Last Updated on April 23, 2023 by Sammie
The Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip From Oregon to California
A wonderfully comprehensive PCH road trip itinerary from Oregon to California. Complete with what to do and some honest reviews.
It’s been a crazy winter for me. As for the circus life job front, it’s been slim pickings. But whether I want to or not I am forcing myself to be water. Go with the flow. And the flow led us to the most beautiful road trip I have ever done in my life. Total zen. Totally welcome.
As Bruce Lee would like to say,
“Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless like water. You put water into the cup, it becomes the cup.”
Many thanks, Bruce Lee. I will now go on an epic Pacific Coast Highway road trip from Oregon to California. My boyfriend and I have to get from Portland to Los Angeles within a week anyway so we might as well do #VANLIFE in the process.
*This Pacific Coast Highway itinerary is listed as a 7-day plan. We did it in 6 and it could easily be compressed into a 5-day plan as well.
Best Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Stops from Oregon to California
CLICK HERE FOR FULL ITINERARY
PCH DAY 1
- Depoe Bay
PCH DAY 2
PCH DAY 3
- Avenue of the Giants
PCH DAY 4
- Muir Woods
- Henry Cowell State Park
PCH DAY 5
- 17- Mile Drive
- Carmel by the Sea
- Big Sur
PCH DAY 6
- Elephant Seal Vista Point
- San Luis Obispo
PCH DAY 7
- Los Angeles
Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Notes from Oregon to California
Time of Year?
We planned this trip for the beginning of March. This is during the low season, the end of winter beginning of spring. With that came advantages and disadvantages.
- We had most Vista points all to ourselves or with a minimal amount of other people.
-Questionable parking 🙂
- Between you and me, (not advising this) we got away with overnight parking at popular tourist overlooks/stops.
- I’m not gonna say I didn’t know if I could park there but I’m not gonna say I knew I couldn’t park there. It was my first campervan trip, we were working out some kinks.
- Remember (I didn’t), campervans mean you will be cooking outside. While we were on the northern end of our trip I was cooking in 40 degrees F (4-5 degrees C). I was very cold and sometimes not totally chipper about this
- Because of the unusually wet winter California was having, there were a lot of road closures. The biggest one being the middle section of Big Sur. This caused us to add a LOT of driving time and miles to our trip because we had to backtrack. If you are driving during the winter, constantly check traffic updates.
The first few days of the trip we had some rough weather. Not gonna lie. It was a bit difficult to get used to #vanlife while it was pouring and very very cold.
Where to Park?
Seriously, anywhere that doesn’t say NO PARKING.
I know it can be scary if it’s your first time. I was scared of accidentally parking somewhere I shouldn’t have and it gave me useless stress every night. Genuinely, I thought I was going to wake up to the po-po knocking on our campervan door and escorting me to his cop car because I parked in an illegal spot. This is probably not going to happen to you.
Take my advice: overlooks/vista points will be your best friend. If you want to save money, overlooks and vista points will be free and headache free as long as no signage says NO PARKING.
Other options include:
Usually, these will have a fee.
- Camping Sites
- State Parks
- National Parks
Great Apps to find overnight parking:
Difference between the Pacific Coast Highway, Highway 101, and Highway 1?
Is it just me, or when you ask the internet it’s like…”yes, no, it is both but not, but also this…sortof.”
The Pacific Coast Highway (PCH)- The changing stretch of Highway that hugs the Pacific Coast. This includes sections of Highway 1 and sections of Highway 101. It is 1,675 miles long, running from Olympia, WA to San Diego, CA.
Highway 1– Starts near Dana Point in southern California and goes along the coast north until the city of Leggett. After this, Highway 1 technically ends but “turns into” Highway 101.
Highway 101- A north-south highway running through Washington, Oregon, & California that at times merges with Highway 1. This often causes people to scratch their heads while attempting this famous roadtrip. Partially hugging the coast (mostly in Oregon and northern Cali) Highway 101 seperates from Highway 1 while heading south at the city of Leggett. Then on, it goes slightly inward away from the coast.
If you want to stick to the coast you will be doing a combo pack of Highway 1 and Highway 101, known as the Pacific Coast Highway.
Taken at Thor’s Well moments before I got completely SOAKED by the water that hit the rocks. No photos of me while I was wet because I was FREEZING. Good times.
