.

It is pretty neat as you take the walking tour with your guide. They explain the history of each room. At the end of the tour, you can check out the film of Willian Hearst and his dream of building his mansion.

The iconic view of the ocean is just spectacular.  

Day 5-6 Big Sur, Monterey Bay, Bixby Bridge

Overlooking the Falls in Big Sur
Overlooking the falls in the afternoon and fog slowly clearing.

As you make your way past Hearst castle you will end up in Big Sur! If you have not heard of Big Sur just yet, then you are in for a treat!

Not only is Big Sur one of the most well-known beach areas in all of California, but the panoramic view has made it even more popular and amazing.

As you drive you will notice beaches and mountains on either side. If you love beach camping then definitely do not pass up the opportunity to do it here! Although keep in mind that if you decide to go in the summer, the camping sites may be booked well in advance!

I suggest you go in the fall, since there is more availability! Or book 6 months in Advance.

Monterey Bay has everything from nice beaches to a hip village called fisherman’s wharf. You can experience Monterey State Beach, Mcabee beach, Carmel River State Beach, and Jade Cove.

If you enjoy doing some whale watching then be sure to look out for beaches like Marina State Beach and Lovers Point Beach. 

If you are bringing your fur baby along then don’t forget to check out some friendly dog beaches such as Del Monte Beach and Carmel Beach.

As you finish Monterey Bay then be sure to make your way a wee bit further up north where you can see Bixby bridge. Not only is it the iconic bridge that is found pretty much all over magazines, but it is also a perfect place to catch some nice pictures!

Tips for yourself and your car when taking any California coast highway road trip

The first thing to remember when taking a long road trip is that you want to make sure your car is up for it. There are a couple of maintenance things you should keep in mind before plunging into a long road trip.

I personally learned this and I also taught myself. Be sure you check:

  1. Oil Levels – bring an extra oil can with you on the trip
  2. Make sure you check the air filter
  3. Make sure your spark plugs are in good condition
  4. Bring an extra coolant- I have learned this the hard way
  5. Check for cracks in the belt 
  6. Check your brakes
  7. Bring a portable air compressor in case you have to inflate your tires
  8. Make sure your spare tire is in perfect conditions just in case
  9. Have roadside assistance in case you need it. Better to be safe
  10. Take your car to a trusted mechanic to look it over before you go

If you are not familiar with working on your car, then let the experts handle it. Take it to your local trusted auto shop to make sure everything is running smoothly. Have them do a quick inspection and if possible get a new oil change and tires rotated. 

A view of Bixby Bridge in California


All in all, there really is no better time to plan a beach vacation road trip up the pacific coast highway of California. You will find that the weather temperatures are mild and more comforting and the beaches are less crowded. 

Fall weather is the perfect time for a road trip to California to take advantage of the nice beach destinations. 

Anywhere from a 3-7 day time frame is just enough to really spend time on each beach while enjoying city life and other well-known sightseeing along the way. 

After taking the pacific coast highway road trip a couple times I have learned to map out my favorite destinations along the way. The best thing you can do is start in the south beaches of San Diego.

These beaches have so much to offer including dog beaches, nude beaches, a fun hiking trail, and beaches with villages such as Carlsbad Village. You can easily spend 1-2 days here. 

Next on the list is the well-known area of Malibu Beach. Here you can find all kinds of beaches. Some parts of Malibu are indeed super crowded and very popular. Yet there are some beaches that are more on the quieter side.

Jeanette posing with Pismo Beach sign

Don’t forget to give yourself a break and stop in the Santa Barbara area to not only stretch out your legs but give yourself time to explore the neat little downtown area of SB. It is really a cute treat if you go. 

Then follow your road trip with landing in Pismo Beach and Morro Bay, these are some of my favorite beaches to take a hold of. It is the perfect place to take some pictures and visit the famous ancient volcanic rock in the water. There is too much to see and do. 

I also highly recommend Hearst Castle as you make your way out of the beach area. It truly is a gem and after hearing Williams Hearst’s dream to build his mansion atop a mountain you’ll quickly learn why he chooses that area. 

On your last couple of days be sure to check out Big Sur and Monterey Bay! These beach destinations will definitely make you feel like your in a movie.

These popular places are perfect for camping, and winding down. Why ask for more?

Don’t forget to check out Bixby Bridge which sources say it was built in 1883. This iconic bridge is something to really check out for yourself!!!

Aerial view of Bixby Bridge California

Remember those important tips for getting your car up and ready for its long road trip. Remember to always practice safety and have an expert check out your car in case it needs anything before you take off. 

So tell me… have you ever taken the Pacific Coast Highway Trip?! What was your favorite sightseeing stop while you there?

Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Pin 2
Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Pin 1

Jess & Jeanette

Jess and Jeanette, two sisters who founded Unseen Beaches, were inspired by their family’s beach vacations while growing up.

Their passion lies in guiding you toward the most remarkable beach destinations across the U.S., while also protecting and preserving these beautiful coastal treasures! 🌊❤️

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Don’t be caught off-guard like many others. Equip yourself with our Top Favorite 5 Essential Beach Must-Haves and avoid common beach pitfalls! 🏖️🌞🌊

1. YETI Wheeled Cooler: Keep your drinks and snacks chilled under the sun.

2. Kelty Tent: Seek refuge from the sun with a lightweight, easy-to-set-up beach tent.

3. BeachBub Umbrella: Stay cool and protected with a durable, stylish UPF beach umbrella.

4. Trailhead Chair: Sit back and relax with a comfortable and sturdy beach chair.

5. CGear Sand-Free Mat Sand Blanket: Keep the sand at bay and stay comfortable with a sand-resistant blanket.

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