Oct 14, 2017

Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Itinerary

If you enjoy doing outdoorsy things like whale watching, kayaking, & hiking all while surrounded by stunning scenery, you're going to want to take a moment to add this Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip to the top of your bucket list!
Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Itinerary

The family and I went on a beautiful, six day California road trip this past September and it was glorious. We traveled from San Francisco to San Diego along the iconic Pacific Coast Highway, otherwise known as the PCH or highway 1. Along the way we saw beautiful vistas and discovered amazing things to do, places to stay, and food to eat. I am so excited to share this adventure with you and hope our itinerary will help you plan your bucket list road trip along the stunning California coast.

Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Itinerary - Day 1

The best way to take a Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip is going from the north to the south so the ocean is on your right hand side along the drive. That way you don't miss any of the breathtaking scenery. Lucky for us, our daughter lives in San Francisco, so that's where we started our trip. Because we spent lots of time in San Francisco last year, we decided to hit the road right away and make our way down the coast to Monterey. If you have the time and want to add a few days to your trip, be sure to check out my itinerary for Things to Do in San Francisco. It is 3 days of fun and would be an amazing way to start this trip.
Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Itinerary
From San Francisco we headed south towards Monterey. To fill our bellies along the way we stopped at Dad's Luncheonette in Half Moon Bay, CA. Dad's is a quirky little roadside stand serving locally sourced comfort food out of an historic train caboose. We enjoyed the Hamburger Sandwich with homemade potato chips and a side of mac & cheese. The sandwich is made from grassfed beef topped with a soft egg, melty cheese, red onion pickles, Dad's sauce, and red oak lettuce sandwiched between grilled white bread. It did not disappoint. Before making your way to Dad's be sure to check their website for the hours as they are limited, and be prepared to enjoy your meal on the hood of your car or a bench at the nearby shopping plaza because seating is limited. It's totally worth it.
Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Itinerary
With full bellies and the dessert of the day to go, we loaded back in the Jeep to continue on our way to Monterey. The drive along the Pacific Coast Highway was stunning. I've always been drawn to mountains and seaside cliffs like a bear is to honey, so I was glued to the scenic drive. Lucky for everyone I wasn't the designated driver on this trip. Once we arrived in the quaint seaside town, we headed straight to our hotel for the night, The Monterey Hotel.
Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Itinerary

The Monterey Hotel

The Monterey Hotel is a charming boutique hotel in the heart of Monterey. It is perfectly comfortable in a great location. The suites are beautifully decorated and we even had a fireplace in our cozy room! Although, it was unusually warm the day we were there, so we didn't give the fireplace a try. We were, however, very pleased the room was air conditioned and we were told by one of our drivers that he talked to several people staying at other hotels in the area that did not have air conditioning. This immediately gave definite bonus points for The Monterey Hotel because the temps were in the triple digits that weekend!

The free in room wi-fi and complimentary breakfast are nice touches too. When traveling I always find it super annoying to pay top dollar for a room and then be charged for every little convenience. That doesn't happen at The Monterey. The wi-fi worked great and the breakfast, featuring a nice variety of fresh pastries, fresh fruit, as well as hot and cold cereals was a delicious way to start the day. 

Something very important to me when sleeping away from home is having a comfortable bed. It's difficult enough to sleep in an unfamiliar bed, so the bed being plush and comfy is a must. The Monterey Hotel, again, hit a homerun in the comfort department. Not only was the room super clean and nicely decorated, the bed was very comfortable. I slept soundly all night long. No tossing and turning!