Our PCH Campervan: Escape Campervans
I have never used a campervan before. Though I have gone camping, love camping, I won’t pretend I know how to camp. I am the one along for the ride, happy with anything and everything. But this mindset hasn’t given me many tools to manage by myself so I’m learning now. And as for my french-fry boyfriend, he is wonderful but also learning.
Enter Escape Campervans. They were the company I found online and provided us with, dare I say it, the BEST hand-painted campervan I have ever seen. That’s their shtick. If you ever see a campervan with beautiful hand-painted murals all over the exterior, you can assume it is an Escape campervan.
Ours was road runner themed. Freakin’ awesome.
The interior is simple and gives you everything you need.
What We had:
- 2 burner propane stovetop, accessed outside of the vehicle.
- A pump sink with a 5-gallon tank. Pump the lever to make it squirt out water.
- A little refrigerator.
- Shelving compartments.
- A table/dining area that converts into a bed.
- Blackout curtains.
- Solar light for cooking.
- 2 fold-out chairs (added cost)
- Kitchen kit with everything you need (added cost)
- A canopy (added cost)
- A 5 gallon (20L) solar-powered shower (added cost)
The struggles I endured to attempt to make black garlic fettuccine with a white wine mushroom cream sauce in a freaking van were absolutely worth it.
99% sure I was not allowed to be up there. But c’monnnnn this photo op?!? Couldn’t miss it.
Does it get more majestic than watching whales at sunset? It surely does not!
Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Itinerary From Oregon to California
◊ Starting Point: Portland
♦ Ending Point: Los Angeles
Miles: 1530 (including road detours from Cali Flooding)
Hours: 26 (including road detours due to Cali flooding)
Crappy photo indeed BUT this was our first photo taken of the trip once we reached our first destination at midnight. Plus it highlights the fairy lights I hung. ADORBS.
PCH Day 1
Total Drive Time: 3 hours 45 Min
It’s a great starting point for most due to its proximity to the Portland International Airport. Before skipping town grab a box of doughnuts at VoodDoo Doughnuts or Blue Star. Both are touristy BUT they deliver on what they promise. If you’re in need of some coffee you can check out my post on the Best Coffee in Portland. Once you’re ready it’s an easy drive straight to the coast along Highway 26.
Things to do around Portland:
- Mount Rainier National Park (2.5 hours)- See Mount Rainier, a glacier-capped active volcano.
- Timber Gulch (3 hours)- A Ridiculously beautiful valley.
- Olympic National Park (3.5 hours)- Most diverse National Park in America.
- Crater Lake (4 hours)- The deepest lake in the US.
1 hr 24 min from Portland
Not exactly a small town but more of an established beachside town. Seaside is known for having one of the most beautiful beaches in Oregon, Seaside Beach. But there are lots more down the coast if you’d rather save your dip for later. It’s very family friendly so there are lots of activities to do around town including the Promenade, Seaside Aquarium, and the Seaside Carousel Mall.
Things to do around Seaside:
- Cannon Beach (13 min)- Can visit Haystack Rock
- Oswald West State Park (19 min)- Check out the famous Cape Falcon Trail
- Nehalem (32 min)- Get your exercise at Nehalem Bay State Park
- Wheeler (36 min)- Best for Antique Shopping
- Tillamook (1 hr 6 min)- Eat some cheese at Tillamook Creamery
2 hr 20 min from Seaside
Simply known as the “Whale Watching Capital of Oregon”. It makes sense to come here to do just that. There are lots of companies available for whale watching but if you’re not there in season, be aware that the hours will be limited and most of the shops and restaurants will have condensed hours as well. Make sure you check out Boiler Bay State Scenic View. Grab your binoculars and do some whale watching on your own. This spot is perfect to make lunch and pass the time scanning the ocean for wildlife. Or come for the gorgeous sunset.
View of Depoe Bay
PCH Day 2
Total Drive Time: 4.5 hours
48 min from Depoe Bay
Yachats is the cutest little town! It’s nicknamed the “Gem of Oregon” with good reason. Check out its unique lava flow formed Basalt Shoreline. You can explore the trails if you need some exercise; 3.7 mile Amanda Trail or the 804 trail are top of the list. If you’d rather enjoy the adorable small town you’ll have plenty to eat and drink. Between quaint shops offering local goods, you can stop by the famous Bread and Roses Bakery for a morning pick-me-up. Or stop in the quirky Drift Inn. Its unique hanging umbrella decor pleasantly surprised me and their cocktails are amazing.
