The Pacific Coast Highway is commonly ranked among the best drives in the world. Considering this road is over 1000km in length, tourists mainly stick to the portion between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Driving south will ensure that you’re on the best side for experiencing the views. There will be plenty of occasions where you’ll want to pull over and admire these breath-taking landscapes. Last but not least, this road trip offers flexibility to accommodate people who want to rush through in one day or stay for a week.
I have created a list of things to do along the Pacific Coast Highway (ordered by importance). Adding together the drive itself and each activity, an average person would need 3-4 days to accomplish everything and not feel rushed. People who love the outdoors and hiking can find many more activities and should consider extending their itinerary beyond what I recommend. In addition, my article features the best towns and hotels to stay along with your trip down the coast.
Monterey Bay Aquarium
Monterey is known for housing one of the world’s best aquariums. There are more than 600 species on display, the most popular being sea otters, stingrays, and tuna. The Monterey Bay Aquarium is unique because it constantly draws in water from the bay, keeping a natural supply of ocean water for the inhabitants.
The 17-Mile Drive is a scenic adventure through Pebble Beach and Pacific Grove. There are plenty of famous sights to see along the way, including the Lone Cyprus, China Rock, and ghost trees. Finish your day at the world-renowned Pebble Beach Golf Links, where you can indulge in the luxurious restaurants and stores.
Located in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, McWay Falls is indescribably beautiful. With all the fake tourist destinations online, some people question whether such a perfect setting can actually exist. I can assure you that McWay Falls is real, unlike the Waterfall Castle and Forgotten Temple of Lysistrata. If you’re curious, here is a good blog post on which travel photos are fake but are widely believed to exist.
The Piedras Blancas State Marine Reserve is one the best stops along the coastal highway. You’ll get the opportunity to view massive Elephant Seals in their natural habitat. Check out this schedule to see what the animals are doing each month.
With tantalizing architecture and an awe-inspiring setting, it’s easy to see why Bixby is one of the most photographed bridges in California. A drive along the coastal highway isn’t complete without experiencing the Bixby Bridge.
Carmel-by-the-Sea is a beautiful town that is best known for art and Clint Eastwood. The actor owns a hotel and restaurant called “Mission Ranch”. If you’re lucky enough to get a table at the restaurant, enjoy the food and picturesque views of sheep grazing in the meadow.
Point Lobos State Reserve is an excellent place to visit for hiking. Experience the beautiful coastline that is complimented by vibrant flowers and lazy aquatic animals. If you missed the sea lions in San Francisco, Point Lobos is the perfect spot to view these creatures.
Pigeon Point Lighthouse
A beautiful lighthouse located on the drive between San Francisco and Monterey, Pigeon Point is little side trip that can yield stunning pictures. It’s a shame the buildings are deteriorating. There is no cost associated with visiting the lighthouse, but if each tourist donated a couple dollars, it would preserve Pigeon Point for future generations.
Moss Landing is famous for its large population of Sea Otters. This species was once critically endangered, but conservation efforts have yielded positive results. There aren’t too many places besides Moss Landing where you’re guaranteed to see these fun loving creatures in their natural environment.
If you’re staying along the Coastal Highway, Monterey is a central location that is close to many attractions. The Monterey Bay Aquarium, 17-Mile Drive, Carmel, Point Lobos and Moss Landing are either in town or a short drive away.
InterContinental the Clement: In terms of location, it’s hard to beat the InterContinental which is situated perfectly. You’ll be within walking distance of the aquarium and Monterey’s best shops and restaurants.
Hyatt Regency: The Hyatt Regency offers some of the best value in Monterey! It’s a little outside of town but comes at a fraction of the price. If you don’t mind driving a little and finding parking within Monterey, you can save quite a bit of money.
Click here for a full listing of Hotels in Monterey.
The following cities are located towards the end of your drive along the Pacific Coast Highway. They are perfect for a night’s rest before driving into Los Angeles the next day!
Great: April – June
The best time to visit the Big Sur and Monterey area is during April and May. These months feature mean temperatures between 16 and 17°C. Children are still in school at this time, meaning you’re free to explore with fewer crowds. In addition, accommodations are usually much cheaper than during the summer months.
Coming in at a very close second is September. Not only is this the warmest month of the year, children are at back in school and the crowds start to thin considerably. Unfortunately, September still features peak season prices, keeping it out of the number one spot.
Okay: July – August
The summer, a time of ridiculous crowds and prices. This period classifies as an “okay” time to visit because of the perfect weather conditions. Rain is virtually non-existent during the summer months and temperatures hover around 19°C.
Bad: October – March
Temperatures during fall start to creep below 10°C. The biting wind and high probability of rain create some truly miserable conditions. Understandably, crowds are sparse and hotels tend to be quite affordable. If you can brave the conditions, there is potential to save a lot of money.