Parking at the hotel is by valet only and $21/night. The valet parking is very convenient and you can get your car as often as you like with no additional charge. I did appreciate the staff offering one of the local parking garages at a cheaper rate but you need to keep in mind you pay that rate every time you enter, so if you are going to be using your car during your stay it might be more cost effective to use the valet service, which is what we opted to do. I can't say enough about the staff at the hotel. Everyone was cheerful and so very helpful from check in to check out. They made everything so easy and were quick to respond to any request. I definitely recommend booking at The Monterey Hotel when staying in Monterey, CA. Follow them on Facebook and Instagram for all the latest news, deals, and giveaways too!
Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Itinerary
After getting settled in our hotel room, we hopped in a Lyft and headed to the
Monterey Bay Aquarium. With nearly 200 exhibits and 35,000 creatures, there is a lot to explore, and we wanted to see it all!
Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Itinerary
We spent the entire afternoon at the aquarium and it was a wonderful experience. From the exhibits, daily shows and feedings, to learning about the aquarium's conservation efforts, it was a full afternoon and a must see when in Monterey, CA. Click here to see 'otter cuteness'. I think my favorite part of the aquarium is the jellyfish exhibit. Watching the jellies is hypnotizing!
Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Itinerary
From the aquarium, we walked through downtown Monterey window shopping and looking for a place to eat. We came across the Cannery Row Brewing Company and the ShortRib Grilled Cheese on the menu drew me in. It was amazing! After dinner, we took a Lyft back to the hotel and turned in early because we had a big day planned for Day 2 of our Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip.

Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Itinerary - Day 2

Day 2 of our road trip starts at Fisherman's Wharf. We took a Lyft to the wharf and were greeted with beautiful views as we walked down the boardwalk to our next adventure.
Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Itinerary

Discovery Whale Watch

A road trip down the amazing California coast would not be complete without a whale watching trip. I highly recommend Discovery Whale Watch. Walking around the wharf after checking in for our whale watching adventure, I noticed several more whale watching boats getting ready to head out. Most were much larger than Discovery Whale Watch's boats and they were packing the people on them. I was immediately grateful to have found a more intimate adventure with Discovery Whale Watch aboard their boat the Sur Randy.
Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Itinerary
Drone shot of a blue whale - photo credit: Discovery Whale Watch
I didn't count the number of people on our boat that day, but it wasn't more than 25 including the crew. Speaking of the crew, they were so helpful and knowledgeable. We appreciated how they mingled in with the guests and went out of their way to make sure all of our questions were answered. They even went above and beyond by offering to send the photos their photographer took of our trip! Just the fact they thought of that detail to have a photographer on board was mind blowing! Check out these awesome shots captured by Slater of Slater Moore Photography. A big thanks to Slater for allowing me to share his awesome shots with you! Click here to follow Slater on Instagram for more gorgeous photography!
Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Itinerary
Blue Whale right before it went under the boat! - photo credit: Discovery Whale Watch
Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Itinerary
A pair of humpback whales lunge feeding - photo credit: Discovery Whale Watch
Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Itinerary
See those little fish? Those are anchovies! - photo: Discovery Whale Watch
This was truly a remarkable experience I'm so happy to share with you. Don't miss the video of the humpback whales lunge feeding. Click here to watch, and be sure to watch the video of the ginormouos blue whale going right under the boat. Click here to watch. It's spectacular!

Our whale watching trip was about 4 hours long, but we saw whales almost immediately. The crew knew right where to go and everyone waited in silence anticipating the moment the whales would lunge out of the water, and as if on cue, we all let out a collective sound of amazement when they made their appearance right in front of us! We watched in awe as several whales went about their morning enjoying a breakfast of anchovies. Can you believe such a large creature eats something so small?! 

Next up was the blue whales, the largest animal known to exist or have ever existed. The crew explained there are only about 10,000 left in the world. After hearing that stat I thought we might not see them, but boy was I wrong. Again the crew knew right where to go and, not only were we the only boat around, we were surrounded by blue whales! There we were, surrounded only by water as far as you can see, and all of sudden we could hear the sound of the whales exhaling all around us. And then the most amazing thing happened! One of the blue whales swam over to our boat and went right under it! Because we were on a smaller vessel, we were able to see this clearly as you can tell in the video. It swam back and forth under the boat a few times and we felt so lucky to be there in that moment.

Whales were not the only animals we saw on our trip, we also got up close to sea lions and dolphins too. I love that Discovery Whale Watch guarantees a whale sighting or you can come back free on another trip. Not all the companies offer that rain check. Follow Discovery Whale Watch on Facebook, TwitterInstagram, and YouTube to see all the great shots from their daily whale watching trips and for discounts too!

Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Itinerary
Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Itinerary
 photo credit: Discovery Whale Watch
Whale watching makes you hungry, so as we were disembarking the crew recommended Cafe Fina right around the corner and told us to mention them for a free appetizer. A free appetizer sounded like a good deal to us, so that's just what we did and the calamari was amazing. All around it was a great way to spend half a day in Monterey.

With full bellies and still on a high from our whale watching experience, we got in a Lyft back to The Monterey Hotel to fetch our luggage and the Jeep. We loaded up and headed south once again to our next stop, the iconic Bixby Bridge. The bridge was very much out of our way because the Pacific Coast Highway was closed in Big Sur as a result of mudslides earlier in the year. After seeing the bridge we would have to turn around and drive all the way back to take an alternate route to get to Cambria, but Madison and I decided it was totally worth it. Or maybe just I decided that, but either way, everyone got on board with the plan. Even so I don't think Don had a clue how far out of the way it would take us (haha)
Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Itinerary
The drive down the coast to Bixby Bridge was once again a stunner. I remember seeing the beautiful scenery while watching the show Big Little Lies. It seemed like every time someone got in their car on Big Little Lies they had to cross Bixby Bridge. I'm not sure where they were going, because it is several miles away from just about everything, but it was always breathtaking to see. If you haven't had a chance to watch Big Little Lies, you are missing out! You can pick up the season on dvd through Amazon.

Sadly, I wasn't able to get the most popular shot of the bridge with the water in the background, because that side of the bridge was packed with cars and people. We even had to wait in line just to get over the bridge! We ventured just past the bridge to a secluded pull off where Madison scampered up a little trail and found a wonderful spot at the top of a hill for pictures and outstanding views of the coast. We dubbed it the 'potpourri trail' because of the aroma no doubt filled with allergens just waiting to attack me, but the view was worth the risk.
Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Itinerary
We kept driving along the Pacific Coast Highway until we got to Big Sur where we turned around before the road closure. We had to double back pretty much all the way to Monterey and then head over to Cambria where we were staying the night. The drive took us through wine country. Not Napa and Sonoma, but Paso Robles. We visited Napa and Sonoma last year, which was wonderful and you can read all about that in my article San Francisco Wine Tasting Tour - 8 Reasons to Go. As much as we loved the better known wine country, the Paso Robles area was quite stunning. I hope to go back to spend more time there some day.

We forgot to stop for dinner. I don't know how we forgot to eat, but we kept driving until we got to our hotel for the night. Our original plan for this portion of the trip was to check into the hotel and then venture into San Luis Obispo for dinner, but we got to the hotel at 9:30 and we were exhausted!

The Sea Otter Inn is a cozy hotel right on Moonstone Beach in Cambria, CA. Our room was very clean and comfortable with a fireplace. Again, it was much too warm to enjoy the fire place or the lovely fire pit, but some day I hope to come back. I think it worked out that we got there so late in the evening as this hotel does not have air conditioning. I don't think that's a problem most of the time, but Labor Day weekend of 2017 was a scorcher in California! By the time we arrived there was a nice ocean breeze, so opening the window to let that cool air into the room was perfect. It was also nice falling asleep and waking to the sound of the waves crashing onto the beach. Yes, it is that close! Follow the Sea Otter Inn on Facebook and Instagram to keep up to date and snag the latest deals!

The Sea Otter Inn delivers your breakfast right to your door in the morning in the cutest way possible! A picnic basket hanging outside your door holds your menu choices from the night before. After a beautiful walk on the beach, we enjoyed fresh fruit and yogurt parfaits, a breakfast burrito, and orange juice. I can't think of a better way to start day 3 of our road trip!
Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Itinerary

Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Itinerary - Day 3

Right after breakfast we got back on the road to our meeting spot for a half day kayaking trip of Morro Bay with Central Coast Outdoors. I didn't take my camera along for this trip, because I was terrified we'd flip the kayak and all would be lost. Don and I were in a tandem kayak, and I'm happy to say we didn't end up in the bay that day!
Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Itinerary

