From the dazzling and rocky seascapes of the Northern Coast to the sun-drenched beaches of Southern California, this road trip is filled with scenic vistas, sandy beaches, majestic cliffs, and ancient forests. Pacific Coast Highway, California State Route 1, runs north to south along the coast through (sometimes unnerving) twists and turns that curve through seascapes, mountain roads, and redwoods. SR 1 starts near Interstate 5 (I-5) near Dana Point, California up to its northernmost part near Leggett as its intersections with US Highway 101.
At times, parts of the road are closed by frequent landslides, especially during seasonal rains. Check the weather and to see if the route along SR 1 is open. [Want to try something different? Take Amtrak’s Coast Starlight up the coast and avoid the traffic issues.]
This road trip is broken up into three parts—Northern California, Central California, and Southern California. I recommend heading north to south as you get closer and better views of the water. Feel free to mix it up! The endpoint is Dana Point, where Highway 1 ends.
Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip — Northern California Itinerary
This portion of the Pacific Coast Highway focuses on northern California and works its way down to the Marian Headlands and San Francisco.
How long? 200 miles, around 5 hours without stops. If you plan on stopping for camping or trails, make it a two-day trip.
When to go? Without much winter weather, it’s popular all year long. Winter, spring, and fall are optimal as summer can bring in fire season. Summers are also really foggy going down the coast.
Start at this spectacular 2,200-acre preserve, with more than 10 miles of ocean frontage, cliffs, beaches, and headland. Playful seals bask on the rocks below Laguna Point, and you can find fields of tall grass, and poppy in the park as well. For people interested in preservation, you can find a wetland ecosystem and native dunes at the Ten Mile Dunes complex. The park is also home to more than 90 species of birds. Walk down the Haul Road Trail, which hugs the coast for several miles.
The next stop on the Pacific Coast Highway, Northern California Itinerary journey is Jug Handle State Reserve, another dream for geology-geeks (like me). Coastal erosion and shifting land masses have led this 776-acre park to have five marine terraces of sediment. Each terrace has its own history, and each layer of sediment is 100 feet higher and about 100,000 older than the one beneath it. The lowest terrace supports prairie, followed by a redwood forest, followed by a pygmy forest of cypresses and pines. You can walk along a well-marked 2.5-mile Ecological Staircase Trail that explores flora and fauna at three wave-cut terraces. There is also a sandy beach where you can stop and view both the terraces and the ocean.
South of Point Cabrillo, you’ll cross the Russian Gulch Bridge, where you can stop and view the bridge, take the North Trail Trailhead or visit Russian Gulch, State Park. Beaches, coves, tide pools, and woodland forests make this park. You can find 15 miles of trails, with five miles open to bicycles, with the Headlands Trail offering different views of the Pacific Ocean and the Devil’s Punch Bowl sinkhole. This point of interest is a 200-foot-long sea cut tunnel that collapsed at its inland end. Going deeper into the park, you can find woodlands of pine, maple, alder, and laurel trees along with a 36-foot waterfall. Swimming is allowed from the beach at the mouth of Russian Gulch Creek, along with SCUBA diving and tide pool exploring.
Van Damme State Park is a 1,831-acre park where the forest meets the sea. The park offers a lush fern-filled forest, scenic beach, and ten miles of hiking trails that lead into the mature forest with Douglas firs, Pacific hemlocks, and redwoods. Walk along the Fern Canyon Scenic trail, into Fern Canyon with its growth of assorted wildflowers, rhododendrons, and trees. The trail itself is east of the beach while the parking lot is to the west. Don’t try to swim at this beach, however, as like most of the northern coastal beaches, the waves are cold and swift. Also, it gets fairly chilly and foggy even during the summer, so bring a light jacket.
If you only have an hour at this stop, the state park suggests taking Airport Road out to the pygmy forest. A 5-mile walk through the redwoods and ferns is another amazing trail with beautiful views.
Point Arena Lighthouse is two miles north of Point Arena, once a busy logging port. The 115-foot Lighthouse Tower and its 1896 Fog Signal Building can be toured by climbing up its 147 steps. You’ll also take in stunning views of the sea and coastline, including the 23 acres of coastline nearby. Museum and tower tours are currently $8 per person for ages 12 and up, $1 for ages 5 to 11, and free for those under 5.
Gualala Point Regional Park is where the Gualala River meets the sea. You can stop and walk the 2.9 miles of trails that connect the beach to the coastal bluffs and estuary. Rarely ever crowded, this beach is popular for whale watching, beachcombers, and day hikers.
Salt Point State Park is a 6,000-acre state park with over 20 miles of hiking trails and 6 miles of rocky coastline. It’s a beautiful place to stop on the ride for a (stony) walk along the shore. Stump Beach is a great little beach with lots of driftwood and mountains on both sides. You will also have limited cell service, so be sure to print out directions when going in. It’s also close to the next stop, Fort Ross State Historic Park.
This 3,400-acre park offers unspoiled natural landscapes in addition to a reconstruction of an Imperial Russian-era fur trading outpost. Surrounded by redwood forests and sandy beaches, the park was established in 1090. Fort Ross itself was active from 1812 to 1841, built by representatives of the Russian-American Fur Company. The park includes the 1836 Rotchev House, the Kuskov House, a weathered redwood blockade, a commander’s headquarters, and a Russian Orthodox chapel, crowned by two towers.
