The Pacific coast is the stuff of legend: from the rebellious (but loveable) antics of Brandon and Dylan on “90210” to the reminiscing of Chinese-American women in “The Joy Luck Club,” The Golden State has served as backdrop to countless stories, adventures, and monumental moments. For many outside California, however, movies and novels serve as the only reference points for the state’s bronze sunsets, warm breezes, and epic coastal vistas. No more; it’s time you took a trip along the famed Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) and experienced this glory for yourself, rolling from San Diego in the south to Santa Barbara up north.
Fly into San Diego
If you’re an out-of-stater, you’ll likely be flying in. If you can, set down at San Diego International Airport, serviced by Southwest, United, and American Airlines, among other big names. You can easily grab a rental car onsite; prices start at around $150/day, but if you really want to pop the top and make your trip epic, go with something snazzier. Just be sure you save on airfare to balance out the cost.
A quick San Diego diversion
You may be tempted to head out right away, but the trek to Santa Barbara is less than four hours (without stopping), so take a second to enjoy one of California’s most beloved cities. First, food.
Right by the water (north of Carlsbad) sits a recent darling of San Diego’s culinary scene: Wrench & Rodent Seabasstropub. Local and fresh is the name of the game here, with a heavy seafood hand on the menu and Asian flavors throughout. Chef David Waite is something of a prodigy in these parts, so if you get a chance, shake his hand and ask him to share his story. When you’re ready to order, check off some unorthodox sushi (e.g. Octopus Su Miso and Anchovy Nigiri = yum), then sail into Spicy Scallop Carpaccio. If sushi isn’t usually your thing, ask for some guidance; this place has converted even the most ardent seafood haters.
Fed and fêted by the W&R team, head over to Mission Bay Park. Find a place to stow your wheels, then just enjoy a quiet stroll along the water. If you want a bit of a splash, head to Seaworld where you can hop on a ride, wave at a killer whale, or pet a dolphin. Or if you prefer your wildlife to be the landlubbing type, make a stop at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, part of the world-class San Diego Zoo.
Closer to nature and ready for more of that sea air, head back to the car, gas up, and head north along the PCH.
First stop: Long Beach
The first part of your journey is arguably the best; it’s the time when you can enjoy the hum of the wheels, gaze at the water beyond, and take in the beauty that lines the coast. You can certainly stop along your way to Long Beach (Camp Pendleton is en route), but you can just easily relish the two hours on the road with your thoughts and the sun. Who knows — you might just conceive the next great American novel.
Once you land in Long Beach, you’ll no doubt be ready to stretch your legs, grab a bite, and engage in some kind of activity. There’s an aquarium you can visit, but having just fraternized with sea life in San Diego, you’ll likely want something a bit more hands-on. We recommend an hour hydrobiking on Alamitos Bay instead. It’s just what it sounds like — hop on a bike with floaties and peddle your way around the bay, getting in a bit of exercise while soaking in the gorgeous setting. An hour for a midday ride is only $25 and comes with a free tan.
Calories burned, get your land legs again and head to Parkers’ Lighthouse, a veritable institution in the city. Grab a seat on the third floor if you can (for the views, of course) and get a plate of the Mesquite-Grilled Atlantic Salmon. If you just want a snack, nothing beats the kick of the Tuna Poké Nachos, served with wasabi aïoli and pickled seaweed.
If you need a touch of caffeine to keep you going as you ride on, drop by the hipster Recreational Coffee in downtown Long Beach and pick up an Iced Mocha to go (okay, okay, and a Vegan Doughnut). Tuck into your no-roof ride and keep heading north. Next stop: Santa Monica.
Second stop: Santa Monica
Confession: Santa Monica isn’t really that far from Long Beach. Some might even say it’s part of the same urban sprawl, but traffic can be sticky, so it might take you upwards of an hour to get there. We wanted to put this on the map for your roadtrip because, well, it’s Santa Monica!
Once you get to the city, find a good parking spot next to the water, grab what’s left of that mocha, and scurry to the Santa Monica Pier. Not only is the Pier surrounded by hair-blowing rides and a ton to eat and drink, but the views are majestic. Be sure to bring your camera with so you can document your visit.
Oh, and before you head out, consider walking a bit south to Venice Beach. The best thing to do here is people-watch. We recommend bringing along a book and just finding a comfy spot to tuck into a few pages while occasionally taking in the quirkiness that is only to be found in VB. It’s busy, sure, but that’s what makes the people-watching so delicious.
When you’ve had enough of the crowds, slide back into your car and continue heading north — away from the LA crowds.
Third stop: Angeles National Forest
You’ve had enough of people for a bit, yeah? That’s why we recommend taking a little detour to the east and stopping in the serene Angeles National Forest. This is really about experiencing the natural wild side of the California coast that seems so impossible with LA just a hop, skip, and a jump away. Fortunately for wildlife, however, Congress made a point to set aside several “wilderness” spots for animals (and people) to enjoy. Our pick: Pleasant View Ridge Wilderness, where the august peaks of the San Gabriel Mountains meet the arid dunes of the Mojave Desert. Three trails wend their way through this area, but be sure to swap those sneakers for some hiking boots before you trek.
When nature’s majesty in Angeles has sated you, hike back to the car for another natural treat.
Fourth stop: Los Padres National Forest
An hour and a half northwest of Santa Monica and the Angeles National Forest lies another natural gem: Los Padres National Forest. The forest includes both arid, dessert-like patches and more lush regions; the best way to experience them all is by taking the Jacinto Reyes National Scenic Byway. Rock formations, soaring trees, and lush vegetation surround you as you glide through this epic preserved wilderness, though you should keep an eye out for a few things in particular: Wheeler Gorge, where water from a nearby creek produces breathtaking moss and orchids; Peidra Blanca, featuring sandstone outcroppings along the highway; and Pine Mountain Ridge, where Douglas and Ponderosa pine envelop you in musty green.
Sightseeing complete, wind your way back to the PCH for your final hop to Santa Barbara, just a few minutes south.
Final stop: Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara, whose weather was ranked #1 in the nation by U.S. News and World Report in 2018, is a glorious book end to a trip along the PCH. You’ve earned a stellar meal at this point, so make priority number one an evening’s feast at the waterfront Toma. Fittingly, the cuisine is inspired by Mediterranean climes, balancing day-caught seafood with seasonal, local produce, rich pasta, and decadent entrées. The Black Spaghetti — stuffed with clams, shrimp, spicy sausage, garlic, and white wine — is a perfectly flavor-popping precursor to the saffron-y Cioppino, but you can’t go wrong with anything here.
As the sun sets after dinner, grab yourself a seat by the ocean and a bourbon-coconut-whirled cocktail at Test Pilot. Take a deep breath and reflect on everything you’ve seen and done in 24 hours — a beautiful snapshot of the California coastline along the celebrated Pacific Coast Highway. Then, have another cocktail.
If you’re keen on continuing your journey, you can roll north to San Francisco along the 101, but you can also just linger in beautiful Santa Barbara, clock a few holes of golf, eat, drink, and be merry in the sun. Sometimes, it pays to just live the good life.
Want more? For a carload of Pacific Coast Highway roadtrip inspiration, go to visitcalifornia.com.