Things to do around Yachats:
- Devil’s Churn (5 min)- An inlet where ferocious waves are forced into a narrow slot.
- Thor’s Well (6 min)- A sinkhole that blows water high every few minutes.
- Sea Lion Caves (20 min)- $16 to witness a giant cave with sea lions. Totally worth it.
NOTE: Make lunch at Beach Scenic Park Area. This is a wonderful spot for lunch located a few minutes down Highway 101 from Thor’s Well. You’ll have gorgeous ocean views, potentially all to yourself.
2 hours from Yachats
An adorable fisherman village with good brews and nice locals. If you’re lucky you might get to witness local artist, Denny Dyrke, create beautiful labyrinths in the sand at dawn near Face Rock. It’s not a guarantee but it’s a magical spectacle to see when it happens. Denny creates beautiful fleeting circles in the sand that are taken by the ocean as the tide comes in.
Things to do around Bandon:
- Face Rock State Scenic Viewpoint (6 min)- This is where you can find circles in the sand.
- Coquille Point (5 min)- Nice lookout point with steps down to the beach.
- Washed Ashore Gallery & Workshop (Right Downtown)- Art made from washed-up ocean trash.
- Bandon State Park (7 min)- Less touristed beach with a large tidal zone.
NOTE: If you don’t want to stop overnight in Brookings, Port Orford has an AMAZING overlook to stop at overnight between Bandon and Brookings. It’s right before Humbug Mountain Overpass. You’ll get some beautiful ocean cliffside views to wake up to.
1 hour 26 min from Bandon
Nestled in the southernmost part of Oregon, many make Brookings an overnight stop. Brookings is home to the beautiful Harris Beach State Park, a camper’s paradise. It offers more activities than most beaches and is a perfect campsite. Besides hiking, biking, climbing, and kite flying you’ll also find tide pools to explore and Bird Island. Bird Island is a National Wild sanctuary for rare bird species. If you have time, also check out Azalea Park, a 33-acre park filled with ancient Azalea bushes.
Good Ol’ Thor’s Well. Soaking your a** the second you stop to take a photo.
View from Sea Lions Cave
PCH Day 3
Total Drive Time: 5 hours 15 min
AVENUE OF THE GIANTS
3 hours from Brookings
Avenue of the Giants is a beautiful drive that you can take part in for a small detour off Highway 101 or continue along the entire 31-mile (50-kilometer) stretch. If you choose to do the entire Avenue of the Giants, it will take about 2- 2.5 hours without stopping. I would suggest budgeting in a half day to do this. That way you can explore the hundreds of hiking trails that spew out from the scenic drive.
Other Scenic Drives to see the Redwoods:
- Howland Hill Road- Mostly unpaved
- Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway: Paved
- Cal-Berrel Road: Unpaved
NOTE: Avenue of the Giants is a beautiful scenic drive but more worth the effort if you are interested in hiking as well. The drive has similar Redwood viewing elements if you continue along Highway 101 inland. A great option if this is your only Redwoods viewing experience.
NOTE: The Redwoods are made up of one National Park and three State Parks; The Redwood National Park, Del Norte Coast California State Park, Jedediah Smith California State Park, and Prairie Creek California State Park
2 hours 20 min from Avenue of the Giants
This adorable ocean-side village is a must-stop for creatives, nature lovers, and foodies. Mendocino used to be known as a place of raucous during the timber boom. However, after the timber decline, luxurious B&Bs started popping up and artists and craftspeople moved in. Come to try some of the best wine in the country, hike off a big lunch, or grab your partner and witness the Redwoods via Railbike.
Things to do around Mendocino:
- Go Glamping at Mendocino Grove (2 min)- Awesome bougie camping with nice amenities
- Big River Beach (3 min)- Beautiful beach for catching some rays
- Russian Gulch State Park (7 min)- See a 36-foot waterfall
- Pygmy Forest at Jug Handle State Natural Reserve (10 min)- Stunted trees from acidic soil
- Skunk Train (15 min)- Ride a vintage passenger car to see Mendocino’s beautiful nature
- Wine Tasting (40 min)- Try Roederer Estate or Handley Cellars
Avenue of Giants off of Highway 101
PCH Day 4
Total Drive Time: 5 hours
2 hours 55 min from Mendocino
The main reason we wanted to come to Muir Woods was the endless talk about Canopy View Trail. And this trail lived up to its hype. It was one of the most beautiful trails I have ever done. The Canopy View Trail can be linked to 2 other trails to create a loop. The loop consists of Canopy View, Fern Creek, and Lost Trail. In total, the loop is 3.5 miles (5.6 kilometers) long and takes about 2 hours. I describe this trail as definitely being the home to woodland fairies.
