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Best Things To Do In Monterey, Carmel, and Big Sur

The Pacific Coast Highway, affectionately known as the PCH, is one of the most iconic road trips in the U.S. This drive spans most of California’s coast, allowing you to visit many of the state’s top destinations in one trip. And if there was ever a road trip to rent a convertible, this is it!

THE PCH IS ONE OF MY EPIC ROAD TRIPS TO TAKE IN THE UNITED STATES!

If you want to visit more of California, make sure you check out my 2-Week California National Parks Road Trip and the Getaway Guide To Napa Valley.

Here are the best stops along the Pacific Coast Highway!
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Pacific Coast Highway road trip

Point Reyes National Seashore

Point Reyes is a cape about 30 minutes north of San Francisco. This 71,028-acre preserve has some of the best coastal hikes I’ve ever done – my favorites are Chimney Rock Trail (1.6 miles, moderate) and Tomales Point Trail (9.5 miles, moderate-difficult).

When you’re here, you also need to visit the picture-perfect Point Reyes Lighthouse. Just be careful going down the steps!

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Best Things To Do In San Francisco
Best Things To Do In San Francisco
Tour of San Francisco with Bin 415

San Francisco

Pro Tip: When you’re driving from Point Reyes to San Francisco (or vice versa), make sure you drive over the Golden Gate Bridge and sop at Point Bonita Lighthouse.

San Francisco is one of my favorite cities in the U.S.! It’s got every kind of food, shopping, attraction, and experience you could want. My top activity recommendations are a stroll through China Town, take pics from the top of Nob Hill, visit Alamo Square, have a picnic at the Palace of Fine Arts, walk along Marshall’s Beach, and ride the famous cable cars.

The city’s best viewpoints are Pier 7, Coit Tower, Twin Peaks Summit, Hawk Hill, and Alcatraz Island. My favorite restaurants are Causwells (burgers), Breadbelly (brunch), Saucy Asian (Asian Fusion), Charmaine’s Rooftop Bar & Lounge (fine dining with a view), and Alamo Square Seafood Grill.

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Best Things To Do In Monterey, Carmel, and Big Sur
Pacific Coast Highway road trip
Pacific Coast Highway road trip
Best Things To Do In Monterey, Carmel, and Big Sur

Monterey, Carmel, Big Sur

There’s so much to do and see in the Monterey, Carmel, and Big Sur region, so I’d recommend spending at least a couple of days here. My top recommendations for each of these areas are:

Monterey: 17-Mile Drive (my favorite photo stop was China Rock Vista Point), Monterey Bay Aquarium, River Road Wine Trail, Chart House (Seafood), Bistro Moulin (French), and play a round of golf.

Carmel: Ocean Avenue and Carmel Beach, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, Flying Fish Grill (Seafood & Asian), Carmel Craft Brewing Company (Pub), and Tor House and Hawk Tower.

Big Sur: Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park Waterfall Overlook Trail to McWay Falls, Bird Island Trail, Bixby Bridge, Pfeiffer Beach, Soberanes Canyon Loop Trail, Nepenthe (American food), and The Esalen Hot Springs.

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Pacific Coast Highway road trip

Hearst Castle

Hearst Castle is a National Historic Landmark in San Simeon, about an hour and a half south of Big Sur right off the PCH. Built by media mogul William Randolph Hearst in the first half of the 20th century, only the rich and famous used to be allowed in.

But now anyone can tour this gorgeous mansion. I recommend booking your tickets ahead of time, especially during the summer months.

Pro Tip: Don’t fall into the famous pools taking selfies!

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Pacific Coast Highway road trip

Morro Rock

Forty-five minutes south of Hearst Castle in Morro rock, which dominates Morro Bay. This jaw-dropping rock was formed about 23 million years ago from now-extinct volcanoes. For the last 500 years, Morro Rock has been a navigational point for land and sea travelers, so it’s impossible to miss this stop on the PCH!

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Pacific Coast Highway road trip

Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara is often called the “American Riviera.” The city’s Spanish colonial heritage is reflected in the Mediterranean-style white stucco buildings with red-tile roofs, and the Mission Santa Barbara (founded in 1786) is the crown jewel of the city.

I’d spend at least a couple of days here. Walk up and down State Street, taking in all the fantastic restaurants, shops, boutique hotels, and stunning architecture. Santa Barbara also has incredible beaches, famous nightclubs, the hippie neighborhood of Funk Zone, and the Santa Barbara Wine Country.

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Pacific Coast Highway road trip

Channel Islands National Park

This is one of the least-visited national parks in the U.S. because the five Channel Islands are only accessible by ferry. You can catch a boat from the mainland visitor centers in Santa Barbara or Ventura. It’s not difficult to visit the islands, but it does take some pre-planning. So this is the one-stop on this road trip that you’ll need to plan in advance.

Once you get to the islands, you can do a variety of activities, from hiking to paddling to snorkeling to surfing. The National Park Service website has an extensive list of what you can do on each of the islands.

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Pacific Coast Highway road trip

Santa Monica & Venice Beach

These two beachside communities are only a couple of miles apart, so you can easily explore them together. Both of these areas have incredible shopping, beaches, and restaurants. Santa Monica has the Third Street Promenade and the Santa Monica Pier, and Venice has its famous canals and the Venice Boardwalk.

Both of these neighborhoods also make great home bases for exploring more of the greater Los Angeles area.

Plan Your Trip

Need help planning your road trip? Then you should use Roadtrippers, my favorite app for mapping-out road trips and finding Roadside America stops. If you’re going to rent a car, then I recommend Momondo, and if you want to rent an RV (which would be SO much fun for a California road trip), you should use RVshare.

This Pacific Coast Highway road trip itinerary is not a sponsored post. And, as always, the thoughts and opinions expressed here are entirely my own. Some of the links in this Pacific Coast Highway road trip are affiliate links. And, at no cost to you, I may earn a small commission.

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