Central Coast Outdoors

Central Coast Outdoors was the perfect choice for a kayaking trip and a must-do adventure on your Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip. They are very professional with well-kept, quality equipment and very knowledgeable. I'm not surprised they are ranked #1 on TripAdvisor. We chose the Morro Bay Half Day Classic Guided Kayaking Tour. Our guide, Dave, was so nice and patient too. After a brief instruction session on how to use the paddles and helping us into the kayaks, Dave took us all around the bay pointing out the wildlife and sharing his knowledge of the area with our small group. In addition to our family, there was just one other family of three. Having a small group made the trip much more intimate. We were able to ask questions and we could always be close enough to our guide to hear everything he was saying. We especially loved all the animals we saw on our kayaking trip. The harbor seals and sea otters were extra playful. I was so surprised at how close they came to our kayaks!

Central Coast Outdoors also offers hiking and biking trips. I look forward to meeting up with them again when we're back in the area for a guided hike! Follow Central Coast Outdoors on Facebook to get the latest news and see great shots of their central coast adventures! Click on the video below to see a quick video of a harbor seal that popped up right next to our kayaks!

After our kayaking tour we got back on the road and headed towards Avila Beach, CA. We wanted to eat lunch at Fat Cats, but you know what they say about the best laid plans, right? Yeah, it was Labor Day weekend and the weather was gorgeous and warm. I think everyone in California was at the beach! It was packed and there was no way we were going to find parking for a quick bite to eat, so instead we got back on the road and tried to find a place to eat, but all the roads were packed, so we stayed the course and headed to our next locale.

Our hotel for the night was located in Carpinteria just a short drive south of Santa Barbara. Originally, we would have stayed in Santa Barbara, but being a holiday weekend we weren't able to book a room for just one night. Turns out the Holiday Inn in Carpinteria was a better deal and a budget-friendly alternative to staying in Santa Barbara. Unfortunately, there was an incident on the highway and evacuations for a fire in the area too, so we never made it to Santa Barbara due to the traffic. We stayed around Carpinteria and enjoyed some pizza and an early night. This was a much needed break in our busy road trip schedule. Our room at the Holiday Inn was very spacious, clean, and comfortable and ended up being a nice spot to take a break and get a good night's rest.

Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip itinerary - Day 4

After enjoying a complimentary breakfast at the hotel, we got back on the Pacific Coast Highway to make our way down to Los Angeles. We stopped in Malibu because you have to stop in Malibu, amIright?! We had lunch in Malibu at The Reel Inn. It was fresh, delicious, and absolutely the right choice for a leisurely lunch on their patio in the gorgeous California weather. Don & Madison had fish tacos, because it's like a law when in California you have to have fish tacos. Always one to buck tradition, I broke the law and had shrimp tacos. They came with french fries and a Caesar salad on the side. The dressing on that salad was perfection. Everything was perfect. Go eat at The Reel Inn when in Malibu. You won't regret it.
Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Itinerary
After lunch we spent some time on Malibu Beach watching the surfers before hitting the road to LA. We made good time driving to Los Angeles and got there in the early afternoon. We checked into our hotel, the Holiday Inn Hollywood Walk of Fame before heading out to do some exploring. This hotel was a really good deal! It's in a great area of West Hollywood and definitely budget-friendly.

The hotel is clean and the staff is superb. I can't say enough about how nice everyone was. The beds are comfy with free in-room wi-fi and a complimentary breakfast. Parking is valet only and $28 until 6pm the next day. This worked out perfectly for us. We didn't want to drive around Los Angeles and fight with parking, so we left the car with the valet and took rides with Lyft for dinner and to Universal Studios the next day. It was MUCH cheaper to park the car at the hotel than pay for parking at Universal Studios, so I highly recommend this parking plan.

Once all checked into the hotel, we ventured out on foot to the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It was close enough and a nice walk. The weather was beautiful too. So nice that we dined al fresco for dinner that evening at Eveleigh on their patio.
Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Itinerary
We enjoyed warm fresh made bread with just the right amount of crunch on the outside and soft on the inside. It was so good dipped in the broth of the mussels dish we shared and alongside the pasta too. The stunner of the night was the half chicken. We had to wait for it, but it was worth it. Perfectly cooked and full of flavor, we didn't think we could eat it all, but we did. We couldn't help ourselves. Dessert was a strawberry shortcake. It was divine and we were stuffed as we fell into our comfy beds for the night.
Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Itinerary

Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Itinerary - Day 5

Being from Central Florida, we couldn't take a trip to southern California without visiting a theme park, so day 5 of our road trip was spent at Universal Studios Hollywood. The first thing we noticed is Universal Studios Hollywood is much smaller than Universal Studios in Orlando. I actually didn't mind that at all. The smaller size meant we could see and do everything in one day. Seeing as we only had a day to spend at the park, it was just the right size! 