Things to do Around Muir Woods:
- Muir Beach (10 min)- 3 miles from the Muir Woods, explore the wetlands, lagoons, and dunes.
- Marshall’s Beach (25 min)- Beach with Massive rocks and Golden Gate Bridge in the backdrop.
- Mount Tamalpais State Park (8 min)- Visit Mount Tamalpais.
- Alcatraz Island (40 min)- Famous for once being the world’s most secure prison.
- Explore San Francisco (40 min)- Lots to explore in this colorful big city!
HENRY COWELL REDWOODS
2 hours from Canopy View Trail (Muir Woods)
Home to trees over 1,800 years old! This luscious state park is nature’s candy. Besides the towering redwoods, you’ll be immersed in ponderosa pines, evergreens, and sandhills. There’s a lot to see so I would genuinely recommend popping your head into the visitor center to speak to one of the docents to get some hiking ideas.
NOTE: During low season not all of the campsites are open. We also realized with our campervan we were not allowed to overnight park in an RV lot.
Henry Cowell Redwoods Campground information that could come in handy.
PCH Day 5
Total Drive Time: 2 hours
HENRY COWELL REDWOODS
17 MILE DRIVE
1 hour 6 min from Henry Cowell Redwoods
A 17.1 mile privately owned road that goes along the beautiful coastline weaving through famous golf courses and the Del Monte Forest. All the while showing off some very expensive real estate while you’re at it.
NOTE: I’m torn between wanting to put the 17 Mile Drive on the itinerary or not. It is a big tourist attraction but to pay $11.75 for views that are the same if not slightly less awe-inspiring than other PCH views seems off. The houses were impressive but nothing worthy of spending 11 dollars to see them.
NOTE: Am I the only one in the world who didn’t know Pebble Beach is NOT a beach? It’s a world-famous golf course…Whoops. Still taking a picture.
Why call it a beach when it is in fact NOT A BEACH??
Things to do Around 17 Mile Drive:
- Monteray (12 min)- Another cute artsy town
- Spanish Bay (on 17 Mile Drive)- Rent a bike or watch the surfers on the coast
- Bird Rock (on 17 Mile Drive)- Check out some sea lions
- Seal Rock (on 17 mile Drive)- Great place for a picnic
Example of fancy shmancy “house” on 17 mile drive in California.
CARMEL BY THE SEA
15 min from 17 Mile Drive
This town had me thinking I had accidentally left the US and managed to find my way to a little city in the southwest of France. It truly is charming. It has the largest concentration of art galleries in one square mile in the US. There are lots of terraces to grab a glass of wine and enjoy the sunshine or simply stroll and window shop. Not the cheapest place I’ve ever been but it is definitely worthy of a stop.
Things to do Around Carmel By The Sea:
- Sea Lion Point (20 min)- Awesome spot to see, you guessed it, sea lions.
- Garrapata State Park (23 min)- 2 miles of coastal hiking and beachfront views.
- Calla Lilly Valley- Come late January through April for a chance to see the Lillies bloom!
40 min from Carmel By The Sea
I made lots of discoveries on this road trip down the Pacific Coast Highway. One being that Big Sur is not a singular destination but a 90-mile stretch of coastline. If you plug and chug Big Sur into Google, it will take you to the River Inn. This is technically in the middle of the Big Sur Town. But all those life-changing dramatic cliff edge views you saw before “getting there”?? THAT IS BIG SUR. Part of it. I don’t care if part of it was closed off from flooding and it added on hours for a mandatory detour. It was completely worth it. People say it’s life-changing. Find your spot to appreciate it, away from the crowds, and let yourself be amazed.
Things to do Around Big Sur:
- Nepanthe’s- Wonderful restaurant perched on the cliffside
- Phoenix Shop- Shop featuring local and international artists just below Nepanthe’s.
- The Henry Miller Memorial Library- A must-see library in an unusual forested setting.