One of the first virgin redwood preserves, Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve preserves 805 acres of coastal redwoods. Twenty miles of trails with varying difficulty lead you dense forests of pine and oak into the slopes of McCray Mountain, and fields of wildflowers. The tallest tree in the park is the Parson Jones Tree, which is more than 310 feet in height and is less than a mile from the park’s entrance. Also, less than 0.5-mile from the park entrance is the Colonel Armstrong Tree, estimated to be over 1400 years old. One of the easiest one-mile is the Pioneer Nature Trail that leads from the park entrance to the Armstrong Tree and Forest Theater.
Moving through the village of Bodega Bay, famous for its seafood and harborside views, you’ll find Bodega Head, which marks the start of the Sonoma Coast State Beach. This chain of parks spans 17 miles from Bodega Head down to Vista Trail. Bodega Head itself is the rocky headline that forms the entrance to the harbor. There are many hiking trails on the ocean side. Picnicking beneath the cliffs of Schoolhouse Beach is another great option.
Protected by winds by Inverness Ridge, this park covers the 13-mile inlet that separates Point Reyes from the mainland. The park is divided into three distinct park areas, with Heart’s Desire Beach which offers a gently sloping, surf-free relaxing seashore that is the heart of the state park. Hiking trails lead to Indian Beach, Pebble Beach, and Shell Beach. In addition to the beaches, you will also find forests, grassy meadows, and marshes with a variety of trees, wildflowers, and wildlife.
The Point Reyes National Seashore extends around the Point Reyes Peninsula, a craggy stretch of shoreline that extends for some 70 miles. Expansive sandy beaches, open grasslands, grassy hillside, and forests cover this park. You can also walk a short paved loop that explores the San Andreas Fault Zone. Take a leisurely drive through Inverness Ridge to the beaches and wildlife viewing areas. Whale watching is a popular activity as you can watch gray whale migrations from the Chimney Rock and Lighthouse areas. It is a huge park, so stop by the Bear Valley Visitor Center to get different itineraries for your stay.
The last remaining strand of redwoods in the Bay Area, Mui Word’s Cathedral Grove soar up to 250 feet above the forest floor. Over six miles of trails lead visitors along the banks of Redwood Creek and into the heart of the grove. The trails include a 1/2 hour loop, a 1-hour loop, and a 1 1/2 hour loop. Longer trails lead up into surrounding Mount Tamalpais State Park. Climb up the Ben Johnson and Dipsea trails for views of the treetops, Mount Tamalpais and the Pacific Ocean.
There is no cell phone service or WiFi at or around the monument. Be sure to print your directions (or Atlas), reservation or shuttle ticket in advance. What shuttle? You might want to get a hotel in Sausalito and then take the shuttle up to Muir Woods. Will save you the headache of getting a reservation for personal vehicles. Plus you’ll already be in town for the next and last stop. Also, reservations are now required for private vehicles and shuttle riders going into the park, so plan ahead.
After visiting Muir Woods, you’ll head south on SR 1 to where it merges with 101 down into Sausalito.
Fort Barry, Building 948, Sausalito, CA 94965
Just north of San Francisco, lies the Marin Headlands, a 5-mile stretch of coastal basalt headland, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. White sand beaches, rounded hills, and seaside cliffs. Before you head to the coastline, stop at the Marin Headlines Visitor Center at the intersection of Field and Bunker Roads. Take in the astonishing views of the Pacific Coast and drive along Conzelman Road to the northern foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. You can access the Marin Headlands off Highway 101 from Rodeo Avenue Exit and Trailhead. While in Sausalito, check out some of the area’s other attractions.
- Vista Point (Us-101, Golden Gate Bridge, Sausalito, CA 94965) or Battery Spencer (Conzelman Road, Sausalito, CA 94965). With magnificent views of the bridge, these are two of the places to get a fantastic view of San Francisco. It does get very crowded at the Vista Point so Battery Spencer may be the better bet.
- Sausalito Boardwalk (Sausalito Yacht Harbor, Sausalito, CA 94965). Walk along the harbor and enjoy the beautiful boats along with restaurants, shops, parks, and cafes.
- Sausalito Ferry (Anchor St & Humboldt Ave, Sausalito, CA 94965). Wanting to venture into San Francisco (without the drive)? The Sausalito Ferry drops you off at the end of Market street within walking distance of Fisherman’s Wharf and Union Square.
Ready to keep going? Here are the two other itineraries for following the Pacific Coast Highway.
How long does the full route take? From MacKerricher State Park in Northern California to the southern point in Dana Point, the drive takes just a little over 12 hours without stopping. I highly recommend breaking this up into three portions and taking your time. The dramatic sweeping views of the ocean to the West and the mountains to the east are meant to be traveled slowly. This portion covers the Northern California part from Fort Bragg down to San Francisco.
What time of year? Summers are the busiest time of year, and you can honestly spend half of the day on the road going between Malibu and Santa Monica as everyone heads to the beaches. Spring and the Fall are the best time of years, especially with the weather. Winter is the rainy season and is more likely to have mudslides and other issues along the route.
Finally, What to Pack?
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Ready to hit the road? Be sure to pack along some must needed items for your trip.
Road Trip Essentials - Cooler Weather
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Going hiking (or during the rainy season)? Check out some ideas for rain gear