Universal was a blast! The park was a little busy, but we didn't have to wait in long lines because we had the 'Front of Line Passes'. I highly recommend these passes! You can opt to use the 'front of line pass' once at each ride to bypass the wait time and you also get priority seating at all the shows. How great is that?! Limited quantities of front of line passes are sold each day, so be sure to buy your tickets online before they sell out.

I also recommend downloading the map app of the park. It was super helpful in finding our way. All in all it was a great day at Universal. We rode all the rides, saw all the shows, and shared our first butter beer! I think the Jurassic Park water ride was the fave of the day. Here's a video of Don and Madison soaking wet in the front seat!

From Universal we grabbed a quick bite to eat and continued our road trip to our final destination. San Diego is a couple hours south of Los Angeles so when we arrived at our hotel it was already dark. We stayed at Humphrey's Half Moon Inn on Shelter Island in San Diego.

Because we spent so much time during our stops on the first half of the trip, we ran out of time to spend in San Diego, which is a shame, but it is what it is. Humphrey's Half Moon Inn is such a nice place to stay. I got a great deal from Groupon on this place, so be sure to check there when booking your hotels.

I feel like Humphrey's is one of San Diego's best kept secrets. The hotel has a tropical vibe that almost makes you feel like you are in Hawaii! The rooms are spacious with comfortable beds, a patio, and they even have a concert venue on the gorgeously manicured grounds. The hotel is situated in a marina too, so you have a great view of the boats. I just loved this hotel and wish we had more time there.
Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Itinerary

Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip - Day 6

We really didn't want to leave Humphrey's Half Moon Inn, so we enjoyed a leisurely morning before getting on the road back to the Bay Area. This was the last day of our road trip and we had to make one long drive back to San Francisco so Madison could get back to work the next day.

We absolutely could not leave San Diego without grabbing a bite to eat because we were very hungry and also because there are so many great choices. From all the choices nearby, we decided Soda & Swine had the best name and a great menu. We loved the idea of building our own meatball sandwich. Don got the classic meatball sub while I thoroughly enjoyed the Banh Mi meatball sub with hand cut twice cooked fries.
Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Itinerary
Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Itinerary
I do believe this was the tastiest way to end our road trip. We couldn't help lingering over lunch and drinking in the cool vibe of Soda & Swine. Before I left I told them I think they should definitely open up a spot in Central Florida. I'd be a regular for sure.
Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Itinerary
I wish our trip didn't have to come to an end but reality beckons, so we booked it back to the bay via interstate 5. Our family road trip on the Pacific Coast Highway was a memorable one, and I'm so grateful to have had this time with my two favorite people in the world. If you ever get the opportunity to take a Pacific Coast Highway road trip I hope our itinerary gives you some great ideas and helps you plan your own memorable road trip with your family.

When on a road trip, remember to be flexible and have a good time. It's not always important to stick to the itinerary exactly. Go with the flow and enjoy every moment.

Disclosure: Our Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip was sponsored in part by Moonstone Hotel Properties The Monterey Inn & Sea Otter Inn (by the way I'm a total fan of this small, boutique hotel chain now! Both of these properties were the perfect addition to our trip, and I look forward to staying at their other hotels when I'm in the areas), Monterey Bay Aquarium, Discovery Whale Watch, Central Coast Outdoors, and Universal Studios Hollywood. Some of the services we enjoyed were provided by our sponsors. As always, all opinions are from our own experiences.


  1. Perfect California Trip. One of my favorite routes when visiting my brother.

  2. Really inspired by your pacific coast highway road trip itinerary and a nice content to read..

  3. Nice post. Thanks for sharing the valuable information.


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