- Fernwood- It’s where to grab a beer
- Esalen- A famous Big Sur American Retreat Center with Hot Springs
Best Beaches Around Big Sur:
- Andrew Molera- At the mouth of the Big Sur River, it’s a mile-long hike to get there but far less touristed.
- Partington Cove- Not for swimming but witnessing the most brilliant aqua water with a historic tunnel
- Pfeiffer Beach- Most famous unmarked beach with Keyhole Rock and sometimes with purple sand along the steep shoreline.
NOTE: You might not realize it but there are plenty of little walking trails sprinkled along the highway. Stop at ANY of the overlooks and take a gander around. You’ll see footpaths that will take you down closer if not directly to the water’s edge. My boyfriend and I found a spot to ourselves and watched whales pop up in the distance for hours until sunset. Not to be corny but it will be a day I never forget.
Our little spot we found to watch the sunset and saw at least 10 whales breaching the water!!
The Frenchie lookin all suave as heck.
PCH Day 6
Total Drive Time: Typically 2 hours, with Big Sur detour: 4 hours
ELEPHANT SEAL VISTA POINT
Typically 1 hour from “Big Sur” (River Inn) Pin on Google Maps. With detour, 3 hours 10 minutes
At Elephant Seal Vista Point you can walk the boardwalk listening to the grunts and playful squeals of the seal pups. Depending on the time of year you can witness hundreds to thousands of seals on the beach. Once there, try to find the adult male. There is usually one to a few chilling about. Male Adult Elephant Seals can weigh up to 4,500 pounds and grow up to 13 feet long.
NOTE: With the road detour from Big Sur being partially closed, we had to backtrack up to Monterey and take Highway 101 slightly inland. We then went to Elephant Seal Vista Point via the southern tip of Big Sur heading north. In my opinion, it was worth it, but if you do not have the time (and Big Sur is still partially shut down) the stop can be taken out.
SAN LUIS OBISPO
53 min from Elephant Seal Vista Point
Thankfully my friend told me this was a must stop or else I would’ve missed it entirely! San Luis Obispo is a vibrant college town buzzing with good vibes. And how could you not be in a good mood when there are wineries all over the place? Just a short distance away from the downtown area you can winery hop sampling some of the US’s best wines from California wine country.
Top Wineries around San Luis Obispo:
- Stephen Ross Wine Cellar (8 min from DT)
- Deovlet Wines (8 min from DT)
- Tolosa Winery (13 min)
- Chamisal Vineyard (13 min from DT)
- Malene Wines (14 min from DT)
Elephant seal males can weigh up to 4,400 pounds. That is so much blubber.
PCH Day 7
Total Drive Time: 3 hours 53 minutes
SAN LUIS OBISPO
1 hour 23 min from San Luis Obispo
A short detour off of Highway 1 but a well-worthy stop. This little piece of Danish Heaven is considered one of the most beautiful small towns in the western half of the United States. It’s an interesting reprise of old-timey windmills, thatched roofs, and freakin’ delicious danishes.
Things to do Around Solvang:
- Solvang’s Farmer’s Market- Every Wednesday 3:30-5:30 PM on First Street.
- Grape Stomp Festival- Held every October, partake in grape stomping or wine tasting.
- Danish Days- Held in September, a three-day Scandinavian Festival celebrating its Danish Heritage.
- Take a wine-tasting tour- Check out Rusack Vineyard or Rideau Vineyard.
Cities to see before Los Angeles:
- Santa Barbara (47 minutes from Solvang)
- Ventura (1 hr 11 min from Solvang)
- Malibu (1 hr 56 min from Solvang)
- Santa Monica (2 hr 27 min from Solvang)
2 hours 30 min from Solvang
Et Voilà. You have arrived at your final destination. There’s a lot to see around Los Angelos but I would recommend ditching the van and renting one of the plenty of bicycles they have docked around the city. Once mobile, check out the Santa Monica Pier. Grab some funnel cake and check out the amusement rides that will make you regret the funnel cake.
Things to do in Los Angeles:
- Universal Studios (Universal City)- Check out one of the best amusement/theme parks in the world!
- Hollywood Sign (Hollywoodland)- An iconic sign you can’t miss.
- Academy Museum (Central LA)- A home for a collection of cinematic treasures.
- Grand Central Market (South Broadway)- So much food. You have to check out Donut Man.
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