The Most Beautiful American Road Trip

A few years back, while living in San Diego, I had the opportunity to soak up all the beautiful curves of Rt. 1 on a 2-day road trip to San Francisco. As I sit here now, recovering from my Road Trip hangover and planning my next adventure, I find myself reflecting on past experiences and thinking about my favorite State-side road trip of all times… Cruising up the Pacific Coast on Route 1 in California.

Route 1, or Highway 1 as its often called, is one big visual orgasm. Stretching from endless sandy beaches of Orange County to the lush green forests and nail biting cliffs north of Sacramento, Rt. 1 runs along some of the most beautiful coastlines in the world. It’s comprised of several portions designated as Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), the Cabrillo Highway, the Shoreline Highway or the Coast Highway.

One day I’d love to take a motorcycle along the Pacific, from Seattle to San Diego, while wining and dining a California girl at each leg of the trip.

Back to reality… It took us 2 full days to get from San Diego to San Francisco. We stopped early and often but with all the cool beach towns, state parks and incredible views along the drive, it could have easily taken us a week. If you ever have the opportunity to make this drive, I highly recommend it. Also it fits any budget. You can budget your stops for a cheap holidays or you can go all out in all the ritzy towns along the way.

Here’s a recap of my Route 1 California road trip & tips on making yours awesome:

Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip - Parasailing over Torrey Pines State Park
Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip - Parasailing over Torrey Pines State Park

START: From San Diego, you’ll actually take Route 5 for the first stretch of the trip, don’t get scared, It’s all part of the plan. You’ll want to head out early so grab some breakfast at the Broken Yolk or Kono’s and hit the road. You’ll cruise by Del Mar, hopefully catching some parasailing over Torrey Pines State Park, up past Camp Pendleton and through Dana Point, where you’ll pick up Rt. 1.

Stop 1: Laguna Beach – You’ll take the beautiful 10 minute drive from Dana Point into Laguna Beach along the Pacific Coast Highway. In Laguna, take a stroll around the luxurious beach town and down the beach, while keeping your eye out for LC and Audrina.

Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip - Laguna Beach
Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip - Laguna Beach

(Don’t) Stop 2: Los Angeles – this is the worst part of the trip, hands down. Don’t stop here. Your departure from San Diego and time spent in Laguna Beach is crucial. You can stop in Newport or Huntington Beach, but I would try to get through LA between 10 and 11am.  Once you conquer this, the rest is smooth sailing. You might second-guess the road trip idea along the Los Angeles gauntlet, but all that doubt immediately subsides as you pass by the pristine beaches and epic vacation home rentals of Malibu.

Stop 3: San Luis Obispo – About 3 hours north of Malibu, is Zach Efron’s hometown of San Luis Obispo. Referred to as “the happiest city in America” by Oprah Winfrey, SLO is a warm and crafty town set between white, sandy beaches and rolling, green hills. The extensive variety of local food and wine producers in the area make it the perfect place to grab a late lunch along the journey.

Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip - Elephant Seals on San Simeon Beach
Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip - Elephant Seals on San Simeon Beach

Stop 4: Elephant Seals in San Simeon – These big bastards just sit around grunting and barking at each other all day. They’re on the way so it’s worth stopping and laughing at them for a few minutes.

Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip - Pool at Hearst Castle
Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip - Pool at Hearst Castle (by

Stop 5: Hearst Castle – The long, dramatic private road that leads up to the historic playground of William Randolph Hearst matches the incredible ridiculousness of the 90k + sq ft mega estate. In the 1920’s and ’30s, the newspaper mogul’s palace was once a highly coveted destination for the rich and famous and has since become a National Historic Landmark visited by more than a million people each year. It’s pretty badass.

Stop 6: Big Sur – A great, cheap place to crash for the night is located just north of Hearst Castle, about an hour drive up Rt. 1, in Big Sur. We popped a tent at the Big Sur Campgrounds in Andrew Molera State Park, amongst massive redwood trees and relaxing creeks. Take some time the next morning and hike down to the coast where you’ll discover some beautiful secluded beaches hidden by massive coastal walls.

Road Trip California - Big Sur
Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip - Exploring Big Sur w. My Co-Pilot

Stop 7: Carmel – Or “Carmel by-the-sea” as they call it, is sophisticated and glamorous. Downtown Carmel is stacked with high-end boutiques, elegant cafes and well-kempt foliage. The world famous Pebble Beach golf course in California is breathtaking and the surrounding beaches are par with the course. It’s incredible to walk around the grounds of Pebble Beach knowing you’re walking in the footsteps of golf legends like Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Michelle Wie. Spend some time wandering around but make sure you eat out of town first if you’re on budget.

END: San Francisco, CA – More than 580 miles and 36 hours later, we pull into San Francisco, California. Mission accomplished.

Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip - San Francisco View from Sausalito
Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip - San Francisco View from Sausalito


My name is Gareth Leonard, a Marketing Director turned World Traveler with a passion for slow, meaningful travel. I have been traveling the world full-time for the past 9+ years and document it all on Instagram and YouTube. Come join me!


  1. You’ve hit some of my favorite towns in Cali along picturesque rout one. I am partial to SLO, however, since I’ve come to love it after having been there numerous times for a work project. Believe it or not, people there do seem a little happier. The Golden Gate Bridge from Sausalito would’ve made a fabulous photo. This is indeed an enviable road trip.

  2. You are so right about how amazing this trip is. We actually rode two up on my motorcycle from British Columbia to San Diego, stopped at most of the spots you mentioned! If you could only make one stop, then I would say the scenic viewpoint at Bixby Bridge sums up Big Sur perfectly. Another stop I’d recommend is the Monterrey Bay Aquarium, it is every bit as amazing as its reputation.
    Jesse Newmarch recently posted..Pacific Coast Highway – Monterey to LAMy Profile

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